They cannot be contained (except when they can…)

Hello to our fellow denizens of the soil, tenders of the garden! Our plants are loving this weather and are growing with purpose, enjoying these temperatures and humidity far more than I am, where the sun and the temperatures provide a persuasive reason for staying in the shade and air conditioning. Not even the hot weather has been able to keep us away from our burgeoning harvest, as we have been able to pick peas and radishes, cut garlic scapes, and tend to the beds to ensure the plants, especially the finicky peppers, can grow as much as they can during these stretches of ideal weather.

In addition to our beds, we are growing plants in containers. We have several, which adds an extra dimension to what is already a challenging enough pursuit. Unlike a garden bed, you do not have as much control over the environmental variables you can expose your plants to nor do you have as many options for maintaining growth. Once it’s in a pot, it’s in a pot. About all you can do is water and fertilize it. You do not have the relative freedom provided by a bed: fewer ways to control moisture levels, limited space for roots to grow, better exposure to the environment. Containers do have one obvious advantage though. You can physically move them. Not getting enough sun or water? Maybe the other side of the deck is better. Not getting enough nutrients? All of that fertilizer is going to one plant.

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The pros and cons of beds versus containers is one where the pros are firmly in favor of the bed, but you can still have success with a container. Living in rental apartments over the last few years has forced us to learn the best practices of container gardening, lest I end up empty handed. Other than large heirlooms, which I have given up all hope on successfully cultivating in a container, I’ve had varying levels of success. From an over wintered habanero to an especially precocious bell pepper plant, it is possible to have a good harvest even if it has to be done on your back porch or in your front window. Here are a few of the most important things I’ve noted from my attempts the last few years, bountiful and futile alike:

  1. Water. Unlike in a bed, where it’s hard to over water to the point of killing them because it’ll run off, if the pot is not well drained or in the sun, it’ll stay moist a lot longer than a bed will, meaning root rot is a distinct possibility. Only water when you are sure the dirt is completely dry or the plant has begun to wilt.
  2. Sunlight. This is one area where containers can be better than gardens. You have to work within the limitations of your space, but you can sometimes better accommodate the light needs of your plants because of the portability of pots.
  3. Fertilizer. This is a the toughest part and the lesson it took me the longest to learn. Even an unfertilized garden will have nutrients passing into the soil consistently from organic matter, worms, animals, and more entering the ecosystem. A pot is a relatively self-contained environment. Once the nutrients from the soil are gone, they’re gone and if your plants runs out of nutrients while it’s trying to fruit, you’ll be out of luck.
  4. Pot size. This is one case where bigger is better. Never underestimate the ability of a plant to grow roots. In a garden bed they’ll be able to go down as deep as they need, but in a container they’ll be constrained. Use as a big of a pot as you can manage to give your plant the most room to expand. Not to mention a bigger pot will hold more nutrients, decreasing the amount you need to fertilize.
  5. Optimism. Sometimes you just need to keep at it and hope for the best. Last year we had a black bell pepper that put out three delicious peppers by August and then nothing. We kept at it, watering and fertilizing regularly, and got another dozen peppers before the first frost.

Does anyone out there have any tips for container gardening? I’d love to be able to grow full-size heirloom tomatoes some year! Until next time!

Thyme is not always on our side

I love thyme. It’s my favorite herb and I cook with it as much as I can. The distinctive strong aroma and bold taste means it easily stands on its own as the star of a dish but the flavor profile also blends well with many other herbs and seasonings from warm climates, creating beautiful medleys on the stove top and in the salad bowl.  I always have some on hand in the spice cabinet and when in doubt with what to add to a meal I’ll usually give it a few shakes of thyme.  The only problem is that the dried version is nowhere near as flavorful as the growing plant and much to my chagrin I can never seem to keep a thyme plant alive! We’ve tried to grow a thyme plant in a container the last few years and all have kicked the bucket on us. An attempt or two directly in the garden failed as well. This year, instead of leaving the fate of our new thyme plant up to fate and our incapable hands, I’ve done some research and aim for better success for our humble plant this year.

Growing Thyme

Our thyme plant will be a primarily indoor plant with some time spent outside during the summer months, so most of my planting plan is built around that.  Thyme originates from the Mediterranean region and likes a well drained soil on the sandier side.  In retrospect, this was our most common mistake, as we have planted it in potting soil designed to retain moisture as well as garden beds heavy on clay in the past.  This year, I’ve mixed some cactus soil (heavy on sand and perlite) with potting soil to create a more hospitable environment for our thyme plant.

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In addition to this, thyme requires mostly full to full sun to grow. Last year we had it on our back porch, which gets only a few hours of the morning sun. No wonder it died so quickly! Heavy potting soil and limited sunlight does not do a thyme good.  We will be keeping it in our front windows with the occasional trip up to our roof deck for the summer months. Hopefully the better sun and soil conditions will yield a healthy thyme plant whose leaves will impart their fragrance to our cooking this summer, instead of the usual dried out and dead mess we have by June.

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(Here it is in its new home! Hopefully the more spacious confines will give it space to fill out over the next few weeks.)

Anybody have any other tips for growing thyme or other herbs? We’d love to hear them! Also, if you have a favorite recipe featuring thyme please feel free to share! We always love trying out new recipes in the kitchen.