Urban Gardening Part Two: It's All in the Herbs
By Lisa Palac
7 Steps to Planting a Container Garden
It's spring, the time when everything starts to, literally, spring up. And every year, urban dwellers the world over have the same reaction: this is it! This is the year I finally plant that veggie patch and spend autumn feasting on homegrown produce. Then they look around their third-story walk-up with nothing but a fire escape for outdoor space and realize that's just not going to happen.
Or is it?
Even if you've never grown anything before, but have always wanted to take part in this rite of spring, a container herb garden is a perfect way to begin. Here's how to get started:
- A place in the sun. Herbs basically need three important things: full sun, lots of water, and good drainage. For best results, herbs must be grown outdoors. If you live in a seasonal climate, make sure the last frost has come and gone before planting. If your plants aren't doing very well as the season progresses, they might need a sunnier spot or perhaps, a bit less sun. This is one of the essential truths about plants: they've got to have their "spot" to flourish.
- The easiest herbs to grow. "If you want to see if you have a green thumb, start with mint," says Cassy Aoyagi, co-owner of FormLA, a team of Los Angeles-based landscape architects specializing in sustainable practices. "Mint just takes over," she says. Mint is a perennialherb, which means that it lasts from season to season, and there are many varieties of mint including spearmint, peppermint, and even chocolate mint.
The next bulletproof perennial herb, according to Aoyagi, is rosemary. Incredibly hardy and fast-growing, rosemary can tolerate full sun, but can do with much less. It can withstand over-watering and also survive a drought. It's a hard one to kill. If you choose an upright woody variety of rosemary, says Aoyagi, you can use the fragrant stems as skewers for grilling vegetables. Stems of rosemary can also be used to infuse olive oils and marinades. Other easy-to-grow classic perennials include thyme and oregano.
Basil, cilantro, and parsley are annual herbs, which means they only last one season and are replanted annually. They can absolutely be planted alongside perennial herbs in the same container. If you want to make, say, fresh pesto, however, you'll need more than a single plant. In fact, you'll need at least five or six. If this is the case, you may want a separate pot for large groups of single-variety herbs.
- Choosing the best soil. Fish emulsion, worm castings, bone meal, and bat guano hardly sound appetizing, but they are used in organic soil to fertilize the most delicious things. Most organic potting soils available for sale already contain all the ingredients you need to grow lush, healthy plants. For a container herb garden, you don't need additional fertilizer. Organic potting soil is preferable to the mix known simply as potting soil, because commercial soils often contain low-release fertilizers and other chemicals that could potentially be unhealthy.
- Container size and shape. All herbs can be planted together in the same container. For example, a 12-inch round ceramic pot can hold four or five herbs. Here's an ideal container size: a wood rectangle that measures 36 inches long by 12 inches high by 12 inches deep. If you can go 18 inches deep, even better, as the more room you give the roots, the larger and healthier the plants will be. Also, make sure there are holes in the bottom of whatever container you choose, so the water can drain out.
- Buying the plants. Although you could start from seeds, it's much easier to buy a mature plant. Plants are generally sold by the size of their container. Starter herbs are usually sold in 4-inch pots. Some vendors will sell several individual plants of the same variety in one 4-inch pot, knowing that the plants will be repotted. You can visit a plant nursery or farmer's market to buy your plants, or order online if you're looking for a particular heirloom variety.
- The planting. Let's say you're going to plant five herbs in a 12-inch round pot. First, fill the pot about three-quarters to the top with the organic potting soil you've purchased. Next, take the starter herb out of its plastic container by turning the plant upside-down and gently removing the plastic container. Using your fingertips, gently dig in and separate the roots just a little bit, so the roots are no longer compressed in the plastic pot shape. Then, make a little hole in the soil where you intend to plant the herb. Allow 3 to 4 inches between herbs. Set the herb in the soil and cover with more soil. Instead of patting the soil completely flat, try to build a slight mound on the top of each plant, as this little "hill" often helps with drainage.
- Care and Watering. One of the fundamentals of plant care is this: the more you trim your plant during the growing season, the more new growth you get. So the more leaves you pinch off your basil plant, or the more sprigs of rosemary you clip, the fuller and more leafy your herbs will be. At the end of the season, many perennials will appear fairly dormant. At this stage, you could cut the plant way back, and it will spring back as the weather warms up. Here's another fundamental: the only way to really know if the soil is moist enough is to stick your finger deep in the dirt. For plants that require full water, it should feel damp but not soaking wet. Signs of overwatering and underwatering can seem very similar to a novice, such as leaves yellowing and dropping, but if you test the soil with your finger, you'll have a good idea of which direction things are going.
Now it's time to reap the fruits—or leaves, anyway—of your labor. A sprinkle of chopped basil on a salad makes it exponentially more delicious, especially if you've grown it yourself. Plus, look at all you can do with fresh mint: cilantro mint chutney, cucumber mint soda, mint ice cubes, chilled peach mint soup. Not to mention that both parsley and cilantro are high in antioxidants. Growing your own herbs is also a really fun and extremely satisfying way to get just a little more green in your day.