How To Grow Herbs: Indoors and Outdoors

The right herb can really make a recipe. Whether it brings brightness to a beverage or spice to a saute, herbs are invaluable, flavorful, add-ins when it comes to healthy cooking. With the warm months upon us, growing your own herbs is a great idea. Not only is it a low-cost hobby (which can save you money on high-cost ingredients), but also brings the season’s freshest flavors right to your windowsill.

But how does a novice grower begin?  There are so many things to consider—what to grow, how much light, water, and soil, which pots and plant food.

INDOORS

Light is an absolute must. As a rule of thumb, when growing inside, make sure your plant gets 6-8 hours of good sunlight. Southwestern-facing windows are best if you have one. If you don't have adequate light, supplemental lamps are always an option. As for potting, there are just a few rules, but it is important to observe them carefully. Pots must always have drainage holes and herbs should not be grown in pots smaller than 6 inches.

OUTDOORS

If you’re trying to start an outdoor herb garden, many of the same considerations apply. If you're starting from seed, check your seed packets for space recommendations. Also make sure your herbs are getting the optimal amount of light. This doesn’t always mean as much light as possible, just the right amount for the herb you're growing. For example, while sage grows well in full sunlight, chervil prefers full shade. It is all too easy to over-water or over-fertilize herbs. Herbs tend to need less water than expected and too much fertilizer may ruin the taste. Rely on the soil to tell you when to water. If it feels or looks dry, chances are your herbs could use some moisture.

One more factor worth considering is the lifespan of your new herb garden. If you prefer to plant once and reap the benefits each season, opt for perennials like chives, fennel, thyme, mint or tarragon. Annuals are shorter lived, blooming for one season only. Coriander, dill, basil, chervil and anise are all annuals. Regardless of your choice of herbs, keep one more tip in mind: Trimming the tops or leaves stimulates growth. However, never trim away over a third of the leaves—this may be detrimental to your plant.

Easy-to-grow herbs include chives, mint, parsley, bay tree (bay leaves) and lemongrass.

Lemongrass does not actually grow in soil, but rather water (like bamboo). You can pick it up at most markets. If you trim the top and place the bottom in a couple of inches of water (so long as the base is intact), you’ll be rewarded with roots and new shoots in no time!

Mint grows quickly and easily, but beware—it needs its own space, as it can become rather invasive.

Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant. The Vietnamese coriander variety is particularly easy to grow and yields a hearty plant.

Chives are great starter herbs for several reasons. They do not need much light and grow quite quickly. To start your own chives, uproot a handful from an established plant. Make sure not to tear the roots! Place them in a pot half-full of soil and cover with soil to just above the roots.

Parsley is likewise quite easy, but not as fast. The most difficult part is germinating the seed, which may take a couple of weeks. After that, parsley is slow and steady, needing little maintenance or light.

Moderately difficult-to-grow herbs include oregano, rosemary and thyme.

Oregano, rosemary and thyme all require at least 6-8 hours of sunlight per day (and sometimes need supplemental sunlight as well). If trying oregano, the Greek variety is a bit easier to grow. With rosemary, on the other hand, less is more. It is easily over-watered and actually prefers mid-grade soil.

Up for a challenge? Try basil, cilantro or sage.

Basil is one of the most difficult herbs to grow, particularly indoors (it struggles during the winter months). If you’re ready for a challenge though, try the Spicy Globe or African Blue variety. They will give you the best chances of success for indoor growing.

Cilantro is significantly more challenging to grow as a leaf. It has a tendency to bolt—a panic mode that plants go into under stress—and proceeds to grow flowers and seeds in place of leaves. Sage is rather susceptible to mildew and tends to get over-watered.

Katie Cavuto Boyle, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, personal chef and owner of HealthyBites, LLC. See Katie's full bio »

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