Herbs work harder than your ordinary houseplants. Not content at just being decorative, they bring fragrance to the room and flavor to the food. As a bonus, they often repel insects. There are plenty reasons for growing herbs inside.
If you live in an apartment, small house or have room-mates, access to a traditional outdoor garden space might be limited. Growing a few multi-functional plants is easy and makes life more enjoyable.
Late fall, winter and early spring often puts a damper on fresh herbs as they go dormant or die off in all but the warmest parts of the country. Our taste for delicious foods seasoned with fresh herbs doesn’t go dormant, however! Growing a few choice herbs in a container that is moved inside during the cold seasons makes those flavors available year-round.
One of the cardinal goals for any gardening cook is fresh herbs for winter salads, stir fries, sauces, soups and stews, right at your fingertips. Absolutely nothing is quite as impressive and satisfying as the flavor fresh herbs bring to the winter dinner table!
I always recommend starting small in any new gardening endeavor – partly to make it easy to do and monitor, but also to avoid overwhelm and the feeling of being chained to the garden.
That is still a good rule of thumb with indoor kitchen herb gardening, but there is one other thing to think of - when growing herbs for the winter kitchen garden, make sure you have enough.
Another rule of thumb I always advocate is setting yourself up for success. In this case that might mean larger pots with more plants of fewer herbs to get started. Three 12 or 18 inch containers with oregano, thyme and sage will grow plenty of herbs to supply your cooking for the winter. Three containers won’t be too much to look after or keep watered.
If you have the space or need more light for indoor herbs, strongly consider a winter plant table. It provides a dedicated space for your herbs and storage underneath with provisions for lights above if needed.
The simplest and most effective plant table is a rolling wire rack. The wheels allow it to move where it's needed or convenient. You can find them at the big box hardware stores or kitchen and bath stores. The good ones cost a small amount more up front but will last for a decade or more. They usually include five shelves and are adjustable. Use only the number of shelves you’ll need – we usually only use 3, one at the bottom, the plant container shelf and the top shelf where we suspend the lights from.
Growing herbs inside means you’ll need to provide them with the optimum conditions for growth. This is simpler than it might seem, so let’s look at the major aspects.
Light. Most herbs thrive on full sun and need 6 – 8 hours of sun a day when grown indoors. This can be from a sunny, south-facing room or from fluorescent lights above the containers on a plant table. It can also be a combination of both – sun in the morning and early afternoon with fluorescent light the rest of the day. Fluorescent fixtures are inexpensive – shop lights will work fine - just make sure to use bulbs specified for greenhouse or growing use. They have a full spectrum light that helps your indoor plants grow better than normal “cool white” bulbs.
Temperature. Almost all the herbs listed do well in temperatures that we are comfortable in - the 60-70°F range. If you keep your home warmer during the winter, consider moving them to a cooler room and watch the soil moisture levels closely to avoid over-drying. Most herbs like a cooler night and slightly warmer day.
Air circulation. Herbs grown inside need some air circulation to keep stagnant air from encouraging molds and fungal diseases. A small fan on the lowest setting set several feet away will keep a gentle airflow going and your plants healthy. Watch the leaves of your plants for signs the air is too dry – drying at the edges, curling or cracking. Place a tray with a layer of pebbles under the catch basins of the pots and add water to increase the humidity. Keep the water level below the catch basins to avoid waterlogged roots.
Soil. A bagged, complete potting soil such as the Square Foot Gardening soil from Garden Time works well. It is basically a complete soil with added nutrients to support the plant’s growth. It is inexpensive and one bag will be more than enough for several large planters.
Fertilizer. Growing inside in containers means you will need to feed the plant a bit more often than in your outside garden. Inside herbs need enough fertilizer to keep growing, but not too much where they become leggy and gangly and start losing flavor. Once or twice a month feedings of dilute seaweed or fish emulsion at half-strength should do well.
Water. Indoor herbs are almost universally intolerant of waterlogged roots and damp, wet soils. In general, water less often than you think you need to but more thoroughly. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch and water until it comes out the bottom of the pot – that’s what the catch basin is for! If water doesn’t come out, make sure the drain holes in the bottom of the pot aren’t clogged. If they are, open them up with a small stick. If the roots have overgrown the drain holes, it’s time to divide the plant root and repot.
Now that you have a feel for what your winter kitchen herb garden needs, let’s look at eight herbs that do well inside! We’ll start with the easiest herbs first.
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) Perennial, grows to about 2 feet tall. Needs about 8 hours of full sun or bright light to keep from yellowing and well-drained soil. Water when the soil surface begins to dry and give plants room for good air circulation. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but will tolerate lows to the mid-40s.
Harvest by snipping a few stalks at the base with scissors, leaving about one inch of stalk above the base. One plant is usually enough for a family’s culinary use. A beautiful and underappreciated herb, the clusters of pure white star-shaped flowers smell like roses!
Garlic chives will slowly spread to fill their container and can produce for several years in a pot with enough soil volume for the roots. When the pot becomes crowded, divide the root mass and re-pot.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) Perennial, grows to about 1½ feet tall. Prefers full sun or 6 – 8 hours of light per day and nutrient rich, well-drained soil. Water completely once the soil surface is dry to the touch.
Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but can take temperatures down to the high 40s.
Good companion herbs for oregano are marjoram, sage and thyme as they all have similar needs in their growing environment.
Harvest leaves for cooking once plant is well leafed out and beginning to become bushy. Once established, it may need trimming to keep from spreading out too much and to maintain air circulation.
