TOP HERBS FOR SMALL SPACES
Whether you’ve downsized, are renting, or just short of space, there are plenty of ways to squeeze herbs into your garden, says Jane Wrigglesworth.
S hort on space? No problem. If your deck, front steps, or patio receives several hours of sunlight a day, you can grow an abundance of herbs to keep your kitchen stocked. I don’t have a lot of room in my own garden, but there are some tricks you can employ to make the most of any space.
Where there is little or no garden space, containers are ideal. They can sit just about anywhere – even on your driveway, if that’s where the sun is, or use hanging baskets where ground space is limited. Multi-tiered planters and containers that attach to deck and balcony railings can multiply your planting space, and wicker baskets, or other recycled containers, are good for a couple of years, providing you line the baskets with plastic first.
Pretty much anything will do as a plant container, but make sure it has drainage holes. Drill them, if necessary. Even old watering cans or vintage tins work well in informal settings. You might find that the tins rust eventually, but the rust is iron oxide, which is not very soluble.
‘‘There won’t be much available iron going into the soil and, as it happens, iron is an essential element for plants anyway,’’ says soil scientist Dr Tim Jenkins from the Centre for Sustainable Agricultural Technologies in Christchurch. ‘‘Most soils have naturally high iron levels but availability of the iron has more to do with soil pH (the more acid the soil, the more iron available) than with the presence of a few rust particles.’’
Most herbs thrive in containers. The exceptions are herbs like horseradish grown for their long roots. For them, choose a good size container (at least 30cm deep), and use free-draining potting mix. You can make your own potting mix, by combining one part compost, one part sharp sand, one part leaf mould or peat, and a little bonemeal.
With commercial potting mixes, there’s no need to mix in compost or extra fertiliser at planting time (although chives and basil do enjoy a little compost). Too rich a soil only encourages soft, lush growth that lacks flavour.
After a few months, however, when most of the potting mix’s fertiliser has leached out, your potted herbs will benefit from a regular feed. Once every 2 to 3 weeks, or even every month, is fine.
Don’t overfeed your herbs or the volatile oils will become diluted. Most Mediterranean herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, do best when they’re starved for attention, so go easy on the fertiliser. Chives and basil do well when fed regularly.
There’s no reason why you can’t plant several herbs in one container, but make sure it’s a large one and that the herbs you plant have similar tastes. It’s no good planting chives and rosemary together, for example – chives like a fertile soil with adequate moisture, whereas rosemary likes a lean one and will cope well in drought situations.
Funnily enough, while the most obvious herb for growing in a container is mint, it almost always does better in the ground. If you can grow it in a contained area in your garden, do so. If not, choose a very large container. Mint likes to stretch its legs. If its knees are cramped, its health will eventually deteriorate.
Got a gravel path? Use it to grow herbs of Mediterranean origin, which like good drainage. Choose herbs such as sage, savory, thyme, rosemary, lavender, oregano, marjoram, and tarragon.
To plant them, remove some of the gravel from your path and dig a hole or trench to a depth of 30cm. Add a 12cm layer of rubble to the hole, followed by 10cm of free-draining soil mix (three parts soil, two parts peat, and one part sharp sand). Then fill the hole with gravel.
You can grow a similar herb garden among your pavers. Remove alternating pavers to make a chequerboard pattern and plant up the bare spaces. Creeping herbs, such as thyme, Roman camomile ( Chamaemelum nobile), and Corsican mint ( Mentha requienii) are both ideal for such spaces.
LAWNS AND GROUNDCOVERS
If you have a spot in your backyard with bare soil or dispensable lawn, turn it into a fragrant herb lawn. Camomile, thyme, sweet woodruff ( Galium odoratum), sweet violet ( Viola odorata) and Corsican mint all work well as groundcovers. For a herbal lawn, try camomile or thyme.
Roman camomile is the one to choose, not German camomile ( Matricaria recutita), which is a taller growing annual. Roman camomile is a hardy perennial that forms a low-growing mat of evergreen foliage. Chamaemelum
nobile needs to be clipped once a year to keep it tidy, though the variety ‘Treneague’, which grows only 5-10cm high and has no flowers, needs no clipping at all. ‘Treneague’ still has the delicious apple scent of all chamomile foliage.
Thyme is drought-tolerant and produces masses of purple, pink, or white flowers in spring or summer, depending on the variety. The creeping thymes ( Thymus serpyllum and all its varieties) are ideal for lawns.
Woolly thyme ( Thymus pseudolanuginosus) also makes a great groundcover, as does Bressingham thyme ( Thymus
doerfleri ‘Bressingham’), which is one of the first to flower with brilliant pink blooms in spring, and
Thymus praecox ‘ Coccineus’, which has crimson flowers in early summer. Thymus praecox ‘Highland Cream’ has variegated green-andcream leaves and soft lavenderpink flowers in early summer.
They all require a sunny spot with free-draining soil. Clay soils are fine, so long as you improve the drainage first. Grit, sand, or pumice and organic matter should be dug in to a depth of at least 15cm before planting.
Look to specialist growers like No Mow or Herbs NZ for a good selection of thyme, or try your local garden centre or nursery.
For a mint-flavoured groundcover for part shade, try Corsican mint, a deliciously scented
plant with the tiniest leaves. It can be grown as a lawn substitute or in between pavers. Golden creeping Jenny ( Lysi
machia nummularia ’Aurea’) provides a low-growing carpet of leaves that are gold in full sun and green-gold in shade. It produces yellow flowers from late spring into summer. Creeping Jenny is much like ajuga – the stems root in the ground anywhere they touch, so new plants can be propagated by simply moving plantlets around.
Before planting any groundcover, first make sure you clear the area of weeds otherwise you’ll be forever weeding them out later.
Lift the turf with a spade to a depth of about 5cm, then dig over the whole area, pulling out any weeds. Add compost or grit if necessary and work this in.
Leave to settle, then, if necessary, spray with weed killer a couple of weeks later to target any emerging weeds, or dig them out, ensuring you remove the roots too.
This style of garden has become hugely popular, and makes sense for properties with little ground space. Pocket gardens can be bought at garden centres or specialist retailers, or you can even use an old shoe pocket organiser – the type that hangs in your closet or on the back of a door – to grow your herbs.
You can also make your own pocket garden with a durable, breathable material such as aquafelt, a reinforced polyester felt capillary matting, or non-woven geotextiles, available from specialist horticultural suppliers.
To make a pocket garden, cover a piece of treated wood with black polythene. Use a staple gun to attach it. Cut aquafelt or geotextile three times longer than your timber panel, and place the top part over the panel, lining up the top edge of the felt with the top edge of the wood.
In the top third of the panel, pull the felt up and fold it so that it forms a pocket. Staple the sides and the bottom of the pocket to set it in place.
Pull up and fold the felt in the middle of the panel to form another pocket, again stapling down the sides and the bottom of the pocket.
At the bottom third of the panel, fold felt up to form the last pocket then staple. Fold the bottom edge of the remaining felt under to the back of the panel and staple.
When finished, attach the timber panel to a fence, fill pockets with free-draining potting mix and plant up.
Herbs such as basil, thyme, rosemary, and sage flourish in pots – but not all herbs grow well together.
For more like this, subscribe to NZ Gardener at mags4gifts.co.nz