Growing Medicinal Herbs in Containers
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
This article was previously published in Plant Healer Magazine, the paperless quarterly journal of the new folk herbalism resurgence – a downloadable, beautifully illustrated, full-color PDF magazine.
The reasons for growing plants in containers are many: it often provides the sole means for growing herbs or vegetables when tending a garden is simply not possible, or when the available ground is contaminated. Containers can also help to create a mini-microclimate, such as: well-drained soil, moist soil or even a water garden. Containers may allow for a habitat adjustment, for instance -- growing an arid plant under cover in a climate that receives more rainfall than the plant would tolerate, or providing ample shade on a porch when little shade is available in the garden or surrounding landscape. Growing plants in a vessel can also prolong the growing season by allowing for portability –- a plant may be moved indoors or to a protected location when the temperatures dip below the plant’s cold tolerance.
In addition, many containers are works of art and can provide accents in the landscape, creating a variety of textures and colors and differing plant heights. The portability of container-grown plants can help fill in bare spots in the garden during seasonal changes. Many plants will quickly overwhelm the garden with their innate exuberance— containers can be used to keep them in more modest proportions. Finally, people in wheelchairs or with special needs around mobility, can more easily access larger containers, such as elevated raised beds in wood frames.
Plants preferring wetter soil: Containers can help to hold in moisture and can be used to create a moister microclimate for herbs who appreciate the damper side of life. Avoid terra cotta with such plants as the clay wicks away moisture and the pots dry out quickly. The larger the vessel, the easier it is to maintain moisture. If applicable, use a saucer and apply mulch to hold in moisture. Compost, clay, and peat can be added to the soil to increase water retention. You may consider hooking up a roof water catchment system directly to the containers of these water-loving herbs.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica, Apiaceae), calamus (Acorus calamus, Acoraceae), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora, Lamiaceae), yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica, Saururaceae), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum, Asteraceae), vervain (Verbena hastata, Verbenaceae), meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria, Rosaceae), yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima, Ranunculaceae), and nettles (Urtica dioica, Urticaceae) are herbs with a real appreciation for wet feet. Depending on your climate and garden habitats, containers can help provide the extra moisture needed for their thrival.
August 2021 Safety Update: Boneset contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can be harmful to the liver over time when ingested internally. Recent research shows that the PAs found in boneset (and other PA-containing plants) can be taken up by other plants when grown in close proximity or when comfrey is used in the garden as mulch or fertilizer. In light of this, we are recommending that boneset should not be interplanted with herbs or food plants in the garden that will be ingested or used as mulch or fertilizer to err on the side of caution. However, mature compost that includes boneset does not seem to contain PAs once it has been fully composted according to this study.
Plants preferring well-drained soil: Consider adding very coarse sand and/ or pine bark fines (see notes below) to increase the drainage of your soil. Perlite is also an option, although it is less sustainable. Water only when the soil dries out. If you are in a climate with extra rainfall and humidity, you may want to keep these pots out of the rain’s reach. I keep arid climate plants in a sunny spot on my porch or in my greenhouse. Be careful to only water the soil and avoid watering the foliage, as these plants are more susceptible to fungal diseases. Ma huang (Ephedra sinica, Ephedraceae), prickly pear (Opuntia spp., Cactaceae), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Lamiaceae), lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora, Verbenaceae), garden sage (Salvia officinalis, Lamiaceae) and white sage (Salvia apiana, Lamiaceae) are a few medicinal plants that appreciate drier soils.
Plants preferring shade/part-shade: If you are trying to grow temperate or cool-weather plants in an especially hot climate, providing afternoon shade will often keep the plant happier. If you don’t have shade in your garden, you can grow many woodland medicinals in containers on a shaded porch, deck, or even in the shade of your house. Gotu kola (Centella asiatica, Apiaceae), Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum, Curcubitaceae), wild geranium (Geranium maculatum, Geraniaceae), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides, Berberidaceae), and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae), are some of the plants I have seen grow well under shade in containers.
