“What is the best soil to use when planting a container herb garden?” Question from Joanne of Ocala, Florida
Answer: You are in luck! Herbs are some of the easiest plants you can grow, if given the right growing conditions–soil included. Almost all herbs require full sun, fertile soil with good drainage, and average water. Some are perennials (meaning they will survive the winter and grow each year) and others are annuals (meaning they will survive just one growing season and die). All are very easy to harvest. Just clip the leaves as you need them, while being sure to leave enough to keep the plant full and healthy.
Soil for Herbs
At planting time, be sure to give them good soil that holds water well, is porous and fertile and drains well. If planting them in pots, they grow best in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix, which is approved for organic gardening. Sometimes it helps to add extra Black Gold Perlite for added drainage. If eventually want to grow them in the ground, plant them in a prepared, weed-free garden, and work some Black Gold Garden Compost Blend into the soil to ensure that they perform really well. After your herbs have been initially planted, water them every other day to help them become established. After a couple of weeks, you can water garden-grown plants less unless the ground becomes very dry. Potted herbs will need to be watered every other day or even daily if the weather is very hot and windy. Add a slow-release fertilizer at the beginning of the season to ensure that they grow their best. (Click here for more information about essential culinary herbs.)
Stylish and serviceable herb gardens are a delight through the growing season when they appeal to the eye and senses and provide fresh herbs. In winter, stores of dried and frozen herbs make cooking a pleasure. If you don’t already have a culinary herb garden, you are missing out. And, there’s no reason not to grow one. Essential culinary herbs are the easiest plants in a food gardener’s repertoire.
The first chives of spring are so bright and welcome when added to fresh vegetables and salads, as are the tender leaves of parsley when they begin to unfurl and are at their sweetest. Fine cilantro and dill–both cool-season annuals–are two other spring herbs no garden should be without. In late spring, count on chamomile to produces its sweet daisies that are harvested and dried to make delicious, soothing tea to enjoy year-round. These are the spring herb essentials.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8): Chives put forth tidy clusters of oniony, grassy foliage in spring. Pompons of edible mauve flowers bloom in mid-spring, rising above the upright foliage. Harvest them fresh, when they are most flavorful. In summer, chives wane in the heat but will often perk back up in fall.
Chamomile (Matricaria retutica, Zones 2-8) is a winter annual or short-lived perennial to sow in fall. It will overwinter as a ferny green rosette and then bloom in full glory with a flurry of small white daisies in spring. Harvest the flowers for drying when they just begin to open. Allow some plants to set seed to encourage new fall seedlings.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a leafy annual that likes it cool and starts producing stems of white flowers and seeds as the weather heats up. But, that’s a good thing because its seedheads, which dry by summer, are crushed to make the spice coriander. Harvest the leaves while you can for guacamole, salads, and salsas. Also, consider cilantro a fall herb to seed in no later than early September.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a true spring annual herb that you only need plant once. Harvest the ferny green leaves to flavor salads, spreads, and pickles, and
let the yellow-green umbel flowerheads dry for flavorful dill seed. Let some seed fall to the ground and sprout for a second dill harvest in fall.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) comes in curly and flat-leaved forms and lends fresh flavor to sauces, salads, and meats. Lush clumps of parsley leaves flourish in the cool spring weather and give way to flowering in the heat of summer, after which the plants die. If you replant parsley in fall, it will often survive through winter.
Essential Herbs of Summer
Sweet basil tastes like summer–whether used to flavor sauce, pesto or added to a citrusy summer drink. Mints of all kinds grow rampantly and need containment, but every gardener should have at least one pot of good mint. Thymes, especially lemon thyme, is a summer staple at my home that lends itself well to chicken, fish, salads, and vegetables. Oregano and piney rosemary are necessities for grilled meats and vegetables. These are the summer herb essentials.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a warm-season herb that’s grown as an annual. The key to keeping it sweet and flavorful is to clip off the flower heads off as they appear. Grow it in the garden or containers. (See the video below to learn how to care for container-grown basil.), and clip the leaves all summer to keep plants tidy and flavorful. (Click here to learn how to grow basil indoors in winter.)
