Begin an herb garden in winter
Considering what a mild winter we have experienced so far, the thought of frigid air, howling winds and piles of snow definitely feels daunting. This is also the time of year when gardeners become restless. The memories of some of the garden’s realities like weeding and digging have softened and we all might be a little guilty of over-romanticizing the everyday chores of tending to a garden’s needs.
Usually by February, I have already purchased so many seeds I could feed all of Delaware County … if I planted and successfully cultivated those seeds, that is. When that green light for seed-starting on March 20 comes, inevitably I have not the space, time or equipment to start my variety of herbs, vegetables and flowers. A wonderful project for the restless gardener to start right now is his or her herb garden. While I am the first to admit that over-wintering herbs like rosemary and basil has its challenges, starting them from seed with limited and inexpensive equipment is quite easy.
The main difficulties with mature rosemary and basil plants inside (I use those as examples because they are favorites and notoriously finicky inside) are air circulation and light, problems much more easily addressed on seedlings than full-grown plants. Another wonderful aspect of starting some of your herbs early is to keep them at a manageable size, you will have to prune and harvest from them. Enjoying fresh herbs grown at home in the dead of winter is the perfect way to jumpstart your 2012 garden and hold you over until you can go play in the dirt.
First and foremost in seed starting, in my opinion, there is no tool more valuable than a heated pad to set the germinating trays on. At around $20, it can seem to be a superfluous gimmick considering people have cultivated seeds for thousands of years without them. I believe in embracing modern amenities and this one is definitely worth it. Seeds germinate faster and more effectively in warmer soil. The volume of seeds that actually germinate and grow when started in a tray over a heated pad is astounding.
It greatly aids in the germination of tough seeds like parsley and rosemary which both have reputations for being difficult to start from seed. Another very efficient tip in starting seeds is to cover the tray of moistened soil with plastic wrap; this creates a greenhouse effect as well as forming condensation which drops back on to the soil recycling water and keeping the tray from drying out.
Once the seeds have germinated and broken the surface of the soil, the next priority is light. Fluorescent lights provide sufficient light at a spectacular value. The key to successfully growing under artificial light is being able to adjust the distance between the light and the plants. This can be accomplished with adjustable shelving, or adjusting the light fixture itself. You want the light fixture about 2.5 to 3.5 inches above the top of the plants. If the light is closer than 2.5 to 3.5 inches, it is likely the plant will be burned. If the light is further than 2.5 to 3.5 inches from the top of the plants, they will put all their energy into growing tall enough to reach sufficient light resulting in leggy, thin plants. Plugging the lights into an auto-timer with 12 to 14 hours of light is ideal.
Once your seeds have become small seedling plants with a set of ‘true leaves’ (the second set of leaves on the plant), air circulation becomes a crucial element to success. The most common place to start seeds is in the basement. This has its challenges because basements often have poor airflow. Luckily the easy fix is setting a fan close to your seedling trays. Set the fan on a low speed, too high could cause the temperature to go down too much. As the plants grow larger, it may be necessary to raise the speed of the fan. This little tip makes a world of difference in the success of starting herbs indoors.
When watering your herbs indoors, it is best to use a spray bottle and mist the soil, not the leaves, lightly. Water on the leaves is a quick way for mold to grow—a common problem with seedlings.
Starting herbs early inside over the winter is relatively easy, rewarding and fun for the starved gardener. There is enough time between now and spring that mistakes can be made without foiling your summer garden plans.
Having home-grown fresh herbs to season a pot roast with a winter storm wreaking havoc outside is a treat any gardener or cook would be thrilled to have. With these tips in mind, even the most basic gardener can succeed in this delicious pursuit.
Community Garden Program
Join the Delaware County Master Gardeners and OSU Extension for a program from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Columbus State College, Delaware Campus. Our keynote speaker will be Bill Dawson, Growing to Green Coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory. He will speak about the Fundamentals of Community Gardening. Other topics for the day will be Soils and Compost, Companion planting, Succession planting and an expert panel group. Call the Extension office at 740–833-2030 to reserve. Price is $15 which includes lunch, coffee and water. Growing a community, one garden at a time.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener.