A windowsill of fresh herbs is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a city dweller–with a little sunlight, you can have herbs ready to use in the kitchen in only a matter of weeks. We spoke with gardening experts to figure out what it takes to grow herbs indoors.
Growing anything isn’t easy (and yes, you may kill off a few plants before you get the hang of it); just start with the simple stuff. Even if you won’t be able to brag about your heirloom tomatoes, you can still feel the satisfaction of putting your own basil in a cocktail or stir-frying with some fresh lemongrass.
Which Herbs to Grow
Here’s a breakdown of what to grow, for clueless gardeners to the greenest of thumbs.
Bay Tree: A very slow grower. Be sure you pick up a Laurus nobilis, cautions Rose Marie Nichols McGee, coauthor of Bountiful Container and co-owner of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon; the Laurus nobilis is best for cooking with. Bay tree can become infested with scale if it gets too dry—use dishwashing detergent to wash off the leaves, then rinse them thoroughly.
Chive: Doesn’t require as much light as some other herbs. The Grolau variety was bred for growing indoors.
Kaffir Lime Tree: Kaffir lime leaves are often used in Thai cooking. Be sure you give this plant special citrus food.
Lemongrass: A good way to cheat, because it requires no soil; you can just use a stalk you get at the market. Make sure it has a good amount of stem and the bottom is intact; trim the top and put it in a container with a couple of inches of water. Connie Campbell, a New Hampshire–based master gardener, says, “It will send out roots and new sprouts and many, many new stalks from the bottom, and you can just cut those off and use them.”
Mint: Very invasive, so it needs its own pot. Peppermint is great for teas, and you’ll only need a little of it. You usually need a lot of spearmint for recipes, so it may not be worth growing in a container.
Parsley: It doesn’t need much sun, says Carole Ottesen, author of The New American Garden, but it’s a slow grower so may not yield a whole lot.
Vietnamese Coriander: Almost identical in taste to cilantro, says Campbell, and “very, very reliable.”
Oregano: Try the Greek variety. Needs a lot of light.
Rosemary: Keep it on the dry side and look for an upright variety like Tuscan Blue or Blue Spire. It needs a very sunny window and probably supplemental light. Since you don’t need a lot of it for cooking, it’s a good herb to grow. It’s very sensitive to overwatering.
Thyme: It will likely need supplemental light. Look for lemon thyme, which has a unique flavor and can’t easily be purchased in markets.
Basil: It’s a favorite to cook with, but it’s a tough one to grow. Your best shot is to grow it during the warm, bright summer months. Connie Campbell suggests the Spicy Globe or African Blue variety, the latter of which is more like Thai basil and does well indoors.
Cilantro: Cilantro is the name for the stems and leaves of the coriander plant. It often bolts, meaning it starts growing flowers and seeds instead of leaves. Leslie Land, gardening columnist and blogger, sows coriander seeds in a shallow flat (a plastic tray), then eats them as sprouts, root and all. “Sow the coriander seeds quite thickly, like almost paving but not quite. Only let seedlings get about four to five inches tall, then pull them up, roots and all, and wash them.” To make this economical, she says, just pick up coriander seeds in bulk at a health food store.
Sage: Rose Marie Nichols McGee says that sage is more susceptible to mildew and is very sensitive to overwatering. If you want to try it, though, Connie Campbell says to go for the dwarf sage, which is more compact than regular sage.
INDOOR HERB GROWING TIPS
Light is the most important aspect of growing indoor herbs, and many people don’t have enough. Most experts agree that six to eight hours of light per day is optimal.
Orientation: A southwestern-facing window is your best bet for good light, says Diane Stahl, owner of Urban Roots, a Denver-based city garden store and greenscape installation company specializing in small urban spaces.
If you can’t get light from the sun: Get a few clamp-on reflector lights with compact fluorescent bulbs, says Rose Marie Nichols McGee. Connie Campbell says the lights should be placed very close to the plants, about four to six inches away. There are also light fixtures that mount under a kitchen cabinet if you want to have herbs on the counter. The bottom line is, no plant will thrive if you can’t give it enough light.
If you see brown spots on the foliage: “It can be a sign they are burning,” says McGee. That means the plants are getting too much light, but this is a rare scenario.
If the plants are growing longer stems and fewer leaves: They’re not getting enough light and are stretching to find more. Add supplemental light or move them to a place that receives more natural light.
Herbs don’t need that much water. “Overwatering is the biggest mistake people make trying to grow herbs inside,” says John Lingle, owner of Lingle’s Herbs, a nursery specializing in organic herbs located in Long Beach, California.
When to water: You need to learn to read your plants and let them tell you when they’re ready for water. “The rule of thumb is to let all the herbs dry out completely,” says Urban Roots’ Stahl. It could take anywhere from a few days to well over a week before you need to water. “Put the index finger in the dirt all the way down to the knuckle and feel that root system,” says Stahl. Write down how long it takes for the plants to dry out, then try to develop a consistent watering system. Stahl says that though plants don’t like a lot of water, they do like consistent watering.