Mint (Mentha spp.) leaves flavor summer mojitos, tabouli, and fresh mint tea. The plant is so easy to grow you can plunk a stem in a glass of water, and it will root in a week. Its aggressive nature is a mint’s only downfall. One seemingly harmless plant can take over a garden in no time, so plant it in a big pot filled with Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil to keep its roots from roaming. When it starts to
outgrow the pot, divide it, and give the spare to a friend (with fair warning).
Oregano (Origanumvulgare, Zones 4-10) has rooting stems that tend to spread, so be sure to give it space to grow. You can also contain oregano in a pot. Clusters of edible purple flowers bloom in midsummer, which attracts bees. Use the leaves to flavor meats, vegetables, and sauces in summer. In fall, dry or freeze the leaves for winter cooking.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Zones 8-10) is a drought-tolerant, shrubby, evergreen herb with resinous needle-like leaves that taste great on meats and in sauces. Bees are attracted to its violet-blue flowers that bloom in late spring. The cold-tolerant variety ‘Arp’ (Zones 6-10) is a hardier option for northern gardeners. Dry the leaves for winter use.
Thyme (Thymus spp., Zones 5-9) has small, aromatic leaves that are evergreen. In late spring, the low, spreading, shrubby herb bears small clusters of flowers for bees that may be pink, purplish, or white. Plant it along a patio edge where it can spill across the pavement or in a pot. Harvest the leafy stems any time of year to add to many dishes or dry the leaves for herbal mixes.
Essential Herbs of Fall and Winter
Sage tastes of turkey stuffing and pairs well with pumpkin. And bean soups never taste quite as good without the complement of winter savory. A big pot of bay leaf should be a winter houseplant for every gardener that cooks. Just be sure to take the pot outdoors in summer to let the Mediterranean tree to enjoy the sunshine. Spicy ginger is another indoor/outdoor tropical herb that will grow well in a sunny window. These are the essential herbs of winter.
Bayleaf (Laurusnobilis, Zones 8-10) will grow as a 20-30 foot evergreen tree where it is hardy, but if kept pruned in a pot, it will stay compact. Harvest the leaves for soups, sauces, and meats, but keep in mind that new leaves will not be produced until spring, so be sure not to strip the plant of all greenery and kill it. Pot-grown specimens thrive in OMRI Listed®Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. (Click here to learn more about growing bay leaf.)
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) grows very well as a potted house plant in a brightly lit spot with good humidity. Its roots can be harvested as the plants grow and used to make sweet and savory dishes. As with bay leaf, bring your potted ginger outdoors in summer to allow it to grow to its fullest. (Click here to learn more about growing ginger.)
Sage (Salvia officinalis, Zones 4-8) has felted, gray-green, evergreen leaves with a pungent flavor. The hardy shrubby perennial bears pretty lavender-blue flowers in summer, which are also edible and attract bees. It is best to harvest and dry leaves in fall for winter cooking, but if you run out, you can always pick off a winter leaf or two without harming the plant.
Winter Savory (Saturejamontana, Zones 6-8) The low, semi-evergreen winter savory looks attractive through much of the season. Its peppery leaves add flavor to green beans, soups, and stews. In summer, it has clusters of white or pinkish flowers that attract bees. Plant it along the edge of an herbal border.
To make it easy, all of these essential culinary herbs grow best in full sun and fertile soil with good drainage. Most are not too demanding when it comes to fertilizer, but a little all-purpose plant food at the beginning of season never hurts. Spring is the best time to plant them, aside from tender indoor/outdoor herbs. Before planting, amend your garden soil with good compost, such as OMRI Listed®Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, to encourage good rooting and drainage.
When planning an herb garden, it’s smart to keep your annual and perennial herbs apart. Perennial herb borders are attractive and have permanence. They look right at home in raised beds or even pretty herbal rockeries. Just remember to reserve mints for big patio pots. Annual herbs are nice to plant among complementary vegetables. Dill is right at home planted alongside cucumbers, and almost everybody plants their sweet basil around garden tomatoes. Chamomile looks pretty when planted in a row beside spring greens or cabbages. Then keep your herbs harvested and well-tended to make the most of them all year round. (Click here to learn how to harvest and store herbs.)
