Gold Dust rosemary (with gold and green variegated leaves) is the centerpiece of this planter, surrounded by (clockwise from top) curly parsley, sage, golden oregano and thyme.
WE ENJOY COOKING WITH FRESH INGREDIENTS at my house, so I plant a steady supply of herbs near our kitchen. Growing herbs in containers on a patio or porch is a great way to keep culinary flavorings at your fingertips.
Herbs are perfect for the busy gardener: edible, drought tolerant and low maintenance. Most prefer well-draining soil and full sun—easy to achieve in portable containers. Just about any container with drainage holes will work. Use your imagination; with a little repurposing, old boots, chair bottoms and wooden pallets can be spectacular herb gardens.
Window boxes are great for smaller herbs like thyme, parsley, cilantro and chives, and hanging baskets make a good display for trailing herbs—prostrate rosemary, for example. Shrubby perennial herbs, such as rosemary or bay laurel, will appreciate more space and look handsome in large terra cotta pots.
Garden writer Steve Silk came up with the simple “thriller, filler, spiller” concept for designing container gardens with mixed plantings. First, choose a vertical, spiky plant to serve as the “thriller”—the centerpiece that draws your eye. Chives, lemongrass and rosemary are good thrillers. Next select “fillers”—mounding, spreading plants that fill the bulk of the container. Basil, oregano, parsley and sage fit this role. Finally, choose a “spiller” or two, such as thyme and prostrate rosemary. Spillers flow over the edge of the container and grow downward. This three-tiered planting scheme makes for lush, attractive herb containers.
Buy perennial herbs as transplants from your favorite garden center. Look for healthy transplants that have filled their containers but aren’t root-bound. Annual herbs such as basil, cilantro and dill are easy to grow from seed in your container. One herb, mint, needs confinement. A brute in the garden, where its underground stems spread prolifically and take over, mint behaves better in a container, where its growth is restricted.
Don’t skimp on potting soil—use a high-quality container mix of peat, pine bark and perlite, with little or no sand or clay. Low-quality soils tend to be too dense and may hold too much or not enough moisture for herbs.
As your herbs grow, water as needed by saturating the soil and then allowing it to dry a bit before watering again. Avoid using saucers under your containers; too often these sit full of water, which will drown your herbs. Most herbs will survive if you miss a watering, but a few, such as basil and lemongrass, prefer more moisture. Herbs are not heavy feeders, so go light on fertilizer. In fact, over-fertilized herbs will have less flavor. The starter fertilizer in fresh potting mixes lasts up to 10 weeks. After that, apply liquid fertilizer every three to four weeks.
Many container-grown herbs can be brought inside during winter to provide fresh ingredients all year. Basil, sage, parsley, cilantro, chives, oregano and thyme will continue to produce indoors with sufficient light from a south-facing window or grow lights. Since bay laurel and lemongrass aren’t reliably cold hardy throughout South Carolina, they are more easily overwintered indoors in containers.
Cory’s must-have herbs
Basil: pairs great with tomato dishes, such as caprese salad
Bay laurel (bay leaf): savory flavoring for soups and stews
Chives: mild onion flavor, great with potatoes
Cilantro (coriander): for salsa and tacos
Dill: for pickles, salads and fish dishes
Lemongrass: makes great tea; used in Asian cooking
Mint: add to beverages and fruit salads
Oregano: seasons spaghetti and pizza sauces
Parsley: classic garnish, loaded with vitamins
Rosemary: strong flavor goes great with pork and chicken
Sage: for stews, sausages and poultry stuffing
Thyme: versatile; try it in grilling rubs and pasta dishes
Clemson Extension has a new publication, Starting a Community Garden, co-authored by Cory Tanner. The 28-page, full-color guide includes steps to organizing a community garden, planning information and planting guidelines.
S. CORY TANNER is an area horticulture agent and Master Gardener coordinator for Clemson Extension based in Greenville County. Contact him at email@example.com.