Herbs are low-care plants that add beauty, fragrance, and flavor to the garden. And while it’s fun to design and plant an herb garden, the easiest and quickest way to grow herbs is in containers. Most herbs appreciate the excellent drainage containers offer, but it’s also a convenient way to grow aggressive herbs, like lemon balm and mint. Pots of herbs can be grouped on decks or patios so they’re close at hand when you need them in the kitchen. Read on if you want to learn how to grow herbs in containers.
Complete Container Herb Gardening is a great read by best-selling author, horticulturist, designer, and herb enthusiast Sue Goetz. Sue’s passion for herbs is contagious and in the book she shares many herb garden designs and projects for culinary use, aromatherapy, cleaning, natural beauty, pollinators, and more. This excerpt from her book, Complete Container Herb Gardening is used with permission from Cool Springs Press/The Quarto Group, who also provided a review copy.
Why grow herbs in containers?
Smaller homes, apartments, and downsizing all translate to having less space to garden, yet we still can have the delights an herb garden offers. Potted gardens are an easy way to fill our lives with herbs, even in limited space. Besides, herb gardens in containers are among the easiest types of gardens to grow. No weeding for hours, bending over, or even keeping a storehouse of tools to care for it all. Containers are the perfect garden style for busy people and limited spaces.
Growing in any type of container affords the opportunity to plant a garden almost anywhere. It lets you place favorite herbs right where you need them. You do not need acres or even a large garden plot to grow herbs in containers.
Gardens in containers can be tailored and sized to fit on even the tiniest windowsill. If space is a rare commodity and you have room for just a few things, why not choose plants that give back and enrich your life, even if it’s just one beloved herb growing on the kitchen counter and harvested for cooking? Or perhaps, if you’re lucky, it’s many different herbs, crammed into whatever space you have.
Container gardening is all about the ability to fit a garden into your lifestyle. Pottery and other types of containers add a decorative touch, while herbs add their unique fragrance, flavor, and texture to the planting design. For some gardeners, containers are the only option to grow a garden, and for others, pottery becomes a way to lend creativity to larger spaces. Annual summer flowering herbs, such as calendula, potted in color-coordinated containers and tucked into permanent beds give options to change plants with the season.
Gardeners who grow herbs in containers realize their multiple benefits. Many container styles are portable and moveable, which makes a good option for those who rent a home or apartment. Another advantage to growing in containers is the ability to downsize and adapt gardening to changing physical abilities. Pottery size and style choices can be made to accommodate wheelchairs and ease physical movement should the need arise.
Favorite herbs for cooking and for mixing and mingling with veggies in containers
Packaged and processed herbs will never compare to the garden-fresh ones you grow. Adding culinary herbs to container gardens gives you flavor with no limits. Love basil? Grow multiple pots and sow successive crops to have this aromatic, colorful annual throughout the warm growing season. Place a pot near the kitchen door to quickly access fresh leaves as the pasta sauce simmers on the stove.
Culinary herbs also add beauty to containers. Variegated mint in a large pot in the midst of a culinary herb garden will add color throughout the season as edibles are harvested. The texture of chives and parsley will stand out when combined with other culinary herbs in containers.
Many of the herbs photographed and featured in this section are encouraged by cutting. The more you snip, the more you stimulate new growth. More growth, more herbal flavor, more to cook with!
Harvesting fresh herbs for cooking
A culinary garden is intended to use for garden-fresh flavor all growing season. To keep containers looking nice while you enjoy the herbs in cooking, harvest but don’t defoliate your plants. Trim leaves and stems around and under bushy plants or select stems that don’t affect the plant’s overall look. Here are some general rules to keep plants producing well.
- Annual herbs: Leave at least 5 inches (13 cm) of leafy growth and remove flowers to keep leaf production. Basil is the exception; if you are making a batch of pesto, you need a lot of leaves. Add new basil plants back into the space left behind after a basil harvest, if needed.
- Perennial herbs: Leave 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) or at least a third of the plant to continue growth. Shape the plant to look natural as you cut.