How to water: Put the plants in the sink and water the base where the stem meets the dirt, not the leaves; let the water soak through. Then soak the plants again. Let them drain completely and put them back in their saucers. You can water in the morning and let the plants drain while you’re at work. Never leave standing water in the saucer or you’ll rot the plant’s roots.
If the leaves are yellow: The first assumption you should make is that the plant has too much water, rather than too little. When a plant is too wet, the roots rot, leaving them less capable of taking up water. “It’s kind of a Catch-22, because when the roots start to rot, the plant desiccates and wilts, so people think it needs more water,” explains Lingle. Feel the soil and lift the container to see if the plant is very wet or dry.
Rule number one: Your pots must have drainage holes.
What material to use: Terra cotta, because it breathes. The saucer material is not as important, since its main purpose is to protect your counter or window sill. And forget about putting rocks in the bottom of the pot before you add soil: McGee says that will actually clog things up instead of promoting better drainage.
The best size: Bigger is better. For individual herbs, the pots should be no smaller than 6 inches in diameter. To grow multiple herbs together, you’ll want to put two or three in a pot that is about 10 inches in diameter and about 8 inches deep.
High-quality organic potting soil with good drainage is a must, and it should be rich, loamy, and not compacted. You can add perlite (buy it at any garden store) to increase drainage; Connie Campbell says a ratio of 1 part perlite to 25 parts soil is good. Don’t just take a shovel of dirt from outside and put it in a pot, she warns.”You’ll bring in all the organisms that are balanced by nature but won’t be under indoor growing conditions.”
How to judge drainage: New American Garden author Carole Ottesen says, “It [shouldn’t] lump together in a ball if it’s wet–it would always be grainy. If you squeeze it and it doesn’t stick together and it sort of crumbles, that’s good.”
Add eggshells: Rose Marie Nichols McGee says that Mediterranean plants like rosemary, thyme, and basil do well with a little extra lime; you can use eggshells for this. “I suggest they put the shells into a food processor with a little water and put a spoonful into each pot when you prep the soil for planting.”
Herbs are fairly hearty, but they still like to be fed a good organic fertilizer like fish emulsion (be aware: it stinks) or liquid seaweed. You’re growing herbs for their leaves, not their flowers, so find a fertilizer that doesn’t promote blooming. That means the fertilizer needs to have a low level of phosphorous. John Lingle suggests getting a gallon apple-juice jug and filling it with water and one tablespoon of fish emulsion to make a very weak organic fertilizer solution. Water the herbs with it, and then you won’t have to worry about when to feed them. You can even make your own fish emulsion!
Do what the plants tell you: The plants will let you know if they need to be fed, says Carole Ottesen. If they seem to have stopped growing, they probably need food. If the plants are turning yellow and you’ve already ruled out watering issues, this may also mean they need feeding.
Buy plant “starts”; (baby plants), not seeds–growing from seeds is harder. When you’re buying plants to grow indoors, buy an herb that’s never been planted outside; changing the environment can be traumatic for the plant. And as Diane Stahl points out, “If you shop locally, you find plants acclimated to your area.” Which can make it a lot easier on a new gardener.
Is this my best side? Rotate your pots every week, says McGee. “Don’t just leave them in the same position forever. Move them around so they don’t lean.”
They’re there to be eaten: Cutting your herbs encourages growth. But don’t cut more than a third off.
You’re not growing fungus: Herbs need good air circulation, says Stahl–stagnant air promotes fungal disease. You can combat this by putting your pots on a large tray covered in pebbles so that air can circulate up through the drainage holes.
Don’t try to fight nature: In the winter, plants may naturally be in a resting phase because of the changes in light, says McGee. “We can let plants be in a resting phase. Minimally water; just let them do what they do.”
Pest inspection: If you see aphids, rinse them off in the sink. If you see scale (it looks like a brown, rusty spot), wash it off with a mild soap or rub off each spot with a little bit of rubbing alcohol, and then rinse the plant.
Go back to the roots: Check potted perennials about once a year to be sure the roots aren’t growing out of the bottom of the pot. If they are, take the plant out of the pot and inspect the roots: They should be healthy and white, not brown and growing around in a circle. If the roots look bad, you have two options: Trim off a little bit and transfer the plant to a bigger pot. Or, if the plant is the size you want, McGee says, you can just cut around the roots vertically, about a half inch to an inch, and slice the same amount off the bottom. Repot with extra soil, and take off about the same amount of upper growth as you removed from the roots.
Where to Turn if You’re Having Trouble
Contact master gardeners in your area; they are experts who volunteer time to run hot lines and answer questions via email about local agriculture. Your local USDA Cooperative Extension office can help you find one in your area.
