Tag Archives: container gardening

Culinary Lavender: Potato Salad Recipe

When we purchased more than a dozen lavender plants last spring, we chose one that was touted as a superb culinary lavender (Lavandula angustiolia Buena Vista) and placed it in a container, the way I usually prefer to grow herbs. The stems are not as long, but the buds are supposed to have better flavor. I love having it near the patio table, where it still looks pretty and I can walk by and rub my fingers on the leaves or buds anytime to enjoy the scent.

buena vista lavender

Culinary lavender is a perfect container plant near your kitchen.

I’ve seen plenty of recipes for lavender, usually in pastries. The only one I’ve tried so far (and loved!) is a lavender potato salad I’ve adapted from the book “Lavender: How to Grow and Use the Fragrant Herb” (Stackpole Books) by Ellen Spector Platt. By the way, this is our go-to source for growing and harvesting lavender. We combine some of the book’s information with local sources because of our differences in zone and water. Other than that, Ellen knows lavender! And the book has several recipes I plan to try.

herb stripper with lavender

This herb stripper makes it easier to strip fresh lavender buds from stems. If dried, you can roll the buds between your fingers.

To me, lavender is the most versatile of all herbs, right up there with its close relative, rosemary. If you don’t have one of the culinary varieties, it’s a great plant to add to your garden. But I made this recipe several times before we got this plant, and it tasted great! So try it with any lavender.

Lavender Potato Salad

  • Servings: about 4 to 6
  • Time: 20 mins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

lavender-potato--salad

Ingredients:

About 12 – 14 small red potatoes with skins on

1 cup of plain Greek yogurt

2 cups chopped celery

1/3 cup chopped chives

1 Tbsp fresh lavender flower buds (less if dried)

2 Tsbp Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Boil potatoes until tenderness desired. Drain and cool enough for handling. Cut into bite-size pieces. Mix all ingredients and chill.

(Adapted from Ellen Spector Platt’s recipe in “Lavender: How to Grow and Use the Fragrant Herb”)

Some People Learn the Hard Way, Even With a “Smart Pot”

The best gardeners learn by trial and error. If you think about it, medical and scientific discoveries occur because of experimentation. So a gardener who gets it right every time is either extremely experienced, experienced and the holder of a horticultural degree, or a liar.

And that’s why you should never give up on gardening because of a mistake or two, or several. You just learn from them and move on. Sure, some mistakes are more costly or frustrating. And some are avoidable in hindsight. Especially if you are impatient. Even more so if you are impatient and stubborn.

Here’s my latest: I have a couple of Smart Pots, which are soft, fabric containers that are lighter than pots and can be folded up for storage. I decided to grow a zucchini in my larger one, even though I knew I might be pushing the limits of the flexible pot’s size, and more importantly, the plant. Experimentation is good. Stubbornness can have negative consequences.

zucchini in Smart Pot

I’ve since thinned these three seedlings to one plant. See, who would have thought such a tiny seed would eventually grow into such a large plant? Oh, I know! Any fool who has ever grown squash before.

One of the other excellent qualities of Smart Pots is that they provide aeration for plants. In a typical hard, clay container, the roots might grow out to the side or bottom and then begin circling, looking for a place to go. This can harm the growth and health of the plant. When the roots come up against the Smart Pot edge, they can penetrate it or the pot “air prunes” the roots, helping them to form lateral branches.

One reason I placed the zucchini in the pot was so the plant would be lifted off the ground and I could reach the fruit better. I always itch reaching in to harvest or look for weeds and bugs. I’ve had no weeds with it in a container, and it’s easier to harvest the fruit. The other reason was that I could easily shift the plant’s position in my garden should I alter the plan.

I decided the zucchini was too crowded between two tomato plants and needed moving. Feeling quite brilliant for using a lightweight, mobile container, I decided I could move it myself! But I failed to take into account or simply forgot that the plant had grown large enough that the roots might have penetrated the bottom of the Smart Pot. And being impatient, mostly because it was stinking hot, I drug the pot to a new spot in the garden. I felt pretty smart myself.

wilting zucchini plant from disturbed roots

In this case, the pot outsmarted the gardener. That’s because the gardener disturbed the plant’s nice, healthy roots by moving the pot without thinking.

