Growing herbs can be an exciting way to spend the summer in the garden. A garden full of herbs is not only great for cooking but also a great way to make your yard, patio, balcony or small apartment into a very attractive space. Growing herbs in a container herb garden does not take much space, time or even effort from the gardener. Important factors to herb garden selection are:
1. Container garden sites
2. Container sizes
3. Potting media
4. Container-friendly herbs
5. Planting procedures
6. Care and harvest Tips
1. CONTAINER GARDEN SITE
Picking the best area to grow your herbs can take a little planting. Traditionally, a container herb garden will thrive in areas that are sunny. The site should have late afternoon and evening shade in order to get the correct type of sunlight for the herbs. Placing your container herb garden site near an easy to access door is also beneficial to watering and use of more herbs in your day to day cooking.
2. PROPER SIZE CONTAINER
Once your herbs have grown they are going to have complex root systems that are going to be around the same size or bigger than the growth on top. This means that it is imperative that you plant your container herb garden in a large enough container for root growth. While herbs vary in size and shape, most gardeners agree that the general rule of thumb is to allow for one gallon of potting mix for each herb. Measure out the amount of potting mix that your container holds and only plant that many herbs or less in that pot. Also, make sure that your pot has drainage holes, as allowing water to stagnate at the bottom can cause additional problems for your container herb garden.
3. POTTING MEDIA
Most herbs do not grow well in traditional soil. This could be because the chemical makeup of your soil is simply not right for the herb or because the herbs are not getting all the nutrients that they need out of the soil. This is why a container herb garden should always be planted in potting mix. Container garden plants grow best in good quality potting mix or ‘growing medium’ rather than real soil. Potting mix is sterile, retains moisture and allows for aeration at the same time. Mixes usually contain sphagnum peat moss, perlite or vermiculite and possibly sand or fine pine bark. Most potting mixes contain no fertilizer, so you may either mix a granular complete fertilizer plus a trace element fertilizer into the potting media before planting or you may use a soluble complete fertilizer after planting. With any fertilizer, use an application rate on the low end of the scale, to encourage better herbal flavor and aroma.
4. CONTAINER-FRIENDLY HERBS
Some types of herbs will out-perform others in containers. Depending on what climate you live in it may be smart idea to grow some herbs more than others. For example, it is a good idea to grow hearty herbs in a northern climate so they will last through the harsh winter that many northern climates can experience. It is also important to consider what herbs will work well in your container herb garden. Some tall herbs may be too difficult to control in shallow containers that many gardeners use and should be avoided.
5. PLANTING PROCEDURES
Planting procedures, when not followed, can make herbs produce less and may end up killing them. It is important to plant the herb at the right depth when transplanting it. This level should be with the plotting mix surface or just slightly below in the new pot. Make sure to adjust your height when transplanting multiple types of herbs into your new container herb garden, due to various shapes and sizes of root balls.
Once you have planted your herbs, it is important to lightly water them right away. Make sure you wet the potting mix with warmer water, as most potting mixes do not react well with cold water. Continue to fill the container with soil or potting mix until the top surface is about ¾ of an inch below the rim. Do not pack down the potting media and make sure to finish watering until water flows out the bottle of the container.
6. CARE AND HARVESTING TIPS
The most common problem with container gardens is watering – either too much or too little. Watering too often may cause fungal infestation, fungus gnats and root rot. Symptoms of over-watering include wilting, stunted growth, fungus gnats and reduced root growth. Too little water will cause wilting and scorching. Repeated wilting, even if the plant survives, will stunt the plant’s growth and reduce flower quality. At each watering, add water until it runs through the bottom of the pot.
Ideally, you will water your container garden only when needed. Feel the potting mix 2 to 3 inches below the surface. If it is still wet, don’t water. Tip the pot gently to gauge its weight. When the pot begins to feel significantly lighter in weight, it’s time to water. When the plants are small, they will use less water and you may water as seldom as every 5 to 6 days. During the heat of summer, when your herbs have matured and their roots penetrate the entire pot, you may need to water as often as every day.
If you have incorporated slow-release fertilizer into the potting mix, you should not need to fertilize again for at least 2 months. If you did not add fertilizer to the potting mix, use a soluble complete fertilizer at the recommended rate every third or fourth watering. Herbs are usually pest-resistant but keep an eye out for caterpillars, aphids and spider mites. If a large caterpillar is eating your parsley, think twice about killing it; it is probably a swallowtail butterfly larva! Since you will be eating the leaves of your herb plants, use insecticidal soap rather than an insecticide to control insect pests. One teaspoon of liquid soap (not detergent) per gallon of water, applied with a sprayer, will wash away the aphids or spider mites. This organic control must be re-applied every 3 to 4 days until the pests are no longer present.
Harvesting the herbs regularly keeps the plants’ growth under control and encourages continued production. Harvest the herbs during a dry morning or just after the dew dries. Use them fresh for best flavor or preserve them by drying or freezing. At the end of the season, you may save some of the tender perennial herb plants, such as rosemary and marjoram. After you are certain they are free of pests, bring them into your home.
Place them in a sunny window or provide artificial light for about 14 hours per day. Water them as you do any houseplant. Tender perennials may be protected in winter if they are planted in the ground next to the south wall of your home or on the south side of a stone wall. Apply mulch around the herbs 6 to 8 inches deep.
Check them frequently for rodent damage. Don’t forget that herbs over-wintering outdoors may need water, especially during a dry winter.