When I first started writing this column, I lived on one acre in Colorado with an ever-growing herb/flower/vegetable garden. Life changes (if you’re lucky), and so does gardening. Now I live in a condo in Las Vegas, which lies in an extraordinary valley where three deserts merge. It’s one of the hottest, driest urban areas in the United States, with sizzling summer days when you could slow-roast a turkey on the sidewalk. I still grow herbs — I’ll never give that up — but I don’t garden in the same way.
In the desert West, water is life. The price tag on that spigot is high, not only in dollars but also in terms of environmental concerns. Maintaining a big water-sucking garden here can be an exercise in frustration and foolishness. I turned to container gardening on my patio, and I’d like to share some general tips with you, because in a ferocious climate like this one, you can lose a lot of plants along the way.
Many of our most beloved herbs originally sprang from the hot, dry, rocky region of the Mediterranean, so they’re naturals for a water-wise garden (see Page 30 for more water-efficient gardening tips). And many will grow happily in containers, providing the small but steady harvesting that enlivens every meal. The containers not only save on the water bill, but they let you grow herbs in whatever space you have available in a modern urban setting.
Things to keep in mind
• Take cues from the landscaping in your area. Here in Vegas, for example, the local garden stores don’t put rosemary plants in the herb section; rosemary is found with the landscaping plants. That’s one herb that thrives in this bright, dry environment, spilling over rock walls and filling in spaces between bedding plants — and it makes the transition to a pot readily. This fragrant, fairly tender perennial is very satisfying to me because I could seldom over-winter it in my Colorado garden.
• Use big containers—the bigger the better. Those cute windowsill-sized 4-inch pots are worthless. You must give your plants a big, vigorous root system to withstand the rigors of a pot-bound summer on the patio. I prefer to combine herbs in large, plastic, lightweight tubs, which give them root room and let me play with different combinations of color, texture and form. I don’t use any pots smaller than 12 or 14 inches.
• Pay attention. Container gardens need a watchful eye at all times, so this is a commitment of sorts. On a summer day in Vegas, those plants can dry up and keel over before you’ve finished breakfast. A larger container has more dirt and can absorb more water — another reason that the size of a container is crucial. But even in large containers, my potted herbs need water daily in the spring, two or three times a day as the summer heats up.
Container plants are also dependent on their keepers for all food and nutrients, which wash out readily with all the water they’re getting, so it’s important to fertilize them regularly.
• Make sure your plant setup is stable. The Las Vegas valley is subject to high winds whipping through the landscape, wreaking havoc and sucking water out of the potting mix faster than you can pour it on. I have wind chimes on my patio so I always know when the wind picks up and threatens damage.
• With container gardening, it helps to admit to yourself that you can’t grow everything. A tap-rooted herb such as dill, for example, resents transplanting and doesn’t grow well in a container. As much as I love freshly snipped dill on cottage cheese, I’ve given up on it. Choose your plants carefully, and keep your mind open to some trial and error.
Just because you’ve killed a plant doesn’t mean that you can’t try it again in a different location or a bigger pot or with a little more attention. I don’t generally give up on a plant until I’ve killed it three times.
Fortunately, there are many, many herbs to grow and know, and many ways to do so. My patio-sized “green patch” is even more precious, inch for inch, than my acre of herbs, and the ability to “containerize” this hobby and passion of mine intrigues me.
In future issues of The Herb Companion, look for a new column from me on the joys and frustrations of the potted herb garden, with lots of specific how-to help for container gardeners in all regions of the country. We’ll turn “Green Patch” over to another columnist, someone whose problems don’t include 120-degree summer days.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer focusing on gardening and health.