Container Gardening Essentials
The satisfaction of a bountiful garden at summer’s end is a fine thing, but when those plants embody memories of loved ones and other gardens and gardeners you’ve met along the way, “satisfaction” seems too pale a word. Let’s talk, rather, of passion and joy and a grand tradition among gardeners — the pass-along plant.
As someone who has recently moved and has dirt again after more than five years of gardening strictly in containers, I’m overwhelmed at the generous spirit of gardeners. When I admire a spectacular plant in a neighbor’s yard, more than likely the response is “Want one?” A snip of scissors and an outstretched hand, and then I have a cutting to take home and nurture to maturity in my own garden. Next year, when a visitor admires it in my garden, I can say “Want one?” and pass it on. And the gardening-karma train chugs on its way.
Karmic questions aside, an array of practical aspects abound in this open-handedness. The most obvious benefit is that you always know where to get another one should you lose that plant in your own garden, whether to fickle weather, foraging rabbits or stampeding kids. That’s insurance, and a lovely kind of symmetry.
Don’t forget the value of public relations: Herbs are the best bribes. Even if the recipient isn’t a gardener, maybe he or she is a cook, or has migraine headaches, or likes your mint tea and lemon balm cookies. By giving him or her a useful little herb, you’ve contributed something positive to that person and he or she likes you. Now how useful is that?
We gardeners are oftentimes scroungers, particularly when starting a new garden or bed. Who wants to buy expensive fertilizer, for example, if you can find someone who has it to spare? I must admit I cultivated a friend with horses by taking her little pots of herbs, while casting a calculating eye at her enviable manure pile. It worked, and I now have an unlimited supply of fertilizer to heat up my compost pile, as well as a new friend. Every time I take a few bags of manure, I leave a little herb on her porch. (Lately I’ve been eyeing some flat rocks strewn about her pasture, thinking about my need for some garden stepping stones. See how I am?)
PLANT IN PORTABLE POTS
The moral of this story is that containers are as useful to me now as ever. I’ve saved every single plastic pot and recycled them endlessly, so I always have plenty of containers for seed germination and rooting cuttings. I keep a few empty containers in the trunk of my car, just in case someone wants to pass any plants my way. I root many cuttings because I enjoy the process and want to learn which herbs can be propagated this way, because it gives me lots of inexpensive plants for my garden, and because it gives me plenty of extras to pass along.
To take a cutting, choose a plant that is healthy and growing. Fill a container with potting mix and insert a pencil to form a hole. With a sharp knife or scissors, cut a stem about 3 to 4 inches from the growing tip (not a woody stem). Remove the lower leaves, dip the stem into a container of rooting hormone to coat the end, then stick it into the prepared container. Firm up the potting mix around the stem and water well.
Keep the potting mix in the container uniformly moist, best accomplished if it’s placed in a bright, protected spot out of direct sunlight. This is a waiting game, as some herbs root from cuttings more readily than others, and some just rot or shrivel up before they ever strike a root. But if you see the stem starting to form new leaves and shoots, you know it has roots and is ready to plant or pass on.
Unlike the anonymous plants on banks of flats outside discount superstores, pass-along plants have associations and stories attached to them. When I walk through my new garden in the morning with my first cup of coffee, it already seems peopled by friendly spirits. I like to imagine that somewhere here in this garden is a pass-along plant that started in the Garden of Eden.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer and editor who lives and gardens in Austin, Texas.