Large, sprawling gardens may be a great home for a plethora of tasty greens, savory root vegetables and myriad herbs, but what if large unused space is difficult to come by?
For those lacking the outdoor space but not the drive to grow, an indoor herb garden might do the trick. All it takes is a countertop or small section of wall to get started.
“No matter where you live—house, apartment or condo—if you don’t have room for outdoor gardening, there’s a lot you can grow indoors,” says Adrian Hunsberger, an urban horticulture agent at University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension office in Miami-Dade County. “Herbs are a perfect match for indoors. The most important thing is the sheer joy of growing your own edible crops.”
When it comes to size, material, aesthetic and variety, there is virtually no limit to indoor herb gardens. Common herbs include basil, chives, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme. Many grocery and hardware stores sell startup kits, seeds and supplies consumers need to get started.
You can choose a traditional soil-based growing method using potted plants or water-based hydroponics.
Because it involves less mess, fuss and maintenance, hydroponics is growing in popularity. Instead of soil or fertilizer, this method uses water and nutrients. Because nutrients are in the water, they are absorbed directly into the roots, resulting in faster growth than with soil.
Weston Miller, community and urban horticulturist for the Oregon State University Extension Service, extolls the many benefits to growing your own herbs.
“Fresh herbs will hopefully be eaten, increasing one’s intake of nutrients and fiber-rich plants,” he says. “Hands in the soil and growing plants also have therapeutic benefits.”
Weston says learning how to grow in a small indoor space comes with a nice perk: enjoying the aroma of herbs such as basil and mint.
Establishing a Healthy Crop
While rewarding, starting an indoor herb garden requires plenty of thought and planning.
How you pot the herbs matters.
“Use sterile containers and potting soil,” Weston says. “If reusing pots, they should be sterilized—submerged in bleach—and rinsed before use.”
Whatever growing method you select—soil or water—the key to success after planting is to provide adequate light and the right amount of water, with good drainage if using soil.
Figuring out optimal light and water is not an exact science. It often requires trial and error.
“Growing herbs indoors can be challenging because most windows do not have enough daylight to grow healthy plants,” Weston says.
Adrian reiterates the need for light, whether natural or artificial.
“The more light you get the better,” she says. “A nice window is best, but some people don’t get enough natural sunlight. You can buy grow lights that have a special color spectrum that is best for plant growth. Those are easy lights to get, especially online.”
If you decide to use mostly natural light, remember that east- or west-facing windows get the most light in summer, and south-facing windows have the brightest light and most sun in winter.
Adrian says most herbs are tolerant of indirect light or some shade.
Light kits can help alleviate the aggravation of replacing constantly dying plants. If you decide to rely on or supplement with artificial lights, place them about a foot from the plants.
According to gardeners.com, keep the lights on for 12 to 16 hours for full-sun plants, and adjust as necessary. Once the roots are established and your plants are strong and healthy, aim for about seven hours of sunlight.
Add Water, But Not Too Much
Indoor plants need less water than outdoor plants, but not all novice growers understand that.
“The No. 1 problem people have is they overestimate how much water plants need,” Adrian says. “That’s why a lot of plants—especially indoor plants—don’t succeed.”
To determine if a plant needs water, lift the pot. Well-watered soil will be dense and heavier, so the pot should not be light.
Adrian says novice gardeners can determine how much water different herbs need through some experimentation. Mark on a calendar when you water a particular herb. When it starts to look droopy, water it and take note of how long it takes to look healthy again.
Another way to check if a plant has enough water is to stick a finger about 2 inches into the soil. If the soil is dry, water the plant.
But Adrian warns that if a plant gets too much water, it can get root rot and die.
“It’s better to err on the side of being a little dry,” she cautions. “A lot of herbs prefer their leaves dry, so you’re only going to water the soil. For people who have to really heat or air condition their home, if they feel they need to add humidity to the air, they can just have a shallow saucer of water near the plant.”
Because most herbs are from the Mediterranean, they like it a little on the dry side, Adrian adds.
Misting with water is not a good idea, she says, noting it encourages fungal disease.
“One challenge people might face is damping off fungus,” Weston says.
The horticultural condition is caused by pathogens that can kill or weaken seedlings.
“The fungus rots seed in the soil, or will make a brown spot on the stem of seedlings, which then die,” Weston explains.
To avoid damping off, plant seeds at the correct depth—which varies plant to plant—and do not crowd the seeds.
Good drainage is important because overwatering is common.
Harvesting Your Bounty
Today’s indoor gardening methods make it possible to have fresh herbs for home cooked meals year-round.
Gardeners get to pick their herbs at the peak of freshness and flavor, Adrian says, noting when used right away, you cannot get any fresher.
Once a healthy plant has been established, using fresh herbs is as easy as snipping off a piece. Rinse and dry before adding to a dish.
While fresh herbs are great, you can dry them for later use. The trick is to harvest and dry them at the right time, preferably when they begin to flower.
