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By Sarah Van ArsdaleEven when there's still snow on the ground - or a chill in the air, depending on where you're living - that's no reason you can't start taking delight in the magic of gardening by starting an indoor herb garden. And this doesn't have to involve extensive home renovations to make a bay window in the kitchen.
Even if you live in a high-rise apartment where the closest thing you have to a garden is a view of the park, you can start your own indoor herb garden in a sunny window.
All you need is a window with south or western exposure, which will allow about five hours of daylight for your little green friends.
You can start some herbs, such as thyme, mint and rosemary, from cuttings or from young plants you buy at a florist or greenhouse. Some supermarkets even sell these tender plants. If you go this route, you have to start them in a soilless mix of vermiculite, peat, and perlite. There should be directions on the packages as to how much to use, or you can ask at the greenhouse where you buy the mixes.
If you don't like the idea of slopping all that dirt around in a measuring cup, you can take the cleaner, easier route, and just start your herb garden from seeds.
To do this, you first need some pots. Heavy clay or terra cotta pots are preferred, because they allow the air and water to circulate, but any pot with good drainage will do. It's best to have small pots with a 6" diameter at the top, as these will be small enough for compact plants but still allow for enough growth. From a design standpoint, you should use several pots that are the same size, shape, and material, to give a uniform look to your indoor garden; the different shapes and colors of the herbs themselves will provide plenty of contrast. Even though you can start several types of seed in one pot if you want to, you'll get a more interesting look by having several small pots, and that way your basil won't taste like rosemary.
Good choices for direct-seeding include compact dill, basil, and Greek oregano; be careful when selecting seeds to specify the "compact" varieties, as the regular varieties are difficult to grow indoors, because they need more room to roam.
- Tip: To start the seeds, just fill each pot with regular potting soil, which is sold at greenhouses and in florist shops. Tuck the seeds into the soil - the depth will be specifed on the seed packet - and mist with water. (It's worth it to buy a mister for this purpose, if you don't already have one, and you can always use it to also dampen your clothes before ironing them, or to train your kitten not to jump onto the kitchen table.)
Keep the pots in that sunny southern or western window, and keep the soil damp. You will have a little cup or plate that matches the pot and absorbs any extra water, so don't be afraid to mist the soil every day if necessary. This is especially important if you're in an over-heated, dry apartment. Each day, the soil should be damp to the touch, but shouldn't be soaked.
But once you see sprouts, be careful not to overwater, as this can cause the roots to rot. And root-rot is not a pretty sight. Likewise, if you do choose to start with transplants or cuttings, make sure you allow the soil to dry out a little bit between waterings.
The plants should have plenty of light, but keep them away from spots where they'll experience extremes in temperature; you don't want your indoor garden right in front of the radiator, or right next to the kitchen stove. If light is limited, you may want to rotate the plants once a week so nobody gets cheated.
Once you have your garden going, don't be afraid to use it. You'll have at your fingertips fresh rosemary to season the chicken, fresh basil for homemade pesto, and parsley for a little garish. The more you cut the plants, the more they'll grow, because like everyone else, they like feeling useful.