Their rich and instantly-recognisable flavours bring colour to any meal, and having fresh herbs on standby is a quick and easy way to tap into this culinary game-changer.
Indoor herb gardens are a favourite on lifestyle blogs and Pinterest pages. You can grow them in pots, sure, but are they really as easy to grow and to look after as people think?
In this guide, we’ll introduce the best herbs to grow in pots, along with answers to all your questions about growing your own herbs. We’re writing with the assumption that most readers will be planning a small herb garden, and one that most likely includes a couple of supermarket-bought herbs.
The information in our guide is tailored accordingly. It’s about giving pre-bought herbs their best chance at a long, healthy life, and perhaps adding a couple of new ones to the mix.
Why grow herbs?
The main draw of herbs is their flavour, as we’ve said.
On top of that, they don’t take up much space. If you don’t have a garden you can grow them on your balcony, and if you don’t have any outdoor space at all you can whack them on your windowsill!
Herbs bring a nice splash of colour and fragrance to whichever room you grow them in, too. Whether you’re a fan of houseplants or not, there’s no denying the visual flair that herbs will contribute to your space.
If you’re a keen herbivore, growing your own is a much more cost-effective option than buying herbs, whatever the format. Here’s why –
- Pots of dried herbs sacrifice most of the flavour, and are extortionately expensive when you work out the cost per gram. They’re OK in a pinch (pardon the pun) but that’s about it.
- Pre-cut herbs go off quickly, meaning that unless you use these all in one meal – or over the space of a few days – the bag will probably end up in the bin.
- Potted live herbs are the best herb option available at the supermarket. Untended, these will stay alive for a couple of weeks. Treated right, however, there’s the chance that they’ll continue to grow.
Herbs you grow at home are ready to eat and, if looked after properly, can live for a long time. They’re a chance to nurture your green thumb, too: Herbs are relatively forgiving compared to some other plants, and they’re easier to remember to water because you’ll be using them fairly often.
What herbs grow well in pots?
Head to the fruit and veg aisle in your local supermarket and you’ll probably find rosemary, parsley, coriander, thyme, basil, and mint. But these are far from your only options. The home herb gardener can also add bay, chives, fennel, oregano, dill, lemon balm, marjoram, sage, or tarragon to their arsenal.
It all comes down to how you’re planning to use them and how ambitious you’re feeling. Obviously looking after more herbs will be harder than having one or two, and there’s not much point growing something that you’re never going to use.
As we said earlier, this guide is tailored toward people planning a small-scale herb garden, most likely including a couple of pre-grown supermarket herbs.
What herbs should not be planted together?
Before setting out on your homegrown herb adventure, be aware that some herbs don’t thrive when planted together.
We’ll quote the Guardian here, as they give a perfect explanation of what to avoid –
“You can grow herbs in pots together as long as you remember two rules: avoid mixing those that like plenty of water (such as chives, mint, chervil, coriander, Vietnamese coriander) with those that like a well-drained soil (such as rosemary, thyme, sage, bay, and oregano).”The Guardian
How do you keep potted herbs alive?
Keeping potted herbs alive is a case of taking good care of them and, if you’re growing them yourself from scratch, of giving them the optimal conditions.
Potted herbs from supermarkets are actually many seedlings growing together in a pot, rather than one plant sharing a root system. This means they’re all competing for nutrients in the soil, which is why their lifespan is finite if you don’t intervene.
If you decide to keep your supermarket herbs alive, you’ll need to break up the seedlings. Pull the ‘plant’ out of the pot, and separate the seedlings out. Identify the strongest ones, then replant these into pots with the right kind of soil to help them flourish.
Herbs like moist, gritty compost. Be careful not to let it get soggy, though, as this can cause damage to the plants. There are specific compost recommendations on the RHS website, but most herbs will do just fine in your average garden soil. This is especially true if you’re growing them casually in a window box.
Individual herbs vary in how long they can thrive in the same soil. Some, like mint, require frequent repotting to stay in their best condition. Others, like sage and rosemary, can remain in the same pot for a very long time.
We recommend reading the specific care instructions for the herbs you’re planning to grow. This increases the likelihood of long-term good health of your plants.
How long do potted herbs last?
If you take good care of them, some herb varieties can continue to grow indefinitely. Again, we recommend researching each herb on a case-by-case basis, as the intricacies of each plant go beyond the scope of this introductory guide!
As a quick pointer, though –
- Parsley and coriander are biennial and will go to seed every two years
- Basil, dill, and sage are annuals – you’ll need to replace them each year
- Thyme, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, marjoram, and mint are perennials – they’ll keep on going if you treat them right
Do herbs need full sun?
Most herbs thrive in full sun, with at least six hours a day being favourite. Growing on a windowsill practically guarantees this in summer, but in winter, or if your house is unusually dark, choose a herb that can survive with less direct sunlight. Potential candidates include –
How much water do herbs need?
After replanting supermarket herbs, give them a healthy glug of water. Separating them out and repotting them can be fairly traumatic, and a good amount of moisture helps to get them back on track.
The amount of water herbs need varies depending on their type and size, so the best rule of thumb is to touch the soil and see. If it feels dry, add some water. If not, leave them be for a while.
Is it better to grow herbs in pots or in the ground?
As we touched on earlier, herbs suit people without a garden or any outdoor space at all. If you’ve got the luxury of choosing whether to grow in pots or int the ground, here are some pointers to help you decide.
Growing herbs in the ground
Obviously, all herbs started their lives outside initially as wild plants. However, because growing herbs for cooking relies on keeping them under control, not all herbs are suitable for growing outdoors in this context.
The RHS give this list of herbs that are sturdy enough to survive outdoors year-round once established –
Other herbs can survive in warmer weather, but may need to be moved indoors when winter rolls around.
Growing herbs in pots
People are prone to underestimate the work involved in maintaining a herb garden, so this section is designed to manage your expectations a bit. Some herbs will give you a good harvest. Others will produce for a while, then start to suffer. Others, you’ll be hard-pressed to get to thrive in an indoor pot.
Firstly, the light inside your home during winter, even when next to a window, probably won’t reach the levels herbs need to thrive. They’ll likely only get an hour or two of direct sun per day, rather than the six or more they need.
Humidity in your home is likely way below what they need to fully flourish, too.
Each herb has different needs, and some suit being grown indoors more than others. Parsley and bay, for example, are renowned as easy to grow indoors. Others, like chives, require cold treatment before thriving inside.
Herb your enthusiasm
Hopefully, this guide has given a good amount of information for you to direct your enthusiasm for herbs in a productive direction. We’ve answered top-level questions people have about growing herbs, and introduced some core concepts.
Growing herbs is a combination of choosing the right herbs for your cooking style, and those that can thrive in the conditions your home offers. Done right, it’s a fun, tasty, and rewarding endeavour. But just expect a bit of trial and error on your journey!