April 7, 2017
Start planning your herb garden, big or small, right now
By Steve Whysall
OK, so you can’t have a big veggie garden with endless rows of potatoes and carrots, cabbages and cauliflowers. And you don’t have an orchard with apple and plum, cherry and pear trees.
But you could have a productive herb garden close to your kitchen door. And if you have a sunny patio or balcony space, you could grow herbs for cooking as well as for flower and foliage colour in pots.
We are talking about a project for late spring/early summer, right? You can draw up plans and make a few key decisions right now.
If space is limited, consider growing herbs in a theatrical style called “staging.”
This is a technique made famous by gardeners in the 18th century at Villa Pisani near Padua, Italy, where raised herb staging was used in greenhouses and in an orangery.
Basically, all you do is create a 39-inch (100 cm) high three-legged corner stand with two half-circles of shelves supported by shelf brackets to provide two compact levels with a small platform at the top. (See photo on the left.)
The semicircular shelves measure eight inches (20 cm), 16 inches (40 cm) and 24 inches (60 cm), which can support nine six-inch (15 cm) pots and eight eight-inch (20 cm) pots. It can look very smart.
If you can’t be bothered with this, how about investing in a GreenStalk stackable planter? It has individual compartments that click tightly together to form a vertical garden, perfect for small spaces.
The tower has a reservoir at the top and the compartments rotate, so you can make sure all your herbs get good exposure to light.
This system, which can also be used for growing vegetables, cherry tomatoes and strawberries, costs $199 and is available from Hunter Garden Centre, Vancouver, Potters Garden Centres, Surrey, and About Thyme Nursery, Burnaby. For more info, go to greenstalkgarden.com.
Another idea is to put together three half-barrel containers of different sizes. Three makes a nice grouping. As well, herbs have a little more space to spread their roots, making them less susceptible to inconsistent watering.
If you want to add a little Italian flavour to your herb container garden, shop for terra cotta troughs of different sizes. Herbs and terra cotta are natural companions.
Terra cotta strawberry pots are a popular choice of container because they have several compartments in which a variety of herbs can be grown. The pots are also not so big that they can’t be easily rotated to ensure all the plants get a share of sunshine.
As for what herbs to plant, for strictly culinary purposes, start with the big five: rosemary, parsley, chives, mint and basil.
On your “staging” platforms, good choices could include sage (purple and green variegated), marjoram, curly-leafed parsley, specialty mints (spearmint, pineapple mint) and various thymes.
If you have a little more space, you could grow a sizable rosemary or bay tree in a bigger pot and train it into a sculptural espalier.
For colour and aroma, find a spot for lavender (French lavender is especially attractive) as well as the curry plant, chamomile, lemon balm, oregano and the various mints.
Good companions to grow with herbs include edible flowers, such as viola, nasturtium and calendula.
Remember: For success, herbs need a minimum of four hours’ sunshine daily as well as fertile, well-drained soil. Six to eight hours of sunshine would be perfect.
Watering is essential, especially with smaller pots that tend to dry out quickly. And consider using a well-balanced, organic fertilizer when you water. Fish fertilizer works well if you can stand the smell.
For more information, pick up Gardening with Herbs by George Carter. It’s a step-by-step project workbook that contains great ideas for growing herbs in window boxes and elaborate gardens.
Steve Whysall is The Vancouver Sun’s garden columnist.