What are the best herbs for Central Florida? Question from Sherry of Silver Springs, Florida.
Answer: You can grow common, heat-loving herbs well in Florida. These include basil, lavender, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme. The only potential caveat is that these popular herbs are Mediterranean and don’t like excessive moisture. For this reason, I would plant them in raised beds or containers, which tend to drain more quickly. Choose a fast-draining garden soil, like Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix, for best results. Another important factor is that common perennial herbs like these require cool or cold winters to survive for years. This means that you will have to plant fresh starts a little more often.
Tropical lemongrass, which loves heat, humidity, and moisture, is an ideal herb for your climate if you like its lemony flavor (click here for a full list of lemony herbs). It should grow year-round for you. (Watch the video below about how to grow lemongrass.)
Here’s a little more about these heat-tolerant herbs.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is grown as an annual but will survive for several years where winters are mild. It is one of the best herbs for growing down South. (Watch the video below about growing basil in containers.)
Oregano (Origanumvulgare, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-10) needs full sun and has low, rooting stems that spread, so be sure to give it space to grow. I recommend a low, wide pot.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9) is a common herb across Europe with a low, spreading, shrubby habit and pungent evergreen leaves. It requires well-drained soil and a sunny spot.
The leathery, gray, evergreen leaves of sage (Salvia officinalis, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8) are tasty, and this hardy shrubby perennial bears pretty lavender-blue flowers in summer, which are also edible, and attract bees. Give it plenty of sun and soil with good drainage.
Of all the lavenders, I like ‘Provence’ (Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence’, USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9) because it is very fragrant and flowers heavily. It is a vigorous hybrid between English lavender (L. angustifolia) and Portuguese lavender (L. latifolia). (To learn more about growing lavender, click here.)
In the Mediterranean, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis , USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10) is a favorite in landscapes and edible gardens. This sun and drought-loving herb has needle-like leaves that are resinous and fragrant. I recommend protecting is from excessive rain in Florida (click here to read more).
During the Medieval period in Europe, monasteries almost always contained an apothecary garden or “physic garden” that grew medicinal plants used to treat all kinds of infirmities. This age-old tradition of cultivating a garden specifically with healing in mind is easy to replicate in the home garden, whether you dedicate a bed for growing healing herbs and flowers or plant them throughout your garden space.
Designing an Apothecary Garden
The most important thing when planning your apothecary garden is practicality. Do you have a sunny garden that needs drought-tolerant plants? Do you live in a cool climate with a short growing season? The plants you choose will need to be well suited to your climate and hardiness zone.
Medicinal herbs are beautiful plants, often prolific, and they are intended to be cut back and harvested regularly. Choose space in the garden that is easy to harvest from and where the cut plants will not affect the overall look. If you’d like your apothecary garden to visually resemble the monks’ apothecary gardens of yore, choose some Medieval-style design elements such as stone or wattle borders, geometric (often rectangular) beds, and symmetrical plantings.
No matter how you include the herbs, grow enough to harvest each year to stock your home apothecary, and leave enough behind to grow them again in future years.
What to Plant
There are thousands of healing plants out there that you could choose for your apothecary garden, and this list is just a small sampling. I chose this collection because they are diverse in their uses, safe for most people to use, easy to grow in many climates, and sun-loving. This list is meant to give you a starting point that you can build on as you find more herbs that bring a sense of healing to you personally.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Oregano’s antiseptic properties make it great at combating germs, which is why it was used in the Middle Ages to protect against the Black Plague. Oregano is also high in antioxidants, aids in digestion, helps to soothe a sore throat, and tastes delicious added when to savory dishes. It is especially popular in Italian cooking. Add it generously to your recipes during cold and flu season for a wellness boost. Oregano is often potted because it tends to spread in the garden. Potted herbs of all kinds grow beautifully in Black Gold® Natural & Organic Potting Soil and Flower and Vegetable Soil, which are both OMRI Listed® for organic gardening.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Sage is a powerful anti-inflammatory that can ease upset stomachs and sore throats. It’s often used in all-natural, commercially produced lozenges. At home, you can soothe a sore throat by sipping sage and honey tea or make up a batch of homemade sage throat lozenges to suck on when a bad cold hits.
