Home & Garden

Success with herbs indoors

Veronica Lorson Fowler

This large ceramic bowl has been recruited for use as an herb dish garden. It holds basil, cilantro, variegated thyme and tarragon. Set it in a sunny spot directly on the table where it can be used to snip fresh herbs directly onto plates for a flavorful treat.
Veronica Lorson Fowler This large ceramic bowl has been recruited for use as an herb dish garden. It holds basil, cilantro, variegated thyme and tarragon. Set it in a sunny spot directly on the table where it can be used to snip fresh herbs directly onto plates for a flavorful treat.

Get growing on your next delicious meal by nurturing your own fresh herbs indoors.

What’s not to like about growing herbs indoors?

Besides the pleasure of growing things, you’ll also have a delicious, economical and healthy way to brighten your meals. You’re just a few snip-snips of the scissors away from better, more fun eating.

While cultivating herbs indoors is easy, it isn’t quite as straightforward as some might think. That’s because most of us want to do it during the winter when light levels are at their lowest — a challenge for herbs, which need lots of light.

Look at the packaging on indoor herb kits and you’d think all you need to do is plant the seed, throw some water at it, and wait. But it takes a little more than that.

Even outdoors, herbs are sun lovers. There, they need full sun — six or more hours of direct, unfiltered light a day. So obviously, giving them adequate light indoors in the winter, when the days are short, is the primary challenge.

The other challenge is that even the faster-growing herbs, such as basil and chives, take a few to several months to grow from seed to a plant large enough to harvest from it.

Perennials such as tarragon, oregano or thyme take months, and even professional growers usually start them from cuttings or root divisions, not seed. (If you’re a good planner, in late summer, dig up and pot root divisions from your garden to tend indoors.)

The Easiest Herb Garden

So, considering all that, the easiest (and maybe even the most economical, if you consider the costs of special lighting) is simply to buy established herbs and plant them indoors. Put them in the brightest window you can and treat them like short-lived houseplants.

For two or three months, they’ll be fine in the darker conditions indoors and you can harvest small amounts from them, being sure not to cut back too far. (As a rule, never cut back more than one-third of the plant.)

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Put herbs in individual pots on a windowsill, or even put them all together into one big pot or container to conserve space. Use potting soil and keep lightly moist. Although their water and soil requirements for long-term growing are very different, for two to three months, they’ll be fine together.

From the Beginning

Starting herbs from seed is certainly feasible with fast-growing annual herbs, such as basil or chives, but it will take more time and your plants won’t be as large and lush as those started in full sun and the ideal conditions of a commercial greenhouse.

Start with fresh seed purchased within the past few months and plant in regular potting soil. Cover with plastic and keep at the temperature recommended for that seed’s best germination. (Cilantro and chives like cooler temperatures in the 50s and 60s. Basil likes it warmer at 70 degrees.) Once the seeds germinate, move into a sunny window.

This technique also works well with salad greens, which technically aren’t herbs but are close, including arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, oak-leaf lettuce and frisee. If you want, plant them in a plastic window box to place indoors in front of a window and harvest when they are a few inches tall.

Let There Be Light

No matter how you start your herbs, all will do better with plenty of light. In most homes, a sunny window during the winter months will help only a little.

For best results, supplement with either a fluorescent light setup, outfitted with two tube lights. Ideally, hang it just a few inches over the plants in front of the window to supplement daylight.

Most lower-priced “grow” lights deliver about the same amount of light, just a different color spectrum slightly better suited for plants.

High-density discharge grow lights, such as metal halide lights, deliver a tremendous amount of light and are excellent, but expensive. They start at about $150.

Countertop herb and salad light kits have been popular in recent years. If instructions are followed carefully, the plants will germinate, but those using them report poor results in any of the plants getting large enough to harvest.

With any herbs in spring, plant outdoors. While most herbs can be planted outside once the soil easily can be worked in spring, basil is extremely cold-sensitive and should not be planted outside until all danger of frost has passed.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

You’ll enjoy the flavor of herbs for many months to come.

Growing herbs inside

l Basil. Can start from seed indoors. Basil takes 85 days to reach full maturing. An established plant is faster and more productive. Snip fresh to sprinkle into and over Italian and tomato dishes, including pasta. Plant outside after all danger of frost has passed.

• Chives. Can start from seed indoors, but an established plant is faster and more productive. Snip fresh into salads, to top soups, and into creamy or potato dishes. Plant several. Young plants are very slender and more than one are needed for a harvest.

• Cilantro. Can start from seed indoors, but an established plant is faster and more productive. Excellent in most Mexican or Indian dishes. Plant outside in spring. It needs cool weather and will bolt or die when temperatures regularly hit the 80s.

• Mint. Start from an established plant. Sprinkle fresh over fruit, use in drinks, or in Indian food. Can be invasive outdoors. Plant in a pot positioned in the soil to contain it.

• Oregano. Start from an established plant. Also highly versatile and good in savory dishes. Thrives in hot, dry conditions.

• Parsley. Slow and difficult to plant from seed. An established plant is faster and more productive. Use fresh in salads or as a garnish. Technically it is a biennial; grow as an annual.

• Rosemary. Start from an established plant. Chop finely and rub onto chicken or pork before cooking or grilling. It thrives in hot, dry conditions. Many northern gardeners plant it in a pot outdoors and then bring it in, pot and all, to enjoy as an edible houseplant in winter.

• Tarragon. Start from an established plant. Snip fresh into green salads. It also is delicious on grilled fish or chicken. It thrives in hot, dry conditions.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

• Thyme. Start from an established plant. Highly versatile and can be used in just about any savory dish. Thrives in hot, dry conditions.

• Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

CONTINUE READING

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.