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Garden: A Guide To Growing Herbs Indoors

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. Since few things (other than snowmen) grow in the snow, Brian Cruey offers tips on growing herbs indoors.

With my recent discovery of Tillandsia, I’m feeling emboldened. So far I seem to be keeping this plant alive which is a good thing, given my track record for growing things indoors. Maybe I’m ready to give houseplants another try? Besides, I am feeling restless.  I’m ready to see things growing again and given this recent bout of relentless snow, spring planting season feels much longer away than I am willing to wait.

What I would really like are fresh herbs, which I have never been successful with indoors. Over and over I have tried and for some reason I always fail. However, the appeal is too much to resist so I am going to give it another go. But this time I’m asking for help: I decided to go straight to the experts and asked the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Herb Associates if they had any advice on how I could improve my success rate with my indoor herb garden. The Herb Associates are a dedicated group of Garden volunteers who have been passing down growing tips, recipes and seeds for almost 80 years and are still going strong today. Whenever I need an unusually delicious cookie recipe or a light dressing for my salad, they are the first ones I ask. Not surprisingly, they didn’t disappoint when I approached them for advice on my indoor endeavor. Here’s what they had to say:

Pick the right plant. If you’ve had trouble growing indoor plants, stay away from temperamental herbs. Basil, cilantro and sage, for example, are difficult to grow inside even in the summer. Stick to plants that are more carefree like oregano, parsley, lemongrass, chives and mint. 

Choose the right spot. Even though you may want to have your herbs growing in your kitchen window, if you aren’t getting enough sunlight there you might be setting yourself up for failure. South and southwest facing windows are best. You need at least five hours of light a day, so monitor the spot that you’re thinking about placing your herbs in and make sure you’re meeting those requirements. As far as temperature goes, your plants like it to be around 68 or 70 degrees. If you’re home and feel like you need to turn the heat up or down, your plants are probably thinking the same thing.

Pot your herbs separately and don’t use clay. Often we see herbs grouped together in one pot for aesthetics but this is not ideal for growing. Putting everything in one container creates competition amongst the plants and herbs like mint can quickly take over. Also, stay away from clay pots. Though they’re good for drainage, clay pots tend to draw out moisture much more quickly in the winter months when heaters are on and the air is dry. Plastic or glazed pots work better for this reason. When planting, use a high-grade potting soil and avoid using soil from your outdoor garden. Regardless of the container you use, make sure that it offers good drainage — standing water in pots will quickly rot the roots and eventually kill the plant.

Encourage growth. Rotate your plants so they get even sunlight and exposure to the colder, window-facing side of the plant, and don’t let the plant touch the glass. One of the biggest mistakes people make growing plants indoors is overwatering. You want to keep the soil moist, but not too wet. If your plants’ leaves start to turn yellow, this is the first sign of overwatering and you should cut back. Because you’re growing in a contained space, fertilizer is also a good idea. Add a tablespoon of fish emulsion to one gallon of water and use that for watering to help promote growth. Like all herbs, you’ll want to pinch them back regularly to keep new growth forming.

I was told that if I’m having a problem, 90 percent of the time it can attributed to lighting or water issues, so try adjusting those two things before anything else. Hopefully with these troubleshooting tips, I can not only convince these plants to grow, but maybe it will help to convince spring to come just a little bit earlier, as well.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/18/14 at 10:00 AM • Permalink