Archive | Container Gardening

Growing edibles in pots and containers, on the balcony, rooftop or patio

Growing Heirloom Tomatoes in Pots: Best Heirloom Varieties & Growing Tips

Basket of Heirloom Tomatoes grown at HeathGlen

Basket of Heirloom Tomatoes grown at HeathGlen

Basically, any heirloom tomato plant will grow in a pot with proper growing techniques, but some are definitely easier to manage than others.  The most reliable way to grow heirloom tomatoes in pots, if you are a novice grower, is to start with “Determinate” varieties.  Determinate varieties only grow to around 3-4 feet and therefore often don’t require staking and trellising with the pot (whereas “Indeterminate” varieties grow until frost and may get 7-8 feet).

The main difference between determinate and indeterminate varieties, in terms of fruiting, is the timing of fruit production.  Determinate varieties will produce all of their fruit over a 2-3 week period rather than continuing to produce throughout the growing season.  This doesn’t mean you get fewer tomatoes from a determinate, you just get the crop in a shorter time frame.

This is a breakdown of my personal favorites for container-growing, categorized by Determinate vs. Indeterminate and Heirloom vs. Hybrid:

Favorite Heirloom Determinates for Pots:

  • Principe Borghese:  A fairly large determinate plant with small egg-shaped fruit that pack a high flavor punch (more acid than sugar).  Prolific & great for drying or to use in salads.
  • Manitoba:  This slicer was developed in Manitoba, Canada, to ripen during the short summers of the Manitoba prairie. Vigorous and early.
  • New Yorker:  Bush Beefsteak type, yielding 4-6 ounce meaty tomatoes with balanced flavor.  Plants set well in cooler growing conditions.

Favorite Hybrid Determinate for Pots:

  • Bush Champion:  Low maintenance compact plant that grows about 2 feet high, with larger (8-12 oz) tomatoes than most early determinates.  Stocky stems that don’t need trellising.  This is the one I usually  recommend to novice growers that just want to make sure they get tomatoes they can use on their BLTs.

Favorite Heirloom Indeterminates for Pots

  • Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes

    Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes

    Japanese Black Trifele:  ‘The fruit color makes this a nice ornamental as well, and the plants are fairly compact as well — one strong stake should support the plant well.  Delicious complex, smoky flavor and beautiful bronze color.

  • Green Zebra:  While considered an indeterminate tomato, they are much less rangy and grow more compactly, reaching about 5-6 feet high depending on your climate.  Very poplar for taste, with a tart, slightly lemon background balancing the sugar.  A favorite of many for its unique looks also.
  • Stupice:  Perhaps the earliest heirloom, the plants are compact and the fruit is small, but it produces well all season.  Overall, know that early tomatoes tend to not be as flavorable as main season tomatoes.  For an early tomato, Stupice is one of the more flavorable ones.
  • Paul Robeson:  Beautiful, dark purple 3-4″ tomato with intensely sweet and smoky flavor and a juicy, smooth texture.  Needs staking, but well worth it.  Early
  • Other good alternatives include:  Eva’s Purple Ball, Gardener’s Delight, Matts Wild Cherry,
Carmello Indeterminate Tomato Variety

Carmello Indeterminate Tomato Variety


Favorite Hybrid Indeterminates for Pots:

  • Carmello:  Reliable and prolific, with intensely flavorable, 8 oz., juicy red fruits.  Disease resistant and a great overall main-season tomato which produces good flavor even during the colder part of the season.
  • Sungold: Sweet, prolific and very popular cherry tomato.  Most cherry tomatoes will do well in containers, as they grow tall but their fruit is small and they don’t tend to sprawl as much.



Size of Pots for Growing Heirloom Tomatoes:

  • Variety of Attractive Plastic Pots for Growing Tomatoes

    Variety of Attractive Plastic Pots for Growing Tomatoes

    The bigger the container, the better.  Keep in mind that tomatoes grow large root systems, and they need room to develop for best production.  A large container will also prevent the soil from drying out too quickly during the heat of summer.

  • Minimum size:  In general, a 5 gallon container is considered the minimum size.  If you use a smaller pot, you are likely to have problems with the potting mix drying out, which can lead to blossom end rot (see this post to help with blossom end rot).  The larger indeterminate heirloom tomatoes will grow well in 12-18 gallon containers.   A container 12 to 18 inches deep for all tomatoes is generally a good rule of thumb.
  • If you are using a container of your own creation, make sure and punch holes in the container bottom to allow excess water to drain properly.
  • Be aware of how heavy your containers will be after watering. If you need to move the container to follow the sun, think about buying (or making) a container with wheels under the pot so you can move it around without breaking your back.

