Herbs on a Balcony
by Krys Klassen, an enthusiastic amateur balcony gardener with twenty years on a southwest facing seventh floor balcony
Well, so long as he’s not going to jump… what’s the problem? Basically, the problem with herbs on balconies is small to nonexistent, if you have enough sun.
Think Provence with basil, marjoram, bay leaf, thyme, lavender and rosemary growing wild over dry, sun-baked, mistral-swept and meagre stony hillsides. The biggest challenge is avoiding over-watering. Of course, when it comes to winter, we’re talking Siberia, not Provence, so the herbes de Provence come indoors (after a nice soapy shower to remove any insects) to wait it out, preferably under grow lights. Or you buy new every year. In theory, lavender is a hardy perennial, but not on my balcony, not so far.
Where sunshine is in short supply, see if a strategically placed mirror can direct a little more sunshine their way. In the end it all comes down to the basics – light, moisture and soil. Herbs seem to derive their pungent flavours from sunshine, good drainage and poor soil, with a few exceptions, like French tarragon, which seems to like a little more moisture and a few more nutrients.
Herbs make delicious additions to all types of food and drink. Fresh are best (except for oregano) and at the end of the season you can dry them for winter use - hanging them upside down in bunches until dry enough to store, the traditional way, or zapping them in the microwave for instant storage or blending, or marinating or macerating them in oils or vinegars for freezing or refrigeration.
Herb foliage can provide a pleasant lush note to planters, and fragrance when strategically placed where you brush past. Their flowers might not always be spectacular but you can collect any seeds for starting indoors or under glass to get a jump on next year’s growing season, especially for preserving a variety you really like.
And the final reason to add herbs to your balcony is their companion planting benefits. Last spring I was distraught with the number of insect infestations I was getting and successfully used a combination of extra herbs (even in less sunlit spaces) and a light dish detergent and water spray to keep the pests at bay.
I have successfully grown the following plants and am starting to use them for ornamental purposes as well as eating.
(or, more often, Perennials, which, had they survived, would have gone on living for many years).
Basil (ocimum basilicum) Comes in several varieties. The common one is quite flavourful, a made in heaven match for tomatoes. The purple one provides a pleasant visual counterpoint to Artemisia foliage, white, pink and yellow flowers, or salads. The tiny leaved bush basil is attractive and you can just bruise the leaves without having to chop them before incorporating in food. The Asian variety is especially pungent. Interestingly, basil is from the mint family – you can tell by the squared stems.
Bergamot (monarda a.k.a. Bee Balm) Smells like bergamot orange, a Mediterranean fruit whose oil is the key ingredient in Earl Grey tea. It is mostly used as a pretty and fragrant addition to the balcony display. Flowers are often scarlet or purple.
Chervil (anthriscus cerefolium) A less pungent substitute for parsley or just a pretty, fragile, fern-leaved, ornamental plant. It is often used in French fines herbes mixtures.
Coriander (coriandrum sativum a.k.a Chinese parsley or cilantro) My favourite for adding a Mexican or Asian note to salads, soups and casseroles, though not to everyone’s taste.
Dill (anethum graveolens )Pretty feathery foliage and tall seed head stalks. The young tender foliage is great on fresh cucumbers and salmon; the seeds are great for pickles.
Lavender (lavandula angustifolia) The leaves are not unattractive, tough, grey-green and needle-like with tiny bluish purple, pink or white flowers and quite pungent, especially pretty in rows or borders in containers. Some people use the flowers and seeds to add lavender flavour to ice cream and short bread but my husband thinks it makes them taste like soap, so not a big hit here. Dried they are wonderful in sachets, potpourris, etc.
Lemon balm (melissa oficinalis) A mint family plant, usually quite prolific, and a nice addition to lemonade or other summer drinks.
Marjoram (origanum majorana) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marjoram
Parsley (petroselinum crispum) I prefer the Italian flat-leaved variety to the curly one used decoratively on platters; the finely-chopped texture is more pleasant in the mouth and the flavour a bit more pronounced. It also adds to the foliage mix in pots and is somewhat frost tolerant so has a nice long season.
Perilla (perilla frutescens) A prolific self-seeding volunteer from the mint family, perilla can provide early coverage of tiny purple plants in perennial containers. I remove it where I don’t want it and it fills spaces nicely. The young plants are pretty in salad – there’s an Asian variety used with sushi and Thai food sometimes called “roast beef plant” which has more flavour. Mine is pretty tasteless when it reaches full size at about half- to a metre high but attractive enough. The flowers are insignificant but it is fragrant when brushed against and the spiky seed heads provide winter interest.
Rosemary (rosmarinus) Darker green and as pungent as lavender, this is a great plant, wonderful with garlic on lamb or fowl; pretty tiny flowers of various colours depending on variety and handy for productions of Hamlet (OPHELIA: There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember). They grow hedges of it near the Mediterranean. Sigh.
Sage (salvia officinalis) The regular variety has pleasant silver foliage, but there are pretty yellow-green variegated, and purple variations. Classically sage is used in stuffing but my mother swore by it for sore throats and at some time or other it has been recommended for nearly every ailment.
Thyme (thymus vulgaris) There are many varieties. It is a wonderful addition to almost any dish – my favourite to date is ice cream. I have heard of it growing up high on gravel as a ground cover, though I’d be cautious because of the weight on a balcony.
In addition, I have heard of, but have no experience to provide proof of, successful containers of:
Bay laurel (laurus nobilis) The European variety is more pleasant than the Californian.
Fennel (foeniculum vulgare) This has a great anise flavour in its dill-like feathery leaves, root bulb and seed heads. There is an also an ornamental bronze variety.
French Sorrel (rumex scutatus) More tender than the local variety and makes a classic spring soup.
Chives - purple (allium schoenoprasum) or garlic (allium tuberosum) Chives have done quite well for me. I love that they are very early greens and flowers, both for display and eating. You can’t beat chives snipped into potato salad or on top of a sour cream garnish for soups.
My experience has been hit or miss with mint and tarragon.
Mint (mentha) Mints are supposed to withstand a lot of abuse but the only one (except for other mint species like perilla, basil, lemon balm) that has been very successful for me is a not entirely pleasant tasting orange chocolate variety.
Tarragon (French artemisia dracunculus sativa, Russian A. dracunculoides L.) French tarragon isn’t hardy and Russian doesn’t taste as good but I had a nice tasting French one that lasted a few years. Was it really Russian? Who knows?
Go ahead, try these and/or other favourites. Herbs offer a low investment gardening playground for the balcony gardener.
Bonne chance and bon appetit!