During the cold-weather months, growing herbs in the garden isn’t an option for most, but starting an indoor patch is absolutely achievable for anyone, and it’s well worth the time and investment.
“Fresh herbs make all the difference between good food and bad food,” says Alex McCoy, chef/co-owner of D.C.-based Lucky Buns and a longtime indoor gardener. “And by only taking what you need, growing your own herbs is more sustainable and creates less waste.”
We talked to several gardening chefs about how to grow herbs inside and about suggestions for well-known and boundary-pushing herbs to plant to take wintertime cuisine to fresh levels. Here are their suggestions.
It’s all about the container
Kat Petonito, executive chef at Eastern Point Collective, which owns La Collina and the Duck & the Peach in D.C., likes the Click & Grow Smart Garden, because it’s low maintenance and easy to use. Available as either a small countertop unit or a larger vertical stand, it’s the Keurig of indoor herb gardens. Simply fill the machine with water, place the pre-seeded pods into the holes (gardeners can also add their own seeds to empty pods), and turn it on.
Petonito uses the machine mostly for herbs, although you can grow greens and flowers, too. It can also handle fruit plants, such as strawberries and tomatoes, but they must be pollinated. She accomplishes this by lightly brushing the flowers with a fluffed-up Q-tip, a small paintbrush or her finger.
She has been very satisfied with the machine so far. “The only mistake I made in the beginning was planting everything at once, so everything died at once,” says Petonito, who recommends staggering plantings and varying the plants. For example, during the first month, plant tomatoes, oregano and basil; a month later, plant rosemary, thyme and parsley. And she doesn’t just use her planter in the winter; in the spring, it serves as a starter station to grow seedlings for her outdoor garden.
Sam Cooper, head baker of Bread Alley in D.C., bought the hydroponic AeroGarden a few years ago to grow fresh herbs during the cold-weather months. Like the Click & Grow, it uses pre-seeded pods, although it also has the option to buy blank pods to be seeded. His model has six spots to fill; other models feature from three to 24 slots for growing herbs, salad greens, flowers, hot peppers and cherry tomatoes. The machine indicates when the plants need water or nutrient packets. The height of the grow light is adjusted manually; you begin with it closer when starting the seeds, then move it higher as the plants grow.
To ensure that plants don’t shade each other out, Cooper advises placing taller plants toward the back and smaller ones in front. And don’t be afraid to start clipping off fresh leaves. “That’s a beginner’s mistake,” Cooper says. “The more you harvest, the more leaves you will get. That’s the way plants work.” Before planting a new round of pods, Cooper suggests thoroughly cleaning the machine, which will keep it running smoothly and looking sharp, and can help extend its lifetime.
If you don’t want to invest in a machine, it’s easy to create a DIY indoor herb garden. McCoy converted the garage of his Eastern Shore home into a quasi-greenhouse, with potted plants arranged on tables and grow lights on timers above them. He maintains an even temperature by locking his thermostat — key to ensuring that plants aren’t stressed by abrupt variations between warm and cold, so make sure you leave the heat on if you leave town for a few days — and he runs a humidifier to keep the leaves moisturized. Even if you don’t have an extra room, this approach can be used in a closet, a corner or a windowsill. (Depending on its location, the latter may still require a grow light.)
Fill pots with drainage holes with potting soil (this promotes drainage), and place them in saucers to catch excess moisture. Don’t forget to fertilize the plants every couple of weeks, and avoid overwatering. “That will rot out the roots,” McCoy says, “and kill the plant.” Signs of too much water include droopy or shedding leaves, mushy stems, or fungus growing in the soil. If that happens, stop watering, repot the plant and let it rest for a few days before resuming watering.
The best herbs for your indoor garden
Tarragon. Take Béarnaise sauce and green goddess dressing to the next level with McCoy’s must-have herb with a light licorice flavor.
Red-veined sorrel. Chris Ferrier, executive chef of Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va., and a passionate indoor herb gardener, recommends this leafy green for a citrusy bite that elevates salads, fish and wintry root vegetables.
Chives. Petonito is a fan of the delicate onion taste of this grassy-looking herb. She uses it as a garnish or to add an allium element to salads.
Genovese basil. The Italian herb is always a powerhouse in pesto, but Cooper also likes to tear its large leaves to scatter atop pastas, pizza and focaccia for a flavorful, aromatic finishing touch.
Lemon balm. The citrusy flavor of this leafy herb is a favorite of Ferrier’s, who says it adds a bright note to salad dressings or to a brown-butter sauce that goes well on rainbow trout.
Lovage. Thanks to its celery vibes, McCoy likes incorporating this herb, which has parsley-style leaves, into mayonnaise to slather on sandwiches or using it for an additional layer of flavor in potato salad.
Lavender. Cooper loves the rich floral aroma of this pungent herb, so he hangs small clusters on the wall, throws a few stems in the bath and puts it in sachets under pillows.
Thyme. When preparing a braising liquid or cooking soup, Petonito likes to tie up a little bundle of this herb and drop it into the pot to add oomph.