The wife and I moved into a new apartment a couple months ago and we really love it. It’s in a great neighborhood… tree-lined street, lots of young families, close to work. But, the downfall is, this new apartment is in a multi-family building, so the back yard is shared. At our old townhouse, the patio and “yard” behind our unit were ours, so we felt free to do with it as we pleased… so we grew a little container vegetable and flower garden. It worked kind of well… but, the hot, sunny Missouri summer got the best of our containers one week we were out of town and couldn’t tend to the plants… we came back and the dirt was sun baked completely parched and dry and the plants were completely withered. Damn Missouri summers… But, I digress.
I should also mention that we took a “Growing and cooking with Fresh Herbs” class last month… good time… learned a few cool recipes and the instructors gave us some great ideas on how to cook with and use fresh herbs. The lady that runs the place was a horticulturist, so she was chalk-full of info on growing an herb garden. Lots of great tips… and some good “don’t do’s”, as well. So, we were very excited to get out container herb garden together.
We wanted to do the same kind of container garden thing at the new place, but it felt a little different, since it’s a shared back yard. So, before we went ahead and just planted, I talked to our landlord and he told me it would be fine to put up a few pots in the little “garden” patch in the back corner of the yard. He even helped me decide where he the pots could go. Thank goodness for a good landlord.
Now, on to the gardening….
First, check the Farmer’s Almanac to see when the average last frost is for your area. After that date, you’re pretty safe to start planting outdoors. Also, check out the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone map to see which types of plants will thrive in your particular area. You can even search by zip code to get specific to your area. While herbs are pretty hardy and easy to grow, the little bit of info will help with other gardening ideas, as well. I’m in zone 6b, and a quick Google search revealed that anything from pumpkins, to corn, to tomatoes, to cherries, to squashes will do well. Google search your zone, as well… maybe something you’ve had your eye on growing won’t do well… so double check.
Next, decide which herbs you want to grow. We simply thought about which herbs we see frequently in the recipes we often use… then decided to try growing some of them. We decided on chives (since we like making dips for parties), oregano, basil, parsley (since we like spices and Italian dishes… btw, flat-leaf parsley is for cooking. Curly leaf parsley is for decoration and garnish), and mint (since the wife likes mint in her tea, including iced tea, and I like mojitos). There’s lots of other herb options, too… thyme, sage, majorim… the list goes on-and-on… but those five varieties should work for us. The Missouri Botanical Garden, in St, Louis, has a fantastic website.. they have a Plant Finder where you can search for the specifics of any plant you might be wanting to grow… from which zone the plant does well is, to how much sun the plant will need, to how much water to use. Awesome.
It’s important to understand that there are quite a few varities of each type of herb… like six different kinds of mint (apple mint, spearmint, peppermint, lime mint), three different kinds of basil, Greek oregano versus regular oregano… and each variety is just a little bit different. The easiest way to decide which type you want is by scent… when you’re out shopping for your herb plants (yes, you’ll want to plant actual plants… heard it a ton of trouble to start herbs from seeds), just rub a leaf between two fingers and smell. How the herb smells is going to be darn near how it’ll taste, so use your nose to find one you like. For example, i like the smell of lime mint over peppermint… it had a citrus-lime note to the smell. So that’ll probably make good mojitos and be good in tea. Do that for the other herbs you want, as well, to narrow in on the variety you like the best.
Unless you have lots of room in one large pot, or you’re growing in a “window” sill long planter, you’ll want to stick with one herb variety per container. We’ve read that some herb plants can get pretty big, and the roots will grow pretty well… so you don’t want one overtaking another in the same pot and you definitely don’t want to overcrowd as all the plants start to fill out and expand. Mint is notorious for being an expander. A guy at work told me, that, over the course of a couple years, the little corner where his wife planted a mint plant had taken over and overwhelmed every plant in the whole flower bed… and now it’s a mint bed. He said it smells nice, but he wishes he would have known how veracious it is.
Next up: the dirt. Herbs like dry(ish), well-draining soil… logically, it makes sense… herbs found such prominence in Italian, Greek, and Middle Eastern dishes because herbs grow plentifully in the soils around the Mediterranean… and those soils are (you guessed it) sandy and well-draining. So, when you’re picking out soil at the big-box home store, look for something with mulch built into the mix… nothing to “heavy” and dense. And, put a nice layer of pea gravel or some other gravel in the bottom of the pot to promote drainage. Standing water in the pot will root rot the herbs… that’s one thing that will absolutely kill your herbs. And speaking of water… herbs don’t need to be heavily-watered like other vegetables and plants. So, unless you live in a particularly hot location, or have your herbs exposed to direct sunlight all day, you can probably get away with just one watering per day.
And speaking of sun… you want the herbs to get about six hours of sunlight per day. Granted, some herbs do well in the shade (woodruff, lemonbalm, some mint varieties)… but, most herbs are sun lovers. Again, that’s just a rule of thumb… Google the specific type of herb you want to grow if you have any questions about sun exposure.
And that’s pretty much it… I mean, just plant the plants… water daily… and let ’em grow. Harvest what you need as you go. Just be careful, because once the herb starts to flower, the plant will dedicate it’s energy to the flower and not to all the aromas and taste of the plant. So, in other words: flowering herbs are bad tasting herbs. Just use your fingers to pop the flower (or flower bud) off from the stem… or use a pair of shears.
More to come on how we use our herbs… we’ve got a few ideas, but we’ll be exploring some recipes and uses as we go along. We’ll be sure to keep everyone abreast (giggity) as we discover the uses for the herbs from our container garden.
Missouri Botanical Garden Kemper Center… lots of great reading on soil fertility, composting, etc
“Growing Vegetables, Herbs and Annual Flowers in Containers”, Cornell University (PDF)
“Growing Herbs in Containers”, University of Illinois