Location Considerations:

  • Sun:  Keep in mind that tomatoes need around 6-8 hours of sun a day.  Try to avoid a really hot afternoon sun if possible.
  • Wind:  Avoid areas that are susceptible to strong winds.  Hot dry winds are probably the most detrimental condition for young plants, causing their leaves to shrivel and die.  Strong winds can break the young plants at their growing tips, or topple over and break staked older plants.  If you are growing on a deck or balcony you may have to look into some form of protective barrier.
  • Staking:  If growing indeterminates, place your stakes or cages early and train the plants to grow vertically, allowing as much sunshine as possible to penetrate to the inside of the plants.  Secure the stakes or cages well…larger tomatoes can be very heavy.

Soil/Potting Mixes for Pots:

  • Potting Mix Moisture Level

    Potting Mix Moisture Level

    Don’t use soil.  Tomatoes grown in containers need a loose, well-drained medium with lots of organic matter.  Use a good potting mix rather than potting soil or garden soil. Potting soil can be too heavy for containers, and soil harvested straight from the garden is most likely infested with fungi, weed seeds, and pests.

  • Potting medium:  Use a high-quality mix containing peat moss and perlite.  If preparing your own soil-less medium, blend in a complete fertilizer, either a dry organic product, such as one containing alfalfa meal, bonemeal, kelp meal, or other natural nutrients.
  • Compost:  I am a great believer in the benefits of good compost.  It can add the micro-nutrients that potting soils might be missing and it can aid with drainage and moisture control.   I use a ratio of 3:1 soil-less mix to compost.

Fertilizing Container-Grown Heirloom Tomatoes:

  • Organic fertilizers:  Make a compost tea or manure tea and fertilize monthly during the growing season.  Other good organic fertilizers are liquid fish emulsion and liquid seaweed, which can be applied weekly.
  • Commercial fertilizers:  When you buy your potting mix, you can get one containing slow-release fertilizers, which will help with the growth stages of the plant.  Tomatoes grown in containers will usually demand more fertilizer than the initial timed-release fertilizers to carry them through the entire growing season.  You may need to add liquid water-soluble fertilizer products to the irrigation water as the season progresses.   Follow product directions for concentrations and timing.
  • Time-release fertilizers:  A popular product for containers is Osmocote Plus at planting time. This is a 15-9-12, time release granular product which is supposed to feed up to 6 months.  A fellow gardener, experienced with container plants, recommends following up the Osmocote with Peters 20-20-20 water soluble every 10 days to two weeks.

Watering Considerations:

  • Water regularly. Containers dry out more quickly than regular garden beds, and tomatoes are more likely to develop issues such as blossom end rot if they get uneven watering.
  • Under-watering:  The best way to know if your plants need watering is to check the soil.  Stick your finger in the soil and if it is dry an inch down into the soil it is time to water.  Containers are above ground and dry out quickly.  When the plants are small, water use won’t be as high, but when they are large and setting fruit you will need to water daily.  Do not allow containers to dry completely or fine roots will die. Also, if allowed to dry excessively, the potting media will shrink away from the side of the container and will be harder to re-wet.
  • Over-watering: As long as you are using a potting mix that drains well you shouldn’t be afraid to water heavily.  Good drainage solves most over watering issues.  Make sure your containers has drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.  Back off the watering a little during fruit set to prevent splitting fruit. 
  • Type of container:  Plastic containers do not dry out as quickly as clay, especially unglazed clay pots. Even plastic containers may require daily watering however, as plants grow larger.
  • Self-watering systems:  There are a range of self-watering pot systems that can reduce watering maintenance.  Probably the best known, and longest trialed of these is the EarthBox 1010039 Organic EarthBox, Terracotta.  Although I have never used one, the reports from my customers at the farmers’ markets are all positive.  The EarthBox works by wicking moisture out of a reservoir in the bottom of the planter.
  • Well Water:  occasionally there can be problems from watering with well water.  Water from wells is often high in salts or carbonates which can cause problems. One way to prevent excessive salt buildup is to water thoroughly enough to ensure that 10 percent of what is added drains out the bottom. Salt build-up is damaging to plants causing burned leaf edges, stunted growth, and fewer blooms.  Along this line, if

     saucers are used to catch drained water, empty them to prevent salt buildup.

