Contain Your Passion: A Guide to Growing Herbs

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A mix of containers displayed at various heights creates a wall of living color and a sense of seclusion for this outdoor living room. Purple chives, Spanish lavender and sage help unify the look.
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1. Fill pot two-thirds full with pre-moistened potting mix. Position plant so that surface is 1 to 2 inches below rim of pot.
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3. Water thoroughly until water flows freely from pot’s drainage hole. Voila—your plant is ready to grow.
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2. Add more potting mix to cover plant roots. Tamp mix firmly in place.
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A terra cotta strawberry pot provides planting pockets for dill, sages and leaf lettuce. Move the pot from porch to garden—or wherever you need a splash of color or accessible ingredients.
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Nutmeg thyme spills gracefully over an eye-catching metal pot.

he best-dressed gardens, no matter their size or style, include potted herbs. Potted herbs add an extra dimension of beauty to outdoor living areas, where they will surround your family and guests with lively colors, fragrances and textures. You’ll also love having sprigs of your favorite herbs within reach, right outside the kitchen door. Keeping your potted herb garden vibrant and lush from early spring through fall isn’t difficult if you pay attention to a few simple requirements.

Best Bets

You can grow practically any herb in a pot if you have the right container and potting mix, but these types are especially good choices.

  • Aggressive herbs, such as mints, comfrey and lemon balm, are not only easy
    to grow in pots, but actually grow best in pots, to keep them from spreading uncontrollably in the landscape.
  • Plants that like dry soil, such as santolina, curry plant, oregano, rosemary and thyme, do well in containers, which dry out more quickly than garden sites.
  • Tropical or tender herbs, such as lemon verbena, jasmine or passionflower, are ideal for growing in pots, which can be moved indoors for the winter.
  • Specimen-type plants, like chaste tree, lemon verbena and bay laurel, grown in large, handsome planters, make striking focal points wherever they are located in the landscape. (See “20 Top Herbs for Pots” for specific varieties.)

Soil Savvy

To get your plants off to a strong start, use a high-quality commercial potting mix that is lightweight and porous. It’s essential that potting soil drains easily; otherwise, roots become deprived of oxygen and the plant eventually dies. (Garden soil is too heavy for use in pots and could contain pathogens or weed seeds.)

Mix in a bit of finished compost or earthworm castings to supply nutrients gradually over the course of the season, as well as a little perlite, vermiculite or pumice to help loosen and aerate the final mix. You’ll find these materials at your local garden center.

Planting Particulars

Before filling your pots, stir enough warm water into the mix to moisten it thoroughly and evenly. Then fill two-thirds of your container with mix. (See “Pot It Up” for tips on choosing containers; most important, be sure the pot has a drainage hole.) lace the herb in the pot so that the base of the plant is 1 to 2 inches below the container’s rim. Add enough additional potting mix to cover the roots completely, then tamp the mix firmly in place around the plant. Water thoroughly until water runs freely from the pot’s drainage holes.

When combining several plants in one container, allow enough space between plants for them to grow and thrive. Remember that a 3-inch seedling can easily reach 2 feet tall by midsummer. Space according to the plant’s mature size: Smaller plants such as sweet  alyssum or dwarf basil need less pot space than, say, rosemary or comfrey.

The plants’ size and how many of them you plan to grow in one pot also will determine what size pot you’ll need. For instance, a single scented geranium might be fine in a 10-inch-diameter pot, but five to seven small thymes would require a 16-inch pot, and a  haste tree underplanted with low-growing flowers and cascading herbs would need a whiskey barrel or other large planter.

Easy Does It

Your potted herb garden will thrive with little more than regular watering and an occasional feeding. How much to water depends on the weather conditions, the plant’s needs, and the size and type of pot.

Potting soil can dry out quickly in intense, midsummer sun, requiring you to water daily, although Mediterranean and other drought-tolerant herbs can go a bit longer between waterings. In general, let your finger be your guide: If the soil feels dry 1 to 2 inches below the surface, your plants need water. Check the soil of all potted plants daily.

