Wouldn’t it be wonderful to always have fresh herbs on hand to prepare your favorite foods and beverages—even during the winter? Growing herbs indoors makes it possible. And there’s a bonus: Beyond the culinary application, herbs are beautiful to behold and smell scrumptious.
“Many herbs are easy to grow indoors,” says Art Cameron, PhD, professor of horticulture at Michigan State University (MSU) and director of the MSU Horticulture Gardens. “Rosemary and basil are two that my wife and I almost always have going.”
Dr. Cameron agreed to share his professional plant pointers. These tips and tricks of the trade will get you growing in no time.
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Plan and prepare
Choose easy-to-grow herbs. From the following list of herbs that grow well indoors, choose those that you often use in cooking: chives, mint, parsley, Vietnamese coriander, Greek oregano, thyme (regular and/or lemon), rosemary (Tuscan Blue or Blue Spire) and basil.
Procure plants. Buy plants from your local nursery or take cuttings from existing plants and root them in water. “We sometimes take cuttings of rosemary, thyme, or even sage in September and October and keep them in small glasses of water,” says Dr. Cameron. “They’ll root and be available most of the winter. You can leave them in the water—be sure to change the water often—or plant them in pots.” Some plants, such as basil, grow well from seeds. Dr. Cameron suggests planting about a dozen basil seeds in a four-inch pot.
Consider lighting. Most herbs need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight. If a southern window doesn’t get adequate light, it may be necessary to use a grow light/lamp or fluorescent light. Position the light at the recommended distance from the plant as indicated on the light bulb package. Herbs that can tolerate indirect sunlight include mint, rosemary, and thyme.
Create the climate. Keep herbs in rooms that stay around 65-70°F during the day and 55-65°F at night. To ensure herbs have adequate humidity and air circulation, place pots of herbs close together, set potted plants on a tray of moist pebbles, or spray herbs with water using a plant mister.
Room of their own. Plant each herb in a separate container. Choose pots with drainage holes and place one inch of gravel in the bottom. Terra cotta pots six inches or larger are a good choice.
The right stuff. Use high-quality potting mix that contains vermiculite or perlite for adequate drainage. “Any decent peat-based potting soil should work—light and airy is best,” says Dr. Cameron.
Check the lighting.Herbs that don’t get enough light will become thin, spindly and lower in quality. Herbs exposed to too much light will burn.
Water works. Water adequately but don’t over-water (the first signs of over-watering are wilting or yellowing leaves). When watering, allow the pot to drain completely and repeat—do not let water accumulate. Allow the soil to dry slightly between watering, except with rosemary, which must not dry out completely.
Need to feed. Every two weeks, fertilize herbs with a low dose of water-soluble fertilizer that’s labeled for use on edibles.
“You can use organic or inorganic fertilizer,” says Dr. Cameron. “But under low light, herbs grow very slowly and so they’ll need very little fertilizer or water.”
Stay in shape.Snip stems often to encourage full growth but never trim more than one-third of the plant’s foliage.
Room to grow. Repot herbs when the roots grow through the pot’s drainage hole.
“Fresh herbs are so much tastier and they’re also fun to grow,” says Dr. Cameron. “Once you taste fresh basil, you’ll never want it any other way.” For herb-growing inspiration, Dr. Cameron suggests visiting the MSU Horticulture Gardens: