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Container Gardening

Herbs Indoors

stevia   curly mint   chocolate mint   apple mint   parsley
Shown here are:  Stevia, Curly Mint, Chocolate Mint, Apple Mint and Parsley

There are so many choices of flowers and herbs that are suitable for containers that you can have lots of fun trying different combinations. Lavender, basil, thyme, sage, dill, chives, lemon verbena, mints, oregano, rosemary, and parsley can be combined with flowers such as nasturtiums, violas, zinnias, portulaca, scaevola, and dahlias. These herbs and flowers need full sun, which means at least six hours a day. Arugula, garlic, chervil, coriander/cilantro, pineapple sage, mustard, summer savory, sweet marjoram, sweet bay are some more herbs that will do well indoors.  Try growing scented geraniums, too. I guarantee you plenty of sensual pleasure as you care for these alive-with-fragrance plants in the dead of winter!  You will find special tips for growing them at the end of this article.

In planning an indoor herb garden, familiarize yourself with the elements that affect plant growth. You will have to play Mother Nature and provide all of those elements when you grow herbs indoors.  Growing herbs indoors is not an effortless task. The harsh reality is that in general they are not the easiest of plants to keep flourishing inside. But it is possible, and the rewards are certainly worth the effort.

You'll need to choose an all purpose potting soil that contains some humus (not just peat moss) and moisten the soil. If you are using clay pots, soak them in water prior to planting so they don't draw moisture out of the soil.

Herbs can either be grown indoors year-round, brought inside from the outdoors in the fall, or newly started in the fall. Large planters may be heavy to move, or indoor space may be too small; individual pots are generally the best bet.

The key to successfully growing herbs indoors is bright light. A large window facing south is best, with an eastern exposure the next choice. If you cannot provide the necessary light but want herbs, consider investing in a grow-light unit. This may be a simple fluorescent work light with 4-foot tubes, one warm- and one cool-white. Verilux bulbs provide a better spectrum of light but are much more expensive. Those who are really serious about growing herbs indoors should consider a high-pressure light unit, perhaps also with a matching hydroponic setup as well. To be effective, fluorescent lights should be lit for at least 15 to 16 hours per day.

Most herbs need cool temperatures - in the 60° to 70°F range during the day and about ten degrees cooler at night.

Good air circulation is important to healthy indoor herb growth.  Invest in a small fan to gently keep the air moving.

Herbs won't be growing as actively as in the summer.  Fertilize less often and let them dry out slightly between regular waterings. Feed lightly every two weeks.  Crowded roots will deplete the nourishment from the soil since they can't stretch to look elsewhere. The mints need lots of root room and are very nice in hanging baskets.  Because most of our homes are dry during the winter, increase the humidity around the plants by using a humidifier or set the herbs on trays that hold water and have raised racks for holding the pots, or on trays filled with pebbles, gravel or the like.

Too much water has probably killed more container-grown herbs than too little. As a rule of thumb, feel the soil and be sure it is dry about an inch down before watering again. If needed, water thoroughly so that it flows out of the drainage hole. It's best to use room temperature water.  I always keep a couple of gallons of water set aside so it's ready when I am. 

You must pay particular attention to the water and nutrient needs of different herbs -- they will need different quantities of water. Basil, parsley, mint, chervil, and arugula do best if kept moist, not bone dry or soggy wet. Let Mediterranean plants such as rosemary and lavender dry out slightly before you water again. Adjust the amount you fertilize to your light levels. In a dark area, where herbs struggle to stay alive, they may not need fertilizer at all. In bright light where herbs are actively growing, you can fertilize every month. Be sure to harvest fast-growing herbs often so they'll stay compact. And you may want to replant crops that you use often so you'll always have a fresh young plant to take the place of an older plant.

Other herbs to consider for inside gardening: aloe (purchase plant), bay tree (purchase), catnip (seed), lavender (L. dentata variety best - purchase plant or seeds), and the scented geraniums, lemon verbena, and the southernwoods from summer cuttings (or purchase plants).  Bay, lemon balm, and the other mints need only partial sun indoors, and can be in east or west-facing windows. The rest need southern exposure or indoor lights for best results. 

Strawberry pots, upright terra-cotta planters with openings in the sides, are a great way to show off herbs. Fill the side openings with small cascading or bushy herbs to dangle down handsomely -- such as sweet marjoram, thyme, lady's mantle, lavender, creeping rosemary, winter savory, oregano, and 'Lemon Gem' marigolds. The opening in the top is a good place for upright and mound-shaped herbs such as parsley, basil, perilla, sage, and lavender, as well as vining ornmentals such as ivy.  Drought-tolerant herbs are clear winners for strawberry pots, because the pots dry out quickly and can be hard to rewet thoroughly. To make watering easier, insert a narrow, perforated plastic tube down the middle of the pot before filling it with soil. You can pour water down the tube and reach all levels of the pot.

As you fill up the container, plant well-rooted seedlings in the holes as you come to them. Insert the root ball slightly below the level of the hole and firm the soil well around it. Once the herb develops a good set of roots, it will prevent much soil from washing out of the hole. Fertilize once a month, or as needed for the herbs you're growing.

Although growing herbs indoors in soil in pots is not always satisfying, I have had much more success growing herbs hydroponically. They are healthy, dark green, fast-growing, productive, and tasty. Herbs do not like wet feet in the garden, but they flourish under water culture simply because no soil is involved. In the garden, soil acts as an anchor for plants, and nutrients must be converted to liquid to be absorbed by the roots. Using water culture and no soil, no conversion need take place, and herbs thrive. Another plus to soilless gardening is the absence of weeds and, generally, of insects, diseases, and other soilborne problems.

Note: If you wish to begin with seeds instead of seedlings, you will need to germinate them first in separate containers before transferring the baby seedlings to your indoor garden.  See our page called "Germination Station" for more information on starting from seeds. 

Scented Geraniums:

Select from the following most fragrant of the scented geraniums, the leaves of which can be used for tea, baking, and potpourri:

  • Rose scents: Attar of Roses, Rober's Lemon Rose, and True Rose
  • Lemon scents: Dr. Livingston, lemon balm, Mable Gray (heaven itself), Prince Rupert, and lemon crispum (the fingerbowl geranium)
  • Fruit and spice scents: apple (great for hanging baskets), apricot, cinnamon, ginger, lime, Logeei (spicy), nutmeg, orange, and strawberry
  • Peppermint scents: chocolate mint, Joy Lucille
  • Pungent scents: Godfrey's Pride, Mrs. Kingsley, pine, and Pretty Polly (almond fragrance)


Scented geraniums make exquisite houseplants, provided they receive good sun or light, are not overwatered (once a week usually sufficient), have firm, loamy soil, and receive occasional fertilization.  They love misting and occasional spray showers in the tub or kitchen sink.

When growth is lush, as the sun warms the plants up in the spring, trim the top third of the branches and root the prunings in water or a sandy loam to increase your crop. For large summer harvests, place them in your gardens in the summer (after last frost). Or leave them in their pots and put them outside - just be sure they don't dry out in the hot sun, more of a danger when left potted up. Make cuttings late in the summer to pot up for gifts, and bring both cuttings and mother plants inside before frost. The re-potted, tired mother plants will need a rest, so don't feed them for a few weeks. Water them lightly and keep them out of the direct sun for the dormant period, just as we do with rosemary and lemon verbena when first brought inside each fall.

More gardening information on this website:

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