(for the Houseplant Impaired)
Story and photo by Brian Cruey, Berkshire Botanical Garden
I don’t know what is wrong with me. In the summer, my gardens are lush, green and, for the most part, healthy. It’s not effortless—I definitely put a lot of time and energy into the maintenance and care of my plants—but without being immodest I would say that I’m a decent gardener.
However, when I try to translate those skills into growing anything indoors, I’m less of a decent gardener and more of a crazed serial killer. So many people try to give me houseplants or ask me to overwinter something for them and I have to politely decline.
“You don’t understand,” I tell them. “If you ever want to see this plant alive again, run away as fast as you can.”
Of course, I know this is foolish. There is no such thing as a “green thumb” or cursed gardeners. Gardening is a science and plants are living things that have certain environmental needs and food requirements to survive. When it comes down to it, I’m just doing something wrong. So, this year I am going to try again.
What I really want are fresh herbs. Now that the weather is cold, my oven is on all the time and, when it comes to cooking, there is no substitute for homegrown herbs. I decided to go straight to the expert and asked Berkshire Botanical Garden Herb Associate Anna Smith if she had any advice on how I could improve my success rate with growing plants indoors. Here’s what she had to say:
Pick the right plant:
If you’ve had trouble growing indoor plants, stay away from temperamental herbs. Basil, cilantro and sage, for example, are difficult to grow inside even in the summer. Stick to plants that are more carefree, like oregano, parsley, lemongrass, chives and mint.
Choose the right spot:
Even though you may want to have your herbs growing in your kitchen window, if you aren’t getting enough sunlight there you might be setting yourself up for failure. South- and southwest-facing windows are best. You need at least five hours of light a day, so monitor the spot where you are thinking about placing your herbs and make sure it meets those requirements. As far as temperature goes, your plants like it to be around 68° or 70°. If you are home and feel like you need to turn the heat up or down, your plants are probably thinking the same thing.
Pot your herbs separately and don’t use clay:
Often we see herbs grouped together in one pot for aesthetics but this is not ideal for growing. Putting everything in one container creates competition amongst the plants, and herbs like mint can quickly take over. Also, stay away from clay pots. Though they are good for drainage, clay pots tend to draw out moisture much more quickly in the winter months when heaters are on and the air is dry. Clean plastic or glazed pots work better for this reason. When planting, use a high-grade potting soil and avoid using soil from your outdoor garden. Regardless what container you use, make sure that it offers good drainage—standing water in pots will quickly rot the roots and eventually kill the plant.
Rotate your plants so that they get even sunlight and exposure to the colder, window-facing side of the plant—and don’t let the plant touch the glass. One of the biggest mistakes people make growing plants indoors is overwatering. You want to keep the soil moist, but not too wet. If your plants’ leaves start to turn yellow, this is the first sign of overwatering and you should cut back. Because you are growing in a contained space, fertilizer is also a good idea. Use fertilizer weekly and weakly. More diluted fertilizer more frequently is best. Add a tablespoon of fish emulsion to one gallon of water and use that for watering to help promote growth. A nice shower in the kitchen sink every now and then never hurts either. This will help keep your plants clean, both of dust and any bugs that might appear. Like all herbs, you will want to pinch them back regularly to keep new growth forming.
I was told that if I’m having a problem, 90% of the time it can attributed to lighting or water issues so try adjusting those two things before anything else. With any luck I’ll be cutting back my herbs like weeds and not digging another unmarked grave in my backyard come spring.
Brian Cruey is director of communications for the Berkshire Botanical Garden. An avid gardener, writer and pontoon boat enthusiast, he proudly resides in Otis with his partner, dogs and chickens.