How does your garden grow? My dad loved to alter the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, quite contrary…. “ I’m sure you remember it:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
Dad’s version began “Cheri, Cheri, quite contrary.” Hearing him say that phrase is ingrained in my mind. That doesn’t mean I’ve spent a lot of time gardening, but it may or may not mean I’ve spent a lot of time being contrary. This year that is shifting. Herbs on the back porch are not enough. I just dug up brand new sod to plant a vegetable garden.
In early March, I sat on my neighbor’s porch drinking rosé and describing new landscaping plans for my back yard. Two weeks later, we’d been ordered to stay home and I quickly realized many links in the food chain are weak. What if they break? I grew up on a farm helping my grandmother dig potatoes and my great aunts shell peas. My next thought was, I need to plant a garden and get some chickens.
I immediately ordered an electric hand tiller, hoe, shovel, some rabbit wire, fence poles, and a variety of seeds. Panic buying had just begun and already seeds were scarce. If I had done my normal amount of planning, everything would have been gone. I stuck to basics defined by availability and kept the garden to dimensions that would fit within one roll of rabbit wire.
By the time everything arrived and I had the soil prepped, it was early May. Farmers’ markets were opening with vegetables ready to sell. I hadn’t started the seeds in pots. I hadn’t yet planted anything. It felt like I was months behind. I just kept telling myself it would be okay. We have a long growing season in the South. The timing will be fine.
A month later, I have beautiful arugula ready to eat! In a couple of days I’ll begin harvesting lettuce. And soon I’ll have cherry tomatoes, summer squash, and zucchini to add to my salad. Eventually, there will be carrots and green beans to harvest. Some days, I wish I’d planted more. Some days my back is tired from weeding and I’m glad I kept it small.
When I lived in an apartment, I could not have done this. When I had a yard filled with sweet gum trees, it would have taken too long and been too expensive to get started. But even with those obstacles, I managed to get my hands dirty growing herbs and peppers. There’s something healing about the smell and feel of fresh soil. I only wear gloves if fences or stickers are involved. Otherwise, I prefer my bare hands in the soil.
Thirty years ago, I grew my first herbs in small clay pots placed in a little red wagon my kids had outgrown. I would move the wagon around as needed to get optimum sun. I loved watching them grow. I loved the smells. I loved having them available for cooking. And they gave me an opportunity to play in the dirt. I’ve had herbs on my back porch most summers ever since.
How does YOUR garden grow?
It’s not too late to plant some herbs in pots if you’d like to give it a try. If you’re staying home during the pandemic, you can order seed starting kits online and have clay pots and potting soil delivered along with a Walmart grocery order…maybe. Shortages and delays in shipping still exist so a starter kit will let you get seedlings started while you locate and obtain the supplies you need to transplant them into pots.
I like to start seeds outdoors so that I don’t have to transition them to outdoor temperatures and light later. My plants start out accustomed to heat and humidity. If you want to grow your herbs indoors, it will be more appropriate to start indoors. Or if you plant when it’s cold outside, you can slowly transition the starter pots with increasing amounts of heat and light before you begin to transplant.
Most years, I plant basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, and mint. Sometimes I add oregano, dill, parsley, cilantro, or chives to the mix. This year, the selection is a bit different due to availability. A starter kit may not allow you flexibility to substitute, but a variety of kits are available to mix and match. All of the herbs listed above will thrive in a pot as will tarragon, lavender, and lemon balm.
What you’ll need for seeds or plants
While I’m selecting plants, I purchase some potting soil. Miracle-Gro® offers a whole line of soils for containers. If you’re not confident you’ll water consistently, choose a mix that helps control moisture.
Specialty soils are pricey. If budget is a concern, there are other options. Last year, I chose a sandy inexpensive soil in 40 lb bags from the hardware store. The bags ran about $4 each. I used it for all of my plants including a large rubber tree, ivy, and a couple of pineapples. It’s hard to judge whether the cheaper soil affected growth rate, but everything was alive and well through the fall and early winter.
Of course you need something to put that soil in. I get the best results from clay pots with a drain hole in the bottom, but I use whatever I have handy. Herbs grow quickly so it’s okay to transplant seedlings directly into a fairly large planter.
To plant, I place a few small rocks in the bottom of each container to keep soil from blocking the drain. I partially fill a pot with potting soil, set the herbs in the pot then finish filling the container with soil pressing lightly around the seedlings to secure them.
For the next few days, I water diligently. Then I go to a somewhat haphazard watering schedule keeping an eye out for drooping or yellow leaves to let me know if I’m on track. When the leaves droop, I water. If the leaves turn yellow, I stop watering for a few days. You can also test the soil with your finger to determine whether it’s dry or moist.
Where to grow
My back porch leads directly into my kitchen so it’s a great place for pots of herbs. Much of it gets direct afternoon sun, but there are partially shaded spots where I put plants that can’t tolerate direct sun.
When you purchase seeds, the package will tell you the ideal conditions for your plant. If you purchase plants, they typically have an insert in the pot telling you how much sun and water are best for that particular species. If either of these is missing such information, it is readily available online.
A sunny spot doesn’t have to be outside. It could be in front of a window or patio door. You’ll just want to avoid placing pots too near heat and air vents. To protect your floor, counter, or furniture use a saucer underneath to catch draining water. Inside herbs add a wonderful aroma to any room.
If you don’t have space near a window, look for a nook or cranny in which you can place a grow light. Non-functioning fireplaces make a fantastic growing space. The built-in china cabinets sometimes found in old houses can be adapted as well. Your eyes and imagination will most likely lead to the perfect spot.
There’s no denying this is a stressful time. Connecting to the earth and watching the wonder of natural growth lifts my spirits. Smelling appetizing aromas pleases my senses. Whether a garden grows in the ground in the back yard or pots on the porch, cultivating and maintaining it is a healthy and welcome pastime.
I am happy with how my garden grows. I still haven’t bought any chickens.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”