by Karen Weiland, Advanced Master Gardener
Even when our gardens are enjoying a winter nap beneath a blanket of snow, we can still enjoy the taste of fresh herbs right from our own kitchen.
Herbs are plants that are used whole or in part for their flavor. Cooking with herbs has taken on new importance with our awareness of reducing salt and fat in our diets. Their use can be traced back to ancient times. Some of their many other uses include health, fragrance, natural dyes, ornaments and to make industrial or pharmaceutical products.
Many herbs like dill, parsley, mint, oregano, chives and thyme are adaptable to growing indoors in a sunny window. Some of these herbs can grow to be quite tall in the garden but they will be much smaller when grown indoors where their root systems are contained in small pots.
Cuttings can be taken from your outdoor plants such as basil, oregano, lavender, sage and mint before they die back for the winter. But many herbs can be grown from seed such as dill, parsley, thyme, chives, basil and cilantro.
Adequate drainage and a good quality potting soil mix will ensure good root development. If your potting soil mix does not include fertilizer, add slow release pellets to your mix or use a water-soluble fertilizer after planting. Seeds need a light and airy potting medium to get a good start. Do not use garden soil as it is generally too heavy for use in potted plants and can carry diseases and insects that can prove to be too much of a challenge for young sprouts. It helps to sprinkle about half an inch to an inch of seed starting medium on top of the potting soil to give young seedlings an easy start.
A warm, bright spot away from direct sunlight is best for starting your seeds. Once they have germinated, move them to more direct light. Herb plants produce oils that are responsible for their particular flavors. The greatest amount of oil is produced under sunny condition, so you will want to provide your windowsill herbs with as much light as you can. Artificial lights can work well to supplement natural light. Light bulbs and/or tubes that are labeled specifically for growing plants will emit the best quality light needed for plant growth.
Once your plants are up and growing, some fertilizing will be helpful, but do not over do it. Always follow label directions on whatever houseplant fertilizer you use. When you water your plant, provide enough water so it runs out the drainage hole in the bottom of your pot. Allow the pot to dry a little before watering next time.
For convenience, group herbs with similar soil and moisture needs in the same pot. You may also like to have a themed pot, such as a salsa garden or one with varying textures and colors.
Keeping herbs in pots outdoors during the summer will reduce the shock of transplant once you bring it indoors for the winter.
I like to use a few sprigs of my curly parsley combined with a maraschino cherry (to imitate holly leaves and berries) sitting on top of a mound of whipped cream ( snow) to decorate holiday desserts. You also cannot beat fresh oregano and basil in dishes like lasagna with some mustard-chive butter laden bread on the side. The recipe for the butter is – ½ cup butter, softened, 1 ½ tablespoon chives, finely chopped and ½ teaspoon dry mustard. Mix well and store in the refrigerator.
As always, Happy Gardening!
More information is available on line at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/garden_pubs The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange Co., 636-2111 in Noble Co., 925-2562 in DeKalb Co. and 668-1000 in Steuben Co.
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