The Ins And Outs Of Herbs

THE REAL DIRT

October 30, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I give up. After 15 years, I'm throwing in the trowel -- the pretty one that sits on the spoon rest.

Hard as I've tried, I cannot raise herbs in the kitchen.

Each year, as frost nears, I scoop up several savory herb plants from the garden and bring them inside for winter. Some of the potted plants land on the kitchen windowsill, where they are expected to pepper the room with pungent smells and our food with fresh herb flavors.

In a flash, the kitchen becomes my favorite room. I make excuses to hang around the place. Let me wash those dishes, dear. May I dry them, too? Does the sink need repairs? Can I unclog the drain?

Anything to catch a whiff of the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

Alas, my joy is short-lived. Within weeks, the plants begin to die. The chives croak. The parsley poops out. The basil bites the dust.

By Christmas, the windowsill is empty. All that's left are a few oval stains where the clay pots sat.

I mourn the loss of the piquant plants and retire to the basement, to examine a second crop of herbs. These plants are not growing on a cramped windowsill in a dry, stuffy room. These herbs are growing in a cool, airy cellar, beneath special plant lights that shine on their foliage for 16 hours a day.

The plants in the basement are thriving for just these reasons. I'm grateful, of course. But I can't help noticing the lack of ambience. The kitchen herbs grew in a sunny window, an arm's-length from the stove. The cellar herbs grow in a drab corner, near the oil furnace and the cats' litter box.

The atmosphere isn't the same.

In a perfect world, the kitchen herbs would flourish, and I could snip off an extra sprig of oregano with one hand while stirring a pot of spaghetti with the other. Instead, in mid-recipe, I must race to the basement to harvest the leaves. While I am gone, the pot of boiling noodles bubbles over.

All because of some finicky herbs.

While most culinary herbs require little care outdoors, they get downright fussy when moved inside. Plants like rosemary and dill, which never complain in the garden, become hypochondriacs once they enter the house.

Rosemary tolerates arid conditions in the wild, but miss one watering indoors and the plant turns brown and dies. Dill, the patron plant of beginning gardeners, gets downright petulant when raised inside; it's a zillion times more difficult to grow.

Most herbs abhor a climate of warm, dry, stagnant air -- the conditions found in most homes. Adding humidity is easy: Set potted plants on pebble-lined trays, and add water to nearly cover the pebbles. Evaporation keeps the plants moist.

A majority of herbs favor indoor temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees, with good air circulation and plenty of space between pots. Keep their foliage from touching. Herb plants should never be allowed to hold hands; cramped quarters spreads disease and insect problems (spider mites and scale).

In cases of severe infestation, trash the plant. Never douse the leaves with anything stronger than a soap spray, if you plan to eat them.

Many gardeners expect herbs to grow as well indoors as out. They won't. Herbs-turned-houseplants never reach their normal height. One bushy parsley plant in the garden may see you through the summer, but the sprigs turn dwarf when grown indoors. Raise several plants for a normal harvest.

Herbs require plenty of light; even the sunniest window seldom meets the plants' needs. Use fluorescent Gro-Lites for best results. The 4-foot plant tubes are available at hardware stores and garden centers.

Good soil and drainage are essential. Don't use garden loam, unless it has been sterilized. A safe potting mix includes equal parts peat moss, potting soil and builder's sand. Herbs such as parsley, which have long roots, need deeper pots than shallow-rooted plants like mint.

Feeding herb plants can be tricky. Too much fertilizer, and the plants become leggy; the foliage loses its flavor. Low-nitrogen boosters like liquid seaweed and fish emulsion offer best results. Prune herbs regularly to maintain a bushy appearance, and to keep them from blossoming.

My kitchen herbs may be gone, but the plants in my basement are prospering. Thank heaven. I deliberately brush up against the basil whenever I change the litter box. One aroma masks the other.

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