Planting Herbs: Pots, Beds, Compost and More!
My name is Lynda. I live in a small village in Wiltshire, in the south-west of England, with my husband Malcolm and adult son Christopher.
For over a decade I have been fascinated with the wonderful world of herbs, their history and growing and harvesting them, together with their uses in cookery, medicine, beauty and around the home. And I would like you to enjoy them too.
When your seedlings are ready (looking strong with at least two to three pairs of true leaves - the first set of leaves are called cotyledons and part of the seed), prepare to plant them in a well-drained part of the garden, or pots with compost mixed with horticultural grit (around 4 parts compost to 1 part grit).
If using pots, try to use frost-proof terracotta or recyclable pots such as biodegradable bamboo, rice husks (or even pots made from plastics retrieved from the sea). Further details are given below. Some garden centres are already using disposable paper or card pots for the sale of their herbs so try not to increase your stock of plastic pots when shopping.
However, if you already have plastic pots lying around at home, there is no point in casting them to one side. Keep using them until the bitter end of your pot!
Planting Herbs in Pots
Terracotta does have its advantages as it allows the plant to dry out more quickly, especially when over-watered or when the weather is bad. However, you may want to put a saucer underneath them in hot weather to catch the excess for the plant to drink later.
When there is a lot of rain forecast I stand the pots on feet to prevent them from being flooded. You can use purpose-made terracotta or rubber feet, or stand them on a brick or two, making sure you don’t block the drainage hole as that would defeat their purpose.
Sarah Raven has a range of traditional pots that are hand-thrown in the West Country from frost-proof terracotta. Pots are also available at other online stores, garden centres and do it yourself shops, although it pays to check that they are, in fact frost proof. If it does not say so on the label, ask. It’s worth paying a little more for a guarantee. In the past, I have bought beautiful terracotta pots only to discover that they have cracked during a bad winter. You might also want to wrap the pots in bubble wrap or something similar if the weather turns really cold.
Terracotta pots can also be heavy to move around, something I do a lot of the time to make the most of the sunshine as the seasons change. You can buy stands on wheels that will help you rearrange the very heavy containers.
Bamboo pots, saucers and seed trays are made from sustainable bamboo fibre, rice starch and resin made from naturally occurring organic compounds. This material is free from petroleum-based plastics and BPA free. They are durable and last for 5 years or more and can be used for outdoor or indoor gardening. They can also be composted when they have outlived their usefulness, although this may take 6-12 months. Breaking the products into small pieces before adding them to your compost heap will help speed up this process. Haxnicks also has 100% hemp pots. Hemp is purported to be the strongest natural fire in the world and is one of the fastest-growing plants making it truly sustainable.
Available from The Seed Pantry, and other suppliers, rice husk pots are made from 100% natural materials, a by-product of rice production with a vegetable varnish to seal. They also last up to 5 years or can be broken up and tossed on the compost heap to biodegrade in 9-18 months.
Another alternative are pots made from reclaimed plastic waste. It is estimated 8 million tons of plastic enters our oceans every year, and to my mind, this is a terrifying amount. In December 2019 a whale washed up on Luskentyre Beach on the Isle of Harris. It had 100kg of rope, a fishing net and plastic debris inside of it. Three months later local diver Ally Mitchell found himself working on the salvage of the MV Kaami. It had hit a reef only 20km from the very same beach where the whale had washed up. This was the catalyst behind Ocean Plastic Pots.
The ship was carrying shredded plastic to be incinerated. Diving in this amount of refuse and seeing the impact of plastic waste on our marine life, inspired Ally. He taught himself some basic manufacturing techniques and started making plant pots from plastic he picked off the beach as well as discarded ropes and fishing net. All this was done from his home in Glasgow. The pots themselves, although durable and built to last, can also be recycled, creating a circular economy. Ally has now found a manufacturing company, still in Scotland, and Ocean Plastic Pots won the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Sustainable Garden Product of the Year Award in 2021.
I use a mix of all these recyclable pots, together with a few plastic pots still lurking in the greenhouse. However, you can also use some unusual containers to plant up your herbs to make your garden even more interesting. For example, I have used cane and wire baskets, old watering cans, and a teapot! Or if you want to plant several herbs, what about using a child’s disused small paddling pool! Just make sure they have something to contain the compost and adequate drainage.