Later than day, I made my noon visit to the garden. Immediately, I noticed that the zucchini plant’s leaves looked like they’d been beaten. It was wilting miserably. It didn’t take us long (OK, I have to give Tim credit for thinking of it first) to figure out that when I moved the pot, I broke off a few roots. Not very many had grown through, or I would have felt resistance when I moved the pot. I’m not blaming the Smart Pot; I’m blaming the impatient, absent-minded gardener who should have left well enough alone. All of those plants were doing fine until I messed with one of them, although the zucchini is way large at the top of the pot. We carried the plant into the shade of the shed (at least that was easy) and gave it a good drink of water.

bringing zucchini plant back to health

The shed in the background provided overnight shelter. We have a makeshift shade cloth over the south side of the plant until further notice.

We left the plant in the shed overnight – it got airflow, but was protected from the elements and hungry critters. Then, we returned it to the garden the next day and rigged a shade cloth of sorts to help protect it from the heat until it can (hopefully) recover from my interference. So far, it’s looking better.

Lessons learned: Don’t overgarden; be patient. The plants may have grown too close together eventually, but they hadn’t yet. And read product directions, then remember them!

Easy Pesto From Garden Basil

My basil isn’t perfect; I think I can blame mostly grasshoppers. But with all of the bugs around here and the cloudy, damp weather of late, it’s really a toss-up. I’ll stick with grasshoppers and snails for now, because I dislike them the most. Next year, I will definitely cover the basil plants with white row fabric.

basil plant for pesto

Basil is pretty even when it’s not perfect. And the scent! These are the leaves left after I cut off sets for pesto.

Still, the plants grew, and some of the stalks were about to flower. Time to harvest! A neighbor, who shares a portion of her land to host a wonderful community garden, pointed us to some information on harvesting basil. I realized I have always been too shy about harvesting, taking too few leaves. Instead, it’s best to take the top few sets of leaves, above the second set of leaves from the soil. That assumes, of course, that the plant has at least three to five sets of leaves. If so, the sturdy topping should help the plant generate new growth.

I picked off and rinsed the leaves and dried them in a salad spinner and then on paper towels, choosing not to use some that were really chewed up. Then, I chilled them in the refrigerator until that evening. Even with some bug destruction, I got a good cup of basil leaves from one larger plant and two small ones. Then, I made pesto. And it was really easy. I modified a recipe I found online a few years ago and then used it right away to make dinner.

pasta with homemade pesto

Pesto pasta with chicken and garden zucchini. Other than the tomatoes and pasta (OK, and the chicken), this is all garden to table. And I hope to have tomatoes to add to my lettuce and carrots soon!

Take a look at the recipe below, and feel free to print or Pin it. And adjust it as necessary. I didn’t use a lot of garlic, so it’s all a matter of personal taste. After making the pesto, I whipped up a quick dinner of pasta with a chopped chicken breast and our first zucchini of the season, sautéing both in olive oil. I just added about a cup (measured raw) of cooked pasta to the skillet and a heaping tablespoon or so of pesto. The rest of the pesto went in the freezer!

Easy Pesto From Garden Basil

  • Servings: about 4, or a yield of 1/2 cup
  • Time: 10 mins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

pesto-ingredients-food-processor

Ingredients:

1 cup of packed fresh basil leaves

1 clove of garlic (mine was already minced)

1/8 cup of pine nuts

1/3 cup of virgin olive oil

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place washed and dried basil leaves, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse ingredients until coarsely chopped. Add a portion of the olive oil, processing the mixture until all ingredients are incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Season as desired with salt and pepper.

If using the pesto immediately, add the remaining oil and pulse until the mixture is smooth. Scrape into a serving bowl and add parmesan cheese.

If freezing, do not add the Parmesan cheese. Place in an airtight container and pour remaining oil over top of pesto. It will freeze for up to three months. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese after thawing.

Plan Your Xeriscape Garden for All-Season Color

If one of your concerns about xeriscaping is that your garden will look as barren as the Southwest desert, it only takes a little planning and time to ensure you have some color and texture from spring to fall. Of course, that’s easy if you have unlimited water and time.

