- Author: Constance Starner
- Having them near a door means they are more accessible when you need a spur-of-the-moment harvest.
- It is easier to provide good soil and drainage in pots.
- You can easily adjust for the watering and light needs of different plants.
- Pots control the growth of herbs—like mint and lemon balm—that like to spread in the garden.
- Attractive pots are a decorative addition to your garden.
We are fortunate to live in a climate that allows for growing a wide variety of herbs. You can start with the ones you like best, but it's also fun to try some that you are not as familiar with. Most are attractive plants in their own right even if you use them in the kitchen only occasionally.
Here is a group of seven easily grown herbs for getting started:
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Size: 2'-3' h x w; dwarf varieties (‘Spicy Globe') 8” h x 12” w
Light/Water: Full sun; keep moist, not saturated.
Soil: Loose, porous; pH 4.3-9.1
Harvesting/Pruning: Cut back to just above its second set of leaves when it has 3-5 sets of true leaves. Harvest every week throughout the season.
Notes: There are many varieties beyond the two listed here. It is used in salads and sandwiches, with vegetables, and in pesto. Best used freshly picked but can be dried or frozen. Add to cooked dishes in the last few minutes.
Common chives, onion chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Garlic chives, Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum)
(flattened leaves, white flowers)
Size: 12” to 18” h x w
Light/Water: Full sun to part shade; medium water.
Harvesting/Pruning: Harvest the tips once the plants have reached 6” tall, leaving at least 2”.Increases by bulb division; divide every three years. Deadhead before seeds spread.
Notes: Use snipped leaves in uncooked foods or added in the last few minutes to cooked foods. May be frozen. Use garlic chive flowers in the bud stage or freshly opened.
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Light/Water: Full sun; keep soil moist but not saturated.
Susceptible to root rot.
Soil: Light to medium texture, well-drained.
Use a pot at least 12” deep to accommodate the tap root.
Harvesting/Pruning: Harvest leaves in the early morning for best flavor and before the flower buds have opened; do not let the plants bolt for a continuous supply. Harvest dill seed at the end of the plant's life cycle when they've started to burn a golden-brown color.
Notes: Fresh dill weed can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days with the stems in a cup of water. It can also be dried. Dry the seeds by hanging the seed heads upside down in a brown paper bag and keeping it in a warm, well ventilated area for two weeks. The seeds or the whole seed heads are used for pickles or added to a variety of dishes. Dill weed leaves are used in soups, stews, meat dishes, pasta ,and egg dishes.
Curly leaf (Petroselinum crispum)
Flat leaf (Italian)(Petroselinum neapolitanum)
Size: 9”-12” h x 9”-12” w
Light/Water: Partial shade to full sun.
Keep moist but not soggy.
Soil: Potting soil mixed with compost.
Harvesting/Pruning: Cut back stalks with young leaves—the most flavorful—to ½”; they will continue to produce more leaves. Parsley is a biennial that us usually grown as an annual. Seeds will develop the second season; the leaves are best the first season.
Notes: Curly leaf parsley is commonly used as a garnish, but flat leaf is a versatile herb that can be used in soups, salads, casseroles, sandwiches, and a variety of other dishes.
Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hurtum)
Russian oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. Gracile)
Sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana)
Size: 1-2' h x 18-24” w
Light/Water: Full sun or part shade; low water once established.
Soil: Dry, rocky, well-drained. Amend with gravel, shells, sand and compost.
Harvesting/Pruning: Cut back in late spring to encourage vegetative growth, and again in midsummer to prevent it from becoming woody. Flavor is best before the plant flowers.
Notes: Many varieties; often mislabeled by nurseries. Leaves and flowers are used in Greek, Italian and French cuisine. Leaves may be refrigerated for 3-4 days or dried.
Size: 3'- 4' h x w; smaller in containers.
Trailing varieties will drape over the edge.
Light/Water: Full sun; low water.
Allow soil to dry out between watering to prevent root rot.
Soil: Well-drained with added sand or gravel.
Harvesting/Pruning: Prune to encourage branching,
and remove yellowing or dead leaves and stems. Best time for harvesting is just before blooming.
Notes: A Mediterranean native, rosemary symbolizes remembrance. Its pungent flavor is used to enhance meats, tomatoes, potatoes, eggs and other dishes. May be dried or frozen, although some loss of color will occur.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Light/Water: Full sun; avoid intense afternoon sun in hot climates.
Allow soil to dry out between watering once established.
Soil: Well-drained, loamy soilless potting mix is best.
pH 6-7; neutral to slightly acidic.
