Growing herbs at the cottage

Making your very own cottage herb garden can be challenging, but not impossible. Here are some tips

By Jo CurrieJo Currie


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You don’t need a lot of spare time — or expertise — to establish a small herb garden within snipping distance of the kitchen, ready to flavour up cottage meals from May through October. Growing herbs at the cottage can be challenging, though, especially if you’re not there during the week to water or the local critters demand a share of the harvest. Here are some tips:

What to plant

For a start, try sage, thyme, oregano, and rosemary, classic culinary herbs that are native to the dry, sunny, gravelly slopes around the Mediterranean. They’re tough, drought-resistant so they can survive between weekend waterings, and (blessed bonus) too woody to attract most pests. You’ll find common varieties at many garden centres, and unusual ones like orange spice thyme at specialized herb nurseries. Most need full sun (at least six hours a day) and well-drained soil. Chives, native to Asia, are more shade-tolerant and just as easy to grow.

Soil shallow or non-existent?

Herbs are ideal candidates for containers, which also help discourage voracious pests such as snails and slugs – not to mention dogs that trample and cats that dig. Wood half-barrels retain moisture better than clay pots. Or build your own containers — generously sized so there’s 45 cm of soil depth. Drill 5-cm-diameter drainage holes in container bottoms, then cover with a layer of stones before adding soil. One half–barrel should hold five herb plants, evenly spaced. Mix species for a pleasing variety of colours and textures.

Alternatively, build a raised herb bed using 4 x 4 or 6 x 6 untreated timbers. Find a more-orless level spot, loosen any soil, and remove all weeds and grasses, then build up the frame so herbs have a minimum 30 cm (better, 45 cm) of depth to grow in.

A good growing medium

Mix two parts potting soil or topsoil with one part each of moistened peat moss, perlite, and composted manure. You can add a few handfuls of bone meal, which adds calcium and phosphorus, or another organic fertilizer. If you have compost, add some of that, too.

Keep moisture in

Even if you’re there to water regularly, mulches are useful for warming the soil and keeping weeds at bay. Cover the soil surface with a few inches of bark mulch, clean stones, or gravel.

Watering while you’re gone

Once your herb plants are established, a good weekly soaking should be enough. When you must leave your herbs to fend for themselves for awhile, small-scale drip-watering kits are available from most nursery suppliers. You’ll also need a timer, to turn water on and off automatically at the tap. For a small bed or herb container, we like the low-tech solution of a drip tap. (We found a set of three for $7.95 at Lee Valley.) Install the tap onto a large plastic water jug or pail, then position it above the herbs and adjust to a slow drip that will keep things green and growing until you return.

Animal snackers?

If your bed is vulnerable to browsing by deer, mice, moles, or rabbits, try spreading chopped garlic around the plants, or spray them with a mix of puréed garlic and water. Richters Herbs, of Goodwood, Ont., sells the Piss-Off plant – reputed to repel many animals when planted near edible greens. (We’ve never tried it, but for a mere $6, you might.)

As your herbs grow

Keep plants under control by cutting them regularly to prevent them from getting leggy, especially if they are in shade. If herbs grow faster than you can use them (and they will!), dry the extra cuttings for winter use.

This article was originally published on May 16, 2008

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