Grit Blogs > Panthers Hollow

Wildflowers and an Herb Container

Jennifer QuinnI’ll start with the herbs. Last year I bought thyme and lavender plants (one each) and planted them in my garden as part of an intercropping strategy. Like many herbs, these are supposed to deter various pests, so I planted them at the edges of a couple of my garden beds. The dilemma here is that these Mediterranean herbs are said to do best in poor soil. So, how in the world are you supposed to intercrop them with your vegetable crops, where, of course, you’re trying to make the soil as good as possible?

I tried to resolve this by planting the herbs just outside the vegetable beds, adding some stones and gravel to the soil to make it “poorer.” What I overlooked is that they also need special protection to keep them alive in the garden over the winter. And recommendations for intercropping suggest planting this herb with that vegetable in order to control specific pests. But how can you do that with perennial herbs when you have to keep rotating your vegetable crops?

For this and other reasons I’ve become disillusioned with the whole idea of intercropping as a method of pest control. On the other hand, I do like the idea of growing my own herbs for the kitchen; and since lavender is supposed to repel fleas, I had taken to sprinkling it in the house around where my cats lie. So, after my thyme and lavender died over the winter, I decided to try again, this time adding rosemary to the mix.

I was intrigued with the idea of growing them in a container, and I remembered seeing a stone planter in a shady part of the backyard with some irises that never bloomed (perhaps it was the lack of sunlight?). Anyway, this struck me as the perfect container for my herbs. So I dug out the irises and planted them in a sunny but very wet area of the yard, and commandeered the planter for my herbs.

The spot I finally selected was chosen for both convenience of harvesting and optimal sunlight. This spot right next to the house gets the sun all morning, so it was perfect. It just happened that I was about to seed this area with wildflowers for the second time, after an unsuccessful first attempt. No problem — I would just sow the wildflowers (and some grasses) around it, and the result should be quite aesthetically pleasing.

In the rear of the photo you can dimly make out the two survivors of my original wildflower planting — both red milkweeds — which are actually doing quite well this year. I believe my earlier failure was partly due to me not effectively preparing the soil or removing the weeds prior to planting. So last fall I covered everything but the two milkweeds with cardboard and after removing it in mid-spring found it largely weed-free. I then broadforked it (it was quite compacted!), raked it as smooth as I could, and sowed it with more red milkweed, purple and yellow coneflowers, wild bergamot, black-eyed Susans, ox-eye sunflower, New England aster, and Canada and Virginia wild rye. The last step was to surround it with temporary netting to keep the chickens out so they don’t scratch it all up.

The herb planter was so heavy I had to put it on a dolly to move it! In an effort to recreate the rocky, Mediterranean soil, I filled it about half full with good-sized stones, then dug a lot of gravelly silt out of the stream bed to add to that. Finally, I added some rather clayey garden soil, largely because I got tired of digging silt out of the stream. But I topped that off with more gravel from the very stony soil of my wildflower bed. The result seems to be a good mix, and after several days the herbs seem to be thriving. I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to protect them over the winter, but I’ll think of something!

As for the wildflowers, it will take a couple of years to see the results, but I’m sure it will turn out better than my first attempt. My other main wildflower planting seemed to be a real bust the first year — only a few red milkweeds and one frail purple coneflower emerged in the spring. But late in the summer I noticed a few other plants emerging, including yellow coneflower, New England aster, wild bergamot, and even,I believe, a Culver’s root.  This year the planting is really taking off, with even more plants than I had noticed before. I’ll share a photo when things start blooming!

herb container