Sensitive herbs: Cold-sensitive perennial herbs can be grown outdoors in a pot during the warmer months and then brought indoors or to a sheltered location when the weather chills. Many of these plants will go dormant during the winter, and can be overwintered in a basement, attic or warmer sheltered spot. In contrast, some of these hot-climate plants will require sunlight during the winter: place them in a greenhouse or in front of a south-facing window. This is a lovely option for those of you who live in climates where it freezes infrequently. Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora, Verbenaceae), white sage (Salvia apiana, Lamiaceae), lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp., Poaceae), gotu kola (Centella asiatica, Apiaceae), ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae), turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae), Aloe vera (Aloe spp., Xanthorrhoeaceae) and Citrus (Citrus spp., Rutaceae) are some of the tenders that you may choose to baby a bit.
Retired ceramic bathtubs, sinks and toilets: These are some of the greenest container options available as they are often destined for the landfill or available for cheap. They are long-lived, resistant to cracking from temperature fluctuations, and often provide a sizeable growing area that holds moisture quite effectively.
Plastic pots: Black nursery pots or plastic buckets are often cheap or free, and lighter than other pots, with an increased ease of portability. The downside of plastic vessels includes their shorter lifespan and the heavy environmental toll involved in their creation. Often landscapers throw away large pots, so reuse helps keep them out of landfills. I have concerns about the possibility of chemicals leaching from the plastic and entering the plants via the soil substrate. Many of the chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics are powerful endocrine disruptors. This is an issue that has kept me up at night with worry about the possible contamination of medicinal herbs grown in plastic containers in my own nursery.
Terra cotta: Terra cotta, or clay pots, wick away moisture quickly so they need to be watered more frequently than pots made from other materials. These pots will also crack and break with the expansion and contraction of freezing soil, so they need to be emptied and protected from moisture during the winter in temperate climates. Terra cotta pots can sometimes be found used but the new pots are typically imported from Asia. However, there are a few domestic producers still around, but their pots are typically more expensive and not widely available.
Glazed ceramic: These pots hold moisture more effectively than terra cotta pots, and are less likely to crack during the winter. They also provide beauty with a variety of colors and textures. The downside of glazed ceramic includes increased weight and the fact that most are produced abroad, with the attendant environmental costs of transportation and possibly unfair working conditions. However, some purveyors of fair-trade goods offer these types of pots.
Recycled “what have you” vessels: Consider reusing olive oil, large old cans, and coffee tins as containers, but see the above comments on potential chemical contamination; these metal food vessels typically have an inner plastic lining.
Fiber pots: These have become more popular lately, and include pots made from peat, manure, and excess pulp. These containers will typically last one season or less, but have the advantage of being compostable upon retirement, Most of these are manufactured abroad; inquire about the production location.
Wooden containers: Many nurseries sell old wine and whisky barrels, which offer a considerable planting area and are less likely to dry out than smaller containers. Large raised beds with wooden forms also fall into this category; these are easy to access for folks in wheelchairs or who can’t bend easily. Rot-resistant sustainably harvested wood, such as cedar, cypress, white oak, osage orange and black locust will greatly increase the longevity of these containers. Often the rough ends or slab ends of logs, sourced from local sawmills, are more affordable than standard straight edged lumber. Avoid pressure-treated wood as its toxins leak into the soil and accumulate in the food or medicine being grown.
Soil and Drainage Considerations
Drainage is a big issue in container culture as soil compaction more easily occurs. Add a 12-inch layer of criss-crossed sticks to the bottom of larger pots before adding soil and elevate the container from its saucer or the ground with bricks or large rocks.
Typically garden soil or topsoil is too heavy for container culture, but it can be used with amendments such as pine bark fines, composted leaf mold, aged fluffy manure, and worm castings. Pine bark fines are the ground-up bark of pines and are a byproduct of the pulp and lumber pine industry; they offer porosity and water retention and have a neutral pH (did I just say heaven, or what?). Three parts pine bark fines, one part composted manure, and a touch of lime, organic fertilizer, mycorrhizal inoculant and worm castings makes a wonderful all-purpose soil mix for containers. Please see the previous notes about amending soil mixes to meet a specific plant’s requirements. It is possible to reuse soil for multiples seasons. I take out the top fourth of soil, compost it, and mix in compost, worm castings and a touch of lime to the remaining soil. This annual treatment usually spruces up the soil sufficiently for it to be used for two to three seasons.
