Container Herbs

There's no better choice for container planting than flavorful herbs such as basil, rosemary, thyme and parsley.

You can have your herbs close to the kitchen, on the patio, on the back-porch steps or even on the kitchen windowsill.

Herbs will add beauty and fragrance to your living space. And it will be so easy to snip a few stalks that you may find yourself cooksing with herbs in new and adventurous ways.

If you're new to gardening, or new to growing food, herbs in containers are a marvelously satisfying way to start. Imagine the first time you serve guests tomatoes garnished with basil you grew yourself.

Here are a few things to think about as you plan an herb garden:

Sun is essential. Most of our culinary herbs come from the Mediterranean and other sun-drenched regions, so they will need a place where the sun shines at least eight hours a day. Growing herbs indoors requires a very sunny south-facing windowsill, and even so, you likely won't get as lush a harvest as you would outdoors.

Seeds or plants? You can buy herb seeds or herb plants. Small herb plants, ready to go outside, are available in garden centers or by mail order. Beginners may find it easiest to start with plants. If you order from a catalog or Web site, the plants should not be shipped until the time that it is normally warm enough to plant them in your part of the country. Seeds are much less expensive and offer a far wider range of varieties and flavors, but in most parts of the country seeds will need to be started indoors one to two months before it is warm enough in spring to move them outside. You can start seeds indoors in small pots in a sunny window or under lights and transplant them. Or, if the container in which you plan to grow them is light enough to carry (when it is full of moist potting mix) and you have well-lit space, you can start the seeds right in the pot and move the whole shebang outside after the last frost.

Good drainage, good size. Make sure your container has a nice-sized hole so that surplus water can drain away; herbs can't stand to have their roots sitting in too-wet soil. The shape of the container doesn't matter to a plant, but size does: A larger volume of potting mix dries out more slowly, so use the largest pot you can. It's better to combine two or more plants in a large pot than to use several little pots.

Good soil. Gardeners talk about "soil," but for containers, it's actually better to use something labeled "potting mix," rather than anything labeled "potting soil." What is sold as "potting soil" is likely to be poor-quality and sticky with poor drainage. "Potting mix" is lighter, made mostly from organic matter such as peat or composted plant matter, and designed to give container plants the texture and drainage they need.

Slow start. Herb seedlings may not look like much in their first weeks, but once they get going in warm weather they will thrive.

Plan to water: Because the potting mix in a pot dries out quickly, you will need to water frequently. (Check by sticking your finger into the soil. If it feels dry an inch beneath the surface, it's time to water.)

Plan to fertilize: That frequent watering tends to wash nutrients from the pots' soil, so you will need to replenish them with fertilizer. Use a regular houseplant fertilizer at one-half the strength recommended on the label every three weeks or so. Or add a slow-release or organic fertilizer when you plant. Some potting mixes come with slow-release fertilizer pellets already mixed in.

Herbs are all about leaves. It's the leaves we eat in most cases, not the flowers. So avoid using a fertilizer made to encourage flowers. And keep up with the harvesting to keep plants bushy and discourage them from blooming; often, blooming will change the flavor of the leaves. Harvest the oldest stems individually with scissors rather than mowing the whole plant to keep a steady stream of leaves coming.

Like with like. Herbs, like all plants, vary in their needs. So make sure the plants you use together need the same conditions. Rosemary, which likes its soil drier and leaner, won't mix well with basil, which likes more water and fertilizer. Planting in pots makes it easy to give each plant the kind of soil, fertilizer and watering it needs.

Mix it up. In addition to combining well-matched herbs in the same pot, you can mix them with compatible flowers. In fact, many flowers--such as pansies, nasturtiums and marigolds--are edible.