Wednesday, November 20, 2013


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D.


          Windowsill gardening is one of the bright spots for winter gardeners as well as for year-around foodies.  Without expensive greenhouses, we’re pretty much left with our windowsills during the non-growing seasons in Flagstaff.  This means growing herbs.  Of course, herbs are what make the culinary world go around.


          As I puzzled over the best herbs to grow on our sunny windowsills, I decided to consult an expert.  Nancy McCulla of Simply Delicious/Café Daily Fare came to mind.  If anyone were knowledgeable about culinary herbs, it would be a chef.  Perched high above “66”, behind Babbitt’s automobile agency, and up a rutted dirt lane, McCulla holds forth as a premier caterer and daytime restaurateur in a former foundry.   


          As I munched on delightful apricot and blueberry tart over a cup of tea, we went through nearly all the herbs that can be grown on a sunny windowsill.  The number is, to be use the dismal vernacular, awesome.   At first, I thought of basil because it’s easy to grow and is universally useful although I’ve never tried it in my oatmeal.  Then cilantro came to mind, but some people, such as Julia Child, object claiming that it smells like soap.  She advised throwing it on the floor.  The best way to cure cilantrophobia is to smash the leaves, releasing an enzyme which dispels the unwanted odor of the aldehydes.  Along with garden cress and fernleaf dill, cilantro needs to be reseeded once harvested. 


Then four old favorites came to mind, Greek oregano, thyme, parsley, and tarragon.  As we chatted, others tumbled out: chives, marjoram, chervil, English mint, creeping savory, sorrel, lemon grass, parsley, and, of course, fernleaf dill.  Even sage (dwarf garden) and rosemary (Blue Boy) have been downsized for the windowsill and are best propagated by cuttings.


          Since most herbs are expatriates from the lands around Mediterranean and Asia, growing on sunny windowsills has its advantages because these herbs require sunlight, warmth, and well-drained soil.  Unglazed clay pots with leak-proof saucers are the best containers for growing herbs because the unglazed clay allows for air circulation and evaporation so that the soil will not be waterlogged, a number one adversary in windowsill container gardening.  Potting soil mixed with a little perlite or sand is usually the best choice for growing herbs because it contains compost and nutrients and won’t become compacted, the enemy of all root systems.


          Even though a windowsill may receive lots of light, most of the plants will need at minimum six to eight hours of direct sunlight.  Sometimes additional light is needed.  A fluorescent light set about six to ten inches the plants should be enough for a sunny windowsill.    


A little mulch of gravel will help keep the gnats and fruit flies at bay.  If other pests attack a plant, a convenient response is to dunk the whole plant in a bath of insecticidal soap.  As far as fertilizing is concerning, the best and most convenient is fish emulsion, diluted to half-strength every two weeks, except for marjoram and sage.  Organic fertilizer is safest if the herbs are eaten.


Some tips: pinch flower buds to keep the plants growing, don’t allow the plants to touch the window glass so that the foliage won’t freeze, and plant herbs with the same cultural environment in a single container, and pinch back branching herbs to keep them bushy.


Now, to the point.  Fall and winter are the seasons for stews and soups, slow-cooking, comfort dishes that require herbs and spices to bring them to life.  Also, they’re needed to add vigor to our sauces, such as pomodoro and fish, and various marinades.  Much to my surprise, McCulla said that the herbs and spices should be added toward the end of the slow-cooking because then they’re “like sunshine, waking us up at sunrise.”  In using spices and herbs, her advice was to “be careful, but bold,” which means, I think, “when you’ve got it right, go for it.”  She calls it “ramping up the herbs.”


Of course, for those of us in the southwest there is always fresh cilantro to add, as does McCulla, some sass to our fish tacos.      

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith (2013)

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun.  Smith emails at and blogs at






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