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12 July 2021

How to grow herbs

Fresh herbs are much tastier than dried ones, but which varieties can be grown indoors on your windowsill and how do you grow your favourite herbs outdoors?
CE
Chad England
herbs rosmary thyme basil

It’s always worth having a supply of fresh herbs on your windowsill or in your garden. The flavours they give to food are heavenly and they add a touch of summer freshness to whatever dish you’re cooking.

Cut herbs, such as basil, chives, coriander or parsley, bought from the supermarket tend to quickly wilt and die. 

We will show you how you can ensure a good supply that will last a reasonable time and will give you a regular harvest of herbs for any dish you decide to cook. 

In this guide we will tell you the best herbs to grow indoors and how to grow the popular varieties in your garden. 

How to grow herbs indoors on your windowsill

herbs grow indoors mint thyme rosemary

To ensure you get the best advice we grew basil, chives, parsley and coriander at our trial gardens using three different methods. We grew each herb from seed, we kept ready-grown herb plants from supermarkets as they were, and we also split densely-sown supermarket plants into smaller clumps and repotted them at the start of the trial.

Growing chives and basil indoors

Best method: split plants from the supermarket

Supermarket herbs are essentially sold as lots of young plants in a single pot. Because there are so many crammed in together, they don’t have room to develop and compete with each other for water and nutrients. When we split the supermarket-grown basil and chive plants, we incorporated a controlled-release fertiliser with a Best Buy compost for containers. These repotted herbs bulked out substantially and gave a much more consistent yield over the course of the trial. In just ten days, the split plants were doing better than the untouched supermarket plants, which were already showing signs of nutrient stress.

  • Basil: The split plants produced 40g more leaves than the unsplit basil plants at each harvest during July and August.
  • Chives: The split plants produced about 15g more leaves than the unsplit chive plants at each harvest during August and September.

How to grow them

  1. Remove the plant from its pot and very gently tease the roots apart so that the plant is split into segments.
  2. We split the contents of each pot into six, which worked out at about 5-10 basil plants (you can count the number of stems) and 15-20 chives per pot.
  3. Mix a small amount of controlled-release fertiliser into a Best Buy compost for containers.
  4. Plant the clumps in separate pots and fill round them with the compost.

Growing parsley and coriander indoors

Best method: grow from seed

If you don’t mind waiting a little while for your herbs, it’s well worth growing parsley and coriander from seed instead. We sowed our herbs in late July and by the end of August they really started producing well. By the end of our trial, the seed-grown plants were very lush and healthy and were growing strongly.

  • Coriander: A single pot of seed grown coriander produced 52g of leaves – 40g was from the harvest at the end of September.
  • Parsley: A single pot of seed-grown parsley had produced over 30g more leaves than the supermarket pot by the end of the trial. 

How to grow them

  1. These herbs can be sown at any time between spring and autumn when there’s plenty of light.
  2. Fill a pot with a Best Buy compost for sowing seeds, water it, then sprinkle the seed thinly on top.
  3. Cover with another light dusting of compost.
  4. Place in a sunny position, and continue to water, making sure the soil doesn’t dry out

Coriander took ten days to germinate and parsley took almost three weeks – it’s notoriously erratic. Once the seeds come up, they may need thinning out to give them more space. If you do remove some seedlings, gently firm those that are left back into the soil. We grew about 30-50 seedlings per pot, which is about the same number of plants as in a supermarket-bought pot.

How to grow herbs in your garden

herbs grow outdoors garden

In August 2014, we asked 4,414 members of our Which? Connect online panel to tell us about the herbs they grow and how they use them. A massive 4,332 members (98% of those who grow herbs) do it to use them in cooking. They grow 10 different culinary herbs in the garden, on average.

Mint

  • Mint is the most frequently grown herb, finding a place in the gardens of a massive 89% of culinary herb growers. 
  • How to grow: Grow in a rich, moist soil in sun or partial shade. Restrict the roots to prevent it from spreading. Sow seeds or divide plants in spring, or divide before they die back in autumn. Pick healthy green leaves in autumn and freeze them to use over winter.
  • Height x spread: 30-100cm x indefinite

Rosemary

  • Versatile rosemary is one of the favourite herbs for its aroma, appearance and for using in cooking. It is the most popular herb for flavouring meat – used this way by 87% of those who grow it – especially lamb.
  • How to grow: Grow in well-drained, neutral or alkaline soil in full sun, and with shelter in colder areas. Prune after flowering to encourage bushy growth. Propagate from semi-ripe cuttings in summer.
  • Height x spread: 200 x 200cm

Chives

  • The mild onion flavour of chives finds its place in many of your recipes; around three quarters of those who grow them use them to liven up salads and half add them to potatoes.
  • How to grow: Grow in rich soil in full sun – but chives will tolerate heavier, wetter conditions than other alliums. Cover with fleece in winter to get earlier leaves (and flowers). Sow seeds in spring or divide clumps in spring or autumn.
  • Height x spread: 60 x 30cm

