Growing Herbs in Small Spaces

As Austin becomes denser, you may ask yourself, is it possible to grow food in small places? Yes it is! With some considerations, it’s possible to successfully grow a food garden on an apartment balcony or patio. A container herb garden is an excellent place to start.

First, ensure that your balcony or patio receives enough light. Food crops need six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day, so observe your garden space at different times of day and consider where shadows fall (shadows are longer in the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky). South and southeast-facing locations receive the most light, whereas north-facing spaces may be too shaded. If your space does not receive sufficient light, consider joining a community garden (for a map of community gardens in Austin, visit http://communitygardensaustin.org).

Bigger containers support healthier plants, so choose the largest ones your space can accommodate, at least 12 inches deep and 12 inches in diameter. Soil in larger containers is less subject to fluctuations in temperature and retains water for longer. Larger containers also allow more room for roots to stretch out. Many containers will do: terra cotta pots, storage tubs and old ceramic kitchen sinks, to name a few. Ensure that the container is made from a material that won’t leach toxins (tires, for example, are not a good choice). The container should have holes at the bottom for drainage. Because the summer sun is so intense in Central Texas, we do not recommend using metal containers; the soil inside heats up too much.

Always use potting or container soil mix. These mixes have a special composition that promotes proper drainage and maintains enough air space in the soil. You can buy potting soil, but for a more economical and sustainable option, consider making your own. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website has instructions for how to make your own potting mix out of ingredients like compost, decomposing leaves, and rotted sawdust.

Water evaporates more quickly from containers than from in-ground beds, so you will need to water containers gardens as often as daily. To ease the burden of watering, consider a reservoir watering system, such as self-watering containers (these can be purchased or built), or buried clay pots (also called ollas). Use mulch to help retain moisture.

A wide variety of herbs flourish in containers. October, is a great time to plant cilantro, parsley, mint, thyme, sage, oregano, and chives from transplants. Group herbs with similar water needs in the same containers, arrange herbs so that taller types don’t shade out shorter ones, and learn which herbs spread quickly, so you can plan accordingly. Some perennial herbs like mint, thyme, and oregano die back in freezing weather, but if their root systems are well established, they will return.

Having fresh herbs on hand from your own patio or balcony brings more flavor to your food and is more economical than buying fresh herbs at the store. Here are some tips for harvesting and using herbs in the kitchen:

  • To harvest, cut off the herb branches that you want to use, without removing the entire plant. This way, the herb will continue to grow and produce.
  • Store cilantro and parsley in a container with water in the fridge, with a loose-fitting plastic bag over the container. It will last for at least a week stored this way.
  • Sage, oregano and thyme are all woody plants, and therefore their branches are not edible; be careful to remove all of their leaves when using them. If you are using a sprig of any of these herbs, say to flavor a soup or a stew, you can remove the sprig (and branch) once the food is cooked.
  • Cilantro and parsley are not typically woody, and their stems can be eaten and taste the same as the leaves.
  • Dried herbs are more potent than fresh. Use 3 times as much of a fresh herb as a dried herb.
  • Dried herbs should be added at the beginning of the cooking process, whereas fresh herbs should be added at the end.

To learn about Sustainable Food Center’s gardening and cooking classes, visit our Classes & Events page.