Bringing Outdoor Herbs Inside This Fall
If you’ve never used fresh herbs in your cooking, now may be the perfect time to make a fresh start. Fresh herbs not only have a more flavorful taste profile than dried herbs, but they also offer health benefits. They contain antioxidants, essential oils that are lost in dried herbs, vitamins and phytosterols that are not only good for your health, but they can boost immunity levels and have anti-inflammatory properties.
Rita Hottel, a master gardener who serves as the herb garden lead at the Tarrant County Master Gardener Association’s Community/Education Garden, agrees.
“Dried herbs lose a lot of their flavor. There is no substitute for the fresh flavor of herbs and having them readily accessible in your own kitchen window. Plus, like using fresh vegetables, the vitamins, minerals and other healthy properties are intact,” says Hottel.
The good news is you don’t have to be a master gardener to enjoy fresh herbs year round. A kitchen herb garden is a great way to bring the outdoors in, particularly during the fall and winter months. You just need to follow a few smart guidelines to get started.
Having adequate light for your herb plants is the most important consideration when planning your indoor garden. According to Rita, a sunny window is essential. A south or southwestern-facing window provides the best light. Plants need at least four hours of sun each day, but six to eight hours is optimal. Not enough sun can actually cause the herbs to lose some of their flavor.
Indoor herb gardens grow best in temperatures ranging from 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit. When you place your garden in a windowsill, don’t worry about cooler temperatures at night adversely affecting the plants (see the exception with basil below). As long as you keep the foliage from touching the glass, plants will be fine.
Often overlooked, good airflow is important to keep plants from remaining damp for too long, which, in turn, can cause roots to rot or fungal diseases to take hold. To help with circulation, consider putting a small fan close to your plants (but not blowing directly on them), or place plants in a room with a ceiling fan.
It’s important to plant your herbs in a container with good drainage, six inches or larger in diameter.
“It should be stressed that pots need to be of adequate size to allow the roots room to grow. The cute, little, windowsill herb pots are too small,” says Hottel.
Plastic pots work best because clay pots can dry out easily from indoor heating and can allow moisture to pass through. To prevent water damage to windowsills or other surfaces, place a plastic or metal saucer or tray underneath the pots. A great option is to cover a saucer or tray with pea gravel or marble chips. Add water to just below the rock level, and set your herb pots on top. The evaporation of the water will raise the humidity level while airflow through the rocks will aid with air circulation under the individual pots.
Use quality potting soil that is rich in organic matter. Dirt from your yard can get compacted too easily and damage the plant’s roots.
To keep herbs growing and healthy, fertilize once a month with a good organic fertilizer such as fish emulsion from your local nursery. However, Hottel recommends using the fertilizer at half strength. Too much fertilizer can diminish the flavor of the herbs.
Of course, herbs need to be watered regularly. Check the pots daily, and water when the top layer of soil starts to feel dry. Place pots in the sink to water so that excess can drain off. Make sure to water at the base of the plant, too, to avoid getting the leaves wet.
Believe it or not, cutting your herbs will encourage them to grow. However, never use more than ⅓ of the plant at a time to keep the plants active. (See more harvesting hints below).
Best Herb Choices for Indoors
Now you’re ready to plant! Hottel recommends starting out with three varieties to see what does well. You can add more as you become familiar with the plant’s requirements.
So, what are the master gardener’s favorite herbs?
“Flat leaf Italian Parsley has great flavor and is loaded with antioxidants, health-benefiting essential oils, minerals, such as potassium, calcium, manganese, iron and magnesium. It is great to finish a dish with a sprinkle on top,” says Hottel. “And, one of my favorites to grow indoors is Cuban Oregano. It makes a beautiful house plant with its white-bordered, succulent leaves.”
Here are some other great choices for indoor growing, along with their health benefits.
- Chives have a mild, onion-like flavor. Their blooms are also edible. Fresh chives are rich in folates and Vitamins A, C and K. When harvesting, cut small bunches of the grass-like leaves back to the soil level to encourage new growth.
