As the outside temperature descends, many serious kitchen mavens who depend on fresh herbs for their culinary creations bring their herb gardens indoors. Creating summer conditions inside during winter is a (some say impossible) professional's task, but some herbs will perform passably well with few demands on the chef.
Esther Lee, customer service associate at the South Medford Grange Co-op, says a south-facing window is absolutely necessary to maintain herbs indoors. "A garden window is better, and with grow lights you can get more growth over the winter."
The list of herbs you can grow indoors during winter, while not extensive, can satisfy many of the cook's culinary whims during the dark months. Patty Turk, owner of Winema Gardens at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Medford and Ashland, says marjoram, oregano, sorrel, chives, thyme and mint will all live indoors.
"Basil will work in a sunny window. Lemon verbena is a good candidate," she says. "If you want growth or continual harvest on most of these plants, you need to supplement with grow lights as well as fertilizers."
Lee suggests using a good potting soil and organic plant fertilizer, her preferred amendment for all edibles. Then feed the plants every six weeks, less often if you are using a slow-release formula.
For a growth-enhancing supplement, Lee offers a formula for "chicken-manure tea." Place two quarts of chicken manure in a 5-gallon bucket and fill it with water. Allow the solution to soak overnight and then strain. Use the liquid to water plants. Worm-casting tea, available at the Growers and Crafters Market, is a similar booster, she says.
To the list of indoor candidates, Lee adds cilantro, garlic chives and leeks, along with parsley, which will also produce outdoors in winter. Mixed herb gardens, which are sold pre-potted in the store, are options for the novice or for gift giving.
"Just snip for pasta and sauce," Lee says.
Scented geraniums are best known for their powerful fragrance but are suitable for culinary use, as well. "One of the best jellies I ever ate was made with rose-scented geraniums and rose hips," says Turk. Any of these plants growing outside should be sheltered or mulched heavily for the winter, and indoor growing is an option.
While you can get some winter growth, don't expect summer's dense foliage from any herbs. Because the plant is going from 16 to 18 hours of sunlight per day down to six hours, a little pruning will help the plant be healthy and focus on any new growth, says Turk. Thin the inside stems and leave a few major stalks.
"The plant cannot maintain all that foliage with the shorter days," says Turk. "Expect them to be leggy, but that's OK."
If you don't have a window with good light inside, consider a doorstep garden. Place it in a south-facing location with good sun, but close to the house. You can grow all but the tender, cool-weather greens and herbs. Sadly, you can't grow basil, but there's a lot of flavor to select from. Lee suggests lemon thyme, which will grow all winter close to the house. Any of the kales, parsley and winter-hardy lettuce will be attractive and provide the occasional snip of flavor or color.
While indoor herbs can't compete with summer's bounty, the cook who uses them adds a bit of pride, along with flavor. Then, before too long, those indoor herbs will take their place in the garden for another season.