Pots & pots of delicious herbs
Growing your favourite herbs in pots, troughs and baskets next to the kitchen door offers many advantages, as Alan Titchmarsh explains
Tools for the job
Herbs make excellent container plants. Not only can you provide the ideal growing conditions, but you’ll have the flexibility to grow what you want, when and where you need it. Most herbs do best in a well-drained soil, so if your garden is on clay and unsuitable, growing herbs in pots makes sense. You can also rearrange your collection to make them convenient to harvest; moving the picked-over plants to the back of the group to recover and the fresh pots forward within easy reach. This will also keep the collection looking good. With herbs that are used all the time, such as chives, or those that are short-lived, such as basil, you can create a veritable conveyor-belt of your favourite herbs to provide a continuity of supply without disturbing the long-lived residents alongside. You can also site individual pots to suit the herbs you are growing with drought-tolerant sun-lovers. For example, the Mediterranean herbs prefer a sun-trap, while others that appreciate cooler conditions, such as mint, can be shaded from the heat of day.
Herbs for a sunny corner
In my garden, I move my collection of potted herbs around with the seasons as well: they are given pride of place in a sunny spot, near the kitchen door, in spring, to encourage maximum growth; protected in dappled shade nearby, during the height of summer; then back to the direct sunlight for autumn, to prevent them becoming leggy and to eke-out a little more growth; before moving under cover for the winter.
Mint is always worth growing in a container, because it is so rampant. By planting it in a pot, the invasive roots can be kept within bounds. If you grow your herbs in a border, plant the mint in a porous container, such as in a terracotta pot, and sink this into the soil with the rim just proud of the surface. That way, the roots can absorb the moisture from the surrounding soil, but are prevented from spreading.
Choosing containers You can get special herb pots - a bit like strawberry planters with pockets at the sides, to plant individual herbs. They can make a quaint feature when freshly planted, but are the devil to keep looking good. They dry out too quickly, in my experience, and are awkward to water properly – no matter how carefully you trickle the water in, it just runs out the holes in the sides of the pot!. No, for me, individual herb pots, tubs, windowboxes and even old growing bags are a better bet. A collection of themed or even identical pots of various sizes works well. Larger pots and tubs, such as Versailles planters and half-barrels are ideal for permanent shrubby herbs, like sweet bay and rosemary. The former is available in a range of trained shapes including pyramids and lollipop standards that can add a touch of class to your collection. There are also prostrate and upright forms of rosemary to choose from, so bear this in mind when you buy. Sages also do best in larger containers.
Even if you don’t have a garden, you can grow many smaller herbs in a windowbox or in a small container on the terrace or balcony. Nothing could be more convenient than opening a window (or back door) to pick a few fresh herbs while cooking in the kitchen. With such a confined growing space, you will have to choose your herbs carefully. Dwarf, shrubby herbs, such as thyme, and compact perennial herbs, like chives and marjoram are excellent choices. You will also have to remember to water them regularly if they are to thrive.
Choosing herbs The secret to a successful herb collection is to grow the herbs you like and will use regularly…plus a few to add pizzazz to your culinary creations. For example, if you are partial to pizza and other Italian dishes, concentrate on Mediterranean herbs, such as basil and thyme. While fish lovers should include chervil, chives, lemon thyme, parsley and summer savory to add a touch of home-grown zest. You can buy most common herbs as plants or seed. Raising your own herbs from seed is very satisfying and economical, but take care not to over-do it because it is so easy to produce many more plants than you really need. If you are new to gardening, starting with a herb collection of plants is definitely worth considering – you can even get a combined window trough/herb plant combination, so you don’t have to worry about numbers. Don’t forget that regularly used herbs, such as basil and chives, are easily replaced using pot-grown herbs from the supermarket.
Planting and aftercare A good multipurpose compost will do for most herbs, but I like to make a half-and-half mix using a soil-based John Innes No. 2 compost to give the rooting medium a bit more structure. Once planted, the herbs need to be watered regularly – maybe daily during warm, dry weather in late spring and summer. Since you will be picking them over from time to time, little further preening or pruning should be required, although spent herbs will need to be replaced as necessary. There’s no need to feed container herbs routinely, because this just encourages flavourless, lush growth. Instead, give them a half-strength diluted feed, once a month, during the growing season.