If you like to season your meals with fresh herbs, there’s nothing easier than growing them yourself. Most herb plants require little in the way of nutrients and tending. Not only that, they keep producing right to the end of the season. Cultivating your own herb garden is an economical way to enjoy healthy, delicious garden produce with minimal work and time.
Why grow herbs in containers and planter boxes?
Unlike many garden plants, herbs thrive in small spaces. Many grow in marginal soil, without added fertilizers. Some herbs can also be aggressive–meaning they’ll take over garden beds in a flash. Growing herbs in pots or planter boxes help keep them under control and right where you need them.
What kind of soil is best?
The types of herbs you grow will determine what growing medium you’ll need.
Good drainage is the number one thing needed by most herbs. Many will grow in average garden soil with added compost. Some, like sage, lemon balm, rosemary and thyme, prefer sandy or even gritty soil. Others, like basil, prefer moist soil enriched with nutrients.
The types of herbs you grow will determine what growing medium you’ll need. Just remember: all herbs planted in containers need drainage holes.
Which herbs are best for containers and planter boxes?
Many herbs thrive in containers, but those that maintain a smaller habit and shallow roots are the ideal choices. Since you may want to organize your pots by perennial (plants that come up year after year) and annual (plants that flower and produce seed in one season) herbs, the groupings below stick to those categories. The lone biennial (plants that produce seed in the second year) in this list, parsley, pairs well with annuals and perennials.
Fresh basil must be one of the best things about summer. Thriving in lots of heat and full sun, this flavorful herb loves containers of all shapes and sizes and grows well from seed.
Its lustrous, green leaves are a lovely complement to mixes of flowers and edibles planted in nutrient-rich potting soil. Help it thrive by amending your containers with finished compost before planting and during the growing season.
Plant several different varieties near your kitchen door for added interest. We love Genovese, lemon and globe basils. You can also grow basil indoors in a bright and sunny window or in a greenhouse. For the longest harvest, pinch off flowers before they have a chance to bloom.
Cilantro is the leafy part of the plant also known as coriander. Since it goes to seed quickly, it’s best to sow cilantro every few weeks in spring and late summer. You can also purchase plants.
Locate your cilantro in full sun, giving it a container at least 6 inches deep. Keep the soil evenly moist for best results.
While cilantro doesn’t dehydrate well, it’s lovely when used fresh in salads, salsas and as a garnish in soups and stews.
Nothing livens up a meal like the zing of chives. Grown in full sun or partial shade, chives do best in fertile, well-drained soil. If you let them regrow year after year in the same pot, just be sure to divide your plants periodically–preferably in springtime. This will prevent them from becoming root bound.
Chives will usually flower in early summer, making the flowering stems too tough to eat. Garlic chives flower in late summer or early fall and keep producing tasty, garlicky greens all season long.
To extend harvesting time, cut back standard chives in midsummer for a second harvest. Both varieties have edible blossoms and are easy to grow from seed or root divisions.
Another perennial to add to your herbal containers is sorrel. As one of the earliest herbs to sprout and produce in springtime, sorrel is a welcome addition to any mixed pot or planter box. French sorrel is a popular favorite.
Use it raw, add to early spring salads, or layer in sandwiches for a lemony tang. (You can cook it if you prefer a milder flavor.) Like chives above, the root will expand over time. Trim or divide from year to year to keep your sorrel thriving. Grow from seed or root divisions.
Planting mint in a container is not just good for you, it’s good for your garden. That’s because mint spreads aggressively via underground rhizomes. If you plant mint in your garden bed, odds are it will have reached every corner by the end of the season. Confining it to its own pot (or mixed with one or two other herbs) is a great way to keep it under control while having easy access for tea and garnishes.
While it’s easy to tend, mint isn’t easy to grow from seed. Purchase plants or grow from divisions or cuttings.There are hundreds of mint varieties. Some favorites include spearmint, basil mint, pineapple mint (which is variegated), chocolate mint and ginger mint. Plant in soil 10 to 12 inches deep for adequate drainage and nourishment.
Like mint above, oregano will grow quickly and expand throughout a garden if you let it. Adding oregano to a deep, wide planter with one or two other herbs or annual vegetables helps keep it contained. Interplanting also makes use of its insect-repelling properties (oregano is said to repel cabbage moths). Oregano can also be grown indoors on a bright windowsill.
