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This winter has been hard on us all, but I weathered the February snow storms with kale and herbs on my windowsill. Their fresh, green smells and flavors have been a welcome reprieve. Growing potted herbs on your windowsill is a great way to extend the growing season into the harsh winter, or an excellent way for people without backyards or garden plots to grow indoors. For a small investment of time and money you can harvest fresh herbs and greens from inside your apartment. You will need: a suitable container to grow in; some potting soil or growing medium; seeds or established seedlings; and the desire to grow some food.

 

The first step is choosing what to grow. I grew kale, dill, and cilantro this Winter, but oregano, chives, rosemary, thyme, mint, lavender, basil, lettuce, chard, spinach and other greens can also easily brighten your home. Some plants, like basil, will prefer warmer indoor temperatures day and night, so it grows best in a warm apartment without windowsill drafts. Other plants, like mint, tend to grow so well that they need their own container or they will take over the whole space quickly. Chives and parsley tend to grow easily and require lower light, so they might be more ideal for a gardner with limited light coming through the windows. Plan your seed purchases with these types of considerations in mind. 

 

Seeds can be procured from a wide variety of online and local sources including the PSFC. I have found the greatest success with seeds that are organic and/or heirloom. Depending on the season, seedlings might also be available locally or through mail order. Starting your indoor garden from already established plants will be easier perhaps, but there is also something magical about sprouting your own plants from seed.

 

Any container that can safely sit on your windowsill will do. It should have holes in the bottom for drainage so your plants won’t sit in excess water. It is common to place containers on a tray of some sort so excess water has somewhere to go as it drains out. If you select a container without holes already in it (as I did), you can use a drill or a punch to create holes in the bottom. Size is an additional consideration. For indoor herbs, you don’t need a very large container, but the size your plants can grow to will depend in part on the container size. For example, growing in pint sized pots will likely yield petite plants. Larger pots will help you grow larger, more robust plants that can withstand more aggressive harvesting. 

 

Seeds need a light, spongy, moist medium for sprouting, preferably one that is sterile or at least very clean. A variety of potting soils with balanced composition for moisture retention, drainage, and slow-release nutrients can be purchased online, at local nurseries or hardware stores, and here at the coop. I purchased a bag of organic potting soil for my windowsill garden, and it has worked well. Ordinary garden soil can get crusty and heavy when used indoors, and carries additional risks of pests and disease. Furthermore, high levels of lead contamination are found throughout Brooklyn and could turn your indoor herb project needlessly toxic. Unless you have had your soil tested, or it is soil that you created through composting, you are better off with purchased, clean soil for indoor projects.

 

You will need to carve out a sunny spot on or near a windowsill for your containers. South and southwest facing windows are ideal, but other windows can work too if your plants get several hours of direct sunlight per day. North facing windows, and windows in basement or garden level apartments that get mostly reflected light will be more challenging. Also note, as your plants grow taller, touching window glass for any prolonged period in the Winter might make them too cold, so keep them from getting too close to the window. 

 

Once you have a good place selected, you can fill your containers with moistened soil and plant your seeds. Purchased seed packets usually have directions about the depth your seeds would prefer to germinate at, and how close you can plant them to each other. For windowsill herbs, I often plant them a little closer together than described, and then thin them out once I see how well they’ve sprouted. 

 

As days and weeks pass, test the moisture level in your pots by pressing a finger one inch under the surface, lifting a pot to gauge its weight, and observing the surface soil quality. Factors like the size/shape of your containers, ambient humidity, sun exposure, and soil composition will all affect moisture retention. Good advice is to water when it’s dry, as most herbs prefer not to be overwatered. Yellowing leaves, for example, may actually indicate overwatered, soggy roots. To avoid damaging thin-stemmed seedlings when watering, gardeners often let water absorb up into the soil from below by pouring water into the tray that holds their pot rather than pouring water into the soil from above.

 

Herbs grown indoors can be less robust than outdoor plants but can still withstand regular harvesting of fresh herbs or greens for many months. In 4-6 weeks you should be able to start harvesting leaves from your plants without negatively affecting their growth. Cutting off as much as one third of a healthy herb plant should only encourage further growth for continued harvests.

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By Jesse Goldstein

This past Spring I helped to create a “Healing Garden” for a community garden at Myrtle and Kent called Myrtle Village Green. We planted dozens of herbs – both annuals and perennials – including Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Astragalus, Valerian, Skullcap, Yarrow, Wood Betony, and Motherwort. The healing properties of each plant vary greatly, as do the ways in which they should be harvested and prepared. To make my first herbal preparation, I worked with my friend and fellow gardener Millie Lytle. Millie is a naturopathic doctor with two decades of experience sharing, making and researching herbal remedies and incorporating them into a general wellness program. Together, we decided to begin by making a tincture of Motherwort.

