Gardening

How to Grow Herbs Indoors Even If You've Never Grown Anything

Suspect your thumb isn't so green? Try, try again. And try herbs.

May 27, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Here's the short answer: Herbs! Even if you've never planted anything, but dream of picking fresh produce from your kitchen window sill, a mini plot of herbs is a very good place to give gardening a whirl. It's low-cost and low-risk: all you need are a couple of pots to grow in, a bag of soil, and a sunny window. (You already have the will.) Herbs also tend to be compact, quick-to-grow, and useful—which makes them a very good place to start. Plus, think about it: at the end of this, there could be (homegrown) mint-laced summery mojito with your name on it.

Photo by Ty Mecham

Here's what you'll need:

  • Figure out how many herbs you'd like to grow (our suggestion is to begin with 2-3), and get a pot for each. The thing to remember is size: Your pot should be at least two inches wider than the seedling you place in it. If you're starting with seeds, you'll want the pot to be at least six inches wider.
  • Dishes to sit under those pots—you'll want to avoid water stains running all down your sill.
  • A seed starting tray or old ice cube tray (more on that in a bit).
  • Soil and a small amount of pebbles or gravel.
  • Seeds or seedlings (which are baby plants, just a couple of inches tall).

Seeds vs. seedlings:

Seeds

  • Pros: They're extremely rewarding—you get to see the little guy grow from a tiny seed into something you can actually use for cooking. Starting with seeds also gives you a wider selection of herb varieties to grow, and it's less expensive, especially if you're growing many plants. The most common herbs to grow from seed are annual herbs such as basil and dill, however, you can totally get more adventurous with what you pick.
  • Cons: You'll need to be a little patient: It can take a few weeks for a seed to grow into a seedling and then to grow into a plant large enough to harvest.
  • What to try: Basil, mint, dill, and parsley. They'll all grow fairly quickly and easily from seeds, and need similar things—moist soil and lots of sun.

    Seedlings

  • Pros: You already have a plant to start picking from—and now you just have to keep it alive.
  • Cons: They can be more expensive, and you might have to buy multiples in larger trays to get the amount that you want.
  • What to try: You have a lot of freedom here: Herbs that are harder to start from seed or simply take longer to sprout and grow (like woody ones, such as rosemary and thyme) are especially good to buy as seedlings, because the hard work has already gone into sprouting them.
Photo by James Ransom

How to plant:

Many herbs reach high and wide, and naturally those will do best in the ground, but there are plenty that will do just as well in a pot, given the right conditions. First order of business? Fill the pots with a thin layer of gravel. Then:

For seeds: Fill the pot with soil, leaving about an inch of the pot's lip exposed. Plant the seeds according to the instructions on the seed packet. For the most part, this will involve making a series of shallow divots in the soil with your finger, dropping a few seeds into each, and covering the divots up with a thin layer of soil.

Many people start their seeds off in a seed starting tray, creating shallow rows and sowing them according to the instructions on the seed pack. Associate editor Coral Lee recommends repurposing anything from an ice cube tray to an egg carton or brownie pan. Lee (who is, let's just say, a "pro" at apartment gardening) recommends filling each well of the carton or tray with about a tablespoon of soil, dropping two to three seeds into each cup, and very lightly covering with more soil. "Keep it moist—not overly wet!—until the seeds germinate, which is the time to transfer to your pots. Be very gentle when moving seedlings to the pots or bins, and make sure they’re well anchored, tucked in by the soil," she says.

For seedlings: Remove the seedling from its plastic pot and gently agitate the roots with your fingers. (This serves to wake the roots up a little and tell them to adapt to their new pot.) If your pot is bigger than the plastic one your seedlings came in, fill the pot with soil but not full to the top. Make a pit in the center of it slightly larger than the transplant, fit the seedling into the pot, and gently pat soil around the roots. Spread a thin layer of soil over the top of the seedling's soil.

Don't tamp the soil down! (Otherwise, air can't get in.) Water your newly potted plants well (the soil should feel soggy but not muddy or soaked) and place in a sunny spot. Most herbs need sunshine and well-drained soil to grow best, but if your home lacks a sunny window, they will likely need supplemental light in the form of LED grow lights.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“How do you keep the soil warm enough for the seeds to germinate? ”
— DottieM
Comment

Basil and mint should sprout in the first or second week; parsley may not sprout until the third week (or even later—it's a slow starter).

Photo by James Ransom

Remember!

  • Not all herbs need the same care. While most like a lot of sun, some want their soil to be watered daily (like basil or mint) and some much less (like rosemary or thyme). The seed packets or information on the seedling's container (always save those!)—or the Farmer's Almanac, another great resource—should tell you what each specifically needs.
  • A sunny windowsill in your kitchen is one of the best places for herbs to grow—not only because you can reach over and snip a few leaves off any time you need them, but also because kitchens tend to be more humid, which many plants enjoy.
  • Pull out weeds as they appear.
  • Water when the soil feels dry. The warmer the weather, the more you will have to water.
  • If at first you don't succeed, don't be discouraged. Experiment! Try another windowsill, switch up your watering schedule, and read up on herb care.
  • Once flowers start to form, your herbs are ready to be snipped; once they bloom, the leaves lose their flavor. Cut no more than six inches off, leaving about a third of the plant to regenerate and regrow. In the case of some herbs, such as dill, however, you can harvest the entire plant, and grow afresh.

While we're on the subject...

What herbs are you growing this year—and what tips do you have for first-timers? Share them in the comments.

This article originally appeared in March 2016. We’re re-running it because it's gardening season.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.

9 Comments

[email protected] June 25, 2020
https://food52.com/blog/16179-what-to-plant-if-you-ve-never-grown-anything

Thank you for sharing!

 
Shelley M. June 5, 2020
Also arugula. It grows like a weed and even in a pot youll have enough to snip for salads.
 
Azza H. March 20, 2016
I'm definitely trying this! I have to ask though, what are those tongue depressor-looking things in the picture? Are they to measure the moisture of the soil and how to tell when to water?
 
Author Comment
Caroline L. March 20, 2016
hi anna, good question! those are just markers—a reminder of what's growing in the pots! (especially helpful if you're starting from seeds and don't have any clues from the leaves for a couple of weeks.) good luck!
 
LemonyZest March 10, 2016
Those pots don't look like six-inchers to me. Most woody herbs will grow out of them over the season, so I would definitely use larger ones.
 
DottieM March 10, 2016
Great article. Inspires me. I've always wanted to do this but the nights are cold in the windows. How do you keep the soil warm enough for the seeds to germinate?
 
Author Comment
Caroline L. March 10, 2016
hi dottie, thanks for reading! you could try a grow light—they're pretty inexpensive and can help keep the plants cozy. you could also move the pots out of the window once the sun starts to go down, and put them back in the window in the morning! best of luck.
 
Smaug March 10, 2016
Grow lights nowadays are mostly LED and generate no heat to speak of; even fluorescents very little. There are seedling heating mats (you can probably find them under that name on Amazon) made for that purpose (also great for proofing bread in cold kitchens)- they run a bit wide for most window sills, though. There are also soil heating cables made, that can be fitted to a situations, but they're a little more difficult to find and set up. I wish you luck, but I must say this article is a bit on the optimistic site- I realize this site likes to emphasize a "yes you can" attitude, but you need to be realistic. I'd get a book (Sunset books are dependable) if you plan to put any real effort into it.
 
Smaug July 30, 2018
It's come to my attention that Hydrofarm makes a heating mat and a germination box sized for windowsills.