The most common form of oregano grown in North America is probably Greek oregano. This variety dries well and retains its flavor for many months. Sweet marjoram is often used interchangeably with oregano, though its flavor is less pungent and full-bodied. Plant from seed, cutting or division.
Tolerant of light, sandy soils that are low in nutrients, French tarragon is another easy-to-grow herb that has many uses in the kitchen. While our favorite is tarragon vinegar–which we use in everything from salad dressings to vegetable dishes–tarragon is an excellent complement to green beans, roasted beets, potatoes and more.
Tarragon is easiest to grow when starting with purchased plants, root divisions, or cuttings. Pair with lavender or rosemary in a large planter box for an aromatic feast.
One of the tiniest of herbs, thyme also packs a strong flavor that goes well in soups and poultry dishes. As a low-growing herb, it is best planted at the edge of containers so it doesn’t get lost. It also likes soil without too much fertility.
No matter where you put it, thyme will spread slowly over the season, developing woody stems that support tiny, fragrant leaves. Its drought-tolerant nature also makes it a good fit for xeriscapes and ground covers.
Lemon verbena is technically a perennial, though it won’t grow year round outdoors in anything less than zone 9. Some gardeners in colder climates have success bringing their pots inside over the winter. Others treat lemon verbena like an annual, buying plants year after year.
Whichever you choose, plant lemon verbena in loose, well-drained soil located in full sun. This is another herb that benefits from compost, but be sure not to overwater. Lemon verbena seems to thrive when kept on the dry side.
Prized for its delicious scent and fresh flavor, lemon verbena is perfect for teas and deserts, or simply enjoy its amazing fragrance. If you plan to bring your plant inside for the winter, choose a pot that’s at least a foot in diameter. This will help lessen the shock of the changing temperatures.
Smell a sage plant and most people will conjure up images of Thanksgiving. The dark, earthy scent seems to go hand in hand with poultry dishes. But sage has many other uses, both culinary and medicinal. It’s also a perfect companion to container growing, thanks to the plant’s predictable habit and slow growth.
Used in large pots and planter boxes, sage can offer an aromatic and colorful display. Many gardeners use purple sage to add visual interest to plantings, while the variegated pineapple sage can add contrast to any mix. As a Mediterranean herb, sage likes full sun. It will grow in marginal soil, as long as it’s well drained. Propagating from cuttings, divisions or purchased plants.
Unlike its closely related summer cousin, winter savory comes back year after year–and will remain evergreen in warmer locations. Like most herbs on this list, it thrives with six or more hours of sunlight per day.
It has a low-growing habit (slightly taller than thyme) and needs very little care. It will hold its own when planted with vigorous herbs like oregano or lavender. Add it to your planter box and watch it thrive.
Parsley is another versatile herb that freshens up just about any dish. Primarily known for its curly leaves, parsley also comes in flat-leaved varieties that look more like cilantro. Both are equally tasty and easy to grow.
The one caveat is that parsley takes time to mature. Grow a lot if you want to harvest regularly. To speed up your harvest, consider buying young plants, as planting from seed brings mixed results. They’ll last all season long and will come back up the following year–after a dormant period–to make seed.
Although parsley thrives in full sun, it will also tolerate partial shade.
Growing herbs in planters and pots
Most culinary herbs are perennials and require very little care to thrive. Some develop woody stems when allowed to flourish year after year. Others need a good pruning to help them regenerate. Here’s a quick and easy-care list to help you get the most from your herbs when growing in pots or planters.
- Sage: Cut back established sage plants to 5 to 6 inches above the ground. New shoots will emerge, enabling the plant to grow bushier.
- Lemon Verbena: After you see the first flush of new growth, trim old, woody stems down to two inches. Remove spent or damaged stems.
- Thyme: When thyme begins to grow in spring, trim plants back ⅓, taking care not to remove any new growth.
- Oregano: Oregano benefits from a haircut at the season’s end. You can also trim mid-season to delay flowering and extend your harvest. Cut back to 4 to 6 inches from the ground.
- Tarragon:When the leaves begin to turn yellow at the summer’s end, trim stems back 3 to 4 inches from the ground.
Dressing up container herbs
If you’ve ever hesitated to fill your planters with edibles because the show isn’t as grand as ornamentals, consider combining edible flowers and herbs. Both bring color, fragrance and texture to your planters. Calendula, nasturtiums, catmint and lavender are just some of the options available. Whatever you choose to grow, enjoy the fresh aroma and taste of your hard work.
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