John Reinhardt is an urban planner, writer, photographer, and urban gardener. An avid cook, John is interested in the intersection of urban design, sustainability, and food systems planning. He currently resides in Washington DC and works for the American Planning Association. He currently writes Grown in the City, a blog about urban gardening and food systems planning.
While many of us urban dwellers have dreams of a small peaceful acre out in the countryside where we can garden to our heart’s content, in reality, many of us are lucky to have a sunny windowsill in an English basement.
One of the easiest ways for curious urban gardeners with limited space to test the waters is with a small herb garden. That said, there are some simple tips to avoid heartbreak and a windowsill of (unintentionally) dried herbs.
Continues after the jump.
Not having large enough pots
One of the easiest ways to get started is with an herb kit. You can purchase them from many garden supply stores – I think I even saw one at Target this past spring. Many come with small pots, seeds, and some sort of “starter pellet” (usually coconut coir). The main issue I have with these is that many are designed to fail – too small pots, starter pellets with non-nutritious soil, and seeds that aren’t right for your growing conditions. I say skip the herb kit and get the largest pots you can comfortably fit in your kitchen or on your windowsill – and make sure that they have drainage holes! (None of those cute Ikea pots that don’t drain. More on that later.)
The other way most people get their herbs is at a farmer’s market or garden store. I can’t tell you how many friends buy a plant, sit it on their windowsill, and then wonder why it’s dead in two weeks. Many of the herbs you buy will come in small plastic starter containers. Herbs such as rosemary and mint like to spread their roots – put them in a larger pot when you get them home!
Over or under-watering
This is one of the main culprits of a failed herb garden, and I can’t stress this enough – buy pots with drainage holes. There are many adorable herb pots out there that don’t have drainage holes! This is a recipe for overwatering, which leads to all sorts of problems – and ultimately dead herbs. If you must use the cute pots, add some large pebbles to the bottom so that water can drain through the soil layer.
Once you determine what you’d like to grow, do some research to find out how much water the herb will need. Some herbs thrive in wet, moist conditions – or can do well with a week of neglect followed by a heavy soaking (anyone who’s had an indoor herb garden has probably done this!). Some herbs are much more fickle and need a regular watering to thrive – while some prefer drier conditions. Which leads me to my last point…
Growing the wrong herbs for your conditions
Not all herbs are created equal. For example, rosemary – a plant that originated in the dry, rocky, Mediterranean – is an herb that loves well drained soil, lots of sun, and warm climates. How many of us have been guilty of putting a small Rosemary plant we picked up at Safeway in a dark corner of our air-conditioned kitchen and watered it to death? Guilty. Learn about the origins of your herbs and tailor them to the reality of your conditions. Where you can, fake the conditions – for example, repotting the rosemary plant in a mix of potting soil and sand.
There is much more information on urban gardening at my blog, www.growninthecity.com, including plans for a self-watering herb planter, made out of recycled yogurt containers, which takes most of the guess work out of planting herbs.