Ideas for Space

Maybe you already know which herbs you’d like to grow. First, you need to look at the individual herb and make sure the ones you’re interested in growing are suitable for your region. {The USDA Plant Data Base in the pages section can prove to be quite resourceful}. Even if you’re unsure about a particular herb, it’s often worth a try. In some cases, you may be able to adjust your environment and provide comfortable growing conditions for a variety of herbs, by amending your soil and by carefully choosing planting locations for their different light and exposure conditions, their preference for shady or sunny spots in the garden, water needs, and soil preferences.

After you make your plant selections, you’ll need to decide whether to buy plants or start them from seed.

Preparing the Bed or Row:

Before you plant anything, you will want to prepare {and possibly amend, or feed} the planting area. The best time to do this is in the fall because it allows the winter snow, rain, and wind to work their magical alchemy, along with the soil microbes and the tunneling creatures. But spring can be just as good a time for preparations, particularly if you live in a colder region.

First, clear all “weeds.” {In the process see if any of them are “medicinal weeds,” if they are, harvest them!} Using a shovel or digging fork, break up the soil in the bed or row to a spade’s depth. Next, armed with your analysis of the nutritional or textural needs of your garden, spread several inches of compost, aged manure, or fine mulch on the surface. If you know that your soil needs to be adjusted for the pH level or a plant’s nutritional needs, now is the time to add your organic, slow-release fertilizers. Work them into the soil. If you know you will be growing herbs that achieve their best medicinal potency in lean soil, omit or go easy on amendments.

If you need to loosen heavy clay soil, add compost, perlite, vermiculite, coir {shredded coconut hulls}, or sand. To firm and enrich sandy, poor soil, add sterilized topsoil, compost, or aged manure.

Raised Beds:

There are advantages to growing herbs in raised beds. If your drainage is poor, a raised bed will give you a lot of room for excess water to drain away from plant roots. If you have a tired back or use a wheelchair or are otherwise differently-abled, you will find the extra height provided by a raised bed helpful. In addition, raised beds allow you to vary the soil mixes and fertilizers used for different plants, and you can even add rodent netting under raised beds to block tunneling animals.

A framed raised bed keeps soil from eroding and creates a tidy area for growing. Many growers make wood frames from 2 x 4’s, wooden boards, concrete blocks, or recycled materials such as bricks, broken up concrete, and rocks. After you have set your framing, line the bottom with a few inches of gravel for drainage, if needed, and fill the bed to within several inches of the top of the frame using the soil you’ve collected, a purchased planter’s mix, or a mix of compost and soil. Raised beds are easiest to care for when their maximum width is between 4 and 5 feet so that you can comfortably reach the middle of the bed without having to stand or walk on the soil.

Vertical Gardening:

If your outdoor space is limited, grow up! There are many ways to grow vertically, from living wall installations to free-standing columns, arbors, suspensions, and trellises. Vines, such as honeysuckle and hops, are ideal for vertical gardening. Living walls allow you to set non-vining, clumping plants along the length of your support, resulting in a lovely cascading effect.

Cold Frames:

A cold frame is like a mini-greenhouse that can be used to protect tender plants from the biting cold or a possible frost or can protect seedlings in the early spring. Portable cold frames are generally low, bottomless boxes, with sides made of wood and a glass or plastic top that allows light to enter and warmth to collect inside. You can further insulate the sides with hay bales or other thick materials when temperatures drop. The back of the cold frame should be 4 to 6 inches higher than the front, so the lid slopes forward and maximizes the amount of light that reaches the plants inside. Face the cold frame toward the south for the greatest sun exposure and thus the greatest amounts of heat and light. It can be moved around your garden and can be as large or small as you find useful. As the weather warms, you can prop open the lid, swing it open fully, and eventually remove the frame. A cold frame can often add a month or more to each end of the growing season, and in warmer climates, it can enable gardeners to grow plants outdoors throughout the winter.

The Potted Garden, Indoors or Out:

If you have a rooftop corner, a sunny breakfast room, a warm sun porch, an attached greenhouse or atrium, a deck, a porch, or a kitchen windowsill, you can grow herbs successfully. There are a number of medicinal herbs that do remarkably well in pots and planters. In fact, growing this way can allow you to cultivate botanicals that you couldn’t otherwise grow in your climate and can dramatically extend your season.

