When I started gardening, I had no segment of land to call my own. I lived in a top-floor apartment in a new city, and because I wasn’t raised with my fingers in the dirt, I didn’t really miss having a garden space.
However, as I began to study herbalism, I became overwhelmed with the desire to have fresh herbs at my fingertips. Before long, my little balcony three floors up was dotted with containers full of cheery plants.
I’ve since left that tiny apartment on whose balcony my first garden grew, but even though I now have land, I still rely on containers for some of my favorite medicinal herbs.
Many of the herbs used in home remedies thrive in containers because of their preferred climates and growing habits. Here are six you can start growing today.
In my humble opinion, no herb garden—culinary, medicinal or ornamental—is complete without lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Simply the smell of its delicious leaves brightens your day.
Because its growth habit can easily transform it from beloved plant to weed, many gardeners grow it in containers.
Start lemon balm in a pot 12 to 15 inches in diameter with rich, well-drained soil. Set it in a location with full to partial shade.
It doesn’t take much to keep it happy, though the plant appreciates frequent watering.
Keep an eye on the plant as it begins to flourish. You might need to divide it to keep it from becoming rootbound. If it begins to look a bit droopy, a heavy pruning should bring it back to life. If you harvest from it regularly, though, that shouldn’t be necessary.
Lemon balm makes a delicious tea that calms the nerves and lifts the spirits. People suffering from depression, anxiety, restlessness and irritability can benefit from a daily cup.
The herb is also a great addition to a medicinal first-aid kit. Preserve it as a tincture or infused oil to use topically on cuts, cold sores and insect bites.
The volatile oils, where much of the medicinal action is kept, is highest just before the plant begins to flower. Keep that in mind for your medicine making, though you can enjoy the plant’s benefits whenever you’re ready to give the leaves a snip.
The gel inside aloe (Aloe vera) leaves of this favorite house-succulent is lauded for sunburn relief. But its value goes way beyond soothing the skin after a long day at the pool.
It also helps rashes, warts, eczema and stretch marks. And it can even be used internally to settle digestive issues such as constipation and peptic ulcers.
As a desert plant, aloe grows best indoors in a sunny window in most parts of the U.S. It’s the perfect beginner medicinal because, after you nestle it into a pot with dry, loose soil, it needs little watering.
To use aloe as a topical remedy, simply snap off a leaf and rub the fresh gel on your skin. Internally, dry and use the yellow sap found at the base of the plant.
I consider tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), or holy basil, one of the best choices for new herbalists. The plant grows big and bold without a lot of fuss.
Tulsi’s beautiful purple blossoms and delightfully fragrant foliage make it a wonderful year-round houseplant. It can, however, just as easily be placed outdoors in the warm season.
Grow the plant in a pot with fertile soil, and keep it moist but not overly soggy. Once the plant grows to 1 foot tall (which probably won’t take long) you can begin to harvest its leaves and flowers.
Frequent harvesting encourages its growth, so don’t be shy with the shears.
Tulsi can be taken as a daily tonic. As an adaptogenic herb, it helps protect the body against stressors, having a particular affinity for the heart. It also can be used to treat respiratory infections and fevers, stabilize blood-sugar levels, and soothe insect bites and canker sores.
Take it as a tea internally, or dry and powder it for external use.
If you grow bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) for no other reason than to have a beautiful houseplant, you’re on the right track. However, if you need convincing to make this Mediterranean herb part of your container garden, consider its other uses:
- a refreshing-smelling aftershave when infused in rum
- an excellent digestive aid when consumed as a tea or in your favorite recipes
- a relaxing muscle-soother when steeped in a bath
Bay laurel is easier to grow than the dwarf citrus trees that have become the darling of urban gardeners. It thrives in shady locations, doesn’t mind getting a little cramped if you can’t get to repotting it right away and benefits from heavy pruning.
Start a new plant in a 12-inch container and feed it a nitrogen-based fertilizer, such as kelp meal. Add a fresh layer of soil to the pot yearly, and up-pot every third year or so.
As with all Mediterranean plants, bay doesn’t like soggy feet, so ensure the pot has plenty of drainage. And let it dry out between waterings.
Harvest leaves from 2-year-old or older plants, and use dry or fresh. If you choose to let the plant spend time outdoors, bring it inside before the first frost.
Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa, also known as sweet leaf, wild bergamot or monarda) doesn’t get much attention as a medicinal herb, but it definitely deserves a place in your herb garden.
While the flavor varies from sweet to spicy, herbalist Matthew Wood says the ideal plant has a “sweet, pungent, peppery, hot and (most importantly) ‘buttery’” flavor. I find it makes a good culinary pairing with a more common herb such as oregano, but its medicinal benefits can’t be beat.
Bee balm is well suited to “burning” health conditions. This could mean you macerate the flowers to use as a poultice on sunburns. Or you can make it into a tea or tincture for addressing internal complaints, such as fevers, bladder infections, yeast infections, arthritis and eczema.
It also has a powerful calming effect on the nervous system, though it’s gentle enough to use on a crying baby.
A relative of mint, bee balm does great in containers to prevent uncontrollable spread. Because it grows 2 to 4 feet tall, though, it might need staking.
Plant it in a larger pot, and place it in a sunny spot near a fence or deck railing to keep the flowers from toppling. Bee balm is fairly easy to keep but is susceptible to powdery mildew, so beware of hot, humid conditions.
Encourage blooms by deadheading regularly. Flowers reach their peak in July to August, and this is when the medicinal benefits of this herb are most potent. Harvest the entire upper portion of the plant to use.
Turmeric & Ginger
I love using fresh turmeric (Cucurma longa) and ginger (Zingiber officinale) in my cooking and medicinal remedies, but purchasing organic selections can quickly become expensive. So I was excited when I learned you can grow both these plants in pots.
As tropical plants, ginger and turmeric need long, warm growing seasons, which most of the U.S. can’t provide. However, by growing a pot of each, you’ll have enough supply to last the year.
Obtain fresh rhizomes from a farmer growing in hoop houses or an organic supplier that doesn’t spray a rooting inhibitor. Use a gallon or larger pot filled with fertile, well-draining soil, and plant the rhizomes on the top, barely covering them with dirt.
As the plant grows, the roots reach downward. Keep the pot in a sunroom or sunny location, practice patience and enjoy the beautiful plants that emerge, as it might take 10 months until you can harvest rhizomes.
The shoots (also called scapes) of ginger and turmeric are edible and can be used like the rhizome, though they’re somewhat milder.
You’ll reap the health benefits by using turmeric and ginger in your home-cooking, though they can also be used to treat specific conditions. Turmeric is a well-known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, can help lower cholesterol, and is a strong antibacterial.
Prepare it as a strong decoction (which is to say, tea made by simmering the root), or make it into golden milk by steeping in unsweetened coconut milk.
Ginger can help with any number of digestive complaints, including morning sickness, motion sickness, gas and colic. For these conditions, a tincture is particularly effective.
It can also be taken as a decoction for cold, flu and other respiratory complaints.
If you’ve delayed starting a medicinal herb garden because you don’t have the land for it, grab some containers, soil mix and these plants. Your health will be better for it.
This article appeared in Hobby Farm‘s Urban Farm 2019 annual, a specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such asBest of Hobby Farms and Living off the Grid by following this link.