herbs

The Container Grocery Store

The Container Grocery Store

Whether you’re a young couple that’s just starting out or a couple facing retirement, you know that you often have to stretch your budget to cover all of your expenses. You may need to move to larger accommodations, there’s furniture to buy, there may be student loans or a wedding to pay off. Well, you can cut a lot out of your budget, but everyone needs food to live that’s one cost you can’t eliminate. However, you can make a dent in your grocery bills by growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs in containers.

Containers are great because you can use them whether you’re living in an apartment or a house; plants will do just fine in containers perched on balconies or sitting on patios. Just make  sure to put them in a location where they’ll get as much sun as possible; vegetables need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day to develop properly, and herbs need five. A south-facing location is best, but if that’s not possible, a west-facing one is almost as good.

Vegetables growing on east- and north-facing balconies and patios will still provide some produce, but the yields won’t be as high. Herbs growing indoors should be cultivated close to the windows that get the most sunshine; it’s also important to grow them in high-humidity areas, like the kitchen.

Choosing the right pot is crucial. For vegetables, I never use pots smaller than 25 cm wide for container vegetable gardening; 30 cm wide is preferable. These plants need space to grow, and pots smaller than this just don’t provide enough volume. For materials, I prefer glazed ceramic, plastic, or fibreglass; all hold water well and are easier to handle than clay pots. Large hanging baskets and troughs are good choices for patio or balcony vegetable gardening, too; even whiskey half-barrels will work. I’ve seen people use all kinds of cheap but effective containers—old milk cans, toilets, bathtubs, trash cans, even washing machines. Just make sure that whatever container you choose has enough volume to provide the plant with enough room to grow. Herbs can be grown in pots that are slightly smaller, though; feel free to keep them in the 10 or 15 cm pots that you buy them in for a while. When they’re big enough, move them to larger pots or a trough. You can plant more than one plant in a large pot; stuffing half a dozen herbs into a 30 cm container or a long trough would be a fine way to grow them, as long as you’re careful not to mix aggressive herbs with the less competitive varieties.

Potting soil is the root medium of choice for potted plants, chiefly because it doesn’t compact like garden soil does—potted plants need rich, well-drained soil to promote healthy root growth. Potting soil has another advantage: it’s free of the soil-borne diseases and insect pests common to regular garden soil. I incorporate a controlled, time-release 14-14-14 fertilizer that will feed the plant for many weeks. This non-leaching fertilizer becomes a reservoir backup that prevents the plants from yellowing and cuts down on maintenance.

I always say that watering is the most important job a gardener has to do. It’s a simple task, but that doesn’t mean that it can be done without thought. Since containers can’t hold much water, you may need to soak your plants twice a day during heat waves—once, thoroughly, in the early morning and once more, if needed, in the evening. Hanging baskets should be checked more often for moisture; the wind can dry them out quickly. To seal in moisture and keep down weeds, you can cover the soil with a mulch of shredded bark. As for fertilizer—I usually just add a pinch of 20-20-20 to the pot each time I water and give the plants a heavier feeding once a week. All vegetables need these extra nutrients, especially heavy feeders like tomatoes and cucumbers, so don’t skimp.

Speaking of tomatoes and cucumbers, just what kinds of plants should you be growing in containers? I’ve drawn up a list, and there are a couple of products that merit special attention.

The first of these is mesclun. This is a mixture of “instant salads” created by the French that’s really catching on in North America. The idea is wonderfully simple: a number of different greens are grown together in one pot. Sound complicated? It isn’t. All you have to do is buy a packet of mesclun seed, sow into a container, and watch the greens spring up. Every two or three weeks, when the plants reach a few inches in height, all you have to do is take a pair of scissors out, cut off the greens, and throw them into a salad bowl. You should leave about two inches of growth in the pot, since mesclun can be harvested several times. Over the course of a growing season, you can expect to harvest five or six meals—meals big enough to feed three or four people, so plan to invite another couple over each time you harvest.

