Growing Herbs in Pots in Little Sun
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Doreen Miller
Posted on: March 11, 2008

What herbs can I grow in pots that get very little sunshine. They will get about 3 hours of sunshine in the morning till about noon time. I am moving into an apartment in four months and I live in Chico California. I am unsure what zone I am in. My boyfriend and I want to start a potted herb garden and container plants. I really need some help. I always had an outdoor garden and I am kinda lost on how to set this up.

So far I have a sword fern and some begonia plants. I want a herb garden too.

Hardiness zones have little or no meaning for plants in pots. The hardiness zones properly apply to plants that are in the ground or are in very large outdoor containers with large soil masses. Plants in pots that are left outside over winter are more susceptible to damage from a hard freeze in the root zone, and are more likely to experience the repeated freeze-thaw cycles that are so damaging to plants. Potted plants left to overwinter outside are also likely to dehydrate at some point. Suffice to say a pot left outdoors over winter is a frozen hell for plants.

You do not say whether you will be growing your potted herbs outdoors or indoors. If you have a balcony that gets the three hours of sun in the morning then that is very different than growing indoors in a window that gets three hours of sun. Outdoors, the same three hours delivers much more light to your plants. Even during the rest of the day when the sun is not shining your plants will get more light outside. So, if you have a choice, choose to grow your herbs on the balcony. Growing on a balcony offers other advantages: your containers can be larger, so plants grow bigger and faster, last longer between waterings, suffer fewer pest problems, and don’t need to be fertilized as often.

Even three hours outdoors won’t give you the same results with herbs that 6, 8, or more hours of sun would. Most of the popular kitchen herbs such as basil, cilantro, oregano, parsley, and rosemary do best in full sun. After all, many of these popular herbs come from the Mediterranean originally where the sun is plentiful. But it’s still worth the bother to grow herbs in a spot where you get three hours of sun, especially in California where you get fewer overcast days than other parts of the country.

If you are planning to grow indoors then the situation is different. You will need to supplement the light with grow lights. I won’t say that nothing will grow in windows getting only three hours of sun, but nothing will grow well. You might be able to get a mint to subsist but you won’t get much to harvest, and if you harvest too much, eventually it will whither away.

For indoor herb gardens, I always recommend setting up in the brightest window possible. That way you take advantage of whatever natural light you are already getting -- natural sunlight is the very best light for herbs. Put your light stand or lighting equipment right in the window area, and set up the timer to shine the lights for 8-10 hours after the three hours of sun in the morning. With this amount of light you should get lots of growth, and lots of fresh herbs to cut. But you must provide for the plants below the soil too: they will need good pots that drain well, adequate feeding on a regular basis, and daily checking for watering (but not necessarily watering every day -- give ‘em the finger! -- and feel if the soil is dry to the touch first).

If you are really serious about growing herbs indoors, you will be thinking like the grow-op guys who grow cannabis indoors. Seriously! They use powerful high intensity lights that deliver almost as much light as the sun, and they get maximum growth response (and maximum profits). Herbs do great under the same lights. But if you do try high intensity lights don’t put them in a room where your eyes are likely to make contact with the bright light; you will need set up the lights in a room where the bright light won’t bother your eyes.

For more information on growing herbs indoors, please see my article, "Growing Herbs Indoors":

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