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September 2004

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Start indoor herb garden for winter enjoyment

By Kathy Hatfield
Gardening Columnist

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Lately there has been a chill in the early morning air that warns of fall approaching. If you're not ready for the gardening season to end, consider indoor gardening. One of the easiest ways to continue to enjoy the fresh taste of summer is by growing herbs indoors. In addition to adding to your culinary creations, most herbs make attractive houseplants.

Many herbs will grow indoors given the proper growing conditions. All require ample sunlight, good air circulation and fertile, well-drained soil.

As natives of the Mediterranean region, most are sun-worshippers. They will need at least six hours of sunlight each day. But because light intensity is much lower in the winter months than in the summertime, unless you have an unobstructed south-facing window, you will have to supplement the light. You can purchase a special grow-light unit designed to provide plants with the proper spectrum of light. A less expensive approach is to use a simple fluorescent workbench-type light with two tubes, one warm-white and one cool-white bulb.

Herbs need relatively cool temperatures, in the 60- to 70-degree range, and even a bit cooler at night. Place plants so that they don't crowd each other, and use a small fan to provide gentle air circulation. Avoid putting the plants near a heating vent.

The easiest way to give plants soil that will provide adequate drainage and soil aeration is to purchase a good mix at one of the local nurseries. During the winter months, when plants do not grow as vigorously as in the summer, they should be allowed to dry out slightly between waterings. Fertilize once every couple of weeks with an organic fertilizer, following the manufacturer's recommendations. Liquid fertilizers containing seaweed or fish emulsion are particularly beneficial to plants.

You can buy starter-size plants from the nursery or start herbs from seeds or cuttings. It's also possible to bring plants indoors to overwinter. Starting with new plants or seeds avoids the problem of bringing unwelcome guests into the house that have settled into the soil or leaves of the plants.

Here are a few herbs and some specific varieties that are best suited to indoor container gardening:

  • Basil (Ocimum basilicum): Try the dense, more compact form with smaller leaves, called 'Spicy Globe.' This one is easy to grow from seed, and needs bright light and warm temperatures.
  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): This member of the onion family is best used fresh. It is difficult to preserve chives that still maintain their good flavor, so they are a good choice for indoor gardening. 'Grolau' is an especially good variety for indoors, and can be started from seed. Chives prefer bright light and cool temperatures.
  • Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum): This plant does not grow back after harvesting, so make successive plantings of cilantro to have a continuous crop for your favorite Mexican or Asian dishes. Cilantro tends to repel insects, so it makes a good companion plant for indoors.
  • Dill (Anethum graveolens): A dwarf form, called 'Fernleaf,' grows only 18 inches tall, making it more suitable for indoor gardening than the standard types that often grow to 4 feet tall. Like cilantro, you'll need to make successive plantings to ensure a continuous crop.
  • Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): The soothing fragrance of lemon and honey make this an herb to enjoy fresh in salads and drinks. Its bright green foliage and prolific growth make lemon balm an attractive houseplant. This is an easy one to grow from seed.
  • Oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum): This is the true Greek oregano with a sharp, pungent flavor, best for Mediterranean cooking. It can be grown from seed. There is a look-alike called wild, or pot, marjoram with pretty pink flowers, but almost no flavor.
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): The more compact form called 'Blue Boy' must be purchased or propagated by cuttings; seeds germinate poorly. The soil for rosemary must be well drained, but do not let it dry out completely.
  • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Many varieties of thyme are available that are useful in cooking and in herbal craft projects. They have similar aromatic properties and some varieties have unique scents, like lemon or caraway thymes. If starting the plants from seed, cover the seed only lightly with soil or not at all. Keep the plants evenly moist until they are well established.

Start these plants indoors now to have plenty of herbs this winter, and watch for articles in the November and December issues on how to use them for cooking and homemade gifts.

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