Apartment Gardening with Herbs

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Photo courtesy Sasquatch Books (c) 2011

Excerpted from Apartment Gardening: Plants, Projects, and Recipes for Growing Food In Your Urban Home, by Amy Pennington, with permissions from Sasquatch Books (c) 2011. The following excerpt can be found on Pages 33 to 42.

Herbs are champions in the apartment garden: no matter how much you harvest, they keep on giving. Herbs are fairly easy to grow; they require varying pot sizes, depending on their root systems. Many herbs are perennials, so they return year after year, signaling spring’s arrival. You can overwinter perennial herbs in their pots. Most will come back in spring even when neglected over winter–a great choice for the lazy gardener.

Herbs are potent little plants, and your kitchen will never feel lacking with bunches of fresh stems and branches on hand. Herbs may be dried or infused to extend their life outside of the garden. For the apartment garden, herbs are the quintessential low-maintenance, high-reward plants to grow.

Anise Hyssop

The unique flavor of anise hyssop is part licorice, part mint, a little bit like honey–herbal perfection. It is nice in grain salads and as a digestive tea or tisane after a big meal or between courses. This herb is best grown from seed. Recently, I’ve seen anise hyssop starts at the nursery, but don’t count on finding them easily. The plant grows tall, sturdy stalks topped with vibrant purple flowers. Anise hyssop is a perennial and will come back year after year.

WHERE AND WHEN TO PLANT: Anise hyssop can be sown in spring, directly in a pot. The seeds are super tiny and need only be pressed into the soil. Because the seeds are so light and small, anise hyssop tends to spread seed liberally after it flowers. Expect it to crop up in other pots the following year. I let these stray seeds grow to small seedlings before I repot them or give them away to friends. Anise hyssop likes sun but will do well in partial shade with at least six to eight hours of sunlight.

POT SIZE: Anise hyssop appreciates some room to grow, so select a deep pot. Flower stalks may reach over two feet tall, and the extra depth helps the plant to grow high. Shoot for a two-foot depth and about that much width on a pot.

HOW TO HARVEST: Cut off an entire stalk just above a leaf line. When the plant flowers, cut back the entire main stem, as it may regenerate growth.


Chervil is one of my very favorite herbs. With tender fernlike leaves, it is extremely dainty and delicate. The flavor is not unlike dill, but it is sharper and more crisp. It doesn’t linger on your palate as dill can, and it won’t overpower a dish. Chervil is a great match for eggs, light broths, and white fish of any kind.

WHERE AND WHEN TO PLANT: Chervil can be sown from seed in early spring well before many other plants, or in late summer for a second crop. Depending on the geographic climate, plants sown in February or March often flower and reseed themselves when the temperatures are just right. Chervil does well in partial shade; in fact, if it gets too warm, it will bolt quickly.

POT SIZE: Chervil can be grown in a medium-depth pot, about eight to twelve inches deep. The wider the pot, the more the plant will fill in, so keep that in mind when choosing.

HOW TO HARVEST: Cut the entire stem of chervil and use both leaves and stem. The plant will quickly fill back in.


Chives do well in containers, look beautiful, are quite flavorful, and come back year after year. This plant sends up thin hollow stalks tasting strongly of onion. When chives blossom (typically in late May or early June), the flower heads are equally flavorful and can be used in salads and dressings of any kind. After flowering, cut back the entire plant to about 1 inch; it will grow and flower again later in summer.

WHERE AND WHEN TO PLANT: Chives can be sown from seed early in April. They are prolific and grow quickly, so I recommend purchasing seeds instead of starts, or take a small clump from a friend’s garden. Chives will readily reseed if given the opportunity, so be diligent about deadheading the spent blossoms, which contain the seed.

POT SIZE: A medium-sized pot is usually plenty for a steady supply of chives from spring through summer. Pick a pot that is at least twelve inches deep and about that wide.

HOW TO HARVEST: Cut chive stems close to the base of the plant, leaving about an inch of green. The plant will fill back in. Start from the outside of the plant and work your way in as new growth develops. When the plant flowers, pick off the entire flower head and crumble to separate the purple blossoms to use in recipes.

Lemon Balm

Like cilantro, lemon balm is a polarizing herb: most either love it or hate it. Lemon balm has the tenacity to grow even in the worst conditions. Because of this, I recommend it for the absolute garden novice. You can neglect lemon balm all year, and it will come back the following year with only a small amount of attention. The flavorful leaves are strong enough that they can be considered soapy. Lemon balm makes a great quick tea, especially when combined with mint or anise hyssop.

WHERE AND WHEN TO PLANT: Lemon balm can be planted in early spring. As a member of the mint family, it can tolerate some shade. Lemon balm will also spread quickly, if given the opportunity, so it’s a plant best kept in a container. It is thought to have medicinal properties; for a digestive tea, steep in hot water and sweeten with honey. It’s also a great complement to snap peas, which come in at the same time in spring.

POT SIZE: A medium-sized pot–eight to twelve inches deep and about just as wide–will be ample for lemon balm, as it’s hardy and you will not use it often. When the plant fills the pot, you can easily divide it (pop it out of the pot and split the plant and root in two) and start a second pot if you so desire.

HOW TO HARVEST: Cut entire stems from the plant, making sure to cut just above the first set of leaves. Use the smaller, more tender leaves for recipes, as the older, larger leaves may be tough. Try both and see which you prefer–you may just prefer that big flavor.