A traditional culinary herb garden in chimney flues
Most herb lovers and foodies will recognize these herbs. Traditional and easy to grow, these are the best flavor makers for seasoning food. Some herbs in this mix will stay evergreen in mild winters or are okay with a light frost. The hardiness of these herbs gives an extended season of harvest and container garden beauty. Best in full sun, set this grouping where you can harvest from it easily throughout the season. Place them in edible gardens around raised beds as design accents or set up right near a door close to the kitchen to give quick access when cooking.
This project uses chimney flues as planters. Clay flues are manufactured as a liner for use in chimneys to direct smoke and other materials away from the building and out into the air. They are heavy, well made, and relatively inexpensive. They come in various shapes and sizes. Open on both ends, chimney flues can be set directly on the ground in a garden space to work like a small raised bed. Simply fill them with soil and plant away. Flues also make a great barrier to contain aggressive herbs, such as mint and oregano; planted individually, they will flourish without taking over. Stack chimney flues at different levels to create interest and accessibility.
Flues can be found at masonry or building supply stores. Or, check out antique shops and building salvage stores for vintage flues; older ones can be wonderfully decorative. A note of caution: It is not easy to know the history of an old flue, and there may be remnants of chemicals you don’t want to contaminate your herbs. Use them as a type of cachepot. Slide a plain pot down inside the flue for an easy decorative alternative to planting in them directly.
Plants included in this design:
- Basil ‘Red Rubin’
- Dill ‘Bouquet’
- Oregano (Greek)
- Parsley (flat-leaf)
- Savory (winter)
- Shiso (purple)
- Thyme (lemon)
Basil ‘Red Rubin’ (Ocimum basilicum)
Warm season annual, tender to frost. Easily grown from seed, basils are a must for every cook’s garden. The leaves of ‘Red Rubin’ basil stay a deep burgundy color through the growing season. A well-behaved plant, this cultivar is easy to keep compact, making it a good companion with other plants in containers. This beauty does double duty in a container by adding deep, vibrant leaf color plus the classic Italian basil scent. Grow basil in a warm, sunny place and keep flowers pinched for best leaf production. Start successive crops of basil seed over a few weeks to have a good supply to tuck in open spaces of containers throughout the garden. Other burgundy-leaf basil varieties to look for include ‘Dark Opal’, ‘Amethyst Improved’, and ‘Purple Ruffles’.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Hardy perennial. Easy to grow from seed and very abundant. All parts of the plant are edible, including the fluffy pink flowers. To keep vigorous stem production and nice grass-like texture in the pot, deadhead the faded flowers (or add them to a salad while they’re still fresh!). The plants have fibrous roots and appreciate a deep container but will not overtake plants around them. Divide the clumps every few years for a long-lived container garden of chives. To keep the plant attractive while harvesting, cut the older outer stems for use and leave the smaller new stems in the center of the clump. Garlicky and flavorful, chives are a non-fussy herb and a mainstay of every culinary container garden.
Dill ‘Bouquet’ (Anethum graveolens)
Annual. Easy to start from seed. Plant seed directly outside in pots in the spring after danger of heavy frost. Dill has a long taproot and does best in containers that are at least 12 inches (30 cm) deep. Other varieties that stay compact and attractive in containers include ‘Dukat’ and ‘Fernleaf’. The tall, ferny foliage adds height and texture to the back or middle of a container. Cut off new flower shoots during the peak growing season to keep production of the aromatic leaves. The tiny leaves, which are best used fresh, add a touch of licorice flavor to salads, roasted vegetables, and baked seafood dishes. Later in the growing season, allow the plants to flower. The leaves will not be flavorful but the aromatic flower heads are attractive. Use the heads and seed to flavor pickled cucumbers, beans, and other vegetables.
Oregano, Greek (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum)
Perennial. Fast growing and likes to be in the warm sun. Greek oregano varieties, such as ‘Hot and Spicy’ and ‘Kaliteri’, are among the best types for a culinary garden. They have a strong, spicy flavor that holds up well under the heat of cooking. One way to recognize Greek oregano is that the flowers are white rather than the purple of common oregano (Origanum vulgare). Keep the flowers lightly sheared off through the growing season to keep plants bushy. The young, tender leaves have the best flavor. Oregano is best planted by itself, or its aggressive roots may overtake everything else in the pot.
