Advanced Tips for your Edible Container Garden

Having fresh herbs for salads, fish, or other delightful dishes is great, but I bet many of you probably think that this is only a summer delight.  Suppose you can have fresh herbs all winter, would you?  Well, good news, you can.  Have your herbs in a container garden and you can enjoy fresh herbs all year round.  All you need to do is learn how to grow your herbs in containers and keep them growing through the winter.

What are the climates for most herbs?  Many herbs do grow in northern climates and in the wild, they die off during the first hard freeze of the late autumn, but prior to dying off, they go to seed and the seeds fall into soil and survive the whole winter and grow again new in the spring.  Some of the seeds get eaten by birds and when the birds let out their droppings, the seeds then have their own fertilizer packet and will grow almost anywhere.  Some herbs, however, grow in warmer climates, like subtropical and tropical climates.

Typically, most herbs which are used in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and southeast Asian cuisines grow best outside in subtropical climates.  These are herbs, such as rosemary, oregano (all varieties), tarragon, lemon grass, and basil.  Other herbs, commonly used in north European and American cuisine grow almost anywhere.  These include herbs, such as sage, thyme, mint, chives, and parsley.  The only problem is that these herbs, such as thyme, chives, mint, and parsley will dry out and die in the latter part of the fall, when freezing temperatures begin to be more frequent.

Other herbs, such as sage, are small bushes.  These can also be potted.  Sage, is a great herb for breakfast sausage, along with parsley, thyme, and maple syrup.  Mint is manly used in sweets in the northern climates, however, in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and some Central Asian cultures, mint is often used together with cinnamon in meats, creating a delightful taste.

Dill is also an herb which practically grows anywhere.  Dill goes especially good with fish.  When making gravlox or codlox, drizzle some dried dill or place three to four sprigs of fresh dill over the fish before you wrap it up and compress it.  Dill is also a good pickling herb and is often used with pickles, and Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians will also use dill to pickle tomatoes and other vegetables.  Dill is also used in many mushroom dishes and Russians like to put a bit of fresh dill on their national dish, pelmieny, with sour cream.  (pelmieny are little pork dumplings which are often boiled and eaten with sour cream and dill)

Potting rosemary can be a rather complicated process.  Rosemary is often grown for its wonderful aroma and used in many Italian dishes.  Rosemary almost looks like an evergreen plant which can grow up to three to four feet tall, like a small bush, thus it is a good idea to plant them into a rather large pot.  Rosemary needs to be inside during the cold winter months.   Rosemary is a subtropical herb and will not handle hard freezes.

Rosemary is also very temperamental during watering.  Typically, rosemary is heavily used in Tuscan cuisine and often used with chicken, fish, and even in some breads.  Tuscany does have a temperate climate, yet warmer than other climates further north.  Furthermore, most of Italy is a semi-arid climate, thus rosemary does not need very much water.  Over watering can very easily kill your rosemary plant.

Signs of overwatering are rather simple.  Rosemary can be very susceptible to crown rot, which will in effect kill the entire plant.  Signs to look for which indicate crown rot in rosemary plants include the following:

  1. Leaves begin to get brown at the very tip. This is typically the first sign of crown rot.
  2. The tops of the vertical branches begin to wilt. This is clearly a sign that the crown rot is rather advanced and chances of saving the plant are slim.
  3. The final stage, leaves turn brown and the entire plant begins to wither and turns completely brown as the plant is now completely dead.

What is crown rot?  Crown rot is when the crown of the plant rots.  The crown is not the top of the plant, it’s at the bottom, basically, it is the crown of the roots.  This is a vital part of any plant because the crown actually brings the nutrients from the roots to the stem and branches of the plant.  This is a very important part of the plant, since if the delivery of nutrients is disrupted, the plant basically starves to death.  You never want to bury the crown.  Sometimes, especially with rosemary, it’s a good idea to plant the top of the plant a little bit above the dirt level of the pot.  This will keep the crown dry and free from rotting.

Starting from seed is also a great way to start your container garden.  The only problem with seeds is that they take a long time to grow.  Seeds can be temperamental to grow.  It’s not just as easy as putting a seed in to a pot filled with fresh dirt and letting it grow.  Most seeds you buy in the store are dried and thus to germinate, they have to be wet.

