Herbal supplements

Indoor herb gardens are lovely, but serious cooks who want herbs on hand to punch up their recipes will have to look to the great outdoors.

Gretchen Becnel

Photographed by Cheryl Gerber

Wouldn’t it be nice to tend an herb garden in the comfort of air conditioning, free from worries of bugs, soil pathogens and changes in weather?
That’s a concept garden supply centers are only too happy to encourage, judging from the wide selection of windowsill herb gardens on offer. A recent search of the Web turned up a selection of handsome containers designed for windowsill herb culture (I especially liked the selection at tastefulgarden.com), while a walk through the neighborhood superstore yielded a boxy plastic windowsill garden kit complete with a drip tray, starter plants, a soil-less planting medium and instructions.

These things aren’t a complete fantasy. They’ll last for a while if you don’t overwater. If you place them in a south-facing window, they’ll look luscious for a period of weeks. I’m thinking of making gifts of them to a relative who has just moved into an assisted living facility and to a sister who’s restricted indoors due to chemotherapy. The key is that neither of those two is going to be doing much cooking any time soon. The assisted living facility has a chef and a great dining room, and chemo, let’s face it, is rough on the appetite. For these situations, a windowsill herb garden is the perfect gift: vibrant, undemanding, pretty and liable to last longer than a floral arrangement.

If you’re serious about cooking and harvesting herbs, though, do something else.

“You can’t grow herbs inside –– not if you’re serious about cooking with them,” says Gretchen Becnel. A trained horticulturalist and co-owner, with her husband, Karl, of The Garden Trellis on Maple Street, Becnel would seem to have every reason in the world to pitch indoor herbs. The cottage that shelters The Garden Trellis is packed with comely containers, many of them planted with plants that will flourish indoors. Herbs are not among them.

Becnel struggles with the truth ––  but only for a second. “Herbs need five to six hours of full sun to thrive, and inside sun is different from outside sun,” she says. “Even taking a planter outside on weekends won’t do it. That’ll work for a short time, but you’re not going to get that big, robust basil to go with those Creole tomatoes.”

A better strategy, Becnel says, is to compose a container or set of containers that you can set within a few steps of your kitchen door or anywhere where they’ll have access to at least five hours of unfiltered sunlight a day. Herbs that do well in our midsummer heat include oregano, basil, parsley, mint and chives. As the weather cools, the cast of characters can shift, with cilantro and dill edging out heat-loving basil.

Becnel says a successful container herb garden should start with well-grown plants. If you start with bitty basil and parsley seedlings, she cautions, you’ll probably crowd them too close together so as to avoid a bare look in your container. She recommends beginning with healthy 4-inch plants, at minimum. For a collection of four 4-inch herb plants, choose a container that is 10 to 12 inches in diameter and at least 10 inches deep. This will give them room to stretch out yet keep them manageable.

Soil? “I like Miracle-Gro potting mix,” Becnel says. The chemical-free medium “drains –– it doesn’t turn into concrete.” She places a few shards of terra cotta in the bottom of a container and then loosely piles in the soil and plants. It’s important, she cautions, to make sure the container has a hole in the bottom for drainage. Many of the showy pots on display at garden centers lack drainage holes, and without drainage, plants will drown.

In fact, overwatering is the most popular way for home gardeners to kill container plants. There are no hard and fast rules here, Becnel says. When a pot feels a little lightweight, she knows it’s time to water. “It just becomes second nature,” she says. The proper way to water a container plant is to pour water into the top until it runs out of the drainage hole at the bottom of the pot. Container herbs will benefit from an application of fish emulsion or slow-release fertilizer every couple of weeks.

Enough, as Robert Frost would say, with all that matter-of-fact. The fun of creating an herb garden is in the composition. Becnel loves to mix different mints or basils, letting their textures and soaring or trailing habits play off one another. If you have room on your porch or back stairs, you also can bunch containers, adding a potted scented geranium or a bay tree in a gallon container.

Finally, it’s important to keep your taste buds in mind. Becnel had a bit of helpful advice here, too. “I like Thai basil and the larger, lettuce-leafed basils,” she says. As for mint, the old-fashioned, crinkly garden mint is essential. “I definitely think it’s the best mint for a mint julep,” she says.

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