The second item of note is the potato barrel, a British invention that I think is the best way to grow container potatoes. It’s a Victorian style barrel made of polymer with sliding “windows.” Instead of digging up the soil to harvest the potatoes, all you need to do is slide open a window, reach in, grab the spuds, and slide the window shut. Sweet potatoes or other tubers can be grown in this innovative device, too.

There are other benefits to growing your own vegetables. For one thing, there’s something very arresting about vegetables growing in containers; they make great conversation pieces, especially for repeat visitors who can see the plants slowly come to fruition. Plants like cucumbers have long vines that can be trained to grow around balcony railings, adding some life to your apartment.

If you’re really adventurous, you can try growing peanuts on your balcony, or figs, dwarf lemons or limes, or even coffee indoors. These are novelty crops—you’ll be lucky to grow enough beans for one cup of coffee, for example—but they’re fun to have around. The most important thing is that you enjoy yourselves, whatever you choose to grow.

Vegetables (and one fruit) That Grow Well in Containers

Cucumbers
Tomatoes
Potatoes
Eggplant
Leaf lettuce
Spinach
Peppers
Beans
Garlic
Mesclun
Bush-type melons (in large patio containers only)
Strawberries

Herbs That Grow Well in Containers
Basil
Chives
Marjoram
Oregano
Thyme

Try growing oregano, marjoram, thyme, and chives in the same container as your tomatoes—these plants grow quite well together, and broiled herb tomatoes make a delicious snack.

Edible Flowers That Grow Well in Containers

Pansies
Nasturtiums
Daylily flowers—especially new multiple blooms, e.g. Stella d’Oro

Herbs on the Balcony

Herbs on the Balcony

Herbs are perfect for balcony gardening. They’re easy to grow, many smell quite nice, and they provide ready-to-use flavours for your meals; just harvest them right out of the containers. The selection is almost unlimited; there’s mint, chives, basil, summer savoury, dill, lemon balm, coriander, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme... the list goes on and on. There are a few important things to remember before cultivating herbs. For instance, most of them are quite
vigorous—especially mint, chives, and summer savoury. Because of this, I always keep each variety in its own container. Herbs should be grown in very clean soils with good drainage; high-quality potting soil is best. For basil, I recommend a soil-less mixture; there are fewer problems with disease when basil is grown in this medium. Basil is prone to a stem rot
that garden soils can encourage; clean soil can help prevent this occurrence.

To get the best herbs, I fertilize them with 20-20-20 once every two weeks. Of course, I keep my watering consistent to promote strong, even growth and to inhibit disease. Adding rich compost to the soil gives herbs (except basil!) a real boost, as well.

I always harvest soft new growth to promote branching in the plants, and produces a greater overall yield. When winter arrives, you can bring the smaller herbs like bay, basil, savory, chives, parsley, sweet marjoram, tarragon and sage indoors for year-round production. Just make sure that they receive at least 5 hours of direct sunlight per day (you will probably have to use grow lights in the dead of winter). Indoor herbs will be smaller than those grown outside, but they are still quite tasty and well worth cultivating. With containers full of fresh herbs at your disposal, you’ll have a blast preparing meals with an extra bit of dash.

Favourite Herbs: Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm

Melissa officinalis

Semi-hardy perennial; usually grown as an annual in colder climates

Height 20 to 80 cm, can reach 1.5 m; spread to 60 cm.

Loosely branched, with upright growth habit.

Try these!

Melissa officinalis (common lemon balm) is the most common variety and is widely available.

Planting

Lemon balm may be started indoors from seed or grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: At least two plants.

When: Early spring; can withstand a light frost.

Where: Full sun; will tolerate part shade. Gold or variegated types prefer partial shade. Prefers well-drained, sandy soil. Space plants 30 to 45 cm apart.

Care & Nurture

Lemon balm is easy to grow! Prune regularly to promote bushiness. Cut plants to ground level when flowers begin to appear. Where lemon balm grows as a perennial, it should be divided every three to four years in the spring or fall to encourage new growth. Lemon balm is susceptible to powdery mildew.

Harvesting

Leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season, until the flowers begin to bloom.

For best flavour: Harvest only young leaves: older leaves have a stale, musty flavour.

