From Gardener to Go (Sharyn Caudell) some pointers on growing herbs in containers. For other gardening information you’ll find “Tip of the Month” at her website.
Herbs are wonderful addition to any garden. They are beautiful plants and everyone knows that fresh herbs add so much to cooking. Many of our herbs are Mediterranean in origin. This means they grow in thin, often rocky soils in a hot summer climate with no rain in the summers. Central North Carolina has the hot summers and one of the best ways to provide the other conditions is to grow them in containers. Herbs will languish with ‘wet feet’ so good drainage is essential.
If you have sandy, well-drained soils in your garden, you can probably grow them directly in the ground. For the rest of us, choose a large container. Some folks use flue tiles which are made of terra cotta. These are available from building supply stores. Place the tiles upright on the ground and fill with a good soilless mix such as a high-quality potting mix. You want a potting soil that does not compress to a wet mix. Several good brands are Fafard, MetroMix, Pro-Mix, Sunshine Mix and others (these are professional mixes). If you can’t find those, look for a potting soil that does not contain moisture-retaining granules; this type is great for hanging baskets that you don’t want to water constantly but not herbs. Try lifting the bag. It should feel light for its size. Some potting soils are very heavy in the bag and will be too dense and wet for herbs. You can mix perlite with the soil to improve the drainage. (Perlite improves aeration and drainage; vermiculite holds water so read the bags carefully!) Do not add Styrofoam peanuts or pebbles or anything in the bottom of the pot to improve the drainage; it doesn’t work. Soils drain by capillary action between the small pieces of the soil (think of a very thin straw). Adding items in the bottom of the pot shortens the capillary ‘straw’ and holds more moisture in the pot. To keep the soil from washing out of the pot, line with a sheet of newspaper, window screening, landscape fabric or several coffee filters. These will hold the soil in place while the roots form. It is a good idea to mix in some dolomitic limestone with potting soil.
Herbs need 4 to 6 hours or more of sun per day. Try to pick a spot that is easily accessible from the kitchen so you will use your herbs. Herbs require moderate water so you don’t have to tend these daily. Some good herbs to start with are parsley, chives, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary and sage. Parsley is a biennial plant—it sets seed its second year and then dies. Basil in an annual that needs replanted every year. Chives, thyme, oregano and sage are perennials. Rosemary is a shrub with lovely small blue flowers in the spring. There are small varieties that will do better in a container. Dill and cilantro will grow well in the spring and fall but will bolt, flower, set seed and die in our summer heat. Pruning off the flowers or dead-heading will keep your herbs growing longer. Herbs require little fertilizing. It is better to be very sparing of fertilizer than to have lush growth that may be damaged in the winter. You can always add a bit more fertilizer if you need it. Most herbs will be fine with no fertilizer for the first year.
You can grow chives and parsley in a vegetable garden easily. French tarragon is a wonderful herb that doesn’t do well in our summers. You can substitute Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida) instead. This is actually a marigold that grows to 3-plus feet and has yellow flowers. Use the leaves as you would tarragon. It is an annual. There is a substitute for celery that is a perennial: cutting celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum). It grows 12-15 inches and has a wonderful celery flavor but not the long stalks of regular celery. It is an evergreen and will self seed.
In general, deer don’t like herbs because of their strong flavors or smells but a really hungry white-tail will eat almost anything. Don’t use pesticides on your herbs. The black and yellow caterpillars of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly will devour your parsley, dill and fennel plants but the leaves will grow back.
There are many other herbs that have been used medicinally or for dyes that are grown in our gardens for their beauty. Browse the herb section at your garden center or find a book on the subject. You will enhance your garden and your table by growing herbs.
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