The best way to wet the seeds and keep them moist is to simply have a small tray with some wet paper towels as seen below.  You want to tuck the wet seeds into the wet paper towels so they have a moist environment.  Within a week or two, the seeds will begin to germinate.  You will easily notice when the seeds begin to germinate.  When you see the seeds germinate, you will see little green shoots coming out of them.  Then you want to carefully place them in moist soil mixed with pearlite.

What is pearlite?  Well, pearlite is a small white volcanic rock which is pulverized into grains about the size or smaller than a grain of rise.  You want to mix this with good black potting soil and organic fertilizer.  Pearlite is always mixed into potting soil to allow for drainage, and prevent residual water retention.  There are some potting soil brands which already have pearlite mixed into it.  Porous soil is important, because too much water can be just as bad as too little water.

When planting your newly germinated seeds, you want to plant them into small square pots where there is not much risk of residual water retention.  These pots need to be shallow and the soil needs to be loose enough for the seedling to begin producing roots.  Typically, for seedlings, you want to get small trays which fit into a flat.  A tray is small plastic container which has six compartments.  Some trays my only have two or three.  These compartments are relatively small and just big enough for the seedling to get itself established.  You want to let your seedling grow for about three to six months before planting it into a larger pot.

What herbs should I have in my container garden?  Herbs are a wonderful variety of plants which can be clipped as you need them for cooking and provide a great aroma.  Some herbs, like rosemary, basil, and mint can give a wonderful aroma around them.  I just love to put my nose at these plants and take in the wonderful fragrance they bring out.  Note, that some herbs can be left outside and will come back in the spring, but many are annuals, so if you want to keep them throughout the winter, bring them inside.  A list of herbs and their photos are listed below.

Rosemary is a Mediterranean herb commonly used in Italian cuisine.  It’s often used with Tuscan chicken and added into bread dough and baked into breads with the wonderful herbal flavor of the plant.  Rosemary is also surprisingly good with plank-grilled salmon with lemon juice and a tomato-basil relish.

A young rosemary plant

Note, when planting a rosemary plant, you want to have a rather large pot.  Rosemary plants can get rather large.  If you are lucky enough for your rosemary to survive its first winter, by springtime, you can have a rosemary plant over three feet tall.  When cooking with fresh rosemary from your plant, it’s best to clip the sprigs from the top.  This will control its height because when a sprig is clipped, two new branches will grow where you cut off a sprig.

Cilantro is another favorite herb of mine.  Though its fragrance and taste can be an acquired taste, cilantro is one of the healthiest herbs you can have in your container garden.  Cilantro is capable of cleaning your body of harmful heavy metals, like lead and mercury.  Widely used in many different cuisines throughout the world, is used in many salsas and dishes throughout Latin America and Mexico.  Known as kindzi by the Georgians, cilantro is heavily used in both Georgian and Armenian cuisine in sauces, relishes, or even served on the side with kupati sausages and kababi.  Cilantro is also used in some Middle Eastern, Greek, and Italian dishes.

Cilantro

Parsley is a very common herb which can add flavor and decoration to your dishes and has a huge variety.  Though not as fragrant as cilantro or rosemary, it is often chopped up and used in breakfast sausage, Georgian khinkali and kababi, and in a wide variety of different dishes and salads throughout the world.  Italians often prefer the flat-leaf parsley, but you also have curled-leaf parsley, and more.

Flat-leaf parsley

Dill is a wonderful aromatic herb with fine lace-like leaves.  Dill is often used as a pickling and canning herb and often used in pickles, pickled tomatoes, and other pickled vegetables and even mushrooms.  Many eastern European and Russian mushroom dishes often include a couple sprigs of dill along with liver.  Russians also like to have dill in their sour cream over boiled pelmieni and in their borsch.  Dill is also excellent with fish, whether cooking the fish or drizzling it on the top of a fillet of salmon or cod for dry curing into gravlax or codlax.

Dill

Sage is a great herb with a wonderful aroma.  Sage has broad light olive green leaves with a fuzzy surface.  Along with parsley, sage is also chopped up and used in American breakfast sausage.  Sage can get rather large, so prepare accordingly when planting,

Sage

Thyme is another wonderful herb with a mild fragrance and small leaves.  Thyme is an herb widely used in many dishes.  Along with sage and parsley, thyme is also chopped up and used in American breakfast sausage.  Thyme is also dried and crushed into a powder and used as seasoning in different salads, soups, and other wonderful dishes.