Purple Coneflower (Echinaceapurpurea)
Echinacea is a well-known herbal remedy used to help prevent and relieve symptoms of the common cold. Use the roots and flowers to make an echinacea tincture that can boost immunity and help to speed up healing from cold and flu symptoms.
Hops (Humulus lupulus)
Hops are more than just beer ingredients! It contains a mild sedative that can work wonders for those suffering from insomnia. Add it to your bedtime herbal tea blend or sew it into sweet dream sachets to tuck into your pillowcase for a restful slumber.
Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula has been used for thousands of years to speed the healing of minor cuts, bruises, and scrapes, and to reduce inflammation of all kinds. It is very gentle and can be made into a wonderful multi-purpose salve that is generally considered safe for adults, children, and pets.
English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender is one of the most popular scents in aromatherapy because it smells divine and is purported to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and help with insomnia. Add some dried lavender buds to herbal teas to drink before bed, make a lavender eye pillow for relaxation, or add lavender to bath salts for a soothing soak.
Mint (Mentha spp.)
Mint is a gentle and safe painkiller to have on hand all the time. Mint tea can help to relieve sore throats and aids in digestion. It can also be used to make a bath soak for achy muscles or sore feet. Whether you are using it for tub tea or a cuppa, you can use fresh or dried mint leaves interchangeably to enjoy the herbal benefits.
Stocking Your Apothecary
Once your garden is growing and producing herbs and flowers, you will be able to harvest and store the healing plants in your very own home apothecary for use throughout the year. Devote a whole pantry or just a single shelf to this purpose, saving just enough for what you will need for the year, and replenishing the dried herbs the following growing season.
Harvest the herbs at their peak of freshness. Grow them in your garden organically and be sure to pick leaves, stems, and flowers that are unaffected by disease or pest problems. Dry the herbs in a cool, dry location and store them in airtight glass jars. With these simple actions, your personal apothecary will be there for you and your family when viruses and minor ailments pop up.
American gardeners can grow many Indian herbs and spices. Sure, the classic spice blends of India contain tropical ingredients (cardamom, star anise, nutmeg, cinnamon, etc.) that most American gardeners cannot grow, but it does not end there. A long list of distinctly Indian culinary herbs and spices grow well in most areas of the United States.
You don’t need a greenhouse or conservatory for these essential Indian herbs (leafy aromatics for cooking) and spices (culinary seeds, fruits, roots, bark, and stems). All are easy-to-grow herbaceous annuals and tender perennials. Here are 10 options to consider for this year’s kitchen garden.
Annual Indian Herbs and Spices
Black Cumin (Nigella sativa, 6-12 inches): Unlike the common violet-blue garden flower love-in-a-mist (Nigella damescena), the flowers of black cumin have much more sharp, prominent pistils and anthers. Their large, bulbous, spiky seed pods are filled with loads of black seeds that have an oniony, peppery flavor. These are toasted and added to anything from garam masalas to breads and yogurt lassis. As with any nigella, black cumin self-sows prolifically. It is fast to bloom, set seed, and die, so plant it among other herbs that look good through summer. Sometimes black cumin will even flower and set seed for a second harvest in fall.
Cilantro/Coriander (Coriandrum sativum, 18-24 inches): The flavorful leaves of cilantro add a fresh flavor to Indian dishes and are used in chutneys, meats, and vegetable dishes. Its heads of round seeds dry by summer for harvest and are ground to make the spice, coriander. Coriander has a complex, earthy flavor and is used as a main ingredient in garam masala spice mixes.
Cilantro is a cool-season plant that grows best in spring or fall. Its frilly white flowers set round seed heads that readily self-sow, so don’t be afraid to sprinkle some of its seeds on the ground after it has bolted.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum, 12-15 inches): Both the leaves and seeds of cumin are edible. This warm-season, drought-tolerant annual has feathery, aromatic leaves that can be eaten in salads. Its delicate Queen-Anne’s-lace blooms set seed followed by heads of cumin seeds that must be fully dry before collection. (Give the plants at least three months to produce seed.) Ground cumin is a common component of garam masala, lentil dishes, and the seeds can be used to flavor breads.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum, 2-3 feet ) Used as an herb and spice, fenugreek is a member of the pea family that produces edible leaves and seeds. The leaves have a nutty, maple syrup taste and are added to curries, and the sprouts are added to salads. Its summer-blooming, yellow, pea-like flowers are followed by long pods filled with yellowish seeds. Once dried, they have a similar but stronger flavor and are used for pickling.
Mustard Seed (Brassica juncea): Any strong-tasting mustard green will yield yellow mustard seed. Gather the spring leaves for cooking and salads, and then let them bolt when the summer heat hits. The pretty golden flowers rise above the foliage and produce long seed capsules filled with round, golden mustard seeds. Harvest the seed after the plants have dried naturally.
Red Chili (Capsicum spp.) The hottest chilies in the world originate from India, so grow those that are dangerously hot with caution. Keep them away from young children and pets, and wear gloves when harvesting. One plant will produce a wealth of peppers for fresh eating or drying. Two Indian cultivars to try include ‘Dhanraj’ (2 to 3 feet, 5,000 SHU), which produces clusters of slender, upright peppers that turn from green to red, and ‘Bengal Naga’ (3 to 4 feet, 980,000 SHU), which has sweet, raging hot peppers that are broader, bumpy, and turn from green to orange-red.
All of these annuals grow best in full sun, require moderate moisture, and prefer fertile soil with excellent drainage. If you plan to grow them in containers, try Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. It is OMRI Listed for organic gardening and will yield great results. Those planted in the herb garden will get a boost from Black Gold Garden Soil, which has added fertilizer for vigorous growth.
Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum, 1-2 feet): There are several cultivated types of holy basil. The two most common are the sweet, green Ram Tulsi, and purple-leaved Krishna Tulsi, which has a distinctive peppery flavor. Holy basil leaves are used to make fragrant teas, soups, or desserts. It is also used for medicinal tinctures.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale, 2-4 feet): Ginger is one of the easiest spices to grow in pots, indoors or outdoors. It’s distinctive, flavorful roots can be harvested bit-by-bit from the pot and used fresh or dried and ground into a powder. It is a common ingredient for flavoring meats, soups, and vegetable dishes.
In temperate areas, ginger can be grown in pots and summered outdoors and overwintered indoors. Choose a large pot that can hold its bulky rhizomes and the height of its tall, upright leaves. The attractive plants bloom seasonally with upright clusters of pinkish red flowers. (Click here to learn more about how to cultivate ginger in pots.)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa, 3-4 feet): This close relative of ginger can be grown in pots just as you would grow ginger, except it requires more water. Its deep golden-orange roots are easily harvested. Just dig and remove a portion of the plant, leaving plenty to grow anew for continued harvest. They can be used fresh or dried to yield deep yellow turmeric powder, which lends curries their distinctive color. The pungent flavor of turmeric is reminiscent of bitter orange and ginger, and the fresh roots taste stronger.
Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus, 3-4 feet): Lemon grass is commonly used in Southeast Asian food, but it is also popular in India. This tall, aromatic grass forms a huge, healthy clump in just one season when planted in a container or in the garden. The tender, citrusy leaf bases are easily harvested with pruning shears. (Watch the video below to learn how to harvest lemon grass properly.) Lemon grass can be used fresh to flavor to broth and meats or dried and ground into a powder to add to curries.
One benefit of lemon grass is that it grows beautifully in moist or wet soils. Potted specimens require very large containers and should be planted in a moisture-holding potting mix, such as Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix, which is approved for organic gardening.
As with the annuals, all of these perennials grow well in full sun, though ginger and turmeric will withstand partial sun. All grow well in the summer heat.