Updated September 28, 2021

How to pick the best pot for growing herbs

Amanda Shiffler
Amanda Shiffler (Plant expert, M.Sc. Agronomy)

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 when you have a small space.

Container planting is convenient and can give your kitchen windowsill, patio, or balcony a big aesthetic boost.

Growing plants in pots also offers tremendous flexibility and a measure of control that traditional gardening lacks.

Choosing the best pot for your favorite herbs will help ensure success with your container herb garden, so here are some helpful tips to get started on the right track.

The characteristics of the herb(s) you are growing are very helpful in determining the best container for your plant, in terms of material and size.

Plastic containers are best for herbs that like moist soil; terra cotta is best for herbs that prefer a drier soil.

The container should always be slightly larger than your plant and needs drainage holes to allow excess water to move out of the potting soil.

Shallow containers are best for plants with short root systems, while deep containers are best for plants with long taproots.

bright colored pot with healthy basil bush
get creative with your pot colors like this one!

Common container materials

Common materials used for growing containers include ceramic, terra cotta, plastic, different metals, and resin. While aesthetics are important, each herb container material has advantages and disadvantages that should be considered depending upon your space and plant type.

  • Glazed 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 and ceramic works for many different herbs. One of the drawbacks is they are heavier, and large containers may not be suitable for balconies.
    • Get the glazed ceramic pots we recommend on Amazon here.
  • Terra cotta pots are traditional, attractive, and affordable. The porous sidewalls allow excellent air movement in and out of the container, drying the soil out quickly. Because of this, clay pots work well for herbs that prefer drier conditions, such as lemon balm or lavender.
    • Get the terra cotta pots we recommend on Amazon here.
  • Plastic pots are popular as they are inexpensive, lightweight, and typically available in a wide range of colors. The non-porous material minimizes air exchange, keeping the potting soil moist longer. They are great for herbs that like moist soil like rosemary and cilantro. Keep in mind, though, that sunlight and temperature fluctuations will affect outdoor containers over time, making the plastic brittle or causing deterioration.
  • Metal pots may include copper, brass, galvanized, or stainless steel and are durable and stylish, although expensive. Care should be taken, though, as metal containers usually do not have drainage holes. When used outdoors or in direct sunlight, the metal can become very hot, raising the soil temperature and damaging the roots.
    • Get the copper metal pots we recommend on Amazon here, and brass pots here.
  • Resin pots are made from wood resin and are lightweight, weather-resistant, and available in a wide range of finishes. They work well for plants you move back and forth from indoors to outdoors seasonally.

Container size for herbs

basil and rosemary in terracotta pots

Herbs can be a little like Goldilocks when it comes to pot sizes: too small, and their growth will be impeded, too large, and the extra space and soil are wasted. But when a pot is just right, an herb can achieve its full potential.

  • 6-inch pots are best for dwarf varieties or shallow-rooted herbs like thyme or globe basil. Small pots need more frequent water, and it’s important to keep soil moisture consistent since varying water levels can lead to a less-than-healthy plant.
    • Get 6-inch pots on Amazon here.
  • 8 to 10-inch pots are perfect for almost any herb. Plenty of herbs will expand to fill pots over time, so a container this size can be used to limit the size of a mature plant.
    • Get 8 and 10-inch pots on Amazon here.
  • 12 to 18-inch pots are spacious enough to accommodate multiple herbs at once or grow exceptionally large, well-established herb plants. Herbs like parsley, which has a deep taproot, will thrive in a deeper, larger pot. Lemongrass also performs best in a larger-diameter container.

Remember that the larger a container is, the heavier it becomes when filled with potting soil. The weight may be fine when the plant is in place, but it could be far too heavy to lift and move inside in the winter comfortably.

Proper drainage

When it comes to growing your own herbs in containers, good drainage is essential. Poor drainage can create an oxygen-poor environment that triggers root rot, stunting plant growth and eventually killing plants.1 Because of this, most pots sold come with drainage holes in the bottom to allow the excess water to drain out of the potting soil.

