Archive for June 4th, 2013

June 4, 2013

Backyard Connections: Growing Herbs in Containers

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education (123)

“I remember my first plant fondly: It was a little parsley grown from seed in a cup. I was five.”
 – Gayla Trail, prolific author and founder of the garden blog You Grow Girl

Imagine that you are about to take a refreshing drink of iced tea…now imagine that ice tea with some delicious mint leaves or some tangy sorrel to punch up the flavor. Where would we be without herbs? They are the workhorses of the garden, adding bright bursts of flavor into ordinary dishes, helping other foods show off their own delicious tastes, and versatile enough to be used in medicines, insect repellents, and cosmetics. Not just useful, herbs are also easy to grow. Many of the most famous of their kind – parsley, basil, thyme, chives, mint and lavender – are no-fuss friends that make a welcome addition to any garden. Herbs are especially wonderful to grow with children; their bright smells and tastes make handling them a wonderful sensory experience. Additionally, growing herbs is great way to connect your child to nature and help him understand how food grows. Finally, herbs can be easily grown in containers of all shapes and sizes, making them the perfect companions for both urban and rural growers.

April_18_13_camp_231. Choose your plants
The wonderful thing about herbs is that there are so many different ones to choose from. Some, like mint and sorrel, are clear kid favorites because of their bright tastes. Others, like chives and hyssop, blossom into beautiful flowers that attract helpful garden insects. Parsley, basil and thyme are as low-maintenance as plants can get. There are seemingly hundreds of choices and it is hard to go wrong.

Purchasing small plants at a garden center or nursery is an easy way to ensure you are starting with strong, successful plants. Involving your child in plant selection is fun and engaging; he will be more likely to get excited about caring for plants that he chose himself than plants he is given. Pick a leaf from each plant and crush it between your fingers to release the essential oils before taking a big whiff. If your child likes the smell, break off a small piece and taste it. This sensory way of choosing plants is sure to get your child extra pumped about your new plants!

2. Choose your containers
Planting in containers, rather than directly into the ground, is beneficial because it allows you to control the quality of the soil, allows individual plants to be moved, and contains rapidly growing plants from taking over your garden. Anything that will hold your plant is a good container: flower pots, vintage cans, repurposed plastic containers, galvanized buckets, and even the kitchen sink will work! Let your child choose a fun container or decorate something you already own. Paint flower pots or glue fabric pieces to a plastic bucket; your child with have fun personalizing each container.

Keep in mind: if your container is large, it will get very heavy once it is full of soil, so make sure it is in a location that you like. Secondly, make sure to drill several small holes into the bottom of unconventional containers to allow your plants to drain. Beyond these two considerations, the sky is the limit!

3. Planting your herbs
When planting in containers, you have the advantage of being able to use your own soil mix. Potting soil from the garden center or grocery store is a wonderful medium for your herbs to grow in; unlike the clay or sandy soil of your yard, this mix is optimized for plant success. Potting soil is full of nutrients to help plants grow and is specially combined with perlite and vermiculite to help air and water travel effectively to the roots. The planting process is a great way to involve your child – he will love to get their hands dirty and help you pat the plants into place. Depending on the age of your child, he may be able to complete the whole planting process himself with minimal instruction.

To plant your herb: Fill the bottom several inches of your pot with potting mix, gently tip your plant out of the pot and place in the container, and then fill the rest of the space around the pot with soil mix. Give your plant a good, firm pat around the base to secure it and then water it under a hose or watering can until you see water coming out the holes in the bottom. You’ve just planted an herb!

4. Plant care and maintenance
Caring for these new plants should not be difficult. Check the tag that comes with each plant to see if it prefers a sunny location or some shade and if your plant needs to be well watered or can take some neglect. These tags are your cues; follow the instructions on the tags for a few weeks and see how things go. The great thing about containers is that if your plant seems to be doing poorly in one location, you can move it to another.

When watering your plants, be sure to water them whenever the soil on the top of the pot feels dry: your child can be in charge of monitoring the conditions of the pots and alert you whenever the plant looks thirsty. Water your plant thoroughly so that water comes out the bottom of the pots rather than pouring a small amount of water on top; this will ensure that the entire pot gets some water, not just the top, and will make your plant happy.

4. Harvest timeIMG_1587
The best part about growing herbs is eating them! Throughout the summer, take small pieces from your plants – this method is called “cut and come again”, meaning that you cut some of the plant but leave most of it so that you can come back later to cut more. Only take as much as you will use that day, as herbs often get bruised or wilted if they are cut too long before use. Make sure to use clean scissors when snipping your plants and always snip from the bottom of the stem. Many of these plants will regrow even more vigorously after a gentle pruning.

Once you snip a stem, gently pull off the individual leaves for use. You can chop, tear or otherwise use the leaves however you like. The smaller the pieces you use of a leaf, the more oil is released and the stronger the taste and fragrance will be. Put your herbs in soups, salads, on sandwiches and in drinks. Better yet, ask your child how he wants to use harvested herbs; he will be more likely to try something new if its his idea. Try a standard, like mint tea, or something wild, like mint salad; don’t be afraid to put an unconvential herb in a new dish because it could be delicious!

Here are some more resources to help you and your child love your gardening experience:
Fun ideas for how to use your harvest (Better Homes and Gardens)
Sixteen easy to grow herbs (Better Homes and Gardens)
Tips for moving your herbs inside (Simple Bites)
Creating a garden bunting (Penny Carnival)
Creating a sensory garden for children (Little Wonders’ Days)
Make fun garden markers with your child (The Crafty Crow)
Try growing a kid-friendly windowsill garden from food scraps (Se7en)

Growing herbs is an easy, low-pressure way to dip your toe into gardening with your child. No matter where you live, you can grow something in pot. Herbs are useful, beautiful and smell great. Give them a try this summer; you will be amazed at how much fun you and your child can have together!

“I have often cited my maternal grandmother and a bucket of potatoes growing on her tiny, senior citizen’s hi-rise balcony as the inspiration for my life as an urban gardener…she and countless other new Canadians living in this wonderfully multicultural city I live in have shown me by example that one does not need a backyard or a nicely padded bank account to grow your own food, delight in the wonder of cultivating plants, or become a really great gardener.” – Gayla Trail

The above photos were taken by Christie Lawry and our wonderful volunteer, Pam Russell.

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