Leaves: Clip individual leaves as needed. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard leaf stalks.

Flowers: Edible, but not normally eaten.

Preserving the Harvest

Lemon balm is at its best used fresh: the leaves lose their intense flavour when dried or stored. Preserve by drying.

Tips

  • Lemon balm self-seeds and spreads easily, so you might want to grow it in a pot or isolate it in a section of your garden.
  • Like all lemon-scented herbs, lemon balm’s flavour is more intense when grown in poorer soil, but the overall plant growth will be lusher in rich soil.

To Note:

  • As the name implies, the leaves of this herb give off a strong lemon scent when crushed. It’s a wonderful plant for attracting bees; in fact, the genus name for lemon balm, Melissa, comes from the Greek word for bees.
  • Lemon balm may be used in aromatic herb baths. Dried leaves add a lemon scent to potpourris and herb pillows.
  • Lemon balm is the basis for the famous Melissa cordial Eau–de-Mellise des Carmes. It is also important in Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs.
  • In the language of flowers, lemon balm symbolizes sympathy.
  • Lemon balm is reputed to repel flies and ants.
  • An infusion of lemon balm may be used as a facial balm and as a rinse for greasy hair.
  • The London Dispensary in 1696 stated that “Lemon balm given every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain and relieve languishing nature.” The Swiss physician Paracelus called lemon balm the “elixir of life.” He believed that the herb could completely revive people.
  • The word balm is a contraction of balsam, traditionally considered the king of the sweet-smelling oils.

Favourite Herbs: Basil

Basil

Ocimum basilicum

Very tender annual

Height 30 to 60 cm; spread 30 to 45 cm.

Highly aromatic branching herb that forms large, lush mounds in the garden or container.

Try these!

Ocimum basilicum ‘Sweet Basil’ is the standard, familiar green basil; it’s prolific, with nice fragrance and colour.

Ocimum basilicum ‘Dark Opal’: Nice spicy flavour, strong flavour and scent; leaves deep purple and bronze

Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’: Extra-large leaves with great fragrance and flavour; great pesto basil; originated from the Genoa area of Italy

Ocimum basilicum ‘Sweet Dani’: Very fragrant lemon scent, especially when leaves are rubbed; an All-America Selections winner in 1998

Planting

Basil can be difficult to grow from seed. If you enjoy a challenge, start indoors from seed; otherwise, grow from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: Two or three plants; plant up to ten if you intend to make pesto.

When: Two weeks after the average last spring frost date.

Where: Full sun, sheltered. Excellent in containers. Needs rich, well-drained soil. Space plants 30 cm apart in the garden.

Care & Nurture

Basil requires extra care to grow well. Overwatering can cause root-rot. Pinch off shoots to promote robust new growth and a bushy form. Basil tends to get woody when it gets old.

Harvesting

For the most bountiful harvest, prune flowers as soon as they appear. Basil's flavour grows much stronger as the leaves age, losing much of their delicate, sweet scent.

For best flavour: Choose young, small tender leaves for mild aroma and taste. Harvest mid-morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the day gets too hot.

Leaves: Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the plant stem. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks.

Flowers: Pick just as flowers emerge. Clip the flower stalk where it attaches to the plant stem; discard stalk.

Preserving the Harvest

The best way to preserve basil is to freeze it: frozen basil retains nearly 100% of its essential oils. Blanch the leaves quickly in boiling water, dry them on paper towel, and freeze them in sealed plastic bags. A short-term way to preserve basil is in oil. Wash and dry the leaves and then pack them into a clean, dry glass jar. (It's important to use a glass jar, as plastic will leach out the flavour of the leaves.) Sprinkle salt over each layer of leaves, and when the jar is full, fill it with olive oil to cover the leaves. Close the jar with a tight-fitting lid and store in the refrigerator. The leaves will keep for 7 to 10 days.

