Herbs on the Balcony

Herbs on the Balcony

Herbs are perfect for balcony gardening. They’re easy to grow, many smell quite nice, and they provide ready-to-use flavours for your meals; just harvest them right out of the containers. The selection is almost unlimited; there’s mint, chives, basil, summer savoury, dill, lemon balm, coriander, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme... the list goes on and on. There are a few important things to remember before cultivating herbs. For instance, most of them are quite
vigorous—especially mint, chives, and summer savoury. Because of this, I always keep each variety in its own container. Herbs should be grown in very clean soils with good drainage; high-quality potting soil is best. For basil, I recommend a soil-less mixture; there are fewer problems with disease when basil is grown in this medium. Basil is prone to a stem rot
that garden soils can encourage; clean soil can help prevent this occurrence.

To get the best herbs, I fertilize them with 20-20-20 once every two weeks. Of course, I keep my watering consistent to promote strong, even growth and to inhibit disease. Adding rich compost to the soil gives herbs (except basil!) a real boost, as well.

I always harvest soft new growth to promote branching in the plants, and produces a greater overall yield. When winter arrives, you can bring the smaller herbs like bay, basil, savory, chives, parsley, sweet marjoram, tarragon and sage indoors for year-round production. Just make sure that they receive at least 5 hours of direct sunlight per day (you will probably have to use grow lights in the dead of winter). Indoor herbs will be smaller than those grown outside, but they are still quite tasty and well worth cultivating. With containers full of fresh herbs at your disposal, you’ll have a blast preparing meals with an extra bit of dash.

Favourite Herbs: Mint



Mentha spp.

Hardy perennial

Height 15 to 60 cm; spread indefinite.

Vigorous, aggressive plant with dark-green leaves on erect, square stem

Try these!

Mentha spicata (spearmint, English mint): Best cooking mint—my favourite!

Mentha x piperita piperita (peppermint, candy mint): Wonderful peppermint flavour

Mentha suaveolens (apple mint, round-leaf mint): Minty apple-menthol fragrance


Start with young plants purchased from a garden centre, or split a clump from an established plant.

How much: One plant of each type you enjoy.

When: As soon as the soil is warm enough to work.

Where: Full sun; will tolerate light shade. Invasive—should be grown in containers. Prefers rich, moist soil; will grow almost anywhere. Plants are invasive; keep separated by 60 to 90 cm.

Care and Nurture

Mint is easy to grow! Keep the soil moist: mint requires lots of water. In cold regions, mint needs heavy snow cover to survive the winter. Mint needs to be renewed every 3 to 4 years, because the centre gets old, tough, and woody and eventually dies out. Renew mint by thinning the bed, dividing the plant, and giving some away to friends and neighbours. Mint should be replaced with another crop every 4 to 5 years: solid stands of mint—known as "meadow mint"—are vulnerable to rust disease. Remember that any mint roots you leave in the ground will grow into new plants.


Mint grows so vigorously, you can often harvest the whole plant twice in a growing season. Gather stems together in one hand and cut them about 10 cm from the ground.

For best flavour: Harvest just as flowering begins.

Leaves: Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the plant stem. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks.

Flowers: Pick as they appear. Clip the flower stalk where it attaches to the plant stem; discard stalk.

Preserving the Harvest

Mint is best used fresh, but it is easily dried, frozen, or preserved in oil or vinegar. Store fresh mint, stems down, in a glass of water covered with a plastic bag; refrigerate. Change the water every 2 days, and it will keep for a week. Mint flowers should be used the same day they are picked. They will keep in the fridge for a short time, but their flavour fades quickly. Mint flowers can also be preserved in oil, butter, or vinegar, but they do not freeze well. Mint leaves can be crystallized.


  • While peppermint and spearmint are the most important culinary herbs, there are plenty of others; indeed, there are more than 30 species and 600 varieties of mint! The best way to select a plant is by nose rather than by name, but here are a few other varieties you might want to try.
    • Curled spearmint (M. spicata ‘Crispa’) has mild spearmint flavour.
    • Pineapple mint (M. suaveolens 'variegata') is similar to apple mint, but its flavour is fruitier and sweeter.
    • Ginger mint (M. x gracilis 'variegata', AKA Metha x gentillis) has a fruity fragrance with a hint of ginger.
  • Don’t buy mint seeds! Mint varieties grown from commercially available seed strains are greatly inferior to the cultivated varieties propagated by cuttings or division.
  • If you grow mint in containers, you must sink the pots into the ground in the fall to enable the mint to survive the winter. The ground acts as insulation to protect the plant. When spring returns, dig up the pot and pull out the root ball. Cut off the bottom one-third to one-half of the roots, and remove any old, woody core. Replant the root clump with new potting mix.

To Note:

  • 1 kg of mint oil can flavour 100,000 sticks of gum.
  • Corsican mint is a great choice for rock gardens, contributing a fresh, clean scent and an inconspicuous beauty. It is less aggressive than other mints and forms a low-growing carpet. It also attracts bees and butterflies.
  • In the Victorian language of flowers, peppermint signifies warm feelings; spearmint, warmth of sentiment.
  • Rats dislike the smell of peppermint.
  • In Greek mythology, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, wooed the beautiful nymph Minthe, which made Hades' wife, Sephony, extremely jealous. Furious, Sephony turned Minthe into a plant—a plant that we call mint.
  • Mint was used in the 14th century for whitening the teeth—a precursor to modern mint toothpaste.


"You say Verhuny, I say Chrusciki"


When my brother and I were very young kids, we would cut across the fence and into Mrs. Sernowski’s farmyard. We were never actually invited, but Mrs. Sernowski was always so generous and inviting that we assumed it was OK just to pop-in. As I recall, one of the reasons that had a hard time resisting the temptation to "jump the fence" was that she always had plenty of delicious "Verhuny" -  a fabulous, light, pastry dusted with icing sugar. (I've also heard it called "Chrusciki" by the Polish. Help me to get it right my Ukrainian and Polish friends!) When Mom couldn’t find us at home, she pretty much knew that we were filling our faces next door!
I also remember the huge peppermint plants that Mrs. Sernowski grew along the path to her Verhuny…err, house and the wonderful minty smell of the peppermint leaves. I can also remember how disappointed I was chewing on a peppermint leaf for the first time and discovering that while it had that beautiful mint fragrance, it didn’t taste anything like sweet, peppermint gum!
Growing mint in the garden is not difficult to do. In fact, preventing mint from spreading is often the toughest part of growing them. If you plan on growing it in your yard, ensure that you can "wall it off" from the rest of the garden. Otherwise, your yard could turn into a mint jungle. I know of one gardener who knew about the mint plants reputation for spreading aggressively and thought he could solve the problem by growing his mint in a pot. Much to his surprise, he discovered the mint roots had grown through the pot’s drainage holes and up into his lettuce patch!
Now, come to think of it, mint and Verhuny do share one common characteristic; While mint is notorious for growing roots that pop up unexpectedly, Verhuny is notorious for causing kids to pop in unexpectedly.

~Jim Hole