Increasingly, we’re being told that we can green up our lifestyle by growing some of our own food. Articles everywhere suggest that everyone can grow a few herbs on the windowsill, but if you’ve never gardened before then that’s not as simple as it sounds. Here is a basic run down of what you’ll need, and what you’ll need to know, to grow some easy culinary container herbs.
Firstly, you will need some plant pots. Herb plants are sold in small pots, which will quickly be outgrown. Look for some containers that are at least 15cm in diameter (but they don’t need to be huge). If they don’t have drainage holes in the bottom then you’ll need to punch some yourself.
You’ll also need some compost – potting or multipurpose is fine for most herbs. Look out for ones that say they are peat-free. You won’t need a large bag to pot up a few herbs. Your containers might have their volume printed on the bottom, if not you can estimate how much compost you’ll need.
Herb plants can be divided into two main categories. Perennial herbs live for several years, whilst for annual herbs you’ll need new plants each year.
Perennial culinary herbs include thyme, mint, rosemary and oregano. There are many different varieties of each, but the most useful varieties will be widely available. For perennial plants it’s usually easiest to buy a small plant from the garden centre and grow that on at home.
Thyme is a low-growing plant that likes sunny and dry conditions. Rosemary likes the same things, but makes a much larger plant. Rosemary varieties are either upright or prostrate (which grows down over the side of the pot), but the flavour is the same. Oregano is another herb in this group (known as Mediterranean herbs, because they like it sunny and dry) and also grows quite tall, but it is much less woody than rosemary.
With all of these sun-loving herbs, you will need to water them to start with when you plant them into your pots. But once they show signs of new growth you can leave it longer between watering and let the compost dry out. Never leave them sitting in water, because they will rot. They are tough plants and usually survive cold weather, but you may want to bring them under cover in a wet winter.
Mint is different, it can handle a lot more water and more shade than the Mediterranean herbs. It’s also a thug – keep it in a container by itself, because it will push out anything else that’s planted with it.
With just a little bit of care, perennial herbs will provide all the fresh leaves you need for several years. If they start to look too big for their pots, you can either pot them into bigger pots, or tip them out and divide them into sections and replant the sections into different pots – so you’ll have more plants for your garden, or to share.
The cheapest way to grow annual herbs, like basil, coriander and parsley, is to buy some seeds and sow them yourself. If you sow them indoors, on the windowsill, the warmer conditions will help them to germinate more quickly.
Parsley is best sown early in the spring, for summer harvests, and in late summer for autumn and winter harvests. Parsley will happily live indoors on the windowsill, or outside on the patio. The seeds can take a few weeks to germinate, though, so be patient. One or two parsley plants should be enough at any one time. Parsley likes sunny spots, but more water than the Mediterranean herbs.
Coriander likes warmer weather than parsley, so don’t put your plants outside until the weather has warmed up (usually May) or the cold will kill them. Keep harvesting leaves from your coriander, even if you don’t want to use them. Coriander runs to seed very quickly, and then the leaves taste bitter, but regular harvesting slows it down. Sow a pot of seeds every couple of weeks for a continuous supply throughout the summer. Bring a couple of pots indoors if you want fresh coriander through the winter.
Basil is a sun-loving herb, so don’t sow your seeds too early in the year unless the plants will be growing indoors – they don’t like cold weather. Keep your basil well watered, and harvest leaves even if you don’t use them, because (like coriander) this will stop the plants flowering too soon.
It’s a good idea to sow annual herbs in batches, a few weeks apart, so that you can have a continuous supply throughout the season. Once annual herbs flower their leaves are usually of lower quality, and at this point you’ll need younger plants to harvest from. But don’t throw those flowering herbs out too soon! Many herbs have edible flowers, and even if you don’t want to eat them, you’ll find that they’re a magnet for bees and other beneficial insects.
This post was a collaboration, written by me and hopefully herbiliciously helpful for you 🙂