Choose Your Space:

Naturally, your type of residence may determine the type of potted garden you can create. But don’t limit yourself; think creatively when designing spaces to incorporate herb growing into your daily care routine.

Windowsills:

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As long as you have enough sun streaming in through your window or can provide artificial light suspended directly over your plants {for when the sun’s angle is low, in winter, or if the window is on a northern wall}, you can successfully grow herbs. You’ll have to pay attention to the sun-pattern, noticing when the light is direct and indirect. More than 2 to 3 hours of direct sunlight on the herbs daily will mean that you’ll need to water and feed the plant more often. Without enough light, however, your herbs will become leggy and their growth will be soft and lax. Believe it or not, the biggest mistake people make with windowsill growing is neglect.

In a very sunny window, you can experiment with setting pots of herbs in a tray filled with stones and adding water to the tray. {The stones prevent the water from soaking directly into the pots, so take care that the water level doesn’t reach the pots themselves.} This technique provides some humidity, which cuts down the dramatic effects of direct sunlight. Check your pots morning and evening, and let them dry out before watering, but don’t allow the plants to wilt.

Decks and Porches:

Lucky you-you have the closest thing to a land-based garden and can style it any way you wish with containers. You might want to place a potting bench in one corner of the space, so you have somewhere to work on your plants.

Decks and porches have sun and shade patterns that can be stark and change rapidly, which can create a challenge for plants until they adjust to the new space. Reflections from walls, glass, and water features can add to the effect of sun and shade, so spend some time closely observing the changing patterns to determine where on your deck or porch the shade-loving herbs should go and where to place the sun lovers.

If you work outside the home or are gone for long periods of time, you’ll have to pay special attention to your plant’s watering requirements. Some people set up drip irrigation tubes with timers to allow for consistent moisture and lessen plant maintenance time.

Greenhouses, Atrium’s, Sun Porches, and Four-Season Rooms:

These indoor growing areas are full-service rooms, where you can grow in containers or make use of beds, benches, tables, or boxes. Having a true greenhouse is a luxury. If you are blessed with enough space to construct a greenhouse {or can purchase a ready-to-assemble kit online}, you’ll have flexibility and variety in your gardening activities. You’ll be able to start seed in very early spring, long before you would be able to plant outside, and you’ll be able to house tender perennials over the winter months. Greenhouses do have ongoing costs – such as heating, ventilation, and lighting – that should be factored into your buying decision. But if you live in a warm climate, you may be able to make use of an unheated greenhouse. For enthusiastic gardeners, greenhouses are indispensable, but the costs of building and maintaining one can be considerable. If you’re considering a greenhouse, you could start with a temporary or “pop-up” model; they’re available as lightweight kits that snap together, and they can be assembled and disassembled easily.

A more practical approach to indoor growing may be an atrium, or attached greenhouse, built onto an outside wall of your home. It will allow you to heat and light the growing area separately from the rest of the house, and it will bring in extrasolar heat in the winter as an added benefit. It’s ideally positioned on the south wall, and it may be less expensive to build and maintain than a traditional greenhouse.

The next best indoor option is a roomy sun porch or glass-walled room, as long as you can provide supplemental heat and light when needed. Light is the only limitation to indoor growing; without enough light, your herbs will become leggy and start to topple. An ideal setting will be a south-, east-, or west-facing window, although you need to factor in shade from outdoor trees and neighboring buildings.

Rooftop Growing:

If you’re living in a high-rise, you’ll find an enthusiastic club to join – a whole set of rooftop gardeners enjoying the benefits of vegetables and herbs in planter boxes, wine barrels, old bathtubs, and even plastic kiddie pools. The possibilities are endless. Before attempting a rooftop garden, you’ll need to research any local restrictions your building or town may have in place, and you should check with an expert who can advise you about structural issues that may arise from the extra weight you’ll be adding to the roof. So proceed cautiously. Once those steps have been taken, you’ll need to make decisions about water sources, bed and container design and placement, and drainage, as well as determine how to deal with weather extremes your plants may face {such as high winds or intense heat} and how to bring your supplies to the rooftop.

