Perhaps no other group of edible plants is quite as useful to the balcony gardener as herbs. With little effort you can be self-sufficient in kitchen basics such as parsley, rosemary, bay, thyme, chives, mint, cilantro, sage, tarragon, and even basil, and have more unusual herbs at your daily disposal too, such as lemon verbena, Thai basil, and chervil. Since you usually take only a few leaves at a time when harvesting herbs, a few plants go a very long way in the kitchen, and if this didn’t make them worthy enough of a place on the edible balcony, their varied scents, colors, and shapes certainly will.
Don’t be afraid to mix your herbs for visual effect—as well as purple and green sages, how about a mixed pot of common thyme with the bright variegated variety ‘Silver Queen’ and the refined lemon thyme, with its particularly delicious scent. Or you could combine curly and French parsley, or plant purple-veined sorrel, with its glossy, green leaves and purple midribs, alongside purple and green basil. With a bit of imagination, herbs can be the most beautiful among edible plants you grow.
There are so many different uses for herbs: you can use mint to make your own tea or in tzatziki, put basil in delicious homemade fresh pesto, have a bay leaf to hand to add to that casserole or soup, or use rosemary for lamb or crunchy roast potatoes.
The following are some of the easiest herbs to grow; they can all be bought as plants and simply placed in the potting mix for an instant herb garden. With the exception of parsley, cilantro, and mint, herbs generally prefer a hot spot—many come from the warm, dry Mediterranean, after all—where the sun can encourage the fragrant oils in their leaves.
Buy young plants in spring and plant them in pots at least 8 in. in diameter, as these will grow fairly large over time. Choose either an upright variety such as ‘Miss Jessopp’s Upright’ or a prostrate variety that will look particularly good hanging over the side of large pots—leaving space to plant other herbs in the same container. Ensure your container has decent drainage holes and fill it with soilless potting mix, ideally with a couple of handfuls of grit or sand mixed in, since these plants hate to be waterlogged. Place the pots in a sunny spot and don’t overwater them. Feed after flowering with a seaweed fertilizer every three weeks.
Harvest rosemary by snipping branches back to a growing bud, rather than stripping individual leaves. This herb is perfect for throwing into a roasting pan with new potatoes and garlic, and as it’s evergreen it will provide a useful screen against wind or neighbors, and provide color on your balcony year-round.
Bring the mellow hum of honey bees to your space all summer long with pots of pretty flowering thyme. Not only is the herb indispensable in the kitchen but the plants look good all year round and smell delicious too. Buy young plants in spring and plant in pots, window boxes, or hanging baskets in potting mix with sand or grit added. Choose common thyme (Thymus vulgaris), variegated ‘Silver Queen,’ which is particularly pretty, or scented lemon thyme. Place in a sunny spot and water sparingly, feeding only every month or so. After flowering, trim back the shoots to avoid the plant becoming leggy. Snip off sprigs as and when you want them and add to soups, casseroles, or marinades. Extra leaves can be dried in a cool oven and then stored in an airtight jar.
Parsley can be sown inside in mid-spring in small pots (cover the seeds with vermiculite rather than potting mix), but it is much easier to buy plants—two or three plants should provide enough fresh leaves for frequent use. The curly sort is fine, but taste-wise French flat-leaved parsley is superior. Plant in containers of soilless potting mix and place in a partially shady spot—it will even tolerate full shade and will overwinter outside. The plants are biennial, meaning they flower in their second year, so buy or sow new plants every year for a good supply of leaves. Parsley can be picked all year round, though excess leaves can be chopped and frozen in ice-cube trays or made into herb butter.
Wonderful in drinks added to new potatoes or chopped onto fresh strawberries, mint is a must-have for the edible balcony. It is best to buy plants in spring. Picking your way through the vast array of varieties available is the only difficult thing with mint. You can’t go wrong with garden mint or spearmint, which are best for adding to drinks and teas, but if you want something different, Moroccan mint is great in tea, black peppermint has the strongest scent, and why not try chocolate mint, orange mint, or pineapple mint?
However, mint is a terrible bully and will take over any pot it’s planted in, so either give it its own large pot or, if you want to mix it with other plants, cut the bottom off a plastic pot and plant the mint in that, then submerge it in a larger container with the rim just poking above soil level. Place the pot in a partially shaded position, or it will even do well in full shade.
Mint plants die down to nothing over winter, but they will resurface in the spring. If you want leaves over winter, dig up a portion of plant in fall, roots and all, place it in a container, and bring it into the house.
This is one herb to grow with abandon on your balcony, since you’ll want to keep picking the leaves and a single plant can quickly become exhausted. A handful of torn leaves can transform a few tomato slices into the most elegant of salads; and, crushed with garlic and pine nuts, basil makes a quick, delicious pesto.