Alamogorgo, N.M. landscape white sands

I can’t resist the urge to showcase New Mexico sites and landscapes, even when discussing barren deserts. This is a hilltop outside Alamogordo, N.M., with a view of the White Sands in the distance.

But it’s also entirely possible and relatively simple to have continuous color using low-water plants. Here are a few suggestions:

Don’t give up on bulbs. Although you would think they use lots of water, they’re like the camels of the plant world, adapted or bred to store water and energy in their roots, stems or leaves. They also do best in well-draining soil. I’m lumping corms, tubers and rhizomes with true bulbs. Spring-flowering bulbs should need no water other than rain after established unless you have a really long dry spell, especially during growth and flowering. As long as you choose varieties recommended for your area and follow care guides for placement, mulching and dividing, you should be able to add bulbs to your xeric garden as desired. I love how iris and tulips bloom early as a sign of spring.

iris low water spring bulb

Iris provide spring color with little to no extra water or work.

 

day lily bloom

Day lily blooms only last one day, but bloom in early summer. We found out they bloom closer to July 1 in our slightly cooler zone.

Choose one or two continuous, or nearly continuous, bloomers. I don’t know how a small shrub, especially a xeric one, can bloom in the late spring or early summer and hold those blooms all season. But I think the easiest way to plan a small xeric garden is to select one continuous bloomer you like, then build around it. For example, santolina usually blooms all summer, after one trim or shearing back in the spring. Since it has yellow flowers, you can then decide how you’d like to complement the low spreading shrub with other colors throughout the summer. By the way, it’s also evergreen, so you can consider how to complement the gray (silvery foliage) or green santolina with another evergreen or some hardscaping for winter interest. Other examples, depending on your zone, are gaura (Gaura linheimeri) or most salvias, though some might require deadheading.

green santolina

Green santolina has evergreen foliage with lemon-colored, button-shaped blooms nearly all summer.

Try a groundcover. You don’t have to replace your entire lawn with a groundcover, but you can add color with some well-placed xeric planting. Several thyme varieties require no water at all and are terrific at filling in spaces between pavers, rocks or stepping stones. You’ll get some green and tiny purple flowers when they bloom. A groundcover also can cool the roots of other plants that need a little help to survive hot summer days. Just remember that they spread, especially if you overwater them.

xeric groundcover

This groundcover is spreading in several areas this summer and sending up stalks with tiny lavender-colored flowers. I think it is a speedwell.

Supplement with a few annual seeds or containers. Satisfy your desire for early color and bloom variety each year with some annuals. Seeds are inexpensive, but are a little more water and time intensive. Or fill a designated area of your patio, deck or garden with a few containers with pops of color from annual bedding plants. You can decide when the color appears and what colors you want to complement your perennial blooms. Seeds sowed as soon as the ground warms will bloom later than many of your perennials. And many annuals continue blooming with or without pinching and deadheading. I love petunias in containers because they spread with little effort on my part and need no deadheading, just pinching off of spent buds every now and then to look their best.

petunias in container

Petunias are so simple in beds or containers. They spread with little water or attention.

It can be a lot of work to deadhead continuously. So it’s probably good to limit the number of annuals that need regular trimming of blooms to force new ones. But some xeric plants such as lavender and salvias will bloom a second time with one trim following the first bloom, so you get a late, bonus wave of color.

Some plants give you plenty of hints (Autumn sedum booms in fall!). But if you have limited space and experience, a xeric landscape designer can help you select the fewest plants possible for continuous bloom.

Help Plants Beat the Summer Heat

It’s hot here. I thought I would never say that. And sure, it’s not as hot as Phoenix, but even mountain communities in the Southwest can warm up in summer months. When the temperatures hit the 90s, the humidity stays below 25 percent, and the winds never subside, vegetables and ornamental plants get stressed.

columbine northeastern exposure

In May, this columbine was blooming and healthy! It’s a little stressed now. Columbines grow naturally under the shade of trees, and they need deep water as temperatures rise into the 70s and higher. We mulched around the plant and put it in a northeast-facing location to help it survive summer.

