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Growing Herbs on the Balcony

Herbs are excellent garden plants to grow on a balcony. Although most prefer hot sunny conditions, some can tolerate shade and a couple even desire it. They are anything but demanding. I've found that we make use of basil and parsley the most. They never go to waste. I've grown things like lemon balm and lavender in the past but never knew why. They just took up space. So now I limit myself to things I know we'll use. By growing perennial herbs in small pots you can easily move them into the kitchen window when winter comes. Unlike vegetables, most herbs will tolerate a dry spell and apparently some taste better after a little drought.

herbs

You can buy herb starter plants from a garden center or start your own from seed. Herbs with tap roots like dill and coriander don't transplant well but if you're careful they might be alright with it. Some herbs such as oregano and thyme vary in taste so much that they really should be started from transplants purchased from a garden center. This gives you the opportunity to sniff and taste and then purchase what works best for you.

Perennial herbs can be propagated by cuttings or layering. I've found that just cutting off a healthy green branch, trimming the bottom leaves, and inserting it into some potting soil is all it takes. Eventually the cutting forms roots and can be transplanted into a permanent container home. Layering is another technique that involves pinning a branch to the soil surface in another container and waiting for roots to form from the branch into the new soil. The branch can then be cut and you'll have another plant.

Most herbs are immune to attacks from most pests - rosemary, thyme, oregano, chives. I've seen aphids wandering around on coriander leaves but they don't seem to thrive there like they do on other plants. But I have seen them as well as spider mites take a liking to new basil growth.


basil

Basil

Osimum spp

  • Annual
  • Prefers full sun
  • Enjoys moist soil conditions
  • Grows 12-24 inches tall
  • Easily grown from seed or transplants

Basil needs warm weather to grow and it will not tolerate cool temps. I start my basil indoors from seed and always start it too early. The plants suffer in the cool spring temperatures: leaves shrivel and the plants don't appear to grow at all. And then the warmer temperatures come around and the plants perk up.

Basil does well in containers given enough sun and a good amount of water. And unlike some herbs that seem to enjoy poor soil conditions, basil craves the nutrients and does better with a bit of fertilizer. There are many varieties to choose from and several are readily available as starter plants at garden centers. Sweet basil is one of my favorites. Like most herbs, once it flowers it will stop putting out much new growth. Apparently the taste diminishes also but I can never tell the difference. Pinch the stems back to discourage flowering and force branching to increase leaf production.

Chervil

Anthriscus cerefolium

  • Annual
  • Prefers partial shade and will not tolerate full sun
  • Enjoys moist growing conditions
  • Grows about 12 inches tall
  • Does not transplant well and is best started from seed

Chervil is an annual similar to flat leaf parsley that has a taste similar to fennel. Unlike most herbs, chervil really doesn't do well in the heat and goes to seed quickly. It is rather delicate. Thanks to a tap root it does not transplant well so it's best started from seed in the container you intend to keep it in. I've found it to be a little difficult to grow. However, it does make a great container plant. Put it in a container you can move around to a shady spot out of the wind and hot summer sun. Chervil works well in salads and as a final garnish in soups. It's one of those plants you want to make use of when it's still young and tender, long before it bolts and goes to seed.

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Chives

Allium schoenoprasum

  • Perennial
  • Prefers full sun but will tolerate partial shade
  • Enjoys moist growing conditions
  • Grows 12-18 inches tall
  • Can be started from seed or transplant

I grow onion chives and not the flat leaf or garlic chives which taste like garlic and are common in Asian cooking. I've started chives indoors from seed but they are easy to propagate by uprooting a clump and dividing it. They are perennials that take a while to establish themselves but once they do, they thrive. To harvest, you just snip off however many leaves you need about an inch or two from the soil surface. New leaves will grow back quite quickly.

I've never tried to over-winter chives on the balcony and it might be more trouble than it's worth. Apparently they need a dormancy period before they'll regrow in the spring so overwintering indoors is not an option and I suspect they wouldn't survive a winter on the balcony. No matter though. It's not much trouble to just toss some seeds in a pot and start again next year.

Coriander

Coriandrum sativum

  • Annual
  • Prefers full sun
  • Enjoys moist, well drained soil conditions
  • Grows 12-24 inches tall
  • Best grown from seed, does not transplant well

The way I understand it, the leaves of the coriander plant are known as cilantro. Both seeds and leaves have uses in the kitchen but I'm more familiar with the leaves. Coriander is one of those herbs that is best started from seed in the container you intend to grow it in. The plant forms a tap root which doesn't like being transplanted. Although it appreciates the sun, it has a tendency to bolt quickly in the summer heat. I find it rather difficult to grow and I've never been happy with its performance in containers on the balcony.

Dill

Anethum graveolens

  • Perennial
  • Prefers full sun
  • Enjoys moist, well drained soil conditions
  • Grows 12-48 inches tall
  • Best grown from seed, does not transplant well

I like growing dill but I never find enough to do with it. And by the time I want to use it, it's tall, lanky and flowering. The best time to harvest dill leaves is when the plants are small and compact. As temperatures start to climb, the dill gets taller and taller and the next thing you know, it has gone to seed. The seed heads have their uses also but I never bother with them. It's the leaves I like most.

