Get down and dirty in the garden
Reprinted by permission of Sierra Club Books from Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy, copyright (c) 2010.
An herb garden can be a small gem in a larger setting or the focus of your entire landscape—it’s up to you. If you’re new to herb gardening or have a limited area, a small garden is the way to go. Chapter 8 and Appendix C cover all the details about growing in containers; here I wanted to inspire you with a doable weekend project that allows you to grow the common culinary herbs in one small area.
A few years back, I saw a barrel-on-barrel herb tower in a magazine—a brilliant concept featuring a smaller wooden barrel sitting atop a larger one. The two barrels give more surface area for the herbs to spill from and a lot more soil to hold nutrients and water, and root room for all the extra herbs. It is such a great way to grow plenty of herbs in a small space; you don’t even have to lean over to plant or harvest. Whether you live on country acreage, on a suburban lot, or in a condominium, this weekend project can provide you with enough fresh herbs to bring your cooking to a whole new level—all within reach of your kitchen. A word of caution: this is much too heavy to put on a deck, balcony, porch, or roof.
To avoid soil compaction and subsequent bad drainage, I set filler material—a mass of 1-inch-diameter and wider twigs (or use pieces of Styrofoam or upside-down 1-gallon plastic nursery containers) in the bottom quarter of the barrel. And to prevent the top barrel from tilting or compacting the soil in the bottom barrel, I placed a couple of 2 by 4s, each 2 feet long, on the soil in the bottom barrel to distribute the weight of the top barrel and keep it level.
I chose chives, thyme, and creeping winter savory for the top barrel. You can use them or your favorite small herbs like dwarf basil, German chamomile, curly parsley, or chervil. In the bottom barrel I planted larger herbs—oregano, French tarragon, ‘Thai’ and sweet basils, sage, and lemon thyme—to cascade out the front. Italian parsley, rosemary, any basil, and lavender are also great choices.
Depending on where you live, you can find wooden wine or whiskey barrels at most nurseries and home improvement stores (see “Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Patio Garden” in Chapter 8). Or you could use a very large terra-cotta or recycled plastic container on the bottom and a smaller matching container on top. If you are going to use drip irrigation as I did (it is the most efficient way to water), you’ll need to connect your line to a nearby water source.
I grow must-have herbs that do well in most of the country. A smaller barrel (with chives, winter savory, and thyme) nests atop an outsized whiskey barrel with ‘Thai’ and sweet basils, oregano, lemon thyme, French tarragon, and sage.
Photograph copyright (c) by Rosalind Creasy
• Drill with 1/2-inch drill bit
• Large barrel, 42 inch wide, 24 inch tall
• Small barrel, 30 inch wide, 17 inch tall
• Filler material
• Soilless potting mix, 3 to 4 bags, each 2 cubic feet
• All-purpose organic fertilizer
• Homemade compost, worm castings, compost tea, or other source of microbes
• 2 boards (common framing lumber, not pressure treated), 2 by 4s, each 2 feet long
• Herb plants
• 1/2-inch solid distribution tubing, cut to length as needed
• 1/4-inch solid distribution tubing, cut to length as needed
• 1/4-inch tubing with laser cuts or in-line emitters spaced every 6 inch, 20 to 30 feet
• 1/2-inch end cap
• 1 bag of 1/4-inch connector barbs, tees, and goof plugs
• 12 or so irrigation stakes (look like giant hairpins)
• Organic compost for mulch
1. To ensure good drainage, drill eight 1/2-in. holes, evenly spaced, in bottom of both barrels. Set large barrel in place and add filler material to bottom quarter of barrel.
2. Fill barrel to within 1 in. of rim with soilless potting mix. Add fertilizer (following package directions) and compost, worm castings, or other bacterially active material; incorporate into top few inches of mix. Add more mix if necessary.
3. Center and set 2 by 4s on top of soil and level them. Place small barrel on 2 by 4s; level it and fill barrel following step 2.
4. Plant herbs in both barrels.
5. Connect 1/2-in. solid distribution tubing to closest water source; run it to barrels.
6. Insert 1/4-in. solid distribution tubing into 1/2-in. solid distribution tubing using connector barb; then run 1/2-in. solid distribution tubing up back and to first barrel.
7. Measure two lengths of 1/4-in. emitter tubing, equal to twice inside circumference of each barrel. Insert 1/4-in. tee into 1/4-in. solid distribution tubing. On one side of tee, connect emitter tubing and run it up to top barrel; loop it twice around base of plants. Connect another length of emitter tubing on other side of tee and loop it twice around base of plants in bottom barrel. Secure all tubing with irrigation stakes.
8. Run irrigation system and flush out any debris in line; plug ends of emitter tubing with goof plugs.
9. Apply few inches of mulch over soil and work it around plants. Gently wet entire surface of soil using spray nozzle on garden hose. Repeat watering at least three times to make sure soil is completely soaked. Keep soil moist but not soggy for next few weeks until herbs are established and start to put out new growth. Once plants are growing well, use drip irrigation system.
Once this garden is established, you’ll see that you get a real bang for your buck. As your tastes expand, you can experiment with new annual herbs each year (or seasonally), while the hardy perennial herbs are the mainstays of this garden and will live for many years in most climates.