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Growing Herbs in Pots

If you don’t have the time or the space to plant a herb garden, growing them in pots is the perfect solution.   Herbs grown in pots, tubs and also grow-bags do extremely well on patios, balconies and windowsills and some can even be brought inside for short periods of time.

Although they might all be called ‘herbs’, in fact, they are all very different and have very different needs.  Some require more water than others, some need more shade and others grow much bigger than the rest.  Even though we often see on TV or in magazines where a variety of herbs are mass planted into the same pot, when we try to do this at home, the results can be disappointing.  The reason?  We didn’t take into account the needs of each plant.

In general, herbs can be divided into two main groups – soft leaf herbs and hard leaf herbs.  These groups have very different growing needs so combining them in the same container and giving them the same amount of water, food and sunshine just won’t work.

Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, savory, lemongrass, oregano, marjoram and curry plant all have hard leaves and are also perennials.  Their leaves are packed with oils which is what produces the intense flavour that we love in our cooking.   Plants such as these need the heat of the sun to intensify these oils and also have far more flavour if they are given less water and not too much fertiliser.  In fact, if these plants are spoilt too much with lots of food, water and shade, their leaves will lose their pungency and the plant will become soft and probably not live for as long as they should.

Soft leaf herbs such as basil, coriander, parsley and chives are all annuals.  Their leaves contain quite a lot of water and their stems are soft so it makes sense that this group needs to be watered more frequently and should not be allowed to dry out.  Since this group is also fast growing, they benefit from a little bit more food in the form of controlled release fertiliser in the potting mix or perhaps a fortnightly application of liquid fertiliser.  In fact, with this group, the more they are harvested, the more they should be fed.  This group do well with around six hours of direct sunlight but will still be fine with a little less.

So, when deciding which herbs to plant together, combine the soft leaf herbs in one pot and the hard leaf herbs in the other.  Give the soft leaf herbs a little more TLC and treat the hard ones a little tougher and your herbs will be sure to thrive.

Choose large pots and containers for growing herbs as these will hold the amount of water and nutrients that the plants need.  Although herbs might start off small, most actually develop quite large root balls and if they aren’t given the room to grow, they become stunted and disappointing.  The small pots that sit on a windowsill are fine for just a few weeks but herbs just won’t thrive simply because they don’t have enough space for their root ball.  For three soft leaf herbs or two hard leaf herbs, a container that is at least 30cm deep and 40cm wide would be perfect.

Plants in pots only get what you give them so a premium potting mix is essential.  These contain everything that herbs want for their quick growth and all that needs to be added for at least a few months is water.

Before filling the container with potting mix, cover the drainage holes in the base with small squares of fly screen to stop it from falling out.  Start with the taller herbs at the back, turning each one out into your hand without squashing the leaves.  But, unless the plant is totally pot bound, don’t separate out the root ball before planting as some herbs resent this.  Simply place the root ball straight into the hole in the soil and gently push it into place.  Trailing herbs such as thyme, marjoram, oregano and even parsley are perfect for the front of the container.

Finally, water the herbs well so that the potting mix is soaked all the way through and place them in a position that suits their needs.  For the first two weeks, hand water them daily until they settle in and then after that the amount can be adjusted to suit the type of herbs in each pot.

A fortnightly application of seaweed extract will help them grow strong and healthy and a sprinkling of controlled release fertiliser in two or three month’s time will ensure that the plants are getting all the nutrients that they need.  Herbs will tell you if they are hungry, that’s why their leaves turn pale or yellow.

Herbs grown in pots will generally grow very fast, especially if they are getting everything that they need, so they need to be harvested often.  In fact, you will be doing them a favour if you do since they love to produce new growth.

Start harvesting when the herbs are fairly small.  Soft leaf herbs that grow on stalks such as parsley and coriander are easily harvested by picking off the outer leaves at the base of the plant. New leaves will develop from the centre but be sure never to take all the leaves as these plants need some for their photosynthesising.

All of the basils love to be harvested and this can be done even when the plant is small but use the green stems also as these are delicious in casseroles.  Chives are a little different as being tiny bulbs, their leaves can be snipped off to about 5cm from the ground and they will soon grow back.

Harvesting hard leaf herbs is a great opportunity to tip prune so that they stay bushy and keep their shape.  Use scissors to prune off the ends for cooking and new growth will appear from the woody stems.