From pot to table, easy indoor herbs spice up cooking

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Cooking and gardening have taken the country by storm and easy-to-grow herbs act as a bridge between the two, adding flavor to our food and confidence to our gardening.

Growing them inside gives everyone the opportunity to spice up their homegrown food, said Brooke Edmunds, horticulturist for Oregon State University Extension Service.

“People are entertaining themselves by trying out new recipes and finding things to learn to cook,” she said. “We’re being creative and herbs can help a lot with that.”

There are other reasons to grow herbs, including the simple joy of growing your own and knowing where your food comes from. And, of course, there’s the price tag.

“It’s more cost effective to grow herbs for yourself,” Edmunds said. “The precut herbs in plastic clamshells get expensive. And you can get multiple meals out of a single plant for much less cost than purchasing them.

If you’re not sure what to grow, think about the foods you like. Enjoy salsa? Grow some cilantro. Want to make pesto? Plant basil. Tarragon highlights chicken salad. Chives are a natural with baked potatoes. Fresh herbs perk up a salad and can be added to salad dressing for even more flavor. Pick a few to try, but not too many. It’s best to start small so you don’t get overwhelmed, Edmunds said.

If sited correctly and well maintained, most herbs grow well indoors. But keep in mind that some don’t. Hefty plants like mint, dill, lemon balm and fennel are best left outdoors.

Except for chives, cilantro and basil, starting herbs from seed can be slow, so Edmunds recommends buying starts, which means you can plant throughout the season. Place them in a bright window (south is often the best place in the house) and rotate them a quarter turn when you see the plants start to stretch toward the sun.

Since adequate drainage is a must, use packaged potting soil because it is lightweight and drains well. Stick to potting soil; planting mix or topsoil can be too heavy. Edmunds recommends planting into 10-inch pots so roots have some wiggle room.

“It depends on the plant,” she said. “Some will want more room like a rosemary. You can get away with a smaller pot if you’re planning to repot eventually or if you’re growing short-lived annual herbs like cilantro and basil. None of the herbs have to be forever plants. It’s okay to harvest and start over."

Herbs in containers should be watered as needed. Stick your finger in the soil up to your second knuckle. If it comes out dry, it’s time to water. Let the water run through the soil and out the bottom, and don’t let the pot sit in water. Feed every six months or so with a water-soluble fertilizer at half the recommended ratio on the label.

“Don’t be afraid to harvest your herbs,” Edmunds said. “That’s what they’re for. But be prepared. They won’t always look like groomed houseplants as you snip off pieces here and there.”

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