Many prefer to air-dry herbs indoors because it is believed to better retain flavor and color. Bundle herbs only with the same variety, since drying times may differ.
Placing herb bundles in a paper bag speeds the drying process, but some growers prefer to hang dry plants. Keep hanging herbs out of direct sunlight.
Air-drying herbs outdoors can cause loss of color and flavor as a result of the direct sunlight. To decrease color loss, use a paper bag, which also catches seeds for future growing.
If drying seems too time-consuming, consider freezing fresh herbs. Rinse them well, pat dry and set on a flat tray in the freezer. Once frozen, store them in an airtight bag.
Help is Plentiful
Whether you prefer tried-and-true soil or simpler, no-fuss hydroponic systems, there is an indoor garden suitable for everyone and resources to help you succeed.
Cooperative extension services are available throughout the United States. Adrian says agents often are the best sources for local information.
“Almost every county has an extension office,” she says. “In Alaska, it’s by territory. Local extension offices can usually get an answer quickly. Use whatever search engine you prefer and just type in your county and the word ‘extension,’ and you’ll get straight to your local extension office.”
Keeping active and busy are great, and indoor gardening is less strenuous, so anybody is able to do it, Adrian says.
“No matter how old you are or your experience and background, it’s the magic of creating your own food or plants,” she says.
Indoor Herb Kits
If the idea of starting an indoor herb garden from scratch seems intimidating, consider an herb kit. Options vary. Some include seeds and fertilizer, while others use pods that contain both. Hydroponic set-ups also are available.Some kits even include overhead lights and automatic watering systems.
“These stand-alone systems are relatively straightforward to use and can grow great veggies and herbs indoors,” says Weston Miller, community and urban horticulturist for the Oregon State University Extension Service.
- Click and Grow Smart Garden 3. This miniature countertop herb setup takes care of watering and lighting the plants. Seeds are contained in a K-cup style pod that simply clicks into the holder. Available for $74.95 at Amazon.
- Back to the Roots Water Garden. This self-cleaning aquarium is a scaled down hydroponic system that uses fish waste to fertilize the plants, while the plants filter the water. Available for $99.99 on Amazon.
- Mountain Valley Seed Co. Culinary Indoor Herb Garden. Everything you need to get started is included with this 18-herb kit that works on a countertop or windowsill. Just add water and watch your new garden grow. Available for $29.47 on Amazon.
“If you are looking for a fun and easy way to grow herbs and small veggies, then these kits are a great way to go,” Weston says.
Which Should You Grow?
Which herbs you choose may depend on your favorite foods, but it also may simply be what is easiest to grow.
“There isn’t really any limitation as far as which herbs to grow,” urban horticulture agent Adrian Hunsberger says. “It’s pretty easy to get seeds or seedlings from a local garden center. Most have a nice selection, especially for those that grow well in different regions. People from other parts of the world may want to grow something they are familiar with. Online is the way to do that.”
Basil is a popular choice, but can be difficult because it needs a lot of warmth and light. Keep the soil moist to the touch, but well drained.
Mint is easy to grow, and may work best in its own pot indoors because it tends to spread. Use mint in teas or to spice up yogurts, vinegars, salads and beverages.
Chives can be used as a baked potato garnish, but also to add flavor to breads, salads and salad dressings. Chives grow best in full sun, but can grow almost anywhere.
While it needs plenty of light, parsley is considered easy to grow. If growing from seeds, soak them in warm water first. Cut parsley on the stem, preferably near the base. Use it to season chicken, salads, pesto and fish dishes.
Like basil, cilantro is not a long-lasting plant. Your best bet is to plant seeds at three- or four-week intervals to ensure a steady supply. Cilantro thrives in full light, but can grow in part shade.
Thyme can be added to many dishes, and has a decorative appeal. Mix it with garlic and rub on pork, beef or lamb for a distinctive flavor. You can sprinkle thyme in a variety of sauces and soups, or mix in vegetables for a new taste.
My Personal Experience
If at first you don’t succeed, don’t despair.
In preparation for this story, I decided to create my own indoor herb garden. I bought dryer vent brackets to mount my glass jars to the wall. That went well. Then I filled the jars with soil, planted the starts—and watched them die.
But I needed to have healthy plants to photograph, so I started over. This time, I did my best to not drown the herbs. I used a method similar to urban horticulture agent Adrian Hunsberger’s recommendation, minus the calendar. I let the plants get a bit droopy, and then added water directly to the soil. Unfortunately, I was not aware that herbs want water directly on the soil, not the leaves. Let’s just say my basil and purple basil were beyond saving.
What surprised me, however, was how resilient the chives and parsley are. I don’t think a single piece of my chives was upright when I came home after four days away, which meant no water and no direct light. After a little water and about five hours under two small grow lights, the chives are alive and well.
To my surprise, it turned out too much water is worse than not enough light.