Seed Sowing: Strategies for the Winter-Weary Gardener, Part 1

Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

by Cyndy Crist

Now that February has arrived and the hours of daylight are lengthening, many gardeners I know are becoming restless to dig in the dirt and nurture green and growing things.  I am definitely no exception, and a growing array of potted primroses, forced spring bulbs, and flowers emerging from begonias being overwintered inside can’t quite scratch my gardening itch. So I’ve decided to try my hand at several winter seed sowing and growing projects.

I’m going to start with three variations of fairly typical indoor seeding projects and will soon start a fourth, an outdoor approach to winter seed starting that I learned about at a Master Gardener meeting recently.  I’ll describe today how I’m getting started on the indoor projects and will report in later on the outdoor project and the outcomes of all four efforts.

Indoor Seed Sowing Projects:

Oregano pot (by Cyndy Crist)

Oregano pot (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 1:  I have undertaken three small, indoor projects, all very easy and straightforward but each just a little different from the others.  I’ll be interested to see how the results compare. One is a darling little organic oregano growing kit given to me by my sister-in-law for Christmas. It includes soil, seeds, and a bamboo pot.  It’s pretty ingenious, even including three little feet to stick on the bottom of the pot to ensure good drainage and a lid that doubles as a plant tray.  The packaging was so great that it has been cute sitting on a shelf, but since the whole point is to grow some oregano, I resolved to do just that.  The pot has now been filled with soil, the seeds scattered on the surface and then topped with a little more soil, everything gently watered in, and a little plastic wrap settled across the top to create a mini-greenhouse. Now it’s safely ensconced on a shelf out of direct sun per package directions. Once the seeds sprout, I’ll remove the plastic, move the pot to a sunnier spot, continue watering, and wait to harvest my tasty herbs.

Parsley paper (by Cyndy Crist)

Parsley paper (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 2:  The second project comes courtesy of a recent find in the sale room at my neighborhood Anthropologie store.  The package includes organic parsley seeds embedded in a piece of paper accompanied by a plant stake made from an old teaspoon.  Part of the attraction for me, frankly, was the spoon stake that can be reused in my herb garden; I’ve also long been curious about this “seeds in paper” approach to growing, so this was my chance to check it out. Following directions on the card, I prepared a pot with soil, tore off pieces of the paper (looking for concentrations of seeds), laid them on the soil, covered them with a little more soil, and carefully watered them all in.  The stake is now in the pot, which is in a sunny space in my sunroom.  I only used a portion of the paper provided, so if I don’t give this first planting what it needs to grow, I can try again, either inside or outside.


Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 3:  The third project was inspired by an article in the January 2013 issue of Martha Stewart Living. This one required me to assemble my own potting soil, container, and seeds.  Following the idea in the article, I retrieved a plastic container and lid from my recycling bin (a decent-sized box that had contained romaine leaves) and made small drainage holes in the bottom with an X-acto knife.  Next, I filled the container with potting mix and sprinkled a mix of lettuce seeds on top of the soil.  Per directions on the seed packet, I added about another ¼ inch of soil on top of the seeds and gentled watered them in.  The lid is now serving as a plant tray and the container is in one of the sunniest spots in my sunroom.  If all goes well, I’ll be able to harvest my own microgreens in the weeks ahead, either by gently pulling out small clumps of greens or by cutting them carefully.

Tips to remember about Seed Sowing & Growing:

  1. I know that two of the most important things about indoor seed starting are ensuring that the seedlings get enough sunlight and providing enough, but not too much, moisture.  I think all three containers are small enough that I can keep them in places that get sufficient light in or very near a window in my south-facing sunroom, but I know I will need to pay close attention to them to be sure they’re getting enough light on a consistent basis to grow well.  Today was a beautifully sunny day, so things are off to a good start, but I know I can’t count on the same level of brightness every day.
  2. Perhaps even more importantly, I’m going to need to be careful about watering.  Drying out is deadly to tender little seedlings, but it’s also easy to overwater them and kill seedlings with kindness.  A deluge of water can dislodge tiny root systems before they’re strong enough to hold emerging plants in place.  Sitting water can cause dampening off and other forms of mold that are fatal to any plants, but especially to little baby ones.
  3. Humidity is also helpful to seedlings as they’re sprouting, so keeping a plant tray filled with water should be helpful.