Parsley, flat-leaf (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum)
Biennial, typically treated as an annual. Parsley will produce an abundance of leaves its first season, and then it flowers and goes to seed in the second year of growth. The seed can be slow to germinate, so it can be more efficient to buy fresh plants every year. In containers, parsley’s deep green leaves contrast well with other herbs; it adds a real wow factor when planted next to burgundy leaf basils. Also known as Italian or plain parsley, the flat-leaf varieties have a deeper, richer flavor than the decorative curly parsley (Petroselinum crispum), making it a better choice for the culinary garden.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
Perennial. Grow mint in its own container to keep the plant’s assertive nature in check. The plant goes dormant and dies back to the ground in the winter, although it is not unusual for mint to stay evergreen in mild climates. Regularly trim back old growth and flowers throughout the season to keep fresh growth of young leaves, which have the most robust flavor. Divide the plants every two to three years so they do not become root-bound. Mint is a versatile culinary herb that can go savory or sweet. The flavor can add sweetness to tea, jelly, and desserts but also power up a savory dish when mixed with other pungent flavors, such as pepper or garlic.
Savory, winter (Satureja montana)
Perennial. A low shrubby plant that fills in open spaces well in containers. A mass of small white flowers covers the plant in late summer. Shear faded flowers to encourage new growth. Leaves are spicy and reminiscent of a mix of other pungent Mediterranean herbs. Use savory as a substitute in cooking if you don’t have thyme, rosemary, or oregano available. Another type, summer savory (Satureja hortensis), an annual grown easily from seed, makes a delicate, leafy filler in container gardens. Summer savory has a milder, slightly sweeter flavor than its winter counterpart. Either can be used in recipes interchangeably.
Shiso, purple (Perilla frutescens)
Annual. Large and leafy, shiso in containers is like the coleus of the herb world. The deep-burgundy variety adds dramatic ornamental interest. Another good decorative variety to look for is ‘Britton’, which has green leaves with deep red undersides. Shiso stays full and lush all summer if you snip off the flowers. It is an excellent tall herb to use in the background of a planter. Its dark color gives other, smaller-leaved plants a chance to stand out in the design. The leaves have a distinctive aroma reminiscent of cinnamon, cloves, and anise, popular for use in Japanese, Thai, and Korean cooking. The leaves of the purple varieties can also be used to add color to vinegar and soups.
Thyme, lemon (Thymus x citriodorus ‘Variegata’)
Perennial. This tough, bushy plant makes a great filler in a container. It also makes a nice companion in mixed herb planters. It stays demure and will not overtake space, while the golden color highlights plants growing next to it. Leaves may stay evergreen in mild winters; otherwise, this deciduous plant will come back better year after year. In the spring, as
new leaves emerge, they tend to be very attractive to slugs, so keep watch and take action if needed. This lemon-scented cultivar is a favorite in cooking. It stays true to its rich thyme flavor with an aroma of lemon that seasons fresh foods, such as salads and vegetables. Sprinkle on baked chicken or fish just as it is finishing to impart the delicate lemony flavor through the meat.
Other traditional culinary herbs for container gardens: bay laurel, cilantro, French tarragon, rosemary, sage, and summer savory.
About the Author: Sue Goetz is an award-winning garden designer, writer and speaker. Her design work has earned gold medals at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show and specialty awards from Sunset magazine, Fine Gardening, and the American Horticultural Society. Sue is a certified professional horticulturist (CPH) and a sustainable landscape professional (Eco-pro). She lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and when not up to her nose in herbs and dirt in the garden, she enjoys pen and botanical illustration and creating mixed media art with pressed plants. Sue’s other books include:
- A Taste for Herbs: A guide to seasonings, mixes, and blends from the herb lover’s garden
- Herb Lover’s Spa Book: Create a luxury spa experience at home with fragrant herbs from your garden
For more ideas, inspirations, and projects on growing herbs in pots and planters, be sure to check out Complete Container Herb Gardening. Or visit these articles on growing herbs:
- Herbs that grow in shade: 10 delicious choices
- Growing basil from cuttings: the quick and inexpensive way to grow more basil
- Growing great basil
- Growing a culinary herb garden: how to get started
- Planting an herb garden for herbal teas
Do you grow any of your herbs in pots?