If you’ve included an organic fertilizer in your soil mix, your potted plants probably won’t need more than a single, midsummer feeding of dilute fish emulsion or compost tea to keep them growing strong.

An occasional spray of diluted liquid seaweed, which is rich in potassium and micronutrients, also will help keep potted herbs healthy and productive.

One last tip: Pinching faded flowers and leggy stems will encourage more blooms and strong, new growth … but as one who loves herbs, you probably already knew that. And with your favorite plants so close at hand, snipping those flavorful sprigs and flowering stems will be a daily pleasure.

Kris Wetherbee grows potted herbs of all types and sizes at her home in western Oregon. To contact Kris, visit

Top Herbs 20 for Pots

‘Siam Queen’ Thai basil — Purple bloom spikes on 14-inch plants

‘Spicy Globe’ basil — Bushy 10-inch plants have tiny, fragrant leaves

Bay laurel — Slow-growing shrub is superb in a large container; move it inside for winter

Calendula — Annual, 1- to 2-foot plants bear colorful, daisylike blooms

Chives — Spiky leaves, 6 to 10 inches tall, topped with pink blooms

Dill — Dwarf ‘Fernleaf’ grows 18 inches tall; needs good drainage and a pot at least 10 inches deep

Heliotrope — 12- to 24-inch plants bear fragrant violet-blue to deep purple blooms

Horseradish — Vigorous plant with large, strappy leaves needs a big pot and rich, moist soil; harvest pungent roots in fall

Hyssop — Dark green glossy leaves and showy, 14-inch spikes of deep blue flowers

Lavender — All types excellent for pots; 8- to 30-inch plants bear fragrant blue or white blooms in midsummer

Lemon verbena — Tender shrub prized for its lemon-flavored leaves; move inside for winter

Lemon balm — Bright green, lemonflavored leaves; ‘Aurea’ has gold markings

Licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) — Trailing, tender perennial with gray woolly leaves makes a beautiful edger

Mint — All thrive in containers; standouts include ‘Banana’, ‘Chocolate’, ginger and orange mints

Oregano — Recommended culinary varieties include Greek and Italian; decorative types are ‘Herrenhausen’, ‘Hopley’s Purple’ and dittany of Crete

Parsley — Both Italian flat-leaf and curly parsley thrive in pots

Rosemary — All kinds suitable for pots; drought-tolerant plants have fragrant, needlelike leaves and blue, pink or white blooms

Sage — Both culinary and ornamental varieties are attractive alone or in mixed plantings

Scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) — Fragrant and ornamental; try ‘Almond’, ‘Ginger’, ‘Mable Grey’ and ‘Prince of Orange’; trailers include ‘Coconut’, ‘Green Apple’, ‘Nutmeg’ and ‘Round-Leaf Rose’

Thyme — Low-growing and droughttolerant; for culinary use, try English thyme, ‘Narrow-Leaf French’ and ‘Wedgewood English’; cascaders include woolly and nutmeg thymes

Pot It Up

Choosing a pot for your plantings islike putting icing on the cake: fun, easy and deliciously creative. Besides the traditional ceramic and plastic pots, nearly
any unused vessel–from a vintage soup pot to an old wheelbarrow–can be used as a container for herbs.

With so many beautiful and practical options, selection can seem confusing, however. To narrow your choices, consider pots that complement the style of your garden and outdoor living area, as well as your climate and the needs of your plants (see below). Whatever you choose, be sure the pot has adequate drainage holes. Drill additional holes in the bottom of the container, if necessary; be sure the holes are large enough that they don’t clog.–K.W.




Best For

Clay (terracotta)

Attractive; natural

Dries out quickly; breakable

Drought-tolerant plants; moist climates


Lightweight, inexpensive

Over time, will deteriorate in strong sun

Plants that need average to moist soil; sun tender herbs that need to be moved indoors for winter

Stone or Cement

Very durable

Heavy, difficult to move

Permanent outdoor displays

Stage Dressing a Large Container

For a dramatic, eye-catching display, group several plants together in one large container. Surround a single tree, shrub or architectural plant with low-growing and cascading herbs to create a dazzling, layered design.