Seeds and potting soil (by Cyndy Crist)

Seeds and potting soil (by Cyndy Crist)

I know what my little green babies will need, but I’ve learned the hard way that knowledge and good intentions don’t always carry the day.  If I manage to maintain enough focus to guide them along into stages of maturity that will enable me to harvest and enjoy them, I’ll be a happy gardener.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Extending the Growing Season by Overwintering Tender Plants

Rosemary plant brought in for Winter (by Cyndy Crist)

Rosemary plant brought in for Winter (by Cyndy Crist)

By Cyndy Crist

I’ve just completed the annual migration of some of my favorite tender perennials and annuals from the porch and garden into the house to overwinter, since they’d never survive the Minnesota winter outside.   It’s a task that’s easy to accomplish with a little thought in advance and by following a few basic steps. Here are a few tips to share that  may help you extend your own gardening season through overwintering tender plants.

Initial Considerations

  1. Select plants that are likely to grow well in pots and in the kind of environment that most of our houses have to offer.  Although a lucky few have greenhouses or greenhouse rooms, most of us have to be able to grow plants in spaces that get limited light and tend to be more uniform in temperature and lower in humidity than outdoor environments.  Because of this, before deciding which plants to bring in, a little research about growing habits and needs will enhance your chances of success.  You can also improve your odds by being ready to provide additional lighting (Amazon and others offer a wide array of options.
  2. Although indoor plants are safe from many of the pests that can attack them outside, they aren’t immune from insects.  In fact, it seems to me that the more closed indoor environment can make insect infestations that do occur more harmful because of how rapidly they can spread.  In addition, many indoor pests (notably spider mites and scale) don’t become apparent until they’ve already done significant damage.  So, vigilance is essential, along with being prepared to combat any pests that invade your indoor garden.
  3. Overwintering Citrus Plants (Stainbrook)

    Overwintering Citrus Plants (Stainbrook)

    Be prepared to provide plants with the water they need to grow and thrive. I find watering to be the biggest adjustment when I bring in plants for two reasons. One is that my houseplants that never go outside only need to be watered once per week, while the outside-to-inside plants need more frequent watering.  The second is that I just don’t notice my inside plants as much because they are scattered among several rooms while outdoors most of them “live” on the porch.  Since watering is obviously essential, I have to work at establishing a routine for this task.

  4. Plants need more humidity than most of our houses can offer once windows are closed and the heat is on. What works well for me is a plant water and humidity tray like the one made by Carter and Holmes,  Plant Watering Humidity Tray 105 (26¼” x 6½”), which has a two-part removable grid suspended over a large base tray.  Plants sit on the grid and water is added to the base tray to create humidity as the water evaporates.  It’s easy to devise something similar by putting stones or marbles in saucers, shallow bowls, or the bottoms of cache pots (with the plants themselves in a second, smaller pot with a drainage hole) and then either watering plants until water drains out the holes or occasionally pouring water into the base. Just make sure plants never sit in water.

 Making the Move:

Begonia getting washed for indoor overwintering (by Cyndy Crist)

Begonia getting washed for indoor overwintering (by Cyndy Crist)

Once you’ve decided which plants to bring in for the winter, there are several steps for preparing them for their new home.  The plants that I keep have all lived outside in pots, so I bring them in one at a time, put them in the kitchen sink, and use the spray to wash off the leaves (top and bottom) and the pot.  I wash plant trays and cache pots thoroughly and give the plants a good, drenching watering.  Finally, I remove any yellowed leaves from the plants along with any debris from the surface of the soil and settle them into their new homes once they’re thoroughly drained and dried.  Since I bring in a couple dozen plants, this process takes a bit of time to complete but it’s easily done over the course of several days (as long as I haven’t waited too long) and worth the effort.

Prepping blueberries, lemon verbena and chili peppers for overwintering (Stainbrook)

Prepping blueberries, lemon verbena and chili peppers for overwintering (Stainbrook)

If the plants to be overwintered have been living in the ground, getting them ready to bring in takes just a little more work.  First, dig them up with enough roots to take in sufficient water and nutrients from the soil.  Second, select a pot that’s large enough to accommodate the roots and the size and heft of the plant itself without being too much larger. Cautious gardeners advocate removing as much of the garden soil as possible and repotting with sterile soil, an approach I’m certain is wise but which involves more work than I would be inclined to tackle, not to mention a deft hand with the roots. Hosing off the plant is important to remove pests, as is being sure that the pots used are clean.

