When our perennial herb gardens go dormant and the lettuce patches are covered with snow, we all start to miss garden-fresh basil, thyme, and salad greens. Of course, we can usually pick up not-quite-fresh herbs at the supermarket for a price, but it's still just not the same!
By growing a small indoor herb garden, you can save money-not to mention trips out on icy roads-and enjoy a little taste of summer, too. Your success depends in large part on choosing the right varieties and offering just-right growing conditions.
What to Try?
Since your indoor growing space is limited, it's best to look for dwarf or compact herbs. For instance, growing standard three-foot-high dill plants indoors could be a bit awkward; growing a dwarf variety like "Fernleaf" dill which grows only half as tall is a more workable solution.
As for other old standbys? "Creeping" savory grows to be just two to four inches tall. "Spicy Globe" basil which grows thick, compact foliage can reach eight to 10 inches. Taking a little more room, "Greek" oregano will top out at 10 to 12 inches. Many standard varieties of parsley, chives, and sage also work well.
The Best Start
Although you may be tempted to bring in plants which have been growing in the outside garden, you're better off starting new seeds in a sterile growing medium such as a seedling mix with perlite or Super Starter Grow Plugs.
By starting new plants from seed indoors, you substantially reduce your risk of insect infestations and disease. Also, since you aren't dealing with established plants which have grown accustomed to the outdoors, you won't have to worry about your plants' ability to suddenly adjust to a different set of growing conditions.
When starting your seeds, remember that most seeds germinate at a temperature of 70 to 75 degrees F. Ultimately, this depends on the type of plants you start so check seed packages for more specific information. By placing a heated propagation mat underneath your soilless medium, you can speed up the germination process. Plastic covers can also be used to trap heat and moisture within your growing medium, but be careful. Covered seedlings can get too much moisture so you'll want to uncover them periodically or place a few small holes in the cover so that excess moisture can escape.
When your seedlings get their first set of true leaves, it's transplant time. If you choose to grow in soil, use a commercially prepared potting mix or create your own depending on your plants' needs. For herbs preferring well-draining soil, you can mix in extra perlite. For plants requiring a denser, moister soil, you can add shredded coconut fiber. Once plants become well established, feed them once a week with a mild fertilizer solution such as Fox Farm's Grow Big.
You can also grow herbs and salad greens in a hydroponics system with very good results. To do this, very gently rinse any soil and debris from plant roots (unless you used Super Starter Plugs which can be inserted as is.) Next, place your plants in a starter hydroponics system like the Waterfarm, which includes detailed instructions, hydroponic nutrient, growing containers, and grow rocks.
Because natural sunlight is less intense in the winter months, supplemental lighting is an important consideration for the indoor garden. To flourish, most herbs and greens need at least four to six hours of intense light daily so you'll want to use a full-spectrum fluorescent light. You can jumpstart vegetative growth with blue-spectrum "grow" bulbs in systems such as Sunleaves Pioneer and Pioneer Jr. full-spectrum fluorescents.
Finally, try to keep the temperature around your plants between 65 and 70 degrees F. This will help prevent them from going to seed so you have continual vegetation to harvest. If you do notice flower buds starting to form on basil and other herbs, simply pinch them back and add an oscillating fan to cool the area as needed.