Available online and at garden centres, there are many types of compost about, I tend to keep to those with the trade name John Innes for reliability. You will also need to add something for drainage, and a fertiliser to keep your herbs healthy. My suggestions are:
- John Innes No. 1*: This compost is used for sowing and cuttings until the seedlings are ready for pricking out or the cuttings have rooted.
- John Innes No. 2*: This mix contains double the mount of nutrient in John Innes No. 1 to aid established plants. As well as herbs, it is suitable for most plants in containers.
- John Innes No. 3*: This is the richest (triple the nutrients in John Innes No. 1) and works well for established plants, trees, shrubs, and climbers, including fruit trees, bushes and vines, and mature indoor plants which are to remain in the pots for some considerable time. No. 3 Compost is also suitable for vigorously growing plants, so rarely used in herb growing.
- Horticultural grit: A key element in all soils to add improve structure and drainage, while providing small pockets to hold essential air and water. Ensure the grit has been washed so it is free from lime and other elements (it should say on the bag if this has already been done). This gives it a neutral pH that will not affect soil acidity levels. A top layer of grit also helps to retain moisture in the summer and prevents the plant from getting muddy in the winter.
- Seaweed fertiliser: One of my favourite products to promote healthy growth, containing several useful plant nutrients, including nitrogen, potassium, phosphate, and magnesium. I tend to use a liquid seaweed monthly, diluted to the instructions on the bottle. Please note, there is no public right that allows you to collect your own seaweed from the beach. Although collecting a small amount is usually okay if seaweed is there in abundance.
*Who Was John Innes?
John Innes was a 19th-century property developer who lived in London. In the 1860s he developed Merton Park as a garden suburb in Merton, Surrey. When he died in 1904 he bequeathed his whole estate to the improvement of horticulture. The result was the John Innes Horticultural Institution, first in Merton, and now based in Norwich. The Institution continues to research the physical properties and nutrition necessary for the best results in plant growth. They developed standard formulas that are still sold by different suppliers all over the UK, still with the name of John Innes.
If you have a small garden, or perhaps just a yard, you can still grow herbs outside using a vertical garden. There are many ways you can do this, from an old pallet to a hanging shoe holder, or even old jars, pots and plastic milk bottles wired onto a frame. The only limitation is your imagination. Once again, the two main things to remember are that it will need a liner to hold good quality compost, but with a few holes for drainage, and you will need to water regularly. If it’s against a fence, ensure you aren’t doing any damage to the fence itself and that the herbs will have sunshine for as many hours as possible a day.
Another option, if you don’t have much room for a garden, is to have hanging baskets by your back door. If you avoid large plants such as upright rosemary, lavender, and bay, pretty much anything will grow in a basket, although it’s best if you keep to those that have the same sort of requirements, such as Mediterranean herbs. I have three hanging baskets, Indian trailing mint (the leaves are very small, so this is mostly ornamental), trailing rosemary and creeping red thyme. They require little watering and seem to be very happy.
If you have no exterior space at all, don’t give up. Although the plants may not last quite as long as those that live outside, if you look after them, indoor herbs will give you several months of great flavour. You can keep it simple, with a pot and saucer with your favourite herb, or even a cup and saucer. Alternatively, there are many products available on the market, from a set of planters to a tray or wooden boxes, to mini-greenhouses. One of my favourites is a Cole and Mason self-watering herb planter that comes in a variety of sizes, taking one, two or three pots. It comes in two parts - the top holds the plants in pots, with a felt tongue that leads into the bottom section holding the water. There is no risk of overwatering, just make sure that every few days you check the water level.
You can even buy pots with built-in lighting to help with the low levels of light in the winter, although these may cost £100 or more.
During the cold weather I always have at least three plants on my kitchen table – usually those that don’t grow quite so well outside at that time of year. At the moment I have mint, basil, and parsley.
Planting Herbs Outside
The most important thing is to ensure that your herbs are in the right place to make the most of the sunshine. Use a trowel to dig a hole slightly larger than the root ball, fill in the compost and firm down carefully, remembering to plant a hands width apart, and water well before you walk away.
