Because the National Garden Bureau has proclaimed 2012 as the Year of Herbs, I have a confession to make. I have never been successful at growing decent herbs indoors over the winter.
I should probably rephrase that sentence. That's a lie. I have actually been quite successful at growing herbs indoors, as long as I don't plan to use them in my cooking.
I know we can go into any discount department store and buy, as gifts for others or for ourselves, entire kits that proclaim we can grow lush, delicious herbs all winter in the pots, soil and seeds they provide. Just add water and place in a sunny window and voila, a garden of culinary delights is right there at our fingertips.
I have tried this many different ways over the years. We've had glass shelves where our curtains should be, filled with pots of chives, thyme and rosemary. I started parsley from seed, first placing the peat pots on top of the refrigerator to keep warm and then waiting nearly a month for any sign of germination. (Yes, it not only takes that long, but parsley seeds need light to germinate so you have to sprinkle the tiny, dust-like seeds on top of the soil). I've extended my windowsills to accommodate larger containers with rosemary, tarragon and sage. They have all worked, to a degree.
In the garden, I plant herbs by the row. Parsley and basil stretch out in the sun alongside garlic and scallions; all plants that live one season in the garden and are harvested and stored in various ways for the winter kitchen. But in the kitchen window, while the plants grow to the best of their ability with low light and little space, I have never been able to grow enough. A small container of chives will do for one snipping a month. Parsley grows a little faster, but a small container doesn't yield enough for a large pot of tomato sauce. Rosemary is temperamental when brought indoors. Let it dry out for one minute and the next morning you will have a woody stalk with lots of brown, dead leaves.
Of course, none of that stops me from doing it every year. As the sun drops lower in the sky, and even though I know there won't be enough natural light to keep the oregano from getting spindly, I'll soon be clearing a space on the windowsill for pots of herbs that won't make it through January, let alone live long enough to set outside next summer.
Many culinary herbs that we commonly use originate from the Mediterranean region where the temperatures are warm in summer and mild in winter. Sure, there are areas that get a little cold, and it might even snow, but the majority of land around the Mediterranean Sea doesn't see much in the way of freezing temperatures. While many culinary herbs are perennials here and can withstand our winters, others, such as basil and rosemary, have to be treated as annuals or brought indoors when the temperatures start to dip.
Parsley is a biennial, which means it grows leaves the first season and survives the winter, then flowers and sets seeds the second season. Once the plant produces seeds, it has done its job and won't come back for a third season.
If, after all my attempts to discourage it, you still want to grow herbs indoors, there's a few things to remember: