A No-Garden Herb Garden

Madeline Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

Whether you live in a house with a shady yard or in an apartment or condo, if you have some kind of outdoor space, you can still have an herb garden—in pots.

First, evaluate your outdoor space. Most herbs need at least 6 hours of full sun a day. Herbs that will tolerate shade or part shade include: chervil, sweet cicely, and sweet woodruff (these three actually prefer full shade), catnip, chamomile, cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, rosemary, salad burnet, tarragon and thyme. Invasive mints and lemon balm can be will contained in pots in the shade or part shade; lemon balm on the deck or patio will also help repel mosquitoes.

Most herbs can be grown in outdoor containers, although the resulting plants may be somewhat smaller than those grown in the ground. With some species, it’s best to choose dwarf or smaller varieties; of the hardy English lavenders, ‘Bowles Early’, Hidcote’, or ‘Two Armys’ are good container plants. Some herbs are best grown year-round in containers even for those with gardens, because these plants have to come in for the winter. These include the tender lavenders (commonly called French or Spanish), lemon verbena, scented geraniums, and bay laurel. For best results, use already started plants; it’s probably too late this year to grow your own from seed.

Once you decide what you want to grow, it’s time to choose pots. The traditional choice is clay pots, but they are expensive, heavier, and more easily broken; the soil in clay pots also tends to dry out faster so watering must be done on a regular basis. Plastic pots are less expensive, need less water (be careful not to over water), and come in many color choices now, including those that look like terra-cotta. Be sure to keep the full-grown size of the plant in mind when choosing pots; a full-grown sage will require an 8-10 inch pot. When grouping pots on a deck or patio, pots with one style and one color tend to make for a more eye-pleasing arrangement.

Since wooden planters eventually rot from wet soil, you should consider using them as an outer container for regular pots. Hanging baskets or pots are a good choice for small spaces, and strawberry jars are ideal for a complete miniature herb garden. Any container you choose for growing herbs must have a drainage hole. Saucers can be placed underneath but should be monitored, as lavenders and rosemaries, in particularly, do not like to have "wet feet".

Mix one part perlite to two parts good potting soil or one part sand to three parts potting soil to make a well-draining potting mix for your herbs. Before filling a strawberry jar, buy a piece of 2 in. PVC pipe as long as the jar is tall. Brill several ¼ in. holes in it and put it down the center of the jar, filling in soil around it. This will ensure all plants are evenly watered.

After potting up the herbs, fertilize with fish emulsion and every other week thereafter. OR, use a time release fertilizer, such as Osmocote. Potted herbs need to be watered when dry as far as your finger can reach down into the pot. Depending on the kind and size of the pt and the weather, this will probably mean watering every other day. In July and August, you may have to water daily.

Disease is not generally a problem with herbs, although basils are prone to verticilleum wilt; check to be sure you are buying wilt-resistant basil plants. Check your plants regularly for insects, especially aphids. If you find ay, give your plants a good shower, followed by spraying with an insecticidal soap every three or four days for two weeks.

When using your potted herbs, keep in mind the plant’s shape when picking leaves for use in the kitchen. The more you pick, the more the plant will bush out. As in the garden, when basil is beginning to flower, it should be cut back to the second set of leaves to get better growth and flavor. Since patio plants are always in view, remember to keep dead flowers picked off and plants gently shaped.

Now, prepare to set back on the deck or patio with a good book, a glass of lemon balm lemonade (steep a handful of lemon balm leaves in your prepared lemonade for a fresh flavor), and enjoy the sights and scents of your no-garden herb garden.

Read other articles on growing herbs or vegetables

Read other gardening articles by Madeline Wajda