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Winter Windowsill Herb Gardens

by Lynn Hunt

It is a cold, gray November afternoon. I am listening to the honking of Canada geese as they wing their way down our creek and contemplating what to prepare for dinner. A tomato tart would be a nice reminder of warmer days, but the recipe calls for lots of fresh basil. No problem. I just run upstairs and snip off all the leaves I need from the from the bush basil that is growing happily on a table beneath one of my south-facing windows. Thanks to herbs in my windowsill garden, the sweet days of summer are back once again.

Extending Summer’s Harvest

Unless you live in warm winter climate, the end of summer generally spells the end of the herb garden. Tender perennials like bay and rosemary can’t survive cold winters, and tropical-born basil will turn black at the first hard freeze. Fortunately, the coming of fall doesn’t have to mean giving up your favorite herbs. With adequate light, the right temperatures, judicious watering and fertilizing, you can have savory sage stuffing at Thanksgiving, fresh rosemary with your holiday lamb -- even tasty thyme for a St. Paddy’s Day stew. All it takes is a little planning and preparation.

The most important consideration is location. For strong, vigorous growth, herbs need between four and six hours of sunlight a day. Plants situated in north-facing windows or drafts are likely doomed. If you can’t provide the proper amount of sunlight, artificial lighting will help. Since fluorescent lighting is low in intensity, you will need to keep plants fairly close -- no further than eight inches away from the tubes.

We’ve all heard the tale that herbs thrive in poor soil. Not so in-doors. Your plants need excellent drainage, especially when roots are confined to a pot. A good compost-based commercial mix is fine, but you’ll want to add a bit of perlite to insure the good drainage that comes with a lighter soil. Feed your herbs every other week with a good liquid plant food. Most of all beware of having too heavy a hand with the watering can. Water thoroughly only when the soil is dry to the touch.

Just like other indoor plants, herbs can fall prey to pests including whiteflies, aphids, scale insects and spider mites. Inspect your plants with a keen eye and take immediate action at the first sign of a problem. If your pots can be easily moved, dip the foliage into a bucket of warm, soapy water.

Be sure to cover the pot with your hand or plastic wrap to keep the soil from falling out. If soapy water baths haven’t done the trick after a couple of weeks, ask your Growise garden expert to recommend an insecticidal soap.

Windowsill Winners

Here are a few of the varieties I’ve come to depend on for good performance and great flavor:


Spicy Globe Basil

The compact growth and tiny flavorful leaves make it a perfect choice for the windowsill.

Genoa Green Basil

Always loaded bright green leaves for making mouth-watering pesto.


Allium schoenoprasum is the chive with the oniony flavor. A. tubersosum, sometimes called Chinese chives, has a mild garlic taste.


"Fernleaf" dill grows only 18" tall and is ideal for indoor cultivation. It tends to dry out quickly so you may have to water more often.


Mentha spicata is known as either ‘English Mint’ or ‘Kentucky Colonel Spearmint.’ By any name this herb is excellent for cooking and teas.


True Greek Oregano (Origantum vulgare hirtum) creates a spreading 8 to 12" mound. Often called the ‘pizza herb’, this oregano adds zest to a wide variety of Italian and Mexican dishes.


Rosemary officinalis. For a treat, sprinkle chopped leaves on oven-roasted potatoes.


Dwarf Sage. This small-leaved herb is attractive and delicious in recipes for stuffing as well as pork and duck.


The warm, spicy flavor of either ‘English’ or ‘French’ thyme adds that special something to most any soup, stew or casserole.

When spring arrives, you can move your portable herbs outside, or continue to cultivate your windowsill garden. If plants remain indoors, remember they will dry out faster in warm weather and will want a misting to increase humidity on the hottest days. Annuals like basil may have petered out and will need to be replaced. Indoors or out, make sure your plants are healthy and vigorous so you can continue to enjoy all the pleasures of the herb garden when winter winds blow again.

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