Herbal Relief On Wintry Days

THE REAL DIRT

January 10, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Each winter, I get terribly homesick for my garden.

It's not like we're miles apart. The garden is 50 feet from the back door. I see it every day.

That's the problem.

The garden of my dreams would bustle with life year-round. Alas, Mother Nature has other plans. What I see from the window is a bleak and frozen landscape, barren but for a few birds foraging for food.

Not long ago, the garden was a beehive of activity. There were bees and bugs and butterflies and slugs, and scores of plants to feed them. Where have all the flowers gone? Gone to compost, every one.

It's not digging in the soil that I miss, so much as the sights and smells of the garden. But I'm coping. On wistful winter days, I'll leaf through a garden catalog and drool over the pictures.

If I'm really depressed, I'll head for the kitchen and hug my herbs. I keep a handful of herb plants on the sunny windowsill for such emergencies.

Sometimes I caress the chives; other days I tickle the thyme. Instantly, the air explodes with wondrous scents, the equivalent of an herbal sneeze. The room is bathed in plant perfume, and I take long, deep breaths.

Just smelling these herbs lifts my spirits. Gardeners can get high sniffing fresh basil. I tried it last week. After several whiffs, I started jitterbugging around the kitchen singing, "It's summertime, summertime, sum-sum-summertime. . . . "

Herbs are great for what ails you, even homesickness for the garden.

My indoor herb garden feeds my soul more than it does my stomach. Sure, it's nice to have fresh parsley and dill for dinner, but come winter, these plants do more for my psyche than my palate.

That's why I harvest herbs sparingly. Grown indoors, the plants seem to turn dwarf and rarely reach their normal height. I dare not strip their leaves for supper's sake. Many of my herbs are but several inches tall. How can such tiny plants pack such a punch to the nose?

If we need herbs for cooking, there's a spice rack overhead. Bottled herbs have their niche, but they can't buoy the spirit like fresh herbs can. Try brushing up against a jar of dried basil. There is no smell at all.

Most kitchen herbs can be grown indoors with minimal fuss. Give them moderate temperatures (60 to 65 degrees) and a southern exposure with at least six hours of sunlight daily. Place smaller plants closest to windows.

Turn the plants to keep them from growing tall and spindly. Better yet, invest in a fluorescent plant light. These fixtures provide all the light your herbs and other houseplants will ever need.

Don't crowd the plants and keep them away from freezing windowpanes. Herbs hate stagnant air, so crack a nearby window for ventilation. Or use a small electric fan. Seriously.

Some herbs, like dill and basil, grow easily from seed, while others, like rosemary and oregano, are best purchased as plants from a nursery. All herbs like fairly rich soil with good drainage. Most are perfectly happy in 4- or 5-inch pots. All herbs look lost in oversized containers, where they'll likely drown from too much water.

A few herbs, like marjoram and thyme, may be grown in hanging baskets.

Fertilize herb plants sparingly, with liquid fish emulsion, lest they lose their fragrant oils. Water plants when the soil feels dry, but always provide adequate humidity. Place pots on a pebble-lined saucer or tray covered with 1/2 inch of water. Or place containers filled with water between the plants. Rosemary really sucks in the moisture: Spray the plant periodically with a fine water mist.

Check plants daily for insect damage, especially basil and chives for whiteflies. Frankly, most herbs will be bug-free. Inspecting them is just an excuse to tickle the plants. But you'll never regret it. Trust me.

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