Often, our first reaction is to throw more water on a plant. Sometimes, that’s what they need. Wind, sun and heat dry plants more quickly. Native xeric plants are adapted to take some of the parching sun and wind, and sometimes a gardener can overwater a plant. Here are a few tips to keep xeric plants cool, healthy and happy during the heat of summer:

  • Start with the right plant for the right spot. That means not only a native selection, but choosing sun vs. shade or the right drainage. Most xeric plants can take plenty of sun, but some need partial shade. And most don’t take kindly to wet feet, or roots that fail to dry between watering. Wet feet can happen with overwatering or if you place lavender in poorly draining soil at the bottom of a hill, or hide it under a bush that grows quickly and shades it within a year. You also can plan ahead to take advantage of shade. It’s getting too hot for my lettuce, but we’ll plant some more north of the fence holding the pole beans as soon as they get a little taller.
garden plan for shade

The sun is so bright, it’s reflecting off the spot where we hope to get some shade for lettuce and spinach. You can see the bean seedlings on the other side of the foreground fence shadow.

  • Follow the sun. When you plant in spring, the sun and shade patterns are different than they will be in mid-July and August. So keep in mind the sun’s direction and any plants or structures that might help shade a plant late in the day, when the sun’s rays are their hottest. Remember that deciduous trees might be nearly bare when you plant, but loaded by mid-June.
  • When helping a new plant get established, the typical care instructions might not apply. The plant goes into a sort of shock, much like when you recover from illness or injury. All plants need a little more water, as well as extra sun and wind protection until established. We’ve often used portable lawn chairs to provide filtered shade over new plantings in the afternoon. Old sheets or landscape fabric also work.
  • Use containers. If you have a plant that’s more susceptible to heat stress, place it in a container. You can move it around throughout the summer based on the sun’s path. Of course, if you really love the plant and have lots of time on your hands (and wheels under a larger container), you can move it around during the day, giving it morning sun and afternoon shade.

    tomato in container

    The tomato seedlings I planted in containers are doing better than many in the ground. The patio and house warmed them up during cool nights, but provide shade now on hot afternoons.

  • Water in the morning. It’s tough to find time before work, but watering early in the day loads your plant up, preparing it for the heat. And try to keep soil evenly moist. If you have a slow drip system, the irrigation can run while you get ready for work. Cover the drip hose with a nice, thick layer of mulch and the mulch will slow the water’s evaporation and help keep the ground cool. And as I’ve said before, it’s good to keep an eye on tomatoes and other vegetables and to have someone care for them if you leave town. Once the fruit sets, you can’t drown the tomato to make up for a few days of heat and underwatering. They’ll punish you.

Finally, drink some iced tea, flavored with a small bit of fresh mint. Oh, wait, that’s for me…

Perennial or Annual?

Gardeners often face the choice of filling a container or a space in their xeric landscape with either an annual or perennial. And new gardeners might have a hard time knowing whether a plant they spot and love will come back in their garden next year. Let’s take a look at annuals vs. perennials, especially in xeric landscaping.

cosmos and agave in New Mexico garden

These agave are xeric, but apparently so are these cosmos, annuals that just pop up from old seeds each year, to the point we had to thin them to give the agave room.

First-time gardeners might not get the difference between the plant types. It’s easy to remember if you think about the terms attached to each plant: A perennial lasts three years or more, but an annual is there only for this year, just like the root of the word (annus, Latin for year).

So, how do you know when you want a perennial and when you want an annual? Here are a few scenarios:

For containers, it’s often best to go with annuals. Unless you have plenty of sunny indoor space and a strong back, you’re better off placing annual flowers into most of your containers, just for the season. Of course, succulents can easily live indoors in sunny locations, as can some herbs, bedding plants and houseplants. I love planting just a few containers each year in front of my house, and at our last home, we had one annual bed that we changed out each year, also adding pansies for winter color. It’s a small splurge.

