Container Herb Gardening

Living in a flat, apartment or just a room need not stop you from growing green plants for health and pleasure! The house I am currently sharing is rented and has no garden space which we're allowed to dig up, and anyway I'm reluctant to plant stuff in the ground when I'm going to be moving on in a few years anyway. All my plants are contained. In fact, there are some plants which are better contained, as they will grow to take over your garden (mint being a very pertinent example!)

Container gardening gives you the opportunity to fit your greenery in wherever you like, inside or out. You can grow plants on your verandah, balcony, windowsill, porch, backyard or inside the house. It's not as languor-intensive as outdoor gardening — no digging! — and you need very few tools and little equipment. If you use a lot of herbs, it can save you a lot of money. Most herbs are amazingly tough and easy to grow.

Anything which can hold a reasonable amount of soil can grow herbs. You can use buckets, barrels, tin cans with holes punched in them, old gumboots, kids' wading pools, old baths or basins, animal watering or feeding troughs, rusty wheelbarrows, soft drink bottles, wooden crates or tea chests, the selection is limited only by your imagination and the space and materials available to you. (One warning: If you are growing plants on a wooden porch or balcony, be careful since a constant water run-off from your containers can make your wooden surface rot or disfigure a polished or finished surface. Provide trays for the water to catch in.)

Your climate should also be taken into consideration. If you live somewhere hot or very sunny, growing things in metal containers or troughs is not a good idea as they tend to heat up too much and burn the plants. Anything you use to grow plants in should have drainage holes drilled, punched or gouged in it, although generally speaking, the larger and deeper the container, the less need there will be for drainage holes. Wooden containers (unfinished or unsealed) are also exceptions as the wood does seem to absorb excess water.

The climate you live in should also influence your choice of what you grow and where you grow it. I can leave my herbs outside all year round, but in colder climates where there is frost and snow they are usually better off inside during the colder months. Many herbs have great difficulty growing outside in a cold climate. Basil goes yellow and sick if the temperature dips below 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). Rosemary and lavender dislike a wet climate, and their soil should be allowed to dry out between waterings. Basil and the mints prefer their soil to be constantly moist, but not over watered.

Starting the Herbs

Herbs can be grown from seeds, cuttings or roots.

Seeds: If you know someone who grows herbs from seed, see if you can beg or barter a few seeds from them — why buy a whole packet if you can get just enough for your needs? Seeds are easy to work with. You can start seeds growing in trays filled with potting mix — try using egg cartons, paper cups, cut-off milk cartons, or plastic trays (try take-away food trays, or the kind you buy cakes, etc, in). Keep the soil damp and preferably have the trays somewhere where they will catch a great deal of light and be kept warm. Transplant them into a larger container after the second set of leaves has formed and the seedlings look strong.

Cuttings: If you know someone with herb plants, perhaps they would let you have a few cuttings. Herbs that grow well from cuttings include rosemary, lavender, mint, thyme, scented geraniums and oregano. Take the cutting in spring or (preferably) summer, using a section of stem without flowers which is at least a few inches long. The stem should be firm enough that it can't be merely pinched off. A side branch growing from the main stem of the plant is best. Use shears to remove the stem, and make a slanting cut below the lowest set of leaves. If you can take a cutting which has a 'foot' on it, so much the better — this means that there will be more space for the stem to suck up water and nutrients from the soil. Remove the lower sets of leaves, leaving a reasonable section of bare stem — this is where the roots will form. However, you should leave a few sets of leaves at the top of the cutting. Poke a hole gently into the potting mix and insert the bare stem of the cutting, then press the rest of the potting mix firmly around it. Water well, and after the first watering keep the soil moist but not completely saturated. The cutting will be ready to transplant when it has started to grow more leaves, or when it has formed enough roots that it resists being pulled out of the ground when you tug very gently on it.

Roots: Certain herbs grow best from root pieces — comfrey and ginger being good examples. Take a healthy-looking 'finger' of root, plant it in the soil and keep it well-watered and in a warm sunny place. The root will grow into a healthy plant, which in turn can have more root fingers taken from it when it's mature.

Care of Container Plants: I suggest you buy, beg or borrow a good book on caring for herbs in your own country, as what you should do with them does vary greatly depending on conditions.

Indoor Herbs: Indoor plants need a lot of light; most of them will prefer a good 6-8 hours of natural sunlight per day, so try to position them near windows or under skylights. If you can't get enough natural light for them, consider installing a grow-light. Most herbs prefer humid surroundings, so if the air in your house is dry, keep a little mister nearby and use it regularly. They like it warm, but keeping them right near a heater, stove or heating duct will be far too dry for them. One of the best places for culinary herbs is your kitchen windowsill, where they'll get some sunlight and will be near the tap to be watered regularly.

Herbs which can be grown indoors include mint, basil, lavender, scented geranium, sage, rosemary, chives, sage, lemon verbena, thyme, parsley, marjoram.

Recycled Pots: I make my own small pots from the bottoms of two-liter plastic soft drink bottles; here are instructions for making them.

Wash or peel the label off, if there is one, and mark a straight line to cut along with tape about 6-8 inches from the bottom of the bottle. Pierce the bottle initially with pointy nail scissors, then switch to your normal craft scissors and cut along the tape line. If the edges are sharp, you can always mask them with tape. The bottom of the bottle makes your pot, and the top can be dumped in the recycling bin.

Now turn the pot over so the underside is facing you, and gouge some drainage holes with your pointy nail scissors. Make the initial hole and then sink the scissors in up to the screw and rotate to make the hole nice and round. Try to have any sharp edge bits sticking inside the pot rather than outside it (so you don't cut yourself). You can put the holes right on the bottom, or on the sides where they join the bottom. I use soft drink bottles with those knobby bits at the bottom, so I gouge my holes one each side of each Knobby bit, very close to the bottom. Turn the pot up, and voila! It's ready.

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