On Board Herb Gardens

Liven up your menus with these simple tips

Everyone loves an extended cruise, regardless of the destination. But occasionally, long trips mean leaving certain things behind, including many fresh provisions. However, not everything has to stay on shore!

Boat gardening to the extreme

Our best success has been with mint, basil, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, parsley and thyme. Basil is worth the struggle, but it needs additional attention, such as bringing it inside on cool nights. In fact, all the plants receive careful attention because we value them; so much so that Arlene gives each of them names.


Fresh herbs offer the best taste. Growing small containers of herbs on board is very easy to do and allows us to snip off the herbs as needed.

Most herbs are sun worshipers. As expatriates of the Mediterranean region, most flavourful herbs don’t thrive in the un-Mediterranean environment and inadequate light of our West Coast cruising grounds. Herbs don’t tolerate less than four hours of direct sunshine a day.

To begin, decide how many herbs to plant. Is your goal to simply spice up the occasional cocktail, or are you picturing fresh parsley or cilantro with every meal? The answer to this question, as well as space limitations, will determine the number of herb starts that will be required. We use herb starts rather than seed because they are easier to grow and get to maturity quicker.




Some boaters enjoy growing mico greens.

Regardless the size of the boat, space is an issue, and so is salt spray, so one must get creative and look for out of the box solutions for growing a garden. We grow our herbs in pots that can be moved around the boat. At anchor, or in a marina, the pots are placed on the back deck or transom—and maneuvered so they get the most sun. We move them inside at night and when we’re running to protect from salt spray.

Make sure the containers have drainage holes so surplus water can drain away; herbs can’t stand to have their roots in too-wet soil. The shape of the container doesn’t matter to a plant, but size does: a larger pot dries out more slowly, so use the largest pot that’s practical. It’s better to combine two or more plants in a large pot than to use several little ones.


If your float plan has you crossing the Canada/US border, purchase the soil and plant starts after crossing to avoid any issues with customs. Herbs and soil are available at most nurseries, grocery and hardware stores and weekend markets.


Soil, Water and Fertilizer

Sun bathing on the transom.

After sunlight, proper soil is the next most important factor in producing healthy herb plants. Gardeners talk about “soil,” but for containers, it’s better to use something labeled “potting mix,” rather than anything labeled “potting soil.” What is sold as “potting soil” is likely to be poor-quality and sticky with poor drainage. “Potting mix” is lighter, made mostly of organic matter such as peat or composted plant matter and designed to give container plants the texture and drainage they need.


Herbs vary in their needs. So, make sure the plants you combine in a pot require the same conditions. Rosemary, which likes drier soil, won’t do well with basil, which likes more water and fertilizer.

Fill the container two-thirds full with the potting mix. Remove the herb starts from their pots and replant them in the container. Add a little more mix to cover the roots. Water the herbs so the soil is damp all the way through.

Herbs need planty of sunlight.

Watering is not a trivial matter with herbs. Excess watering can cause root rot. If the herbs begin to turn brown, assume the cause is overwatering. In general, water less often and more thoroughly and only when the soil is dry. When the soil is dry to the touch, add water until it comes out the bottom of the pot. One word of caution, the potting mix in a pot dries out quickly and high sunlight exposure along with constant sea breeze can contribute to a rapid transpiration rate.


That frequent watering tends to wash nutrients from the soil, so replenish them with fertilizer as needed. Supplementary feedings every couple weeks with a liquid seaweed (or worm tea) will maintain the nutrient level in the soil. Some potting mixes come with slow-release fertilizer already mixed in.

Herbs are all about leaves. It’s the leaves we eat in most cases, not the flowers. So, avoid using a fertilizer made to encourage flowers. And keep up with the harvesting to encourage plants to be bushy and discourage them from blooming; often, blooming will change the flavour of the leaves.



Herb garden on the back deck in the sun.

First, make sure you pick the herbs regularly and that it’s done correctly. Wait until the plants reach between six to eight inches in height before harvesting. Trim off approximately one-third of the branches, cutting close to a leaf intersection, which will ensure they regrow quickly.

Fresh picked herbs need to be kept moist and cool. Layer them between damp paper towels and keep them in the refrigerator or ice chest. Do not seal them in plastic bags or plastic containers as they will become slimy. They can keep up to two weeks.


Cooking with Herbs

The joys of cooking with fresh herbs.

It’s usually best to add fresh herbs near the end of cooking time. Fresh herbs especially can easily be overcooked. However, some herbs such as bay leaves, thyme and rosemary should be added earlier as their flavours increase with cooking. When substituting fresh for dried, remember to use two to three times what the recipe calls for.

An herb’s flavour comes from the oil, which is released after the herb is crushed or crumbled. The best way to crush an herb is with a pestle or even crumbling between your fingers. Cutting with a knife just leaves oils on the cutting board.