The fantastic thing about growing herbs is they require little maintenance and you can pretty much grow them anywhere. Most herbs will thrive in containers and will provide you with plenty of fresh leaves to use in cooking.
Ideal herbs to grow in containers include:
Never plant invasive herbs such as mint and lemon balm in a container with other herbs. They will swamp the other plants and take over. It’s better to grow them in separate pots instead.
Preparing Your Container
A container can be anything from an old bucket or olive tin to a window box, hanging basket, or wooden trough. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, as long as it can hold enough compost to support the herbs and has drainage holes for water to escape out of.
First you will need to check there are adequate drainage holes. It’s better to have a few small ones rather than one large one, as less soil will escape from the pot. If there aren’t any holes, carefully drill some in or hammer a nail through the base several times. Then line the base with old crocks, stones or grit. This mimics the natural conditions the herbs would grow in; it also ensures that if the pot is sitting in water (such as a dish), the water will still drain from the soil.
If you are planting your herbs in terracotta pots, line them with plastic bags (but make sure there is a large hole at the bottom of it). An old compost bag is ideal. This will prevent water evaporating from the sides of the pot and prevent the plants from drying out.
Choosing Your Compost
The best compost to use is a soil-based one. This is the best match for the herbs’ natural growing conditions, and it retains water better than peat-based composts. Fill the pot two-thirds full with compost. Gently tap each herb out of its original pot and sit them in the larger container so that the top of the root ball comes 2-3cm short of the rim of the container. It’s important not to over-fill the pot with herbs; this can stress the plants and can impair their growth. Make sure each root ball sits comfortably in the pot, and place larger plants such as rosemary and lavender in the centre, with smaller herbs such as chives and basil around the edge. Once you are happy with the arrangement, gently fill the pot with compost (leaving about 2cm at the top) and firm gently. Give the herbs a good drink of water and top up with compost if necessary.
Caring For Your Herbs
Your herbs will need a little more care if you grow them in containers. They are more likely to dry out as there is less soil to hold water (pots made from terracotta can dry out very quickly). Make sure you regularly check to ensure the soil hasn’t dried out or become waterlogged. In the hot summer months you may need to water your container every day; do so in the morning or evening to avoid shocking the plants.
Take care to ensure your container isn’t in full sun all day. Herbs enjoy plenty of light, but too much direct sunlight can cause them to wilt, or run to seed (this is where the plant quickly produces seed rather than tasty leaves). If any flowers appear, remove them as soon as possible. This prevents them from developing into seed and concentrates the plant’s energy on leaf production.
You will probably need to feed your herbs on a weekly basis. This is because the nutrients present in compost diminish quickly in pots. Choose an organic feed such as seaweed. Artificial fertilisers can cause the plant to grow to quickly; this can deplete the herbs’ flavours.
All perennial plants (such as rosemary, sage and thyme) will keep growing and will need pruning back in autumn. Simply use scissors or shears to cut off any flowers or long stems. Perennial herbs will also need dividing in spring. Remove them from the pot and tear or cut a section of the plant and root ball from the main plant and place the smaller section back in the pot with fresh compost.
Annual herbs (such as basil and coriander) will need replacing every year with new plants. You can either buy new plants, fresh seed or try saving seed from your old plants in autumn. Growing herbs in containers is fun and rewarding. Once you’ve got the hand of regular watering, pruning and re-potting, you should have years of fun and tasty meals from your own home-grown herbs.