Let’s Plant Some Herbs ~ Ideas for Space

container-gardeningMaybe 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:

herbs-on-a-windowsill-gardenista-houseplants-photo-galleryAs 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 extra solar 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.