Growing herbs indoors is a great addition to a household food cycle. Growing herbs can save money, improve the quality of your recipes, and you have the added benefit of using heirloom seeds which can have largely superior flavor when compared to modern commercial crop genetics. I live in an area with a very short growing season and harsh weather, so growing anything outdoors is very challenging and short lived. My indoor herb garden is a bright green spot year round in a world that is often filled with hail, windstorms, snow and cold.
While many people find themselves attempting to grow herbs indoors with varying levels of success, I found myself producing so many herbs of such high quality that I recently began to sell the extra to a local restaurant. By following a few simple guidelines you can achieve an endless abundance of herbs that exceeds your need with minimal cost and effort.
Certain herbs are easier to grow than others. Today’s focus are a few of the easier herbs; parsley, thyme, and oregano. I will discuss some of the more complex plants in a future installment.
Any herb garden is only as good as the seeds it is started with. Having the luxury of growing herbs for personal use opens up many seed options that might not be viable for a commercial farmer. Modern commercial vegetable and herb genetics have been bred for yield, visual uniformity and appeal, but often in the quest for these traits flavor is sacrificed. Select heirloom cultivars bred for flavor and diversity if possible when buying seeds.
Germinating seeds for herbs like parsley, oregano and thyme is fairly easy. I use one inch Rockwool cubes to start my seeds, but peat moss, coca coir, or Oasis starter cubes will work as well. Avoid starting seeds directly in soil if possible, as transplanting soil seedlings to larger containers can disturb roots, stressing the plants needlessly. A starter cube provides a solid start for your plants and seamless transplanting.
Place a few seeds in each cube, moisten according to directions and place in a plastic seedling starter tray and dome kit in a warm location at about 70 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. These seedling trays are inexpensive and can be purchased at your local hydroponics, hardware, or home and garden outlet. As soon as seedlings appear remove the dome and ensure that the new plants have about 16 to 18 hours of light per day.
Growing Medium and Containers
I prefer to use inert mediums like expanded clay pellets, called “Hydro-ton” or Rockwool, but a great mix for the beginner is store bought potting soil mixed with equal parts Hydro-ton. This 50/50 blend holds enough moisture to reduce watering demands while allowing the roots to get lots of oxygen.
Using inert media is one of my secrets to success for indoor container gardening. The fact is any soil will be quickly depleted of nutrients, so you will need to supplement nutrients via watering regardless of media choice. Using media that is inert allows nutrient buildup and PH issues to be flushed out easily, whereas unaerated soil can become toxic and hard to adjust over time. Inert media also drastically reduces the risk of root rot, plant pests, and eliminates the bulk of over watering issues. Over watering and nutrient/PH issues are some of the biggest culprits of failed indoor gardens.
I use plastic net pots in a large plastic tray for my garden, but any container will work providing it has lots of holes for drainage. Make sure you have a way to catch the runoff from watering, and always water until solution comes out the bottom of the plant. Placing some Hydro-ton or gravel on the bottom will help drainage.
Let There Be Light
Lighting is another large source of failure in many indoor herb gardens. Often windows do not allow enough light, and short day lengths depending on season can cause plants to behave erratically. Plants love routine, and a steady light cycle. Using a 175 watt fluorescent plant light from my local hydroponics store and a digital timer I am able to supplement the light my plants get in my kitchen window, achieving amazing results even in winter.
By setting the timer to turn the light on for a few hours before and after sundown I am able to keep my herbs on a light cycle that mimics the long days of summer. The timer can be set to shut the light off during peak daytime hours if the window allows enough light, or can be left on to supplement throughout the day if needed.
Most plants perform better when they get a good solid dark cycle, so be careful to ensure their short dark cycle isn’t broken by nearby lights if possible.
Remember the more light you have the better the plants will perform, and the more nutrients and water they will use!
Nutrients and PH
Nutrients aren’t something that can be ignored when attempting to produce a reliable product, and the quality of nutrients will directly affect the taste and nutrition value of your plants. The subject of nutrients and additives is deep and gloriously complex. A trip to your closest hydroponics or garden store will definitely benefit new growers. Select a nutrient that fits your budget and is safe for food production. Some great products in the standard nutrient category are General Hydroponics Flora Series or the Advanced Nutrients line, which when used with organic additives like sea kelp and humic acids can provide amazing results. Products in the “organic” category range from Earth Juice to home brewed compost teas.
Avoid cheap commercial plant foods like Miracle Grow and be sure your nutrient is food safe!
When gardeners talk about “PH” they are talking about the acidity or alkalinity of the soil or water/nutrient solution. Most herbs will perform well in soil or inert media with a PH of 5.5 to 6.0, and most inert media should be pre-soaked in 5.5 PH water to reduce alkalinity before using.
To check and adjust the PH of your water you will need a small test kit or test strips and some PH up and PH down solution. There are also expensive and more accurate digital meters if you are in the mood to invest a few hundred dollars, but for basic herb gardening cheaper testing alternatives are viable.
The strength of the nutrient solution can be measured with a meter, but a good rule of thumb for those without a meter is to mix nutrients according to the directions at ¼ strength. If plants aren’t performing well or are yellowing from nitrogen deficiency you can adjust the strength of the nutrients upwards, but be careful to watch for leaf burn and curl which is often an indicator of nutrient burn or toxicity.
Odds and Ends
A few other factors to consider are the room temperature and humidity. Herbs will perform well in environments that humans generally find comfortable, and don’t require any special attention. Keep them above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and below 80 for best results. Too much humidity can cause fungus issues, 40%-60% is preferred for most plants, though they can handle lower humidity fairly well if the roots are kept wet.
Plant foods and nutrient solutions can be very toxic to human or animals if ingested, and are very hard to counteract. Ingesting plant nutrients is often fatal, so take every precaution that small children or pets cannot access the concentrated nutrients or mixed nutrient solution from mixing buckets or from plant containers. Nutrient solutions can smell inviting to dogs, especially if organic additives are used. Keep these products out of reach of children and pets at all times!
Herbs like parsley, thyme, and oregano can be perpetually harvested, at a rate of about once every two weeks depending on conditions. I like to stop feeding the herbs nutrients and flush with plain water for a few days prior to harvest to improve taste and quality. When harvesting parsley of the flat leaf or moss curled varieties cut the large mature stalks off close to the root ball while leaving small and immature stalks to grow for the following harvest. Thyme and oregano get pruned back, leaving some of the green leaves and stalks to regenerate new growth.
Store harvest herbs in zip top bags or seal-able plastic containers in the refrigerator, or dry for later use.
This article was originally published at The Rainbow Hub (http://www.therainbowhub.com/eat-and-live-grow-your-own-culinary-herbs-indoors/).