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  • Upcoming events in Middle Tennessee

     

    Save the Date: Perennial Plant Society’s 30th Plant Sale is April 4, 2020, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the new Expo 3 Building at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Here’s where you can find the newest varieties of perennials, shrubs, vines and annuals from local growers, along with long-time, never-fail favorites, ready for spring planting. Learn more at the PPS website.

     

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Grow herbs in containers

QUESTION: I want to grow herbs for cooking, but we don’t have space in the yard. Can herbs do okay growing in pots?

Grow three types of basil for an attractive container combination.

Grow three types of basil for an attractive container combination.

Many herbs can grow very well in containers, and if your “garden” space is a deck or a condominium balcony, it’s the best way to have fresh herbs at your doorstep. The things you need to guarantee success are good growing medium, ample sunlight, and plenty of water. You can sow seeds, but transplants get the garden off to a faster start.
Begin with the soil – and by that I don’t mean the dirt you dig up in the yard, but a soilless potting mix, which is lighter and less likely to become compacted in the container. Members of the Herb Society of Nashville recommend a mix that is heavy with peat. Slow-acting organic fertilizer can also be added.
After you fill the pot with growing medium and the herb transplants of your choice (more on that in a minute), find a spot on the deck or balcony that gets several hours of sunlight – at least four to six — a day. After it’s planted, the challenge of keeping a garden pot growing is making sure it gets enough water. At mid-summer, when days are hot and dry, pots dry out quickly and often need to be watered every day.
The container itself is up to you; almost anything that will hold potting mix and drain well can be used as a planter for herbs. In fact, a variety of types of containers may make an interesting arrangement. Consider baskets, bowls, an old wheelbarrow – anything that holds a moderate amount of soil and a few plants (drill holes in a container that doesn’t drain naturally). Of course, traditional pots are fine, too.

Mint is a good choice for a container herb garden.

Mint is a good choice for a container herb garden.

As for what to grow: Basil, chives, dill, mint, oregano, parsley (curled and Italian), sage and thyme all can grow well in containers. Cilantro also does well, but you should remember that it is a cool-season herb that goes to seed quickly when the weather turns hot. Grow them in individual pots, or consider some container combinations: rosemary sage and chives; parsley, basil and thyme; mint, basil and dill are all good choices for container herb gardens.

Bring bay indoors

I bought a bay laurel seedling this past spring that was about six inches tall and set it out in a pot in the herb garden because I heard you may have to bring it indoors in the winter. It’s now about a foot tall. Could it survive outdoors? How do you harvest and use the leaves?

Bay laurel, or sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) is generally considered hardy to Zone 8 (well to the south of us here in Middle Tennessee), so it will need to come indoors before it gets too cold.

Place the plant where it gets as much sun as you can give it, in a south or west-facing window, if possible, and don’t let it get too dry (keep the soil evenly moist but not overly wet, the experts at the Herb Society of America suggest). It may also appreciate occasional misting if the air in your house is very dry. Take it back outdoors when the weather is consistently above freezing in the spring.

Bay leaves can be used dried or fresh; they’re usually added to long-cooking soups and stews. Snip them from the plant and use them as needed, or dry them to save for later. Use them whole (crumbled leaves have very sharp edges, which could be an unpleasant surprise to diners), and be sure to remove them before you serve. A bay leaf is a key ingredient in a bouquet garni (tied in a bundle along with thyme, parsley and other herbs), which would be added to a dish while it’s cooking and removed before serving.

By the way, there have been reports of bay laurel surviving the winter in colder climates, provided it is in a protected area. But to be on the safe side, find a sunny spot for it indoors.

 

Mulching trees; and a stack of new books

QUESTION: How should mulch be put around trees — piled high or spread even with the ground and good edging to keep water within?

Unfortunately, this is not the best way to mulch trees.

There are many good reasons to use mulch around trees in a landscape. It keeps the soil warmer in winter and cooler in summer; it helps the soil retain moisture; it helps control weeds, and improves soil fertility by adding organic matter. It keeps mowers and string trimmers at a safe distance from the tree trunk, plus, it looks nice.

There are a few “rules” for proper mulching, but none of them include piling mulch up high around the trunks of trees. In fact, it’s a bad idea. Here’s why:

Plants need oxygen in the soil, and mulch that is too thick – more than 4 inches – restricts the soil oxygen exchange, according to the UT Extension’s publication on mulching trees and shrubs. Roots will grow up to find more oxygen, instead of down and outward through the soil. Too much mulch also causes too much moisture in the root zone, making roots susceptible to rot, insects and diseases. Cracking in the bark creates an entry point for insects and fungal growth, and invites rodents to chew the bark and damage the trunk or even girdle the tree – destroying the bark all the way around, which is a quick cause of a tree’s demise.

Unfortunately, this so-called “volcano” mulching, with the mulch placed in a cone around and next to the trunk, is a common practice. Here’s the proper way to place mulch, according to UT Extension (and other good sources):

Apply mulch in a ring no more than 2 to 4 inches deep, at least 4 to 6 feet in diameter around the base of the tree. Place it so that it tapers out to the ground level at the edge of the ring. Do not pile the mulch around the trunk; pull it several inches away so that the base of the trunk is exposed and air moves freely.

