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Natural Awakenings Tucson

The Herbal Kitchen: Eight Easy Picks for Container Gardening

Feb 28, 2011 03:45PM ● By Barbara Pleasant

Beata Becla/

Humans have had good reasons to grow basil, rosemary and other culinary herbs for thousands of years. Edible herbal accents and aromas enhance the beauty and flavor of every dish they touch, be they sprigs of fresh parsley tossed into hot couscous or marjoram and thyme sparking a savory risotto.

A big garden isn’t needed to grow most kitchen herbs; in fact, it’s often better to grow these culinary gems in pots. In any household, the sweet spot for cultivating herbs is a puddle of sunshine near the kitchen door. Time and again, the cook will dash out to gather a handful of this or that while two or three dishes simmer on the stove. Dinner is less likely to boil over when herbs can be snagged in a matter of seconds.

Individual Pots vs. Container Bouquets

Because small pots heat up and dry out faster than larger ones, herbs usually grow best in larger containers. Fourteen-inch-wide plastic or fiberglass pots are lightweight, easy to handle and provide ample room for four or more plants. Half-barrel wooden planters are great and fixed oblong planters also work well.

Mix it Up
When shopping for plants, experiment with the way herbs from these two groups look when they are arranged together:

- Upright growth habit: basil, chives, dill, rosemary, sage
- Mounding growth habit: marjoram, parsley, thyme

Cooks and gardeners will have the most fun combining upright herbs that reach for the sky with others that tend toward low, mounding growth. When shopping for seedlings, look for interesting ways to combine leaf textures and foliage colors, too. For example, anchor an herbal container bouquet with red-leafed basil and surround it with marjoram and thyme. Then, create a second container by combining silvery sage with green chives and curly parsley. This two-pot herb garden will produce a season’s worth of fresh flavors.

Eight Easy Herbs for Pots

Basil’s spicy-sweet flavor with strong floral notes puts it on everyone’s planting list. This fast-growing annual loves warm weather. Basil planted in the early part of the growing season will produce numerous flowering spikes within a couple of months, which should be snipped off. The more basil is pinched back, the bushier it becomes.

Chives taste like very mild scallions, and plants will produce new leaves throughout the growing season, if trimmed regularly. These cold-hardy plants become dormant off-season and return the following year, featuring an early show of edible pink flowers. The slender, upright leaves combine well with other herbs.

Dill is a fast-growing annual that prefers cool growing conditions. Its leaves, flowers and seeds carry a savory tang that enhances the flavor of pickles, marinated vegetables and breads. Placed in the center of a large pot, a single dill plant will grow more than two feet tall and may require staking.

Marjoram deserves wider use, because the little plants combine a light oregano flavor with subtle notes of mint and lemon, and marjoram tastes good raw or cooked. Its lanky stems look lovely spilling over the sides of mixed containers.

Parsley needs a bit more moisture than other herbs, so place it closer to the center than the edge in mixed containers. Both mild-flavored curly and more assertive flat-leafed Italian parsley do well in roomy containers.

Rosemary tolerates strong sun and heat, so it’s a wise choice in hot months. Northerners grow rosemary as an annual, but in milder climates, these woody perennials can continue as a perennial for years. Rosemary’s piney flavor and aroma takes center stage in rice dishes and casseroles, and the woody stems make delightful skewers.

Sage charms everyone with its luminous leaves, which may be gray-green or variegated with pink and cream, depending on variety. Smoky sage is the definitive herb to pair with poultry, and it’s great with potatoes, too.

Thyme is the flavorful herb that brings depth to many French and Cajun dishes. The fresh version is incomparable for lending savory flavor notes to fresh vegetables. Both English thyme and low-growing lemon thyme make appealing edge plants in mixed containers.

Barbara Pleasant is the author of numerous gardening books, including
Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens.

How to Transplant Herbs

Follow these simple steps to get any container herb garden off to a strong start.

1. Water seedlings and set them in a shady spot. Meanwhile, fill a large container that has at least one drainage hole to within two inches of the brim with fresh potting soil.

2. Keeping seedlings in their nursery pots, array them into a pleasing arrangement, with the tallest plants placed near the center. Then, squeeze each plant from its nursery pot and nestle it into the soil in the selected spot.

3. Use scissors to trim off any broken branches and thoroughly water the container herb garden. Keep newly planted containers in a shady spot for about three days. In stationary planters, cover the plants with flowerpots to shade them from direct sunshine. Remove the shade covers after three days, water again, then start snipping bits of fresh herbs as needed for the kitchen. Herbs generally develop their best flavors when they receive sun most of the day. In hotter climates, move herb containers to partial shade during the hotter months to prevent excessive heat stress.