This blog reviews the latest products, plants and innovations in gardening. It also provides a link for my many gardening friends who are members of the GardenMessenger and Seedmessenger Yahoo groups and their sub-groups that I moderate.

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Location: Australia

I am a semi-retired UK botanical garden curator and former international horticultural consultant, who has worked extensively in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Australia. I spend part of the year in Australia and part in Europe, mainly due to family and work commitments. I earn my living from writing and editing Internet copy, articles and books. I have written over fifty books on gardening and have been translated into twenty-four different languages. I am a former UK Garden Writer of the Year and a previous Quill & Trowel Award Winner from the Garden Writer’s Association of America. I am interested in developing gardening communities on the Internet and I manage the popular GardenMessenger Yahoo group, along with its various sub-groups like PondMessenger and SeedMessenger. I also edit International Water Gardener and its associated regional web-sites.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Herbs in Containers, News and Diary

Culinary Thyme

After unintentionally causing a little controversy on the GardenMessenger board yesterday with my mention and recommendation of Tamarix, my wife Hazel suggests that I should be purely practical today. Indeed I will, for today’s main theme, apart from hopefully being of general interest to visitors to this blog, is intended for our youngest son Frank. He is a chef and today moves to a new home and job. He is a great chef, but a non-gardener, although he greatly appreciates the value of fresh herbs, and always bemoans the fact that when he entertains Mum and Dad that he does not have such ready access to fresh garnishing as he does at work. As he has an apartment with a couple of balconies, I have suggested that he grows a few of his favourite herbs in containers.

For those who are unable to grow herbs in the open ground because of lack of space, or even if it is just preferable to have them close at hand by the kitchen door, container cultivation is the answer. There are many containers that can be used, some specifically intended for plants others not, yet sufficiently versatile to be used successfully. However good containers are they do suffer limitations even when you have prepared suitable compost. Compost and drainage are half the problem with growing herbs. The main constraint, however, is the limitation upon what can be grown. It is no use trying to accommodate lovage and angelica in modern garden containers or window boxes; they just will not flourish. Apart from looking ungainly, they will not produce good healthy foliage when their roots are restricted and they are short of moisture. Irrespective of how diligently they are watered it is difficult to give such plants sufficient moisture during hot weather when they are grown in a modern planter.


Before choosing the herbs, the containers to be used must be carefully considered. Window boxes are all very similar, but always select the deepest one that can be accommodated. Not only should the box tie in physically and visually with the building to which it is to be attached, but also its weight when laden with plants and damp compost must be considered. Of course, lightweight peat and sand-based soil-less compost can be used to reduce weight, but these are not as suitable as the soil-based potting composts for longer term perennial herbs like Thyme, Thymus vulgaris, Mint, Mentha spicata, and Chives, Allium schoenoprasum.

If there are no constraints upon the kind of window box that can be chosen, then the ideal is at least 30cm (12ins) wide and 25cm (10ins) deep. This allows most of the popular culinary herbs to be grown without too regular disturbance. Not only should the volume of compost that the box holds, be substantial, but the facility for drainage must be good. Drainage holes are essential, even though window boxes are given to drying out quickly. If the window box has no facility for drainage, then it will have to be created. This means scattering a generous layer of gravel all along the base of the box to provide temporary alleviation from water-logging. Unfortunately this is much less effective than proper drainage holes and it occupies valuable compost space. The same applies to troughs and patio planters. Good drainage is essential. Much of what applies to window boxes will also hold true for these.

Sweet Marjoram

Containers of any kind must be able to hold sufficient volume of compost to accommodate plant growth successfully. Within the scope of what is visually appealing, it can safely be said that the larger the container the better. Large volumes of compost dry out more slowly and heat up at a slower rate on hot summer days. They do have disadvantages however. When used for growing plants of doubtful hardiness in frosty districts – like Bay trees – they are more difficult to move to the safety of a porch or unheated greenhouse at the approach of winter, and the tendency is to leave them where they are to take a chance. Unfortunately by being in a container the plant has its roots exposed to frosting and is much more vulnerable to winter damage than if planted in the open ground.There is also a popular misconception that if plants are growing in a large container the soil is not so rapidly depleted of nutrients, nor its structure so quickly destroyed. This has a tiny element of truth in it, but by and large it is a myth. The compost in a large container should receive attention as promptly as that in a small container for there are, proportionately, more plants in the large one.