Harvesting/Pruning: Snip sage early in the morning for best flavor, just above where two leaves meet. Cut back stems by no more than half to encourage new growth. Sage can be propagated by cuttings, division, seeds, and layering.
Notes: Fresh leaves can be stored for 3-4 days in the refrigerator, or the leaves can be dried. Beyond stuffing, sage can be used fresh or dried in a variety of savory dishes, soups, and sandwiches.
If you'd like to go beyond the basics, there are many other interesting and flavorful herbs to choose from, particularly those from international cuisines. You could grow purslane, lemongrass, cilantro, fennel, thyme, winter savory, and many others.
For more information:
- Author: Sara Milnes
Plants in containers have some special needs besides the light, air, water, and nutrients that all plants need. Container plants also need a good soil mixture, the proper container, fertilizer amendments and attention to water.
A container plant needs a more porous soil mixture to thrive and will not do well using ordinary garden soil (especially the Valley's clay soil). Containers have a shallow depth and reduced ability to pull moisture downward. Using ordinary garden soil would result in poor drainage, which can lead to poor growth and root rot. While there are recipes for creating a container soil mixture, the easiest solution on a small scale is to use a good quality commercial potting soil. These mixtures do not contain soil but a mixture of ingredients to improve drainage and aeration, and many are fortified with a fertilizer.
For flowers, you want containers that are pleasing and go well with the color of the plants, but the container needs other qualities for healthy plants. A container should have adequate drainage holes. A container without drainage holes can work if you double pot the container, putting plants in a container with drainage holes and placing it on gravel inside a pot without drainage holes. But it is easier to select a pot with drainage holes in the first place.
Container size is important. Outdoor container plants, especially rapidly growing ones like summer annuals, need adequate space for root development. Small pots require more frequent watering and restrict root growth, which results in fewer flowers. Containers should hold several gallons of potting mixture for the most attractive plants and best flowers. Pots are generally sold by diameter, and a 12-14” diameter pot is usually an adequate size for flowers.
A variety of container materials work well—terra cotta clay (glazed or unglazed), wood, plastic, fiberglass, concrete, even found materials. Use your creativity! Since we live in a mild climate, a cracked or broken clay pot in cold weather is not as much of a danger, but if there's a cold spell, you might want to move clay pots to a sheltered place.
Each time a container plant is watered, fertilizer is flushed out. If your potting mixture doesn't contain fertilizer, you should add fertilizer at planting, and then fertilize again in two to three weeks. This can be liquid soluble, garden type, or time-release fertilizer. A liquid soluble fertilizer can be applied every two to three weeks according to label directions, enough so that some drains out of the bottom. Garden type fertilizer can be applied every three to four weeks, using ½ teaspoon per gallon, spread evenly on the soil surface and watered. Time release fertilizers are popular and generally last about three months. Apply according to package directions (usually about a teaspoon per gallon of soil) and water in. Some potting soils come with time release fertilizer, so be aware of what you have already used.
Container plants should never be allowed to completely dry out. This damages feeder roots and leads to flower drop. When the plant does get water, its energy goes to regrowing feeder roots, while plant growth and flower production suffer. Plants in smaller and/or darker pots, higher temperatures, higher wind, and in direct sun will require more water. A mature plant is likely to need watering daily in warm weather. If the top 2-3 inches of potting mix is dry, the plant needs water. Overwatering is also detrimental, as the water fills all the pore space, and the plant can't get enough oxygen. Water only when necessary, and water until water starts to come out of the drainage holes.
Design and Potting
Many flowers do well in pots, and nurseries often have “good in containers” on the nursery tags, along with the plant's requirements for sun, water, bloom time, size, etc. Read the labels so you will know what plants grow in what season and be able to pot plants with similar requirements together. I like to choose plants with long displays, so there's overlap in the seasons.
In selecting plants, try to choose ones in top condition. They should be lush on all sides, without empty areas or dead material. Plants should be stocky and sturdy, not spindly. Its roots should not be pushing out of the pot. If you can gently push the plant out of the pot to examine its roots, it should have roots that are tan or white, growing towards the side and bottom of the pot, but not circling it.
A potted container should have a reservoir free of potting soil at the top of the pot, generally the top 1 ½ to 3 inches in a larger pot. When planting a container, the potting mix should be moist but not drenched. Partially fill the pot loosely with potting mix and arrange the plants so that the soil level of the new plants is slightly higher than the potting mix level. Fill in with potting soil around the plants and tap or shake gently to settle the soil. Don't press down the soil, which will compact it. Water thoroughly after planting, which will even the soil level of the new plants with the potting soil.
