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Growing Herbs in Pots

This month we are going to look at growing herbs in pots because what could be better than having herbs close at hand no matter where you live? Whether you live in an apartment or have acreage, container gardening can be a wonderful way to grow herbs.

A wide range of culinary and medicinal herbs can be grown in pots and can be grown just about anywhere as long as you take care to make sure they are cared for well. Fortunately herbs are ideal for growing in pots. Growing herbs in pots also has the advantage that you can bring the pots inside to extend the season.

There are many benefits to growing in pots – if you live in an apartment you can have a wonderful herb garden on your balcony or they can act as decorative pieces on decks. Growing herbs in pots can also eliminate the need for bending and kneeling if pots are placed at waist height on stands or on a table. It also allows you to create a micro-environment that can meet the need of any particular herb.

Most herbs are reasonably adaptable to a range of soil and climatic conditions. However, like any species there is usually a preferred range that will promote healthy, vigorous growth along with increased flavour, nutrient profiles, and therapeutic potencies. For example, basil flourishes in rich, moist soils with a slight acidity, whereas oregano, thyme, and sage all prefer soils which are lean, with a neutral or alkaline pH. By using pots you can give each individual plant the right type of soil, sunlight, water and nutrients for its growing requirements and not have to worry about whether you have the right conditions for the plant next to it in a typical flower bed. Another advantage to pots is there are few, if any, weeds which will invade your container garden!

The first step to a great potted herb garden is to decide which herbs you want to grow, what their needs will be and what size of plant container you would like/need. Let's talk about the containers first as they are very important to your success. Here’s where the fun begins in my opinion!

There are so many types of containers available; you just need to use your imagination. Old wheelbarrows with small holes rusting in the bottom can be saved from the junk pile and can become a mass of drooping herbs and upright flowers.

What about those colourful tins that cookies come in? Simply punch holes in the bottom for drainage, add your planting mix and the herb of your choice.

Personally I love old tea pots, cups & saucers and mugs and I have them designed to form “herbal tea parties” on tables on my deck. I have also picked up ceramic crocks with cracks or chips in them at lawn sales or junk shops which are relatively inexpensive.

Strawberry jars (terra cotta with small “pockets”) are lovely when filled with herbs. Wine crates, whiskey barrels, and even ceramic drain pipes can become attractive herb containers. Terra cotta pots come in all shapes and sizes from traditional to animal- and basket- shaped or even wall pots with one flat side and a hole in the back to secure them to the wall.

Woven baskets can also be used if a plastic bag filled with soil or a smaller plastic pot with a saucer is placed inside it for planting.

Anyway I think you get the idea, have fun with the containers so you can create “garden art” with herbs.

Remember also that when you choose your container it should be one that can either be easily moved or one that can stay there indefinitely. Large containers overflowing with lush, scented herbs may look real good, but can look a lot less “pretty” when you feel how heavy they are to move around. The weight may be a factor as well if your balcony isn’t all that sturdy. Your neighbours won’t appreciate your artfully designed herbal pots if they crash down on them from overhead or if they leak water on them!

So if you are planning on putting the herbs on the deck of your apartment, take care that you are not watering the residents below when you water the herbs and put deep, protective trays under the herbs to ensure that they get sufficient moisture without causing problems to your neighbours.

If you want a large container that is fine, I certainly have some on my decks or around the yard. Just plan ahead and you should be okay. The plants I put in large containers are either annuals that die in the fall or perennials that are hardy, so they can overwinter without the container being moved to a sheltered area. If you are a handy carpenter type you can also make wheeled “scooters” to place larger, heavier pots on for ease of movement. These are just plywood on wheels that you sit the container on (or buy them at some hardware stores).

As I said earlier about my “tea party groupings”, smaller pots grouped together can also be attractive. If you are not pleased with a grouping, simply change it. The nice thing about gardening in containers is that your grouping choices are virtually endless.

Okay, so now you have containers – what do we put in them?!

