GROW FOOD slow food Have your garden and eat it too. A practical guide to organic gardening in the sub-tropics with step-by-step instructions and delicious seasonal recipes. Come with me too on some of my travels in Australia, Europe, Asia and beyond.

IT DOESN’T MATTER WHERE YOU COME FROM IN THE WORLD – you will find HERBS forming an integral part of culinary and medicinal traditions that are thousands of years old.


WHY IN OLIVE OIL CANS?  Many of the herbs we grow and cook with come from the Mediterranean with the opposite climate to mine – here in the subtropics of NSW, Australia.  They are used to WET WINTERS and HOT DRY SUMMERS.  Conversely, we have very little rain in the winter and incredibly WET and HUMID summers – so most of these herbs – like OREGANO, THYME, BAY ROSEMARY, MARJORAM, LEMON VERBENA and SAGE just turn up their toes if I plant them in the garden.

PLANTING THEM IN CANS allows me to manipulate the amount of sun they are getting and move them under cover when it starts chucking it down come January – we can get 200 ml + of rain in 24 hours in the summer.

PLUS  – I’m a ‘waste not want not’ kind of girl and recycling these cans, instead of sending them off to the tip, makes me happy.  And talking about happy – I can also look out into my garden and think for one minute that I am back in the Greek Islands?

THE BEES and BUTTERFLIES will be HAPPY TOO.   Herbs left to flower, like this dill plant, are great attractors of POLLINATORS and BENEFICIAL INSECTS

Apart from the enormous variety of flavours, they are incredibly good for you – a handful of fresh herbs added to a plate of food will often contain more vitamins and minerals than the whole dish.  Think parsley and mint salads in Middle Eastern salads; coriander and basils in Asian dishes; and oregano, basil, thyme and bay leaves in Mediterranean food – these are power packed with nutritional goodness.

HERBS can be divided up into three different types ANNUALS, BIENNIALS and PERENNIALS.

ANNUAL HERBS have to be planted every year and usually fall into the soft, leafy green variety – basil, coriander, dill and fennel.  These are easy to grow in a well mulched bed. – just plant  out seedlings in the springtime.  THEY ARE HAPPY TO BE GROWN IN A MIXED BORDER.

BIENNIAL the lonely one in this group, but very important parsley.  This takes two years to do its thing – that is grow leaves, flower, set-seed and die down. You can keep it going in the second year by pinching out the flowering stems as they appear. I GROW PARSLEY, THE FLAT-LEAVED KIND, IN BOTH POTS BY THE BACK DOOR – AND IN THE GARDEN – BECAUSE I USE A LOT OF IT.

PERENNIAL HERBS persist from year to year.  Some die down and then jump up again in the spring – like tarragon, yarrow, chives, comfrey and most the mint family  – THESE I GROW IN A SEMI-SHADE SPOT IN A GARDEN BED.  But some stay around for most of the year – they just look happier in the warmer months – like the thymes, sweet marjoram, oregano family, sage, lemon verbena, rosemary and bay – THESE ARE THE ONES I GROW IN CONTAINERS.


So, its this latter group of PERENNIAL AROMATIC HERBS that go into my cans.

For the first few years I lived here I would lose these plants every year in the summer wet.  Now, I have just copied the ubiquitous Greek olive oil can garden and everything is thriving!  Not only do I feel very virtuous about recycling these colourful cans, but I can move them under cover when we have a ‘big wet’. – and for the past three years they have been very happy.  I just need to add some geraniums now to complete that Greek Island picture?

My olive can collection of herbs
It was time today – being late winter – to divide up some of these plants in the oil cans as they had become just too crowded and root-bound.  As I said to my neighbour today, unfortunately gardening is not like interior decorating – it is not finished even when the last plant has been planted – THEY HAVE A TENDENCY TO GROW!
Actually, propagating is just about my favourite job to do in the garden – there’s something deeply satisfying about seeing new plants growing from seeds and cuttings.
TOP TIP: The larger cans in the picture above are actual OLIVE CANS and make perfect planters – they are larger than the oil cans and ALREADY HAVE A HOLE IN THE TOP FOR THE LID, you just have to put some drainage holes in the bottom.
Restaurants and cafes are usually happy to save these for you – especially in exchange for the odd potted up rosemary plant!


  2. Cut the top of the can with a can opener.
    The top will be VERY SHARP so this is not a job for the kiddies.

3.  Punch some holes in the bottom with an old Phillips head screwdriver and a hammer.  (If you have a better way of doing this please let me know?)

4.  PREPARE YOUR HERBS FOR PLANTING.  You can use seedlings or divide up some that you have already that have become pot bound. This is a thyme plant that easily divided up into about eight plants with roots attached to each.  I re-planted two oil cans and put the rest into pots.


5.  FILL YOUR CANS WITH POTTING MIX.  My SECRET FORMULA (50 years experience and after many failures!)

  • 1/3 good quality potting mix – the best you can afford
  • 1/3 perlite – that white stuff that looks like polystyrene and is actually exploded volcanic rock (adds airspaces and lightness to mix)
  • 1/3 coir peat – originates from coconut husk fibre that adds organic matter and helps retain moisture in potting mixes.  DON’T BUY PEAT MOSS – its a non-renewable resource.
My newly potted up oil cans.
  • Make sure you water them regularly.
  • Don’t put them straight into hot, direct sunlight.  Give them a little holiday first before they get to their Greek Island.
  • Feed regularly through growing season with liquid fertilizer and give them a sprinkle of slow release fertilizer a couple of times a year.  I use compost tea or worm juice
TOP TIP:  When moving a plant or dividing one up and you damage some of the roots – usually inevitable – prune off an equal proportion of the leaf part of the plant.  For example, if you lose a third of the roots, take off a third of the top.




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