Stuck for space to grow? Try planting herbs in containers

Easy to grow and packed with flavour, herbs make the maximum impact for a small space, not just in meals, but also cocktails

I tried to use herbs in my cooking before I started growing my own in containers. Looking back, I marvel at the frustration this involved. I kept dried mint and rosemary in jars, but when I dug them out of the cupboard they never really seemed to taste of much. My local corner shop sold enormous bunches of coriander and parsley, which always looked like great value when I first got them home. But the bunches were so much larger than I needed that the majority of the leaves ended up turning to slime in the glass I’d plonked them in, in an effort to keep them fresh. Occasionally I’d plan a dish that needed fresh herbs which I could only get in plastic supermarket packets: sage, thyme, tarragon, dill or lemon grass. I’d use half and the rest ended their days at the bottom of the fridge. When they were fresh I loved their flavours, but the expense and the waste left an unpleasant aftertaste.

Growing my own herbs close at hand on my balcony and windowsills transformed my relationship with them. I discovered that they are tailor-made for growing in small spaces: packed with flavour, they made the most of every inch you can give them. Even if you just have one window sill you can grow a good supply of your favourites, and if you have space for a few more pots on a small balcony or patio you could be self sufficient in herbs in spring, summer and autumn – and you’ll even get a few sprigs of rosemary, coriander, bay and parsley in winter, too.

Most herbs grow easily in containers. The easiest include mint, thyme, rosemary, sage and bay. Those that are a little more tricky (but definitely worth a try) include tarragon, basil, wasabi and lemongrass. Herbs are also a good choice if your space doesn’t get much sun. Some of the best herbs for shady spaces include mint, chives, parsley, coriander and chervil (though they’ll need at least three hours of sun a day to thrive). Some Mediterranean herbs, such as rosemary, sage, bay, thyme and basil, will grow reasonably well in just four hours’ sun. They may not develop the full flavour they would in full sun – but they’ll still taste a lot better than most of the herbs on sale in supermarkets.

I’ve found that part of the magic of having a few fresh herbs at your fingertips is the ease with which they can elevate simple food into something delicious. Pick a little lovage, mint and chives to lift a simple salad. Or fresh coriander to sprinkle over a dhal; mint for new potatoes; rosemary for a tomato and anchovy pasta sauce. The more you learn about how to use herbs, the more essential they seem.

Growing your own also gives you access to a range of herbs which can be tricky to source. Fresh fenugreek for a curry? No problem. Shiso for a Japanese dish? Grow it just like basil. Sorrel for an Ottolenghi dish? A super and productive container crop. Vietnamese coriander for an authentic soup? Easy to grow, great in stir fries, too – and usually only available by mail order.

Even if you stick to more common herbs, you’ll discover flavours unavailable in the shops. Green coriander seeds turn out to be small jewels of flavour. Coriander roots add earthy, fragrant depth to a dish. Rosemary or sage flowers make an exquisite and tasty garnish. Chive flowers add colour, flavour, and a pleasing crunch.

Modern recipes often call for three or four herbs. Buying them all on a regular basis is expensive and not all herbs are easy to find fresh. Growing them costs a fraction of the price, is more convenient, tastes better and eliminates waste – you just pick the leaves you need, when you need them.

My cooking has been transformed by having a range of fresh herbs close at hand, but they have their uses in drinks too, of course. I regularly make tea with Moroccan mint and chocolate mint, and I’ve found that lemon verbena, blackcurrant sage and chamomile all make a lovely brew. I’ve even been known to use fresh borage flowers, mint and lemongrass in cocktails.

Still, the pleasure I get from herbs doesn’t end there. I get enormous joy from watching them grow and flower, and smelling their scent whenever I’m watering them.


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