Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
October, 2003
Regional Report

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Who can resist a few sprigs of rosemary in a bright copper planter or pungent lemon thyme spilling out of a terra cotta garland pot on a sunny windowsill in winter?

Herbs on the Windowsill

Fresh herbs bring a welcome hint of summer when tossed into salads or onto broiled chicken. It's certainly hard to let go of that flavor once summer is over, but luckily many favorite culinary herbs thrive on a windowsill in winter as well as in the summer herb garden.

Most herbs originate in sunny Mediterranean climates, so they must have 4 to 6 hours of sun or 14 hours of supplemental light daily in order to thrive. A south or southwestern exposure is best. Herbs in insufficient light are more susceptible to insect problems and tend to grow leggy and weak. All herbs except basil perform best in cool temperatures, so a spot next to a cool window is perfect. Frequent pinching keeps windowsill herbs stocky and attractive.

If you have a thriving outdoor herb garden, chances are that the perennial herbs will benefit from periodic dividing. Not only will you rejuvenate the plants, but you can also pot up the divisions to bring in for the winter.

Preparing Herbs for the Move
Divide and pot sage, oregano, lemon balm, mint, and thyme in mid to late October. Tender herbs such as rosemary and bay need to be prepared for bringing indoors as well.

Once you have potted up a division into sterile potting soil, find a somewhat protected spot to keep the pot outdoors if the weather is still comfortable. The foliage that most herbs grow outdoors will not survive easily in the house, so before the herb is to come indoors, cut it back almost to the base (save the cuttings to dry). Rosemary, bay, chives and thyme, however, should not be cut back.

Before a hard freeze, bring the herbs in to their winter windowsill. Watch them carefully for insects, especially aphids and spider mites. If you detect a problem, put the plant in the sink and spray it off with a strong spray of tepid water or submerge the entire plant in a bucket of water for about 15 minutes. Use insecticidal soap if the problem is severe, but since you will be eating these, you should avoid chemical controls.

Some excellent candidates for windowsill growing are thyme, lemon thyme, sage, oregano, basil, parsley and chives. Tarragon doesn't perform well indoors since it needs winter dormancy. Also, tender perennials such as rosemary and bay that will not survive the winter outdoors do quite well in pots that go outdoors in summer and come indoors in winter. Consider trying chamomile, lavender, lemon balm and mint for a fragrant garden.

Sow These From Seed
Some herbs, such as basil, parsley, and cilantro, are easily started from seed. Use medium-weight sterile potting mix for good drainage and disease prevention. Seed-grown herbs won't produce the large, familiar plants of the garden, but the young plants are just as tasty and can be harvested within a couple of weeks from planting. Seeding heavily, fertilizing regularly, and keeping the herbs pinched will provide plentiful herbs all winter long.

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