Give ‘em the finger

By Sonia Day

Poking your finger into the pot is the best way to tell if your plant is thirsty
Poking your finger into the pot is the best way to tell if your plant is thirsty.

That’s the way to treat potted plants, according to Conrad Richter.

Richter runs, with his family, a well-known herb emporium northeast of Toronto — and he’s always advocating the "finger test" for gardeners.

"Want to find out when a pot needs watering?" he asked a rapt crowd at Canada Blooms recently. "Simple. Just do this."

He poked his index finger in the soil to a depth of about an inch.

"If it feels dry down there, water. If it’s damp, don’t."

Since then Conrad and Aku have grown Richters Herbs into what it is today. They take pride in providing not only the popular herbs but also in continually adding new and exciting herbs for North American gardens.

The right amount of moisture is more crucial for plants in containers than for those growing in the garden, Richter explains.

Most people make the mistake of either not watering enough (so the roots dry out) or they overdo things (so the roots rot). This is particularly true for herbs.

"Most herbs are easy to grow in pots and they’re great for apartment balconies," he says, "but they do need lots of moisture." Instead of daily dribbles from a watering can, Richter recommends a deep soaking — so the entire soil mass gets wet — once a week. He scoffs at gadgets like moisture meters ("a waste of money") and advises gardeners to steer clear of "those pretty ceramic pots that don’t have drainage holes."

Waltraut Richter displays rosemary, her favourite herb among the hundreds that her family grows in Goodwood, near Stouffville
Waltraut Richter displays rosemary, her favourite herb among the hundreds that her family grows in Goodwood, near Stouffville.

Both a botanist (he has a master’s degree) and horticulturist, Richter knows his subject inside out.

The family business, started by his parents in 1967, now grows and sells an astounding 800 varieties of herbs.

Wander around their greenhouses in Goodwood, near Stouffville, at this time of year and you can get a whiff of everything from Julia Child’s sweet citrus mint to African blue basil. They’re all planted in little green pots, neatly arranged on racks, awaiting the spring onslaught of customers.

The orgy of scents from hundreds of plants is exhilarating. Sweet, spicy, cloying, fruity, fresh, you name it, Richter likes burying his nose in them, too. In fact, he thinks the therapeutic value of fragrance is underappreciated.

"A plant with a pleasing perfume never fails to lifts our spirits," he points out. "That’s as important as using a herb to make medicine."

His favourites among the collection are orange spice thyme ("We developed it ourselves — and it has a wonderful smell") and scented geraniums.

But whether gardeners opt to grow herbs for the kitchen, to relieve aches and pains or simply to sniff now and then, Richter says the TLC requirements remain the same. To gain a green thumb, you’ve got to give your potted plants the finger.

Why herbs make sense

Some plants to get you started

How to get into herbs? Conrad Richter recommends these six for beginners. They’re all easy to grow in pots:

■ Garlic chives. "More interesting than regular chives," says Richter, "the flavour is stronger."

■ Sweet basil. O. basilicum. Delicious, fresh, in salads and pesto. If you want to dry it, get the smaller leafed variety O. basilicum minimum instead.

■ Italian parsley. P. crispum neapolitanum. Has flat, dark green leaves. Considered to have better flavour than the curly-leafed kind.

■ Rosemary. Richter recommends the Standard variety. Grows into a bush, which should be brought indoors in fall.

■ English thyme. T. vulgaris. The compact form is best for containers, but don’t leave it outside over the winter.

■ Oregano. Be sure to choose the variety O. ‘Kaliteri’, which Greeks use in cooking. "It tastes much better than the others," says Richter. "There’s a lot of awful oregano around."

And for the more adventurous:

Herb planter with (clockwise from top) Purple sage, Purple bush basil, Orange Spice thyme, Gold Crisp oregano
Herb planter with (clockwise from top) Purple sage, Purple bush basil, Orange Spice thyme, Gold Crisp oregano.

■ Calendula. Old-fashioned marigolds. Easy to grow from seed — and great in pots, because they keep producing flowers after the first frosts.

■ Feverfew. Tanacetum. If you have migraines, chop a couple of feverfew leaves into salads or a sandwich daily. "It tastes bitter," says Richter, "but it gets rid of the headaches." The golden variety looks pretty with annual flowers in containers.

■ Orange spice thyme. Richter’s own creation. "A combination of orange and spice is hard to achieve with herbs," says Richter. "Ours is a good one."

■ Scented geranium, Pelargonium ‘Frensham’. "It has the most incredibly strong lemon scent," Richter says.

■ Stevia. Scientists are getting interested in this new herb, touted as a safe, natural, pleasant-tasting alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners. It contains stevioside, which is a hundred times sweeter than sugar. Richter recommends drying the leaves, then crumbling them into tea or coffee. Grows well in pots.

■ Vietnamese coriander, Polygonum odoratum. A great alternative to regular coriander, Coriandrum sativum, which must be grown from seed several times every summer. "The Vietnamese variety gives the same zip to Mexican dishes and it’s much easier, because you just keep chopping leaves off the plant," Richter explains.

Originally published in the Toronto Star on April 22, 2000. Photos: Sonia Day.

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