herbs in containers vs in the ground

alingMay 23, 2009

I apologize in advance as I am sure this question has been answered (probably numerous times) but there are no FAQ's for this forum, and the search I tried did not work. So please accept my apology for any redundancy.

My first attempt at herb gardening was last season with absolutely NO success. I know some of my newbie errors and am working on correcting them this year. My question is this... I would like to have a container herb garden on my back porch so that I do not have to walk out to the main veggie garden every time I want to use some (not to mention that I am pretty much out of room). I just keep reading that herbs do better in the ground. But you see herbs grown together in pretty little pots at the stores... Do they really do OK in containers? and can more than one really be planted together? I bought really big 26-30 inch pots for this use, thinking I could plant 3 types in each... If so, can you tell me which would do better planted together?

My herbs are:

Sweet Basil

Genovese Basil (Can someone tell me the difference between these 2 basils?)



Garlic Chives

Common Thyme

long island mammoth dill


Italian parsley

Rosemary (pretty sure this one needs to be separate container regardless... right?)


balm lemon

Thanks in advance!


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leira(6 MA)

People certainly do grow herbs in containers, with success. They probably won't get as big as they get in the ground, but you should be prepared for them to get fairly big, given enough time. You may (eventually, anyway) need bigger pots than you initially anticipate.

As for mixing different herbs in one pot, I have done it before, but you should be careful about a few different things.

First, make sure you mix herbs that like similar conditions. Generally speaking, herbs like soil that is well-drained, not-too-wet, and not too rich (herbs don't need much fertilizer). However, some like drier and sandier soil than others, some benefit from fertilizer now & again, etc.

Second, if your herbs do well, you might find that some try to take over the pot and crowd out the others.

I'm growing Genovese basil for the first time this year, too. The main difference I'm aware of is that the plants are smaller and more compact than "regular" basil.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 12:07PM
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opal52(z7b GA)

I grow Basil in Self Watering Containers. I grow lots, so dedicate single containers for Basil alone. Basil will fill any pot you put in in with fibrous roots and could possibly challenge other plants as it matures. It is amazing. Oregano that's happy spreads quickly, but it is a pretty trailing plant. You could possibly keep it under control by putting it in the larger container in it's own pot. Bury the pot. I do that in our in-ground herb garden by cutting the bottom out of the pot and burying it. So far, so good...

Genovese Basil is large leafed and is good for making pesto. I have grown them both from seed, and other than sweet basil having smaller leaves, to me they both taste similar. I stick with Genovese large leaf now because it seems more general purpose , and I put lots of pesto and basil in the freezer for winter.

If you are going to keep your Rosemary over winter, it would probably be a good idea to keep in a separate pot. I think in Zone 6, you have to bring it inside?? Otherwise, I think you should be able to mix it with some other herbs. Even if you end up removing them before bringing the Rosemary inside.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 1:44PM
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I was once told by an old and very experienced horticulturist that 'God didn't make pots, and he didn't make houses, either!'. Which was his way of saying that neither is a natural 'home' for plants.

I've learned that he was right - up to a point. Herbs WILL grow in pots, as long as you remember that pots are high maintenance.

They need special potting mix, not garden soil which will compact down to rock-hardness very quickly. They need more water, more fertiliser and occasional repotting either to replace dead soil, or to allow the plant to spread a bit more. You see, keeping plants in pots is not unlike keeping a canary in a cage. It doesn't have the space to spread out as far as it would do in the garden, and that means it will rarely or never get to optimum size, and it will never become truly independent of your care.

Now, my experience is that those multiple-planted pots you see in plant nurseries are very nice for gift-giving, but they are only very temporary arrangements. Plants, like people, like their own space, especially when it's limited, and they'll fight for it. One plant will always out-compete another over time - either by its roots choking out the others, or by more successfully accessing the water and nutrients. So it's something I never recommend.

For a beginner, especially, you need to learn about the individual requirements of all your plants - things like room to move, sunlight, water, fertiliser etc. This is easiest to do if you have one plant per pot.

Another thing is that most beginners are surprised to learn just how BIG most herbs can get! Take a look at this picture (link below), with my rosemary in the background. It has grown considerably since the photo was taken, and gets a regular drastic haircut to keep it to manageable size in my very small garden. My basils get almost as big.

