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How to Grow an Indoor Herb Garden

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By Beth Botts

RISMEDIA, Oct. 18, 2008-(MCT)-When the first fall leaves start skittering up the block, it’s the beginning of the end for your sunny little potager. It’s time to cut down the basil, and make pesto while the sun shines. But many herbs can follow you inside to infuse your windowsill with the scent and taste of the garden all winter long. We asked Vicki Mattern, garden editor of The Herb Companion magazine (herbcompanion.com), and Gene Page, owner of Papa Geno’s Herb Farm near Lincoln, Neb. (papagenos.com), to give us some tips for growing three favorite herbs indoors.

Give them light: Most herbs come from the sunny Mediterranean region and only will thrive in a bright south or east window. Even that, in a Chicago winter, is far less light than the plants get outdoors in summer. Don’t have a bright window? Get a grow light _ special fluorescent tubes with a wide spectrum of light-and keep it just 6 inches above the plants for 12 hours a day.

Big pots: If you’ve grown herbs outside in pots, just bring them in. If you transplant them from the ground, the bigger the pot the better, Gage says. And expect the plants to sulk for a while, because being dug up will damage their roots. He recommends growing herbs in pots all year.

A bit at a time: Moving into the dim, dry indoors will be a shock for outdoor herbs. Get them used to it by taking them in overnight and then back outside for diminishing periods over several days. Don’t dally, though. We often get frost-death to most herbs-in early October.

Bug patrol: Check plants for bugs before you bring them in. Mattern likes to give them a preventive spray with insecticidal soap, such as Safer, to kill any bugs or eggs. Other gardeners give them a good wash with the hose or in the shower.

Cut them back: As you bring them in, prune the plants back by about half. Cook up a storm with the trimmings or dry them for later use.

Not too hot: Though they can’t stand frost, most herbs (and other houseplants) prefer life on the cool side, no higher than the mid-60s. A south-facing unheated sun room is ideal.

Don’t keep plants near radiators or hot-air registers.

Don’t drown them: Many indoor plants die from too much water, which rots their roots and brings disease. Water once a week or so, when soil feels dry an inch down. Pour out any water that collects in the saucer so roots can breathe.

Good soil: Most herbs prefer lean soil that drains very well. A soilless potting mix will work fine. Don’t fertilize until growth starts in spring.

Moisturize: Dry heated air is hard on indoor plants. Rosemary especially: It’s native to the seacoast, where it gets swathed in fog daily. Set pots on a layer of rocks or gravel on a large waterproof tray about 2 inches deep. Keep water in the tray and it will evaporate up around the plants. Top it up every day, Gage says, but be sure the water stays below the bottom of the pots.

Let them sleep: During winter, herbs and other houseplants slow their growth and go dormant, so you won’t be able to reap big harvests like you could in August. Just snip enough for a meal at one time.

Spring ahead: As days grow longer in February or March, plants will come out of dormancy and start growing a bit more. Begin giving them weak feedings of fish emulsion or other organic fertilizer, Mattern says, and a bit more frequent water.

Long lives: Most herbs, apart from basil, are tender perennials and will live for several years in pots, if they come indoors in winter.

Can’t save that tree: Rosemary topiaries, such as the Christmas-tree-shaped ones given as holiday gifts, are a lost cause, Gage says. They were grown outdoors in perfect conditions and won’t adapt to indoor life. Let the plant dry out, shake off the needles for cooking and discard the rest.

Looking for herbs?

You may still be able to buy 3- or 4-inch pots this fall. Check if your local garden center has any left.

Or turn to mail-order sources such as:
Papa Geno’s Herb Farm in Martell, Neb. (402-794-0400 or papagenos.com),
Richter’s Herbs in Goodwood, Ont. (905-640-6677 or richters.com) or
Lingle’s Herbs in Long Beach, Calif. (800-708-0633 or linglesherbs.com).

© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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