Aim to have about three pots of plants on the go for a good supply. Sow seeds indoors from mid-spring about ¼ in. deep in 4 in.-diameter pots (about eight seeds per pot). Put the pots on a sunny windowsill, thin to four seedlings to each pot, then transplant outside to a sunny position in larger pots or window boxes when fear of frost is over. When the plants reach about 2 in. tall, pinch out (and eat) the growing tips to encourage the plants to bush out.
Alternatively, buy plants in late spring and put them straight outside. The classic variety is ‘Sweet Genovese,’ with lush, aromatic leaves, while purple basil is rather less robust but beautiful, and aniseedy Thai basil has lovely purple stems and is the one to add for a South Asian flavor. African basil is another to consider—a robust plant with green leaves, purple stems, and spikes of violet flowers in late summer that bees adore. The great thing about this variety is that it’s perennial—brought inside in early autumn, African basil will keep going all winter, ready to be popped back out in mid-spring.
You can buy plants in spring, but it’s a good idea to sow coriander seeds so you can keep a constant supply, since the plants don’t resprout when cut. Choose leaf cilantro since that is less likely to run to seed.
Sow as for basil, though don’t pinch out the growing shoots and ideally add grit or sand to the potting mix to ensure good drainage. Cilantro is happiest in sun but it will tolerate partial shade. Snip leaves as and when you want them and add to greens, soups, curries, and so on—it is particularly good in Asian dishes. If you sow a handful of seeds every couple of weeks from spring until early autumn you should have a constant supply.
Spiky clumps of chives are not only invaluable in the kitchen, whether scattered over salads or fish or transforming a potato salad to herby heaven, but they look lovely too, especially when their edible, purple pom-pom flowers are in bloom.
Either buy plants in late spring (probably the best idea until you have an established clump) or sow seeds indoors ¼ in. deep in 4 in. diameter pots on a sunny windowsill from early spring and transplant when fear of frost is over. Chives grow well in window boxes or any container in a sunny or partially shaded spot. Harvest by snipping leaves to about 1 in. from the base.
Keep plants going in the fall by digging up a portion, repotting it, then bringing it inside. Plants left outside will disappear over winter but resurface in spring. In late spring, divide the clump and replant one half in a new pot to keep your supply growing. Over summer, if you have a bounty of leaves, freeze them chopped up either in ice-cube trays or as herb butter.
When it comes to looks, the usefully evergreen sage is an underrated herb. The purple-leaved variety in particular can be stunning when it is planted among other green herbs, or in contrast to its common green cousin—though beware, it’s less hardy than the green one and less vigorous, too, so it can get overpowered. They’re hardy enough to withstand all but the wettest, harshest winters uncovered and will provide a dash of welcome color over the dark months.
A little sage goes a long way, so one plant is enough for most people. Lucky, really, since these plants can grow quite large. Buy young plants in spring and plant in soilless potting mix, ideally with a little sand or grit added. Place in a sunny spot and pick leaves when you want them.
A standard bay may be a bit of a cliché—the standard sentinels for Italian trattorias worldwide—but why mess with a classic when they look so good? Either buy a ready-trained one or (far cheaper) buy a couple of small ones and spend the money on really good terracotta pots for them instead. To train a bay into a lollipop shape, simply snip off any sideshoots coming off the main stem, leaving a nest of shoots at the top. Keep trimming away the side-shoots up the main stem as the plant grows, to create a ball at the top over two or three years; this just needs to be shaped a couple of times a year.
Since you’ll only ever need a few leaves at a time for casseroles or soups, one bay tree is more than enough. As an evergreen, bay will also provide a useful screen over winter if you don’t want to look at your neighbors, and a shaped tree will be an attractive focal point when nothing else is flourishing.
Oregano or marjoram is a pretty, sprawling plant that will soon trail over the edge of a pot. Its flowers are a magnet for bees and the strongly scented leaves are the mainstay of Italian and Greek cooking.
Buy plants in spring, transplant them into soilless potting mix in larger pots or window boxes and position in a warm, sunny, and sheltered spot. Cut the plant back in the fall or spring to stop it from getting too woody, but it can be left to overwinter outside. Over the summer extra leaves can be picked and dried in a cool oven, then stored in an airtight jar.
It may not look like much, but this delicate-fronded herb punches well above its weight in the kitchen with a gentle, aniseedy taste that is the perfect partner for chicken and fish. Make sure you buy French tarragon rather than the hardier but bitter Russian version. Buy plants in spring and place them in a sunny spot in soilless potting mix, ideally with sand or grit added to improve drainage. In the fall, bring the whole pot inside to a sunny windowsill, since this is a tender herb that won’t survive winter outside. By early spring new leaves will sprout and you can put the plant back outside when the frosts are over. Any extra leaves produced over the summer can be chopped and frozen into herb butter.