Let’s start with drainage – this is truly one of the main keys to success with growing herbs in containers. If you don’t have good drainage your plants will be susceptible to root rot and fungus related issues and likely die. First make sure there are holes in the bottom of the containers you are going to use. If not, drill or punch holes in the bottom. Place gravel or pieces of broken ceramic pots in the bottom. This prevents the holes from filling with soil and allows for good drainage.

Once you have this done, you can add your soil. You really should buy your dirt and not put soil from the garden in pots. Garden soil is generally too dense for pots, doesn’t permit good drainage and may have dormant weed seeds in it. So invest in a good organic potting soil, fill your containers about 2/3 full and then arrange the plants in it, adding more soil if needed. I would also suggest placing sphagnum moss, wood chips, or small rocks to the top of your containers after they are done as this will help with moisture retention, decreasing the risk of the herbs drying out too much.

Having said that, do remember plants in containers generally need to be watered fairly frequently as they do dry out faster than plants in the ground, so keep this in mind when you plan where you want to locate your pots. Make sure your hose can reach or that you have a good sized watering can to deal with the situation. In the summer when it gets really hot consider moving some of the pots to areas where they get some shade during the day, this will cut down on the watering and for some plants will keep it looking lush longer. You will also want to feed your container herbs weekly from spring until September. This keeps the plants healthy, and helps them produce lots of leaves and flowers for you to pick throughout the season. I personally use a seaweed-based feed, however you can use any type that boost leaf production (and is organic of course – not stuff like miracle grow!)

So what are some specific herbs that grow well in containers? Well there are lots! Probably by far the most common herbs to grow in pots are the culinary herbs and herbs such as mints, lemon balm and chamomile. Again here is where you get to be creative! If you enjoy several different types of cooking styles make a pot, or a group of pots, for each style.

Mexican cooking styles might include chili peppers, cilantro and garlic chives. French style could include thyme, lavender and French tarragon. Italian might be basil; oregano, Italian parsley and rosemary. And you could even try Thai with lemon grass, that basil, and tiny red hot peppers. You can even make a “tea pot” with chamomile, anise-hyssop, lemon thyme and catnip (I am partial to lemon catnip myself). Or try a “Salad Bowl” with calendula, nasturtium, parsley, chives, chervil, salad basil and leaf lettuce.

Of course you have to have mint…

I have pots of mint everywhere (mint actually grows best in pots as it contains it from taking over your garden) I have apple mint, spearmint, chocolate mint, orange mint, ginger mint, peppermint, lime mint, and one called wintergreen mint (which tastes like a Certs candy!); so you can have a huge range of them.

I also have a big pot on wheels that I call my “winter herb garden” and that I bring in every fall. It has garlic chives, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano and tarragon. I put it in a sunny, warm spot in the house and I use it throughout the winter for cooking, then out it goes the next spring. I have seen combinations of herbs planted together in half whiskey barrels or wooden box planters which are visually stunning.

Window boxes are great as well…

On the sunny side of the house I would to put a window box that could include chives, oregano, lemon thyme, basil and maybe creeping rosemary to drape over the edge.

On the shady side of the house I would have a salad herb window box which could include wild rocket, chervil, French parsley, chives and red mustard.

Oh and you also want to have a big pot of Lemon verbena so you can bring it in during the winter and have this wonderful lemon herb all year round. I use it for tea, cooking and medicine throughout the whole year.

Also consider placing plants with a variety of textures, colours, and growth habits together such as silver posy thyme, dark opal basil, rosemary and Johnny jump ups to add some colour. You could do create a blue theme with borage, wooly thyme, nigella, blue vervain, rosemary, and hyssop. Or try a bay laurel plant in the middle of a large pot (on wheels as bay won’t overwinter here) and then put lemon thyme around its base.

Ok, enough -are you getting any ideas? I hope so.

Container gardening can open up possibilities to many folks who have limited space, limited mobility, or who simply do not wish to have large gardens which require constant care.

I would encourage you to see potting possibilities in containers you see everywhere. You never know what strange thing could become your next container garden masterpiece!

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