Chapter 6 : Indoor Gardening

While growing herbs indoors is very handy, indeed, it does depend on large part on a delicate balance of soil, water and light.  Discover just how crucial these three elements are.

Gardening outdoors sounds great, doesn't it?  But a bit more than you're willing to handle right now?   I can totally understand that.  If the lure of the fresh herbs is whispering your name, but your back is screaming enough already, then perhaps you should consider confining your initial foray into herbs to your home. 

Actually, there are some advantages to this, not the least of which is growing a small group of herbs -- and maintaining their health.  Your taste buds will thank you, the herbs of courses will thank you and your back will be grateful as well.

Perhaps you would rather start small - and indoors.  Many people do.  Many discover their love of herbs after they've grown several merely for practical purposes, never suspecting they would end up with a life long love of the plants.

If that's the case your kitchen herb garden may very well take the form of a window box full of plants or perhaps just a group of planters in your kitchen.  Just because it's small though doesn't mean it should be thrown together without some basic forethought.

I see the light!

There's really only one catch to growing herbs -- especially in the initial stages.  These plants crave -- and they really do need! -- ten to 12 hours of sunlight every day to thrive.  And herbs do prefer natural light to artificial, hands down.

Before you make your final decision on what herbs to grow, take a good look at the sunlight that comes through your kitchen windows.  This ultimately dictates which herbs you can grow.  Got a southern or a western exposure?  This means you've got a sunny, hot climate.  

If your windowsills aren't wide enough to place containers on them, consider extending the sills.  No you don't have to be a carpenter to do this.  You can easily add a finished one- by six-inch board to the windowsill.  You can easily secure this simply by screwing it into the existing board of the sill.  If you just bring yourself to place screws in your sills, I understand.

Or you may want to consider looking purchasing one of the windowsill extenders that cat lovers use to ensure their felines have a nice view of the outdoors.  You should be able to get several plants on one of these.

But if you don't want to do that, simply put shelving up in front of the window. 

The only step left is to figure out  which specific windows face which direction. This you'll need to know as an avid indoor gardener.  Those windows on the south side of your home, for instance, are privy to the longest lasting and the brightest light. 

This also means that this is the hottest portion of your home. But that doesn't mean every herb will want to live there.  The more tender of your plants may burn with that much light.

More indirect light and much less heat come through the windows on the north side of your house.  Light on the other two sides -- the east and the west -- offer bright light, yet, but nothing that can compete with that southern exposure.  If you must put some flowers either in the west or east windows, choose west first.  This direction will be warmer than the windows facing east.

And yes, you really should turn your plants once a week or so to allow the sunlight to reach all sides of the plant.

Artificial light.

If even on your best windows you can't give them that, then perhaps you should invest in a grow light.  This form of lighting is relatively inexpensive and you can find them at just about nursery or discount stores and even hardware stores.

You'll want the artificial lights to be about 10 inches above the young herb starters.  For more mature or larger plants, hang them about a foot to a foot and a half above the plants.

And yes, keep these lights on the plants about 10 hours a day.  This simulates the time the sun would be shining on these guys.

Let there be light! But what kind of light?

Talk to any three cultivators of indoor herbs and you're very likely to receive three very distinct and opinionated ideas when it comes to what kind of light to place above your herbs.  You have basically two choices: fluorescent and high-intensity discharge light.

Let's talk about fluorescent lighting first. This kind is the most recognizable to us:  you see them everywhere.  They're usually long and thin.  And believe it or not, home gardeners have used this specific type of lighting for years.  It's especially useful for starting seeds.  But it's also good at encouraging growth in plants as well.

The intensity of the fluorescent light is low, so they really are ideal for encouraging the growth of seedlings.  But these are also ideal for low-growing herbs.  Even the lowest leaves are close to the light with these.

Consider this:  a standard four-foot unit with two 40-watt bulbs -- or tubes --  illuminates an area of about eight inches in width.

But more than that, you can also buy specialty tubes for your specific needs.  These are an array of tubes are available, depending on the needs of your herbs.

But don't overlook a combination of the standard cool and warm white tubes.  These seem to be effective.  Verilux tubes are another choice.  This type of light is the closest approximation to the sun, so experts say. (I personally have to take their word for it!)  These lights cost about $10 each.

On the other hand, a brand called Vita-Lite, is labeled as a "power twist" tube.  It produces somewhat more light than the standard fluorescent does per watt. And the quality of this light is well balanced for optimum plant growth.  But the cost may be intimidating for you:  $18 each.

The brightness of light is measured either in lumens or as foot candles. Lumens is a reference to the amount of light available at the source.  Foot candles measures the amount of light falling on the area.  As you move farther from the light, then, the lumens would naturally stay the same.  However, as you can imagine, the farther you traveled from the light, the amount of foot candles would decrease. 