Some gardeners “split the difference” by keeping plants in unglazed clay pots which are sunk into the garden during the summer and then lifted out in the fall.  This approach offers the advantage of keeping roots intact and requires the same steps that I take for the pots I move inside.  Yet another option is to plant cuttings in the late summer and early fall.  With this approach, the plants brought inside are much smaller so they have less “work” to do to keep growing and the small pots make placement in good light on narrow windowsills possible.  Some plants can also be allowed to go dormant in the winter in a heated garage or basement, but that’s a story for another day.

However you decide to transition plants inside, it’s always a good idea to start the process when nighttime temperatures fall into the 50s and before the heat is turned on inside. A gradual transition is ideal, moving plants in and out for a few days (kind of the reverse of the “hardening off” routine in the spring). Since this isn’t practical with the number of plants I bring in, I try to ease the transition by opening windows near plants for a few hours each day. Starting to bring them inside earlier than may be necessary makes this approach workable most years.

What to Grow Indoors:

Herbs brought inside for overwintering (by Cyndy Crist)

Herbs brought inside for overwintering (by Cyndy Crist)

I’ve had the best success overwintering scented geraniums, begonias, and rosemary.  They all get a bit leggy by the end of winter (although I cut enough rosemary for cooking that it stays somewhat compact), but that’s easily fixed once they’re ready to move outside.  I’ve tried other herbs, including basil, thyme, lavender, and oregano, but I’ve never managed to keep any of them alive, probably because I have underestimated their watering needs. Whatever the cause of their demise, I’ve given up on them with one exception:  I’m trying a bay tree again this year. My last three have succumbed to scale, but a favorite grower at our local market gave me his formula for treating scale (*formula included at end of post) and I’m prepared to use it this winter as needed.

Prepping Rosemary and Strawberries for Overwintering (Stainbrook)

Prepping Rosemary and Strawberries for Overwintering (Stainbrook)

I know quite a few people who have not had the success with rosemary plants that I have.  I have surmised that my luck is partly a result of the large size of my rosemary plants, which I think helps them survive the early days of my adjustment to new watering regimens in a way that smaller plants might not.  It often has some powdery mildew near the end of winter, another common problem with growing rosemary indoors, but it’s never seemed to be a real problem for my plants.  I recently read that running a small fan for an hour or so on a regular basis can combat powdery mildew by improving air circulation.  I’ll give this strategy a try this year if the needles begin to be brushed with white.

In general, I think it’s worth the effort to bring in some outside plants for the winter.  If they survive, I have the pleasure of smelling wet earth when I water them, enjoying the freshness and bit of humidity that they add to indoor air, and seeing the flowers that begin appearing in late winter as the hours of daylight lengthen and the plants begin to move into active growth.  And if they don’t make it, all I’ve lost is the little bit of time and effort it took to prepare them for an indoor home.  Why not give it a try yourself?  I’ll bet you’ll be glad you did.

** Formula for treating Scale on Bay Plants:

 1/2 tsp insecticidal soap
1/4 tsp horticultural oil
1 quart warm water
The solution can be sprayed on the plant or applied with cotton swabs or balls, depending on the size of the plant and/or the extent of infestation.

Addendum on Overwintering by Dorothy:

Overwintering Lavender (Stainbrook)

Overwintering Lavender (Stainbrook)

Here is a list of edible tender perennials that I have successfully overwintered in Minnesota.  All were placed in an unheated shop attached to our house, given minimal water, and received quite a bit of East sun through many large windows.

  • Blueberry Plants
  • Rosemary
  • Lemon Verbena
  • Strawberries
  • Bay (watch for scale)
  • Lavender
  • Citrus trees
  • Aji chile peppers
  • Scented geraniums

Humidity trays:  While I usually make my own, in the way Cyndy suggested, Amazon does have a range of trays available for purchase.  My eye was drawn to the sturdiest ones, as the pots I bring in are fairly large and heavy.   One that looked promising  to me was this Humidity/Drip Bonsai Tray – Heavy Duty Black Plastic 16.5″ x 11.0″ x 1.5″.


Decorating Ideas for your Garden with Recycled Bits and Pieces

by Cyndy Crist

Fairy garden edging (by Cyndy Crist)

Fairy garden edging (by Cyndy Crist)

Remember the last time that a favorite pot from your garden broke?  Perhaps a friend offered you left-over bricks from a patio project and you wondered what to do with those that were broken or less than perfect.  Or maybe you brought some stones or shells back from a vacation on the beach or hiking a rocky trail and they’ve been collecting dust on your porch ever since.

With a little thought, you can reuse these bits and pieces in your garden, taking something that might otherwise end up in the garbage can and repurposing them to add interest and texture to your garden.  And best of all, they’re free! Here are a few ideas to set you searching for your own trash-to-treasure finds.

