Garden Design: Transform your Wheelbarrow into an Herb Planter

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Try planting different lavender varieties in your new garden wheelbarrow.
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Freshly planted parsley, basil, mint, rosemary, and lemon balm make a tiny, touchable, very fragrant garden.
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Try planting different lavender varieties in your new garden wheelbarrow.

Do you have one of those squeaky, creaky, rusty little red wagons—a useless childhood remnant gathering dust in a cluttered storeroom but nonetheless too loaded with memories ever to discard? Or perhaps an old wheel­-barrow that delivered good service for many years but now sits neglected in a corner of the garage, long since replaced by a newer model? Bring them out of retirement and give them a second life as pretty little portable herb gardens.

Consider the practicality of a traveling garden that takes very little time, money, or space to set up, yet can ­provide a steady harvest of clippings for ­salads and garnishes. You can plant a lot of herbs in an average-sized wheelbarrow. Perfect to park on a porch, deck, or patio, it’s always maneuverable. Wheel it into the garage during hailstorms, or into the house when a freeze threatens, or onto a porch to protect it from a downpour. Push it around the yard to find exactly the right sun ­exposure from one season to the next or to give the plants a cool respite when the weather reaches fever pitch in early August.

A roving garnish patch? Just roll your wheelbarrow over to the picnic table and let guests clip their own choice of fresh herbs to toss into their salads or on top of their hamburgers. Pull this garden over to the faucet when you ­misplace your watering can. If no stairs stand in the way, you can even wheel it right into the kitchen when you’re ­fixing a big salad or having friends over to build a pizza. Wherever you end up parking it, it’s sure to make you smile.

Imagine It

Planting choices for this kind of garden seem infinite. Try an assortment of the classic, indispensable, utterly snippable culinary herbs that you want to have close at hand, such as ­parsley, oregano, rosemary, chives, ­marjoram, thyme, sage, and others. Many herbs lend themselves nicely to container gardening, and the ­diversity of their shapes, textures, and colors combine wonderfully in one compact garden like this. If you park the garden where you’ll use it often, the constant harvesting will keep the plants healthy and limited to a manageable size.

Or how about a bright and cheerful wheelbarrow full of edible flowers, ready for the picking? Nasturtiums, ­pansies, chives, basil, ‘Lemon Gem’ marigolds, violets, and lavender are only a few of the possibilities. Plant a wagon with a variety of tender lettuces; by ­moving the wagon to a sheltered spot to avoid extremes of blazing sun, hail, or hard frosts, you can extend your ­harvest season. Or try a collection of exotic flavored basils, which love warmth but are highly sensitive to cold. They’ll benefit from your careful attention as summer wanes; move your wagon or barrow to a sunny spot inside at the first hint of temperatures below 45°F.

You could make this garden on wheels home to a favorite mint that you harvest for tea. Growing mint in a ­container will keep it from running rampant in the garden bed, reason enough to fill your wagon with an ­entire spectrum of mints, including familiar spearmint and peppermint as well as every citrus variety, mints with smooth leaves and those with crisped ones, green foliage as well as variegated leaves. To prevent the most vigorous growers from overrunning the more timid ones, a separate container within the wagon for each kind will ensure ­harmony among the root systems.

A traveling container garden is a handy, easy way to fill in the color lulls that occur in any garden after the tops of the spring bulbs have died back but before the annuals have picked up speed, or after you’ve cut back the perennials and found yourself with bare spots. Fill up a red wheelbarrow with bright yellow flowers, then wheel it to any spot in the garden that needs brightening up.

It’s also fun to plant a wagon or wheelbarrow with a mini-theme in mind, which could easily change from one growing season to the next, accord­ing to whim and whimsy. Herbs for teas, lemon herbs, a collection of thymes or pansies, a color scheme, a little garden for the fairies, plants mentioned in the Bible—or whatever you want. Put in one type of herb or a dozen.

This garden can be dismantled even more easily than it goes together. If you get tired of the combination you’ve chosen, wheel the garden over to the ­compost pile, dump it, and plant something else.

Planting and Tending

Even if you don’t have any of these conveyances sitting around unused or if your children aren’t ready to give them up yet, it’s easy to find old wheelbarrows, wagons, and carts in flea ­markets and at yard sales. The old beat-up ones have plenty of character and blend easily into many an informal garden ­setting. Generally, a wheelbarrow will give your plants more root room than the average shallow wagon, but both come in a wide range of sizes and shapes.

