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Planting a Cinder-Block Herb Garden

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TasunkaWitko View Drop Down
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    Posted: 20 January 2015 at 23:42
From Brook (HistoricFoodie):

Quote The best bet I’ve found for an inexpensive, semi-portable herb garden is concrete cinder block. Lay them out with the holes running up/down, fill with planting mix, and you’re good to go.

My permanent herb bed is made with those blocks, mortared together. What I have is four good-sized compartments, plus all the holes. Currently we use the holes for chives, tarragon, parsley, and thyme. The big sections have hyssop, lemon balm, lavender, and oregano.

In the past we’ve grown (in the block holes) basil, savory, horehound, and a host of others. Most any herb will grow in blocks., but a couple of provisos: Lavender, given the conditions, will branch out and become bushy. So it’s really better to grow it where it has room to spread. If you go with a variant of my lay-out, it’s better in the center. Thyme is a trailing plant, so you might be better putting it in a double row. For a semi-temporary design I would lay out two blocks in a straight row, then put a third one on top of them, straddling the seam. That would give you some height, and room for the thyme (two plants, in this case) to drape.  Plus you’ll still have one hole on each end to work with. Maybe put chives in them? Or basil?

Also give some thought to how you’ll arrange the perennials versuss the annuals. Chives, tarragon, thyme, marjoram, oregano, mint, sage, and lavender are perennials. Parsley is a biennial, which means you need to treat it as an annual. Basil, summer savory, and cilantro are annuals. Dill is, too. But it’s a tall-growing, rather bushy one, that can, in theory, shade out other plants.

If you decide on winter savory, it’s a bushy perennial which also does better with room to grow (in many ways it resembles a miniature holly bush). It also, you’ll discover, has a more aggressive flavor than summer savory, and retains it when dried---which summer savory doesn’t. 

Just set the blocks wherever convenient, and you have a double-holed planter. If you want to make the effort, first dig a trench and fill it with sand. This will assure that the block stays level, and will reduce, or even eliminate, any frost heaving. If you go with a double row of any kind I would definitely start with a sand base to assure that frost heaving doesn’t knock it down.

By the way, the blocks readily take any external paint. My planter is painted a lovely light green, to tie it to the herbs. But any paint (or none) is fine. 

Another nice thing is that you can arrange the blocks in patterns if you like, thus creating an actual garden. In my case, I went two blocks high, mortaring the blocks in place. I then built wooden forms and cast a crisscrossing inner wall  of concrete, dividing the center area into four sections, each 2 feet square. Those middle blocks get reserved for bushy perennials, such as lemon balm, rosemary, hyssop, and sage. Then “smaller” perennials and annuals go in the holes in the block wall. Typically we’ll have chives, tarragon, basil, parsley, thyme, and mint growing in the blocks.

Give some thought to a take-off of that idea. What, for instance, if you arranged the block in a single-layer circle, and filled the circle with soil? For as long as you want the herb garden there, you’ve got a beautiful planting area (many herbs are ornamental as well as practical). But if you need to disassemble it, no big deal.

Or maybe do a zig-zag line of blocks? Or…..well, let your imagination run wild.

Best of all is the cost. Block is cheap. I like to say it cost me more for the paint than the cinder block; which isn’t true, but sounds good. And is almost true.

Keep in mind that, even when started indoors early in the year, most perennial herbs take at least two years before they really come into their own.  So don’t get disappointed if they’re still kind of small and spindly at the end of the first season. You’ll be happily surprised the following year.

You can get a running start on this by rooting plants instead of starting from seed. Most herbaceous plants will happily root from cuttings. Which means if you buy herbs in those clam packs you can use some of them to get the garden started. Normally I hate those packs because they are the most expensive way of buying herbs, and you usually get more than you can use, and the rest rots. But if you combine immediate use with starting plants, you at least salvage some of what you’d otherwise throw out. You can start plants merely by trimming the stems and standing them in damp sand or starting media. I prefer dipping them in rooting hormone first, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Keep the “soil” damp, but not wet, until roots develop. Then individually pot the plants. Do all of this under fluorescents, rather than in a window, both to control the heat levels, and because the wavelength of the winter sun isn’t right for plant growth.

You can, of course, just wait until plants are available in the spring. But you’ll lose a lot of growing time, that way.

And some things will, of course, have to be started from seed. Celery and cilantro, for instance. A good idea is to see what’s available at the garden centers now, and snap up what you can use, so you can get started indoors early next spring.
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