Whether you choose to grow in pots or the garden, the following hints will help to grow the best crop possible:
- Not all herbs are created equal, and they have different requirements. For example, be mean to thyme (cutting down on watering, adding grit to the soil), but love your basil (make sure it gets plenty of sun, good compost, and protect from frost).
- If you are nervous about growing herbs from seeds, plug plants are available that arrive as herbs that you can either grow on in the greenhouse or larger ones that are ready to go in your pots or garden.
- Be patient and don’t try to grow or plant out herbs earlier than suggested. It might be a bright sunny day today, but at some times of the year, tomorrow might see a frost or even snow! Also, do not plant out seedlings, or those propagated by cuttings or root division until the herbs are big and strong.
- Use good quality potting compost to get the best results and add some horticultural grit to help with drainage. Garden soil isn’t always sufficient.
- Most herbs need a minimum of six hours a day of sunshine so make sure they are in the right place at the right time.
- Ensure your pots remain on the dry to moist side, and water only when needed and ensure the pots have adequate drainage, even sitting the pots on feet when there is a lot of rain about. From late spring to mid-autumn use a liquid fertiliser once a month in the water.
- If you have tall delicate herbs like fennel or dill, rather than tie them to a stake, I make a triangle of three stakes around the plant and use garden twine to secure from stake to stake. This holds the herb within the triangle rather than tying it to them directly and possibly damaging them.
- Remember that some herbs, like mint and lemon balm can be escape artists, taking over your garden. Plant in pots or line a bed to stop your plants escaping.
- And prepare for winter. Some herbs, such as basil, are frost tender. My suggestion is to mark the labels of those plants in red – a warning to bring them in for the winter. Alternatively, move them to the side of a building to protect them and cover with fleece if frost or snow is forecast.
- Finally, make friends with your herbs. As you pass by, gently stroke the leaves. Touching herbs stresses them a little and rather than shrink away from your touch it will help them grow faster. Odd but true! At the same time, I talk to them and the many different birds that visit the garden - goodness knows what the neighbours think, but as Prince Charles has admitted - he talks to plants, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t.
Lavender Scone Recipe
Lovely for an afternoon tea with friends but be careful with how much lavender you use – too much and your scones could taste slightly soapy!
- 350g self-raising flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 85g cold unsalted butter (cubed)
- 25g caster sugar
- 2 teaspoons culinary lavender*
- 2 large fresh, free-range, eggs (lightly beaten)
- 100 ml milk
- *Culinary lavender has been grown without the use of chemicals and approved for consumption, available from your own garden, or a specialist grower such as The Cotswold or Norfolk Lavender companies.
- Preheat the oven to 200ºC/Gas 6.
- Keeping everything as cold as possible, and using a large mixing bowl, first sieve the flour and baking powder together. Next add the butter, rubbing into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Now mix in the caster sugar and the lavender with a metal spoon.
- Keeping a little of the beaten egg back for glazing, add to the mixture with ¾ of the milk to create a soft dough. Add remainder of milk little by little if the mixture looks too dry.
- Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently. Roll out to 2cm deep.
- Using a cutter or the top of a glass, cut out circles and place on a lightly greased baking tray. Repeat until all the mixture has been used up. Brush the top with the egg.
- Bake in the centre of the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until well risen with a golden base. Place on a cooling rack.
Serve warm with butter and honey.
So, enjoy growing your herbs - the time you spend with them will give you a little peace in this hectic world, and do you good when they are harvested.
If this is the first of my articles you’ve looked at, you might like to read my other herb-growing articles:
- Growing herbs at home: A beginner’s guide to starting your own herb garden.
- The best herbs to grow: A guide for budding gardeners.
- Growing herbs from seed: A gardener’s guide.
- Herb Cuttings: How to Propagate Your Own Plants at Home
All articles are based on years of research and practical experience.
Author: Lynda Warren, Education Consultant, Writer, Researcher and Public Speaker
As well as writing about herbs and spices, I have given talks and held workshops for groups of all types and sizes for many years on many subjects. I do not use slides or videos as I prefer the ‘face to face’ method of public speaking. All my writings and talks are based on personal experience and years of research.
Browse more Mirthy articles by clicking here.
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