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Herbs in containers

Container gardening can have a dozen advantages over ordinary, outdoor gardening.

You can bring plants indoors for winter, or grow them in the house all year round. Soil control is surer, since nothing can get in the pot but what you put there. Light control is simpler - you can move a container into shade or put it near a window or under a lamp.

But container gardening can be tricky. Nature does an excellent job of controlling moisture and nutrients, given good soil to begin with. Adjusting these and other factors artificially requires some care. That care starts with selecting the right plants.

Fortunately for anyone interested in container gardening, there are a dozen herbs that will grow in pots of all shapes and sizes. Basil grows fine in an old teapot and rosemary will be quite content in a coffee can. You can put thyme in a simple clay pot only a few inches high. Dill, mint, sage, even lavender can be grown in a container.

Start with good quality seeds - seeds are natural 'food' products, so like any food they can spoil. Air contains airborne spores that can invade them and oxygen reacts with a wide variety of organic compounds. Getting and keeping them fresh is simple, but be sure to observe the dates on packages and discard any that have gotten wet.

Pick appropriate spots for your containers. Some prefer full sun, others thrive in partial shade. Basil loves good warm soil and dry air, but it's sensitive to cold. If you put it near a window to get that sunlight, make sure the area isn't frosty in the winter.

In most populated areas in the Northern Hemisphere, sunlight comes in at an angle more from the south. Try to select areas where sun-loving plants will have southern exposure. Put those that prefer partial shade on the northern side, or in a shady area away from the window.

Prepare the soil properly and maintain it at the right moisture content. Lavender loves sun, but it also needs dry, alkaline soil. Using clay chips in the pot is great for retaining moisture, but it can do the job too well. In a container, clay absorbs and holds water for long periods. Be sure to have a mix of sandy soil and clay soil.

Water correctly. The most common problem for container plants is root rot from excessive moisture. Being wet all the time is okay for some plants, but most herbs want soil a little on the dryer side. For sage dry soil is good, but peppermint likes it moist.

Keep in mind, though, that moist doesn't mean perpetually wet. Press your thumb onto the surface. It should be a little springy for moist soil, harder for dry soil. Then insert a toothpick or, better still, a moisture gauge into the soil. Draw out the toothpick to see whether the soil under the surface is dry or moist. The gauge will give you a more exact and useful reading.

Plan your container garden well and you'll find the plants easy to grow and maintain.

Most tips can also apply to any kind of vegetables or plants grown in containers.