Just because Summer is gone doesn't mean you can't have the taste of Summer fresh herbs this time of year. Fresh herbs are very pricey in the supermarket so why not grow your own indoors this Winter? When Spring comes back, and it always does, simply harden your indoor herb plants off over a week or two and then plant in the garden outdoors for continued growth over the Summer. Here are some of my favorite herbs to grow indoors. Try one of these or a few and have herbs for soups, stews, salads, herb crusted breads, all Winter long.
Lemongrass: Technically, you don’t even grow lemongrass, in that it’s not planted in soil, making this one incredibly easy herb to keep in the house. When buying a stalk at your local market, look for plenty of stem and make sure the base is intact. Trim the top and place the stalk in a couple inches of water. The stalk will produce roots and dozens of new shoots. Lemongrass is found in many Asian recipes. It is light and refreshing in flavor with a lemony appeal.
Chives: These are one of the easiest herbs to grow indoors, as they do not require much light and are prolific in their production. Chives are easiest to start from an already-established plant. Just pull up a bunch from the established plant (including the roots), place it in a small pot half-full of potting soil, then cover the roots up to the crowns with more potting soil. Cut about one-third of growth off the top to stimulate new growth. Who can resist some flavorful chives on their baked potato? Or make your own onion and chive veggie dip.
Mint: Both spearmint and peppermint literally grow like weeds. They’re both very hearty and very invasive, meaning that they can quickly choke out other herbs. Keep in mind that a lot of spearmint is required to produce the same minty effect as peppermint, so if you’re growing it indoors, where space is limited and harvesting is frequent, peppermint is the better option. Start your peppermint plant with seeds—not root or leaf cuttings—in a small pot full of potting soil. Peppermint will thrive in shade, but make sure it’s in a spot where it gets at least a little bit of light each day. After living in the South for 10 years I still like to drink ice tea year round and one of my favorite additions to tea, hot or iced, is mint.
Parsley: Parsley is one of the most commonly used herbs and is very easy to grow, though the seeds can be difficult to germinate and may take up to two weeks to see results. Parsley doesn’t require much light or maintenance once you get it started. Keep in mind, though, that this plant is a fairly slow grower, so initial clippings will not harvest a lot. Parsley is said to be good for an upset tummy and as a breath freshener. It is also lovely as a garnish and gives a fresh flavor to potato salad and sauces.
Oregano: The Greek variety of oregano is easiest to grow; however all oregano requires six to eight hours of sunlight per day, so a well-lit window—particularly one with southwestern sun exposure—is best. As an herb in sauces for pizza or any Italian dish, oregano is a staple.
Thyme: This is another herb that requires six to eight hours of sunlight per day, and it may even need supplemental light. My favorite is lemon thyme, which can be used in place of regular thyme and has a unique citrus-like flavor and isn’t nearly as easy to find as other varieties in stores. Absolutely delightful on chicken and fish.
Rosemary: This herb is very easily over-watered. It prefers to remain on the dry side and does not need particularly rich soil. Several varieties are available; some are bush-like and some are more of a creeping plant. Choose an upright variety like Tuscan Blue or Blue Spire. These will remain more compact, making them a better choice for indoor growing. Chicken loves rosemary but my favorite use is in beef stew or pork ragout.
Basil: This is one of my favorites to use when cooking. However, this herb is one of the most difficult to grow, especially indoors during the winter months. The best varieties for indoor growth are the Spicy Globe or African Blue. The African blue won’t have the wide, bright-green leaves you may be used to seeing in grocery stores; it’s similar to Thai basil with its narrower leaves and bluish-purple stalks. I use basil year round to make fresh pesto.
Growing Tips: When buying herbs for indoor growth, it’s best to purchase plants that haven’t already been growing outside. The shock of bringing them indoors can cause trauma and affect growth and production. Remember that winter is a natural resting phase for plants, so it’s unrealistic to expect abundant growth. Try minimal watering and let them do their thing. Clipping them regularly will promote further growth so clip away—remember, you’re growing them to use!
Some of these herbs do well started from seed. Basil, parsley, chives, thyme and oregano are all fairly easy to start from seed. Simply place seed in a seed starter tray available at most garden centers or online or start in small, shallow pots. Use fresh potting soil and keep moist, not wet, until they germinate. Germination will be quicker if tray or pots are kept in a sunny warm location. After seeds germinate just mist every other day and allow soil to dry out somewhat between mistings. After seedlings have gotten their third set of leaves or are about 4 -6 inches tall transplant to larger terra cotta pot, soil and all. Try not to disturb roots when transplanting.
A common mistake is to plant all herbs in one container. This inhibits growth and in the case of an invasive herb, you’ll likely witness an herbal takeover in your container, so plant each herb in its own container.
Containers should have ample in the bottom and since herbs can be susceptible to fungus, allow them to breathe by using terracotta pots, no smaller than six inches in diameter. To allow further ventilation, place pots in a container of small pebbles.
Always use a high-quality organic potting soil that contains vermiculite or perlite for adequate drainage. Avoid using soil from the outside, as it contains organisms that are controlled by the outdoor environment. Rosemary, thyme, and basil prefer soil with more lime, so adding a spoonful of crushed eggshells to the soil is beneficial. Though herbs are hearty, they do like to be fed once in a while—especially when growing in limited pot space. Herbs are grown for their leaves not for their flowers, so any fertilizer you give them should promote leaf growth, not blooms. One of the easiest ways to feed your herbs is to add one tablespoon of fish emulsion to a gallon of water and use this every time you water.
Water the herbs at the base, where the stem meets the soil—don’t water the leaves. Water once and let the water drain completely through, then repeat. How often your herbs need to be watered is a matter of watching and learning to read each individual plant. A good rule of thumb is to let the soil dry between waterings. Remember, one of the biggest mistakes in watering herbs is over-watering them; herbs don’t require as much water as a typical houseplant. If you see leaves turning yellow, this is the first sign of over-watering.
If your herbs require supplemental light, clamp-on reflector lights with fluorescent work best. Clamp the lights to the pot, four to six inches away from the plant. If you see brown spots on the plant, this is a sign of burning and the lights either could be too close or may have been used for too long.