You will want to dedicate your vehicle to garden use because you’ll need to put holes in the bottom to ensure that the soil drains properly. This is ­essential to maintaining a healthy, ­vigorous little container garden. With a drill or a hammer and a stout nail, make plenty of drainage holes—two dozen or so—to prevent soggy soil. Wash down the wagon or wheelbarrow with soapy water to which you’ve added a dash of bleach, then hose it off with plain water. Besides removing the grime of the ages, this treatment will help prevent disease.

Choose a good, porous potting soil or soilless potting medium—or mix your own using compost, peat moss, and/or coarse vermiculite together with perlite. The first three of these ingredients tend to hold moisture whereas perlite speeds drainage. Don’t use soil from your garden, which is generally too heavy and compacts too readily for container gardening. Potted plants need a faster-draining medium than garden soil. Moistening the potting medium slightly before you fill the wheelbarrow or wagon will minimize transplant shock and will ensure that not much of it falls out of the drainage holes in the bottom. Don’t place rocks, gravel, or pottery shards in the bottom; they just take up space and don’t improve drainage.

Position your plants where you want them, tamp the soil firmly around them, filling the container with potting medium to within an inch or two of the top, then water them in well. Don’t be afraid to crowd the plants a bit in a deep wheelbarrow—you can always move a few out if they outgrow the space.

Like any other container garden, this one will demand fairly frequent watering and fertilizing. How often you water will depend on how much exposure it gets to sun and wind, the weather and humidity, the kind of plants you use, and other factors. You’ll need to check it daily in the summertime, perhaps even more often if the weather is hot and windy. Container gardens warm up and dry out more quickly than garden soil, and they’re entirely dependent on the gardener for their needs. Every other week or so, apply a weak solution of all-purpose liquid fertilizer, fish ­emulsion, or manure tea. Weeds are not likely to be a problem, especially if you use a soilless mix; you can easily pull out the few that do show up.

Whichever plants you choose, don’t mix shade-loving herbs and flowers with those that require full sun in the same wheelbarrow or wagon. No matter where you place the container, you won’t be getting the best show from ­either type of plants. Most culinary herbs usually prefer full sun, but in hot climates they appreciate a bit of afternoon shade. If you notice that plants seem to be leaning toward the sun, ­rotate the container a quarter-turn every week or so to ensure that they grow more symmetrically.

Where winters are mild, you can keep your container garden going year round, renewing the annuals after they’ve passed their prime with new ones or starting over with all new plants or a new theme. In colder climates, if you want to try to overwinter your ­container garden outside, remove any annuals in the autumn and fill in the holes with soil mix. Prune back the other plants so that they don’t touch the rim or sides of the wheelbarrow or wagon. Move it to the most sheltered part of your yard. When cold weather hits and stays, cover the plants with evergreen branches (recycled Christmas tree boughs work fine) for protection against repeated thawing and refreezing. The weather, the hardiness of the plants, and the size of the wagon or wheelbarrow will determine how many of your plants make it through the ­winter. You could also wheel it into an unheated garage or ­indoors for the ­winter.

Just For Fun

This kind of a garden is a wonderful project to work on with children because they can handle much of it ­themselves. Kids usually love the feel and scent of herbs, and a wheelbarrow gives them their own space in which to ­nurture a love of gardening. Let the children choose the plants, plant them, do the watering and tending, and harvest their own herbs and flowers. With an adult on hand to drill the drainage holes, a garden can be set up on a Saturday morning. The kids may be so proud of their little garden that they will want to take their wagon for a stroll around the block to show it off.

For that matter, a wagon or wheelbarrow garden is good for beginning gardeners of all ages. People with limited space or time in which to garden can enjoy a wagonful of herbs on their porch or sidewalk. What a fine gift a garden like this might be for elderly or disabled people who lack the mobility to garden the way they once did; it can be positioned anywhere, and the herbs are raised up to a height that makes them more accessible even to the wheelchair-bound.

Container gardening is the most ­versatile kind of gardening there is. Anything that will hold soil can be home to an herb garden. The bigger, the better—that’s the rule for almost any container garden, but the drawback of large containers is their weight. Once filled with soil, they become immovable, too heavy to lift or move around easily. Putting container gardens on wheels can solve that problem.

Kathleen Halloran is editor of The Herb Companion. She has worn out a wheelbarrow or two in her garden in Laporte, Colorado.

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