Dill is one of those herbs that is best started from seed in the container you intend to grow it in. The plant forms a tap root which doesn't like being transplanted. Having said that though, I will also say that I have started it from seed in my window sill and not had any trouble transplanting it to a bigger container on the balcony once it reaches a few inches in height. I don't think it's worth the trouble though. Dill is a fast grower. Although it is a perennial that will go dormant over winter and come back in the spring, I always treat it as an annual and start new plants at the start of the growing season.

Mint

Mentha spp

  • Perennial
  • Can handle partial shade
  • Enjoys moist growing conditions
  • Grows up to 2 feet tall
  • Best started through propagation or transplant

Mint thrives in containers but you might not want to plant it in a container with other plants as it will quickly send out surface runners and dominate it's container mates. But this need to spread also means it can easily be propagated and will continue to keep you supplied with fresh tea leaves throughout the growing season and beyond.

There are several different varieties of mint available but the few times I've grown mint on the balcony I've used English Mint or Spearmint purchased from a garden center. I've had good luck with Apple Mint too. Pretty much all varieties of mint will not grow true from seed so you're best to purchase plants (or steal cuttings) instead. We use our mint exclusively for tea. It's ability to grow under a range of lighting conditions makes it an ideal container plant for the balcony.

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Oregano

Origanum spp

  • Perennial
  • Prefers full sun
  • Enjoys well drained soil, not too wet
  • Grows 12-24 inches tall
  • Best started through propagation or transplant

Oregano is a perennial herb used in Italian and Greek cooking. I've grown Greek oregano (o.heracleoticum) started form seed. The seeds are extremely small making starting it in this manner somewhat tedious. It is also one of those plants were the actual taste can vary greatly from plant to plant. Best to grab some seedlings from the garden center so you can sample it before making a purchase.

Oregano doesn't need to be constantly moist to be happy and isn't too particular about the soil it's growing in either. The oregano I've grown starts off slow but spreads into a dense mat that reaches out over its container. Almost all of the oregano we use ends up in tomato sauces. Apparently there are varieties of oregano that will survive down to hardiness zone 5 but I've never tried to get it to overwinter on the balcony. When winter comes, trim it down a bit and let it over-wintering in the kitchen window where it certainly won't thrive but should survive.

Parsley (Flat Leaf)

Petroselinum neapolitanum

  • Biennial
  • Prefers full sun but will tolerate partial shade
  • Enjoys moist, well drained soil
  • Grows 8 to 16 inches tall
  • Can be started from seed or transplant

So much more than just a garnish. I grow Italian flat leaf parsley - a biennial. I don't bother with the curly leaf kind. I start my plants indoors from seed and it transplants well and thrives in containers with minimal care. Apparently parsley seeds take a very long time to germinate although mine never seem to take as long as people claim it should. I've read that pre-soaking the seeds before planting makes them germinate faster because the seeds have a particularly persistent natural inhibitor to prevent premature germination.

I grow my parsley in partially sunny conditions. I find it to be a rather thirsty plant that enjoys daily watering when grown in a container. Two or three plants are all you need for casual use. We pick branches and leaves off as needed and by the end of the season we usually still have more than we need.

Rosemary

Rosmarinus officinalis

  • Perennial
  • Prefers full sun but will tolerate partial shade
  • Enjoys well drained soil
  • Can grow up to 6 feet tall
  • Best started through propagation or transplant

Rosemary is an evergreen tender perennial. I believe it is hardy to zone 8 which means it would likely die during the winter unprotected on my balcony but maybe with a bit of help I can keep it going. They do alright indoors for the winter but originating from a humid climate, they appreciate a light misting from time to time. The last rosemary plant I purchased spent a couple of winters in the kitchen window before it got too unmanageable. After a few seasons, rosemary kept in containers can get a little wild and gnarled but cuttings root quickly meaning you can easily propagate it and start again.

Thyme

Thymus spp

  • Perennial
  • Prefers full sun but will tolerate partial shade
  • Enjoys well drained sandy soil
  • Grows 6 to 12 inches tall
  • Best started through propagation or transplant

Thyme is an evergreen perennial and being compact and hardy makes it a perfect plant for container growing. It doesn't require much moisture and seems indifferent when it comes to soil nutrients. I've grown German Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) from seed and occasionally purchased other varieties of thyme from the garden center, such as Lemon Thyme (Thymus x citriodorous). It's best to purchase starter thyme plants from the garden center. It does propagate easily though, by cuttings or layering. I have seen cuttings of German Thyme form a good size root ball after only a few weeks in potting soil without any artificial assistance.


For most of the summer and fall, having fresh herbs in our kitchen is just a matter of walking out on the balcony with a pair of scissors and giving a few plants a little haircut. In the winter I've let some of my perennial herbs rest in the kitchen window. They don't do much growing there but they survive and continue to provide us with fresh herbs over the winter.

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