But if you’ve got a huge raised bed to fill, go with bulbs and perennials, or maybe spring-blooming bulbs, overplanted with annual seeds that come up later in summer, after your bulbs are done blooming. Seeds cost less if you’re willing to wait for the plant to grow, then bloom. Having said that, one of the benefits of buying annual plants is instant gratification!

xeric annuals and perennials

I think I just showed the combination of yarrow and gaillardia, but I can’t get over how great the perennial and annual look together.

Here are some of my favorite low-water annuals, many of which are wildflowers that will reseed:

  • California poppy
  • Cosmos
  • Desert marigold
  • Portulaca (Moss rose)

For most xeric gardens, however, you can’t beat a hardy, low-water perennial that blooms year after year. All you usually have to do is cut back dead branches or flower stems and wait. A few cautions with perennials: Some spread, even though they’re xeric plants. And sometimes, you have to cut them back drastically to keep your garden under control and prevent one perennial from competing too much with others, such as shading another plant that needs six hours of sun a day.

gray santolina and cherry sage

This gray santolina. along with a few neighboring perennials, is blocking sun to the red sage next to it. I love both plants, so we might move the sage to a sunnier location.

Here are a few of my favorite low-water perennials:

  • Coreopsis
  • Echinacea, or coneflower
  • Gaura
  • Lavender
  • Penstemon
  • Sedum
  • Santolina
  • Sage – any perennial salvia and sage
  • Yarrow

How do you tell an annual from a perennial when making a purchase? If your nursery doesn’t have the plants sorted by annuals vs. perennials, you can always ask. Another clue is that many annuals are sold in six-packs or similar packaging for several smaller plants. Perennials tend to come in pint size, gallon pots and up. But that’s not always the case. And a particular flower might be available as both, so check the tag or ask nursery staff. An example is the salvia, which comes as several great perennials. But there is a red salvia that only works as an annual, at least in my zone.

larkspur annual

Pink and purple larkspur, the annual version of Delphinium. These reseed under our red bud each year with no effort on our part.

That takes me to my final point: One gardener’s perennial might be another gardener’s annual. In other words, zone and general conditions can alter a plant’s ability to endure for more than one season. Geraniums are container plants or annuals in the mountains and high desert of New Mexico, but might be perennial in southern California. And just to add to the confusion, hardy geraniums (of the genus Geranium), are different from Pelargoniums, common geraniums, such as the scented flowers. And gaillardia, or blanket flower, is one of my favorite plants that might be an annual or perennial, depending on the cultivar and conditions. Ours simply reseed throughout the garden year after year.

I added several other photos of annuals and perennials mentioned in this post to the Photos page.

How To Determine Watering Depth

Gardening books and plant tags often tell homeowners to “water the plant to a depth of xx inches.” That’s all well and good, but since I am not a gopher and don’t have x-ray vision, how do I know how deep water goes when I soak a tree or bush? And why is it important?

Overwatering is not just wasteful, but can harm plants. Take the tomato, or don’t take it if it has cracked from overwatering or inconsistent watering. Using a well can help ensure that you water your tomato the same depth each time, assuming the water flow is fairly slow and steady.

tomato plant with well

A tomato well holds water in place and helps me keep track of the amount I water each time. That’s important once the fruit starts growing.

Of course, there are plenty of calculations you can do, including soil tests. But there are easier ways to find out. For small ornamentals and container plants, just dig your finger in and check the soil. Most plants need water when the soil is dry down to a half-inch or so. Of course, the best way to know whether a plant needs water is to know the plant! Depth is not even an issue for xeric plants that rely on natural rainwater only, at least not once the plant is healthily established.

xeric-plants-need-no-water

These xeric plants need no water. The nighstock and gallardia came up from volunteer seeds, and an agave, prickly pear and green santolina fill in the background.

If water pours out the bottom of a container, you probably are overwatering or adding water in too quickly or forcefully. Picture the same effect in the ground. So slow down the water to give your plant time to get acquainted! When the water pours out the bottom instead of dripping, it washes important soil nutrients out with it.

For a lawn, there are plenty of tips to help conserve water, and the best strategy is to run a short cycle, wait the length of one cycle, and run another short cycle. You’ll know if your cycle is too long if you note any standing water or runoff. Running a short cycle prevents waste, and by waiting, you give the first cycle’s water time to soak down to the turf’s roots. The second application of water can push remaining moisture a little deeper, where it will be retained.