Tips

  • Here are some other basil varieties you might like to try:
    • Ocimum basilicum minimum ‘Green Globe’ is a very dense, rounded basil with a uniform growth habit.
    • Ocimum basilicum ‘Nufar’ is a new sweet basil hybrid that has shown excellent resistance to fusarium; it’s a Genovese-type basil with great fragrance and flavour.
    • Ocimum sp. ‘Siam Queen’ was an All-America Selection in 1997; it has deep-purple stems and flowers that contrast with its dark-green leaves, and its flavour is spicy with an anise-licorice scent and flavour.
    • Ocimum ‘African Blue’ has a different growth habit and leaf form from sweet basils: its leaves aren’t as smooth and have a slight bluish tone, and the leaf veins, stems, and flowers are purple; it has an unusual flavour with a sweet camphor scent. African Blue is probably the easiest basil to grow indoors because it is not susceptible to fusarium.
  • Basil seed often harbours a fungal disease called Fusarium oxysporum. Fusarium affects germination and causes sudden wilting of leaves; the stems turn brown, and the plant eventually topples and dies. The fungus can be caused by both contaminated seeds and soil, and spreads easily through contaminated soil and leaves. There is currently no way to control this disease, but some seed companies are attempting to eliminate fusarium from basil seed.
  • Basil is among the least frost-tolerant herbs. Around the greenhouse, we joke that you should never walk by basil with a tray of ice cubes, lest you freeze it. Shadier locations cause the plants to stretch, leaving them weak, gangly, and more susceptible to disease.
  • To promote leaf growth, pick off flower shoots as they appear, unless you want to harvest a few flowers, which taste like the leaves, only milder..
  • Avoid adding compost to the soil where basil is to be grown: compost tends to increase root rot problems.

To Note:

  • Smaller varieties of basil can be used as edging for garden borders. In pots or hanging baskets, basil can serve as a foil for brightly coloured bedding plants.
  • Basil's common name is derived from the Greek word for king—"basilikon." In ancient Greece, only the sovereign was allowed to cut basil with a golden sickle.
  • In India, basil is sacred, dedicated to the gods Vishnu and Krishna. It is commonly grown in pots near temples. Recognizing its importance in Indian culture, during the colonial era the British used it to swear oaths upon, much like a Bible.
  • Basil is considered a symbol of fertility in Western culture. For example, in Romania, when a young man accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, it signals their engagement. In Italy, when a woman puts a pot of basil on her balcony, it means that she is ready to receive suitors—in fact, basil is referred to as "Kiss Me Nicholas" in some regions of Italy.

Your Urban Oasis

TOMATOES ON THE 23RD FLOOR

“Gardens have an almost magical ability to transport us to another place, far away from our everyday stress and worries. You don’t have to live on a farm to experience the magic. You can carve out a vegetable patch in a tiny urban backyard. You can fill a windowbox with potting soil and create a flowerbed on your apartment balcony. You can even tend tomatoes on the 23rd floor of an office tower.” - Lois Hole, I’ll Never Marry A Farmer

BALCONY BEAUTIFUL

Spending time in nature can be difficult when you live in the city. Start by creating an inviting outdoor space for your family and friends to enjoy! Hole’s carries a huge selection of pre-made flower planters and hanging baskets to instantly make the outdoors actually feel like the outdoors. One quick stop at Hole’s Greenhouses and you’ll be enjoying your balcony like never before! Take advantage of our FREE planter delivery from June 16 to July 10!

FRESHEST FLAVOUR

Straight from your plant to your plate (or cocktail!)—it doesn’t get any fresher than that! Have you ever purchased herbs from the grocery store? They’re affordable and taste great, but after a day or two, they begin to wilt and end up in the trash. Growing your own herbs saves time and money, and prevents waste. Right now at Hole’s, save 25% on Lois Hole’s Herbs & Edible Flowers book with the purchase any of our herb plants!

YOUR URBAN OASIS

A breath of fresh city air—yes, it’s possible! The indoor air we breathe can be stale and unhealthy, but plants are natural air purifiers—and they look great too! Relax and breathe easy knowing your air is healthy and clean.

Where can you start? Try an easy-to-care-for indoor plant like a spider plant, ivy, or fern. Plus, from June 16 to July 10, get your indoor plant repotted for FREE with the purchase of any decorative pot!