Fresh herbs enhance the flavor of almost any dish, but purchasing herbs from the grocery store can be quite expensive. Dried herbs, on the other hand, don’t offer the same punch of flavor. Starting an indoor herb garden is a great way to grow fresh produce when you don't have outdoor space to garden, or want to extend the growing season into the winter months.
Not only do indoor herbs provide you with a continuous supply of culinary delights but they also bring wonderful fragrance and color into the home. “Plants make us happy," says Janice Cox, author and education chair for The Herb Society of America. "Having a scented geranium, lavender, or rosemary in your home not only smells nice, but the plants also give us a mental boost. Having fresh herbs indoors is a simple and easy way to elevate your indoor living space and also keep you healthy and happy.”
Below, learn how to grow an indoor herb garden to produce fresh herbs and improve your living space all year long.
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Indoor Herb Garden Care
With the right container and a little TLC, many herbs grow quite well indoors. As with any indoor plant, it is important to provide the right growing conditions. “Learn the plant’s light and humidity requirements, but also learn how to harvest the foliage,” says Peggy Ricco, chair of the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America. “The biggest challenge is light; the light indoors is significantly less than outdoors. You may be able to grow shade tolerant herbs, such as mint and chives, by a window, but you will need supplemental lighting for the sun lovers, such as basil, dill, savory, oregano, sage, or thyme.”
Not all herbs have the same growing requirements. Some require more moisture, others less. Some thrive in cooler temperatures, but most like it warm. For optimal growth, match herbs to the conditions in your home and provide them with individualized containers and care.
Most herbs need at least six hours of sunlight a day. A south-facing window or other sunny location is ideal for most plants. When supplemental lighting is needed, “I recommend a light stand that is ornamental as well as functional—a piece of furniture that can be in the kitchen or living room to show off the herbs,” says Ricco. She specifically recommends the Oslo Grow Lights line from Gardener's Supply Company. "[They're] sleek, modern pieces of furniture for any plant, with LED lights that attach via magnets,” she says.
Herbs have varying water needs. Woody herbs, such as oregano, sage, rosemary, and thyme, like soils on the drier side, while basil, cilantro, mint, and parsley need more moisture. “Most people tend to overwater their plants, especially if they are indoors and you see them every day,” says Cox. Water herbs when the soil surface feels dry, and do not let plants or pots sit in standing water. “Having a tray full of pebbles to catch excess water will help,” says Cox. “This will also give your plants a bit more humidity, which they will enjoy as the water evaporates.”
Fertilize herbs once per week during the summer months with a general purpose water-soluble fertilizer diluted to 1/4 the rate listed on the packaging. Herbs grow less actively in winter and do not require fertilizer. In general, go easy on the fertilizer, as over-feeding herbs can cause plants to lose flavor. It is best to water plants well before fertilizing.
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Clipping herbs to use for cooking helps keep plants productive. Most herbs can be harvested once they have established and are at least six inches tall. “For some herbs, you can just snip a few leaves at a time,” says Ricco. “Some can tolerate a buzz cut and come back, while others need a deep cut into the plant to encourage bushiness.” To keep plants healthy and productive, never remove more than one-third of the plant at any one time.
What Herbs to Grow Indoors
Many of the most commonly used herbs in the kitchen are easily grown indoors including basil, chives, dill, parsley, and cilantro. Other great annuals for indoor gardening include sweet marjoram and chervil. You can also grow a wide variety of perennial herbs indoors including sweet bay trees, rosemary, and thyme.
When selecting which herbs to grow, consider the meals you like to cook, and which herbs best compliment those foods. “It is also important to think about how you want to use your herbal plants,” says Cox. “Are you growing them to add to your indoor plant collection? As a handy culinary ingredient, or in creating your own body care or craft products?” These questions will help guide plant selection.
Also don't forget to evaluate the conditions in your home. If you keep your home on the cooler side, you might consider cold-tolerant herbs such as chervil, chives, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, and thyme. While most herbs need bright light to produce well, chervil, chives, parsley, and plants in the mint family, including lemon balm, tolerate lower light levels.
How to Start an Indoor Herb Garden
“To grow herbs indoors, I recommend either purchasing the plant—especially the annuals such as basil or dill—or taking cuttings from existing plants, usually perennials in your garden, like thyme, oregano, sage,” says Ricco. Your local garden center or even the grocery store will typically carry a selection of the most popular herbs. Pot these up into containers and you are ready to grow.
You can also start many herbs from seed, particularly annual herbs, such as basil, parsley, cilantro, chervil, and dill. However, herbs grown from seed take longer to reach a stage where you can begin harvesting. Some seeds take a long time to germinate including parsley, lavender, thyme, and rosemary. This creates a lot of opportunity for disease. Herb seedlings also require careful moisture control and supplemental lighting to provide 12 to 14 hours of bright light daily. If you are up for the challenge, basil, chives, and dill are among the easiest herbs to start from seed.
If you have an outdoor garden, many herbs can be started from divisions or cuttings from established plants. You can also ask a friend for cuttings from their garden. Plants that root readily for cuttings include basil, lemon balm, mint, rosemary, sage, and sweet bay. Dividing a clump of chives is a great way to get an indoor pot started. Lemon balm, mint, oregano, sweet marjoram, and thyme can also be divided and brought indoors. When bringing plants and cuttings in from the garden, be sure to isolate them from other houseplants for a few weeks until you are sure they are not harboring any pests.
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Choosing Containers and Potting Soil
“The same types of containers that work for your plants outside also work well inside,” says Cox. “Make sure they have plenty of drainage.” A 6- or 12-inch container is plenty large for most herbs. You can size up containers for perennial herbs as they grow larger. You’ll know its time to repot plants when you see roots growing out of the drainage holes.
Start with a clean, sterilized container to avoid introducing pests and fill with a well-draining potting medium to about one-half inch below the top edge to allow room for watering. Because individual herbs have unique requirements, it is best to plant herbs in their own container or only group herbs with similar needs.
Many commercial potting mixes are available for growing herbs. Herbs require a well-draining potting medium to promote healthy root development. You should also look for a potting medium with a high water-holding capacity. These characteristics may seem contradictory, but it's important for the soil to hold adequate moisture for plants without drying out too quickly, while also allowing excess water to freely drain from the medium. For Mediterranean and woody herbs that prefer drier or sandier soils, you can mix equal parts of potting mix and sand or pea gravel to lighten the medium, or use a cactus potting mix.
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More Tips for Success
“Herbs like to be enjoyed and used, so don’t be afraid to snip and use your plants," Cox says. "This will keep them looking and feeling their best. I also like to turn my plants every few weeks, as they tend to grow towards the light.” If you are growing herbs for culinary use, snip any flowers that form. When herbs begin to bloom, the foliage of many species changes flavor, often tasting bitter.
Indoor herbs also have use beyond the kitchen. “For example, rosemary does really well indoors and it’s scent helps with memory,” Cox says. “A pot of rosemary on a desktop may help you recall a name or number when working from home.”