Sunken pot and day lily by Cyndy Crist

Sunken pot and day lily by Cyndy Crist

One fun thing to do with a large pot that breaks into big pieces is to partially sink a piece into the ground, positioning it so that it looks like a plant is growing out of it.  I did this with a tall, cobalt blue pot, which I sunk into the ground at an angle, at the “opening” of which I planted a daylily.  The pot fragment adds a bit of color that is especially welcome in the spring when the garden is just starting to grow. An added benefit of my pot placement is that it allowed me to plant near the roof line of our porch without worrying about run-off drowning or washing out the lily, since the pot surface helps deflect the water.

Broken bowls set in garden (by Cyndy Crist)

Broken bowls set in garden (by Cyndy Crist)

Another way to use fragments of pots, saucers, or other dishes is in the edging of a garden.  I have used pieces of a pair of broken, glazed, and painted Italian pots to create a kind of mosaic, interspersed with bricks, around my potager or kitchen garden.  Now, after many years, some pieces have broken down and lost some of their decorative value and soon they’ll have to be replaced entirely, but for many years they’ve added color and style to the garden’s border.  More recently, I set the two pieces of a small bowl that broke neatly in half into the edging to replace some of the older pot fragments.  I think they add a quirky, three-dimensional touch to the garden.  And I used the ruffled rim of another broken pot to create a kind of border in my fairy garden.

Mosaic stepping stone by Cyndy Crist

Mosaic stepping stone by Cyndy Crist

Small pot shards and other miscellaneous materials found around the house (such as marbles, shells, and smooth pieces of glass) can also be used to create actual mosaics in the garden. Community-minded neighbors in the Midway area of St. Paul have added color and interest to a busy street through their neighborhood by covering large concrete planters with mosaics, creating objects of beauty out of otherwise unremarkable, if practical, objects.  I have a mosaic stepping stone in my garden that I made using a kit that was a gift, but with just a little research into workable materials (primarily the right produce to provide the mortar or base and a sturdy box of suitable size to use as the mold), a similar result could easily be achieved with found materials.

A non-decorative, but very practical, use of fragments of unglazed terra cotta pots is to cover drainage holes in the bottom of pots.  Since their surface is porous, they’ll allow some water to soak through but staunch the heavier flow that would result if there was no cover over the hole.  When a terra cotta pot breaks, I keep the pieces on my potting bench for the next time I plant a container, throwing them on the garage floor to create smaller shards as needed (okay, it’s not elegant or precise, but it works).

Cup and saucer bird feeder (by Cyndy Crist)

Cup and saucer bird feeder (by Cyndy Crist)

You can also use un-broken items in the garden that might otherwise be discarded.  For example, if you have a stray cup and saucer, you can glue the cup to the saucer to make a little birdbath or bird feeder. This works especially well if you fasten it to a stake so that it sits up off the ground.  You can also use a cup and saucer as a planter, though without drainage in the bottom of the cup, a little extra caution is needed to be sure you don’t drown whatever you’ve planted in it.  And, of course, stray saucers and dessert plates can always be used under pots on a porch or balcony; over time, I’ve built a little collection from attractive finds in antique and second-hand shops that allow me to vary the color scheme on my porch as I wish.

If you’ve ever edged a curved bed with bricks, you know that broken or imperfect pieces can actually be a godsend, helping create curves in a way that intact bricks simply can’t.  It takes a bit of experimentation to fit the pieces together, but it’s worth the effort.  If what you have is masonry bricks (like the ones we asked the roofers to leave when they re-bricked our chimney), you may not like the looks of their holes, especially if they’re still filled with mortar.  But if you set them in the garden on their sides, you can get a decent-looking edge, even though it will be narrower than what you’d get setting the bricks in flat, and if you leave the holes on top and fill them with soil, some groundcovers will grow into them.

Writing in a recent email newsletter from Horticulture magazine, Emily Dydo offered some other great ideas for reusing terra cotta pots.  I especially liked her idea of writing the names of vegetables on pot shards for easy garden labels.  Depending on the size and shape of the shards, these could be laid flat on the ground by the plant or stuck into the ground so that they stand by a plant. I’ve done something similar by writing the names of herbs on flat, smooth rocks with Sharpies (silver works well for dark stones) and then placing them in the garden. This creates simple, long-lasting, and natural-looking labels for your plants at virtually no cost.

