Container Gardening Essentials
A single potted herb can be the start of a lifelong hobby. That’s the way it started for me — one pot of basil on a rooftop deck. I have discovered many times since then that containers are a wonderful way to introduce anyone, especially a child, to the joys of gardening.
Why a container? Some people honestly think that it takes some magical green thumb to grow a plant. There is no such thing. If you take care of a plant, it grows, no matter what color your thumbs are. Containers are easy and much less intimidating than a garden plot that needs to be weeded and tended, and where many other factors can play a role in success or failure.
Why an herb? Sometimes the simple beauty of a flower is enticement enough to hook a young person into a healthy habit of gardening, but sometimes you need an extra little push. An herb is, by definition, a useful plant, and that usefulness is what gave me, when I was starting, someplace further to go with my newfound fascination with a growing thing. I could not only grow it, but I could learn about its history in cultures all over the world, about all kinds of uses, old-fashioned and new-fangled, for this bit of green.
And, hey, I could even eat it. I can still remember the taste of my first grilled cheese sandwich with sliced tomatoes and fresh basil, a simple delight that still brings a rush of nostalgia for me. At the time, I was building a career, busy exploring the possibilities of life, and didn’t have the time or the inclination for a garden. But my pot of basil? That was something else entirely.
Before I knew it, I had pots of three different basils, a parsley plant and a book about herbs. When I filled up the rooftop, I had to buy a house and a garden. And now, so many years later, I know that gardening is one of the most satisfying hobbies I could ever have.
GIVE A LITTLE NUDGE
Do you have a curious child in your life? It takes so little to get started. All that child needs is a pot, some potting soil, a seedling, small plant or seed pack from the corner nursery, and some encouragement. With a few minutes of your time, you can show a child the proper way to pot it up and water it in, and then let the child choose where to keep it, in a spot that gets lots of sunshine where it won’t be forgotten and neglected.
Talk to the child about what it takes to make the plant grow, how the potting soil can’t be too dry or too wet, and how to check to see if it needs water by sticking a little finger into the soil to test it. It should be checked up on every day, but children often need to be warned about the pitfalls of too much attention — in other words, watering it when it doesn’t need it. Another lesson down the road would be fertilizing, and that’s a good time to plant the idea of avoiding chemicals and using organic solutions.
Here are some suggestions of plants that are good starters for young gardeners, being fast-growing, easy to care for, successful growing in containers and interesting in a variety of ways.
• Basil. With many cultivars to choose from,
none is better than the classic Genovese green, a sweet basil with
a big leaf, bright color and distinctive basil taste.
• Calendula. This perky orange flower, looking like a sunflower with its ray petals, is sure to delight a youngster. It is grown easily from seed and is a prolific bloomer. It will produce flowers to spare for cut flowers or to brighten up a meal.
• Violets. Another edible flower, this pretty thing grows in more shaded areas and needs more moisture. The lesson here is that different plants have different needs, and if you want a plant to grow, you must give it the conditions it prefers.
• Oregano. This culinary herb is one of children’s favorites to grow because they know instantly what it smells like — pizza! Gently rub a leaf, and then have the child smell it and watch the smile follow.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, lives and gardens in Austin, Texas.