Also talk to people at your local nurseries who know your climate (not the folks at the big-box garden supply counter).
Cooking with Your Herbs
Try out these recipes to make the best of your indoor garden and you’ll be surprised how much a difference fresh herbs make in your meals and what a great choice they are instead of just reaching for the spice rack.
Egg, Cheese, and Chive Tartlets
These open-faced breakfast tarts are elegant and tasty. Puff pastry topped with crème fraiche, cheddar, chives and covered with bacon (or pancetta) and a fried egg: it’s that simple. Garnish with more chives and you’ve got a quick and easy breakfast that’s easy enough to make for yourself or fancy enough to serve at brunch. Get our Egg, Cheese, and Chive Tartlets recipe.
Lemongrass, Red Onion, and Pork Kebabs
Lemongrass is what makes this dish so special. Marinate the pork in a mixture of garlic, shallots, brown sugar, lemongrass, fish sauce, soy sauce, oil, and pepper and then refrigerate for several hours (or overnight). The red onion is a great contrast to the sweet and spicy marinade; grab some of your fresh cilantro to add as a garnish. Get our Lemongrass, Red Onion, and Pork Kebabs recipe.
Fennel, Avocado, and Mint Salad
A raw-food salad from the chefs at Pure Food and Wine in New York City, this combination of fennel, avocado, mint, parsley, and sun-dried tomatoes is dressed with a pistachio-caper vinaigrette. The fresh herbs shine with the addition of lemon juice, lemon zest, and briny capers and this salad is an incredibly refreshing choice to serve alongside a main course or on its own as an entrée. Get our Fennel, Avocado, and Mint Salad recipe.
Fusilli with Parsley, Walnut, and Black Olive Pesto
A new take on pesto, CHOW’s version has a full two-and-a-half cups of fresh parsley, toasted walnut, goat cheese, (instead of the traditional parmesan) kalamata olives, and is a snap to throw together. You can substitute any kind of nuts and experiment with different types of cheese as well to vary the flavors. Get our Fusilli with Parsley, Walnut and Black Olive Pesto recipe.
Grilled Greek Salad
The marinade for this grilled Greek salad is full of fresh oregano and thyme, which are blended in a food processor along with freshly squeeze lemon juice, white wine, olive oil, onion, kosher salt, and black pepper. Grilling the salad differentiates it from the boring old Greek salad on every diner’s menu – the marinade makes the perfect salad dressing and can be made in advance to save time. Get our Grilled Greek Salad recipe.
Roasted Rosemary Walnuts
Bar nuts are normally addictive, but these roasted rosemary walnuts are a game changer. Olive oil, a tiny bit of sugar, chopped fresh rosemary, salt, and freshly ground pepper make for a salty, sweet, completely irresistible snack to serve with cocktails. Make a double batch so that you can keep them around and use the rest as a perfect hostess gift – it’s hard to keep them around the house for very long so consider yourself warned. Get our Roasted Rosemary Walnuts recipe.
Pasta with Corn, Thyme, and Parmesan
Frozen corn makes this main course easy to adapt year-round and it features fresh thyme as well as fresh chives. Shallots, olive oil, garlic, wine, and fresh thyme are sautéed together and then finished with heavy cream and parmesan. This recipe tastes best served as soon as its finished cooking and doesn’t reheat well, so invite your friends over and make an evening of it. Get our Pasta with Corn, Thyme, and Parmesan recipe.
Basil and Mozzarella Scones
Savory scones are a delightful afternoon treat. These cheesy scones are great as a pairing with lunch or dinner or served with a glass of wine. There’s almost a full cup of coarsely chopped basil in these scones and you can substitute almost any other herb you have in your window garden. Other add-ins are also a good way to change up the recipe – think sundried tomatoes, toasted sunflower seeds, or dried fruit. Get our Basil and Mozzarella Scones recipe.
Asparagus and Cilantro Soup
If you love herbs, than this is the soup for you. Fresh basil, oregano, and cilantro are the base for this asparagus soup that manages to be both vegetarian and gluten-free (if you use tamari, not soy sauce). Again, it’s the fresh herbs that you grow in your own home that really make the difference in this soup–garnish with crème fraiche or a dollop of sour cream and you’ll really have a decadent dish. Get our Asparagus and Cilantro Soup recipe.
Pumpkin Tortelloni with Sage and Pumpkin Seeds
Chef Thomas McNaughton of Flour + Water in San Francisco really knows how to put fresh sage to good use. The sauce is a combination of raw pumpkin seeds, olive oil, salt, butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and fresh sage leaves, cut thinly in a chiffonade. Delicate, nutty, and a little bit salty, this velvety sauce brings out the pumpkin flavors in the tortelloni but can be used on pretty much any type of pasta and still be fantastic. Get our Pumpkin Tortelloni with Sage and Pumpkin Seeds recipe.
Original story by Roxanne Webber, updated by Caitlin O’Shaughnessy