WINTER INDOOR HERBS: I
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/10/05)
Now that the spade bounces off the dirt with a ping, there’s no denying winter has set in. In addition to skiing, it means the time has come to trick Mother Nature a smidge, not so that she’d notice, but enough to plant an herb garden indoors. Some people wait for spring to plant, but with a little bit of luck we can not only get to the church on time, but also have an herb garden while ice is still on the pond. If a greenhouse isn’t available, horticultural tricks can be played on south-facing window sills. If there aren’t south-facing windows, then west-facing or east-facing will do with help from florescent and/or grow lights.
Unless there are an endless number of sunlit window sills, the first step for indoor gardening is selecting a few cherished herbs. Some cherished annuals might include sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), dill (Anethum graveolens), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), and parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Coriander doubles with seeds (coriander) and leaves (cilantro). Fresh cilantro and parsley are relatively cheap in the market so probably aren’t worth the effort except for cilantro or parsley freaks. That leaves the pricey fresh sweet basil and dill herbs. They are best started with seeds.
Some cherished perennials are chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and mint (Mentha piperita). At first they don’t take up much space on the window sill, but mint likes to spread. Happily both can be divided. Chives are propagated either by seeds or cuttings, but mint is best by cuttings. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and sage (Salvia officinalis) are woody, requiring too much space for a sill. Both are propagated by seeds and cuttings. Cuttings are faster.
Herbs like temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees F, a nightly hazard for window sills. Next to a window pane temperatures might go below 50 degrees F. The trick is to protect them or move them away from windows at night. The daytime temperatures are best kept at 65 to 70 degrees F.
Potted herbs require good drainage or else the roots will rot, the plants wilt, and the pots stink. Avoiding this calamity means holes in the bottom of the pot along with a basin to catch the runoff. After a few minutes pour off water in the basin to avoid root rot. A good soil for drainage is part potting soil and part perlite. Herbs should be thoroughly watered when the surface of the soil is dry. Light watering often kills plants. The herbs should be fertilized with weak fish emulsion once a month. If a day is warm, letting in a little fresh air now and then helps make the herbs think they’re outside. Winters require patience. Tricked herbs grow slowly.
Most herbs require at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. The window sill has to catch as much of the sun as possible from early morning to late afternoon. Happily, the intense sunlight in Flagstaff is a plus, but again sometimes a florescent or grow light helps. Mint, rosemary, and parsley require less light and can be placed at the edges of the sill.
Pests are best treated with insecticidal soap on both sides of the leaves. The herbs can still be eaten when the insecticidal soap is washed off, but if a systemic poison is used, the result is poisoned and poisoning herbs. Culinary homicide is a big time no-no. If a plague of white flies or the like occur, dump everything in the garbage pail pronto.
Harriet Young, retired adjunct professor of political science at NAU and chair of the Coconino County Democratic Committee, sticks #2 pencils in her pots, as do the Cajuns, theorizing the cedar in the pencils offends pests, just as it does moths.
Since the air indoors during the winter is dry, a squirt bottle of water is helpful in creating humidity by misting around the herbs but not on them. Tricking Mother Nature is always tricky, and sometime fatal, but the hazards of indoor gardening are so trivial that the gustatory delights of fresh herbs make the risks worthwhile. The alternative is hunkering down until spring.
Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2005