Growing Herbs in the Air

| June/July 1993

For many home gardeners, a hanging pot of herbs is just that: a potted herb plant that’s hung up with a wire or macrame hanger. Ideally, the herb stems extend and hang down over the sides of the pot, eventually engulfing it in a cascade of lush, fragrant foliage. But it doesn’t usually work out that way; more often, the result is thin, leggy stems producing widely spaced foliage that doesn’t really cover the pot at all.

At the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., we’ve become well known for the lush hanging plants that bask in the summer sun and greet our visitors outside the conservatory entrance. Four years ago, we began replacing some of the standard ivy geraniums, petunias, and lantanas with creeping, cascading ornamental herbs—catmint, peppermint, thyme, oregano, and rosemary—and the results have been outstanding. What you see in the photos is one season’s growth: a giant ball of foliage suspended in the air!

A lush herb basket like this can become a brilliant focal point almost anywhere it can be hung—a post or fence, a tree, an overhang, or a wide doorway. Because of the exposure near the conservatory, we chose sun-loving herbs for most of our baskets, and we made them and the supporting structures quite large because the space is large. We installed a tall “tree” made of metal pipe, and from it we hung eight mammoth herb baskets. The baskets themselves were 24 inches in diameter, made of wire, and suspended by chains from the protruding arms of the “tree”. The ball of herbs in each basket grew up to 4 feet wide. This is probably too large for most homes, but the method of preparing the baskets (described below) also works well for smaller sizes.

The methods we use for making these hanging baskets of herbs aren’t really new; the principle is similar to that of a strawberry jar. After you understand the basic idea, you’ll probably want to make hanging baskets with many of your favorite herbs.

The plants listed below, and many others, need to rest in winter; they become weak if kept in full growth all year. Herb baskets should be brought indoors when days become short. Keep the plants cool and underwatered, and do not fertilize during this period.

There are three major considerations in deciding where to hang your herb baskets. The first and most obvious is that they must hang from a sturdy support because the baskets are quite heavy just after watering. The second is that the soil in the basket is enclosed only in a wire frame lined with a thin layer of unmilled sphagnum peat. After watering, the basket will continue to drip for as long as an hour, which rules out most indoor locations. On the other hand, roots consistently have good aeration—in fact, it is just about impossible to overwater them—and the baskets can be planted on all sides to create a ball of foliage and flowers. The baskets remain full and beautiful throughout the summer, but with such excellent drainage in the hot, humid Washington weather, they need to be watered daily.

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