If you find a container suitable for growing herbs that doesn’t have drainage, you can use a drill bit to create drainage holes in the bottom. Make sure to use a masonry bit when working with ceramic or terra cotta pots. Typically, between one and three holes offer sufficient drainage.

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.

Many pots have built-in drainage trays, but for those that do not, there are a vast array of drainage trays available for purchase on Amazon.

Specialty herb pots

hanging avocado fruit on the tree

Most pots are fairly standard-shaped, but there are some specialty pots to consider as well.

  • Self-watering pots are handy for growing herbs that prefer moist soil. These containers ensure consistent watering and take the guesswork out of keeping herb plants deeply hydrated.
    • Get the self-watering pots we recommend on Amazon here.
  • Window boxes provide growing space for those who don’t have appropriate indoor spots and dress up otherwise plain windows. They are available in various styles, and a planter box is suitable for any window that receives eight hours of sun each day.
  • Hanging pots are another stylish way to make use of limited space or keep herbs away from children or pets. 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 with shallow root systems.

Potting soils for container herbs

Growing herbs successfully, whether indoors or outside, begins with filling your containers with high-quality soil. Check out our full soil and growing media guide for more on that here.

Remember, plants require soil that both holds sufficient root zone nutrients and moisture yet drains the excess water to allow the roots to breathe.

Commercially available potting soil can fulfill all of these needs, but creating a DIY homemade potting mix is also possible. When making a potting mix, use peat moss, vermiculite, compost (or other organic material), and a slow-release granular fertilizer.

Caring for herbs in containers

Herbs grown in pots have some basic needs: eight hours of sun, proper watering, a dose of nutrients periodically, and regular harvesting.

Sunlight requirement

While ample full sun is beneficial to herb gardens, a minimum of eight hours of sun exposure is a general guideline. Many herbs will thrive in indirect bright sunlight, and some will even grow well in less than eight hours. Learn the specific requirements of your herbs, and remember, it is always possible to move a struggling plant to a better location.

Watering

Watering indoor plants takes a little practice to get right.1 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.

Fertilizing

Container plants do enjoy a little infusion of rich nutrients from time to time, but herbs should be fertilized sparingly. Too much foliage growth will dilute the flavor. Many fertilizer options can be applied to an indoor herb garden. Still, the best bet is usually a good organic fertilizer or a water-soluble or slow-release fertilizer designed for herb plants.

When fertilizing, always follow the product label for dosing instructions and how often to apply.

Harvesting

Many kitchen herbs benefit significantly from periodic harvesting of new growth, which encourages bushy, vigorous 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.2

New growth can be harvested using sterilized, sharp kitchen shears, or you can pinch off the leaves with your fingers. The specific “pinching” technique for harvesting herbs removes the new growth close to a growth node.3

Best herbs for beginners

Growing herbs at home appears to be pretty straightforward, but for newbie gardeners, even the most straightforward planting directions may seem a bit mysterious. Several measures can be taken to guarantee the success of your container garden if you’re a newcomer to indoor gardening, including the choice to start with easy-to-grow, forgiving herbs.

  • Greek oregano and lemon thyme are incredibly resilient and can tolerate inconsistent watering.
  • Chives are forgiving of dry soils.
  • Basil is a good communicator– its leaves will droop when it needs watering, which can be extremely helpful for folks with little gardening experience.

For a more in-depth look at easy herbs to grow, check out our article, The 12 easiest herbs to grow for the first time.

References

  1. Perry, Leonard. n.d. “Watering Houseplants Properly.” University of Vermont, Department of Plant and Soil Science 2

  2. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. n.d. “Health and well-being benefits of plants.” Accessed August 24, 2021. 

  3. Levine, Denise. 2018. “To Pinch or Not To Pinch, That Is the Question.” Napa Master Gardener Column. Published April 20, 2018. 

Written by
Amanda Shiffler

With an M.Sc. degree in agronomy and over a decade of experience gardening, Amanda combines her plant knowledge and knack for writing to share what she knows and loves.