Container herb gardening, indoor or outdoor, can be a rewarding hobby. With just a few supplies, and some attention, your container herb garden can thrive and you can begin enjoying the smells and tastes it has to offer. I can give you some pointers along the way and help your find the best supplies for you herb garden.
You may wonder if container herb gardening is right for you. Well, it does not require gardening experience and you can continue to reap the same rewards, no matter the time of year and it doesn’t take a lot of space. It is so nice to be able to continue the herb gardening you enjoy during the summer into the drab winter months.
Live Herb Plants or Herb Seeds
There are a couple different ways you can start your herb garden. You can begin with live plants or with seeds. Of course starting from seeds will take longer as it takes most herb garden seeds anywhere from two to four weeks to sprout. The amount of time it takes will depend on the herb.
If starting from seed, I would recommend starting the seeds in a small container or using a seed starting system. The plants can be transplanted into larger pots, that can be added to your herb garden, once the have began to grow. There are also planting systems that can be used to start the seeds and maintain the mature herb plants. I explain more about those in the container section.
Soil, Containers and Lighting
For your herb garden you will need some good gardening quality potting soil, containers and a sunny spot where the plants, or the seeds while they germinate, can be placed. There are grow lights that can be used if you don’t have enough natural sun. The amount of sun required will depend on the variety of herbs you choose to grow in your herb garden.
When selecting containers your first choice should be if you want to use traditional containers/pots that can be used both indoor and outdoors, or if you will be only growing you herb garden outdoors you can choose some that are specificallly designed for outdoor use. The dirt free/hydrophonic systems are great starting/sprouting your seeds and the plants can later be transferred into the more traditional containers.
Selecting your containers is a simple process and can be fun. The only requirements are that you choose a container large enough to support the root system of the herb you will be planting in it and that the container has good drainage. Make sure that you do not use containers that may contain chemicals that may be absorbed into the herb’s system. This could be detrimental to the herb and the consumer.I personally prefer to use clay pots as my containers. They can be your basic red clay pots or decorative clay containers. Choose containers that you like and will be proud of when you show off your herb garden to your friends.
Ceramic containers are another good choice. There are also several different types of plastic/resin containers that are made to look like the clay containers. They can also be appealing to the eye and are lighter weight than the clay containers.
Make sure you do not use metal containers. These can tend to absorb too much heat and will dry the soil out too quickly. The excess heat can also be detrimental to some herbs.
Another nice feature to have with your container is a base. The base will catch any excess water that may drain from the container when the herb is watered. This is also good to prevent messes and will allow the herbs root system to pull from the reservoir when it needs to.
Have fun and be creative when choosing your containers.
Selecting the Right Soil and Fertilizer
Most herbs will require soil that has good drainage. What this means is the soil should not hold too much water (clay soil) or loose the moisture too quickly (sandy) soil. The soil should not be hard or compact because the herbs roots will need to be able to extend to gather nutrients from the soil and the soil should not dry out too quickly.
There are several gardening quality-potting soils that will give you the right combination for growing your herbs. You may want to try Perfect StartTM Natural Potting Soil. If you prefer to mix you own soil it is recommended that you use a combination compost ( Gardener’s Gold TM Premium Compost ) or humus, clay soil and sand. You can also revitalize your soil with a soil activator. Bring lifeless soil back to life with Alive!TM Soil Activator.
Your herb plants will not need much fertilizer. Some of the premixed soils will have some fertilizer already mixed in. Make sure you check the label to see if your soil has fertilizer in it. While a little is good, a lot is not better. If you mix your own soil or if your premix does not contain fertilizer, it is a good idea to mix in some granular fertilizer such as Herbs Alive!™ Fertilizer with the soil.
Having the right soil can make a big difference in having a healthy container herb garden.
The amount of light required for herbs varies by herb variety. As a general rule herbs require a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight a day. Don’t worry if you think lack of lighting will be a problem for your indoor herb garden. Grow lights can be used to substitute for that natural sunlight.
There are different types of grow lights (LED, Florescent, Sodium) and they will vary in price. Find the lighting system that meets your needs, will fit into your space and is in your budget. Read the details on each light or lighting system before you purchase. You don’t want to be setting up your lights when you realize they are not what you really needed.
Choosing a plant stand that has the lights built in is a good alternative to temporarily or permanently mounting grow lights. There are different sizes and the lights will go wherever you choose to place the stand. This makes it much easier when you decide to relocate your garden.
So don’t worry if you don’t have that perfect south facing spot for your indoor herbs. Grow lights can help you give your herbs the light they need in any environment.
