Photo courtesy Penn State Live
The growing season in the Poconos has ended for another year, so it’s time to bring gardening indoors. A great way to do this is to plant a windowsill herb garden. Growing culinary herbs helps beat the winter doldrums while providing fresh flavor and wonderful aroma to your cooking.
Choosing the Best Herbs for Indoors
Good choices for an indoor herb garden include basil (Ocimum basilicum), bay (Laurus nobilis), chives (Allium spp.), cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), mint (Mentha spp.), oregano (Origanum spp.), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), sage (Salvia officinalis), and thyme (Thymus spp.) You may have brought a few of these in from your outdoor garden; if not, plan on starting some from seed.
Growing Herbs from Seed
- Choose containers. Give each herb its own pot so that you can provide the specific care it needs. Containers must have drainage holes. Place them on waterproof saucers or a tray.
- Select fresh seed and a soilless mix. Use a commercial seed-starting mix or a potting mix. Never use garden soil because it is too heavy and may contain disease organisms. Fill the pots then plant fresh seeds at the proper depth as shown on the seed packet. To ensure the seeds have enough warmth to germinate, I place my pots on a heating mat. Cover each container with plastic until the seedlings emerge. Keep the surface of the planting mix moist, making sure there is adequate air movement.
- Provide sufficient light. It is important to provide your herbs with sufficient light or they will be spindly, with smaller leaves and reduced aroma. A sunny, south-facing window that provides six hours of direct light is adequate for most herbs, although supplemental fluorescent lights may be needed on winter’s short, dark days. Bay, mint, rosemary, and thyme prefer indirect sunlight and will do well in east- and west-facing windows. Rotate the pots every three to four days to ensure uniform growth of each plant. Don’t allow leaves to touch cold windows. My most convenient windowsill does not receive enough sunlight, so l place seedlings under two 40-watt fluorescent bulbs. In general, for every hour of required sunlight, expose the plants to two hours of fluorescent light. If you grow herbs entirely under fluorescent lights they will need 14-16 hours each day. You may find a timer useful. Place plants no closer than five or six inches and no farther than 15 inches from a fluorescent light source.
Caring for Your Herbs
- Maintain adequate room temperatures. Temperatures should be at least 65 to 70°F during the day and 55 to 60°F at night. Most herbs can tolerate lower temperatures but some, like basil, cannot survive temperatures less than 50°. Monitor the temperature near windows as it may differ from the actual room temperature. Do not locate your herb garden near a heat source such as a radiator.
- Provide sufficient air circulation and humidity. To prevent fungal diseases, place your plants far enough apart to maintain an adequate flow of air between them. Group pots together, but not too closely, to create a humid environment. You can place the containers on a tray covered with moist pebbles, or keep a misting bottle nearby.
- Supply your herbs with water. Water your herbs to keep soil moist but not soggy. Be sure that the soil remains well drained. A loose, fast-draining, soilless mix, and the hole in the bottom of each plant pot facilitate good drainage. Allow bay, oregano, sage, and thyme to dry out slightly before watering. Never allow rosemary to dry out completely.
- Provide fertilizer. Fertilize every two weeks; more often may affect the herb’s taste and aroma. Use a low-dose of a water-soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion.
- Pinch back branching plants. By pinching back branching herbs, such as basil, you stop them from becoming leggy; you want them to be shrubby. Cutting your herbs regularly will prevent flowering that reduces the plant’s longevity.
- Control pests. Spray plants with water to remove insect pests. If the infestation is heavy, use insecticidal soap.
Remember to wash leaves off before using them in a recipe.
Begin to harvest some of the leaves when your herbs reach six inches; young, tender stems that have not bloomed have the best flavor. Always allow some leaves to remain on the plant. Cutting several stems will encourage new growth.
Using Herbs in Cooking
Add fresh herbs to recipes toward the end of the cooking time to preserve their flavor. When using fresh instead of dried in a recipe, add three times the amount of fresh herbs to the amount of dried herbs required. Basil is a favorite pairing for tomato recipes. Add basil to salads and sandwiches; use it in pesto. Plant a new batch of seeds when the basil stems become woody. Bay is an essential ingredient for soups and stews. The oldest bay leaves have the strongest flavor. The onion flavor of chives adds a kick to egg salad and is a great garnish. A large pot of mint makes an attractive houseplant. Select one of the flavorful varieties – my favorite is chocolate mint that I snip and add to drinks, salads, and desserts. Use oregano in sauces, casseroles, soups, and stews. Choose curly or flat-leaf parsley as a garnish or to flavor soups and salads. Add to chicken, fish, and vegetable dishes. Rosemary is a must-have addition for chicken, pork, lamb, potatoes, and olive oil; it has one of the best fragrances. Thyme is useful for seasoning turkey, potatoes, tomatoes, summer squash, or eggs. Use oregano in your Italian dishes, especially pizza. I also use it with lamb or steak. Sage is strong flavored and works well with chicken, pork, and baked fish.
You can move the pots outside in late spring and summer by first placing them in partial shade then gradually exposing them to more sunlight. When it’s time to bring your gardening indoors, fill your kitchen with the scent and flavor of fresh herbs all winter.