After describing the benefits of growing herbs at home in containers, our vertical veg man picks his favourites
Herbs are one of the most rewarding container crops. Most are also easy to grow. Still, there are a few things to bear in mind if you want to make sure your potted herbs reach their bushy, lush best.
Lorraine Melton, head grower at the herb farm Herbal Haven, gave me two key pieces of advice. Firstly, make sure you pick your herbs regularly during the growing season, and make sure you pick them in the right way. Most importantly, don't pick stems from the base of the plant. This encourages tall, lanky plants. Instead, pick off the tips of each stem - about the top inch or two (depending on the size of the herb), just above a pair of leaves. Two new shoots will grow from each stem, creating a fuller plant.
Secondly, you need to feed all your herbs in containers with liquid seaweed (or worm tea) while they are growing. This can transform weak specimens into strong, lush plants. Liquid seaweed is packed with trace elements and minerals that will help the herbs retain good flavour too.
I've tried growing more than 30 different herbs in containers. Here are 10 that I wouldn't be without. I've chosen them for how easy they are to grow in containers, and for how useful and versatile they are in the kitchen.
A fantastic container crop, and so versatile. You can use it for everything from tea to mojitos, to mint and coriander chutney. Its also easy to grow - it'll even cope with difficult shady spaces that only get a little sun.
It's a greedy beast though, and needs regular feeding to grow well. Put each plant in its own five litre pot, keep it well watered and pick it regularly. It will soon grow into a large bushy plant that will give you a constant supply of leaves from April to November, year after year. Once your plant is established, take it out of the pot each spring after its winter die back, and divide it into halves or quarters, and re-pot it with fresh compost. This helps it to keep its vigour - and provides you with new plants to expand your mint collection or give away.
There are many varieties - some are more suitable for tea, some for cooking. I've had lots of fun trying out several different ones - though my favourite is one I bought from the supermarket and planted out.
Brilliant in salads, snipped up over soups, or added as garnish to many dishes. The flowers are cheerful in the spring, taste yummy - and the bees love them too. This is another easy one to grow and only needs four or five hours' of sun. Make sure it doesn't dry out, as chives like damp soil.
3. Sage 4. Bay 5. Thyme and 6. Rosemary
Easy to grow with unique flavours, these classic herbs are excellent for soups, stocks, meats, pastas and more. They don't like wet roots - so grow in well-drained soil and take care not to over-water. You can grow sage from seed, the others are better bought as plants or grown from cuttings (bay is difficult from cuttings, though).
This is slow to get going from seed but once established will give you leaves for nearly two years before it flowers and dies. I like a lot of parsley and once filled a whole window box with it.
Planted in the spring, coriander quickly flowers and goes to seed. You can try and delay this (by keeping it well watered and fed, growing it in a more shady space, and cutting the leaves regularly), but it will happen eventually, whatever you do. Don't worry: the flowers are magnets for hoverflies (whose larvae eat aphids) and the green seeds are delicious.
August through to September is the best time to sow coriander, when it is much less prone to bolt. You'll get leaves throughout the late autumn, the plants will survive most winters, and it'll grow back strong and lush in the spring.
This loves the warmth. It's best grown in a warm, bright, sheltered spot (it thrives in green houses) and sown when the weather warms in June. It also doesn't like going to bed with wet roots - so grow in well-drained soil and water in the morning.
Despite having its profile raised by Ottolenghi (who uses it in several recipes), sorrel remains a stranger to supermarket shelves. It has a strong, sour flavour with a lemony bite. Cooked, sorrel forms classic combinations with eggs and with salmon, or you can chop up a few fresh leaves and add to salads. It is easy to grow in a container. Plant six to eight plants (which are easy to start from seed) in a window box with at least four hours sun and it will give you a flavour hit all year round. Pick the outer leaves and it will keep producing new leaves.
With a few more pots, I'd add in lovage (to add depth of flavour to risottos and stocks), Vietnamese coriander (much easier to grow than normal coriander and a must if you like spicy food) dill, tarragon (wonderful but temperamental to grow - it hates getting its roots wet), lemon verbena (brilliant for herb tea), blackcurrant sage (beautiful, cheerful flowers), winter savory, lemongrass (grow from supermarket lemongrass stalks), and oregano.
You can grow herbs in pots together as long as you remember two rules: avoid mixing those that like plenty of water (such as chives, mint, chervil, coriander, Vietnamese coriander) with those that like a well-drained soil (such as rosemary, thyme, sage, bay, and oregano). And choose herbs of similar sizes for the same pot - a large rosemary will swamp a small thyme plant, for example. So if you want to mix rosemary and thyme, look for a small, compact form of rosemary.
I find five litre pots are a good size for most herbs (bay, rosemary and lovage may need something bigger) - big enough to support decent-sized plants, but small enough to fit in a small space. You can grow herbs in smaller pots, but five litres (and larger) are a lot easier to look after, as small pots dry out too quickly.
It's easy to continue growing in pots throughout winter. Next time we'll look at what to grow in winter and how to do it.
Mark is Founder of Vertical Veg a social enterprise that inspires and supports food growing in containers in small spaces. For free, seasonal container growing tips, sign up to his newsletter at www.verticalveg.org.uk.
Coriander quickly flowers and goes to seed. Photograph: Mark Ridsdill Smith