Growing an Indoor Herb Garden
Indoor herb gardens are a great strategy for keeping fresh herbs on hand year round. If you have no yard, a nice sunny window garden will give you access to nature's bounty all year around, and if you do have a garden, you can select a few choice herbs to bring inside in the fall to keep a supply of fresh produce on hand for over winter.
You can also create an environment for herbs and other produce by using grow lights, and if you create a vertical garden, you can grow and indoor garden with a small physical footprint. Some ideas include: affixing pots and planters up a wall that is corner-facing to a well-lit window (e.g. the east wall beside a south-facing window), placing a shelving unit in front of a window, or creating an upright window garden/eco-system such as the ones described at rndiy.org.
Why grow herbs and vegetables indoors?
Fresh produce contain more nutrients than dried, or even slightly older items. In fact, chopped vegetables have fewer nutrients than whole - and the longer they sit, the more they lose. Fresh is best. (See study results: gazpacho ingredients lose vitamin C during preparation and as it sits - preview.)
There is another good reason to grow your own herbs (indoors or outside): when researchers tested commercialized herbs sold in Spain, they found that 26% of them were contaminated with bacteria, including: detected the presence of bacteria from the genuses Acinetobacter (A. calcoaceticus), Enterobacter and Shigella. Species of microorganisms such as Yersinia intermedia, Staphylococcus aureus and Hafni alvei were also found. (Herbs such as oregano and thyme were safe as their essential oils are antibacterial).
Different herbs have different needs in terms of water and sunlight, and when you are planting them in groups, you should aim to keep compatible herbs together. Make a Mediterranean pot, which should get lots of light (13 or more hours a day, even if it is artificial light) and stay well-insulated from night time cold (i.e. it is not right up against the window). Suggested herbs for this: oregano, Greek oregano, rosemary... Try a hearty northern pot or grouping herbs based on the richness of the soil they need.
Containers for Gardening Indoors
Your best bet is to invest in a manufactured window box or planter, but any watertight container will do. Outdoor container gardening wants a drainage hole, but to avoid ruining the windowsill or table, best to have something watertight indoors, or at least a large tray underneath to catch drips and avoid creating a space for mould to grow. Place a generous layer of stones, terra cotta shards or packing peanuts at the bottom of the container, to create a layer where the water can settle, rather than flooding the soil. Add your potting mix, ensuring that it has a healthy mix of potting soil, peat moss and vermiculite (or perlite). Water absorbing polymers will also help with keeping the soil moist longer.
To be extra eco-friendly, try an eco-form pot. They're made from plant fibres like rice hulls and they biodegrade in about 5 years.
Planting the Herbs.
If you want to start the plants from seed, follow the instructions on the packets carefully, unless you are sowing seeds from the mature plants in your yard. A good way to help them along the germination path is to cover the container in clear plastic and place it on the top of the refrigerator for a couple of days to keep them moist and warm. When you notice the plants breaking the surface, you can bring them off the fridge and move them to the window, but leave the plastic on for a couple more days, but make sure the plastic does not come into contact with the sprouts. Once the seedlings seem sturdy enough to weather life on their own, remove the plastic.
Bringing Herbs in from your Garden
This process has to take place before the first frost. Select your heartiest plants to bring inside, and dig them up, leaving a good root ball. Make sure that the container you are placing them in leaves at least 2 inches of clearance around the root ball. You can acclimatize them to life indoors by leaving the pots outside, but in a less sunny spot for a week before bringing them in.
Before bringing them inside, you will want to give them a light spritz with an organic soap mixture to kill mealy bugs and other insects. Be sure to get the underside of the leaves in particular, as that is where they are most likely to hide.
Do not mix a solution that is more than one percent soap to water, as it will not be "more potent" to the bugs, and it will only damage the plants themselves.
Grouping plants makes a more appealing target for such insects as mites, whitefly and mealy bugs, as does low humidity. Placing a dish of water near the plants (as opposed to over watering, which will damage the root system) will help keep the humidity level high enough. Alternately, a shallow tray underneath the pots with a thin layer of pebbles and water (not covering the pebbles) makes an ideal method of keeping the humidity level up.
You may also want to bring in a marigold or two, if you are planning a plant table with multiple herbs.
Herb roots do not like to sit in water, so be sure to water sparingly. It is far better to use less water in each watering and water more often, than to use more water each time, and have longer periods between waterings. Apply an organic fertilizer high in nitrogen or liquid fish emulsion every two weeks.
A good mix of aromatic and cooking herbs would include a selection from the following:
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