No matter the weather outside, Emily Dickinson (no relation to the poet!) can always add fresh-from-the-garden herbs to her home-cooked meals. If she wants a sprig of rosemary for spaghetti sauce or a bunch of basil for pesto, she simply snips just the right amount from her kitchen herb garden.
“I love to cook, so I grow herbs indoors,” says the architect who lives with her husband in a row house in Washington, DC. She grows tasty selections such as basil, rosemary, sage, mint, thyme, and chives on her kitchen windowsill.
“I like having the herbs in the kitchen, so I can easily throw them in while I’m cooking,” says Dickinson. “And since I’m typically cooking for two, I like the convenience of being able to harvest only what I need.”
If you want to enjoy a continuous supply of garden-fresh herbs in your own kitchen, keep these tips in mind.
1. Choose plants carefully. Opt for small-leaved herb varieties when possible, as they do the best indoors. In basil, for instance, you’ll find Fino verde, which has half-inch leaves. Some herbs naturally have small foliage, like oregano.
Buy established herb plants in the nursery or via mail-order, or grow your own from seeds or cuttings. Dickinson grows her basil year-round by periodically letting older plants go to seed and then scattering the seeds in the pot. To grow mint, she roots clippings.
Start herbs from seed in a soil-less potting mix in a warm location. Hasten germination and get the plants off to a good start by growing them on a seedling heat mat. Once the herbs reach two inches high, take them off the heat and repot them in regular potting soil.
2. Provide plenty of light. Most herbs grow best in a bright location, such as near an unobstructed southern window. Eastern and northern windows can also work, if you provide supplemental light from full-spectrum lighting. Western windows receive afternoon sun, but get warm and may burn foliage, especially in the summer months.
If your kitchen is windowless, grow herbs in a hydroponic growing system that comes with its own special lighting.
3. Ensure air-circulation and cool conditions. Herbs grown in stuffy, warm rooms attract pests like scale insects and mealybugs, and they grow weak and spindly.
“Herbs don’t like it warm in winter, even if you do, so place them in cool areas, such as on windowsills,” says Denise Schreiber, greenhouse manager for Allegheny County Parks in Pittsburgh and author of Eat Your Roses. “Air circulation is also necessary,” she says. “Locate the herbs near an overhead fan or in an area of the kitchen that receives air movement from another room.” Cracking windows open occasionally also helps.
4. Watch watering. Avoid overwatering your indoor herb garden or letting pots sit in trays of water, as soggy soil will quickly lead to root rot. Water when the first inch of soil dries out.
5. Rotate often. Leggy, weak growth is a common problem with indoor herbs. Help ensure they grow straight and strong by rotating the plants once a week so that all sides receive adequate light.
6. Fertilize monthly. Keep your herbs growing healthy and strong by feeding them on a regular basis with a half-strength solution of a well-balanced, liquid fertilizer, such as a 15-15-15.
7. Prune regularly. Fortunately for your cooking, herbs require frequent pinching for the plants to stay bushy and healthy, so make sure to prune often. The more you pinch, the more the herbs will grow, and the tastier your cooking will be.