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Windowsill Herbs for Winter

We’ve all seen the easy, do-it-yourself kits for growing windowsill herbs.  Nevertheless, growing your own herbs is not always as easy as it seems, especially when you’re trying to grow them in the house during an Ohio winter.

The following are my suggestions for herbs that can be grown indoors.  As noted, some do better when started from seed while others should be purchased as plants.

  • Basil (Ocimum basilicum): Basil should be started from seed and likes a lot of sunshine and warm temperatures.
  • Bay (Laurus nobilis): A slow-growing tree, bay, or bay laurel, is best bought in the spring as a plant. During the first few years, harvest as few leaves as possible to enable the plant to put more energy toward growing.
  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): Chives are easy to start from seed.  They need a very bright window for growing. Remove any flowers, which are also edible, before they set seed.
  • Oregano (Origanum): Best when bought as a plant, oregano is a perennial and is slow to start. Grow it in a south window with lots of sunlight.
  • Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): Parsley is a biennial that will flower the second season. It can be started from seed or grown from a plant.  Harvest the older outer leaves.
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Rosemary, best grown as a purchased plant, requires plenty of sunlight and should be rotated every couple of days to keep growth on all sides. Terracotta pots are appropriate for growing rosemary as the plant likes its soil to be on the dry side.
  • Sage (Salvia officinalis): Sage tolerates the indoor dry air really well, though it does need lots of strong sunshine to remain healthy.
  • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Thyme should be grown as a plant as it is hard to start indoors by seed. It likes full sun but can be grown in an east or west-facing window.

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General Care for Herbs
When re-potting herb plants, select containers that are at least 8 inches deep and 6 inches across. Herbs don’t like wet feet-containers must have drain holes in the bottom to allow excess water to drain. The holes should be covered with window screening or rocks, which lets water out but keeps soil in. Use a good potting soil, not garden soil for container plants; the soil must drain well as the roots need both water and air.

Choose a spot in the house that gets at least four hours (more is better) of direct sunshine. Usually south-facing windows have the best light. Plants should not be placed close to an outside door where drafts or drastic temperature changes can affect them. Additionally, over the furnace vent, on top of the television, or near the stove and oven are also unsuitable places for growing herbs.

Remember that houses in winter have a very low humidity level. To raise the humidity in the plant area, you can make your own humidity trays by placing the herb pots on trays filled with water and gravel.

Care for herbs as indoor seedlings
In the winter, it is difficult to find herb plants at the garden center. I have seen potted herb plants in the produce department of the grocery store, but I question the quality of care they have received. Have they been given enough water and sunlight?  Are they healthy enough to survive? Only time will tell, leaving us with the next best option: starting seeds indoors. For additional information on this topic, see the article “Sowing Seeds Indoors.”

Maintain even moisture levels in the grow pots, even when they still contain just seeds. Lack of moisture is one of the main reasons seeds don’t grow into plants.  A clear plastic bag can be used to create a “greenhouse.” Simply water the plant and slip the bag over the entire pot, leaving room for the plant to grow. Remove the bag once leaves emerge.

Label each pot to identify the plants before they begin to grow. Some types of herbs take longer to grow than others, and labeling will help you decide if the plant that hasn’t sprouted didn’t germinate or if it is simply a slow starter.

Other helpful tips

  • As you need them, harvest the leaves or sprigs with garden scissors, but leave plenty of new growth on the plant to maintain its health and ability to continue growing.
  • Plants in terracotta pots will need more water than those in plastic pots because terracotta is porous and absorbs some of the water.
  • Generally the larger, bushy perennial herbs with woodier stems like thyme oregano, sage, and rosemary do better as houseplants.
  • Vigorous growers with soft stems like mint, tarragon, and basil are more difficult to grow in lower light situations.
  • Water thoroughly and less often.

Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.

 

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