Plants have an effective way of telling you when they're not happy. They sulk, then they die, just to spite you! Watch them, and listen to them as individuals. One might be perfectly happy in a pot (for a while), while another will hate it. One might be very comfortable on your back porch, while another might really yearn to be out in the garden doing its thing.

You've started off wisely by giving them large pots. The babies might look a little lost at first, but you'll be rewarded in the end by much happier plants. Don't force friendships between them, however - keep each plant in its own separate housing arrangements! The plant world is a very competitive one, and they fight to the death!

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 7:55PM
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You will find that preparing your soil mixture to be of the utmost importance to growing herbs, whether in the garden or in containers. Herbal geographic origins will be your guide. Herbs from the Mediterranean area must deal with poor soil conditions, and scarce rainfall. Some common herbs in this are oregano, sage, lavender, thyme, rosemary, dill, and a variety of others. For these plants the soil should drain well so it dries occassionally. I would not add nutrients. We grow oregano in containers on our balcony (sun for most of the day, at least 6 hours, which is very important for herbs). We periodically use a small dose of lime. Remember these herbs respond best to harsher conditions then herbs requiring soil rich with nutrients: ie. garlic, cloves, basil, parsley.

Here is a link that might be useful: Container Gardening

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 8:06PM
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The parsley and two chives could share a pot if they must, because at the least they will not completely shade each other out. They can all probably overwinter outside, and the parsley is a biennial, so it will probably only live for two years, leaving the other two to fight it out. I think they all like similar conditions as well; they're realy not "Mediterranean", I guess. It would be worth giving each of the chives its own pot if you have enough, though, since they usually winter over quite well.

The basil, cilantro, and dill all tend to get taller, so would probably look OK together in a pot set on the floor. They are not perennials, but might reseed themselves in their pot with a bit of encouragement from you. Dill is easy to grow from seed, and if you collect seed from your plant you could sew some in your garden as it empties of other plants. Ditto with cilantro, which tends to bolt in hot weather, so you won't have it that long otherwise.

Rosemary and thyme would probably be happy together, as they are both Mediterranean and like similar soil conditions. They are also, in your zone, fairly slow growing, and will not challenge each other too much. Depending on the kind you have, they will probably need to be brought inside for the winter, but that is no absolute guarantee they will winter over. My best luck with each was by purchasing the most winter hardy variety of each I could, and then wintering over thyme outside in its own pot, and rosemary in the ground on the South side of my house.

Lemon balm is really an outdoor plant and will probably reseed all over the place for you if you plant it outside--if you like the tea from it I would plant it in some semi-shady spot on its own and let it do its thing. In subsequent years you can then have little adventures hunting down your lemon balm whenever you want tea. It is a cooling herb and is great in summertime drinks.

Oregano does so well outside at the edge of the garden that it would be a shame to confine it. It's not really invasive, and does better at establishing itself in regular garden soil than most of the others. It will produce a nice supply of herb for Italian dishes like spaghetti...plant it near your tomatoes so you don't forget to gather some! I have had it winter over for me quite nicely.

There are two kinds of chamomile; one is a perennial and the other is not. I've never had much luck with either one, but if you only have three pots my guess would be to put it with the chives.

Everyone else is correct; in time, if the plants survive, they will all want their own pot, and will be much more productive for you if they have it. With limited land, space, and pots, though, sometimes a bit of triageing is needed....


    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 9:19PM
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I'm in zone 6, too. Everything you list can grow in the ground where you live. I routinely grow parsley & rosemary in pots so I can overwinter them & still enjoy them. I use REALLY BIG pots to avoid the pitfalls of not enough dirt or water. Five gal buckets with holes punched in the bottom work great too.

I have had Greek oregano creep around in the same spot (under a shrub rose of all places) for 12 years. This year, finally, I dug some up & moved it back into the sun because the rose has gotten huge but what's under there is still flourishing as far as I can tell.

My chives migrate regularly, some ending up as "volunteers" in a pot, where they are currently blooming like crazy; the ones in the ground just have buds right now.

Basil this year will go in the ground as I have space for it. In pots it only ever gets about 1/3 the size of the stuff I can put in the ground, regardless the variety, so I prefer ground-- I take 2-3 large harvests off of it every year: one for jelly, one for pesto & the last to dry. It loves living near tomatoes.