Seeds, Plants and Gardening Supplies
Horizon Herbs – phone (541) 846-6704 Largest collection of organically grown medicinal herb seeds and plants. Catalog is also a growers manual and contains many of the germination specifics listed below.
Richters – phone (905) 640-6677 Huge selection of herb seeds and plants. Rare or hard-to-find herbs.
Prairie Moon Nursery – phone (866) 417-8156 Seeds and plants of natives to the prairie and eastern states. Loads of germination information in their seed section.
United Plant Savers – Nursery and Bulk Herb Directory (available free to members)
Fedco seeds and Organic Garden Supply – cooperative seeds, trees, and gardens supply, located in Maine (207) 873-7333 or (207) 430-1106
Johnny’s Selected Seeds – 1-877-564-6697 large selection of garden/farm supply
Medicinal Herbs and Non-timber Forest Products – Useful links to many websites devoted to the topic of cultivating medicinal herbs. Dr. Jeanine Davis of NC.
Production Guides, written by Dr. Jeanine Davis and Jackie Greenfield. Covers the specifics of cultivating the following medicinal herbs: American ginseng, black cohosh, bloodroot, Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida, E. purpurea, false unicorn, ginkgo, goldenseal, skullcap, wild indigo, and wild yam.
Fedco seeds – Cultural information and planting chart for herbs – Fedco chart
Medicinal Herb Gardening Books
Please visit the resource section at the end of Cultivating Medicinal Herbs
Don’t have a garden?
Porches, patios, and sunny windowsills are all prime time real estate for the herb gardener. Take a wink at our Container Gardening Hub for a collection of resources that will have you growing potted plants like a pro.
Meet The Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR is the founder, primary instructor, and Creative Director of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online school serving thousands of students from around the globe. She's a professional plant-human matchmaker and bonafide plant geek, with a degree in botany and over 30 years of experience teaching and writing about herbalism, medicine making, and organic herb cultivation. Juliet’s lifelong captivation with medicinal weeds and herb gardening has birthed many botanical enterprises over the decades, including an herbal nursery and a farm-to-apothecary herbal products business.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession through her writing and photography in her online programs, on her personal blog Castanea, and in her new book, The Healing Garden: Cultivating and Handcrafting Herbal Remedies. Juliet and her family reside in a home overrun with houseplants and books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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28 thoughts on “Growing Medicinal Herbs in Containers”
Lourdes Santana says:
Hi, I really need help organizing my plants in my elevated raised bed garden and barrel pots, because I cannot plant in the ground..
I will be planting Lavender, Rosemary, Stinging Nettles, Echinacea, Calendula, Feverfew , Valerian ,Passionflower and St.JohnsWort…
Sara Kinney says:
One important thing to remember is how big some of these herbs will grow over time. Valerian, for example, is a perennial and will get quite big. Stinging nettles is also a perennial and it spreads by runners, so it will eventually fill in the entire bed. I wouldn’t interplant it with other perennial herbs as it’s not fun to get stung while you’re harvesting! St. John’s wort is another one that will spread a lot. When trying to figure out which plants will grow well together, be sure to take into account the final spacing each plant will need, as well as each plant’s light and soil requirements.
Thanks for the information! I am actually planning to start growing herbs in pots since I live in a city, and this post was really helpful. My seed supplier says that I have to use liquid fertilizer in order for the plants to grow properly since the plants are growing in a pot. Is that necessary? thanks!
Sara Kinney says:
If you’re using the potting mix recipe above, you can use a granular fertilizer at the time of planting. For subsequent feedings, liquid fertilizer is nice because it’s so easy to apply it when you’re watering.