A bright but overcast day measures about 1,00 foot candles.  By contrast, a bright sunshiny day generates about 10,000 foot candles.  I don't mention this randomly either.

Contrast this to fluorescent lights.  At six inches from the source, you'll be receiving about 700 foot candles.  And when you're a foot from the light, the foot-candle measurement drops to 450.

Now, let's check out the high-intensity discharge lights.  Commercial h

What about humidity?

The ultimate dry environment of your house may present another problem in growing your plants indoors.  If your house doesn't have a whole-house humidifier (I certainly don't!), you can still provide the perfect humidity for these plants.  And it won't break the bank.

First, remember to finely mist the plants with water weekly.  See, I told you this wasn't going to cost you an arm and a leg!  You can also add humidity to the specific area where the plants are simply by setting a dish of water near the heat source in the room.  As the heat source operates, it naturally evaporates the water, which in turn adds moisture into the air.

Another good way to "moisturize the plants is to fill trays pea gravel. Additionally, pour water into these trays so the water fills about half the tray.  Now simply set the plants on top of the gravel.

Any one of these -- or using all three of these in extreme measures! -- should solve even the toughest of the humidity problems.

How much water do these plants like?

That's a good question.  Herbs grown in containers do tend to dry out more quickly than those grown outside.  But don't worry, it's easy enough to check the status.  Simply stick a finger into the soil.  Make sure you get at least get half an inch below the surface to feel the moisture. 

If the soil feels dry to the touch, then you'll need to water the plant some.  As much as you may be tempted, don't overwater these indoor herbs.  You'll only be promoting root rot as well as the development of a disease called powdery mildew.

This plant disease is probably one of the most recognizable.  If your herb is afflicted with this, it would look as if it had powdery splotches of white or gray on not only the leaves, but also on its stems. 

While this disease is not fatal, it does indeed stress the plant.  In fact, repeated infections will weaken the plant.  And if the mildew is not corrected, it may cover so much of the plant it eventually cripples the plants ability to go through photosynthesis.

The case of Powdery Mildew.

Should one of your herbs become infected with powdery mildew, caring for it is much easier than you may think.   Your first move of course is to remove and destroy all areas that are infected. 

You'll then want to  improve the circulation of your plants.  And no you don't do this by making it run a marathon or putting it on a treadmill!  Thin your plants out and prune the affected plants. 

While the herb is infected don't fertilize it. You may find that a bit contradictory because I've just said this mildew weakens the plant.  But the disease thrives on young, succulent growth.  So while you and your herb are actually battling this problem, refrain from fertilizing it.

And another tip on trying to discourage the mildew :  don't water the plants from above.  When you water the plants, move the lowest branches around in order to pour the water straight on the soil itself.  You really don't want to get the stems wet.

You may be forced eventually to apply a fungicide to some of your herbs Now that doesn't mean you're using harsh chemicals.  That would certainly negate some of the reasons for growing these specific plants at home.

No, the fungicide you'll be applying -- and you can simply ask any nursery about this -- is created from such natural ingredients as potassium bicarbonate, sulfur or even copper.

Now let's talk the actual planting!

It's about time, you're probably thinking.  But, it's important to know what to do with your plants.  Now you'll learn how to plant them properly.  Taking care of them during the growing season will now be a breeze -- or at least easier than you may have imagined when you first started. 

Believe it or not, you're pretty well set already.  If you're starting with nothing (as many first-time gardeners are) you'll want to ensure that you have a good supply of six-inch planting pots.  This is probably the best size herb pot. 

You can grow many seeds or small bulbs in just one of these pots, adhering to the "one-inch" apart" dogma with the bulbs. (You'll recall that all bulbs need to be at least one inch apart in order to grow healthy.)

Before you place any kind of soil -- or combination of media -- into these pots, line them with stones and bark chips.  This serves as your drainage system as well as an effective aeration mechanism.

When you do fill these pots with, don't use just any soil.  (Herbs are a bit in the "snobbish, elite" range when it comes to that!).  Use a good quality soil.  It should be loose as well as containing as many of the nutrients as possible that your plants will need.

Bury these seeds or small bulbs in the pots about an inch apart across the entire surface of the container. 

If, on the other hand, you're transplanting nursery-bought seedlings you have two choices.  First, you can remove these plants from their original containers, placing them in the holes you've dug into the potting soil.  The other option is to plant them and their containers in the potting soil together -- as a team, if you will.

While this second selection may sound a bit off the wall, it has a definite advantage.  When plant the container with the herb, you are assured that the plant has its root systems intact and undamaged.  It also just happens to make growing and transplanting several herbs much quicker and easier.

It's also easy to recognize when you the herbs have outgrown their homes.  A plant can grow in the same pot for one season. 

The telltale sign that it needs transplanted?  Its roots are beginning to burst out of its container.  Don't worry about taking it out of that container.  Just follow the same steps as you have previously.  The plant will thrive, trust me!

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