Choosing the Herbs
That brings me to the next point; for your herb garden, choose the herbs that fit your needs the best. What herbs do you currently use in your kitchen that comes from a jar or a can? What tastes do you experience in your favorite restaurant that you would like to be able to duplicate yourself? To begin your herb garden pick a few that sound the most appealing to you. You can always add more varieties later on.
Nothing can beat the aroma or taste of fresh cut herbs. With just a few herb plants you can grow and harvest enough for yourself and have enough to share with friends and family. So get started now, no matter the time of year. What you start as an indoor activity can easily be moved the outdoors, or outdoors to indoors, when that activity is container herb gardening.
Choosing your Herbs
For your container herb garden you will want to choose the herbs that fit your needs the best. What herbs do you currently use in your kitchen that comes from a jar or a can? What tastes do you experience in your favorite restaurant that you would like to be able to duplicate yourself? To begin your herb garden pick a few that sound the most appealing to you or if you can’t decide you can choose a variety pack. You can always add more varieties later on.
For even more information on growing, harvesting, preserving, and using 26 of the most popular kitchen herbs I would recommend reading The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs:
Basil (Sweet Basil)
Sweet Basil is the most popular type of the most popular herb, Basil. It is a common ingredient in several Italian dishes and is the main ingredient in pesto. Basil plants can grow to be between 12 and 51 inches tall, with light green, leaves 1 to 4 inches long and ½ to 2 ½ inches across.
Sweet Basil Growing Tips
Sweet basil should get 3 to 4 hours of sunlight in warmer temperatures and 6 to 8 hours at cooler temperatures.
Basil can be sensitive to cold and does best between 75 and 90 degrees. Keep the basil plants away from cold drafts
Water your sweet basil as needed but do not over water, about once a week is a good rule of thumb. You may also use mulch to help retain moisture.
Check the sweet basil for signs of stress. If the leaves look wilted it is probably from a lack of water. The plant will recover once you water it thoroughly and place it in a well lite (sunny) location. If the plant has yellow leaves at the bottom it has probably received to much water or it may need either less or more fertilizer.
Remove any buds when they appear. To encourage new growth, pinch back to where the stems meet. This will allow the sweet basil to bush out. To stimulate leaf production, you should not allow the flowers to bloom.
You may harvest the leaves as needed. Pick the sweet basil’s leaves from the top where the stems meet.
Cilantro or Organic Cilantro can be used in many types of dishes and the leaves should always be used fresh. It can be used like parsley to top cooked dishes, used in salsas, salads and many meat dishes. The plant will grow up to 12 to 24 inches tall.
Cilantro Growing Tips
Cilantro has a long taproot so you will need to choose a pot that is at least 12 inches tall.
Cilantro does not needs little water. Monitor the plant and water as needed. Marke sue the container has good drainage.
Cilantro does best in full sun.
To harvest, pick or trim fresh leaves or whole stalks as required. You will want to harvest frequently because the flavor is not as good in the older leaves.
Mint plants come in multiple varieties such as fruity applemint, icy spearmint and cool peppermint. Mint can have a warm sweet flavor with a cool aftertaste. Mint is frequently used in tea, other beverages, sauces and jellies. It is also a great to use to freshen breathe.
Mint Growing Tips
Mint plants do best in cool areas with most soil but are very hardy and can be grown in any number of conditions. It is very fast growing and will spread over a large area so plant your mint in a separate container to keep it from overtaking your other herbs. The leaves can be harvested at any time and are best if used immediately. You can refrigerate fresh mint leaves for a day or two.
Oregano or Organic Vulgare Oregano is very aromatic and has a slight bitter taste. Oregano is a great herb to have around if you like to cook Italian dishes. Oregano is used for seasoning sauces, meats and vegetables. The plant can grow up to 24 inches tall. The size will depend on how often you harvest.
Oregano Growing Tips
Oregano plants need well-drained soil and full sun. This is very important. You want the soil moist but you do not want the roots standing in water.
Pinch the flower off to make the plant bushier and to keep it from going to seed.
When the center of the plant begins to die, or the stems become woody, it should be divided.
The oregano plant can also be divided if it begins to get bigger than you would like.
You can harvest leaves from oregano plant once it reaches 4 to 5 inches and as long as you don’t take more than a third of the plant. You will get the best flavor if you harvest before the plant blooms.
Parsley or Organic Giant Italian Parsley leaves can be used in many dishes and its uses are similar to cilantro but has a milder taste. Freshly chopped parsley is often used as a garnish that adds flavor. It can be used with many foods such as potatoes, rice, soups or salads. A mixture of chopped garlic and chopped parsley is used in French cuisine and a mixture of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest is used as a side for some Italian dishes. It is generally used in a paste, dressing or marinade (such as chimichurri).
