Monday, March 01, 2004

yeah, yeah, yeah ... now lets talk about herbs

The other day Tripp left a comment that he was ready to talk about herbs in window boxes.

I've not much experience in window box herb gardening (or any kind of window box gardening), so I post this as a bit of dialogue. Feel free to correct or add to the conversation.


Herbs like sun. They, like most sun loving perennials, need at least six hours of direct sunlight.


Many herbs do not like wet or rich soils (e.g., sage and rosemary). They grow in a warm climate on thin rocky soils. So if you are planting sage or rosemary or lavendar, don't water them too much.

You will need a potting soil that will allow for moisture to drain through, with enough stuff in it to hold on to some moisture, particularly for the other plants that need more water. While I usually make my own potting soil (no virtue in this other than I like mixing dirt), you can easily buy a bag of pre-made potting soil. Make sure that your container has drain holes so that moisture doesn't stay trapped in the pot or box. In a terracotta pot, I often put gravel in the bottom, with a few broken pieces or chards, and then put in the dirt. This helps drain excess water.

Potting soil is much lighter than the soil found in the ground. Because of its lightness, the plant will be able to root out easily, and the dirt won't dry out so fast (unlike ground soil). Why? Because ground dirt that is put in a container has heat coming at it from two to three sides as well as exposure to air. In the ground, it is only exposed to the surface air and temperature, while below surface it keeps its moisture because the temps are cooler. Ground dirt pulled out of the ground and exposed to heat and air becomes brick.


Some herbs are cool weather. For example, coriander (or cilantro) is a cool weather annual. Once the temps warm up, the plant quits its leaf production (cilantro) and starts going to seed (coriander). Then it dies.

Rosemary will not survive winter outside in zone 5 (Indy or Chicago). In a protected place, with mulch, it might survive one year or two. But eventually it will die. This is a heartbreaking fact.

Sage will survive. Chives will survive. Some thymes will survive. Parsley will survive, however it is a biennial (lives for two years, mostly) so you will need to replace it (cue Simon and Garfunkel).

In winter, you may want to repot and place rosemary plants in a very sunny window. They won't grow big, but they will continue to live (cue Susan Hayward).


Plants need moisture. In Austin, during summer time, I had to water my potted plants once a day and sometimes twice. The trick to watering is to stick your finger into the dirt. If it is bone dry, then provide water. If it is damp, do not add water.

This is where the so-called green thumb comes in. Plants are not objects. they are living things. They need air, sunlight, water and food. If they are not getting these things, they will die. The green thumb is the person who actually starts to notice their plants and thus respond. The green thumb is the person who, while not knowing enough to be a smarty pants, will start asking questions. Like why are the plant's leaves turning yellow (too much water?). Or why are the plant's leaves turning brown (not enough water?).

Observe. Ask. Don't be afraid to make a mistake. You can always throw the plant away and start over. But try to learn a few things.

The Big Bang

One shouldn't garden without asking philosophical or moral questions. Why herbs? For cooking? Sure. For theological tradition? Monks tended herb gardens for food and for medicinal purposes. Yes to the above, but so what.

It is, I think, the tactile pleasure of herbs, the smells that smear on your hands when you touch or pinch them, the subtle colors, the textures, that calm the crazed person who needs to stop and catch his or her breath.

Herbs are humble, not peacocks, but faithful and steady friends, living plants that deserve a place in your garden.

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