Edging out of clay pots (by Cyndy Crist)

Edging out of clay pots (by Cyndy Crist)

I once did something similar to an idea suggested by Dydo – setting a row of plain terra cotta pots, bottoms-up, along a garden edge to create a three-dimensional border.  Mine was a temporary solution for a newly created planting, and in any case this can’t be a long-lasting solution since unglazed terra cotta breaks down fairly quickly when left outside. But just as gardeners seek to create plant designs that provide a changing array of colors and textures across the seasons, periodically changing borders and other garden hardscape can add interest and variety to beds of ornamentals and edibles from year to year.

Another idea from the Horticulture post is to use pot shards like mulch on the surface of soil in a container.  I just tried this with a decorative terra cotta pot of pink-hued plants, thinking it would give the pot, which sits on a deck railing, a more finished look. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on how much it adds aesthetically, but I’m hopeful that this “mulching” may reduce the need for watering.  What I like much better is something I was inspired to do after trying the shards – arranging small shells in the same way. I think the pearly shells add a finished look to the pot and a nice color and textural contrast to the succulents and soil.

And that’s the point of all of this, isn’t it – to share ideas with others as a way to stimulate their creativity and yours.  The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more ideas I’m beginning to generate for ways to re-use or re-purpose things in my garden.  I’m ready to head out to the garage now for more inspiration – how about you?

Growing Herbs for Tomato Dishes, Summer Cooking & Garden Beauty

By Cyndy Crist

Herb Garden - by Cyndy Crist

Herb Garden – by Cyndy Crist

Herbs for Small Gardens:

Herbs can be one of the most rewarding things to grow in a small garden, and while I’m guessing most of us grow them primarily to be used in cooking, they have other values as well.   For example, many are quite attractive (I love the look of feathery fennel, the deep red leaves of some basils, and the flowers of pineapple sage); some are grown for their fragrance more than their flavor (lavender being an obvious example); and others can look beautiful in fresh or dried arrangements (again, think fennel and lavender). Still, for me, the primary purpose is culinary and that will be my focus here.

Growing  Tips on Specific Herbs:

Lovage and Chives - photo by Cyndy Crist

Lovage and Chives – photo by Cyndy Crist

Happily, most herbs are quite easy to grow.  Most require full sun and even moisture, but some can thrive in otherwise difficult locations. For example, many Mediterranean herbs do well grown next to hot pavement or stones; thyme and chamomile can stand up to foot traffic and still thrive; and mint can grow in somewhat soggy spaces. Many herbs are quite hardy in most USDA zones (English thyme, oregano, lovage, chives, and tarragon among them); some will survive through mild winters in my zone 4 garden if well covered (sage is one); and some common herbs, like parsley, are biennials that will grow for two years before needing to be replaced.

In addition, some annual herbs will self-seed and return beyond their “inaugural” year if the ground around them is left largely undisturbed. Borage, with its beautiful blue blossoms, and sunny calendula are two that have made repeat visits in my garden, and chamomile is another prolific self-seeder (with some varieties also hardy in many zones).  Of course, self-seeding isn’t always a blessing.  Take garlic chives, for example. When they’re blooming, I love the look they add to my kitchen garden, and I like to use both the leaves and the blossoms in salads.  However, they are notorious self-seeders, and I find myself pulling out new plants by the handful during the growing season.  I’d save myself lots of headaches if I was more vigilant about deadheading them before they set seed.

Some perennial herbs have proven themselves to be thugs that I’ve worked hard to remove from my garden and others require a close eye to keep them in check.  I made the mistake of planting Tansy once and it took a lot of digging to remove the shoots that popped up throughout the bed.  I’ve also grown two oreganos and loved their looks initially (the Greek for its purple flowers and the golden for the way its rambling leaves lit up a mostly green garden), but they eventually spread far beyond their intended spaces. Since oregano is about the only herb I prefer to use dried in cooking anyway, I gladly removed it from the garden.  Mint is notorious for spreading far and wide, and even sinking a pot in the ground won’t keep it in check if the pot has a drainage hole; as a result, I now only grow it in pots on my porch.

Perennial Herb Favorites:

While I highly value some perennial herbs, many of my favorites are annuals that must be planted each year. Since I can’t imagine my little potager without them, I gladly plant basil and chervil every year, and I also add at least one lemony herb, most often lemon verbena or lemon grass.  I also always have Italian parsley in my garden, so that gets planted every other year, and if my sage doesn’t survive the winter, I plant a replacement of that as well.   With both basil and sage, I often plant more than one variety to bring visual variety to the garden and the table.

