Growing herbs in containers
A collection of pots, plant boxes, small barrels, and other portable containers will provide a degree of control and versatility that is not often possible when herbs are planted directly to the garden. Most herbs are reasonably adaptable to a range of soil and climatic conditions. However, like any species there is usually a preferred range that will promote healthy, vigorous growth along with increased flavour, nutrient profiles, and therapeutic potencies. For example, basil flourishes in rich, moist soils with a slight acidity, whereas oregano, thyme, and sage all prefer soils which are lean, with a neutral or alkaline pH.
In each instance, organic growers must exploit the preferred range to reduce the risk of their plants developing the type of problems which are normally treated with chemical compounds. Many of the popular culinary herbs enjoy full sunlight and relatively warm soil temperatures while some cosmetic and therapeutic herbs like soapwort and pipsissewa require partial sunlight and cool soils. By making use of the different micro climates within each growing region, dedicated organic practitioners may introduce a wider range of herb species into their gardens. Many of these plants will be susceptible to extreme conditions and may need to be sheltered against sudden cold, heat, strong winds, frost and dryness. Whenever these exotics are housed in portable containers, the task of rearranging locations to accommodate prevailing garden conditions becomes much easier.
There are several species of herb which are notorious for their ability to spread widely, and, when provided with suitable growing conditions they can dominate an entire garden and risk choking or out competing rival plants. Examples of these are the common mint varieties, Vietnamese mint, and horseradish. Once herbs lose their cultivated status, they are likely to be considered common weeds, particularly where they invade surrounding properties. This can be particularly damaging when uncontrolled growth occurs within pockets of native or restored vegetation.
Due to the pressures of urban consolidation, many of these areas support ecosystems which are increasingly fragile and vulnerable. The introduction of exotic species can disrupt patterns of native vegetation and will in turn upset the balance of other organisms which compete for limited amounts of light, food, and space. For this reason alone, it can be tremendously advantageous to restrict the growth of certain herbs by keeping them secured in planting pots or containers of some description. This practice is particularly well supported by organic growers and others who depend upon the integrity of their surrounding environment.
Larger pots will support a decent crop of herbs and the supply can be maintained or increased as required. Maintenance requires a well drained potting mixture, and the occasional application of liquid fertiliser such as an organic seaweed or nettle extract.
The majority of herbs are perennials which will attempt to seed or reproduce by division prior to the conclusion of their growing season. The horizontally spreading herbs like Vietnamese mint can be divided and repotted during the spring or summer. Do this by splitting the crown of the plant into several pieces then replant using an organically certified potting mixture. Any additional runners attempting to escape over the sides can be trimmed then repotted. Regular harvesting will limit the plants ability to spread. To prevent unwanted regrowth, excess foliage and cuttings must be incinerated or finely shredded before composting in a biologically active heap.
Beautiful and creative cooking requires the combination of many technical skills and an imaginative inspiration. With dedication, the technical skills will eventually be mastered, but the imaginative qualities must arise effortlessly from the surrounding environment. Whether these emerge through the influence of personal relationships, fine art, music, literature, or nature itself, the experienced will appreciate the importance of making enough space for the imagination. For the suburban or inner city apartment with limited room, a well considered collection of potted herbs can help to create a compact and inspiring oasis, perfect for calming the mind at the beginning and end of each day.
Perhaps the only space available for growing herbs is the enclosed courtyard, or a small balcony or windowsill. In addition to cacti and miniature citrus trees, herbs represent an excellent choice for a balcony or windowsill planting. However, depending on their orientation, both these sites can be notoriously exposed to drying heat and wind. Most of the fragrant or culinary herbs from Mediterranean and North African climates will survive these conditions with few if any concerns. Try rosemary, thyme, marjoram, lavender, sage, parsley, garlic, and cardamon. Larger containers are preferred since they are less likely to topple over and will require less frequent watering to ensure a moist and well drained potting mixture. The best herbs for growing in full sunlight are sweet basil, chives, dill, and coriander. Individually and combined, these herbs will contribute to the enjoyment of many culinary dishes. Even the scented leaves of lavender may be added to salads, exotic jams, and jellies, or dried in tea to provide a fragrantly warming drink with a mild sedatory effect.
Ideally, the choice of individual herbs and their arrangement should reflect some aspect of the gardener’s interests and personality. An artistic arrangement based on subtle harmonies of texture and colour might well include small and medium size pots containing lemongrass, orris, tarragon, and aloe vera. On account of their aromatic and volatile constituents, freshly cut, dried, and living herbs can be used to influence the emotions.
From their reputation and documentation throughout history, several herbs are clearly associated with religious and spiritual practice. Establishing potted herbs like bergamot, chamomile, and sage near a doorway or sheltered balcony can help to promote a calm state of contemplative awareness. Herbs which possess energetic and invigorating properties include basil, coriander, ginger, mustard, and turmeric. Individuals with a passion for craft may enjoy experimenting with scented mixtures of dried herbs. When bunches of dried lavender are sewn within miniature pillows, they can be decorated and used to freshen any enclosed space. When taken to bed, lavender scented pillows help to promote relaxation and sleep.
A few organic growers continue to avoid raising herbs in pots, usually because they require additional mineral supplements and feeding several times each year. While there is less opportunity to incorporate large quantities of organic material, the basic principles of soil improvement still apply to container gardening. There is no reason why a garden of potted herbs should not be integrated into the wider environment.
Thoughtful recycling is an important component of the organic philosophy and its practical approach to gardening. Rather than wastefully discarding herb clippings and other organic scraps from the kitchen, these can be converted into a valuable organic supplement which is used to enrich soils and promote productivity. A worm farm can be started from scratch or purchased as a kit from an organic nursery, hardware store, or council depot. Worms require a moist and cool environment and small amounts of food offered frequently. Unless there is a problem, active worm farms are relatively odourless. If an unpleasant smell occurs, the worms have probably been overfed, causing their undigested food scraps to decay. This process is accelerated in warm conditions, so ensure there is sufficient shade to protect the worms and discourage unwanted decay. The complete kits contain detailed information about bedding and feeding worms along with instructions on gathering the vermicast and liquid compost.