Most of all, have fun! Keep track of what works and what doesn't, and don't be afraid to give up on a plant that doesn't thrive. We all learn by doing and become better gardeners with knowledge and practice. Spring is a great time to get started!
Container Gardening: Fresh Ideas for Outdoor Living by the Editors of Sunset Magazine
- Author: Lee Miller, Master Gardener
SHRUB: African Bush Daisy. There are many species but only one appears to be in commerce (Euryops pectinatus). It is a small shrub that can grow to 5'x 5'. It has a profusion of yellow daisy-like flowers and starts blooming in February and continues for several months. There is a dwarf version that is slightly smaller https://www.monrovia.com/dwarf-euryops.html. It thrives in full sun and does best in zones 9-11 although it can be grown as an annual in colder zones.
It is mostly a non-hardy species that does very well in our warm Central Valley. This is a plant with appealing finely cut green or grey-green foliage all season long. It is a tough plant that survives all but the most extreme warm weather conditions including moderate drought. It can also be planted in a container, but I think it does better in the ground with less worries about watering. If planted either singly or in multiple clumps, it can make quite a splash of bright yellow in the landscape. Maintenance includes mulching and cutting and trimming out any dead branches.
TREE: Bradford Pear is a cultivar of (Pyrus calleryana) which is native to China and Vietnam. It was introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the mid-1960s. Lady Bird Johnson promoted the tree by planting one in downtown Washington , D.C. In my opinion this introduction was a colossal mistake for reasons I will explain. This tree grows to a max height of 30 ft. or more and features early prolific white blooms.
If there are no other cultivars or species present, the resulting seeds in the very small pears are sterile which is a good thing as a large tree produces perhaps millions of them which fall on my walk and driveway with each winter storm. However, if cross fertilization occurs with other cultivars, the seeds are viable and spread by birds. Hence, the species and other cultivars are now considered to be invasive in the East and Midwest with trees popping up along roadsides and wherever soil is disturbed. The tree is touted as resistant to fire blight, but it does get infected and some limbs die and break off to add one more chore to the homeowner. I mention all this to encourage homeowners to never plant one, yet they are still offered for sale.
BULB: Gladiolus gets its name from the word for sword in Latin because its leaves are sword like in appearance. There are 300 species but the ones for sale today are mostly hybridized cultivars which come in a range of colors: white, yellow, pink and lavender, rose, burgundy, purple and even green as well as in various bicolors. These flowers grow from corms which can be planted from January to April to enjoy flowers in the late spring through summer. It is good to plant corms every two weeks or so to produce flowers over a longer period of time. Flower bloom 10-12 week after planting. To get the best flowers, it is best to plant large corms 1¼ inch or larger in diameter. Set corms in holes about 5-6 inches deep with the pointed end facing up and spaced about 6-8 inches apart. If grown primarily for cut flowers, plant them in double rows as it is easier to water using drip tape as well as easier to harvest flowers. If planted with other flowers in borders or annual beds, plant the corms in groups of 7 or more for the best effect. I have grown several rows of them in the past and enjoy some magnificent bouquets all summer.
- Author: Marcy Sousa
Q: Last summer my peach tree produced A LOT of fruit, but they were all really small in size. What can I do this year to get bigger fruit?
Thinning is typically done from early April (for early-ripening fruit) to mid-May (for late-ripening fruit). The best time to thin fruit is when they are about 3/4 inch in diameter. If you thin too early, it's hard to see all the fruit. But if you wait too long to thin, the effect on large fruit size will be reduced.
Peaches and nectarines should be thinned to about 5 to 7 inches apart along the branch. Apricots, plums, and apricot-plum hybrid varieties are generally smaller, so they can be spaced closer together. Thin apricots and apriums to 3 to 5 inches apart on the branch and thin plums and pluots slightly farther apart, to about 4 to 6 inches apart.
Although thinning reduces the number of fruit and total yield, it improves the size and quality of fruit. To read more about fruit thinning, click on the link: Fruit Trees: Thinning Young Fruit (ucdavis.edu).
Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
Authored by Robin Wall Kimmerer
“Sweetgrass, as the hair of Mother Earth, is traditionally braided to show loving care for her well-being. Braids, plaited of three strands, are given away as signs of kindness.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer is an American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology; and Director, Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). She is the author of numerous scientific articles and books. She earned both a bachelor's and master's degree in biology and botany and was awarded her PhD in plant ecology.
