Having a supply of fresh herbs at home is great for culinary purposes, but has also been shown to have significant health benefits.(1) While many people wish to grow fresh herbs at home, not everyone has a yard or space for an outdoor herb garden.
The good news is that container gardening makes growing herbs at home easy, even with very little available space. And unlike a garden bed, growing plants indoors in pots offers tremendous flexibility and a measure of control that traditional gardening lacks. A sunny spot on a windowsill, patio, or balcony that gets eight hours of full sun each day is all that is needed to grow herbs at home.
Growing culinary herbs in containers means having the fresh flavor of homegrown herbs year-round, as the growing season can be extended by moving plants indoors during the winter months. Container planting is convenient and can give your kitchen, patio, or balcony a big aesthetic boost. Understanding the specific requirements of different herbs will help to ensure success with your container herb garden, so here are some helpful tips to get started on the right track.
Pot size guide for herbs
Herbs can be a little like Goldilocks when it comes to pot sizes: too small and their growth will be impeded, too large and space and soil are wasted on them. But when a pot is just right, an herb can achieve its full potential. Beware a too-large pot on the patio– it may be just fine in place, but far too heavy to comfortably lift and move inside in the winter. Always consider the weight of a pot filled with soil if the plan is to move the containers come wintertime.
- 6-inch pots should only be used with dwarf or shallow-rooted herbs like thyme or globe basil. One problem with a pot this small is that it will need more frequent watering than a deeper pot, and inconsistent water levels can lead to a less-than-healthy plant.
- 8 to 10-inch pots are perfect for almost any herb. The size of a container can be used to limit the size of an herb. Plenty of herbs will expand to fill larger pots over time even they don’t actually need the space.
- 12 to 18-inch pots are spacious enough to accommodate multiple herbs at once, or to grow exceptionally large, well-established herb plants. Herbs like parsley, which has a deep taproot, will thrive in a deeper pot. Lemongrass also performs best in a larger-diameter container.
The material a pot of made of is largely a decision that is made based on style, color, weight, and budget. Metal pots are typically the most expensive, but a designer ceramic pot can also be quite costly. As long as the pot has good drainage, the material it is made of is mostly aesthetic.
- Metal pots may include copper, brass, galvanized or stainless steel and are both durable and stylish, if expensive.
- Ceramic pots offer the most variety in shape and color, which means they can often be used as a home design element. These are the best choice for someone who wants to match a color scheme in their home.
- Terra cotta pots are traditional, attractive, and affordable. They don’t, however, weather well and are best when used as indoor planters.
- Plastic pots have the benefit of being inexpensive, lightweight, and typically available in a wide range of colors. These are ideal pots for plants that are going to be moved periodically indoors– sunlight will cause deterioration over time.
- Resin pots are made from a wood resin and are lightweight, weather-resistant, and available in a wide range of finishes. The ideal pot for moving from indoors to outdoors seasonally.
Types of Pots
Most pots are fairly standard-shaped, but there are a number of specialty pots to consider as well.
- Self-watering pots are particularly useful herb containers, as they ensure consistent watering and take the guesswork out of keeping herb plants deeply hydrated.
- Window boxes serve multiple purposes: available in a range of styles, they dress up otherwise plain windows and provide growing space for those who don’t have appropriate indoor spots. Any window that received eight hours of sun each day is ideal.
- Hanging pots are another stylish way to make use of limited space. However, soil in these planters may dry quickly, so a self-watering option works best.
- Shallow pots can be beautiful and decorative but are best-suited for chives, thyme, tarragon, and oregano.
Growing herbs successfully indoors begins with high-quality soil. For more on selecting high-quality soil check out our soil and growing media guide.
Remember, plants require soil that both holds sufficient root zone nutrients and moisture and allows the roots to breathe. Commercially available potting soil can fulfill all of these needs, but it is also possible to create a homemade potting mix. When making a potting mix, use peat moss, vermiculite, compost (or some other organic material), and a slow-release granular fertilizer.
When it comes to planting containers, good drainage is as important as high-quality soil. Poor drainage can create an oxygen-poor environment which stunts plant growth and can eventually kill plants. Almost all pots sold should come with drainage holes. Some drainage holes come with a plug to prevent leaking onto indoor surfaces, but it is advised to simply use a drainage tray or plant saucer to catch any overflow.
In the event that you find a ceramic container that is suitable for growing herbs but doesn’t have drainage, there are ceramic drill bits that can be used to create drainage holes in the bottom. Typically, between one and three holes offer sufficient drainage.
Because drainage is such an important part of a successful indoor herb garden, it is also necessary to have a drainage tray beneath any planter on indoor surfaces. Many pots have built-in drainage trays, but for those that do not, there are a vast array of drainage trays available.
Best pots for beginners to grow herbs
Having a supply of fresh herbs at home is great for culinary purposes, but has also been shown to have significant health benefits.(1) Starting out growing herbs at home should be fairly straightforward, but for newbie gardeners, even the most straightforward planting may seem a bit mysterious. There are a number of measures that can be taken to guarantee success for even the most clueless beginner, starting with choosing easy, forgiving herbs.
Plants like Greek oregano and lemon thyme are extremely resilient and can tolerate inconsistent watering. Chives are forgiving, and basil is a good communicator– its leaves will droop when it needs watering, which can be extremely helpful for folks with little gardening experience.
Beginners may want to avoid small pots and focus on larger, deeper, and self-watering pots to take some of the guesswork out of watering. Additionally, planting herbs from seeds is the most difficult way to start growing herbs, as it takes a long time for many herbs to grow to maturity. For beginners determined to start herbs from seed, basil, dill, or fennel are good, relatively fast-growing options.
Care for herbs in pots
Herbs in pots have some very basic needs: enough space for their root systems, eight hours of sun, and regular watering. Pot types and sized have been thoroughly covered in the previous text, and while ample full sun is beneficial to herb gardens, eight hours is a general guideline. Many herbs will thrive even in indirect bright sunlight and some can still grow well in less than eight hours. It is important to know the specific requirements of different herbs, and remember that with a container garden, it’s always possible to move a struggling plant to a better location.
Watering indoor plants takes a little practice to get right.(2) It’s a good idea not to water on a predetermined schedule, as many factors will affect how quickly moisture evaporates from the soil of different planters. Ideally, a finger inserted an inch into the soil will indicate whether the soil is dry enough to warrant watering.
Container plants enjoy a little infusion of rich nutrients from time to time. There are a ton of fertilizer options that can be applied to an indoor herb garden, but the best bet is usually a good organic fertilizer or a water-soluble or slow-release fertilizer.
Many kitchen herbs actually benefit from periodic harvesting of new growth, which encourages bushy, strong growth. This is one of the best aspects of herb gardening: harvesting regularly keeps growth vigorous and supplies a never ending supply of fresh herbs for the kitchen. There are specific techniques for harvesting from an herb garden that focus on pinching off the new growth close to a growth node.(3)
The bottom line is that growing one’s own herbs is a rewarding and fun experience that is well worth the effort and investment.
Feature image: kirybabe