Best herbs for container growing
Many useful culinary herbs grow well in containers. Basil, chives, cilantro, dill, common and Florence fennel, garlic, lemon balm, mint, oregano and marjoram, parsley, rosemary, sage, French tarragon, and thyme are excellent choices for container growing.
Grow these culinary herbs in pots near the kitchen door or on a windowsill so they are readily at hand when preparing meals.
Culinary herbs, like nearly all herbs, require well-drained soil to thrive. Plant herbs in new or wellcleaned containers, use new, good-quality potting mix, and do not overcrowd pots with too many plants.
Start herbs from seed in the spring or indoors to ensure quick germination. If you are planting out seedlings or starts from a nursery, be sure to tease out the roots to help them establish more readily, then pack the potting mix down gently as you go, but avoid compacting the soil. Allow room between the soil level and the container rim for watering. Keep the soil moist but not wet for optimal growth.
Most culinary herbs are perennials so if you protect them from winter chill you will have them next year and the year after.
Easy-to-grow herbs for containers:
• Basil: A good choice for indoor or outdoor growing. This tender annual or short-lived perennial needs direct sunlight, so put it in a kitchen window if you grow it indoors. Outdoors, basil can take direct sun. Use the aromatic leaves before the plant comes into flower for optimal flavor. Basil, of course, has a special affinity with tomatoes. Use freshly torn leaves on a salad of sliced tomatoes, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper and drizzled with extravirgin olive oil. You can make several cuttings of the top three to four inches in a season.
• Chives and garlic chives: Both are perennial plants, and both can tolerate shade but will do best in full sun. Be sure to water chives regularly during dry weather. It’s OK to sow chive seeds thickly; that way the plants will support each other. Add delicately onionflavored chives to salads and egg dishes; garlic chives are just a tad stronger flavored. Add a half-handful of chives to finish a salad, soup, or sauce. Long cooking will diminish the flavor of chives, so add them to cooked dishes at the last minute. Chive flowers – light purple and even more delicately flavored – can be sprinkled on salads for a dash of color and flavor.
• Cilantro: This hardy annual grows best in partial shade. Keep cilantro close to the kitchen; fresh cilantro leaves do not keep well; cut them as you need them for cooking or garnishes. The cilantro leaf has a faint overtone of anise. Use the leaves in soups, stews, curries, stir-fries, vegetables, salads, fish, poultry, yogurt, fresh chutneys, relishes, and tomato sauces. The dried seeds of cilantro are called coriander and are included in curries and pickles. If you are growing cilantro for its seeds, set the plant in full sun. You can also use the roots of cilantro: chop the roots finely and add them to curries and stews for intense flavor.
• Dill: This hardy annual performs best in full sun. Grow dill for its feathery, aniseed-flavored leaves and the seeds that follow flowering. Use leaves with mild cheeses – such as cream cheese or cottage cheese – and in omelets, seafood, cold soups, potato salad, and with salmon and veal. Use seeds in breads, meat stews, rice, and cooked vegetables. Dill seeds are also used to soothe an upset stomach. Dried dill leaves are called dillweed, but the dried leaves do not retain much flavor so you’ll have to use them generously in cooking. Sow seeds in clumps so plants can lean against one another for support.
• Fennel and Florence fennel: Common fennel is a hardy perennial that grows to six feet tall – so you’ll need to give it some room. Fennel requires full sun for best growth. The feathery dark green leaves have an aniseed flavor. Use fresh leaves in a bouquet garni to flavor fish dishes or chop the fresh leaves and sprinkle them over soups or salads as a garnish. Fennel’s small, aromatic, flat oval seeds are roasted for use in Indian dishes. Florence fennel is smaller than common fennel. Florence fennel is an annual plant grown for its bulbous stalk base and also for its young stems which are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Fennel has a tall flower head that will need support and protection from wind.
• Lemon balm: This herb is easy to grow and propagates quickly from cuttings. Give lemon balm full sun for best growth. Lemon balm’s light green, heart-shaped, serrated leaves have an aroma of lemon with a hint of mint. Keep lemon balm cut back – don’t let it go to seed – and use chopped fresh leaves to add zest to sweet or savory dishes. Any dish that uses lemon juice will be improved with the addition of a few lemon balm leaves. You may want to set this plant away from the kitchen door; the sweet scent of lemon balm can attract bees. Unlike most herbs, lemon balm can tolerate moist soil.
• Marjoram and oregano: Marjoram and oregano are very closely related. They are similar in appearance with small, soft green leaves and small white or pink flowers. But marjoram has a more delicate flavor; oregano a more potent, robust flavor. (Oregano is actually a wild variety of marjoram.) Generally, use dried oregano for its powerful flavor – pizza is a perfect match for oregano; use marjoram added fresh at the end of cooking or added to salads and butter sauces for fish. Both are perennials, though marjoram is often treated as an annual. Both thrive in full sun. Treat marjoram and oregano as annuals.
Steve Albert is the author of The Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide available at Amazon.com. He teaches in the landscape design program at the U.C. Berkeley Extension. He lives in Oakmont.