Trees need the deepest watering of all, and Arizona’s Water Use It Wisely program has a great method for determining watering depth that we used last year when we planted a new Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis):

  • Water your tree as you normally would, and about an hour later, push a soil probe into the ground. Since you might not have one of these lying around, you can use a screwdriver or a piece of rebar long enough for the depth you need to measure, plus a few bonus inches to help retrieve it when you’re done.
  • Mark your homemade probe or rebar before pushing it into the ground, premeasured with the recommended depth (such as 12 inches or 30 inches).
  • If your rebar goes in easily to the recommended depth, you’ve watered long enough. If not, add some water until the soil softens.
testing watering depth

We gently hammered a piece of rebar in the well area to check watering depth. If it goes in easily, your soil is soaked through. You can also use a soil probe.

  • Note how long you left your hose or drip system on and the approximate flow (slow, medium, trickle…). That way, you won’t have to keep measuring the depth, at least not for the same plant, and you’ll know about how long to water next time.
determining watering depth for tree

We used plastic tape to premark the depth on our homemade soil probe.

Start Small on Your Xeric Landscape

If you’re not an experienced gardener or feel overwhelmed by the prospect of starting a landscape from scratch or switching your entire landscape to a xeric one, why not start small?

Time, money and inexperience should not keep gardeners from enjoying a few plants in their yard. I sometimes can’t stop bemoaning the trend in believing that xeriscaping is the same as “zeroscaping.” Again, it’s not!

Even new, young gardeners and urban dwellers can enjoy a few blooms or edibles without busting their budgets, schedules or water resources. Try these tips:

  • Start with containers. If you have little space, but crave fresh herbs, enjoy a few bright blooms next to you while you savor your morning coffee outside. Or enjoy the view of hummingbirds hovering over a flower by outfitting your patio or balcony with a few brilliant containers. You could add a long, thin box with your favorite low-water kitchen herbs and a tall, round container with a salvia for color and pollinator interest. Or try a geranium, which uses a little more water, but lasts year-round in your container if you bring it indoors to a sunny location.
mint and lettuce containers

Mint in a container — where it belongs! Friends gave us these two transplants. That’s a baby mesclun lettuce mix to the right.

  • Take it one area or bed at a time. If the idea of going completely xeric in your garden is too much to handle at once, take baby steps. Convert a small area of your lawn from grass to gravel and native plants, or from high-water grass to native grass, gravel and native plantings. Or take out grass along a sidewalk or driveway and create a path with a few ornamental grasses and perennials. An easy way to conserve water is to divert rain from a downspout that pours onto, say, a driveway so that the water instead flows to a tree already in your landscape. Find plans for dry river beds with rocks to ensure the water flows to your tree.
  • Choose one or two hardy xeric perennials a year. I’m not the best person to advise patience, but if you’re short on budget and time, choose just a few hardy xeric plants to start your garden off right. The best choices depend on where you live and your USDA zone, along with the microclimate for the location you plan for the plant. Choose a perennial, a plant that will live through your winter and bloom again for at least two years. If this is an early attempt at gardening for you, go to a local nursery, where the staff can show you a few natives for your area that are hardy and easier to grow. Then go by size, bloom color, water and sun needs, maybe overall care (like deadheading) and your general reaction to the plant. There’s nothing wrong with choosing two of the same plant if you love it. Repetition can be just as attractive in a xeric landscape as complementing textures and colors!
dianthus perennial

This Dianthus next to our bird fountain needs little care and no supplemental watering, but comes back each year. In fact, a new plant showed up in another bed about 15 feet from this one.

  • Buy seeds instead of annual plants. This early in the year, at least in most zones, you still can have plenty of success with seeds for annuals to complement your perennials. There are tons of great xeric wildflower choices that grow from seeds, saving you lots of money. Instead of buying several six-packs of petunias or marigolds, pick up a seed packet of cosmos, zinnias, poppies or a native wildflower mix. Seeds need more attention and watering at first, but the flowers usually reseed for several years. And even though seeds in packet eventually expire, we’ve had success with old flower seeds.
blue flax

I can see this stunning blue flax (Linum lewisii) from my office. The damp spot on the ground is an area of red flax seeds we sowed.