Thyme

  • Common thyme is grown for cooking by 70% our members, but unusual thymes are also quite popular – 30% grow lemon, orange or creeping thyme.
  • How to grow: Thyme prefers well-drained soil in sun. Add a layer of gravel to prevent the leaves touching wet soil, and trim lightly after flowering to encourage bushiness. Sow seed or divide plants in spring, or take cuttings in summer.
  • Height x spread: 30 x 40cm

Parsley

  • Members particularly love parsley for its versatility; it’s a popular choice for six different types of cooking with those who grow it – more than any other herb. The top method is cooking it with fish, but it’s also a very popular choice for flavouring sauces.
  • How to grow: Grow in rich, well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil in sun or partial shade. Protect in winter in frost-prone areas, or sow seeds on a windowsill indoors from September to November for a constant supply of leaves. 
  • Height x spread: 80 x 45cm

Basil

  • For members who could restrict themselves to naming just one favourite culinary herb, sweet basil topped the list. You love adding fresh leaves to salads and sauces, particularly for pasta. Many of you make pesto or find basil a vital accompaniment to tomatoes.
  • How to grow: Grow in rich, light, well drained or dry soil. Pinch out the growing tips to encourage bushiness and delay flowering. Sow seeds in spring directly where you want them to grow.
  • Height x spread: 60 x 30cm

Sage

  • The wrinkled, velvety, pale-grey evergreen leaves of common sage have found a home in 61% of our culinary-herb-growers’ gardens.
  • How to grow: Grow in well-drained to dry, neutral-to-alkaline soil in sun. Sow seeds in spring, or take cuttings in spring, summer or autumn.
  • Height x spread: 80 x 100cm

Bay

  • Bay is grown by 59% of our culinary herb growers, and it’s the most useful herb that you grow for providing winter colour in the garden.
  • How to grow: Grow in well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Trim to shape in summer, removing any suckers from topiaries or standard trees. Propagate from semi-ripe cuttings in summer or from suckers. 
  • Height x spread: up to 15 x 10m

Lavender

  • Lavender barely makes it into the kitchen because you’re too busy enjoying its scent, flowers and attractive foliage in your gardens
  • How to grow: Grow in well-drained, neutral-to-alkaline soil in an open, sunny position. Propagate by taking cuttings. To avoid the plant growing large and woody, trim back after flowering.
  • Height x spread: 70 x 100cm

Oregano

  • Oregano is good for encouraging insects and bees into your garden. Two thirds of you use oregano both for flavouring meat and cooking in sauces.
  • How to grow: Grow in well-drained to dry, neutral to alkaline soil. Sow seeds in autumn and divide plants or propagate by basal cuttings in late spring. Cover with fleece or pot some up for winter use in the greenhouse. 
  • Height x spread: 90 x 90cm

Herb planters

Having fresh, home-grown herbs at hand is every keen cook’s dream, and herb planters appeal as a way to have lots of different ones in a relatively small space.

There are certainly many planters to choose from: pots; bags; wall hangers; tables and wheels. They need to be able to cope with a variety of herbs, such as mint that likes to spread, and herbs that like different soil conditions, as well as looking good throughout the season. 

Although some planters are cheap, many are expensive, so Which? Gardening tested different herb planters find out which ones are worth buying.

Best Buy herb planter
Name
Our findings
Price
Where to buy
This recycled-plastic planter consists of three joined pots, forming one planter, and comes with large moulded hooks to loop over a fence or balcony. We planted it up with a range of herbs, including sage, rosemary, basil and mint. Despite not holding a lot of compost, it remains damp for two or three days without watering, so will keep your plants healthy if you can’t water them every day. The herbs all kept a good shape and, surprisingly, the mint didn’t spread until the end of the season. The hanger comes in a range of colours, so you can match it to your planting scheme.
£11.99
Certainly not the prettiest of herb planters, this is essentially a green plastic sack with eight slits to form pockets at the side for herbs, handles and drainage holes. However, it was very successful at keeping a range of herbs alive through a hot summer. The mint and sage grew particularly well as the bag kept the soil damp. Unfortunately, this meant that the thyme and rosemary struggled more as they prefer drier conditions. Overall, it was very robust, standing up through the winter with handles intact.
 
£2.99

Caring for a herb planter

Keep them watered

Some planters have only a small section for each herb and the compost in each will dry out swiftly in hot weather. We found the herb planter tables particularly poor for this as there was only around a litre of compost in each of the six sections that hold the herbs.

Match the plant to the location 

Different herbs prefer different degrees of dampness. Pocket planters are particularly prone to drying out at the top and remaining damp at the bottom. If you’re growing diverse herbs, having a planter with separate areas will allow you to provide each herb with optimum growing conditions.

Watch out for invasive plants

Mint is a kitchen essential for many of us, but it is invasive while sage is also a bit of a thug. It’s better to keep these in separate pots as they don’t play nicely with the other herbs and will swamp them.

Weed and feed

Where there is compost, there are weeds, so you’ll still need to pull the occasional weed out of your herb planter. Also, giving your herbs occasional liquid feed will help them keep going in a small amount of compost.