Perhaps you've had the same dream as I have: Outside, there's snow on the ground and a windchill of negative it-doesn't-even-matter-anymore, but inside the kitchen is redolent with the scent of fresh aromatics from your home garden. Bright, peppery basil is perched on the windowsill, while lavender wafts from its planter. Juicy, ripe tomatoes hang languidly from the vine on the counter, and the citrus tree has just bloomed.
Oh, if only that were true. Sadly, more often than not, a plant's native environment just can't be recreated indoors. There are, however, some exceptions to the rule.
It is possible to grow herbs indoors, even during winter, without the delicate leaves flickering and fading into a wilted little tendril with the first blush of cold. It's all a matter of selection — knowing which herbs to reach for to keep your kitchen fragrant and flavorful — and what to do to keep them that way.
Tender-leaved herbs like basil, chervil, or cilantro may be too fussy to sustain the challenges of indoor heating and cooling, variable daylight hours, and lack of humidity. Instead of the lacy filigree of these leaves, opt for robust and sturdy plants that are more structural and can withstand fluctuations in temperature, humidity, and sunlight. Here are some rules of (green) thumb for growing herbs indoors, and four hearty herbs to get you started.
How to Grow Herbs Indoors
Growing your indoor herb garden can be a snap, as long as you keep three key factors in mind: light, temperature, and moisture.
Let There Be Light
As we all know, plants depend on light to survive. They also depend on light to create flavor. A lack of adequate sunlight will dramatically reduce the flavor of your herbs. For novice gardeners out there, you may taste that your plant isn't doing well before you see it. Ideally, you want to place herbs in a window that will receive at least six hours of sunlight a day. If that's not possible in your space, consider adding a grow light or placing the herbs next to a fluorescent bulb to boost light exposure.
Keep Your Plants Warm
Next, make sure the area where your herbs will be living will stay within the temperature range of 65°F to 75°F. If you live in a Northern climate, remember that placement near windows can be quite a bit colder than the cozy 72°F thermostat in high winter. Make sure to place your leafy friends where they will be warm enough.
Finally, and probably most importantly, is the issue of moisture. The majority of herbs will need to become adequately dry (but not dry out!) between waterings to avoid root rot. Start by selecting a pot that has appropriate drainage holes (at least one large hole) on the bottom. I like using unglazed clay pots for herbs, as they will also help to ensure moisture doesn't get trapped in the container.
In general, you want to water your herb when the surface of the soil is dry to the touch (but if you pressed down into the soil you would feel moisture). Mist your herbs once a week if your air is dry, but also make sure your herbs receive plenty of air circulation so that the moisture doesn't turn into powdery mildew or rot.
4 Hearty Herbs to Grow Indoors
Hailing from the Mediterraean, Rosemary gets its name from the Latin for "dew of the sea." And while you need not live in Santorini in order to grow your own Rosemary, it's wise to consider its native provenance when recreating its living conditions. Rosemary likes lots of sunlight (six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day), and it likes to be watered, but not wet. Make sure to water your plant only when the top soil surface is dry, and allow for plenty of drainage in your pot to avoid root rot.
Sunlight: Bright, direct; six to eight hours a day.
Water: When the top of the soil is dry to the touch; do not overwater.
Watch for: Powdery mildew, root rot, indoor pests.
One of the easiest herbs to grow, this hearty evergreen has been cultivated since the ancient Greeks used its sweet-smelling leaves in bathing rituals. In the culinary world, it is a central ingredient to both herbs de Provence and za'atar. When growing thyme, it is most important to keep drainage in mind. Thyme is more drought-resistant than most herbs, so as a result is extra sensitive to overwatering.
Sunlight: Bright, direct; six hours a day.
Water: When the top of the soil is dry to the touch.
Watch for: Whiteflies, mealy bugs.
A culinary wunderkind, chives add grassy brightness to almost any dish — like garlic, but sweeter, or like onions but greener. And they happen to be fantastically simple to grow, too. Chives prefer a moist environment; water twice a week. When trimming chives for cooking, make sure to leave at least two inches above the root.
Sunlight: Bright sun; at least four hours a day.
Water: Twice a week.
Watch for: Yellow tips mean inadequate light.
Impatient growers will be generously rewarded by mint, as it is terrifically prolific. Make sure to keep mint in its own pot, in a container with a wide surface, and at a distance from other potted herbs, as it is a "runner." Its exuberance can make it a kind of garden gangster, taking over neighboring territories. And be sure to experiment with different varieties — there are over 600, all with slightly different flavors to choose from!
Sunlight: Bright sun; at least six hours a day.
Water: When the top of the soil is dry to the touch.
Watch for: Pinch off flowers as they appear, and thin the leaves regularly.
(Image credits: Abbye Churchill; Geraldine Campbell)