Fresh herbs for free! (but maybe not so easy as all that)
November 21, 2011 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Growing an indoor herb garden.

I really want to grow an indoor herb garden. I've seen these two questions, but I'm asking with slightly different herbs and a whole new level of cluelessness. I tend to be good at keeping houseplants alive, but I don't really know too much technical info about plants.

A few weeks ago, I stole some seeds from work and planted basil, cilantro, parsley, and rosemary. I now have some kind of sickly looking seedlings from all but the rosemary, which didn't come up. (I'm gonna get a clipping of it next time I visit family and try to start it that way though...) Need to move them from my work window to someplace with more sun I think.

I'm also considering planting chives, mint, oregeno, thyme, and anything else that anyone thinks are essentials. If any of these are so difficult as to not be worth it, let me know.

So these are my questions:

what's the best container to put these in? can I grow all of them together in something like this, or should I give them all separate pots, or are some of them good to go together but not others? In one of the other threads they said mint needed a separate pot, anything else?

If and when I grow successful plants, what is this advice about "pinching them back"? What does that actually mean? I mean, I have a general idea, but where exactly and how often?

I had a cilantro plant a few years ago that I bought but it bolted within a few months... what is the best way to keep a supply of cilantro? I realllly like fresh cilantro.

My apartment is going to be ~62 degrees all winter, and the sunniest spot is on the sill of an ancient, single pane window... is that too cold? Is so, is there anything I can do?

and yeah... also any other herb garden growing wisdom you have that you think I could use!
posted by geegollygosh to Home & Garden (6 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Rather than temperature, you should get an idea of how many hours of sun you're going to be seeing. Most herbs want about 6 hours of so of sun. If you have a north-facing window, you'll probably be cool. Take a Saturday or Sunday and figure out what you've got to work with.
The set-up you link to looks a little bit crowded. Herbs are going to need some room to grow, and it's usually more room than you would expect.
Be aware that certain herbs are going to do better in the winter than the summer. Basil generally works well in the summer but not the winter, while cilantro is always going to bolt on you once the weather gets warm. I don't know why, but you can't really fool it with room temp. If you pull off blooms, you can often put off the bolting, but not for so long. Your best bet here is to let one of your plants go to seed, then re-plant every 3 weeks or so. Thyme, oregano, mint, should all do ok all year round.
I've had fairly good success growing from seed in peat pots. It's not elegant or pretty, but it's utilitarian.
Rosemary gets humongous, and I've only ever seen people grow it from cuttings (using a rooting hormone). I would not expect it to work in a small pot for very long.
posted by Gilbert at 6:23 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

On the sill of your single pane window is likely to be quite cold for most herbs. Sadly, though, most herbs are going to need more light than they'll get in your window in the winter (you might be able to achieve semi-passable results if you have a large window with clear south exposure, but temperature will still be an issue). Without an ideal window, you aren't going to have much luck.

Cilantro will be OK at cooler temperatures, and parsley should grow at least a little, basil will not, rosemary will survive just fine, but will grow incredibly slowly, if at all.

You probably need to provide additional light to have any chance of success in this endeavour. For next year, try rosemary, thyme, and sage in 1 or 2 gallon pots, which you can bring inside for the winter. They won't grow much, but they will survive for the whole winter if given some sun and water. For cilantro, basil, oregano, parsley, mint, chives, etc., you are best off with a small supplementary light source and potentially a little bit of heat. Most of these will survive quite well for quite some time if you have them in pots in the fall and bring them indoors, though you won't be able to harvest from them all year as you can from rosemary, etc.

Rosemary is not that difficult to start from seed (use sand for the seedbed and use many more seeds than you think you need), but it is quite slow growing. I've had better luck from seed than from cuttings. Mint is best from a chunk of someone else's mint (with roots) and chives are the same. Everything else will be relatively easy from seed (with the possible exception of oregano, which needs light to germinate, so must be seeded very shallowly and thus watered frequently).
posted by ssg at 6:47 PM on November 21, 2011

I have never gotten rosemary to start from seed. Grab some from the store or a friend - once it exists, it's tough, but it's a long time from seedling to roasted chicken if you're trying from seed.

You do need heat and light, containers matter less. You can find heat mats from any seed or garden store (I like Park Seed, but there are many). Most of the herbs you want tend to enjoy a good bit of abuse, so long as they're hot and a little dry (and crowded, if necessary) rather than cold and wet. You may need a simple daylight-warmth CFL in a lamp or clamp worklight on a timer to give them 11-12 hours of light.

Anything that bolts can (usually) be controlled by vigorous pinching-off. It takes a while to get the knack for when to do it, just don't be afraid to use it even when it's not huge. And start pinching off any bolts as soon as you see them shoot up. Pinching is really just removing leaves and bolts. The plants like it and make bigger better roots for it, as long as you leave them with enough leaves to collect sunlight.

If you get too many leaves/chives/etc, cut/pinch and freeze. Buy a couple of dollar-store ice trays and chop the herbs and make ice cubes with ~1tsp herbs per cube. When it's frozen, decant into a labeled zip-top freezer bag.

You're not out a lot of investment if some of your experiments fail. It's not like you're growing kittens; it's okay if something doesn't work out. Most gardeners learn from failure. Try it this year, and two years from now you'll be a highly-experienced indoor herb farmer!
posted by Lyn Never at 7:25 PM on November 21, 2011

If you're willing to make the investment, consider an LED grow lamp. One of the best gifts I ever got. It keeps plants going during winter, and uses less electricity than a single light bulb.

Also, you shouldn't be nervous about pinching things back. Just don't go crazy with it and you're sure to be fine since many plants actually thrive on that (like basil) as it redirects their growth into their leaves so they grow bushier versus leggy.

And finally, seconding giving them enough room to grow. A single small 6" pot could easily hold just one type of herb and grow quite nicely. When you start crowding them, they run out of nutrients and water REALLY fast. Consider getting one long row planter and planting a few different types of herbs in there.
posted by Elminster24 at 8:46 PM on November 21, 2011

Mint is notorious for having a healthy root system. Vigorous. Robust. It will flourish to the extent that everything below the surface of your pot will belong to mint. That makes it kind of uncomfortable for anything else attempting to share the space. So, don't put it in a common pot with the rest of an herb garden, just give it its own little one, 6" diameter or so. It will get too big for the pot by its second year but that means you'll just dump the pot out, cut the soil/root ball in half or thirds, replant one part with a bit of extra soil, and throw out the rest of the roots (drying the leaves for tea, of course)
One thing that *can* stand up to mint is more mint. You could try a 10" diameter pot with a little spearmint seedling and a little peppermint seedling. Or get adventurous, try chocolate mint, catmint if you've got felines to entertain, etc. (catmint is a smaller prettier plant than catnip but has a less pronounced effect on most cats)
posted by aimedwander at 6:30 AM on November 22, 2011

You need to start with your plants light requirements. If those can't be met, you will have a very tough time with herbs. Plan on six hours of direct sun or invest in plant lights. I don't think temperature will be an issue, but lack of humidity will.

I hate those strawberry pots. They are nearly impossible to water properly as water will run out the holes lower down. You really need to completely soak them with a hose. Better for your plants to be in their own pots where you can control the watering.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:24 AM on November 22, 2011

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