Rosemary and Parsley - photo by Cyndy Crist

Rosemary and Parsley – photo by Cyndy Crist

I also love rosemary and grow it in a big pot that sits in the kitchen garden from late spring until late fall and then moves into the sunroom for the winter.  I’ve generally had quite good luck over-wintering plants of a mature size (e.g., the stem has become woody and strong).  In fact, I had one that I kept growing for six or eight years at least, and I didn’t lose it until the summer that it drowned from overwatering because, unbeknownst to me, the roots had become so matted that they had completely closed off the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot.  I briefly mourned its loss, then immediately replaced it since I love having fresh rosemary available throughout the winter.

Among the perennials in my garden are chives, whose leaves and flowers I prize; French sorrel for early spring, lemony tang; lovage, which imparts a celery-like flavor that works especially well in potato dishes; thyme, which can be used in many ways and harvested nearly any time of the year (I’ve been known to sweep snow off it mid-winter); tarragon, so great with chicken; and wild arugula, whose fine-cut leaves offer a peppery bite. Although not considered by most as an herb, I also generally grow several varieties of garlic in my potager; it is an indispensable companion to many herbs in the kitchen.

Growing Herbs for Beauty:

I have focused primarily on growing in a kitchen garden, but it’s worth noting that herbs can be successfully and beautifully grown in any suitable garden space.  For example, bronze fennel can be a lovely companion for pink or white roses, lavender and hyssop add beautiful purple to any perennial border, and thyme and chamomile can create a living carpet between the stones of a garden path.  I’ve also seen curly parsley creating lovely green edging along perennial beds and dill adding a feathery contrast to plants with flat, smooth leaves.  There are also a number of plants that are classified as herbs but generally grown as perennials, including Artemisia (wormwood) and Nepeta (also known as cat mint), or annual flowers, like Nigella and nasturtiums.

Growing Herbs in Containers:

Globe Basil in Container - photo by Cyndy Crist

Globe Basil in Container – photo by Cyndy Crist

Many herbs also lend themselves well to growing in containers.  Since this makes them movable, you can take advantage of specific growing conditions that suit them  best and place them close to a kitchen or back door for ready cutting for use in the kitchen. As noted earlier, some herbs in pots can be successfully overwintered inside, and rampant and invasive growers like mint can be kept in check.  As with any container growing, the keys are selecting the right soil and right size of pot (for example, tall pots are best suited to herbs that send down deeper roots) and remembering to water regularly throughout the growing season, and especially during the hottest, driest days of summer.

Pairing Herbs with Different Cuisines:

There is no end of ideas about how to use herbs in the kitchen.  The key, I think, is thinking about what kinds of ingredients and culinary styles or traditions you prefer and planting accordingly.  For example,

  • basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, and rosemary are great with tomatoes and tomato-rich dishes;
  • chervil, parsley, chives, and tarragon are backbones of French cuisine;
  • many English dishes rely on sage and thyme;
  • dill is a feature of many Scandinavian dishes;
  • Thai basil and lemon grass are much used in many Asian cuisines;
  • basil, oregano, and arugula are essential to Italian culinary traditions; and
  • basil, lemony herbs, and mint can all be wonderful with fruit as well as vegetables.

Great Resource Books on Herbs:

I have built a pretty big collection of herb books over the years. Most offer great advice about growing, cooking with, and saving herbs, and many have wonderful non-culinary and crafting ideas as well.  My oldest and probably most-used herb books were written by Emelie Tolley and photographed by Chris Mead. They inspired my early herb growing and also have aided my hand-made gifting for many Christmases. I especially like Tolley’s Gardening with Herbs for design and hands-on growing guidance, and Gifts from the Herb Garden, which offers lots of edible and decorative project ideas.  The The Harrowsmith Illustrated Book of Herbs is one of two great books in my library by Patrick Lima for that publisher; it is a highly valued part of my collection and one that has become well worn by repeated use.  A newer addition to my shelves is the New Book of Herbs by Jekka McVicar, a beautifully illustrated and comprehensive guide by the woman dubbed “the queen of herbs” by Jamie Oliver.  It is as beautiful to look at as it is informative to read – in other words, strong on both style and substance.

I guess something of the same thing can be said for herbs and why I love growing them. They are both practical and beautiful, great to look at and delicious to eat.  They inspire endless ways to use and enjoy them, singly or in combinations.  As a result, they are very rewarding to grow.  If you haven’t done so already, give them a try.  I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be glad you did.

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