When temperatures drop in other parts of the country, the last thing almost anybody wants to do is go about gardening outside- frostbite, you know. And even here in the great American Southwest, winter can mean cutting back on outdoor gardening time. And, just as an aside, it definitely means cutting back on outdoor watering. But you already know that. Of course, people who have no yards are in the situation of not being able to do outdoor gardening any time of the year. But not having a yard, or it being too cold to go into the yard doesn't mean that there's no opportunity to grow something lovely - or tasty. In fact, there's no reason not to have a kitchen herb garden growing literally in the kitchen! Honestly! And that can be a year-round activity.
Many of the plant parts we use for herbs are the green leaves; things that'll grow fine as long as they receive sufficient light and water - sound familiar? And they are so simple! For instance, take cilantro. It's critical in so many national cuisines - from Mexico to Burma. And like so many other herbs, it's considered medicinal. The Aztecs used it to deal with digestive complaints and medieval Europeans thought it was an aphrodisiac.
But back to the plant. Buy the seeds and put them in moist potting mix. Give the seedlings at least six hours of bright light a day. Don't crowd the seedlings in the pot; thin them out, spread them into new pots. Once a plant has a dozen or so leaves, you can start picking them off and adding them into salad dressing, salsa, mashed potatoes, whatever. I mentioned once that my favorite culinary trick is to take those tiny garlic cloves at the center of the bulb and stick them into the soil, or even into other plants. The leaves that emerge are perfect to use instead of chives.
I know I've been talking about herbs, but don't forget that lettuce and spinach will both work fine in pots. Not iceberg lettuce; I'm talking about the leafy kind. Of course, these plants won't be as big as any you'll buy at the supermarket, but you'll have it fresh from the kitchen! What could be better than that?
It's important to keep many of these plants from flowering. If herbs like basil, coriander and parsley are allowed to bloom and produce seeds, first the leaves develop an off taste, and then the plant dies. Not all herbs do this, but any of them that're annuals will. It's their nature. Just like other annuals, for instance marigolds, or lettuce and spinach - once the plant produces seeds, it dies. The odds are that you're not trying to get herb seeds - unless you've planted dill or caraway, which probably wouldn't be such a great idea unless you have a very tall window with lots and lots of light - but you're very likely to be trying to continue leaf production.
So what do you do to keep the leaves going? Trick the plant! Once you start to see flowers forming, pick them off - pop them in your mouth, drop them in the salad, just don't let the plant get into seed production mode.
This little deception works with almost any annual where you want to keep the plant alive. Coleus, for instance. Who grows coleus for the flowers? Nobody, really. They're not terribly attractive. All you want is the gloriously colorful leaves. See flowers? Pinch them off!
Of course, lots of herbs aren't annuals, and for them, flower production means that the plant might go through a period where leaves will be secondary. Some of the most popular herbs, like marjoram, rosemary and sage, they create flowers and leaves with no problem. If you pinch off flowers, then you'll have consistent herb production, but it's not going to be a cataclysm if the plant throws out a few seeds. And the fact is - you probably don't have nearly enough light inside for there to be a bumper crop of flowers. That's a big reason that I've only been talking about the leafy crops. To get most herb flowers, like borage or dill, for instance, or fruiting vegetables like peppers and squash, you'd need a lot more light than most window gardens, even if it's a sunny window, could provide.
Personally, I would just love to have a warm, really sunny atrium in my house - I'd be growing different colors of cherry tomatoes in hanging pots ten months a year (not July and August). Sadly, I don't, but if you do, think about trying any miniature fruiting vegetable that grows on vines, like miniature melons. But if not, find seeds for your favorite legal herb and get growing.
For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
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