We grow herbs in lots of different ways in our garden, but the ones that get used the most for flavouring our food are the pots by the back door! It is so much easier to nip out and take a few handfuls whilst cooking.
To grow herbs in pots successfully you will need to know about each type of herb and how it behaves in containers. How your herbs will work well with each other or as companion plants, what sort of positioning of the pots you will need and how to limit the effects of over wintering them in certain climates or zones.
At first glance this seems like a lot to take in, but we are here to help and will take you through it one step at a time.
Which Herbs Do Well In Pots
This is our top ten herbs to plant in pots, think about which herbs you actually like to eat as well though! Just a quick note about herbs that do not do well in pots or containers. Borage has long tap roots and will be perfect for green manure as those roots dig deep down and pull up all of those nutrients, but this means that they will not flourish in pots.
Here are our top ten herbs to grow in pots, they have been chosen as they are low maintenance as well as high value for investment!
- Rosemary. In the UK and Northern America rosemary is a hardy perennial and will thrive in a sunny spot. We use rosemary to the back of any larger containers as it proves to be a real grower. With some shrubs reaching over 4 foot in height. By keeping rosemary in a pot you are essentially controlling that growth, by how large a root ball you allow to develop. As rosemary is woody and will live on for many decades it is important to plant it where it won’t cast shadow on other plants. Therefore keeping it in it’s own container is a real bonus because you can keep it to the front, until such a time as it has started to really go for it, then move it around to the back of your display. Rosemary thrives with less water than some of the other herbs so we will look to plant with similar herbs.
- Thyme is a perfect herb to grow in pots as the tender leaves cascading down the side of any pot always looks inviting. You will find that thyme will thrive in drought conditions and does not mind a little neglect. So do not be tempted to plant with other herbs such as mint or basil who need regular watering. Thyme will do well planted with rosemary and oregano. We even like it interspersed with chamomile as they can both be trailing and kind of cute in hanging baskets, another great space saving way to grow your own herbs!
- Oregano will absolutely love being in a sunny position all summer long. Oregano will also thrive on those drier conditions and will become a perennial if looked after and cut back in colder months. A bit of protection in the form of fleece is always welcome too. This is the main benefit of having your herbs in pots as you can remove them from any heavy rainfall or strong winds over winter.
- Sage will need a little bit of care in years two and three, sometimes needing to be divided. This is how we come to have sage spare to make up little gifts throughout the year. Truly one of the greatest pleasures as a gardener must be the ability to give away all of the free plants you propagate!
- Mint has a well deserved reputation for being a bit of a bully and taking over any garden bed you care to place it. So we do not recommend planting mint anywhere other than in a pot or container. Mint will happily live with other herbs, but will need maintenance and pruning back to stop becoming a straggly old thing. Mint is a perfect herb to plant strategically and moving pots to where you are eating in the evenings helps to deter those flying pests. Mosquito’s do not like the pungent aroma of mint, but we do and use it liberally in cocktails and teas alike. Mint will need to be protected in winter and will thrive on a sunny windowsill.
- Basil is a real family favourite and goes well as a garnish on top of so many dishes. So we have windowsill basil all year round as well as basil in a few pots. It loves to be watered regularly and will not enjoy harsh daylight on wet leaves, so a water feeder can be a great idea. If you get a pot that is self-watering like this pot from Dobies then you have no more worries about being away for a week at a time.
- Parsley will please all families and is ideal to start off with the kids. It is a gentle taste so they will enjoy eating as the herbs grow! By keeping them in pots we can control moisture levels as well as exposure to sunlight. Parsley does well planted with basil and can be a real star when thinned out early on in it’s life. In the UK parsley will actually survive the winter, as long as it is cut back and protected from severe floods followed by frosts. So basically a perfect British Winter, so you can use a cloche or if the parsley has grown larger fleece will work very well. If you are away for a long time there are options for a self-watering grow pot that can be perfect for outdoors.
- Chamomile can be a bit of a nuisance if planted directly into the ground. Alongside mint it has a reputation for being invasive and the root system will need to be checked. Chamomile trails in a really lovely way and can be used around the edge of pots and containers that have other herbs in that like a bit of a dry spell. The flowers of chamomile can be harvested directly from the plant and they can then be popped into a mug of boiled water for a five minute steep, then you have the perfect cup of relaxing tea. Ideal to drink whilst sitting amongst the wonderful smells of your herb garden! Again think about where to move the pots and how to position them for full on luxury gardening!
- Lemon Balm is very easy to grow from seed and will reward you will year round leaves that taste a bit like minty lemon. Fresh and zingy lemon balm is not a tough one to crack and will enjoy regular watering. We like to bring our lemon balm inside once frosts are returning and can grow it happily on the windowsill or in a conservatory all Winter long. Lemon balm is perfect as a cup of tea as well!
- French or Russian tarragon The young plants of either of these are very tender and prone to frost damage. We start our Russian Tarragon seeds off indoors and gently acclimatise then to the British Summer time once all fear of frosts have passed. It will be the same in many countries, but once the plant is established it will need very little from you, apart from a regular prune and pinch out of the leaves to encourage a bushier growth. French Tarragon is perfect when bought as plugs and will fill out quickly. Again only leave out in pots once the frosts have ended and the plant is well established. You can bring tarragon into the shelter of your green house when the worst of the storms arrive.
As we mentioned, try to grow the herbs you like to eat or use in teas. You will find that most of these herbs encourage wonderful wildlife like bees and butterflies and other peaceful pollinators. So we like to position the pots around where we are to sit and eat. We also find that plants like mint and chamomile have properties that deter the nasty flying bugs. So again they make an ideal container filler!
