Herb garden container tips for success out or indoors
Easy to grow herbs to enjoy year round
Love the flavour and aroma of fresh herbs, but can’t seem to grow them successfully? Or maybe you’ve always wanted an herb garden but don’t know where to begin. Try these tips and hints to grow an abundance of culinary delights.
Favoured and easy-to-grow herbs include annuals such as dill, several varieties of basil, along with perennials like parsley (biennial), sage, rosemary, thyme, French tarragon, chives, an assortment of oregano, lemon balm and mint. A word of caution regarding lemon balm and mint, don’t plant them in or anywhere near garden spots at ground level as they spread prolifically. Mint is the worst as it sends out tendrils that will stop at nothing until they find a place to settle in.
Although many herbs can be started from seed buying small, established plants from a nursery or farmer’s market gives you a head start enabling you to enjoy your culinary crops more quickly.
First of all choose containers with adequate space, at least 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) deep. However, if you have the space utilize larger pots to produce even bigger crops. Conversely if the plan is to enjoy fresh herbs year round then stick with smaller pots that can be brought indoors for the winter. Dye-hard gardeners prefer clay pots over plastic or ceramic, but if you choose clay, be prepared to water more frequently during hot spells.
Plant herbs in soil that is slightly sandy for best results. It isn’t necessary to enrich soil with manure or compost, in fact to produce more flavourful herbs it’s important to avoid enhancing the soil by overfeeding, a couple of times during the growing season is usually sufficient. The most important thing is good drainage.
The majority of herbs require four to six hours of sunshine a day, so choose the sunniest spot on your balcony, deck or patio. Basil especially requires as much sun as possible, whereas parsley and tarragon will do well in cooler, shadier locations.
Herbs can be planted in groups for specific purposes, an Italian themed pot of oregano, basil and thyme or an aromatic array of thyme, parsley and tarragon for French cuisine. Combinations and choices are endless, however one herb that doesn’t do well mixing with others is chives. They do much better in a pot on their own.
Once your herb garden is established its time to harvest your bounty. Herbs thrive by being pruned frequently, the more you use them when cooking the better crop they provide.
Basil; sweet, Thai or purple grows in sets of two leaves directly opposite each other. When given a closer look you’ll notice that where the leaves spring from the stem there is another set of ‘babies’ growing from the junction where they meet the stem. It’s important when harvesting to carefully pinch off the larger leaves allowing the smaller ones to branch out. Although basil, especially purple basil, produces attractive flowers, pinch them off to prevent stunted growth and a lack-lustre flavour. Growing conditions – annual, full sun, moist yet well drained soil as basil doesn’t take kindly to ‘wet feet’. Basil can be successfully grown indoors as long as it is in a sunny location.
Chives are best harvested by cutting the stems closest to the edge of the container first, about two inches (5cm) above the soil, and working toward the centre. Tender green stocks will grow back rapidly throughout the season. Growing condition – perennial, full sun, well drained soil. Chives will do well indoors with bright light, but not direct sun.
Dark green dill leaves can be harvested at any time, but the tender young ones have the best flavour so should be harvested before the plant flowers. When flower heads have gone to seed tie stem bundles together and hang upside down (place a container underneath to catch the seeds) to dry. Growing conditions – annual, full sun, well drained soil and will tolerate dry soil. To succeed growing dill indoors it will need to be staked and requires a great deal of direct sunlight, perhaps a grow light.
French tarragon can be a pernickety herb to grow, but well worth the effort for its peppery, anise-like taste. When the plant reaches a length of about eight inches (20cm), it tends to grow in a tangled clump; leaves can be harvested in small quantities for immediate use or stems can be snipped off leaving roughly two inches (5cm) of growth behind. As tarragon loses some of its flavour when dried the best way to preserve it is to remove/discard any yellow leaves, wash and pat dry then freeze, stems and all, in bags. Growing conditions – perennial, full sun with well drained soil as tarragon has a tendency to suffer from root rot. Note: tarragon does not winter over well in very cold climates and should be cut down in fall and covered with mulch or brought indoors. Leave the plant outside until the leaves die back, bring indoors (before the first frost) and place in a cool location for three or four days then introduce it to a location where it will benefit from as much sun as possible.
