Growing herbs in containers is as popular, if not more so, than growing vegetables in containers. Every chef dreams of having an array of herbs to enhance their best creations. Others dream of having herbs in containers to use as potpourris or herb teas. Still others just like to grow them as houseplants for their smells and medicinal value. Growing herbs in containers seems to have cachet with all types of people and personalities.
Once you grow one herb in a container, it just seems as if you must have another one, but then that leads to just one more and before you know it, you’re hooked on growing herbs in containers.
What Is the Difference Between an Herb and a Spice?
If you’re new to growing herbs in containers, you may wonder how a plant becomes classified as an herb. The official definition is as follows:
1. Any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume.
2. A part of such a plant as used in cooking.
Through the ages, most plants categorized as herbs were listed as such because of some valued medicinal property derived from the various parts of the plant, such as the root, leaf, etc.
Many people confuse herbs with spices. Leaves, both fresh and dried, are normally called herbs, while roots, bark, seeds, or flowers are spices. Most herbs grow in temperate regions while spices are found in tropical areas. Spices are usually hard parts of plants such as roots (ginger), flower buds (capers), seeds (sesame), or pieces of bark (cinnamon).
In culinary arts, both herbs and spices serve the same purpose; the flavoring of the dish being prepared. However, for our purpose, we will concentrate on growing herbs in containers, since these are the plants available in our region.
The Attractions of Growing Herbs in Containers
One of the attractions of growing herbs in containers is that it is wonderfully easy. Herbs are not demanding and most varieties will thrive either outside on a patio, or indoors on a kitchen windowsill. They can be grown outdoors in warm weather and then transferred into the house if you wish to continue enjoying them through the winter months.
Growing herbs in containers is a wonderfully sensuous experience. The various colors and textures are limitless and amazing to behold. From the ferny look of dill, to the mass of parsley, the textures are myriad and varied. The colors range from the brightest of greens, through green grays and on through to silver. It is impossible to work with your herbs without brushing up against their marvelous foliage. As you do this, the volatile oils in the herbs are released into the air to create a pleasant, stimulating experience.
The amazing thing about herbs is that they don’t have a limited growing season. You can start harvesting them as soon as they are large enough. They keep right on growing and don’t have a resting season where the plant has to be retired to the back forty because it looks wasted and decrepit. Herbs always look good and once established will always be there for you to look at and enjoy using.
Selecting Containers for Your Herbs
Selecting containers for your herb garden is much the same as selecting a pot for vegetables and flowers. It should be large enough so that the plant doesn’t immediately outgrow the pot, but not so large that the herb spends all it’s time growing roots to fill the pot rather than spend time in growing it’s precious foliage.
I know this rule isn’t much help if you are new to herb gardening, but once you pot up an herb or two, you’ll quickly get the concept. If you are new to container gardening, review the page “Choosing Containers” for more help and information on how to choose containers for your herbs.
Designing an Herb Container
How many plants and what type of herbs you plant will depend on your needs and preferences.
If you like to cook and are growing herbs for kitchen use, you’ll want to plant large containers of parsley, chives and basil, the most used herbs in the kitchen. I mention basil because many cooks I know prefer to make their own pesto and use large amounts of this herb. By planting these herbs in their own container, you would always have plenty to use in your kitchen. Other herbs that you may not use in large quantities can be planted in an herb container garden.
Some ideas for growing herbs in containers in your kitchen could be:
A mixture of marjoram, oregano and cilantro could be planted in a large strawberry jar.
If you like herb tea, a mixture of lemon balm, mint and lavender planted in a collection of old teapots placed on a large tea tray would be very aromatic and eye catching .
You could plant a mixture of herbs in hanging baskets in your kitchen window or over your sink for a readily available supply of herbs you use often.
Vintage tin canisters (with drainage holes of course) make interesting containers for kitchen herbs
There’s no law that says window boxes have to be outside. If you have a sunny window and the room for it, consider installing a window box inside. This is a great place for growing herbs in containers, especially if it is handy to the kitchen area.
