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.

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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.

CON­TAIN­ERS

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.

GRAVEL GAR­DENS

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.

VER­TI­CAL GAR­DENS

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.

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