Lemon Verbena

Growing lemon verbena is not entirely practical for the apartment gardener; because it is a tender perennial, you have to closely monitor its condition. You need to nurture lemon verbena by taking it indoors to overwinter. But with that extra effort comes a handsome reward. Lemon verbena is a beautiful plant to grow, with slender, twig-like branches and long, rippled, glossy leaves that are delicate and stunning. There is truly nothing like lemon verbena–its flavor is both floral and lemony. Try lemon verbena in beverages and infused into sugar. It also makes an interesting addition (in small amounts) to a green salad, and is fabulous when mashed up into a gremolata to accompany lamb.

WHERE AND WHEN TO PLANT: Purchase a start for lemon verbena in late spring–no sooner than May. Verbena likes hot conditions, so it’s best to set the plant in full sun and be sure to keep it watered regularly.

POT SIZE: A large pot will allow for a large shrub with many branches and leaves. Choose a container at least two feet deep and about as wide so the lemon verbena can grow big and tall.

HOW TO HARVEST: Cut off entire branches from the plant; steer clear of the main stem and cut just above a set of leaves. It will regrow.


Lovage looks and tastes like celery with a more pronounced flavor. The leaves are a bit bigger and can be chopped into salads, soups, and seafood dishes. Lovage is a perennial that will come back year after year and can withstand some neglect. I stuck some lovage root in a pot over three years ago, and except for some watering and pruning back in fall, I haven’t done a thing to help it along. Lovage may flower and seed if you give it enough room to grow. I keep lovage in a medium-sized pot, and it has flowered only once. On bigger plants, you can collect the seed in late summer and used it to stock your pantry. Ground up, the seed can be used as a spice rub on meat or fish, or even used as an addition to cinnamon in fruit pies and crisps.

WHERE AND WHEN TO PLANT: Lovage can be planted from rootstock in fall–ask a friend to cut you a small portion. Place in a large pot of soil, water, and mulch with dry leaves for insulation over the winter. If you don’t have a cutting, in early spring purchase a start and plant it directly into your pot.

POT SIZE: With this herb, the bigger the pot, the bigger the plant. A mediumlarge- sized pot about a foot deep and about as wide will produce enough to use occasionally throughout the year. If you have the space for a larger pot, though, I highly recommend it. This plant will grow very tall and wide if you let it, and it’s an absolute marvel to see in a garden.

HOW TO HARVEST: Cut lovage at the base of the stems, working from the outside of the plant in. Big outer stems can often be quite strong in flavor, so make sure to harvest smaller tender stalks often. The plant will continue to produce through summer.


Marjoram is a strong-flavored herb, very similar to oregano, but with a softer note. It can be added raw to dishes, but will also withstand some heat from cooking. Try it in tomato sauces and gravies or as a small addition to salads. Marjoram is a perennial herb, though it can be tender, and you will often see it sold as an annual. It’s a great herb for drying.

WHERE AND WHEN TO PLANT: Sow marjoram directly into pots in April, or purchase a start and plant out. Better yet, start seeds inside in March. They grow quickly and will take off once it’s warm enough to set them outside in late spring.

POT SIZE: A medium-sized pot will suffice for marjoram. Pick a pot a bit deeper than six inches with a wide opening.

HOW TO HARVEST: You can harvest whole stems of marjoram by cutting at the base of the stem. Once the plant flowers, cut back about half way and it will put on new growth quickly.


Mint is a fabulous herb to perk up grain salads, crush into a pesto for roasted meats, or add to a fizzy summertime beverage. Mint is a considered a “runner”–a plant that sends out horizontal root runners that produce new stalks. Choose a long, shallow pot to allow it room to spread. Most garden centers carry transplants of mint, or you can ask a neighbor for a clipping. Mint is prolific and will establish itself quickly. It is also a great herb to dry and save for tisanes.

WHERE AND WHEN TO PLANT: Mint can be planted out nearly all year long. Plant mint in the spring through early summer or fall in most areas. Plant in full to partial sun and keep the soil moist. Mint does not like wet feet, so be mindful that the soil drains well and do not let water stand in the drainage saucer after watering.

POT SIZE: For a continuous supply of mint, choose a medium-sized pot, at least ten inches deep and nine inches wide.

HOW TO HARVEST: Cut entire stems from the mint plant, at their base, as close to the soil as possible.


Thyme is one of the most versatile herbs to cook with. It is easy to grow and will come back year after year. Thyme is indispensable in stocks or for roasting meats, but it can also be used in sweet desserts and pairs well with fruit such as plums and blueberries. Be sure to select a culinary thyme (English thyme is a favorite), as there are many members in the thyme family and not all of them taste great. If you purchase a start, taste a leave first to see if you like the flavor. Scented thymes are interesting additions to the garden. Lemon thyme has a distinctive citrus aroma and can be used in most recipes that call for English thyme.

WHERE AND WHEN TO PLANT: Thyme is a hardy herb, adaptable to various weather conditions. You can plant in spring, summer, or fall with good results. Thyme does well in dappled shade and does not need full sun to be vigorous.

POT SIZE: Thyme has a shallow root system but will spread if you give it space to branch out. Grow thyme in a wide, shallow pot or even a wooden flat or box.

HOW TO HARVEST: Choose whole branches of thyme and cut them at the base, just above a set of leaves. You should also cut back your thyme in early summer after it blooms (generally in June), as it will fill in and provide tender bushy growth all summer and through fall. 

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