Documents:

A Winter Herb Garden
by John Harmon
November 14, 1999

With all the new snow and the frozen ground it's hard to find much to do outdoors so here's some information adapted from a booklet published by the Cooperative Extension Services of the Northeast States on growing herbs indoors as well as some interesting history.

Herbs have played an important part in man's life for countless years -- in his politics, romance, love, religion, health, and superstition.

Celery was used by the Abyssinians for stuffing pillows. Ancient Greeks and Romans crowned their heroes with dill and laurel. Dill also was used by the Romans to purify the air in their banquet halls.

Some herbs were given magical properties, probably because of their medicinal uses. The early Chinese considered artemisia to have special charms. In France during the Middle Ages, babies were rubbed with artemisia juices to protect them from the cold. Ancient Greeks used sweet marjoram as a valuable tonic, and parsley as a cure for stomach ailments. Rosemary was eaten in the Middle Ages for its tranquilizing effects and as a cure-all for headaches.

Chives, still a common herb often found growing wild, had economic importance throughout Asia and many Mediterranean countries. Odd as it seems now, the early Dutch settlers in this country intentionally planted chives in the meadows so cows would give chive-flavored milk. I don't know about you but chive-flavored milk doesn't sound real good to me!

Mint, another popular herb today, also had its beginnings early in history. Greek athletes used bruised mint leaves as an after-bath lotion. In the Middle Ages, mint was important as a cleansing agent and later was used to purify drinking water that had turned stale on long ocean voyages. Mint also was given mystical powers It was used to neutralize the "evil eye" and to produce an aggressive character.

Mustard was lauded by Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, and Shakespeare called it a desirable condiment in several of his plays.

Other herbs with importance dating back to early times include basil, saffron, sage, savory, tarragon, and thyme.

Early settlers brought herbs to North America for use as remedies for illnesses, flavoring, storing with linens, strewing on floors, or burning for their pleasant fragrances. Some herbs were used to improve the taste of meats in the days before preservation techniques were developed. There are many stories of recipes using herbs to hide the taste of rotten meat. I suspect it didn't help you survive the food poisoning! Other herbs were used to dye homespun fabrics.

Herb gardens were almost an essential feature of pioneer homes. They were placed in sunny corners near the house to be readily available to the busy homemaker. As the population grew, people from many nations brought herbs with them. This resulted in an exchange of slips, seeds, and plants.

Many herbs familiar to settlers from other countries were found growing wild in the new country. These included parsley, anise, pennyroyal, sorrel, watercress, liverwort, wild leeks, and lavender. American Indians knew uses for almost every wild, nonpoisonous plant, but they used the plants chiefly for domestic purposes like tanning and dyeing leather as well as eating..

Herbs can also be grown indoors for year-round enjoyment. Growing herbs indoors is no more difficult than growing them in the garden. Indoor plants will need essentially the same conditions as herbs grown outdoors like light and a well-drained soil mix that is not too rich.

Select a south or west window. Different herbs have different light requirements, but most need a sunny location. In winter fluorescent grow lamps are necessary in supplementing light especially here in the north where we get so few hours of natural light. Make sure you keep them far enough from the glasss so they don't freeze on your windowsill when it hits -40!

When planting, mix two parts sterilized potting soil and one part coarse sand or perlite. There should be an inch of gravel at the bottom of each pot to ensure good drainage. Consider the water needs of each herb. Growing plants need more water as do plants in clay pots or hanging baskets. Misting and grouping the plants on a tray of moistened pebbles will help keep them in a humid condition. Don't drench herbs -- avoid getting herb roots soggy.

Annual herbs can spend their full life cycle in a pot indoors. Perennial herbs, however, will do better if you place them outdoors during the summer. Plunge the pot in soil up to its rim, or keep it in a protected location on the porch or patio. Remember to be very careful bringing plants that have been outdoors back indoors. You run the risk of bringing pests into your house where they can spread to your houseplants!

You can maintain an indoor herb garden indefinitely by periodic light feeding, yearly repotting, renewing annuals, seasonal moves outdoors for perennials, and occasional pruning. Water plants as needed. Use several planters or a divided one to allow for different moisture needs of plants.

If growing herbs sounds to you like a fun winter activity you can get more information from The International Herb Association, 910 Charles Street, Fredericksburg, VA 22401 USA. Or email: members@iherb.org. Check out their website at http://www.iherb.org/

John Harmon owns and operates Tropicals North. Write to John at The Real Dirt, c\o 211 Wood St., Whitehorse, YT., Y1A 2E4 or e-mail tropnorth@polarcom.com. Website: http://www.netshop.yk.ca/tropnor/

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row