Of course, if you can go big, do it. There are plenty of professionals, books and sites dedicated to xeric landscaping.

Growing Edibles in Containers

Growing an edible garden makes great sense – you use water to produce food, and it’s food that can’t get any fresher or more local! Growing food in pots and other containers can be even more rewarding, especially for gardeners who have limited space, problems with critters or who want their herbs and vegetables close at hand.

lettuce and tomatillo plants in containers

Lettuce is a great container plant. The one in the foreground had tomatillos, just for fun, not so much for yield.

Rosemary, basil, lettuce and cherry or grape tomatoes are my favorite edibles to have right near my kitchen door. But I’ve been known to push the boundaries a little, once growing an okra plant in a small container (admittedly mostly for the flower) and a large pot of carrots last year. We’re upping the ante with an even bigger carrot crop, but more on that in a future post…

carrots

Here’s our dancing carrot, or rather two carrots, grown in crowded container conditions last year.

Here’s the thing – containers can take a little more water during hot summer months, but you also can confine your crop, so to speak. I believe that container-grown edibles are less susceptible to some bugs and soil-borne problems. And I love that I can move the containers to control sun exposure as the conditions change. Most of all, you just can’t beat the convenience of herbs and vegetables just outside your kitchen door at meal times.

Here are a few tips for making your container edibles fun and productive:

  • First, it can be tempting to fill your containers with soil from your garden. Resist the temptation and spend the money on some good commercial potting mix. I use organic composts and potting mixes. The reason? Ground soil compacts when confined to a pot. This makes it harder for water to drain and for roots to grow.
  • Choose your container to fit the plant’s mature size. It might look less attractive at first, but the reward of juicy tomatoes is worth your patience!
grape tomato in container

This yellow grape tomato was great for snacking right on the patio all summer.

  • If the container is particularly large, you can line the bottom with pebbles or plastic bottles to encourage drainage and use some yard or garden soil for fill. But keep it to a minimum, and make sure the soil that the plant’s roots touch is the best possible mix.
  • A few herbs are grown better in containers for their own special reasons. I like to have a small basil or rosemary on my patio table throughout the summer for the appearance, scent and convenience. And then there is mint – which should only grow in containers unless you really love it and want to replace everything else in your lawn, your neighbor’s lawn, your town… with mint. And it comes in lemon, orange or chocolate varieties to enjoy on the patio or balcony.
  • Many container-grown plants require fertilizer because the soil doesn’t have the same natural nutrients as garden soil. But use it judiciously and according to the individual plant. For example, chile peppers typically need no fertilizer. If you start with healthy soil, you need less, and if you use it too often or at the wrong time, you’ll force more growth into the foliage and get a plant that outgrows your container and gets too lanky to support its fruit.
  • Usually, you have to water container-grown plants more often, but not always. Don’t assume that when a plant wilts, lack of water is the cause. And that’s the beauty of containers – try moving the plant to the shade on hot days, or move all of them there if you have to be away for the weekend. They’ll survive better on your pre-departure watering until you return.
  • Remember that you can add mulch to containers, just as you do in flower beds. Decorative mulch can offset the look of an edible in a container, such as crushed seashells under chard. Mulch also serves a practical purpose. Those white seashells or pebbles can reflect sun back up to your potted lavender or bark chips can hold moisture in to conserve water and keep plants cool.

And if you love being creative and repurposing, go ahead and push the limits. You might end up with lower productivity from your edible, or need more total containers, but it’s fun to place edibles in a few fun or funky containers. If I want more yield, I duplicate the seeds or transplant in the ground or a larger container. That way, I get the aesthetic pleasure and practical returns.

spinach in metal container

We found this old metal bucket at my in-laws’ ranch and planted some spinach in it.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Ornamental Grass

When xeriscaping, you can add plenty of interest with varied textures and heights by including a few ornamental grasses in your landscape. We’re always tempted to think first about flower color, but less about interesting foliage. Placing a few ornamental grasses in a xeric landscape or container can add nearly as much impact as a pop of purple with less watering and maintenance.

