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Wednesday, April 25, 2007 03:30 pm

Growing herbs in containers

Add color to your landscape -- and flavor to your cooking

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Untitled Document Growing plants can be great fun — especially if the plants are easy to care for. The plants that grow in my yard must do so with minimal care, and that’s why my favorite group of plants is culinary herbs. Not only do these plants add a variety of color to the landscape and help fill perennial and herb gardens, they also add flavor to your favorite dishes. Not only can growing herbs in containers be fun, you also get to add variety, fragrance, and a splash of color to a deck, balcony, patio, or other small space. Herbs can be planted alone in containers or mixed with annual flowers or vegetables.
So what kind of container is needed? Anything that will hold potting medium and has drainage holes, which are an absolute must. The container should complement, not compete with, the plants that will be placed in it and should blend with the surroundings. Select a container large enough to permit root growth. Most herb plants will need a soil depth of 6 to 8 inches, but taller ones, such as dill and fennel, require at least 10 inches of soil. To reduce the amount of potting medium needed, fill the bottom of a deeper container with sweet-gum balls. If you have used your chosen container before, wash and sterilize it before reusing it. Wash it with soapy water and sterilize it with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water. What kind of growing medium should you use? Plants grown in containers do best in good-quality potting medium. The mix should be sterile, should retain moisture, and should permit aeration. Container-grown plants will need fertilizer throughout the growing season. Purchase a potting medium containing slow-release fertilizer, or use a soluble complete fertilizer after planting. Don’t overdo the soluble fertilizer; too much will cause herb plants to grow quickly, diminishing their flavor and aroma. Which herbs will grow best in containers? Herbs with compact growth habits and drought-tolerant herbs do particularly well. Tender perennial herbs, such as rosemary, are also good choices, and a plant with a trailing habit will look nice cascading over the edge of a pot. For some fun, pick a theme for your container. Here are some theme ideas to get you started:
• Chocolate-covered strawberries — chocolate mint and a strawberry plant. • Lemon drop — lemon basil, golden lemon thyme, lemongrass, lemon balm, and lemon verbena. • Pizza garden — oregano, sage, thyme, marjoram, and winter savory. • Kitchen corner — thyme, lavender, sage, oregano, parsley, rosemary, and chives. How many herb plants will fit in a container? A 12-inch container will hold three or four; a 15-inch container can support five or six. Herb plants grow best in a full-sun location with some late-afternoon shade. How about watering? The most important thing to remember is that container gardens must be watered; most common problems stem from under- or overwatering. Overwatering, which may cause root rot, fungal infestation, or fungus gnats, is marked by wilting and reduced growth. Underwatering is signaled by wilting and scorching. As with overwatering, repeated wilting will stunt growth. Apply water until it runs from the drainage holes. Containers dry out quickly, so check them at least twice a day on hot, dry, windy days.
Harvest herbs regularly to keep plant growth compact and bushy. Herb plants are easy to maintain, can be grown in almost any full-sun location, and give gardeners the satisfaction of eating the fruits of their labors.
Herbs at home
Next week I’ll be leading a course, “Using Culinary Herbs in the Landscape,” as part of the spring University of Illinois Extension horticulture telenet series. As you now know, such plants add scent to the garden and flavor to your favorite recipes. Many boast ornamental foliage and flowers and work well with other garden plants. I’ll share tips for growing herbs and figuring out their placement in the landscape. Join me at 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 1, or 7 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at the Sangamon-Menard Extension office, on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. The presentation will be delivered by way of the University of Illinois telenet system and local PowerPoint presentations, which will permit live discussion with gardeners throughout Illinois. Call 217-782-4617 to reserve a seat and information packet. The cost is $2 per session. 

Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon. 
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