Perhaps it is the kick-back of the hunter-gathering instincts present in us, but every spring and fall I go through a serious “nesting” instinct that drives me to plant and harvest. This instinct is all fine and good, except that I live in a townhouse with landlord-manicured lawns and perfect-condition white rock landscaping out my back door. I can’t plant outside, regardless of the time of year.
Lucky for me and all the other green-thumb plant lovers out there, herbs are a perfect addition to your home. You will eat healthier and save a few bucks by growing herbs indoors, too; fresh ingredients for your cooking cost next to nothing when you pick them right out of your kitchen.
Starting Your Indoor Herb Garden
The first thing you need to do is pick a good location. Ideally, an herb garden should be in, or easily accessible to, the kitchen since that is where the fresh ingredients will find the most use. More importantly, though, is that you choose the sunniest spot in your home.
Your next step will be to determine whether to start from scratch with seeds, or to purchase plants from a nursery. If you decide to start from scratch, locate a seedling tray that has a lid; these trays encourage healthy growth by keeping the seeds in a warm, humid environment. Once they’ve grown large enough that you can see a few roots worming their way out the bottom, it’s time to transplant them into a more permanent container.
When you plant your larger herbs (either fresh from a nursery or out of their seed tray), make sure that you are considering sunlight. The diehard sun lovers need to be planted in the center of your container, and the less demanding herbs off to the sides. Of the five herbs recommended for indoor growing, oregano requires the most light.
The five herbs most recommended for indoor herb gardens are: oregano, chives, mint, rosemary, and thyme. Each of these find their way into cooking on a regular basis, and they also have a long indoor life-span. If you start your indoor garden in the fall, you can usually harden the plants off during mid-winter and plant them outdoors come spring.
What can these 5 herbs be used in cooking for?
Chives: Use fresh and crisp in salads, and with sauces or mixed in with vegetables.
Mint: Use to brew fresh, heavenly tea, garnish soups, added into salads, or (my own favorite) wash larger mint leaves very well and slip them inside an ice cube tray. Fill with water and freeze as usual, creating a very subtly flavored ice that looks beautiful in everything from water to iced tea.
Rosemary: Use with meats, especially lamb.
Oregano: Use for sauces, especially (you guessed it) Italian cuisine.
Thyme: Use with fish and poultry.
For best results, use herbs to complement the natural flavor of your foods. Generally speaking, 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs per four servings of food is more than adequate.
Cooked foods are best flavored when herbs are added to the last phase of cooking. Herbs in uncooked foods, like salad dressings, need time to blend the flavors so add them in and store appropriately as far in advance of serving as possible.
The Perfect Pot
In my kitchen, there is a 4-foot spot of “space” that sits just beside a pair of sliding glass doors. For months that space sat empty and lonely. When I stumbled across a tiered planter stand, I suddenly knew that my indoor herb garden would find its home there.
If you don’t have the luxury of such a space, your window sills work just as well. What you need to keep in mind, regardless of where your plants will “rest”, is that the size of space you have determines the size of pots you can use. For a standard windowsill, four-inch pots work nicely.
After determining the size of pots you need, it’s time to find them. Look carefully at the pots you like. Herbs need good drainage, or they will rot; make sure that the pots you choose have drainage holes, which means that they will need to rest in a saucer. Terra cotta generally supports drainage best, but the saucers will leak so make sure that you use plastic liners or a rubber pad. Also, keep in mind that terra cotta, due to the fact that it drains so well, will tend to dry out the soil more quickly. Keep a close eye on your herbs in these containers.
If you have children, try getting them involved in your indoor herb garden. One nice idea is to pick plain pots and let the kids decorate them with paint, paper, etc. to produce their own unique pots.
Once you have planted your indoor herb garden, it will need care. Indoor herbs rely on you totally; you control the amount of water, sunlight, and fertilization they receive in every way. There is no outside influence like weather. Water your herbs regularly, but be careful to not over-water and cause root-rot. This is the main cause of death for most indoor herbs.
Check the soil well before watering. If the soil is still moist, wait and check again the next day. For fertilizing, think seriously about the length of time your herbs are likely to remain growing. For the long winter months, use slow release pellets. If you plan on keeping a strict indoor herb garden that will be continually updated with new plants as current ones age, you should fertilize only once. I usually go for the all-in-one potting soil that contains fertilizer, so that I don’t have to mess around with mixing ingredients.
If you ever find that the herbs you’re growing need to be cut back more quickly than you can use them, consider drying them. This is easily done on a simple cake cooling rack, and the dried herbs will store up to one year in a well-sealed container. Never use metal for storage containers, though! Metals will react with the volatile oils present in all herbs, and they will quickly lose their effectiveness.
More than anything else, have fun and don’t be afraid to experiment. Gardening should be a relaxing pastime, and indoor herb gardening reaps untold benefits.