Apart from conventional garden containers there are others that can be successfully used. The strawberry pot, in a slightly altered form, is now sold as a herb pot too. These may be up to 90cm (36ins) tall, the most attractive ones being made of terracotta, but quite serviceable pieces are now produced in plastic. They look rather like tall, elegant, curved chimney pots with a large hole at the top and a series of smaller ones down the sides. Rather than being mere holes, these are made as pockets each one capable of accommodating a plant. The idea is that most of the pot is hidden by the foliage burgeoning from the pockets and the summit. The roots all penetrate the central mass of compost.

Plain-leafed Parsley

This works for a number of small herbs if planted when quite young. Transplanted seedlings or well-rooted cuttings are the best material to start with. Plant them systematically from the lower pockets upwards, filling the pot with compost progressively. If an attempt is made to fill the pot first and then put the plants in, there are problems. For firm planting it is essential to have one hand inside the pot to control the operation. Strawberry or herb pots are perfect for what could loosely be called herbal kitchen pots. Crown the pot with Sage, Salvia officinalis, and fill the pockets equally with Parsley, Petroselinum crispum, Thyme and Chives in a spiralled arrangement. Not only does the pot look very appealing, but it is productive too.

Half barrels are also good for miniature herb gardens and give the whole feature a rustic look. Try planting Sage boldly in the centre and Parsley, Chives and Thyme around the edge in an informal arrangement. If using recently discarded vinegar or whisky casks, then it is a wise precaution to scrub them thoroughly inside before use. There is rarely any contamination of the compost, but when there is, the whole barrel has to be turned out and a fresh start made.

There is no such risk when using an old sink. Although not too attractive visually, old glazed sinks do make excellent containers for growing herbs. If the glaze, is really offensive, then it is perfectly possible to give it a more natural look by applying a peat, sand and cement mixture called hypertufa. Marjoram, Origanum marjorana, Thyme, Parsley and Chives all adapt well to such conditions. Drainage is good if the plug is removed and the hole covered with metal gauze. If raised off the ground on brick or stone piers, water can drain away freely and the sink is at a more convenient level. At about 60cm (24ins) off the ground it does not lose its visual appeal and both weeding and garnering the harvest are easier tasks.

Culinary Sage

Small herb gardens can be made in many odd containers. Old car tyres stacked upon one another, painted white and filled with compost create an unusual and not unpleasant spectacle. Herb gardens in large hollowed-out logs, old wheelbarrows, toilet pans and discarded baths are all possibilities. However, most gardeners who are going to grow herbs in containers purchase those used to accommodate summer bedding plants or spring flowering bulbs. These are perfectly adequate, but remember that even the larger containers hold only a relatively small body of compost and plants that are going to over-winter need some protection if they are to survive in frosty districts. Either the container needs removing to a light and more or less frost-free place; or else it must be well protected with sacks or straw. When containers are made of any kind of pottery material, they and their contents must always be given frost-free winter conditions or else they are likely to fracture.

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Coffee Cups Colocasia
The latest fine leafed Colocasia to be introduced to cultivation is C. esculenta ‘Coffee Cups’. Released by Plant Delights Nursery Inc. in North Carolina, United States it was first discovered in the wild by Indonesian botanist Gregory Hambal. It was brought to the United States by aroid specialist Alan Galloway and is now available for all to enjoy. The foliage is a glossy olive green the cupped leaves on purple-back stems being capable of retaining water for a while before becoming over-weighted and tipping it out. The leaves then return to normal more.

Chief Executive Officer
One of the latest daylilies from Charles Douglas, and said to be one of his finest to date, is the well named ‘Chief Executive Officer’ introduced by Brown’s Ferry Gardens, Georgetown, South Carolina, United States. It is of a much-branched habit and produces a yellow blossoms with striking plum eye more. Surely a must for the grounds of every corporate headquarters.


18th-20th October
Feria de Valencia,
Feria de Valencia
PO Box 476
Valencia 46080
Tel: +34 96 3861100
Details: click here.

Happy Gardening



Today’s Sponsor

Herbs: Wikipedia
Colocasia: Plant Delights Nursery Inc
Daylily: Brown’s Ferry Gardens

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