Mother Earth Living

The Pot Spot: Container Herb Gardening

By Kathleen Halloran
August/September 2003
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Sidebar: Homemade Hypertufa Pots 

Container herb gardening is satisfying whether you keep them on the patio, indoors under lights or on a windowsill, or in the garden to complement the landscape. There’s always a spot for another pot.

Containers are such an easy way to garden, and many herbs lend themselves to life in a pot. Whether you’re living in a space that doesn’t allow a garden, you’re concerned about your water bill, you want to trial plants before you give them space in the garden, or you like maneuverability and easy maintenance (and no weeds!), containers may be the answer for your herb habit — or at least part of the answer.

Let’s start with the pot — why not? The type of pot you choose to use may be determined by your climate, the needs of the plant, aesthetic concerns or what’s on hand at the time a plant needs repotting. Almost any kind of container will work — whether it’s an old red wagon or half a whisky barrel — as long as it has adequate drainage and enough space for roots.

If a container is nonporous and doesn’t have drainage holes, drill some, or use the container for something else. Your container must drain freely; that’s rule number one, at least for the majority of herbs. Many, if not most, of the culinary herbs that grow so well in containers require good drainage to survive; soggy roots can mean untimely death for many of the culinary herbs that hail from the dry Mediterranean region. Creativity always takes a backseat to practicality when it comes to drainage.

To allow the water to run through the soil, every container in the house must have a saucer to catch the overflow, and the gardener must water carefully. Outdoors, if you’re able to situate that container in a spot where the water can drain freely out the bottom, you’ve made the job of watering a lot more carefree.

Clay vs. Plastic

When you buy a pot, your first choice is generally clay or plastic. Many people prefer terra-cotta pots because of their practicality, low cost and availability, their natural look and the patina they develop outside over time. Clay pots wick excess water out of the soil, improving drainage.

When you use a clay pot, soak it in water first before you pot a new plant in it.

In dry climates such as the West, where water is crucial, plastic containers may be a better bet because they don’t release moisture through the walls.

Clay pots are quite heavy in large sizes, particularly with the additional weight of soil and water, so they’re not as practical as lightweight plastic. Because plants have a better chance of survival in a bigger pot (no smaller than 12 or 14 inches), the weight of the pot and its contents, as well as how moveable it is, may be a factor in the clay versus plastic question. There are many attractive plastic and faux-stone tub-sized pots available for reasonable prices at garden centers.

Terra-cotta pots can deteriorate or break over time, particularly if they’re overwintered outside. Plastic ones are quite durable, but avoid black and other dark colors, which can heat up in summer sun and cook the roots of your herbs.

Wooden containers, including half whiskey barrels, are attractive and allow excellent drainage, but eventually the bottoms rot out and they have to be replaced.

Stone and concrete planters are terrific, but they’re so heavy that they’re usually permanent fixtures in public places. A lighter, less expensive option is hypertufa, which is made from scratch with portland cement, peat moss, vermiculite and Fibermesh and shaped into stonelike containers. These are sturdy and long-lasting, with their own rough brand of rustic charm, and they drain well. They’re easy to make, although the process is messy.  Herbs just love hypertufa and you will too if you’re looking for a late-summer project to involve the kids or grandkids.

Pot Spotlight

If you take on this project and end up with a new hypertufa pot, perhaps you’re ready to make it a home for some lucky herb or two. Need a timely suggestion? Thyme! The wide-ranging Thymus genus offers many options for the gardener who wants flavor, fragrance, flowers and medicine all in one pot. Thyme is a good choice for hypertufa because without the good drainage that this kind of container allows, it’s susceptible to root rot and fungal diseases. It combines well with many other culinary plants of Mediterranean origin.

 


Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, grows potted herbs in Las Vegas, where she is a freelance writer and editor. 


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