In the first winter of my marriage, I wanted to cook a fabulous meal for my husband to make up for all of the awful meals I’d been cooking for him up until that point. As this was before the internet was anything other than a twinkle in someone’s eye, I opened a cookbook to look up a recipe, which is what those kitchen paperweights were used for prior to phone apps and googling.
Before me was a wonderful recipe for Tarragon Veal Croquettes, calling for fresh tarragon, chives, and parsley. It might as well have called for eye of newt and toe of frog, because I had no idea where to find them. I didn’t even know what they looked like.
Fortunately, one of our neighbors provided a few snips from her windowsill garden and my dish was saved. From that moment on I vowed to grow herbs myself. Armed with the confidence of the young, I brought home basil, chives, and thyme. I spent more time arranging them on the windowsill than learning how to care for them.
My first attempt at growing herbs indoors taught me that over-watering them leads to a slimy, smelly mess. Apparently waterlogged soil becomes anaerobic, and without oxygen starts to smell like a sewer, which is not good for impressing a new husband with dazzling kitchen prowess. Most herbs don’t need a lot of water, so if you’re growing them, place them in quick draining containers and allow them to slightly dry between watering.
Light is also important. Mine were on a north-facing windowsill and got little sunshine. They grew tall and spindly, falling over onto the counter. “They’re leggy from too little light,” my neighbor said, making me consider buying them stockings. To avoid the common problem of tall stems with spindly growth, herbs need five hours of direct sunlight or twelve hours of artificial light per day. If using artificial light, keep the plants three to four inches under it.
The right container is crucial; choose those that are at least six to eight inches deep with drainage holes. Decorative tins, old boots, or colorful crockery work well as outer pots to slide around the container the herb is potted in, to keep your window attractive. Fertilize herbs, but do so lightly, using half strength fish emulsion or liquid kelp.
Thyme and oregano eventually became my favorites. Both perennials, thyme is a must for kitchens; its small leaves spill over quirky containers. And oregano is easy to grow as long as it gets a sunny window and is pinched back to keep it bushy. Use the clippings in sauces and stews, or dry the sprigs for later.
Chives, garlic chives, and mint like moderately moist soil but harvesting can be tricky. Chive leaves will not grow past a cut high on the leaf, so snip each leaf near the base of the plant. Keep a container of mint growing to flavor Mojitos, or use in jellies, garnishes, or adding zip to steamed vegetables. Harvest by pinching stems just above the leaf junctions to encourage compact growth with more stems.
Should you want to try basil, it’s easy to grow, but can start shedding its leaves if conditions are too cool or the light isn’t bright enough. Most kitchens provide the right warmth, and as long as your window is south or west facing, you shouldn’t need extra lights. Try lime basil for marinades or cinnamon basil for salads.