Fresh herbs add great flavor to your dishes and let you season food without adding too much salt—a much healthier alternative. You can also use them to brew tasty, great-for-you teas. So it makes good sense to start your own herb garden. Plus, it’s fun, and you’ll have a continuous herb supply that costs next to nothing.
As with flowers and vegetables, spring is prime planting time for herbs. Herbs are easy enough to grow in an outdoor garden or in containers on a patio. But if you don't have the space outdoors, growing herbs indoors is easy; all it takes is a sunny windowsill and some small pots.
The key word is sunny. "Most culinary herbs need full sun," says Jeff Cox, a chef and garden designer and author of The Cook's Herb Garden. "Unless you have a south-facing window, it'll be hard to get enough sunlight. If your place doesn’t get enough sunlight, and you don’t have access to more a deck or fire escape, keep your herbs about 12 inches away from a 40-watt light bulb. (Any closer may wilt them.)
Some things to consider for your indoor herb garden:
Pick the Right Herbs
Not all herbs do well indoors, whether because they need a lot of sun or the kind of rich soil you can only get in a garden. It’s also important to pick hardy, drought-tolerant plants. Chives, regular thyme (thymus officinalis), oregano, and rosemary all do well on a sunny windowsill, says Cox. "Oregano and thyme are both herbs of Italy and Greece—so they like warm climates,” he says. “They can take a little drought if you forget to water them.” Likewise, chives and rosemary can live inside and are tolerant if you forget to water them now and then. "You can just about hit rosemary with a sledgehammer and not kill it,” says Cox. "It's a real tough plant."
Lavender is another herb that can work inside, provided it gets three to four hours of sunlight a day. It can grow up to 2½ feet tall, Cox says, so it may get unwieldy on a windowsill. But if you have a plant stand and a south-facing window, it’s a nice, fragrant herb that will provide a nice scent and do double-duty in the kitchen. "Try adding some lavender flowers to a very cold glass of sauvignon blanc," says Cox. "There's a very nice affinity between lavender and the fruitiness of sauvignon blanc."
Whichever herbs you decide on, Cox advises you start with an organic seedling from a farmer's market or grocery store, rather than try to grow herbs from seed, which is difficult to do indoors.
Use the Right Soil
Another thing these five herbs have in common is they don't need high-quality soil. "When they grow in rich soil, they don't get nearly as many volatile oils in their leaves as they do when they’re in lower-quality soil," says Cox. "And volatile oils are what give them their flavor." With a mix of one part compost or ordinary potting soil and one part sand or vermiculite, your herbs will thrive. It also helps to add a layer of gravel in the bottom of the pot so the soil drains well.
Find the Right Pot
A standard six-inch-diameter pot is probably best. "The larger the pot, the larger your plant will be," says Cox. Anything larger than six inches may topple over, and anything smaller may not allow your herbs to grow properly. Ceramic pots sold at garden centers are fine, but you'll need plastic trays to set underneath them so they don't stain your windowsill.
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Watch Out for Pests
The same volatile oils that give herbs their flavor are natural defenses against bugs, so it's unlikely you'll have pest problems. However, indoor plants can get attacked by whiteflies, which are microscopic insects that aren't actually flies at all, and live on the undersides of leaves. Then there are tiny mealybugs, which have pinkish bodies covered in a white, powdery, or waxy fluff, and can be found on any part of the plant. You can get rid of both bugs by spraying your plants with an insecticidal soap, or, if the plants are hardy enough, a stiff spray of water.