Of bathtubs and herbs
In our yard we have an assortment of odd items, many of them dropped off by well-wishing friends and neighbors convinced of our immediate need for whatever it is they are leaving us.
This explains why there are two claw-footed bathtubs, one on the side of the house near the flower boxes, and one by the shed the kids have named the Dog Hall of Fame.
Why did the kids name the shed the Dog Hall of Fame? I can’t remember. My husband thinks it is his tool shed. A young hen named KinKin thinks it is her personal hatchery and squawks at anyone seeking to retrieve a tool when she is nesting on her personal eggs.
At one point, the kids made a Dog Hall of Fame sign to hang over the shed door. That’s been lost, but it doesn’t matter because a well wisher left us another sign, hand-painted with the word “Strawberries” and a big drawing of same underneath the letters. We keep hanging the Strawberries sign on the Dog Hall of Fame but it keeps falling off, and we suspect that’s KinKin’s doing — she would probably prefer a sign that says “Good Hen.”
At any rate, the bathtub outside the Good Hen shed last week became an herb garden. Not that we need a container herb garden — we have rows of basil and cilantro and dill in the kitchen garden, and a little terraced herb garden out the back door with oregano and lemon balm and chives in it, and there’s sage and lavender and thyme in the flower gardens. And mint just about everywhere else.
But there was the bathtub, just sitting there, and some extra herbs in pots, and there’s just something nice about container gardens. They are beautiful, easy to tend and it’s handy to have every herb you might need in one spot.
If you don’t have room for a garden, containers are a good way to keep fresh herbs on hand, and fresh herbs in your supper and your salad is one of the easiest ways to bring summer into your home. Last weekend we had several extra visitors at dinner, and we stretched out our salad of baby lettuce and spinach with mint, lemon balm, oregano, chives and wild amaranth. It was so good that the next night we made a salad of mostly herbs, with just a little lettuce mixed in.
We’ve made fine container herb gardens in strawberry pots — those tall terra cotta pots with a series of openings in the sides. Each opening can hold another herb — parsley, rosemary, thyme or whatever you love most — and the top can hold taller herbs like chives or basil. One year we gave one to the friend our hen KinKin is named after, and she kept it on the steps outside her kitchen door. She could step outside and pinch fresh herbs as she was cooking.
That friend has the space for a garden, but not the inclination for one, so a mini garden in a container makes sense. We’ve given her containers of select vegetables too — cherry tomatoes, hot peppers — but mostly she likes herbs.
Other friends have used their window boxes as herb gardens, and our New York City friend has been nursing along a hot pepper plant and a container of oregano and thyme on his windowsill for 10 years or more.
Before she moved to Ohio, our friend Vera used to grow her entire vegetable garden in containers, convinced that the various pests in her yard and neighborhood would not let anything grow in the ground. Also she didn’t feel like bending over all the time. So she outfitted her side yard with a dozen half-whiskey barrels, which you can find at garden supply stores, and grew everything in there — zucchini, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, peppers, lettuce, peas. I do not remember her growing carrots, but maybe she doesn’t like carrots.
She got a pretty good yield from her container vegetables, and the only drawback was the need to water nightly during hot and dry spells. For us, it was only a drawback when Vera went away for a few days, because we had to do the watering.
If you are planting a container garden, make sure the pot is big enough. If your pots are too small, you might have to water several times a day in hot weather. A too-small container also will dwarf your plants, and if your plants are vegetables, well, you won’t get many. And don’t over-plant — remember that your cute little plants will grow a lot. That’s why half-whiskey barrels and old bathtubs are nice — there’s plenty of room for deep roots, and enough soil to hold water.
Even if the opening of your container isn’t very big, a deep container will offer enough space for a good root system to support a healthy plant. You can buy big pots at garden supply stores but they are pricey, so look around your basement, garage and attic, or at yard sales and the town junk store for something big enough. A colleague used to grow his tomatoes in old plastic mail bins; a neighbor grew potatoes in old metal garbage cans. Back in our apartment-with-parking-area days, we used old drawers from former dressers as containers. Once the plants start filling out with foliage, flowers or vegetables, even the junkiest looking container turns beautiful.
My old bathtub does not look beautiful yet, but in a month or so it will. It’s got dill, parsley, basil, nasturtium, marjoram and rosemary in it, and I’m looking forward to the day I can hand one of the kids a scissors and a basket and send them to one place to trim for the salads.
And I still have that other bathtub to plant. I’m thinking of putting in flowers for a cutting garden. That way, the kids can pick me a nice bouquet after they’re done getting me herbs.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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