What is Motherwort?

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a hearty member of the mint family that prefers partial shade and grows wild in nearly every county of New York state. Motherwort is popular in Japanese, Russian and Chinese medicine, and is also known as Throw-wort, Lion’s Ear, and Lion’s Tail. Its flavor is described as bitter, spicy and cooling. In North America, the plant is popular among midwives, and is considered a “nervine” (something that calms the nerves) for women experiencing stressful times such as pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Motherwort is thought to improve the tone of the uterus and is therefore recommended for stopping unwanted bleeding or hemorrhage after birth, to start a delayed period, or to ease menstrual cramps, stomach pains or gas. Further, some herbalists and midwives suggest using it as an “emmenagogue” to bring in a mother’s milk.

Herbalists also recommend motherwort for men and children experiencing lower back pain, sciatica, toothaches and headaches. In Germany, the Commission E, which regulates herbal remedies similar to how the FDA regulates pharmaceuticals, suggests using motherwort as part of a general treatment for an overactive thyroid and to help with cardiac symptoms related to anxiety. As Dr. Millie explains, “It’s all in the name: Motherwort is a soothing hug for frayed emotions and anxious bodies.” 

So how does Motherwort work? Dr. Millie gave me a brief introduction to some of the chemistry involved, “Motherwort contains an alkaloid called leonurine that relaxes the body’s smooth muscles. This is responsible for most of its pain and anxiety relieving effects. It also contains anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids called rutin and quercetin, as well as vitamin A, tannins and antimicrobial volatile oils.” Motherwort is generally safe for most people. However, as with any herbal remedy, one should always consult a trained professional before using motherwort, as there are safety considerations relative to each person’s unique situation. 

Making our tincture

We harvested our motherwort in August when the plant was in full bloom; tall, yellow-flowering tops rise up from the bushy foliage. We spent an afternoon cutting a few of these flowering tops off of our plants, bound them into a small bouquet, and then hung them inside to dry. The plant was likely dry after a week or two, but we waited a few months to make our tincture.

A tincture is a liquid extraction that draws out the healing properties of plants. Usually the liquid used is alcohol that is at least 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). We chose Everclear, which is 190 proof (95% alcohol by volume). In addition to the motherwort and the alcohol, we used a glass canning jar with sealable lid, scissors for cutting the herb (carefully, as motherwort is thorny), a pot of boiling water, a spatula, and the oven.  We used the pot of boiling water and the oven to sterilize the lid and the glass jar, submerging the lid in boiling water and putting the jar (after cleaning it with soap and water) into the oven on 250. 

The ratio of motherwort to alcohol is important. When making a tincture with dried plant matter, herbalists typically use an herb to alcohol ratio of 1:5. This means one part herb by weight in grams, to 5 parts alcohol by volume in milliliters.  We needed 1 gram of motherwort for every 5 ml of alcohol. Measuring the vodka was easy – 5ml is about one teaspoon. Without a kitchen scale to weigh the motherwort, we assumed that one teaspoon of well compacted motherwort was approximately equal to 1 gram. Conveniently, one teaspoon motherwort and one teaspoon alcohol satisfied our 1:5 herb to alcohol ratio. 

We made a large batch using 5 cups of motherwort and 5 cups of alcohol. After our sterilized jar had cooled off we gently pressed the dried flowers and leaves in with a spatula until the jar was firmly packed. We poured the alcohol into the herb-filled jar making sure all of the motherwort was fully submerged. We then sealed the jar, gave it a good shake to mix everything together, and began the waiting game. We put our tincture-to-be in a dark cabinet for 4 weeks, occasionally giving the jar a little shake to make sure all of the motherwort was exposed to the alcohol.

After four weeks, we strained the tincture through cheesecloth into a clean jar, keeping the liquid and removing all the fibrous plant matter.  After squeezing as much liquid as we could out of the motherwort, we used a funnel to pour the finished tincture into an amber glass bottle, labeled with the date we made it and the strength. Now it is in Dr. Millie’s apothecary, ready for her to offer to her patients! 

Footnote:

This article is not meant to be a surrogate for medical advice from a trained professional. In the US, the medical establishment does not embrace herbal remedies, and while it is generally accepted that motherwort is safe to consume, its medicinal properties – as with most herbal remedies – are not seen to be scientifically proven in a satisfactory manner. As with any decision involving healing practices, one should always consult the experts that they most trust. 

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