Packed with flavor, brimming with antioxidants and incredibly easy to cultivate, culinary herbs are the perfect complement to any meal. And while fresh herbs can get pricey at the grocery store, growing our own herbs makes it easy to integrate them into daily meals. When cold temperatures make it impossible to keep fresh green herbs growing outside (or if you’re short on garden space all year), growing culinary complements inside is an option worth exploring.
Although we would all love it if culinary herbs grew as easily as the ivy tumbling over the bookcase or the peace lily thriving in that dim corner of the living room, that’s simply not the case. Culinary herbs require a higher degree of maintenance, and each has its own unique requirements for abundant growth. Not all herbs adapt well to indoor conditions, but a few are low-maintenance enough that almost anyone can keep them going all year. Use the following tricks to unlock the door to a vibrant indoor herb garden.
Although each herb has its own needs, several commonalities exist. Grouping your indoor herb garden is often the most efficient way to provide the proper light and moisture needs for all of your plants.
Light: Most important to the growth of healthy herbs indoors is sufficient light—especially in winter. A south- or southwestern-facing window can often provide the minimal six to eight hours of direct light required; if you don’t have a window that gets this much light, you will need additional fluorescent lighting. Ample fluorescent light can come from two 40-watt cool white fluorescent bulbs. If supplementing natural light with fluorescent light, your plants will need two supplemental hours of man-made light for each missing hour of natural light—for example, if your plant needs six hours of natural light but your window can only provide four, then you’ll need to replace the missing two hours of natural light with four hours of fluorescent light. Plants should be no closer than 6 inches and no further than 15 inches from the fluorescent bulb. If growing in completely natural light, rotate pots every three to four days to ensure that all leaves receive equal exposure.
Soil: Herbs prefer well-draining soil. To ensure that their roots don’t become water-logged, make your own potting soil by mixing equal parts of these four ingredients together: sand, perlite, peat moss and organic commercial potting soil. All of these products can be found at your local garden-supply center. Porous clay pots breathe better than plastic pots and promote drainage and circulation.
Water: Herbs’ water demands vary. Some, such as basil and oregano, prefer near-dry soil most of the time, while others need consistent moisture. Read on for individual plant needs. In general, herbs do not do well in soft water. The high sodium content will harm them. If your soil begins to form a white crusty surface, which indicates sodium build-up, replace it with fresh soil.
Humidity: Because we consume the leaves, we want our herbs’ foliage to remain soft and succulent. Take care not to place herbs next to a hot air vent. They prefer cooler air (between 55 and 70 degrees) with plenty of humidity and good air circulation. If your indoor air tends to be dry, place the pot on a bed of rocks and fill that tray with water to the top of the rocks. As the water evaporates, the humid air will circulate amongst the leaves. Group herbs about 5 inches apart from one another to create a humid environment that still provides air circulation.
Fertilizer: Herbs appreciate a light fertilizing every two weeks. Good options include fish emulsion, seaweed or a general all-purpose organic 12-12-12 water-soluble fertilizer. Overfertilizing can be damaging, so take care not to overdo it.
Growing herbs well indoors is doable for anyone willing to create a suitable growing environment, whether with many hours of direct sunlight available via a southern exposure window or an artificial lighting setup. Although it may require a little more maintenance than your standard houseplant, the nutritional and flavor payoff is well worth it.
Basil is a heat-loving annual, so it needs a lot of light and prefers soil that is barely wet; take care not to overwater it. As the plant grows, pinch off the tips to inhibit flower growth, which will direct the plant’s energy toward leaf growth. Basil’s oil is damaged by heat, so add it at the end of cooking or as a garnish on pasta, pizza and sandwiches. Blend fresh basil with olive oil, lemon juice, pine nuts or walnuts, Parmesan and garlic to make a summery pesto.
Chives prefer well-watered soil. Harvest by cutting the long, slender leaves an inch above the soil. Chives work well anywhere you want a mild onion flavor. They are a perfect complement to potatoes and taste awesome mixed into yogurt-based salad dressings.
Mint is a vivacious grower that prefers moist soil and can survive on as little as two to three hours of direct sun per day. Mint makes a perfect soothing, digestion-enhancing tea. Mint pesto is a tasty addition to chicken dishes, and mint is also an excellent herb to brighten up pasta dishes and grain salads. Cut tips back to encourage healthy growth.
Oregano needs its soil to dry out between watering. Another heat-loving herb, it’s quite hardy but requires a full day’s worth (six to eight hours) of light. Cut or pinch off oregano at its tip to harvest and throw into pasta or pizza sauce for depth and warmth. Oregano is also a quintessential flavor in Mexican cuisine.
Parsley requires well-watered soil, especially when young, and can survive in partial shade or full sun. Cut back its leafy growth and chop finely for bright additions to a traditional salad, Middle Eastern tabbouleh or load it into a Turkish-inspired olive oil potato salad.
Rosemary will tolerate neither dry nor water-logged soil, so take care to keep it moist but not over-watered. Plants can grow tall and need ample space for their root systems and growth, so choose a pot at least 6 inches deep for young plants and 8 to 10 inches deep for older plants. Transplant annually as they grow. Large plants with a couple of years of growth need about 14 inches in diameter. Harvest rosemary’s tender foliage and add it to roasted root vegetables five minutes before you remove them from the oven.
Sage needs lots of sun and well-drained soil that is allowed to dry out completely between waterings. Cut the tips back regularly. Sage is a crucial flavor in holiday stuffing—it pairs perfectly with turkey, duck and chicken. Sage butter is delicious on gnocchi, ravioli or trout. And you can combine sage with parsley, rosemary and thyme for a classic herb mix for soups and risotto.
Thyme prefers full sun and well-drained soil with lots of humidity. Strip the tiny leaves from their woody stem to pair with lemon and garlic in fish and pasta dishes.
Add homegrown herbs to any meal with this Fresh Herb Butter Recipe.
Even living a lovely, sheltered life indoors, herbs can sometimes become infested with small, pesky bugs. Aphids, spider mites, white flies and fungus gnats are most common. Pick them off by hand if the problem is slight (and you can see them!). If that doesn’t control it and the situation is getting out of hand, ramp up your control with a safe insecticidal soap, such as Safer Brand Insect Killing Soap (safer brand.com). Spray plants once a week until pests are gone.
The writer of this article, Emily English, spent many years farming small-scale organic fruits and vegetables. She now works to increase access and availability of healthy food for all through research, policy development and community organizing in her home state of Arkansas. She is still an avid gardener and most enjoys her time when she's putzing away in her home veggie patch with her family.
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