Good Life

Over the Garden Fence | Herbs help to combat the winter blues

As I am writing this column, the weather forecaster is reporting single digits on the thermometer, so staying indoors is a good idea.

Here is a great project that you can undertake that will not only provide you with some color on your windowsill but also add some zest to your cooking. It is called indoor herb gardening, which at this time of year is much more appropriate and much warmer.

Some annual herbs can be started from seeds in containers now to provide fresh seasonings for cooking later this winter. Once the weather warms in the spring, plants can be set in your garden to continue their life cycle.

Several herbs you might like to try growing are anise, basil, borage, chive, coriander, dill and oregano. You may have to order seeds by mail if none are available locally.

Before you begin, let’s review what you need to provide adequate growing conditions. Most culinary or kitchen herbs should get at least five hours of sun a day. A sunny window is a good location as long as the reflected heat isn’t too intense. If you don’t have a window with direct sunlight, find a spot that will give your herbs plenty of light, and plan to move them into the sun for a few hours whenever possible.

If you don’t have direct sun, consider using fluorescent lights. Lighting suppliers often carry special grow lamps you can use with plants. A combination of fluorescent light and several incandescent lights will also work well. I have used a combination of a warm white and a cool white fluorescent tube in a fixture.

If you plan on using artificial light to grow herbs, the lights need to be on for 14 to 16 hours a day to provide plants enough light energy. Place lights close to the plants as they begin to grow and then raise them up, keeping them at least 12 inches above the top of the plants.

Herbs usually will be happy under the same temperature and humidity you find comfortable. Hot and dry air is the greatest indoor danger for any plant. Most herbs will grow in normal room temperature of 60 to 70 degrees and lower nighttime temperatures as long as it isn’t freezing, which I hope it isn’t in your house.

Air humidity should be about 30 to 50 percent. If humidity levels are less where herbs are growing, place a dish of water near the plants to raise the humidity. You can find small hygrometers to check air humidity at local hardware or sporting goods stores.

Many thermometers measure humidity, as well. If you heat with a woodstove, you already are aware of dry air; keeping a pot of water on the stove helps raise the moisture in the air in the room.

Once the indoor conditions are right, you’ll need to select growing materials. You can start seeds in just about any container as long as it has a drainage hole in the bottom.

Commercially made flats usually have drain holes or slits built into them.

Select a germinating medium that is loose and drains well yet holds moisture. Equal parts, by volume, of coarse sand, peat moss and garden loam make a good basic mix. Sift the materials through a quarter-inch mesh screen to remove coarse particles. If you don’t want to make your own soil, use a good commercial seeding mixture.

The next step is to sow the seeds. Start by filling your container with the growing media and firming it up. Mark off rows on the smooth surface about two inches apart and one-eight to one-quarter inch deep. Place seeds in these shallow furrows and cover to the depth listed on the package.

A general rule of thumb is that the seeds need to be covered to about twice their diameter. Very fine seeds may even do well if only pressed into the surface of the material.

Water the sown seeds with a fine spray to avoid washing seeds around in the medium. If you have used small containers, you can soak the bottom of the container in a pan of water until the surface is wet.

In either case, drain off all excess water after the initial soaking and label what you have sown with the date. Place the container in a plastic bag to form a small “greenhouse” to keep the surface of the medium wet, and then set it in a fairly warm spot, 60 to 75 degrees, but not in direct sunlight until germination begins. Keep the top of the bag open slightly to allow some air and moisture to escape.

Enjoy winter gardening!