Thyme

Oregano is a very well known herb.  There are also many cultivars and hybrids of oregano.  You have Greek oregano, Italian oregano, spicy oregano, and more.  Eating oregano by itself can set your mouth on a five-alarm fire, but it is great in soups, pastas, pasta sauces, ketchups, and more.  Depending on what you are cooking, different varieties of this herb are used.  Typically, most Italian recipes will require Italian oregano, and many Greek and Middle Eastern recipes will require Greek oregano.  They are different.  Greek oregano has rather large leaves and grows rather quickly.  Italian oregano has small leaves and grows more bushy.

Greek Oregano

Italian Oregano

Mint is a wonderful herb.  Many of you think of mint being used in sweets, such as different candies and cookies, but mint is also great as tea.  In fact, mint tea is great for calming nerves and relieving stress.  Mint is also surprisingly found in many meat recipes found in Arab, Persian, and Central Asian dishes.  When choosing mint, there is a word of caution.  When looking for mint to plant, you want regular mint, and not the peppermint.  Peppermint should only be used in teas and sweets.  Peppermint is very strong.

Mint

Other herbs which are not photographed include lemon grass, which is a form of grass and has a lemon-like flavor.  It is often used in Thai and other Indochinese dishes.  Lavender is also an herb, but it’s not an edible herb.  Lavender has a wonderful fragrance and beautiful light violet flowers.  Lavender is used in soaps, perfumes, and lotions.  Lavender can also be dried up and used in a popuri of fragrant herbs as an air freshener in your bathroom or other parts of your home.

Laurel is also a wonderful herb, but unless you’re a master at bonsai, Laurel is not the ideal container herb.  Laurel is actually a tree and the leaves are also commonly known as bay leaves.  Bay leaves are often placed in pickled vegetables and mushrooms as well as in marinades and brines for meats to add flavor.  Bay leaves should not be eaten, but they are good for giving flavor.

Melissa is more a medicinal herb and is often used in teas to calm you down and help you go to sleep at night.

Marjoram is also a wonderful cooking herb.  Marjoram is used in a wide variety of soups, sausages, and many other tasty dishes.

Being creative with your herb garden can also create a wonderful area on your balcony in the summertime or in your sun room in the wintertime.   You don’t always need to have your potted herb garden be simply functional, but as you discover growing your herbs, some of these herbs are just a beautiful as they are fragrant and tasty.  You can always mix your herbs with flowers and enjoy an array of color and different shades of green.  Wonderful flowers and decorative plants which you can add to your herb garden include coleus, impatients, Easter lilies, and hibiscus.

Caring for your herbs is rather easy and is less costly than buying your herbs from the grocery store every time you want to cook.   Watering your herbs is critical.  Like any other plant, herbs need water but you do not want to overwater them.  Feel the soil before you water.  If the soil feels moist, do not water.  If the soil is dry, then water.  Water little by little.  If the water disappears quickly, then you are watering correctly.  If you listen closely, you can even hear the roots of your plants suck the water up. If you notice the soil feels wet, then you gave your plant enough water.

Trimming and clipping your herbs also needs to be done carefully.  Do not clip off too much, as that can do damage to the plant.  Herbs, like any other plant, need their leaves to survive.  It is always a good idea to wait and let your herbs grow for a few weeks before you clip them for cooking.  This allows the herbs to get established and let their root system recover from the chock of being transplanted.

Fertilizing your herbs is rather simple.  The key is to only use organic fertilizer.  Never use the MiracleGro products.  Though MiracleGro will get your plants big fast, they do not have the nutrients organic fertilizers have.  If you don’t have the patients for your herbs to grow slowly, you will be pleasantly surprised.  With the right organic fertilizer, your herbs will grow faster than you think.

The best way to fertilize your potted herbs is to mix some of the organic fertilizer grains with the soil when you plant your newly bought herbs and add some in the hole where you plan to plant your herb.  I did this and within a week, my cilantro is already knee-high and my sage is getting close to that height.  You can also fertilize your older plants by poking a hole with your finger into the dirt near the plant and place a few grains of the organic fertilizer in it.

Creative ways to have herbs in your container garden are many.  You can simply have your herbs all together by themselves, but if you love color and like flower and foliage, you can mix your potted herbs with a variety of house plants and flowers which would typically be classified as annuals.   My favorite flowers to bring inside for the winter are coleus and impatients.  They have beautiful color and foliage.  Adding herbs into the mix makes it more beautiful and functional.

A great way to have your herbal container garden

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