By: Matthew Olson
March 1st 2022
Growing Herbs in Containers
Spring is quickly approaching (though it may not feel like it), which means it’s time to determine what will be grown in the garden this year. Every group of plants has something unique to offer, but it’s hard to beat the wondrous fragrance of herbs on a summer evening. Herbs are easy to grow and have a multitude of uses in the garden and kitchen. These plants are ideal for growing in containers, offering a continuous harvest throughout summer and Fall. Herbs offer even more than fragrance and taste, they’re ornamental as well.
Many culinary herbs are native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, a climate with plentiful warm and sunny weather. Our climate is very different, but our warm summers allow us to grow many of these plants as annuals, and a few as perennials. When growing herbs in containers, here’s a few things to keep in mind. Most herbs require full sun and good drainage to thrive, which make them ideal plants for a sunny deck or balcony. If you don’t have access to full sun, you can grow herbs that tolerate part shade, such as mint, parsley, or lemon balm. Growing herbs in containers make the plants easily accessible for harvesting, requiring only a short walk to and from the kitchen. Another benefit of herbs is they are light feeders, requiring little to no fertilizer if grown in good potting soil.
Herbs are versatile plants, which allows them to be grown in mixed herb containers, or as a single species. They also grow well with annuals or vegetables. If you’re mixing different types of herbs together, it’s important to understand the growing habits and requirements of each plant. For example, the aggressive nature of mint makes it difficult to grow in a mixed container. However, mint can be a good companion plant for vigorous annuals, like purple fountain grass.
Some herbs are not heat lovers. Parsley, cilantro, and chives are a few herbs that thrive in cooler weather, making them easy to harvest early and late in the season.
Check out the list below to learn more about specific herbs that can be used in containers.
A heat loving herb that is native to Asia. Comes in a variety of colors, texture, and flavor. Requires full sun and drier soil but shouldn’t be allowed to dry out. Leaves should be harvested before flowers open. Pinching off the flowers will prolong the harvest. A tender plant with zero frost tolerance. Has susceptibility to a fungal disease called Downey mildew. Rutgers has developed varieties with downy mildew resistance, including ‘Rutgers Obsession DMR’ and ‘Rutgers Devotion DMR’. Basil grows well with other heat loving herbs, such as Rosemary, Thyme and Oregano.
Other varieties to grow
‘Emerald Towers’– A tall narrow cultivar with classic basil foliage and a spicy scent.
‘Genovese’– An Italian heirloom variety with good flavor.
‘Cinnamon’– Has a sweet fragrance and violet stems with edible flowers.
A member of the onion family that thrives in cool weather. A hardy perennial that can even be over wintered in pots left outside. Leaves emerge early in spring and can be harvested anytime, individually or in clumps. Flowers are edible and should be harvested just before they open. Prefers full sun with moderate moisture.
‘Purly’- Has straight and upright foliage.
‘Fine Chives’– Features long, slender leaves.
Garlic Chives– A different species of chives, has a garlic flavor.
A cool season herb which bolts (Goes to seed) in the summer. Leaves are used fresh in Asian and Mexican cooking. Seeds (Coriander) are harvested when they turn brown. Often used in curries. Plants prefer full sun with moderate moisture.
A fast-growing plant that belongs in a container, not in the ground (unless you want mint everywhere). Comes in many flavors. Harvest before flowers appear. Can tolerate part shade and wet soil. Note: If you’re growing mint in a container surrounded by soil, it may attempt to escape over the side of the pot and down to the ground, rooting itself in the surrounding soil (I speak from experience).
Apple mint- A mild flavored mint with a slight apple flavor.
Orange mint– Has a citrus aroma and flavor. One of my favorites.
Chocolate mint– Features a pleasant mint chocolate flavor and aroma.
Figure 1 A container of Orange Mint
A classic herb grown for Italian and Greek dishes. Easy to grow in containers when given full sun and drier conditions. Leaves can be harvested when they are big enough to use. Greek or Italian oregano has the strongest flavor. A hardy perennial in the landscape but can seed aggressively in moist soil.
Golden Oregano– a mild flavored oregano with golden leaves.
Greek Oregano- Strong flavored Oregano with a strong aroma. Has a low growing habit. Excellent for containers.
A uniquely textured member of the carrot family. Can be harvested from spring until the snow buries the plant in Fall. When harvesting, take the outer leaves first. The curly leaves have high levels of Vitamin A and C, and can tolerate part shade with moderate moisture. Note: Parsley is a favorite food of parsley worm, which later becomes a beautiful Swallowtail butterfly. If you find parsley worm on your parsley, it’s best to leave them alone so they can become butterflies in the future.
Figure 2 Parsley worms enjoying an evening meal
Flat Leaf Parsley
Like Curled Leaf Parsley but has flat leaves and stronger flavor. Used for cooking more than curled leaf parsley. Leaves can be harvested anytime.
An evergreen shrub that is native to the Mediterranean but grows beautifully in containers. Has pine scented foliage that adds good flavor to many dishes. Leaves can be clipped anytime. Has many medicinal uses. Requires full sun and moderate soil moisture.
Creeping Rosemary– Has a unique trailing and twisting habit; it features violet blooms.
‘Tuscan Blue’– Has an upright habit with mild fragrance and deep blue flowers.
A spicy herb with large fuzzy foliage, the leaves are commonly used in stuffing and stew. Grows well in containers or the ground. Leaves can be harvested anytime but have the most flavor shortly before the flowers open. Requires full sun and drier soil.
‘Tricolor’– Features unique colored leaves that are white, green, and purple.
‘Berggarten’– Has blue- green foliage, good for stews and soup.
‘Purpurea’– Leaves are purple and very aromatic.
A wonderful low growing herb featuring fragrant foliage with beautiful tiny flowers. Thyme comes in many flavors and thrives with little care. Can be used as a perennial groundcover and is semi-evergreen. Entire stems can be harvested and dried. Requires full sun and good drainage.
Common thyme– Most popular for cooking and growing in gardens. Makes a wonderful seasoning for many foods.
Lemon thyme– Has a citrus scent and flavor, along with variegated foliage.
Orange thyme- Features orange scented foliage and pink flowers.
These are only a few of the many herbs you can grow. As you prepare for the growing season, consider utilizing this fine group of plants in your containers.