Container Herb Gardening

Bonnie Nowicki, Master Gardener

Two books devoted exclusively to herbs sit on my bookshelf and need attention. Both books extol the versatility and medicinal value of herbs. So much information! For this article, I decided to focus on growing herbs in containers for their beauty, practical uses, and movability. You don’t need a garden or even a yard to grow herbs. A cook’s best friend is the convenience of fresh, flavorful herbs within reach; whether on a brightly lit windowsill or sunny patio. May I suggest picking five or less small herb plants and consider your taste buds.

Most varieties of herbs prefer well-drained soil. Simply use a quality potting mix. Herbs require little, if any fertilizer. Pay close attention, as container gardens dry out faster than in-ground herb gardens. Keep in mind that many herbs do prefer dry conditions. Your goal is to water before wilting occurs and pinch out or prune new growth frequently for cooking etc.

The essential oils that give herbs their flavor and aroma are produced when they receive plenty of light. Most varieties require at least six hours of sun per day. A south facing windowsill is ideal for indoor herb pots. All herbs are best picked on a dry day in the morning. The following herb selection should be harvested in early and mid-summer. Leaves can be dried or chopped and mixed with water and frozen in ice cube trays for later use.

Fragrant sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum Labiatae) is native to India, Southeast Asia, tropical Africa, and South America—not the Mediterranean. It is used as a basis for pesto and a seasoning in tomato-based dishes. Hardy and tasty thyme (Thymus) is low maintenance and rich in germ-killing compounds. Strip individual stems of their leaves for seasoning, or leave intact as a garnish. This culinary herb is used to flavor soups, stews, and roasts. Bay (Laurus) is easy to grow and also flavors soups and stews. It’s especially useful as a structural small shrub in a mixed herb container.

The popular garnish parsley (Petroselinum) is rich in vitamins and minerals. It has spent far too much time on the edge of a plate. It’s fresh, crisp flavor is the perfect complement to many egg, pasta, and vegetable dishes. My favorite, rosemary (Rosmarinus), is native to the Mediterranean and has been used in cooking and medicine for thousands of years. Use sprigs in meat and poultry dishes. It also repels moths indoors. Rosemary increases memory and reduces joint pain. Early Greek students wore garlands of rosemary around their heads prior to exams.

I could go on and on. Herb gardening is a fascinating topic. Challenge yourself to discover the culinary, medicinal, and ornamental purposes of herbs. With just a few containers, you could enhance your well-being with delightful scents and, especially, enjoy flavorful food.