Oregano should remain productive in pots for one to two years. When they become too woody for inside use, transplant into garden in late spring.
Marjoram (Origanum majorana) Perennial, grows to about a foot tall. Prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Water when the soil surface begins to dry, will tolerate a slightly drier soil than most other herbs. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but will continue growing down to high 40s.
Marjoram grows well inside, so trim plant to keep its bushy appearance. It will spread to fill the pot its planted in. Once it has filled the pot, divide and re-pot, sharing with your neighbors or gardening friends.
Potted plants will be productive for one to two years inside. Afterwards they can be transplanted outside into the garden.
Produces a heavenly fragrance that perfumes the room its grown in.
Thyme (Thymus fragrantissimus) Hardy perennial, grows to about 4 inches tall and a foot across. Will tolerate indirect light, but prefers about six hours of light a day. Needs daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night. Water completely each time but allow the soil surface to begin to dry before watering again.
Will remain productive for over two years, but will need to be repotted once the roots reach the edge and bottom of the container. Thyme benefits from moving outside during the late spring through end of summer. Acclimate in a semi-shaded location then gradually move to full sun.
Very easy to grow, thyme adds a perfume to the air and a delicate aroma and flavor to dishes. Harvest when plant has plenty of foliage by snipping off a stem or two, rinse and remove the leaves from the stem. A quick way is running your thumb and index finger down the length of the stem to remove all the leaves at once.
Chop leaves or add whole to sauces, soups and other dishes. Add stems to stock to add their flavor, then strain out.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) Biennial, grows to about 1 ½ feet tall. Prefers full sun or 6 – 8 hours of light per day but will tolerate part sun or indirect light. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 60s and 50s at night, but will continue growing down to low 40s.
Soil should be lightly moist – a fingertip should show just a touch of moisture on it after touching the soil surface. Water completely and empty the catch basin so the roots are out of standing water.
Grows best with a little added humidity, so the kitchen usually works well. If the leaves start looking dry and brittle, add a layer of pebbles in the catch basin or set the pot on a tray of pebbles with a layer of water. The evaporating water increases the humidity around the plant.
Harvest by snipping a few outer leaves, leaving the rest to continue growing. Should be productive for six to nine months inside and can be moved outside during warm weather – from late spring to early fall.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) Perennial, grows to about 2 ½ feet tall. Prefers full sun or at least 8 hours of light a day and nutrient rich, well-drained soil. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but will continue growing down to low 40s. Water completely each time but allow the soil surface to begin to dry before watering again.
Remains productive for one to two years indoors and can be transplanted into the garden when it becomes too woody for indoor use. Trim leaves to maintain bushy shape and dry excess leaves for later seasoning use.
Fresh sage is incredible in holiday stuffings and roasted turkey or any poultry. Adds a delightful aroma and flavor to winter soups and stews, whether vegetable based or not.If you’ve comfortably grown the herbs above, then these two will be easy. If you’ve not grown any herbs inside before, start with some of the choices above to gain some experience.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) Annual, can grow to 2 feet tall. Prefers full sun or 6 – 8 hours of light per day and nutrient rich, well-drained soil. Dill grows a long tap root and needs at least 12 inches of soil to thrive in. A one to two-foot-deep pot works well.
Water when the soil surface begins to dry and give plants room for good air circulation. Prefers daytime temperatures in the 60s and 50s at night, but will continue growing down to mid-40s.
Sow seed directly, then thin by clipping shoots to 3 seedlings per 8-inch diameter pot. Young plants may need staking until mature.
Plants will be productive for two to four months indoors. Harvest by clipping lower leaves for cooking use. Plant may flower if conditions are right and provide fresh dill flowers and seeds for later use. Seeds begin to mature about 2 – 3 weeks after blooming. Trim stalks to harvest seeds once flowers have died and seeds begin to mature and harden. Store stalks in a paper bag for a month to dry seeds, then shake bag to release seeds and store.
Mariska is an excellent variety – hardy with lots of aroma and flavor.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) Annual, grows to about 2 feet tall. Prefers full sun or at least 8 hours of light and nutrient rich, well-drained soil. Does not tolerate water stress, so make sure pots have good drainage. Soil should be somewhat moist but never soggy. You should be able to feel the soil moisture when touching with a fingertip, but it shouldn’t be wet.
Prefers daytime temperatures in the 70s and 60s at night, but will suffer below 50 degrees F. Basil likes light, just like when grown outside in full sun.
Harvest the leaves by snipping with scissors as needed for cooking. One plant can keep a family in fresh basil through the winter! Trim the young flower bud tips frequently to keep plants bushy and prevent flowering.
Plants will produce continuous leaves for three to six months with flower bud trimming.
Now you’ve got the tools and information to choose the herbs you want to grow in your kitchen garden this winter. Use this article as a guide and refer to it as you grow.
One resource to help you further are Starting Seeds at Home, an article showing what a seed needs for germination and what happens to the seed during sprouting. For more information on what potting soil might be best for you, read Potting Soils – the Good, the Bad & the Ugly.
Whether you cook or not, bring the aromas of fresh herbs into your home this winter!
Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil-building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife, Cindy. Discover a better, holistic gardening approach with their hand-selected heirloom seeds, expert gardening advice and delicious recipes. They welcome dialogue and can be reached by email or 888-878-5247. Visit their website and sign up for their Newsletter for more articles like this! Read all of Stephen and Cindy's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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