Container Gardening Essentials
An herb gardener whose entire garden is in containers often must take a backseat to a gardener with dirt, in terms of plant growth and variety. But we container gardeners have one clear, undisputed advantage: We can move our potted herbs and houseplants around on a whim.
At this time of year when the seasons change and the weather is due to warm up, if it hasn’t already, think about taking your herbal houseplants on safari to a sheltered spot in the backyard or on a porch. After a winter indoors, chances are good your houseplants are as tired of being cooped up inside as you are. And they probably show it, with spindly stems and leaves dropping off and perhaps an infestation of spider mites. They need a vacation.
Indoors, plants get accustomed to the lower light conditions and drier air of a home heated in the wintertime, and when thrust suddenly into a different world, they protest, sometimes to the point of shriveling up and dying.
So the most critical part of freeing your plants from their winter imprisonment is to give them time to get accustomed to the change. Wait until the spring weather has stabilized and is done with the freeze-thaw cycles that dominate this season in many parts of the country. Cut back any weary or diseased foliage to focus the plant’s energies on new growth. Then do the move gradually, if you can.
Sometimes houseplants that have grown into comfortable, large pots are too heavy to move easily, so it’s impractical to move them in and out every day the way we do with seedlings when we harden them off in preparation for planting. But the idea is the same: Gradually increase their exposure to the harsh outdoor environment to give them time to cope. If you can, move them first for a few days to a protected spot, like a shaded porch, then to a shady spot outdoors, perhaps under a tree canopy or large shrub. Then gradually scoot them to where you want them, where they get enough sunlight to thrive but are still protected from the vagaries of life outdoors.
Gradually help potted plants become accustomed to life outdoors and be considerate of their water and nutrient limitations.
Positioning them in dappled shape under the canopy of a tree is perfect for many potted herbs because the plants will get the gentler light of mornings and evenings, when the sun is closer to the horizon, but be protected from the stronger, harsher light of the afternoon sun overhead.
A potted plant has its limitations, so is usually more comfortable in less sun. Pay a little more attention to its needs, at least in the beginning. Keep the potting soil uniformly moist after you move it to its vacation spot, until you see what it can handle. Turn it if need be so that it gets sun on all sides and grows evenly.
Grouping outdoor potted plants together in a sheltered spot makes it easier to water them, and sometimes the lawn sprinkler can handle that duty. Generally, you can dispense with the drainage trays and let the water flow out the bottom of the pots, but be aware of some plants’ tendency to send their roots right out the drainage holes into the earth so that by summer’s end they’re no longer moveable. Lemon verbena comes to mind as a plant that can sustain damage if you have to rip its roots out to move it, so that one I’d position on a sidewalk or on bricks, or leave it on a drainage tray. For most herbs, this isn’t a problem.
After a housebound plant has settled into its vacation spot, give it a dollop of manure tea or other organic fertilizer to encourage new growth. (See “Plants Need Tea, Too!” in our July 2004 issue and if you don’t have it, order the issue by calling (785) 274-4354 or view the story online at www.Herb
Companion.com). If over time, in its enthusiasm for the great outdoors, the plant gets too big for its old pot, repot it in a bigger pot.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, likes potted herbs because in recent years she has moved around a bit.