Spring reading

There are several new gardening books out this spring. Here’s a roundup:

* I’m slowly making my way through Women and Their Gardens: A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today, by Catherine Horwood (published by Ball Publishing, an imprint of Chicago Review Press). Focusing on the fact of history that women have often been excluded from the serious study of plants, Horwood brings these women into their rightful place in the horticultural spotlight. At more than 400 pages, there is much to be discovered about these pioneering women. I have just learned, for instance, that in 1897, Beatrix Potter was snubbed in her attempt to present research on spore germination of a rare form of fungi. She went back to private research and to her other specialty, detailed watercolor illustrations. A hundred years later, the artist famous for her beautiful childrens’ book illustrations was honored by the Linnean Society with a distinguished lecture entitled “Beatrix Potter as Mycologist.” So there.

* You may remember Graham Kerr as a cookbook author, TV personality and chef who called himself The Galloping Gourmet. His new book is Growing At the Speed of Life: A Year in the Life of My First Kitchen Garden (published by Perigee Trade Paperbacks). He acknowledges from the first page – from the cover, really – “As the Galloping Gourmet, I cooked just about everything that grows – but I’d never grown a thing I’d cooked.” He set out to change that, and the book outlines much of what he learned in that year, and what he expects to learn about growing food in the years ahead. It’s a charmingly personal account, and with a shout-out to “First Lady Michelle Obama putting spade to turf on the White House lawn.” His focus is on the basics, the favorite vegetables and most-used herbs, and with recipes, of course.

* Local gardener and garden blogger Barbara Wise, author of Container Gardening For All Seasons (published by Cool Springs Press) makes assembling gorgeous containers easy by providing, cookbook-style, “recipes” and shopping lists and assembly instructions for about 100 container combinations. (My thanks to Barbara, because I heard about the book just as I was compiling information on container planting for the “Grow a Green Thumb” class I’m leading right now for Lipscomb University’s Lifelong Learning series. What a great resource!)

* For the more ambitious gardeners who include fruit-growing in their garden and landscape plans, there is Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit, by Lee Reich. In my semi-sunny garden, strawberries (apparently, to feed the rabbits) and blueberries (for the birds) are about as far as I’m willing to venture into fruit-growing territory, but if you’re serious about getting fruit from tree to table, this book is for you. It helps you plan, choose and maintain plants in the garden or in containers, and learn ways to control (or avoid) common pests and diseases without toxic sprays. I did just buy a ‘Meyer’ lemon shrub to add to our container collection of things that need to be pampered, so maybe this will help us keep it alive. The eye-candy photos make leafing through the book a pleasant distraction. It’s published by Taunton Press.

* Speaking of nice photos, Rodale Books has published The Photographic Garden: Mastering the Art of Digital Garden Photography, by Matthew Benson, a professional photographer and contributing editor to Organic Gardening magazine. Since part of the joy of gardening is taking pictures of what you grow and sharing them with other gardeners, it would be lovely to know how to do it beautifully. Read the book before the next time you take your camera out, and maybe your garden photos will jump to the next level right away.

* Finally, in the stack of new books: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners by Wesley Green (also published by Rodale). Do you grow salsify? Have you ever heard of skirret? These may not be at the top of everyone’s list of favorite vegetables, but in the 18th Century they were likely growing alongside the onions, garlic, melons, chives, sweet potatoes, beets, parsley and many other things that are familiar in our gardens, and they grow now at Colonial Williamsburg, one of the nation’s best historical preservation sites. The focus in this book is the traditional cultivation methods that are still good for today’s organic gardens. Green, the author, founded the Colonial Garden and Plant Nursery in the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg and he and another gardener, Don McKelvey, study and interpret 18th-Century plants, tools and techniques. This book is the beautiful record of that impressive work.

 

Sweet surprise: sweet potato vines

QUESTION: The ornamental sweet potato vines I grew in large pots last summer produced potatoes – to my surprise! Can they be replanted to produce vines next year?

Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) ‘Blackie’

Yes! The sweet potatoes that are grown for their ornamental vines don’t have much taste, but U.T. Extension agent David Cook says you can save the tubers to produce the same foliage next year. Here’s how to do it:

If the potatoes haven’t already frozen (and by now, you may find that they have, unfortunately), dig them up and store them packed in straw in a dry, cool place. When the weather begins to get warm again, the tubers may begin to sprout. Cut them into sections just as you would cut a seed potato, with at last one “eye” per section. Allow them to dry for a few days, and plant them in the ground after the frost date has passed (mid-April here in Middle Tennessee).

Ornamental sweet potato vines come in a variety of fancy-leafed “flavors.” ‘Blackie’ is an easy-to-find favorite, with purplish-black, deeply lobed leaves. ‘Ace of spades’ has heart-shaped leaves. ‘Tri-color’ is variegated with green, white and pink foliage, and the variety called ‘Marguerite’ has golden-green leaves.

The vines grow fast, and are a striking addition as a “spiller” in a container, draping elegantly over the sides. I learned last summer that rabbits find the leaves tasty. If your garden has a resident rabbit (as mine does), you’ll find the vines will start to disappear, so be warned.