- Sweet Marjoram has a slightly sweet and spicy flavor. The leaves are an excellent source of beta-carotene, lutein and Vitamins A and C. It is also high in iron, manganese and calcium. It’s best to harvest the leaves just before flowering.
- Oregano is classified as a “functional food,” high in antioxidants that offer disease-preventing properties beyond its nutritional value. Used frequently in Greek and Italian recipes, oregano is high in dietary fiber, calcium, iron, manganese, carotenes and Vitamins A, E and K.
- Dill, with its anise-like flavor, is a good source of both Vitamin A and Vitamin C. It makes a great addition to fish dishes, salads and dips.
- Peppermint and Spearmint grow well in containers, but because their growth can overtake other plants quickly, you will want to make sure they are in their own individual pots. Both are rich in iron and Vitamin A.
- Thyme has a faintly minty and peppery flavor. High in Vitamins A and C and iron, it is one of the most popular and versatile culinary herbs. For most recipes, you will want to remove the leaves from their woody stems before adding to a dish.
- Rosemary with its slightly lemony taste is a perfect addition to potato and poultry recipes. An excellent source of iron, it is also high in Vitamin A and folates. Like with thyme, you will want to remove the needle-like leaves from the stems before use.
- Basil is also an excellent source of Vitamins A and K and iron but is a little more difficult to grow indoors. Although Hottel has had success growing basil indoors during the winter, she cautions, “It should be placed away from the window several inches and needs a very sunny spot.” And, know that you won’t get the bounty of leaves needed to make dishes like pesto from a kitchen garden, but you will have enough production to add great flavor to vegetables, poultry and meat dishes.
So, are you ready to get started? Take some added inspiration from Hottel’s journey from beginner to master gardener, “A lot of trial and error went into my first efforts. I bought books on herb gardening and studied about what grows well in different applications and conditions. I now grow herbs in my garden, in pots indoors and on the patio and teach classes on growing herbs and how to use them.”
And don’t forget, gardening help is as close as your phone or computer. If you have a gardening-related question, call the Tarrant County Master Gardener Hotline at 817-884-1944 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Using Fresh Herbs in Your Cooking
Knowing when to use dried herbs versus fresh in a recipe is important, as they require different cooking techniques. Fresh herbs are best used towards the end of cooking or as a garnish. They are particularly good for finishing dishes to add brightness and for infusing flavors into sauces and salad dressings. If you are substituting fresh herbs for dried in a recipe, use 2-3 times more than the recipe calls for.
Here are a few simple recipes to help you get started.
Lemon Dill Flower Pasta Salad
This is one of master gardener Rita Hottel’s favorite recipes to make.
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
2 cups broccoli, chopped
1 cup cauliflower, chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes
¼ cup sweet onion, chopped
½ cup parsley, coarsely chopped
Lemon Dill Flower Dressing
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
½ cup fresh dill and dill flowers
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook pasta according to package directions. Rinse in cold water. Combine the cooked pasta and the veggies. Mix all ingredients for the dressing with a whisk except the dill and flowers. Chop the fresh dill then add dill and dill flowers to the dressing and whisk again lightly. Add dressing to the pasta and veggie mixture and stir.
Fruit and Basil-Infused Water
This is a refreshing drink and super simple to make.
2-3 slices of lemon or lime
3 medium-sized basil leaves
Put all ingredients in a glass, quart-sized jar with lid (like used for canning) or in an infuser pitcher. Cover the fruit and herb with water, and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator.
Easy Herbed Chicken Breasts
This recipe is perfect for dinner in a snap.
8 sprigs each lemon thyme and rosemary
Juice of 1-2 lemons
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rub chicken breasts on all sides with olive oil and place in baking pan. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Place two whole sprigs each of rosemary and lemon thyme on top of each chicken breast. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the chicken and herbs. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink inside.