Herbs for the winter windowsill

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Wed., Dec. 28, 2011
- Contributed Photo

Now that the growing season is over, do you still find yourself ready to dash out to the garden for some chives, basil or a sprig of thyme, only to lament their loss to the cold weather? Why not start a small collection of culinary herbs indoors, where their flavor and fragrance will delight you through the upcoming winter months?

Growing herbs indoors is not difficult, as long as their few cultural requirements are met. The two most important factors for the successful growth of herbs indoors are light and moisture. The majority of popular culinary herbs require at least six hours of direct sun each day. A southerly-facing window is best, although a southwest or western exposure will do. Another alternative is to grow them under artificial light. A fluorescent fixture with one cool white bulb and one warm white bulb kept on for at least 12 hours a day will suffice. Specially-formulated, full-spectrum lights have come down in price and would actually be a better choice. Plants placed on window sills should be given a quarter turn daily, so they won’t lean to the light. If it gets really cold at night, move tender plants such as basil away from the windowsill.

Proper watering often makes the difference between life and death for herb plants. In general, the majority of herbs like to be kept on the dry side, but as many potential herb growers have found out the hard way, allowing the potting mixture to totally dry out will be the demise of their plants. Likewise, excessively wet soils promote root-rotting diseases. All pots should have drainage holes. Water when the soil about a half inch below the surface feels dry to the touch and continue watering until the excess water begins to run out the bottom drainage hole. Then let the pot drain thoroughly before putting it back on its saucer.

I have had excellent results growing herbs with a mix of a quarter each potting soil, clean, coarse sand, peat moss, and either vermiculite or perlite. I add about one tablespoon of ground limestone for each gallon of potting mix and one-quarter cup of Osmocote Plus Trace Elements, as I get lazy about fertilizing. If you prefer, plants can be fertilized once a month with a half-strength liquid fertilizer. Fish emulsion or liquid kelp works good for organic growers. Clay pots are favored, as they are more porous than plastic ones.

Basil, summer savory and parsley can be started from seed if you prefer. The first two herbs germinate quite readily, but parsley seeds are rather stubborn, requiring about three weeks before sprouting. Regular sweet basil tends to become a rather leggy houseplant. Instead, opt for the compact, globe-shaped bush basil. Unlike most herbs, basil wants a warm location.

Oregano is a member of the mint family and can even be grown in hanging baskets. It prefers to be kept at about 60 degrees F and growth will slow drastically if temperatures fall below 50 degrees F. Avoid overwatering oregano and note that it is prone to root rots.
Rosemary is an exceptional complement to meat dishes, potatoes and breads. Although it does prefer to be kept on the dry side, if the soil dries out completely – even for a short period of time – your plant will die. Both white and blue flowering varieties are available. Rosemary can also be trained as a standard or wreath.

More than 400 thyme varieties are recognized. The ones I found most suited to indoor culture are varieties of Thymus vulgaris. Lemon-scented and caraway thyme also make good houseplants.

Bay is a slow grower, preferring an almost neutral soil. Harvest the older leaves as needed and always be on the lookout for scale insects.

Perk up your menu by adding a few herb plants to your home. If you have questions about growing herbs or other gardening quandaries, call, toll-free, 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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