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Using herbs as container garden ‘spillers’

We usually think of flowers for containers but there are some ideal herbs that could be used

It might be too soon to buy plants to put in containers but start thinking about which ones to use, and maybe they can be obtained from our own gardens — both the outdoor one and the indoor one. By taking pieces of these plants now and potting them up, they will have developed into nice-size plants by the time we want to use them in containers. We usually think “flowers” for containers but don’t overlook herbs, and a couple will serve as terrific “spillers.”

One such plant is thyme, which is often green when the snow melts and is already growing by early April. It is easy to dig up a few chunks and pot them up for use in containers. Cut off old foliage and take pieces that show new growth.

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I use square containers that are about 10 cm square but any pots would do as long as they are not too small — you want the plants to have plenty of room to grow and develop roots and you don’t want pots to be too small or they will dry out too quickly. Plant each clump using soilless mix and then water it well. The pots can remain outside but if winter-like weather persists, taking them indoors during cold days will hasten growth of the plants. Thyme is very cold tolerant and will not be damaged even if there is a late-spring snowstorm.

Thyme has lovely finely textured foliage and is a prostrate plant meaning it hugs the surface of the soil. It gradually spreads and thus will tumble over the edge of a container if planted near the edge of the pot. The foliage is dark green, not shiny, and an added bonus is that the plant will have purple blooms in early summer. When they fade they should be sheared off the plants so that the spent bloom does not detract from the beauty of the container.

Another herb that makes a good container plant is orange oregano. Not really an oregano at all, it is actually a member of the mint (Lamiacea) plant family. It is often called Bergamont mint or orange mint. It has dark-green oval leaves and produces long stems which are quite prostrate and when grown in the ground will root at leaf axils as they spread across the soil surface. Orange oregano is a fast-growing plant and multiple stems will emerge from the centre of the plant; some will have a somewhat vertical growth habit and these will produce rather non-descript whitish flowers. They can be cut off after they lose their attractiveness. Orange oregano withstands pinching and cutting back so if the growth becomes too rampant for the container it can soon be clipped back to a manageable size.

Orange oregano has attractive, dark-green oval leaves.
photo: Albert Parsons

Both thyme and orange oregano are very drought tolerant and actually do not like wet feet so it is best to pair them with plants that do not require the soil to be kept wet, such as geraniums, salvia, and sages. Both plants also like lots of sun, so choose companions that also like to bask in the sun. The plants will be happy with the fertility level of the soil and won’t object to it being a bit on the skimpy side. Good soilless mix will be adequate.

Thyme and orange oregano should both be planted near the edge of a container where they will soon creep over and begin to tumble down. The long stems of orange oregano will by midsummer reach the ground and you may have to do some pruning. Both plants will do a good job of covering the edge of the container — both being excellent spillers. Not only is their foliage attractive, but they are fast growing and produce bloom for part of the season. Their foliage is also aromatic so if the container is positioned where it will be touched or brushed by as it is passed, the plants will exude a pleasant fragrance. Neither will object to being underplanted beneath taller plants as they soon emerge from beneath the companion plants to tumble down the outside of the container. By starting pots of thyme and orange oregano early, you will have some good spillers for your outdoor containers when you are ready for them.

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