How To Prepare Pots For Herbs
Drainage, drainage, drainage! If I have said it once I have said it 100 times. I wish garden centres would stop selling beautiful pots and containers with no holes in the bottom. It is 100% a pet peeve of mine. However a sharp masonry drill bit will solve that problem and help with ceramic, terracotta or your more concrete looking pots.
Once you have a pot with good size holes for drainage, you may like to pop some old broken pots in as well. Alternatively you can use stone and pebbles. Just for a handful to give it that extra drainage. Your roots cannot be sat in wet soil.
For potting compost you may like to use a peat free one. Do not chose one which is high in potassium as that will only encourage more flowers and we are looking primarily for leaves and foliage. Although flowers from chives make for very tasty salads or even some more mature cocktails!
We make up a mix with perlite from grow sure that you can get here. Mix it one part perlite to three parts peat free compost. You can use the sort that you make yourself, just avoid using garden soil. It will not be the end of the world if you do, but mix in some grit or perlite to stop it from forming one water logged chunk of soil. You need it to hold oxygen and not keep the roots in perpetual water.
Keep the mixture moist when planting your herbs out. A lot of people avoid using supermarket bought living herbs but as long as you do separate when you plant out and increase the drainage, you should get a good yield.
Softer herbs will need to be started off as seeds inside, under cover or in a greenhouse. This will mean that the delicate younger plants are not subjected to changes in temperature and that you can control watering levels.
If you are buying plugs from reputable nurseries they will only send them out to you once the plants are at optimum conditions. As a bit of a herb snob I love a package which says ‘living plants’ on the box! So make sure that you get a bit of confidence to experiment with the varieties of herbs in your garden! A Chocolate Mint After Eight aromatic herb plant plant is even more enjoyable than it sounds!
How To Choose Which Herbs To Plant Together
Basil, Mint, Lemon Balm and parsley enjoy plenty of water and would all suit being in a self-watering pot. If you do decide to plant these together be aware of the invasive nature of mint and try to keep on top of the runners. Even if you are not looking to eat the mint you harvest make sure to keep on top of pinching and pruning all year.
You will find that these four soft herbs will all benefit from being moved around in harsh weather. Keeping them in direct sunlight can be draining, especially if there is a strong wind. However regular pruning and harvesting of new growth will keep the herbs healthy in pots or the ground.
Thyme, Rosemary, Oregano, Chamomile, Sage and Tarragon can all be happy with a little less frequent watering. They are almost drought tolerant and will need the soil to have dried out before watering again. Therefore they do not suit having self watering type of systems put in place.
With the exception of chamomile the old saying ‘what grows together, goes together’ is true for cooking. For this reason keep these pots close to the back door as you do not want to trudge up the garden during a rain storm to get a fresh sprig of tarragon.
With rosemary you will find it grow to the size of the pot you put it in. Therefore you may need to repot it back into its original pot. Treat it the way you would do a lovely ornamental Bay tree and remove the root ball to cut back around a third of the size.
TOP TIP – If you have children in the household, why not ask them to make you some herb plant markers? That way when you send them out to bring back a handful of oregano, they actually get it right!
Positioning Of Herb Containers
Herbs are known for their strong aromas. So make the most of that! Plant around an outside bar area or BBQ grill spot. Plant where you are to eat. Even think about moving the pots to a new area you would like to make feel more snug and homely. We are looking to turn a sunny corner into a herbal tea garden and keep it as an area of tranquility.
By keeping your herbs in pots you are free to create as many spaces throughout the year as you need. But be warned. Herbs like to enjoy as many hours of sunlight as possible. So keep that in mind before moving to a drafty shaded spot.
If you are thinking of a long term place to position your herb containers, choose one which is sheltered from strong winds but that is convenient. Somewhere that you will be able to pop out of the kitchen to get cuttings.
One of the biggest issues for any herb garden is that your plants may get too much sunlight. This can produce an herb that bolts and its taste profile changes completely. So to avoid too much sunlight moving your pots around can be perfect!
Overwintering Herbs In Colder Climates
Rosemary and thyme will cope quite well without a harsh prune back before winter. Thyme may benefit from a little fleece to keep the worst of the chill off, however we move them to sheltered areas. If you have a greenhouse that is not doing much then it becomes a perfect spot.
A conservatory with basil, mint, parsley and lemon balm will be very welcome. As long as you can provide sunlight over winter then they should do well. If not a cheap LED lamp like this one will be very effective and ensure a year round crop of herbs.
With your hardwood herbs like oregano and even sage, a good trim back helps. As does using a fleece to keep the frost away and protect against insects and pests.
Do not be afraid to move your pots to a less windy, rainy or cold spot. Using walls of your house help a lot as they retain heat from the day time into the night and early morning.
If you need to move the pots think this through when buying great big heavy planters that you intend to plant out with soft delicate herbs.
Problems With Herbs In Pots
Keeping on top of pruning is key. You do not want a sprawling herb from one pot. Equally you do not want herbs that will take over anywhere you plant them. So keep them in check with easy pinching out of new leaves. This will encourage a bushier shrub rather than a spindly one.
The pots may be prone to ants who can be harmful to the new leaves or encourage aphids to dwell on the leaves. So be mindful to the difference between helpful pollinators and evil aphid aiding ants.
Flowering herbs are a real delight for all pollinators and us as well! We love the sweet aromas and will often encourage this. However if you want maximum yield from your crops you will need to nip some of the flowers out at least.
Be aware of bolting herbs. Make sure that if they start looking a little bit wild and move them to a more shady area to help dissuade them! Pinch out the new growth at the same time. This may also be a good time to harvest as much as you would like and start to think about storage and drying herbs.