There's nothing as pleasing as picking your own homegrown indoor herbs for cooking.
Growing Food Indoors
Just because it's winter, doesn't mean you have to stop growing food. While it might be cold and blustery outside, there are a number of edible plants you can grow indoors. Some of my favorites are herbs. Growing herbs indoors successfully is all about selecting the right varieties and having the right conditions to grow them. You can go two ways with indoor herbs: (1) start new plants from seed or buy transplants to grow inside, or (2) bring mature annual or perennial herbs into the warmth of your home. I like doing a little of both.
Here are some tips for growing herbs inside in winter. I hope it inspires you to give it a try.
Bringing Herbs Indoors
Window boxes filled with rosemary and parsley can be moved inside before freezing weather.
You can grow many herbs in pots outdoors in summer and fall, and bring them indoors before a killing frost. Some of my favorites to grow this way are parsley, rosemary, and chives. There are a few things to keep in mind before you bring these herbs indoors:
- Check plants carefully for any hitchhiking pests and spray the leaves with horticultural oil or insecticidal soap to kill them.
- "Harden" plants off before you bring them indoors just like you'd do in the spring when moving plants outside. Each day bring the plants in for a few hours, then move them back outdoors again. Gradually increase the amount of time spent inside. After a few weeks, they can stay inside permanently.
- Don't worry about a few dropped leaves. Light levels in a house, even in a sunny window, are much lower than outside. Older, larger leaves will drop off and smaller, low-light-efficient leaves should form in their place. Some perennials, such as chives, like a dormant period in early winter, so leave this pot in a dark, unheated basement or garage for a few weeks before bringing it indoors to resume growing.
- Cut back on watering and fertilizing mature plants. They don't need as much moisture or nutrients inside as they do outdoors.
Indoor herbs can be decorative as well as functional. Why not train a rosemary plant on a topiary frame for a whimsical look.
Starting New Herbs
It's easy to grow fresh herbs from seed or seedlings on a windowsill or on a table. You just need the right materials.
Although a sunny window looks bright in winter, the available light can be only 1/10th of what's needed for plants to grow properly. That's why it's best to grow herbs under grow lights. Select full-spectrum lights and leave them on for 12 to 14 hours a day. Keep the tops of the herbs close to the bulbs and the plants should thrive.
After lighting, soil is next in importance. Grow seedlings in 3- to 4-inch-diameter pots and use only sterilized potting soil mixes that are light and airy. Many culinary herbs require well-draining soils so the lighter the soil the better.
Supplement the potting soil with a liquid fertilizer when watering. Use a half-strength formulation to encourage new growth. Water plants less often but more thoroughly, and only when the soil is actually dry to the touch. Add water until it drains from the bottom of the pot. Keep the air temperature on the cool side (60° to 65° F) for the best growth.
Although some herbs, such as chives, may grow well in a sunny window, most need grow lights to produce the most leaves.
Varieties to Try
Try growing these herb varieties. They have compact growing habits and pack a flavorful punch.
English mint (Mentha spicata) - Perhaps the best-behaved spearmint variety (not as invasive as others, and the leaves are broader and deeper green).
Spicy Globe basil (Ocimum basilicum minimum) - Dense, compact form of basil, 8- to 10-inches tall. The leaves are smaller than regular basil, but taste and smell great.
Blue Boy rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) - More compact and diminutive than standard rosemary, reaching a height of just 24 inches. Flowers freely and has excellent flavor.
Dwarf Garden sage (Salvia officinalis 'Compacta') - Smaller leaves and more compact than regular sage, growing only 10 inches high.
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) – Used as a natural sweetener, the leaves are 10 times as sweet as sugar. Purchase seedlings as seeds are difficult to germinate. Keep plants cool and the soil slightly moist.