Container gardening with herbal plants is an easy alternative to keeping a formal herb garden.
Why Grow Herbs in Containers?
There are many reasons for growing herbs in containers. You may be short on space, have poor soil conditions, want to prolong the growing season, keep the herbs close at hand for use in the kitchen, keep invasive herbs at bay, or maybe you are an apartment dweller with a taste for fresh herbs but no yard to grow them.
Whatever your reasons, most herbs are well-suited for growing in containers and can exist anywhere provided they are given the proper amount of sunlight, water, and good soil.
Choosing Containers for Herbs
Depending on how much space you have available and whether you are planning to keep your herbs indoors or out will play a huge part in choosing your containers. Herbs will grow in almost any type of container as long as it has good drainage. Terra cotta pots are best, but plastic, wood, or metal will do. If you aren’t using a traditional style container, be sure to poke some holes into the bottom for drainage and provide a drip plate if you are keeping them indoors.
Herbs can be grown separately, in individual pots, or you can plant several different varieties in one large container such as a window box planter, being careful not to overcrowd the pot so that each plant has enough space to grow and reach its full potential.
Growing Herbs in Containers
Some herbs can become extremely large at maturity. Be sure to match your herbs to the size of your container choices.
Before adding soil to your chosen container, you’ll need to provide a layer of rocks, gravel or Styrofoam pellets to the bottom quarter of the container to help with the drainage process. Broken chips from terra cotta pots also work nicely for this. If you’re planning on bringing an outdoor container of herbs indoors during the winter months, I would suggest the use of the Styrofoam pellets to keep the weight down.
Use a good quality potting soil mix to fill your container to within 2 inches (5 cm.) from the top to allow plenty of space for watering. Few herbs require a large amount of fertilization, but nearly all will require some fertilizer during the growing season, especially if kept in pots.
Keep your container garden of herbs well-watered as they will dry out more rapidly than those that have been planted directly into the garden.
Prolonging the Life of Your Herbs
By removing some herbs from the ground in early autumn, you can prolong their life cycle and have fresh herbs growing on your windowsill all winter. Parsley, chives, and coriander work well when you dig up strongly growing plants, divide them, replant them into a container and keep them in a sunny location.
Growing Invasive Herbs in Containers
Unless you’re prepared to have your entire garden taken over by mint, you should always plant these and other invasive herbs into containers. Be on the lookout for runners. Invasive herbs are tricky, and even those that are kept in containers will try to invade the territory surrounding them. Keeping them in a container makes the runners easier to spot and clip back when necessary.
Growing Herbs in a Strawberry Planter
One of the best containers to use for herbs if you are short on space is a strawberry planter. You can find these at your local gardening center. They are usually made of terra cotta and have many small openings around the sides for your smaller herbs. You can plant the larger herbs at the top.
It’s possible to keep an entire culinary herb garden conveniently located right outside your door in one strawberry planter. Some good choices of herbs for this would be:
- Curled-leaf parsley
- Lemon verbena
If you’re planting rosemary, always reserve it for the top portion of the strawberry planter, as this herb can become rather large and bushy.
Using Containers in the Garden
By keeping your most delicate herbs in containers outside in the garden, not only will it be easier to transport them inside during the winter months, but it will give your garden a more interesting and beautiful look during the growing season.
Place herbs that are growing in containers in the center of your lower growing herbs, such as your creeping thyme to give your garden more definition.
Growing herbs in containers is a rewarding and fun way to be sure of having plenty of the good stuff nearby, right when you need it.
- Soil and Drainage Considerations
Drainage is a big issue in container culture as soil compaction more easily occurs. Add a 12-inch layer of criss-crossed sticks to the bottom of larger pots before adding soil and elevate the container from its saucer or the ground with bricks or large rocks.
Typically garden soil or topsoil is too heavy for container culture, but it can be used with amendments such as pine bark fines, composted leaf mold, aged fluffy manure, and worm castings. Pine bark fines are the ground-up bark of pines and are a byproduct of the pulp and lumber pine industry they offer porosity and water retention and have a neutral pH (did I just say heaven, or what?). Three parts pine bark fines, one part composted manure, and a touch of lime, organic fertilizer, mycorrhizal inoculant and worm castings makes a wonderful all-purpose soil mix for containers. Please see the previous notes about amending soil mixes to meet a specific plant’s requirements. It is possible to reuse soil for multiples seasons. I take out the top fourth of soil, compost it, and mix in compost, worm castings and a touch of lime to the remaining soil. This annual treatment usually spruces up the soil sufficiently for it to be used for two to three seasons.
3. Aloe (Aloe vera A. barbadensis, Asphodelaceae)
Parts Used: Fresh leaves and gel extracted from the fresh leaf
Medicinal Preparations: Gel, poultice, prepared juice
- Emollient (soothing to skin)
- Vulnerary (wound healing)
Medicinal Uses: Every home will benefit from an aloe plant. Soothing and cooling, aloe is a useful first-aid herb for burns, abrasions, blisters, and stings.
It’s a summertime staple helping to heal mild sunburns, after the area has been bathed in cool or tepid water. A few drops of lavender (Lavandula officinalis) essential oil can be mixed with the gel for additional anti-inflammatory action.
Aloe can also be used topically as a skin tonic for conditions like acne and rosacea, and be applied to the hair for smoothing.
Internally, aloe is a traditional cleansing herb—it is laxative in appropriate doses. It can take quite a bit of aloe to prepare the needed juice, so alternately you can use organic preserved aloe juice from your local natural foods store. Follow the dosage instructions on the bottle.
Cultivation: Aloe is truly a winsome houseplant—it’s both hardy (hard to kill) and beautiful, with its glowing succulent leaves. It is well-adapted to many climates, and can be grown nearly anywhere. I grow aloe as a potted patio plant in warm weather, and bring it inside during the colder months (aloe is frost-sensitive). Despite aloe’s succulent status, it won’t tolerate full sun instead, give it dappled shade or morning sun. If your aloe’s leaves are turning yellow, it’s a sign that the plant is receiving too much light.
When indoors, a north- or east-facing window will keep it perky. You’ll almost certainly be blessed with aloe “babies,” which will grow from the parent plant’s roots. These can easily be separated and placed in their own pots. In this way, aloe will multiply itself for years and years.
Safety and Contraindications: Internally, aloe is a laxative and should be avoided in pregnancy and breastfeeding. For this same reason, take care and follow dosage instructions on purchased aloe juice too much can cause painful stomach cramps.
Do not apply aloe to staph or staph-like infections the gel creates a perfect breeding ground for staph bacteria. 5
Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)
4. Design a Container Herb Garden with Shapes, Sizes, And Colors.
Give some thought to the overall impact you want to create with your container herb garden and its role in your landscape. Do you want to make a statement or do you prefer a more natural look? Ask yourself these questions when deciding on your choice of herb containers.
• How Will You Use Color?
Do you want the pots to blend in with the rest of your garden? Then choose neutral colors and let the herbs be the focal point instead of the containers.
Do you have a formal landscape? Having too many colors could be distracting. In this case, you can stick to one or two complimentary colors.
Do you want a playful, eclectic garden? Then choosing a few bright colored pots may be just right.
• What Sizes Do You Need?
Always choose larger pots over smaller pots when given the choice. Fifteen small pots will end up looking very messy. You may consider a few large planters where you can combine several herbs that have similar growing requirements. Then place a few medium or small pots in front to create a small grouping.
Spend some time in the garden center or planning it out on paper first, so you can consider the overall effect of your container herb garden before you make the purchase.
• What Shapes Do You Prefer?
Herb pots come in a variety of shapes and sizes. We typically think of rounded pots, but square pots can fit into some areas much easier such as on either side of a doorway. A long rectangle trough or window box may look nice framing the sides of your patio or deck.