6 Things Everyone Should Know About Buying Potted Herbs from the Grocery Store

updated May 29, 2020
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Herbs from the grocery store on kitchen table
Credit: Joe Lingeman

If you’ve ever walked by those little herb plants at the grocery store and wondered what their deal was, I’ve got good news for you: I’m going to tell you. These small plants are super easy to keep alive (for weeks on end!) and will certainly save you money (they may cost more than a clamshell of ready-to-chop herbs, but because they’ll continue to grow, you’ll get more than a single bunch’s worth). Basil starts (that’s what these little plants are called, starts) are the most common, but your grocery store might have other options, too — especially as we get deeper into summer. What should you know about buying potted herb plants at the grocery store? Let’s take a look.

1. They likely come from big nurseries.

Most of the potted herbs in grocery stores come from big nurseries, just like the potted plants you find at garden stores. Grown in small containers, they are meant as a short-term kitchen supplement that anyone can grow indoors. Having access to fresh herbs brightens up meals and adds something green and vibrant to your home — a win-win.

2. You’ll probably need to repot them.

Part of the allure of small grocery store herbs is that they look full, bushy, and healthy, but these herbs are often planted too dense for their small confines — its likely there is more than one plant in that tiny pot (hey, more for you!). For best results, consider repotting the herb to several small containers or moving some outdoors, if you have the space. 

With repotting, the end goal is for the plant to produce as much as possible, for as long as possible. Use one small pot (about four inches deep) for every plant, or a larger pot if you have the room to display it. It’s better to leave a little wiggle room than to have plant roots mashing up against the container walls. Plus, if you allow for some growth, you increase the chances of the herb lasting longer and growing to full maturity. Herbs like thyme, sage, and rosemary are perennials — you can keep them alive and flourishing for years, so it’s nice to give them some room to grow.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. And water them every two to three days.

Small pots of any plant dry out very quickly — this is great for many houseplants, but not herbs. Test the soil every few days by inserting your finger into the soil and check for dampness. You want the soil to be consistently just-damp — don’t let it dry out between waterings, as this stresses out the plant. 

5. You’ll have to harvest them regularly.

To keep herb plants alive longer, you’ll need to harvest them regularly! People have the tendency to let bright, green herbs like parsley and basil sit in the pot as if they’re houseplants, but they’re not! The more you harvest, the more the plant will produce, so be sure to snip some branches and stems regularly — the plants will regrow and fill in the gaps.

6. Know that your plant might not last forever.

Annual, tender herbs — like cilantro and basil — will eventually go to flower and set seed, which is to say, they won’t produce forever. This is natural and unavoidable, so don’t fret! When this happens, clip flowers and add them to salads or cocktails and if you’re lucky enough to see your plant go to seed, you can save and eat those, too. Use basil seed as you would chia, and eat as a fancy garnish on yogurt, fruit sorbets, or stir into cocktails. Cilantro seed can be eaten fresh or set on a plate to dry, later adding it to your spice cupboard (it’s coriander seed!). After flowering, annual herbs are done and should be composted.

Perennial herbs, on the other hand, may last for years if kept watered, are fed occasionally, and are given more space to grow. Thyme, sage, rosemary, and mint — all of these herbs will come back year after year. When they outgrow the small pot on the windowsill (production may dwindle as roots grow and overcrowd the pot), transplant to a larger pot or plant them outside.

Related: What’s the Best Way to Start a Garden?

Do you ever buy your herbs like this at the grocery store?