The Best Herbs for Container Gardening

Most common herbs adapt easily to life in containers, so if you have room for a few potted plants outside, try a small herb garden.

By: Nancy Ondra
Herb Container Garden

Herb Window Box

Keep fresh herbs close at hand with a wooden window box filled with culinary favorites like mint, cilantro, sage, thyme and spearmint.

Photo by: Williams-Sonoma at

Williams-Sonoma at

Keep fresh herbs close at hand with a wooden window box filled with culinary favorites like mint, cilantro, sage, thyme and spearmint.

Having fresh herbs on hand for cooking, healing or simply sniffing is a treat that anyone can enjoy. Most common herbs adapt easily to life in containers, so if you have room for a few potted plants on your deck, porch, patio or balcony, you have enough space to grow a variety of flavorful and fragrant herbs. Growing herbs in containers keeps them close to the house and at a comfortable height for easy harvesting.

These versatile plants come in a wide range of sizes to fit just about any pot, planter, window box or hanging basket. Give each one its own container, or combine several of your favorites in a larger planter to create a mini herb garden. An all-purpose, soil-less potting mix usually works well for these plants. If you plan to harvest from your potted herbs, it’s a good idea to cover the surface of the potting mix with aquarium gravel or pebbles; that prevents the mix from splashing up when you water, so the leaves stay clean. Give your herbs lots of light: ideally, eight hours or more of sun a day.

Water potted herbs regularly: about every three days, if rain is lacking, or more often in hot or windy weather. You don’t want the soil to stay soggy, or to dry out completely, either. Basils and mints tend to like more moisture than other herbs, so you may need to water them more frequently to keep them from wilting. From late spring to late summer, give them a dose of liquid fertilizer (mixed according to the directions on the package) every 10 to 14 days to keep them growing vigorously.

Before frost, bring pots of aloe, scented geraniums and other cold-sensitive herbs indoors and set them on a sunny windowsill or under plant lights until the weather warms again in the spring. You can also bring other herbs indoors, if you have the space, to extend your harvest for weeks or even months.

Want to add some of these beautiful and productive plants to your life? Here’s a sampling of beautiful and useful herbs to get you started.

Aloe: The spiky form and plump leaves of this succulent herb make it interesting to look at, but there’s an even better reason to keep a potted aloe on your kitchen windowsill or near your outdoor grilling area: the soothing sap inside of its foliage, which may help to soothe minor burns. Simply break off a leaf tip, squeeze it to release the clear gel, and gently dab it onto the irritated skin.

Basils: With their spicy scents and flavors, basils are a must-have for summer salads, sauces and pesto. Their smooth or crinkled leaves range in color from bright green (or green and white on ‘Pesto Perpetuo’) to deep purple, and from thumbnail-sized to several inches long. Bush basils, with their dense, bushy form, are especially cute in containers.

Mints: Mints are notorious for spreading rampantly in gardens, but they’re perfectly well behaved in containers, so you can enjoy their sweet scents and flavors without worry. Spearmint is an excellent all-purpose choice for both teas and cooking. Peppermint has a stronger flavor that’s a treat in both hot and iced tea. Pineapple mint, with attractive, white-splashed green leaves, has a light, fruity scent and flavor that’s a pleasant addition to cold beverages and desserts.

Rosemary: The slender, needle-like green leaves of rosemary add a rich flavor to many cooked dishes, including roasted meats, fish and vegetables. A bundle of cut shoots makes a great brush for adding sauces to grilled foods; when you’re done, toss the bundle onto the coals to release even more of the aromatic oil. Most types of rosemary have an upright, bushy habit, but you can also find creeping or carpeting forms, which look great trailing over the edge of a container.

Sage: A classic ingredient in poultry stuffing, culinary sage is also popular with cooks for flavoring meats and vegetable dishes. Common culinary sage grows in bushy clumps of gray-green leaves. Forms of culinary sage that are even more ornamental include ‘Berggarten’, with silvery leaves; ‘Icterina’, with yellow-and-green leaves; ‘Purpurascens’, with purplish leaves; and ‘Tricolor’, with green-and-white leaves that are blushed with pink or purple.

Scented Geraniums: Unlike ordinary geraniums, which are best known for their colorful flowers, scented geraniums are prized for their fragrant foliage. Keeping them in containers makes it easy for you to reach them, so you can rub their leaves to release their aromas. There are dozens of different kinds, in a wide range of leaf scents, shapes, sizes and colors. Some, such as lemon-scented geranium and ‘Lady Plymouth’, have a distinctly upright or bushy form. Others, such as peppermint geranium and nutmeg geranium, have a lower, spreading form that shows off beautifully when cascading out of a planter or hanging basket.

Thymes: Thymes may be small in size -- they can grow well even in a 4-inch pot -- but their tiny leaves are packed with flavor and fragrance. Common thyme (also sold as garden, English or French thyme) has a pungent, spicy aroma and is wonderful for adding zip to meats, poultry and fish. Lemon thyme has a distinct lemony scent and flavor that you can enjoy in both sweet and savory dishes. For extra beauty, look for variegated forms such as ‘Argenteus’, a form of common thyme with green-and-white leaves, and ‘Variegata’, a lemon thyme with yellow-rimmed green leaves.

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