Brook Elliott is a full-time freelance writer who specializes in vegetables and sustainable agricultural subjects. He has written for Mother Earth News, The Heirloom Gardener and other publications. He is also the founder and managing director of the Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy.

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A Garden at Your Fingertips
by Brook Elliott       #Containers   #Herbs

Recently, a woman came up to me after an herb-growing presentation at a garden show. “I love cooking with herbs,” she said. “I could grow my own. But we live in an apartment with a tiny balcony and no yard.”

I hear that “no room” complaint frequently. And, while it’s somewhat understandable when it comes to growing vegetables, it’s shortsighted with herbs. Herbs lend themselves well to container growing. Indeed, they aren’t called “potherbs” for nothing.

When I was growing up, we lived in a tenement-type apartment. But there were always a few clay pots out on the fire escape. Mom grew chives, parsley, mint and thyme, as I recall, and probably a few others.

Mix parsley, rosemary and chives to create a miniature herb garden in a container.

The fact is, anyone with a sunny window can grow at least a couple of herbs. If cut often enough, chives, basil and parsley can thrive in pots as small as 4 inches.

If you don’t have room for containers indoors, consider mounting a window box outside. You don’t even have to worry about attaching it to the outside wall, because there are models that use hangers that essentially clamp to the sill.

Even gardeners with large yards often can benefit from growing herbs in containers. I grow all my culinary herbs that way and many of my medicinals, as well.

Perhaps the best way to explore the possibilities is to look at my own set-up. I’ve mounted a rustic shelf right to a wall at shoulder height just outside my kitchen door. Apartment dwellers with balconies can easily do the same thing. Or you can purchase a whole slew of plain and fancy plant stands to serve the same function.

Lined up on the shelf are 8-inch terra-cotta pots, each holding its own herb. Among those on the shelf: broadleaf and curly parsley, chives, two different thymes, peppermint and several basils. I even keep a small rosemary plant in one of those pots. A sage plant is under the shelf in a larger pot.

This year, I’m going to expand the row of larger pots to accommodate some of the more herbaceous herbs, such as rosemary, lovage, and the tall-growing ones, such as fennel and lavender. This will give me a double row of easily accessible culinary herbs.

Of course, I have ample room to spread out. For those who don’t, however, an alternative is to plant your herbs in a strawberry pot, choosing a different herb for each opening. For this to work, you must pay attention to growth habits, or you’ll wind up with a mini-jungle instead of a garden. A pair of those flanking the front steps can fulfill almost all of your herbal needs and make for an appealing display.

What I like best about these kinds of set-ups is the convenience — when a recipe calls for a fresh herb, I just take a couple of steps out the door, clip what I need and I’m good to go.

Naturally, the more room you have, the larger your containers can be, and the greater diversity of your herb garden. Patios and terraces especially lend themselves to container gardening. For those, I like going with a diversity of container sizes, shapes and materials, so that the containers and as the plants make an interesting visual statement.

Rosemary is one of the easiest, most versatile herbs to grow in a container.

There’s one thing to keep in mind, though: When containers sit directly on cement or wood, there is a danger of their drainage holes stopping up. To avoid this problem, drill drainage holes in the actual sidewall, an inch or so up from the bottom. This is especially important with plastic containers, which do not expire through their sidewalls the way natural materials can.

Not all containers have to be store-bought from the garden center. Many a found item can serve this purpose, as do things found in thrift stores and flea markets. What’s more, they’re often more aesthetically pleasing than the ones found at the nursery.

Out in the gardens, I often use containers, despite having all the in-ground room I need. Back there, of course, I can go with any size I choose. And, because I don’t care about the visual impact (not too many people visit my vegetable gardens), I use 5-gallon pails and 20-gallon tubs; both of which I happen to get for free.

As with patio planting, I like to drill drainage holes in the sidewalls of these containers.

How do I determine what goes in which container? It depends on my purpose. For instance, the 20-gallon tubs make ideal mini-gardens for invasive herbs, which includes all the mints, among others. They also make sense for herbaceous and large-growing plants such as St. John’s wort and chamomile.

On the other hand, I often use herbs as companion plants to help keep the gardens healthy. Hyssop, for instance, is a natural repellent for controlling cabbage worms. I want the hyssop to be more or less portable, so it goes into 5-gallon buckets, and I move it around at will, based on where I have Brassicaceae growing.

So, as you can see, herbs are a possibility no matter how small or large your growing space.

When it comes to actually growing them in containers, there are several things to keep in mind. First, most herbs neither need nor desire very rich soil. Second, while some herbs require lots of water, most do not. And none of them like having their feet wet.

This means that you should choose a potting soil that does not have extra fertilizer added, and make sure it drains readily. If not, you may want to add some sand to it.

Normal rainfall is enough for virtually any culinary herb, but if you do need to water your plants, wait until the surface is dried out.

If you’re just getting started with herbs, I recommend that you do not grow them from seed. Many herbs require specialized germination techniques and specific planting times, so a better bet is to buy starts and transplant them to your containers.


(From State-by-State Gardening May 2007. Photography ©


Posted: 06/20/12   RSS | Print


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