For best effect, use odd-numbered groupings of three or more plants and choose contrasting colors, textures and forms. Also remember to choose plants that have similar water and light requirements.

Hot Pots

Practical planters for any garden style.

By Kim Wallace

The Sky’s the Limit
Set your herbal sights high with this moveable planter from Stack and Grow. Features 20 small plant pots divided into eight tiers, so all of your herbs receive sunlight. Plastic construction means less-frequent watering. A Stack and Grow planter, including base, four trays and easy-glide wheels, costs $44.95. Contact Stack and Grow at (801) 829-2045;

Faux Never Looked Better
Sleek and stylish fiberglass planters, such as this fiber-crete one from Nu-dell, provide an indoor alternative for raising herbs. This chameleon-like material looks nearly identical to classic potting materials, such as terra cotta and cast stone, yet is feather-light for easy portability. The 16-inch diameter planter costs $24.99. Contact Nu-dell at (847) 803-4500;

Classic Good Looks
This heavyweight cast-stone planter from Haddonstone echoes a 17th-century style that will add grace to your garden. The campana-shaped pot has a circular base that incorporates acanthus-leaf moulding around the bowl, giving the planter a soft, elegant look that belies its rock-solid sturdiness. The 15.5-inch-diameter Magnolia Vase planter costs $240. Contact Haddonstone at (856) 931-7011;

Go for the Gold
Mecox’s hardy ceramic jardineer planter allows easy air flow, which is critical to plant health. The sunny yellow color contrasts beautifully with a bay tree (or any other herb you want to dress up), while the planter’s solid base provides secure grounding. The 16-by-24-inch planter costs $325. Contact Mecox at (800) 487-4854;

Terra Cotta Treasure
Let the natural beauty of terra cotta take center stage in your herb garden with this unpainted, classic rolled-rim planter from Garden Traditional terra cotta complements all garden styles and is water- and airpermeable, allowing plant roots to breathe as needed. The 15.7-inch-diameter planter costs $127. Contact Garden at (866) 337-8821;

Mix It Up
Have fun mixing and matching herbal colors and textures with this two-tier cascade planter from Garden Artisans. The upper-level baskets fit into the bottom-level baskets for a completed look. The top basket is 18 inches in diameter and 9 inches deep; the bottom basket is 23 inches in diameter and 11 inches deep. The two-tier cascade planter costs $79.95. Contact Garden Artisans at (410) 672-0082;

3 Reasons Pots are Hot

Growing herbs in pots is not only stylish, but smart. Here’s why:

  1. Custom conditions. Regardless of your garden’s natural conditions, you can provide the ideal soil and light for almost any plant by growing it in a pot.
  2. Limitless looks. Bored with the look of your landscape? Move your pots! One week, use them to line your driveway; the next week, group them on the deck; and the following week, arrange them on an outside stairway.
  3. Nonstop show. Let potted herbs fill seasonal lulls in beds or borders, with different herbs starring each season: rosemary, calendula and dianthus in spring; catmint, lavender and nasturtiums in summer; and salvia, sedums and pansies in fall.

Can’t-Miss Combos

Not ready to design a planting from scratch? Try one of these winning combinations:

  1. Grand Entry: Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) underplanted with germander (Teucrium spp.) and trailing verbena, such as ‘Homestead Purple’.
  2. Antique Lace: Purple or variegated sage with hyssop and apple-scented geranium (Pelargonium odoratissimum) or other trailing scented geranium.
  3. Tropical Twist: Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) with comfrey and ‘Banana’ mint, pineapple mint or other low-growing mint.
  4. Salad Bowl: Calendula, chives, parsley, chervil, leaf lettuce and dill.
  5. Blue Notes: Upright rosemary, such as ‘Blue Spire’ or ‘Blue Gem’, borage and low-growing catmint, such as ‘Blue Whisper’ or ‘Blue Wonder’, with woolly thyme spilling over the sides.

Kim Wallace, an editorial intern for The Herb Companion, is a journalism student at the University of Kansas.

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