Container herb gardening is all about the versatility to grow herbs wherever you have room: on a balcony, a patio, a rooftop, or the steps to your porch. It can be as simple as a planter outside your kitchen door, a hanging basket within reach to harvest a handful of mint, a windowsill filled with healing plants, or a vintage wheelbarrow placed strategically to attract pollinators. You can position big or small container plantings to take advantage of your available space, make them easily accessible for harvest, and give herbs their best growing conditions.
Where’s your perfect place to grow herbs? To find out, take a walk around your home and assess potential spaces for container gardens. Think about accessibility for watering, tending, trimming, and harvesting. There might be room to tuck something into an existing garden, or you could mount a window box on your house. Indoor herb gardens are particularly convenient to access. Is floor space a premium? Try a living wall. As you consider all the possibilities, take into account sun exposure and other factors that will contribute to your container garden success, such as room temperature and humidity levels.
One great option for those with little-to-no space inside their home is to plant on a balcony. Potted plants on a balcony can transform a harsh space into a garden oasis, especially in a high-rise urban setting with little or no living landscape around. For example, the lush window boxes on the balcony at my dentist’s office give me a moment of calm as I sit in the chair and look out the window. Observe the view from inside your home. Visualize what you want your balcony garden to become. Work out a few logistics, and then you can create a welcoming garden of fragrant herbs.
First things first: What’s your balcony’s weight load? Containers heavy with soil, plants, and water could be too much when combined with the weight of people on the balcony. If possible, check with a building contractor, landlord, or superintendent to know for certain how much weight your balcony can take and if it has any vulnerable areas. Lightweight containers are an excellent way to literally lighten things up.
Second, understand the unique cultural conditions offered by your balcony. Watch the angle of sunlight throughout the day, as it will affect how well your plants grow. Wind swirling around a building can also be a factor to consider. Avoid using tall, narrow pottery that might be unstable. Every square inch of space on a balcony is valuable. You can hang planters with basil and colorful annual herbs, such as violas and nasturtiums, on sunny railings. Tuck herbs that tolerate some shade into a living wall attached to the side of the building.
Tabletop Herb Garden
For those looking to maximize convenience, a tabletop herb garden can be the way to go. You can keep a small batch of richly flavored herbs near your cooking spaces for easy access. Harvest and use the fresh herbs as you’re preparing meals, or marinate their pungent flavors into meats and sauces. You can also turn this container setup into a centerpiece for an outdoor dining table. Keep a small pair of scissors nearby so you can snip fresh herbs to sprinkle over your food.
This little potted garden uses individual glazed pots inside an attractive wicker basket. When the perennial plants outgrow these small pots (probably within the first year), plant them in larger containers or out in a garden. If you have the space, you can complement your herb garden with a few compact vegetable plants in other containers nearby, such as ‘Little Napoli’ patio Roma tomatoes, ‘Lizzano’ cherry tomatoes, ‘Little Prince’ eggplant, ‘Lacinato’ kale, and radicchio.
This setup features popular Italian herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, and rosemary), but you can grow whatever herbs you use most regularly. Other popular options include sage, mint, marjoram, thyme, fennel, chives, and bay laurel. Here are a few cultivars that make great options if you’re sticking with an Italian lineup.
‘Genovese’ (Ocimum basilicum): This cultivar is an annual that’s easy to start from seed. When growing basil in containers, place it outside only after nighttime temperatures are consistently above 45 degrees Fahrenheit and the warmth of summer has arrived. Basil will shut down leaf production in cooler weather.
Basil (basilico in Italian) is one herb you can never have enough of. Keep up production by sowing a new crop to add to containers as you harvest mature plants. ‘Genovese’ is one of the more intense true Italian cultivars. Others to look for include ‘Dolce Fresca,’ ‘Italian Pesto,’ and ‘Profumo di Genova.’
‘Hot and Spicy’ (Origanum vulgare): This cultivar is a perennial with small, soft leaves loaded with aroma. It has an irregular growth habit and will tumble over the side of a pot rather than stay upright, as most oreganos do. Trim stems as needed to keep a tidy shape. As its name implies, it has a peppery bite that’s strong and pungent in cooking.
The aroma of oregano reminds me of my sweet Italian grandma. After sautéing garlic cloves in olive oil (which made the kitchen smell amazing), she would simmer the ingredients of a red sauce for hours. The oregano (origano in Italian) aroma would permeate the air, and she’d add basil at the end for a mouthwatering sauce ready to pour on meats or pasta.
Italian, or flat-leaf (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum): This variety is a biennial that’s typically grown as an annual. The lacy leaves of flat parsley are as decorative in a container as they are flavorful in cooking. The deep-green leaves will grow abundantly in warm seasons and persevere through the year in milder weather.
Parsley is a no-nonsense addition to container gardens. It adds great texture with little fuss, and it keeps within its space in mixed containers. In a small pot by itself, parsley will grow fine for a few seasons. Due to its biennial nature, however, parsley will produce flowers and go to seed the second year of growth, so you’ll want to replace it at that time.
Parsley (prezzemolo in Italian) is a common ingredient in Italian dishes to offset extra-spicy foods. Condiments made from parsley, such as gremolata, give the tongue a break from the spice and allow the eater to enjoy the full flavors of the dish. Parsley is also a breath freshener, so make sure to include a fresh cutting as a garnish to chew on after a garlicky meal.
‘Barbeque’ (Salvia rosmarinus or Rosmarinus officinalis): If you’re looking for rosemary, you might come across two different species names for the plant. That’s because in 2017, a team of researchers issued a report in the journal TAXON stating that DNA samples of rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis at the time – showed that it should be moved into the Salvia genius. The botanical name Salvia officinalis was already in use for common garden sage, so the new classification for rosemary has become Salvia rosmarinus. Although the species name has officially changed, many people still refer to rosemary by its original classification.
This cultivar is a perennial that will grow as an evergreen shrub in areas with mild winters. It makes an excellent upright addition to potted gardens. Rosemary likes to have some root space, though, so it’ll only be useful for one season in a small pot. Transplant rosemary to a larger container after enjoying it in your small tabletop garden over the summer.
I’ve been asked many times why rosemary “spontaneously” dies in potted gardens. Most of the time, the problem occurs at the soil level and below. Rosemary can become root-bound quickly, which can cause uneven water uptake. The soil always seems dry in root-bound plants, so our nature is to keep watering them. Our misplaced kindness can cause all those bound-up roots to rot. Keep an eye on your plant and transplant it to a larger pot before it gets root-bound.
Rosemary (rosmarino in Italian) is a pine-like, pungent herb that complements other heavy spices, meats, and vegetables used in Italian dishes.
Broiled Herb and Cheese Tomatoes
- 4 fresh tomatoes, halved
- 2 or 3 fresh basil leaves, stems removed
- 1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves
- 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley
- 1⁄2 cup fresh coarsely grated
- Parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Preheat your broiler.
- Place tomato slices on a baking sheet, cut side up. Chop basil, oregano, and parsley together until well-mixed, and then sprinkle herb blend evenly over tomatoes.
- Top with fresh Parmesan cheese, and then salt and pepper to taste.
- Broil approximately 3 to 4 minutes, or until the cheese begins to melt and lightly brown.
Sue Goetz is an award-winning professional horticulturist who shares her love of gardening through writing and speaking. This is excerpted from her book Complete Container Herb Gardening (Cool Springs Press).