Parsley Growing Tips
Parsley is hardy and easy to grow. It grows best in moist, well drained soil, with full sun but will tolerate poor soil and poor drainage. It prefers a warm, not hot, environment 70-85 degrees. It is typically grown from seed but it may take four to six weeks to germinate. To harvest, pick or trim fresh leaves or whole stalks as required.
Rosemary grows best from clippings but it can be started from seed. Rosemary has a very strong flavor that is not lightened with cooking, so it should be used sparingly in the beginning. It has a slightly bitter taste and is highly aromatic. Rosemary can be used to complement a wide variety of foods such as meats, soups, breads, dips and much more. It is great for adding flavor when grilling. You will need to trim you rosemary so its size will depend on you.
Rosemary Growing Tips
Rosemary plants do best in sandy, well-drained soil. One important think to remember is do not over-water it. Make sure the soil in your containers drains well. You should always allow the soil to dry before watering
Rosemary plants require the lots of bright light. The best place is in a south-facing window or under grow lights.
Lots of air circulation is good for your rosemary plant, a small fan can be used to assist circulation.
Rosemary can grow very large so you should keep your plant trimmed to keep it manageable.
You may harvest the Rosemary by cutting the amount of stems needed.
If you will be moving you rosemary plant outdoors in the spring (recommended), the plant should be repotted in new soil. You should also fertilize the plant, lightly, after repotting.
Thyme is very aromatic and is often a cook’s choice for flavoring stews, soups or meats. It is also popular in tomato sauces and on vegetables. Thyme is often used with other herbs, as its flavor blends very well and is not overpowering. The thyme plant can grow to be 8 to 12 inches tall.
Thyme Growing Tips
Thyme is a very low maintenance plant and will be more aromatic and flavorful if grown in dryer conditions.
Thyme plants do best in full sun to part shade and well-drained sandy soil.
Water as needed but remember it prefers dryer conditions.
The plant should be trimmed after blooming. It is recommended to remove fifty percent of the plant.
As your plant matures, the inner stems of the thyme plant may become woody. It may be years but you should cut away any dead or woody part of the plant. You can use the rooted outside part to replant.
You may harvest the thyme by cutting the amount of stems needed.
Cooking with Fresh Herbs
Fresh Herb Cooking It is my opinion that nothing can match the taste or aroma of cooking with fresh herbs.
My husband loves to cook but we were often disappointed with our creations because we could never match that restaurant taste with ground or powdered herbs that most of us use in our kitchens.
There are multiple cookbooks dedicated to cooking with fresh Herbs. Here are a few examples. Click the picture for details.
The Spice And Herb Bible, Second Edition Good Herb
Cooking with fresh herbs can change the flavor of your dishes. Do some experimenting. I think the phrase, season to taste, is great advice. Typically when you cook with fresh herbs in place of ground/dry herbs you should us 1 Tablespoon of fresh when you would use ¼ teaspoon of ground/dry herbs.
1 Tablespoon fresh = ¼ teaspoon ground/dry herbs.
A lot of the recipes I use call for cooking them with fresh herbs so doing the conversion is not always necessary. Make sure you know if the recipe is giving you the measurement for dried or fresh herbs.
The fresher the herb the better, more flavorful, whatever you are cooking will be. Most herbs can start to loose some flavor if stored for a few days. Freshly harvest your herbs when you are ready to start cooking.
Most recipes will indicate when the herbs should be added. If you are not using a recipe then a good rule to follow when cooking with fresh herbs is to add the more tender herbs, like basil and parsley, later in the cooking process. The less delicate/woodier herbs, like thyme and rosemary, should be added earlier in the cooking process.
Here are a few suggestions of food and herb combinations you can use in you cooking:
Basil – most vegetable especially tomatoes
Cilantro- Salsa, salads, use to garnish cooked dishes, many Caribbean or Mexican dishes
Oregano – Beef or chicken dishes, tomato based sauces, Italian dishes
Rosemary – Chicken, fish or pork dishes, stews
Thyme – Most meat dishes (great when grilling), soups and stews, vegetables
Infusing Oils with Herbs
Herb infused oils are great to use in cooking or as decoration for your kitchen but your approach should be different depending on how you intend to use them.
