By Jan Cashman 11/20/11
Even though winter has set in and your gardens are under snow, you don’t have to be without fresh herbs. You can plant an herb garden on your kitchen windowsill. Here are some hints on how best to grow herbs indoors:
Most herbs are not hard to grow indoors, but they do need plenty of light. Many of the herbs we use are plants native to the Mediterranean area where the climate is sunny and dry. An east window is ideal for growing herbs, but a south or west window will also work. A north exposure may not give the plants enough light, especially for sun lovers like basil, sage, and thyme. 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day is recommended for most herbs. (If you don’t have a bright window in which to grow your herbs, you can use grow lights.) Ideal temperatures during the day for most herbs range from 65 to 70 degrees. At night the room should be cooler by 10 or more degrees, to mimic outdoor temperatures. Basil prefers warmer temperatures.
Before winter sets in, you can pot up your herbs that are growing outdoors. Take as little garden dirt as possible when transplanting, to keep away insects and diseases living in the soil. Rather than digging up the whole plant, you can take cuttings from your outdoor herbs and root them inside in sand or a rooting mix. When rooted, plant them in a light potting mix containing vermiculite or perlite. Herbs need good drainage, so place gravel in the bottom of your pots and choose pots with drainage holes. Terra cotta clay pots planted with herbs give you a natural, Mediterranean look, but tend to dry out quicker than glazed pottery or plastics. You can plant each of your herbs in a separate pot, or group various herbs together in a larger pot as long as they all have similar water and light requirements. If you have an Earth Box sitting idle from last summer, plant it with herbs for the winter and put it in front of a sunny window.
Water herbs as you would any houseplant. Some, like rosemary and sage, do not like to be too wet. Let the soil dry out between waterings—stick your finger an inch into the soil and if dry, it is time to water. Place your herb pot in a saucer filled with small pebbles and ½ inch of water to keep humidity up. Fertilize indoor herbs sparingly with a water soluble fertilizer suitable for houseplants.
Pests such as fungus gnats, whiteflies, or aphids may show up on your herb plants—For a safe remedy, use insecticidal soap. It does not have a strong odor. If your herbs have mealybugs or scale, the easiest thing to do might be to discard the whole plant.
Of course, you will want to choose the herbs that you cook with most often to grow indoors. With fresh herbs so close at hand, it might be fun to experiment with new uses for them in your cooking. Here are some of the more popular herbs to grow indoors:
Because of its many culinary uses in pesto and Italian dishes, basil is a favorite. Basil is best eaten fresh–dried, it loses some of its flavor. Compact globe-type basils are a good choice to grow in a small pot. Rosemary can be hard to grow inside if you transplant it from your garden; it seems to have trouble adjusting to the light difference. Buy a new rosemary plant and you won’t have that problem; then plant it outside next spring. Rosemary grows best in dry, cool conditions. Try it with roasted pork, lamb or game.
Although a slow grower, vitamin-rich parsely is a great herb to grow indoors. Plenty of sun will help parsely grow faster. Use it in salads, salad dressings, omelettes, casseroles, even spaghetti sauce. The compact thyme plant is another herb to grow inside. Try flavorful lemon thyme if you can find it. Sage grows well inside, too. Chives, which has a mild onion flavor for salads and salad dressings, is one of the easiest herbs to grow inside, but is also easy to grow outside, so I dig under the snow for chives when I need some in the winter.
Pot up herbs in pretty containers for the gourmet cook on your Christmas list. Or plant a windowsill garden with useful and beautiful herb plants and use them all winter to make your meals more flavorful. Enjoy your kitchen filled with the fragrance of herbs!