Dill's so pretty & airy, you can sow it in between just about anything. This year I've got it between zucchinis & hot peppers (kinda just where it ended up), but I've also had it come up in the flower gardens with calendula & larkspur & roses. (I'm not a very rigid gardener; if the plant's happy where it's shown up, I kinda just let it be. Saves me work, anyway. When the seed heads have dried, I just take handfuls of seeds & throw them in the general direction I want it next year.)

Garlic I always dig in near roses-- keeps the bugs off the flowers really well but doesn't interfere with "the view".

    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 1:41AM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

I was once told by an old and very experienced horticulturist that 'God didn't make pots, and he didn't make houses, either!'. Which was his way of saying that neither is a natural 'home' for plants.

Thanks, Daisy. I like that one!

I agree with this line of thinking. If you have the space for putting herbs in the ground (at least the ones hardy for your zone), so much the better. The plants flourish in natural conditions with little maintenance compared to pots.

If you are an apartment dweller or someone that does not have the ability to garden in an outdoor plot, I think container gardening is a fine alternative. Containers are also great for the plants that will not survive winters in your zone.


    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 4:38PM
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opal52(z7b GA)

Aling, I understand your wanting to have the herbs close at hand. Before I used SWC's, I grew basil and chives in old fashioned pots. They just took more effort to keep them watered. I started all my herbs from seed so they all lived in pots during their early lives. One advantage to growing basil in containers I found is they are less prone to pest attack. Many things enjoy basil other than me. The plants in ground in the garden can get chewed up. Maybe others have different experience than me on that. I learned for example Chipmunks enjoy a cleansing taste of basil on occasion :~).

I saw a nice segment some years ago on Victory Garden showing how to put together a container herb garden. If you haven't read the article you may find it interesting. I hope the link is OK with Garden Web.

Here is a link that might be useful: Container Herb Garden project

    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 5:36PM
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novice_2009(zone 6b)

Wow, everytime I read your posts on here i learn so much!!!
I bought a lemon balm plant, small, and it was too early to put out, as we've had a lot of cool and wet weather. So I put it in a large pot. Well, it's huge now!! I'd think of putting it out, but it seems to start drooping as soon as i set it outside, to try to get it used to it. I have catnip in a container, and it's not happy. I have more seeds I'm going to sow them outside! My rosemary is in a pot, and it's my understanding that that's okay, because it won't survive the winter here. I'd like to have some herbs year round, and the only way to do that is grow some in pots to bring in. Simplemary, i like your style of gardening!

    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 8:51PM
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It all depend on (1) how big the pots are; (2) how many plants of each you want (3) That translates into : How much of those herbs you REALY PICK regularly?

Some container gardening is/can be ornamental, insted of/or to complement flowers in the pots. In the past I have planted basil, chili pepper, cilantro and mints in flower pots. But if you are a hevy consumer of herbs, plant them separately, as catagorized by one of the poster.

Be prepared to water your herb pots more often, especially if the pots are smaller than 16" in diameter and are made of CLAY.Hmmm

    Bookmark   May 25, 2009 at 2:41AM
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I thought cilantro does not like dill and fennel.

    Bookmark   May 25, 2009 at 8:49AM
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Coriander (cilantro) is a bad companion for fennel and dill. It stops them from going to seed, and slows their growth. On occasion, this can be viewed as an advantage! But it won't do the coriander much good, either.

    Bookmark   May 26, 2009 at 8:21AM
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I like growing herbs in containers.I can control the soil and moisture content much better.I have heavy clay soil that doesn't drain well and most herbs don't like being water-logged.
Basil loves rich soil with lots of moisture.I get enough to make pesto and freeze it for the winter.I prefer Genovese Basil for this.
Stevia likes sandy, infertile soil with lots of sun and some filtered shade.It needs a monthly dose of a balanced fertilizer.
Oregano needs full sun , average soil, just fertilize when planting. Cut it back in June to 3" before it flowers and again in August.
Rosemary needs full sun and well-drained average soil.Don't let it dry out but don't drown the roots.It's best to grow it in a tall clay pot.Fertilize with liquid seaweed.
Thyme needs full sun to pt.shade with average well drained sandy soil.Don't fertilize it and don't over-water it.
With all these different soil and water requirements, it makes sense to grow herbs in pots.You can't always amend the soil enough to provide the best conditions but you can always throw in some sand in a pot to make the soil drain better.If you need less moisture, then pot up in a clay pot and it will wick away the extra moisture.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2009 at 12:08PM
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