Selecting Containers, Soil Mixes for Containers

Selecting Containers:

Assorted Balm Basil Bay Borage Chive Culinary Dill Flowers Food Freestanding Fresh Garlic Healthy HerbDecorative pots, barrels, and tubs are beautiful and convenient, and there are multitudes of styles. They lend instant color and provide a focal point for space, whether indoors or out. The only tricky thing is getting a sense of how large a pot you’ll need for a particular herb, so check each herb to determine its mature size. For outdoor growing, keep in mind that it’s easier to grow plants in large containers than small ones because large containers hold more soil, which stays moist longer and is less subject to temperature fluctuations. For most herbs, the ideal container provides enough room for the herb to grow in one season. {For example, place a herb purchased in a 4-inch pot into a 6- to 8-inch pot.} Check the herb’s profile to see how big it’s going to get during the season, and use that as your guide.

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You should also consider the size and shape of a plant’s root system, how rapidly it grows, and whether it is a perennial, annual, or shrub. It is especially important to check your pots occasionally to make sure the root systems haven’t outgrown their lodgings. Root-bound plants, which have filled up every square inch of the soil available, dry out rapidly and do not grow well.

Of course, the sizes of the containers you use will be limited by the space you have available {especially indoors}, what structures or furniture will support the containers, and whether the containers will need to be moved.

Whichever container you choose, drainage holes are essential. Without drainage, soil can become water-logged and plants will suffer. With the exception of ceramic-type pots, you can always drill drainage holes yourself. There are also self-watering, double-walled containers and pots on the market, and these are ideal for smaller plants that need frequent watering.

herb container garden

When choosing pots for herbs, you also need to take into account the differences between plastic, clay {such as terra-cotta}, glazed ceramic, and wooden pots. Plastic warms up fast {not an advantage outdoors in areas where summers are hot and dry} and thus dries out quickly, but it’s lightweight and inexpensive. Terra-cotta containers can be attractive and inexpensive; they do transpire moisture through their walls, but they also dry more evenly than plastic. You’ll need to protect terra-cotta pots in colder climates because they can crack or break as they freeze and thaw. Glazed ceramic will retain moisture but can keep plants soaked with water if the drainage holes are not adequate. Wood is natural looking in an outdoor setting and can protect roots from rapid temperature extremes. Polyurethane foam pots are gaining in popularity because they resemble terra-cotta pots but are considerably lighter. However, we do not recommend growing your medicinal plants in this type of material because the toxic hydrocarbons emitted by the foam can enter your herb’s roots. There is one thing to remember, no matter which type of pot you choose: Start with small pots when the plants are young and small, allowing for at least one season of growth.

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Let’s Plant Herbs:

Once you’ve made decisions about the placement and possibilities of your setting, you’re ready to select soil mixes and plants. Maybe you already know which herbs you would like to grow or you’re inspired to try a new plant.

Soil Mixes for Containers:

A soil mix needs to do two things: hold the plant’s roots in place and retain the nutrients and moisture it needs. As you learn about herbs you would like to grow, you will notice that they differing nutrient and moisture needs. Herbs that originate in four-season climates and the tropics will appreciate rich soils mixes, and desert or Mediterranean plants will respond better to lean soil mixes.

You can create your own soil mix with just a few garden components. Start with a base of whichever you have on hand, either good topsoil or purchased potting soil. Mix the ingredients in a large tub or wheelbarrow, or on a tarp, and then transfer it to your containers.

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Rich Soil Mix:

You can purchase all of these ingredients {except the garden soil} at garden or farm supply stores. Coir {shredded coconut hulls} is a great substitute for non-renewable peat, but coir dries out very quickly, so make sure it is moistened before adding it to your mix.

2 parts garden soil or purchased organic potting soil

2 parts compost

2 parts coir, composted fine bark, perlite, or moistened vermiculite*

1 part horticultural sand

Optional: 1 to 2 parts aged manure, for outdoor mixes

  • Reduce by half if you’re using potting soil

Lean Soil Mix:

2 parts garden soil or purchased organic potting soil

2 parts sand, perlite, or vermiculite

Optional: 1 to 2 parts coir or another tilth-building ingredient, such as coffee grounds or peanut or rice hulls

A variety of “soilless” mixes are available. They often contain peat, which is an endangered, nonrenewable resource {although it’s a superior component of soil mixes}. Check before purchasing soil-less mixes, and always buy a certified organic mix unless you trust the source. You can also make your own soil-less mixes.