For more help and information on planting a container herb garden, check out Design an Herb Garden Container
Locating Your Herb Container Garden
When designing your herb container garden, be aware of the path of the sun throughout the day. Herbs must have plenty of light for the production of essential oils they produce. At a minimum, most herbs need at least 6 hours a day of sunlight. This requirement is for both outdoor and indoor herb gardens. A south facing window in your home will usually meet this requirement. If your herbs are located where they are not receiving enough light, consider installing some lighting to help them get the required amount of light necessary for optimum growth.
The wonderful thing about container gardening is that you can move the pots around as the path of the sun changes with the season. When growing conditions become too cold for your plants, you can then move them indoors for continuing winter enjoyment.
When growing herbs in containers outdoors, be sure to check the seed catalog or plant label for light requirements. Some herbs require full sun while others do well in partial shade. Design your containers by planting them with herbs that have compatible light requirements. By considering this before you design your container, you will avoid future disappointments and be able to give all your herbs the perfect environment for optimum growth.
Fertilizing Your Herb Container Gardens
Herbs planted outside in a garden have very little fertilizing needs. However, because your herbs are planted in a container, they will use utilizing the nutrients in the potting soil more quickly. If your plants lose their color or just look a little lackluster, you can feed them with a light watering of an all natural organic fertilizer such as fish emulsion. The fertilizer should be of weak strength and used every few weeks. Read the directions on the package to make a weak solution. Because herbs are grown to be consumed, be careful in your choice of fertilizer.
When growing herbs in containers, be careful in your application of fertilizer to your herbs. If you over fertilize, you will get wonderful, lush looking plants. However, the essential oils that cause the flavor and aroma produced by the herbs will be greatly reduced if you provide heavy applications of fertilizer to your plants.
Maintenance of Your Herb Container Garden
Herbs are considered the hardiest and easiest to grow of all garden plants. This is a great place to start if you are new to container gardening. Because of the oils that are produced by the herbs, they repel many pests and diseases. In fact, if you plant aromatic herbs in with your vegetables, they will often protect them as well. For more information on this, check out Vegetable Companion Planting
Many herbs prefer dry conditions and herbs are more drought resistant than other plants. However, because you are growing them in containers, they still need to be watered on a regular basis. Drought resistant doesn’t mean they can live without water. Check your pots every day and water as needed. Stick your finger into the pot to the second knuckle. If the soil feels dry, it’s time to water. If it is moist and sticks to your finger, the plant is fine. Remember, roots are at the bottom of the pot and that is where the moisture is needed.
Check seed catalogs and seed packets to learn more about the watering needs of the herbs you choose for your containers. This is another plant necessity to check before you design an herb garden container. Your herb garden will be most successful when compatible herbs that need the same growing conditions are planted in the same container.
Keep your plants growing cleanly and neatly. Pinch the plants during the growing season to keep them bushy and well shaped. Remove any dead or diseased leaves. Rotate your pots so that the herbs will grow evenly and not all lean toward the sun.
Regular pruning of herbs promotes new and vigorous growth. Use your herbs regularly to keep them pruned. Freeze or dry extra cuttings for later use. Many herbs such as chives can be frozen in ice cubes and used later. If using them in soups or sauces, just throw the ice cube in the soup and it’s just as if you are using fresh herbs.
Saving Your Herb Container Gardens For Winter Use
Herbs are available for harvest all year round. However, if your herbs have been producing regularly all summer, they are probably ready for a vacation. Just as you prepare indoor herbs for the change in climate when you move them outside for the summer, they must again be made ready for the change to indoor growing conditions.
Many perennial herbs are tender and cannot live through a harsh winter. Rosemary and bay are two that come to mind. Do not wait too long to bring them inside. They should be brought indoors before the first frost.
One way to acclimate your tender herbs and protect them from frost is to bring them indoors in the latter part of the day and bring them back outside in the morning. Each day extend the period that they are in the house and do this for about a week. Bringing your herbs inside by using this method will greatly increase the chance for your plants to make a successful adjustment without any setbacks to their growth.
Check this area for a listing of Herbs for Container Gardens/Anise to Lovage
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