Keeping herbs alive in containers?

RF1279(6)November 19, 2011

Hi all-

I am hoping some of you can share the secret to successfully growing herbs in containers. I have been attempting this since last spring, but so far have not had much luck.

I've tried starting from seeds and starting from plants. I've tried starting my seeds in different types of containers. I've tried watering more/watering less. I've tried keeping the containers outside (in summer) and inside. Planting in different size pots. Nothing works.

I never have a problem with the seeds germinating. That always happens. However, they seem to grow for a couple of weeks and then, just when they're starting to look like a plant, they die. It doesn't seem to make a difference what type of container (peat pot, styrofoam cup, egg carton, small flower pot) I start them in.

If I start from plants instead of seeds, they still die after about a month. I'm trying to grow basil, thyme, oregano, dill, chives, rosemary, parsley, spearmint, peppermint, sage, dill, and cilantro. Only basil seems to grow with any success. My thyme and mint plants aren't dead but they are sad and sparse, with tiny leaves--not big enough to use for cooking.

Any suggestions on what I'm doing wrong? I live in an apartment with a south-facing window and a south-facing balcony, so they're getting plenty of light.

Please help!

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RF1279, I take it that we can rule out 'damping off' disease on the seedlings.
How do the basil plants measure up against a "normal" basil - not the other plants in your collection? If they too are undersize in any way, then the conclusion has to be that there is a condition lacking in the environment of your plants. Undersized leaves indicate inadequate cell division; which in turn can point to a phosphate deficiency; which is sometimes manifested by a blu(ish) color in the youngest portion of the seedling. look closely and if you see this you might consider using a starter solution for all your seedlings and transplants.
You do use starter solutions? Well, then, in that case, I strongly recommend you try your hand at Bonsai.
My lame attempt at humor on a beautiful Saturday morn.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2011 at 8:30AM
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calistoga_al ca 15 usda 9

Most all herbs are summer annuals and are best grown with no check in growth, with fast drainage and plenty of sunshine. Being grown in a container is just as good as grown in the ground, except you must maintain a STEADY, not fluctuating fertilizing regimen. Al

    Bookmark   November 19, 2011 at 9:09AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Most annuals are long day pl;ants and do best during periods of increasing photoperiod.

The primary suspect would be a combination of a too heavy hand on the watering can and an overly water-retentive soil. All plants we are likely to grow do best (in containers) in soils that drain well and are well-aerated.

In my experience, I have found that if you start with a good foundation, and the soil is indeed the foundation of all conventional container plantings, most of the other issues never become manifest, so you don't need to deal with them.


    Bookmark   November 19, 2011 at 12:05PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

I've grown all the herbs you mention (except cilantro) in containers for years and generally been successful. First, keep in mind that just because they are all herbs doesn't mean they all have the same cultural needs. It's worth doing some research to see what conditions they prefer. Some are annuals, Iike basil and dill, that complete their life cycle outdoors in the summer. They need sun and wilt quickly if their potting soil dries out. Most of the ones you cite can live longer. Many are native to the Mediterranean or Middle East, where they grow in fast draining soil with low fertility and full sun year around.

I grew most of my herbs in clay pots with Al's gritty mix this year, and it worked very well. Each one needs its own pot. I use a small amount of controlled release fertilizer in the mix and do not use any fertilizer when I water. The ones with tougher leaves (like rosemary, thyme and oregano) must dry out thoroughly between waterings. They all need a lot of sun. I have been able to keep parsley, thyme, and rosemary alive over the winter in a sunny, cool bay window. They don't thrive in winter, but I have enough to use for cooking.

My worst experience was when I grew mixed herbs in a single container with a Miracle Gro type peat-based mix.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2011 at 9:18AM
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caryltoo Z7/SE PA

Hi All,

I'm trying all my herbs in containers this year and had a few questions. First, does each herb need its own container or can I mix a few in a large container, say cilantro and parsley? Also, has anyone ever grown fennel or other veggies like beets or carrots in a container? What kind of depth will I need to get the bulb to flourish?

Thanks for your help.


    Bookmark   April 20, 2013 at 2:28PM
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This is my second year having a full range of container plants, of all different sizes. I've been successful in most things, including growing squash in an empty ricotta container (yes, even that small!) I think it's probably best to look at 1 sq ft foot containers minimum for most plants. I've been using those black plastic containers that trees come in. We have a great local garden store gave me a bunch of emptys last year.

