Growing herbs indoors—wouldn’t you love to be one of those people who can do that? Imagine reaching over the sink to the sweet plants growing in front of a window, snipping off a few leaves to toss into a sauce or salad.
Fancy, right? Well, you don’t have to be a botanist to pull it off. Growing herbs indoors can be simple enough once you learn the basics. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The best herbs to grow indoors
Get the process moving by thinking about which herbs you use most often. Maybe you use thyme in your soups, or you love tossing mint into your salads.
“You don’t have to limit yourself to just herbs that are good for cooking,” Susan Brandt, president of personalized gardening service Blooming Secrets, reminds us. “How about chamomile, which can be used in teas, or lavender for a soothing bath?”
Also think of the volume of herbs you use and how much space you have to grow. For example, I tend to use a few mint leaves here and there, mostly for cocktails and garnishes, so it makes sense for me to grow that indoors on a slim windowsill.
Most gardening experts recommend the following herbs for growing indoors:
I know what you’re thinking: Where’s the basil?
“This may actually be one of the toughest herbs to grow indoors,” Brandt cautions. “It requires up to 10 hours of sunlight a day, and temperatures need to be consistently in the 70s both day and night for it to grow properly.”
I also find basil likes to grow big and wants a lot of space, which makes it better suited to outdoor gardens. But a smaller variety could work indoors under UV light.
How to pot herbs indoors
The plastic pot your herb plant comes in isn’t meant to be its permanent home. So as soon as you can, replant your herbs in a container at least 6 inches in diameter at the top with a hole in the bottom and dish underneath. Use organic potting soil designed for indoor plants, not dirt from the outdoors.
A row of different herbs in the same long pot looks adorable, but it’s a classic beginner fail; you’ll have more success if you plant each different herb in its own container.
“Each herb may have its own needs, which conflict with another herb that you are trying to grow,” says Brandt. “For example, mint and parsley prefer a moist soil, while rosemary, thyme, and sage do not.”
Be especially careful with mint—this aggressive grower will take over whatever container it’s planted in.
How much light do herbs need?
Most herbs need at least six hours of sunlight a day. Southwestern light is ideal, but if that’s not where your window is oriented, don’t let that stop you. Many herbs will grow fine in eastern or western light, though they may grow a little more slowly. That said, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme need six to eight hours of strong light daily.
Another lighting tip: “Be sure to turn the plants frequently to keep growth even on all sides of the plant,” Brandt says.
Have little direct sunlight? Try a low-light plant like mint, chervil, or chives. You can also use LED grow lights. Start small with a single-bulb light with an adjustable neck (which you can find for as little as $15). Keep the light about 10 to 12 inches away from your plant, and remember to turn off the light after around six hours a day (plants need rest to grow, too).
How much water do herbs need?
Here’s the determining factor: Water as often as you need to in order to keep the soil moist but not damp. Be careful not to overwater; one sign of this is yellowing leaves, says Danielle Horton, founder of Urban Produce, a 16-acre indoor vertical farm in Irvine, CA.
You’ll also want to feed your herbs so they can feed you. Check the label and make sure your plant food isn’t for flowers; you want to encourage leaf growth, not blooms. Aerate the soil a bit with a fork before sprinkling some on. Follow the directions on the package and don’t overdo it. Just like with water, too much food can work against plants. Most herbs do well being fed once a month.
How to harvest herbs without killing them
You can start “harvesting” your herbs once they’ve grown to about 6 to 8 inches. And you’ll want to do that fairly often, because cutting off leaves and stems actually encourages growth. You can cut off as much as a third of your plant without causing harm.
Watch out for bolting: This is when your plant starts looking like all stem, with fewer leaves. This could mean that you need to clip your herbs more often even if you’re not using them every time. Likewise, if you see blooms forming, snip those off. Your plant will start pouring all its energy into making blossoms and seeds, but you want that energy to go into growing the leaves instead.
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