Monday, October 4, 2010

Growing herbs, Brisbane style

After buying fresh herbs at the market every week, only to watch them fade and wither away a few days later, I decided  to make use of my tiny balcony with some experimental herb growing. Over the past few months I've watched my greens grow with success. Here are my tips of the spade for basil, chives, coriander and mint.


If you’re just finding your botanical feet, then you can rely on basil to befriend you. Easy to grow, and great plant to start with, you will have new leaves sprouting fast.

I bought my little basil plant from the Brisbane City Farmers’ Markets (every Wednesday at Redacliff Place) and replanted it in a medium sized window box next to some chives. If you don't have the patience for sewing seeds, then I recommend buying some sprigs from the market. The man at the city market has a huge range and will cut you a deal...3 herbs for $5!

Harvest Tips

  • Plant your basil in late spring or early summer when all danger of chilly winter weather has passed. Mine has doubled in size over the past 6 weeks, so I suggest giving it lots of space to sprout.

  • Basil loves warm weather, lots of sun, and plenty of water. You’ll need to water it every day…the moment the soil is dry, the leaves will wilt.

  • When your basil is about 20cm high you can begin harvesting. As a general guide, start snipping when the plant has at least four sets of leaves. Taking off the top leaves will encourage it to grow, and will also prevent your basil from flowering. Once your basil flowers, your plant stops putting energy into leaf production and will eventually die a graceful and flowery death. 

  • Pick only as many leaves as you need. Fresh basil will last up to five days if you clip sprigs and treat them like freshly cut flowers – placed in water at room temperature.


The babies of the onion family!

Chives are another easy herb to harvest and they will happily grow in all sorts of containers; tea pots, window boxes, garden beds, name it!

Chives like sun but they also need a little shade, which means you have to be careful during the long, hot Brisbane summer. I planted some in a window box next to my basil in early September and even then it could get a little too warm for them. If the sun is too fierce, you will notice the chives turn a caramel colour (as you can see in the photo below). Ideally they will grow best with a mixture of shade and sun. And of course, keep them well-watered.

Harvest Tips

  • Chives grow well from seed. Plant a few seeds and keep them warm and watered inside until they are large enough to plant outside. 

  • Plant outside in well dug soil. You don’t need to feed chives once they’re in the ground as long as you have used a good potting mix that contains some compost. I find organic compost mixes from Bunnings keep them well-nourished.

  • Hold off chopping up your chives until the plants are fairly well established and cut the chives as you need them. Use scissors and leave two to three inches of leave on the plant. 

  • When the flowers start to die, you can cut down the whole plant (two to three inches high) and the chives will grow again. 

  • In the winter months your chive plant may die back completely, but don’t worry it will return in the spring!


Love it or hate it?

On the other side of my basil, I have some coriander slowly sprouting. Coriander will cope with dry conditions, but like chives it suffers easily from sun burn. If you're not careful your coriander will look like its been to the solarium!

Finding a spot that gets a good balance of shade and direct sun will help your greens grow best. Four hours of sunlight is ideal, so its another great herb for the Brisbane climate. 

Harvest Tips

  • Coriander is great when it grows well because you can use every part of the plant in the kitchen; leaves, seeds and roots.
  • If you only want to use the leaves you can snip off as many as you need once it reaches about 15cm tall. Always harvest the mature leaves to encourage new growth.
  • Coriander will flourish in the cooler months of the year. During autumn, winter, and spring your plant should stay leafy for a few months.
  • Keep the soil well-drained and if you think your plant is struggling feed it some fertiliser and make sure there is a steady supply of water.
  • If you’re growing your herbs in pots, elevate them a little so the water can drain away after each watering. You can buy self-watering plant containers from hardware shops, or it's easy to make your own.


Mint is perfect for kick-starting your herb garden. It’s easy to grow, looks pretty, smells fresh, and thrives in all kinds of conditions.  

But be warned: once you start growing mint, it’s difficult to stop. Mint is one of the most invasive herbs and given the chance will monopolize your entire garden within weeks.

Harvest Tips

  • Mint thrives from rich soil, a sunny position and a little shade.

  • Growing mint from seed can be tricky, so buying a plant or pinching a few sprigs from your neighbour is the easiest way to start off. 

  • Pick a large, open space to plant your mint. The more isolated from your other flowers and herbs, the less chance it will invade their space.  
  • If you want to attempt to keep the mint contained to one section of your garden, cut out the bottom of the plastic pots (if you buy them as plants) and plant the containers directly into the soil. This will keep the roots growing down rather than out and will help stop their vigorous spread.

  • Most types of mint are perennial, meaning they will live for more than two years. If you pick your mint from the top of the sprigs, the plant will branch out and grow more leaves.
  • The most common mint to grow is peppermint or spearmint, although its a big family and there are lots of species you can grow.