Hi. Thank you for sharing all your knowledge. I’m currently renting and have been lucky enough to have a large herb garden in the backyard. We’re moving next summer and I was hoping to take the perennials with me in containers – I have yarrow, feverfew, true hyssop, and lemon balm (also a few blackberry canes)… Can you share how I should go about transplanting these and caring for them?
Should I transplant when they are completely dormant or perhaps early in spring? Can any be planted together based on soil/sun/water requirements? How often to water? … I’ve had great success in permanent gardens but less so in containers. Thank you in advance!!!
Sara Kinney says:
You can put them up in the early spring and take them with you! I would put them in separate containers and keep them well-watered until they get established. Lemon balm and yarrow are easy to propagate by division. Here is Juliet’s article on root division.
What wonderful and inspiring articles you share, Juliet! Thank you so very much. I look forward to every blog you write. Just turned 70 in January and considered trying to make things a bit easier for me in my large garden, so this year instead of a lot of work with shovel and pick axe I got 10 RubberMaid tubs from my daughter’s cattle ranch. The tubs come with lids and are and very sturdy and a nice chocolate brown color so look nice in the garden. Minerals and molasses came in the tubs to feed cattle and rinsing them out they are clean. I drilled holes in the bottoms, put in a 3 inch layer of small rocks, and then added a layer of sticks. Then on top organic container garden mix.
But as you pointed out, you are also concerned about anything toxic which may leach out of containers. I think of that as well. I actually worry too about “organic” compost, garden soil and planting mixes especially when much of it is composted from poultry litter which can be full of toxic stuff from factory farms. Believe me, I know. Some organic garden mixes are tested for heavy metals, others maybe not. The dirt in our own organic gardens, who knows what is in them? What comes down with the rain? Jet exhaust for one thing and maybe Fukushima particles?
Oh sigh, I want a pristine world in which to grow all the beautiful and healing herbs with which we have been blessed as well as to live in a such a world. Heaven will be like that I do believe, but in the meantime we will try to do the best we can.
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Donna, thank you so much for your kind words! I’m glad you find the blog articles inspiring. It’s true that there are a lot of challenges gardening in this day and age, but I truly find it worth the effort! And we still end up with such vibrant and vital plants despite all the stressors in the environment. Here’s to an abundant season for you!
plant pots says:
This is great information. I learned a lot here.
Jodie Santos says:
Wonderful article! I brought some plants inside for the winter and they were infested with white flies. How do you prepare containers for the inside? Thanks
Juliet Blankespoor says:
This is quite common. It’s a good idea to spray your plants well with a garden hose before you bring them inside. If you start noticing white flies on your indoor plants, go ahead and bring them back outside and give them a good shower!
Abby Nolan says:
This green virtual nook is overflowing with information. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with others! I was wondering which herbs/medicinal plants you’d highly recommend for containers due to their tendency to spread and overtake gardens. Thanks – Abby
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Two plants that come to mind are jiaogulan and fo ti….
How do you succeed with jiaogulan?
My plant are smal and got light Brown spots on the Leafs.
Its in sand mixed soil.
Juliet Blankespoor says:
It likes part shade, something to climb on and fertile soil. Wonder if your plants are getting too much sun…
A truly beautiful blog and as a herb lover and passionate gardener lots of great ideas and tips I can take from you. Thank you.
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Thanks Lorraine! Hope your garden is abundant!
This is “my” post! I love it as I love growing plants on my terrace
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Have fun with the herbs!
In the green,
Stacey Hudson says:
It is a good idea to plant medicinal herbs in containers. Great topic, thanks for taking such good care of this website!
Joanne Davis says:
I love growing plants but I haven’t tried planting medicinal herbs in a container since I have no idea what kind of herbal plants i am going to plant to. You have just given me an idea. I really like your post. I will try this one time. Thanks for the information.
I Like this.
Thank you, Juliet! This is fantastic. I really love this post and your blog! It is so very helpful.
Evelyn Vincent says:
Fantastic post Juliet! I’ve been growing veggies and herbs in posts for years now with wonderful results. I just pinned (on Pinterest) this post because I wanted many more to know how to grow herbs in containers. Thanks for the excellent images too! I love your newsletters and blog, thanks!