Lemon Balm leaves are harvested simply by picking what you need. As with most herbs flowers should be pinched off as they appear to promote a healthy plant that will provide a good crop, not that lemon balm needs much encouragement. Growing conditions – perennial, not particularly fussy about soil or location, keep moist in hot weather. To bring indoors, prune back to about four inches (10cm), place in a sunny location and be certain the plant doesn’t dry out.
Mint; spearmint, chocolate mint or pineapple mint leaves, like lemon balm, are harvested as needed. This is one herb that can be allowed to flower due to it voracious growing habit. Again, as with lemon balm, little care is required for the plant to grow abundantly. Many gardeners suggest if you plant mint in clay pots and place them beneath the ground the plant can be contained, I have not discovered any mint that abides by this rule. Where there’s a will, there’s a way so my suggestion is to never plant it in-ground unless that’s all you want in your garden. Growing conditions – perennial, will grow in almost any conditions. Prune back four inches (10cm) to bring indoors and place in a sunny location.
Oregano; golden, lemon or Italian plants are best harvested before flowers appear to retain their most intense flavour. They grow quickly and can be cut back to about five inches (12cm) several times throughout the growing season and will come back as strong as ever. The more frequently you harvest the bushier the plant. Growing conditions – perennial, full to part sun, well drained soil. Oregano winters over well and will grow to a substantial size, if you want to bring it indoors separate a small piece of the plant and transplant to a smaller pot and place in a sunny window.
Parsley, whether flat or curly, can be harvested as soon as the plant is established. Snip stems off individually as required and new growth will appear all season. Like parsley snip from the outer edge working towards the centre. Growing conditions – biennial, sun to partial shade, well drained soil. This herb is sometimes fussy to grow even outdoors if the conditions aren’t just right so it might not be one to bring indoors. If you decide to give a whirl it will require anywhere from six to eight hours of bright light daily, yeah, maybe not.
Rosemary is harvested by clipping individual leaves or stems as required. As rosemary grows quite large you can freeze whole stems after harvesting by laying them on a cookie sheet and then stripping the leaves off and placing them back in the freezer in a plastic bag or container. The more you snip the more prolific the plant. Growing conditions – perennial, sun, well drained soil, heat and drought resistant so water as required. In colder climates (30 degrees F or below) rosemary should be brought indoors. A grow light may be necessary, depending on where you live, as this plant also requires six to eight hours of sunlight daily.
Sage can be harvested by pinching off leaves as needed; flower stems should be cut back to promote production. If the plant is very young avoid harvesting in large quantities for the first year. To store sage use the same procedure as with rosemary. Growing conditions - perennial, sun to part shade, not fussy when it comes to soil as long as it’s well drained. Sage will do well indoors in a location where it will receive direct light; it will tolerate dry, indoor air.
Thyme produces tiny pink/lilac coloured flowers that when harvesting en masse can be dried along with the leaves, otherwise, as with most herbs, snip what you need. Thyme is best stored in the freezer after being dried and crumpled. Growing conditions – perennial, thyme is on your side because it tolerates neglect and enjoys being on the dry side, does well in sun to part shade. If the plant has grown quite a bit separate a small piece and transplant it to a pot for bringing indoors to a sunny location.
All herbs should be acclimatized before bringing them indoors. Well before the first frost of the season begin moving pots close to where they will reside to be enjoyed during winter months. Locations range from under a protective area on the patio or deck to a carport or garage to a reasonably warm basement. They should, however, still be exposed to a certain amount of bright light daily. After a week or two introduce them to their new winter home (usually a south facing window). On milder, sunny autumn and winter days herbs can be put outside to enjoy natural light and soak up the sun. Temperatures that suits most herbs ranges from 65 to 70 degrees F during the day and around 50 at night. Save your herbs and conserve energy by turning the thermostat down, it’s a win-win situation all around.