The Green Scene

The Winter Windowsill

Ruth Furman writer

By december the last thing on most of our minds is the outdoors or gardening. Hopefully, you’ve put the garden to bed and are simply awaiting Mother Nature to settle her seasonal blanket of snow over everything, because even though snow is cold, it insulates and protects plants. While your garden is slumbering outdoors, you can keep some fresh, green growth going on your indoor windowsill. A number of you with wonderful gardens brimming with healthy plants have told me of problems with growing plants indoors. Actually, the conditions necessary for plant health outdoors are exactly the same for indoor plants. In fact, it should be easier to maintain healthy plants indoors, because the environment is more controllable and not subject to the mercy of nature’s whims.

To keep plants happy and growing indoors they need a nourishing growing medium, adequate moisture, and a comfortable temperature—it’s as simple as that. Herbs are an easy group to maintain on a windowsill, brightening the dull winter months with their perky presence. There’s a bonus with herbs: they can be snipped for your culinary needs or just appreciated for their aromatic qualities—instant aromatherapy.

What do you need? A sunny, south-facing window that receives five to six hours or more of sunshine is best. Herbs will take a very high daytime temperature and sunny windows in winter can reach 75 degrees or more. Don’t worry that the nighttime temperature can drop down below 50 degrees on a windowsill. In fact, your plants will prefer the coolness, as long as they don’t freeze.

Always give your plants a good growing medium. Most herbs prefer a “sweet” or alkaline soil that is not particularly rich. You should purchase a good potting soil from your garden center and use one part potting soil, one part sand or vermiculite, and one part peat moss. To sweeten the mix, add one teaspoon of lime to a four-inch pot.

When the top one-half inch of soil feels dry, water thoroughly until the water runs from the base. Water from the top with tepid water, preferably in the morning, or fill the watering can and let it sit for an hour to reach room temperature. More water less frequently is preferable to less water frequently, and don’t forget to mist the foliage well weekly. The key is to keep an adequate moisture level and setting the pots on a shallow pan filled with pebbles and water helps. Apply a weak fertilizer solution (half the recommended strength) monthly; choose a fish emulsion or a liquid organic solution if you’re planning to snip and add the herbs to recipes over the winter months.

Which herbs to choose? There are quite a few that will be rewarding, and as every good cook uses a bouquet garnis, start with the herbs that make up the classic mix: parsley, thyme, and bay. Another favorite mix is fines herbes, made up of parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil. If you are trying herbs indoors for the first time, tarragon can be a challenge as it tends to lose its leaves when it slips into winter dormancy. If you only try one herb, choose parsley. Fresh parsley enhances the flavors of dried herbs, so use it lavishly in all your savory dishes. There are two types, Petroselinum crispum, curled, or P. neopolitanum, plain-leafed or Italian, which I think has the better flavor. Dig up established plants from the kitchen garden if the ground hasn’t frozen yet; the thick tap root will send out new growth. If you haven’t any plants to pot up from outdoors fear not, because catalog season arrives with the New Year and you can order seeds or young starter plants then.

If aromatherapy sounds more appealing, try lavender, rosemary, peppermint, or scented geraniums; just running your fingers through any one of these can be uplifting on a dreary winter’s day.

The season to festoon greenery around the house is upon us so why not add some edible greens this holiday season? While parsley might seem somewhat prosaic, there is much rich symbolism associated with it. According to some folklore, parsley embodies the sentiments of this holiday season: festivity, mirth, and joy. What better garnish for a holiday table?