Winter 1997-1998

Set a narrow tray in the bottom of a basket, set four pots of herbs of different textures and/or colors on the tray, and you’ve got a great gift for the holidays. To make such a gift now, you’ll have to buy the herb plants or propagate them from some you’ve been growing indoors. If you didn’t bring any in this year, you might want to next year by following the directions provided by Isabelle Wiand at a talk at the Common Ground Country Fair in September.

Among the herbs that Wiand recommended for the winter windowsill are basil, parsley, thyme, dill, bay laurel, chives and catnip. The general method is to dig the plants from the garden before frost (except chives, which will do better after a couple of frosts). “The soil from the garden will get compacted” if you pot the plants in the soil in which they’ve been growing all summer, said Wiand. “So shake off the garden soil and put the plant in potting mix.” She uses Pro-Mix.

Plants that are susceptible to aphids, such as lemon balm, should not only be cut back and have fresh soil, but the entire plant should be washed in soapy water in a wash tub in the yard and then rinsed with plain water before being brought indoors. If aphids reappear after the plants are brought in, the foliage can be sprayed with water at the kitchen sink.

“If the plant is any size,” she cautioned, “root prune it at the drip line three or four weeks before bringing it in.” This will encourage the plant to form a more compact rootball. At the same time, you can cut the plant back to within a couple of inches of the soil – using the clippings as fresh or dried herbs. Wiand also recommended removing any flower stalks that appear, otherwise annual herbs will die after flowering and setting seed.

Once the plants are in the house, they need a good eight to 10 hours of light a day. “Use a fluorescent light for 12 to 14 hours a day if the plants are getting leggy,” said Wiand, adding that the foliage needs to be as close as 1 to 2 inches from the light. “If you already have fluorescent lights under your counter, good,” she said, and she showed a small light setup that she made herself that could be used otherwise. Sometimes you have to provide this supplemental light for just a couple of weeks before returning the plants to the windowsill.

If your house is dry, keep the plants on saucers filled with pebbles and keep the saucers full of water, she suggested. Feed the herbs with a weak solution of liquid fish fertilizer every three to four weeks.

Regarding basil, a good method for producing windowsill plants is to seed the herb in a pot during the first week of July and sink the pot in the garden for the summer. Dig it and bring it in in September and it “should last until Christmas,” said Wiand.

When parsley is brought in, Wiand said to harvest the outer leaves, and new leaves will grow from the center. She likes to keep four or five plants, each in a 4-inch pot. “You can also freeze parsley without any processing,” she added, “or you can leave parsley [a biennial] in the garden and pull back the snow to get the greens. It’s one of the first things to come back in the spring – but it will be tougher and less flavorful” by then. Parsley is notorious for being slow to germinate because of its thick seed coat. Wiand said to sow the seeds in the garden in the spring, the pour boiling water over them before covering the seeds with soil to help break through the seed coat.

Thyme, said Wiand, sprawls and is nice to grow indoors as a hanging plant.

“Fernleaf dill – the little dill – is the one to bring in,” Wiand continued. “Keep it clipped and it will last all winter.”

Bay laurel grows as a full-size tree in California but will not survive the winter here. “Let it get as big as you want, then keep it pruned and pot bound, and it won’t grow any bigger,” said Wiand, adding that this is a good plant to train for topiary. Because this plant is very susceptible to brown scale, especially along its thick midrib, Wiand said to check and clean it carefully before bringing it in. Any scale insects that are found can be removed with a cotton swab soaked in alcohol.

Clumps of chives can be dug and then left outdoors for about two frosts in order to get their needed dormancy treatment, then they can be moved to the windowsill.

Wiand said that she used to bring catnip in for her cats, now she brings it in for herself because she likes the relaxing nature of the tea, which she makes by snipping several leaves and pouring boiling water over them. She grows catnip in a hanging basket so that the cats won’t get it.

Responding to a question about mold on rosemary, Wiand said that hot days and cold nights, and poor air circulation, can cause this problem. She suggested spraying affected plants with cooled chamomile tea; keeping the air temperature consistent; and providing good air circulation.

In addition to growing plants in pots, Wiand likes to grow some hydroponically by cutting 1-liter soda bottles just below the neck, turning the top upside down and fitting it into the bottom section. Fill the top with vermiculite or other medium, and keep the bottom of the bottle filled with a hydroponic solution (available from commercial suppliers, such as those who advertise in High Times magazine, said Wiand). A wick running from the solution into the vermiculite will keep the plants fed. This works best with small seedling plants, said Wiand.

– Jean English

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