What makes Dr. Kimmerer's teaching more powerful is her membership as a Citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, which allows her to combine her heritage with her scientific, environmental knowledge and passions.
It would be difficult to include in this short article all the information, stories, lessons, history and more included in her wonderful book about her life as an indigenous woman and her respect for the land, water, animals, flora, and fauna.
Dr. Kimmerer's story begins with the story of Skywoman who fell from above onto earth becoming the first indigenous person living in an unfamiliar place. Being pregnant, Skywoman realizes she needs to live her life for the sake of her child's future and thus realizes she needs to care for the land, plants, and water to provide for her family.
Throughout the book, Dr. Kimmerer shares stories of how her forbearers, cruelly relocated from their native land to different states, allowed her to learn about not only the importance of the different plants, water sources, animals, birds, and more that would provide food, shelter, medicines, etc., for her family, but how to respect what they needed. In a span of a single generation, her ancestors moved three times – Wisconsin, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Through all the relocations, her ancestors cared for the land, water, trees, plants, soil and “learned to live with respect” for trees, animals for meat and fish available to them, never taking more than they needed. They learned and respected the needs of the different trees, berries, plants, grasses, and other edibles to sustain themselves as well as the land on which they grew.
By observing, they learned not only how plants and trees grow, but also how to store the fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and how to preserve fish and game to ensure there was plenty to eat when food was scarce. They never took more than they needed, leaving food for the creatures so they, too, would have food.
Paramount to the indigenous people (even today) is respect for the land. “When we call a place by name, it is transformed from a wilderness to homeland.” Dr. Kimmerer grew up with “leave this place better that when you found it” out of respect for the land and what it provides.
As a child, she grew up giving daily thanks for the “gifts” the natural world provided her family. As her love of science expanded, she admittedly “stepped off the path of indigenous knowledge.” She soon realized the “world has a way of guiding your steps.” Following a class about traditional knowledge of plants by a Navajo woman, Dr. Kimmerer found her re-awakening to reclaim the “other way of knowing” her indigenous mind, body, emotion, and spirit.
She later realized the indigenous words used to address the living world are the same words for her family, because the living world is also her family – the air, water, plants, birds, etc. She recognizes, as a mother who loves her children, Mother Earth loves her back by providing beans, tomatoes, beets, broccoli, peppers, berries, onions, dill, and much more.
Overtime, she finds herself thinking about our relationships with the land, how much we are given, and what we might give back. She thinks about the equations of reciprocity and responsibility, and the whys and wherefores of building sustainable relationships with the ecosystems. To her, gardens are simultaneously a material and spiritual undertaking. Any gardener will most likely admit there is an “exchange between people and plants.” Our love of fresh fruit will lead us to prune, irrigate, fertilize, weed, and more. Gardening creates love and respect for the earth, transforming the relationship “from a one-way street to a sacred bond.”
Dr. Kimmerer provides the example of the special relationship between corns, beans, and squash or the Three Sisters. As most plants do, they tell a story not by what the say, but what they do. For thousands of years, indigenous women have mounded up soil and planted three seeds of corn in the ground and they eventually emerge from the ground to form a stem. Beans are planted next to the corn and will eventually produce fleshy leaves to join the corn. Squash is last and will take its time.
The corn will sprout its stem first and grow straight. The leaves of the beans will put out their leaves all over the ground. Eventually the squash will begin to grow and its leaves will provide shade, keeping moisture in the soil and other plants out. As they grow, they support and respect one another. They are an example of what a community or group can do when they work together.
As she winds down her story, she laments the degradation the “collateral damage” due to our disregard for our Mother Earth from pollution of our air due to smoke stacks and vehicles, discharge waste (from mining, as well as our homes and businesses) into our waterways and oceans, taking habitat from creatures big and small to build shopping malls, the impact of climate change and more.
But there is a start to a happy ending in an updated revision of the book where as she recognizes an abrupt change in people's behavior and governments around the world who are recognizing we must act NOW to protect the only planet we have. She commends people around the world for changing their manner of living, raising their voices, taking action to save our land, air, water, and creatures.
Among the many life lessons within this book is a list of guidelines to reinforce small acts of daily life espoused by Dr. Kimmerer both in the garden and in our daily lives we all can follow to change our relationship with this world:
- Know the ways of the ones who take care of you so you may take care of them.
- Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
- Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
- Never take the first. Never take the last.
- Take only what you need.
- Take only what is given.
- Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
- Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
- Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
- Give thanks for what you have been given.
- Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
- Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.