As for the herbs, you can grow them in one container if it's big enough- probably minimum 6 in per plant. I don't know about cilantro, but parsley can take an entire container if you let it. I think the more room you give the more robust of a plant you'll get.

And I think the key to successful container gardening is the right soil. I just bought good potting soil, compost, and peat moss at Lowes and do an equal mixture.

I'm not by any means an expert, but that has been my experience.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2013 at 3:07PM
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caryltoo Z7/SE PA

Thanks, Navydoc. My containers are all pretty big. Most are 25 qt. or bigger. I put five cilantro in one and five parsley in another so far. They might get a bit crowded, but they're so tiny right now that I'll just let them grow for a bit and then adjust if I have to. Parsley usually does better the second year anyway, at least in the ground. My biggest container is getting the basil, I did it in there last year and they did fine.

Never thought about mixing peat in with the MG potting soil.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2013 at 3:46PM
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I grow herbs in containers I use self-watering pots I get at a dollar store. I use potting mix, notpotting soil. After I plant or the seed comeup and develop true leaves I never water from the top. I just fill the reserve on the bottom of the pot.
About every 2 weeks I mix Hastagrow in the water I use to fill the resurve.
I do mix herbs in one pot, but I try and keep herb with like growing needs together.
I grow carrots in 10 gallon smart pots however I pull and use them a the baby carrot stage. The granddaughter
loves them.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2013 at 10:52PM
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Rosemary lives for years in a pot, but it won't recover after drying out. You have to keep an eye on it. The chief danger is that if it is happy it wants to get very big and fills the pots with roots before you know it and dries out in a flash. Boom, it is dead. Of course, it is in the mint family and comes very easily from seed or cuttings and so is cheap to buy, if you lose it. Fortunately for me, my DH is devoted to our rosemary and monitors it religiously.

Some perennial herbs need winter dormancy -- tarragon and chives, for example. After many years I am keeping tarragon in pots growing over the winter (outside). I have my own method, I sink a small pot with lots of drainage -- slits in the side - they came that way - in a large pot with lots of drainage. They seem to get the drainage (i.e., air) around their roots that way but are buffered from the stress of drying out too soon. I have three large pots of it growing outside and plan to add at least 3 more this year, if possible, because we find tarragon indispensable for salads and spinach quiche, and the dried stuff has gotten ridiculously expensive. I believe tarragon must need minerals like calcium, silica, and some lime.

Chives also needs winter dormancy. The leaves after flowering become tough, so you have to keep trimming, fertilizing and renewing to keep new growth coming along. My pots of chives are also outdoors.

Other herbs must be regarded as crops: parsley, basil, and so on. They are really better to eat when harvested young, like lettuce.

I am just going into the farmers' market to look for some young chervil plants. I don't mind the expense. These like cool weather, like pansies. My mother kept some alive all summer in the ground on the north side of her house and near a spring she had on her property (where she also grew watercress), but I have not been able to do so. Chervil is quite easy to grow from seed, but I never remember to plant it early enough.

I have tried growing watercress indoors in water with an air pump, but in the end, didn't find it appetizing. I just couldn't believe the water was really fresh and bacteria free, so I just buy it in the grocery store. Since we live in a Chinese neighborhood, it is plentiful year round.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2013 at 12:47PM
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caryltoo Z7/SE PA

Thanks, Monarda. I wondered why my rosemary died -- now i know i didn't water it enough after i brought it in. It grows so slowly at first and then by the end of the summer it had pretty much filled the pot. I brought it inside thinking to keep it, but obviously didn't do something right since it died in late december, early january.

And you also reminded me that I need to dig my chives out and pot them up -- they're the only perennial herb I don't want to start over with since they're a nice size now.


    Bookmark   April 25, 2013 at 6:43AM
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Years ago, I couldn't understand why my basil always died. I bought those pots from the supermarket, that has 10-20 plant in them, and put them in a bigger pot.
Well, since I started dividing them, they are doing much better. Those 10-20 plants you get in a pot, will do fine in 10-20 pots!


    Bookmark   April 27, 2013 at 5:15PM
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my rosemary is in a very dry spot soil is very sandy
we didn't water it at all for two years and had a very severe drought during that time, but it's doing great
so great I had to cut it back by half and it's still 3x3
I have both standard and prostrate rosemary both doing well without much water

    Bookmark   April 28, 2013 at 10:04PM
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