ISSUE 86  |  To the Beach

DIY Outdoor Planter: Pretty Enough to Eat

August 21, 2013 5:00 PM

BY Julie Chai

Fresh herbs are key ingredients in some of my favorite summertime dishes. But with leaves that are deep, dark purple, multicolored, or reminiscent of thin blades of grass, many herb varieties are just as pretty to look at as they are delicious. I combine herbs in the same ways I would mix ornamental plants by focusing on color, form, and texture.

Photographs by Julie Chai.

I started with these Nalani Planters–on sale for $9.95 from Crate and Barrel–because I love the way the white sets off stronger colors as well as variegated green-and-white foliage. For this container, I used purple basil, silver thyme, tricolor sage, chives, and purple sweet alyssum, placing the tallest plant (basil) in back and the shortest (sweet alyssum) in front.

If you’re shopping online, Mountain Valley Growers has a wide selection of organic seedlings for $5.

Above: I started as I usually do (see my other Containers of the Month here and here), by cutting out a paper circle that’s the same size as my pot’s opening. I take this cutout to the nursery and use the disc as a template to arrange plants. This lets me know how many plants I can fit in the container as well as how I might arrange them.

Above: Purple basil has beautiful deep plum leaves and tastes similar to sweet basil, but isn’t quite as strong. Since it looks brownish when cooked, I prefer to use it raw in vegetable and grain salads, or to create infused vinegars. Basil is a warm-season annual that will die after cool weather arrives (in the San Francisco Bay Area, this is usually sometime in October.) Earlier in spring in all regions, you can start basil from seed. But this time of year, since we’re nearing the end of summer, it’s best to start with a seedling from a local nursery. After your basil dies, you might want to replace it with an upright herb like rosemary. 

Above: Tricolor sage is just what its name implies: a sage with three hues. Long, soft green leaves have white edges and new growth tinged with pale purple.

Above: Silver thyme has tiny gray-green leaves that are edged in cream.

Above: Purple sweet alyssum is a great front-of-container choice because the bloom-covered clumps will spill over the lip of the pot. Bees love it. Sweet alyssum will bloom from spring until frost, and if you live in a climate with mild winters, it may grow year round. If it fades, purple violas are a good cool-season substitute in many regions.

Above: Chives’ wispy blades lend a grassy look to the arrangement.

Eventually, your herbs will start outgrowing the pot. When this happens, I lay the pot on its side and gently ease out all the plants. Then I tease apart the plants as carefully as I can, trying to keep roots intact, and either put them into a larger container or add the biggest plants to my garden beds. Chives, silver thyme, and tricolor sage are perennials in all but the very coldest climates. Depending on the severity of your winters, perennial herbs might not survive  if planted in small containers. If you’re able to move them to the ground without damaging the roots, try that approach. After the first frost, cut back your plants to 4 to 5 inches off the ground. 

For more easy container gardening ideas, see a Cool Palette for Hot Weather and Tough Beauties That Won’t Die. And if you want to grow herbs indoors, check out Grow Herbs on a Windowsill and DIY: Shade-Tolerant Herbs To Grow in Your Apartment.