Perhaps you’ve bought a little herb plant from the corner garden center, along with a bag of potting mix. You’ve found a good-sized container for it, and you’re ready to get started. Is there a right or a wrong way to stick that plant in its pot?
Although perhaps obvious to experienced gardeners, there are some guidelines for potting up an herb and getting it off to the best start possible, some dos and don’ts that may be helpful. Let’s noodle around this topic.
• Be sure the pot’s clean. Sure, you’re just going to get it dirty again, but if the pot had a previous inhabitant, you don’t want the newcomer to inherit any disease or pest problems still lingering in the dirt that clings to the sides. Soaking the pot in a diluted bleach solution (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) will do the trick. While you’re at it, you might as well clean all those empty, used pots sitting on the sidelines. The bathtub works fine for this task.
• Don’t put clay shards or gravel in the bottom of the pot, thinking it will improve drainage. That’s a myth. It doesn’t; in fact, it has the opposite effect, as water has a tendency to cling to the smaller particles in the soil rather than moving through it. You don’t want to impede the flow of water through the pot, as drainage is crucial to success, at least for most herbs, so don’t cover up those drainage holes. The manufacturer puts them there for a reason, and you’ll notice that the pros at garden centers don’t cover the holes.
• Don’t worry about the potting mix falling out of the bottom of the pot though the holes. You can prevent this by moistening the potting mix first. You may lose a little through the holes, but the potting mix and the plant will settle down quickly, and this won’t be an ongoing problem. I promise.
• Take the little plant out of its nursery container. Squeezing the sides or tapping the bottom usually will make it roll right out; if it doesn’t, run a knife along the inside edge to free it. Loosen the dirt around the root ball and spread out those roots if you can. If the plant has become root-bound from being in its pot too long, you can trim the dried roots back to encourage new growth, by up to about a third of their length.
• Put some moistened potting mix in the bottom of the pot and hold the new plant in position while you fill in around it, ensuring that the roots are surrounded by potting mix and tamping down the soil as you go so that there are no air holes. Don’t fill it to the rim with potting mix; leave some headroom, as you don’t want the mix to spill out over the sides when you water. Press down gently but firmly on the surface so all the roots are making good contact with the potting mix.
• Water thoroughly, checking to make sure the pot is draining freely.
• Put the newly potted herb where it is to grow. If indoors, it needs a drainage tray, and be sure the tray is big enough that the overflow won’t spill onto a carpet or sill.
• Clean up your mess and enjoy your new herb.
Can you put more than one herb or more than one kind of herb together in one pot? Sure! As long as the plants have similar cultural needs and light requirements, they’ll live together fine, and slightly overcrowding them will produce a lush, billowing little potted garden even faster.
One herb comes to mind immediately as especially appropriate for container gardening in the holiday season, whether for a centerpiece on the coffee table or a sentry on the front porch: the handsome rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). It is one of the most fragrant of all herbs, and when you brush past it, it gives off a cloud of heavenly, rich, comforting piney scent.
As Shakespeare’s Ophelia tells us, rosemary is for remembrance, and it is steeped in tradition, which adds poignancy beyond its sterling culinary, medicinal and fragrance crafting properties. Tradition holds that it was one of the herbs that softened baby Jesus’ manger. It blooms in the winter with tiny blue flowers; legend tells us that the flowers took on the color of the cloak of the Virgin Mary when she hung it on a hedge of rosemary as she fled Herod with her newborn child. Rosemary was believed to grow no more than 6 feet in 33 years — the height of Christ when he died. Maud Grieve, in A Modern Herbal (1971), says rosemary was long considered a traditional New Year’s gift.
With adequate drainage, bright light and careful watering to ensure that the roots don’t rot, rosemary can live in a container, and in fact, it must be overwintered in a container in most parts of the country because the species is hardy only to about Zone 8. It also lends itself to topiary, so you can shape it into a tabletop Christmas tree (or you can buy it pruned that way) and decorate it with twinkling lights.
Cultivated varieties of rosemary abound, giving you lots of variety in scent (from camphorous to piney to lemony), leaf color (grayish to bright green), growth habit (upright or creeping), flower color (white and pink, in addition to an array of blues) and hardiness (named varieties can extend its hardiness range to about Zone 5 or 6, if kept in a protected spot).
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, grows potted herbs in Las Vegas, where she is a freelance writer and editor.