Kitchen garden is possible in winter months

Using pots to grow herbs takes just a bit of knowledge

In The Garden

February 02, 2003|By Carol Stocker | By Carol Stocker,THE BOSTON GLOBE

Little pots of culinary herbs on a kitchen windowsill will yield fresh flavors over a long period and cheer the home with their useful greenery. Chives, thyme, bay, sage, winter savory and mint top the list of perennial kitchen herbs for an indoor garden.

Windowsills are cold, and light levels are low this time of year, so it's easier to buy already-growing herbs from local garden centers and supermarkets than try to start them from seed.

The more light they get, the happier your herbs will be, so place them in a south-facing window if possible. East and west windows are next best, but leaves should not touch the window panes, which can become icy cold on winter nights. Also, don't isolate plants from the heat of the rest of the house by growing them behind closed window curtains.

A window over the kitchen sink with humidity from running tap water is a great location. You don't have a wide enough windowsill or a table against a window? Some people improvise by buying an inexpensive ironing board, throwing a decorative cloth over it, and setting it against a window at sill height.

In winter, when growth is slow, herbs need very little fertilizing. Your main concern with these low-maintenance plants simply is to water them correctly. Overwatering is the most common killer of indoor plants, which need equal amounts of air and water around their roots. Many people water when the soil surface is dry to the touch, but they tend to forget that indoor heating will dry the top of the soil while the root ball may still be wet, according to David Gilson of the Herb Lyceum in Groton, Mass. You know the bottom roots are dry when the soil starts to pull away from the side of the pot. Do not let them completely dry out or stand in a water-filled saucer for any length of time.

Rosemary. One of the few herbs that doesn't want to dry out between waterings, rosemary must be kept continually moist. You'll lose it if it's sopping wet, though. Rhonda Haavisto, chairwoman of the New England unit of the Herb Society of America, recommends growing rosemary in a clay pot with a layer of perlite or pebbles in the bottom so the roots get more air.

Drafty windows are actually beneficial since good air circulation is especially important for rosemary and sage, which can both develop powdery mildew. If this happens, put the plant outdoors on a warm day and spray it lightly with one tablespoon of alcohol mixed with a cup of water.

Though rosemary can be tricky to keep, many gardeners bring their plants indoors every fall. Even if you have not had past success, it's worth trying rosemary again.

Basil. This is even more difficult to grow indoors. African Blue basil will grow in the short days of winter, and Cuban basil needs less heat to flourish than other varieties and tastes much like sweet basil. But the other basils crave a lot of light, so most people addicted to harvesting basil in winter use supplemental grow lights.

Cilantro.

There are actually three different plants called cilantro (or coriander), and most gardeners have been growing the wrong one. The traditional cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a poor choice for growing indoors, and not very good outdoors, either, since it's an annual that can be harvested for only a few weeks.

However, Vietnamese cilantro (Polygonum odoratum) does really well on a windowsill. "It's a tender perennial, and you can continually harvest from it," said Louise Hyde, owner of Well-Sweep Herb Farm in Port Murray, N.J. "Mexican cilantro, the kind usually used in Mexican restaurants, is another tender perennial you can grow indoors." It has the strongest flavor of the three, but Vietnamese cilantro is faster-growing.

Tarragon. A hardy perennial that needs a dormant period to rejuvenate it, tarragon does not make a good indoor plant. Winter tarragon is a different plant that tastes the same and thrives indoors. It's also called mint-scented marigold (Tagetes lucida) because it really is a marigold, and it even flowers.

Chive, oregano and mint. These are three of the easiest indoor herbs to grow. Harvest them by cutting individual leaves back to the base of the plant rather than giving the whole thing a haircut.

Parsley. Easy to grow, parsley is favored by many cooks. Most prefer the flavorful flat-leaved variety to the more decorative curly parsley.

Thyme, savory and marjoram. These are also suitable kitchen herbs.

A good approach to harvesting windowsill herbs is to clip what you need but always leave green growth on the plant. This may increase its chance of surviving through the winter. But even herbs that look forlorn by spring will often rebound once they get outdoors in April and May.

Sources

Here are some more mail-order catalogs and Web sites for herb-lovers:

* Richters Herb Catalog in Ontario, Canada 905-640-6677 or www.richters.com

* Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine 207-861-3901 or www.johnnyseeds.com

* Nichol's Garden Nursery in Albany, Ore. 800-422-3985 or www.gardennursery.com

* Well-Sweep Herb Farm in Port Murray, N.J. 908-852-5390 or www.wellsweep.com

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