Rich Soilless Mix:

2 parts coir, moistened

2 parts compost

1 part sand

1 part aged manure or a combination of blood meal, fish meal, bone meal, or seaweed meal

Optional: 1 part perlite or vermiculite

Lean Soilless Mix:

4 parts coir, moistened

2 parts sand

Optional: 1 part perlite or vermiculite

Moisten with fish emulsion, algae, or seaweed liquid {such as Maxicrop}.

Potting Up Herbs:

If you have purchased plants, fill your empty container half full of your soil mix and gently lift a plant out of its nursery pot by cradling the base of the plant stem between two fingers, turning the pot upside down or sideways, then tapping, squeezing, and easing out the plant. Set it in place in the container. Fill the pot with soil mix, making sure that the soil level is at least an inch or two below the rim of the container and the soil is even with, or slightly higher than, the original soil level of the plant. Firm the soil around the plant.

If you’re starting herbs from seed, fill seedling trays, nursery or paper pots, or clean, recycled containers with seed-starting mix, and directly sow seeds into the mix, following the directions for each herb profile.

Caring for Container Plants:

Once you’ve invested time in planting containers, you will want the herbs to grow well and look their best. Follow these tips for great results.

  • Do not place a layer of gravel or broken pottery at the bottom of your container, as many sources recommend. That practice actually worsens bad drainage, instead of improving it.
  • Water container plants thoroughly, but do not over-water! It is sometimes tricky to determine whether more is needed, but you should keep in mind that most herbs in containers should nearly dry out between watering. You can’t always tell by feeling the soil surface whether the soil throughout the container is dry, but you will want to let the plant get {almost} to the point of wilting before you douse it.
  • Container plants need regular feeding. If the herb likes rich soil, water it with a liquid fertilizer every week or two, just until the fertilizer begins to drain out of the bottom. If it thrives in poorer soil, feed it once a month.
  • Remove dead leaves and spent blossoms, and prune back plants that get leggy or stop blooming. Do not be afraid to dig out or remove plants that do not grow well or that succumb to diseases or pests.
  • If the roots of a plant start to emerge from the drainage holes at the bottom of its container, it’s time to repot! Use a pot that is the next size up, fill it halfway with your soil mix, place your plant in the pot, and continue filling until the soil level is a little bit higher than the original soil level of the herb. Firm the soil around the plant. Sprinkle a little bit of compost on the soil surface, then drench it with a diluted fish emulsion, seaweed, or algae fertilizer; you can also apply compost or comfrey tea.
  • Plan to repot your perennial herbs every year. Each spring, remove the entire plant and its soil from the pot and shake off any soil that comes away easily. If no soil comes off easily {or if you see the plant’s roots coiled tightly around the edge of the root-ball}, it’s time for a bigger pot. Trim away any old, dead plant material and gently loosen any visible coiled roots. Put some new soil in the bottom of the pot [or, if you are transplanting into a larger pot, half fill the new container}, set the plant on the soil, and add more soil around the sides of the plant. Then water the new transplant with liquid fertilizer.
  • If your plant is too big to repot, tend and feed it yearly. Using a trowel, break up the surface of the soil and water it with comfrey tea, compost tea, fish emulsion, or other liquid fertilizer. Then apply a fresh layer of compost – as much as possible, while making sure that your soil level remains at least an inch or so below the rim of the container.
  • In autumn, cut back perennial herbs and reduce your watering schedule. Remove the top layer of compost from your pots and replace it. Bring your tender plants inside before the first frost date. You can leave hardy perennials outside but group them together against a sheltered wall and mulch them. If severe weather is predicted, cover the entire group of pots with a thick layer of straw or leaves, string with non-LED Christmas lights, or use blankets or other protection.
  • Hanging baskets make great herb containers, but be sure to place them in an easy-to-reach spot so they do not suffer from neglect. They are best located where they will not get full sun all day and won’t experience high winds. Creeping herbs, such as Gotu Kola and oregano, are the best choices for hanging baskets. Check them every morning and evening to see if they need water.
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