Choose an ornamental grass that is native to your area, or a similar climate or condition, in place of a shrub or perennial flower. One of my favorite features of grasses is that they can grow tall and move in the wind. In containers, they often add height or contrast to draping and flowering annuals. Warm-season grasses seed out and provide winter interest, even if the foliage browns. They need shearing once a year in spring, a little water to jumpstart growth, and they’re off. If you choose one that’s not native to your area, such as the big-box store selection I found for my containers, make sure it can at least survive with less water or other conditions that differ. You might not get flowers or as much growth, but the grass will survive at least for the summer.

rush grass in container

I like to place ornamental grasses in container arrangements to add height and texture. This juncus is all I need to add interest to a petunia mix and continuity between the pots.

Another benefit of ornamental grasses is that they can serve practical purposes in a garden. Use them for erosion control by placing a small grouping at the bottom of a slope or terrace – and go for a medium-water selection such as Feather reed grass “Karl Foerster” (Calamagrostis arundinacea) here, since the rain or irrigation run-off from above supplies the extra water the plant requires.

feather reed grass

Karl Foerster feather reed grass that was planted a few weeks ago in our rock garden . It already looks great, but will add feathery blooms in summer. It should survive our winter (zones 5 and 6).

Other great locations for grasses are along steps, pathways or corners, in front of dark walls or fences, and anywhere they will catch sunlight and breezes.

Sedges, rushes and some hardy bamboos also fall into the ornamental grass category when landscaping. Just be sure to check the zone, native location of the plant, and especially the sun and water requirements before planting the grass. Some actually do better in marshes – not a good choice for xeriscaping!

Easy care

Grasses are among the easiest xeric plants you can have in your garden. They’re mostly free of pests and diseases. And although I love ornamental grasses, I have seen some gardens with only grasses and gravel. I think you need one or two other xeric plants to break up the look, but I’m not a professional landscaper. To my eye, just gravel and grass in a garden screams “dry!” It’ so easy to complement a low-water grass with a salvia, penstemon or gayfeather.

Some cool-season grasses bolt in the heat, but trimming off their seedheads can rejuvenate the plant, much like clipping off flowers of herbs to force growth back into leaves. Most ornamental grasses are warm-season selections, best planted in the spring. They need a little more water, up to once a week for xeric choices, for the first month or two. After that, water deeply only every few weeks or once a month in the hottest summer weeks. Some will spread, and it’s best to try to divide or dig up unwanted volunteers before they clump too tightly. Other than that, just cut back as directed. Allowing several grasses to overseed in winter could add to your fire hazard, so keep that in mind if you have them near your home or a commercial building.

big bluestem grass before strawbale wall

Newly constructed strawbale wall with xeric plantings. The big bluestem grass on the right foreground got much taller and flowered (see below).

A few xeric grasses

Silky threadgrass (Stipa tennuifolia). This hardy grass grows in all types of soil, uses little water, and loves full sun. That’s a bonus, since the silky seedheads reflect sunlight as they sway in the breeze. One caution for silky threadgrass is its high potential to reseed. That’s a plus in an untamed garden, but not in a more formal xeric landscape.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).  This is one of our personal favorites. It can reach heights of four to five feet in summer, when it also rewards you with purplish flower spikes that emerge between the beautiful greenish-blue leaves. Some selections require more water than others, so check with the nursery or on the tag for details. Some are highly drought tolerant and thrive down to zone 4.

big bluestem flower heads

The flower stalks of big bluestem grass are purplish, contrasting well with the greenish-blue leaves.

Dwarf fountain grass (Pennisteum alopecuroides). Purple fountain grass (P. setaceum) is a particular favorite of these dwarf varieties, but only makes it as an annual in our zones (5 through 7). Others fare better, although an unusually cold winter could kill them. Most have bright green foliage with bottlebrush flowers. Examples are “Hamelin,” a compact, mounding variety with ivory and gold flowers and “Moudry,” which has brownish-black flowers. One caution: You might have to protect dwarf fountain grasses from rabbits if they visit your xeric garden.