How to grow herbs indoors all year long
Do you ever crave Caprese salads in the dead of winter, and the lack of fresh basil gets you down? The good news is that no matter how limited the outdoor space or time of year, you can still grow your own fresh herbs—provided you’ve got a windowsill or some counter space to devote to them.
Table of contents4 Principles of indoor plant careHow to grow herbs from seedsHow to grow herbs from starter plantsBest herbs to grow indoors2 Important tips for growing herbs indoors
4 Principles of indoor plant care
The key to getting herbs to grow indoors is consistency: Find the right spot and the right routine, and you’ll never have to fight for the last sad bunch of cilantro at the store again.
When it comes to most plants, a good rule of thumb is at least six hours of sun or bright light per day. Some herbs are more winter hardy than others, but most like a warm environment, around 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a particularly sunny windowsill (south-facing windows are best) there’s a wide range of customizable grow lights you can find online or at garden centers.
Most herbs prefer a moist, well-watered soil, but not a soggy one. The key to striking the right balance is to not only use a pot with good drainage holes that allows excess water to run freely, but to look for a high-quality potting mix with good aeration that will dry out quickly. Potting soil was designed around the drainage needs of plants in pots, but you can always add a little extra pumice, sand, perlite, or peat moss depending on what each herb likes best. For an extra boost of helpful nutrients, look for bags that incorporate as much organic matter as possible.
3. Pest control
Herbs have a natural defense against many common garden pests—their aromatic essential oils. Luckily, indoor plants are less of a target for pests than outdoor ones, but you’ll still need to keep an eye out for a few unwelcome visitors: Aphids, spider mites, and white flies can and will show up if given the opportunity. Check all starter plants thoroughly before bringing herbs indoors, and keep soil well-drained.
4. Good air circulation
A bushy, crowded container of vibrant green herbs might look stunning, but remember that lack of air flow can easily lead to mildew and rot, especially for those with more delicate leaves. Regular pruning allows air to stimulate your herbs, cueing them to grow.
How to grow herbs from seeds
Growing herbs from seeds isn’t difficult, just a bit more time-consuming. Before planting, check the germination time listed on the packet—some herbs take much longer than others.
Pick up a seed-starting flat tray or individual peat pots at a garden center. (Neat, biodegradable peat pots are a favorite of experienced gardeners, since seedlings can be transplanted directly into larger pots when the time comes, container and all.) You’ll also need a dedicated seed-starting soil, not a standard potting mix—seed-starting soil is much finer blend, which is less likely to crush or overwhelm fragile new herb roots.
Moisten the seed soil until it’s uniformly damp, but not soggy. Fill the trays or pots with the soil, leaving about ¼ inch at the top.
Scatter a pinch of seeds (about 5 or 6) directly on top of the soil. You’ll thin out the new plants later. Lightly top with soil.
Keep the containers moist and humid over the next few weeks. There are heat mats made to speed up this process if you find you need it, and you can also trap heat using a plastic covering—just keep an eye out for mildew on the surface of the soil and remove the cover if you see any. Stop using the plastic once the seedlings break through the surface.
At this point, as the seedlings begin to grow in earnest, grow lights become your best friend. Most come with adjustable lamps that allow close contact when the seedlings are young, and easy height adjustments when seedlings get taller. Keep them trained on the pots for a minimum of 10 hours; many grow lights also come with built-in timers for ideal exposure.
Water when the soil has completely dried out, about twice a week.
After about eight weeks, begin tipping, or pinching off the topmost leaves to encourage a fuller shape and more evenly distributed growth. At 10-12 weeks, most herbs will be ready for transplanting to their new home in a larger pot.
How to grow herbs from starter plants
If you prefer to skip the waiting game of growing from seeds, purchasing starter plants from a garden center is an easy way to jumpstart your indoor garden and start harvesting right away. Look for plants with healthy, lush leaves, and signs of new growth.
Water starter plants before planting to moisten the soil and make them easier to work with. The goal here is not to soak, but to match the moisture of the starter plants roots to its new environment.
Using one hand to keep the plant steady, slowly pull or wiggle off its plastic container. Massage the root ball to loosen slightly, then place on top of the layer of soil.
Fill in with potting mix until the roots are completely covered and not poking out the top; the lowermost ½ inch of the stem should be covered by the soil.
Gently tamp down along the surface to encourage the roots to settle in the soil, then water lightly to encourage new growth.
When soil has begun to dry out, begin to water regularly. Try not to harvest too much right off the bat: Waiting until the plant has established itself will lead to a longer-lasting plant.
Best herbs to grow indoors
Whether for impromptu mojitos, a refreshing garnish, or tucked into a fruit salad, mint is fast-growing and versatile. Cuttings of outdoor mint plants can be easily propagated in a glass of water.
Citrusy, floral lemon balm is delicious in tisanes as well as anywhere you’d use its cousin, mint. Lemon balm is not a fan of wet feet, so err on the side of underwatering in order not to overwhelm its roots.
Basil will thrive indoors for a few months at a time; once the stems become woody, it’s time to start a new batch of seeds.
Whether curly or Italian flat-leaf, parsley is an invaluable ingredient for pastas, herb salads, or salsa verde-style fresh sauces. Cut while stems are still tender to make the most of its flavor.
Thyme is invaluable when it comes to flavoring savory stocks, sauces, and braises, or infusing into desserts like ice cream. As an indoor herb, it’s more low-maintenance than most, since it can thrive in indirect light and cooler temperatures. When it becomes too woody, trim stems back to encourage new shoots.
Feathery, aromatic dill is a powerful addition to everything from garlicky yogurt dip to butter-roasted fish, and it’s a prolific grower, indoors or out. Take care to trim the ends often to keep the stalks from growing too fast, becoming woody, and dulling the flavor.
Oregano is equally at home in Mexican and Mediterranean dishes. It loves heat and lots of light, so if your window sills or counters aren’t up to task, invest in a grow light to help it out.
The key with cilantro is restraint: It needs lots of sun, just the right amount of water, and over-harvesting may weaken the plant too much to reap any real volume. If you’re a goes-through-a-bunch-in-one-week kind of cilantro user, be sure to plant accordingly.
Growing this grassy allium indoors means you’ll always have exactly the amount you need, when you need it. Chives like a bit of humidity, which can be achieved by keeping it nearby other herbs or regular misting.
2 Important tips for growing herbs indoors
Pruning is your friend. For the best flavor, be sure to trim your herbs whenever you spot flowers (this is also called “tipping”). Doing so will redirect the plant’s energy back towards the leaves. Regular pruning encourages growth, so keep herbs in check by using often, carefully cutting right at the main nodes between two new side shoots. This will also prevent plants from becoming too leggy.
Know thy herbs. If you’re using a long planter box to hold multiple kinds of herbs, be careful what you plant together: Mint, for example, is a notorious sprawler, and will very quickly take over any nearby root systems with horizontal runners below the soil, sapping their nutrients and stunting growth. Keep plants with a conquering mentality in their own separate container.
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