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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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