For use in Cooking
The intent of infusing oil with herbs is to transfer the flavor of the herb to the oil, so the longer the oil sets the more of the herbs flavor it will gain. If you will be using your herb infused oil for cooking then the container needs to be more functional than attractive. You should consider drying your herbs to allow for a longer shelf life, mixing any food item with the oil that contains water, such as fresh herbs, can cause bacteria to grow and can cause botulism. For added safety the herb-infused oil should be refrigerated and then can be brought to room temperature before use. The dried herb infusion can safely be stored for two months or more in the refrigerator (one month is recommended if using olive oil). Your other option is to mix the oil and fresh herbs the same day you intend to use them.
Infused oils are perfect to use in the place of other seasonings, add them to just about any vegetable or use them to season meat before or after cooking. The infused oil is a perfect base for marinades and salad dressings and they are always a favorite to serve as Italian butter (dipping sauce) for crusty breads.
Global Amici 16-oz. Bella Dispenser
Global Amici 16-oz. Bella Dispenser
Follow these simple steps to create your infused oil:
Select a container
Choose the herb or herbs you will use (1-2 herbs is best to start with)
Select the oil you will use (I prefer olive oil but you can use canola or safflower)
Add the desired amount of dried herbs to your container
If using fresh herbs, break and tear (bruise) the leaves to release the flavor
Add warmed oil to the container
Put the lid on the container and let stand
The longer you allow it to set the stronger the flavor will become
I recommend no longer than a couple weeks
Taste it periodically and when it reaches the desired flavor level refrigerate
You can add more seasoning if desired
If you prefer a quicker method (oil ready to use sooner) you can heat a small amount of oil and simmer the herbs in the oil for a few minutes (4-5 min). Be very careful not to burn the oil, the heat should be kept to low or medium and you should stir continuously. You will need to allow the mixture to cool and it can then be poured into the container. Add more oil to fill the container, put on the lid and refrigerate.
For use as Decoration
The intent of creating infused oils for decoration is for eye appeal, so get creative. Select a more decorative bottle and use cheaper oil than you would for the ones you would consume. Select a combination of herbs that you find attractive and consider using other items such as dried fruit or even non-edible items that will give it a unique look. Items that will suspend in the oil are great so that all of the content does not settle to the bottom. Just make sure everyone who uses your kitchen realizes that it is for looks only. These also make great gifts but once again make sure the recipient know it is just for decoration not for consumption.
Global Amici 17-oz. Flask
Follow these simple steps to create your decorative oil:
Select a container (like the one at the right)
Choose the herbs and other items
Select the clear oil you will use
Place your selected herbs and etc. in your container
Long stemmed herbs are great because you can stand them up in the bottle
Add the oil
Place the lid on the container and set them out for everyone to enjoy
The 17-oz. glass flask from Global Amici, pictured above, are perfect to display infused oils in your kitchen. With a rubber sealed stopper, you can avoid leaks and spills. They stand 8.5-in. tall and is made of recycled green glass. A smaller Global Amici 7-oz. Flask is also available.
Herbs can be dried a couple of different ways and it will depend on the herb and the amount of time you have which method that you will want to use. Herbs with higher moisture content and tender leaves (basil, chives, oregano, mint and tarragon) should be dried in a dehydrator, to avoid molding, whereas herbs with lower moisture content and less tender leaves (dill, rosemary, sage and thyme) can be dried “naturally” but they also can be dried in a dehydrator. If you will be using your herbs for infused oil I recommend using a dehydrator because mixing any food item that contains water with the oil can cause bacteria to grow and can cause botulism. The dehydrator will remove more of the moisture content than other drying methods. For more information check out The Dehydrator Bible:the comprehensive handbook for dehydrating foods at home.
Drying Herbs Naturally
Clean, dry herbs can be bundled together by their stem using a string or rubber band. You will need to remove any dead leaves and clear any leaves from the stem to allow you to bundle them.
Hang the bunches, stem end up, in a clean, dark, ventilated area.
They should dry in two to three weeks (should brittle and crumble to the touch)
Strip the leaves from the stems for storage
Drying Herbs in a Dehydrator
Dehydrator come in different shapes, sizes and price ranges. If you do not already have a dehydrator here are a couple that getting good reviews.
American Harvest Snackmaster Express Encore DehydratorL’Equip 17×11-in. Food Dehydrator, Grey
Your dehydrator should have instructions and it is best to follow them but below are a few suggestions.
Pre-heat the dehydrator; you will want to use a low setting to dry the herbs slowly
Drying times will vary (1 to several hours) so you will want to check the herbs periodically (should be brittle and crumble to the touch when done)
Strip the leaves from the stems for storage
Storing Dried Herbs
You will want to store your dried herbs in a cool, dark and dry area. They should be stored in airtight containers that will not allow light in. The airtight containers can be stored in the freezer if you do not have another suitable storage area.