'Grow lights' will help indoor herbs

By Mary Boldan and Donna Siemro
Posted1/23/2010 12:01 AM

Q. I use lots of basil in my cooking and always grow several plants in my garden during the summer. At this time of the year I miss fresh basil and find the small packages in the grocery store to be very expensive for making fresh pesto. Do you have any hints for growing basil on my kitchen windowsill?

A. It is a treat to cook with fresh herbs in the winter. You can grow basil and other herbs indoors provided they get enough light. All herbs need a minimum of four hours of sunlight each day. A south window provides the best exposure. Even with this much light basil tends to grow "leggy" with few leaves. It is best to supplement light by using fluorescent or "grow lights."


The easiest way to grow basil indoors is to buy several plants available now in some garden centers and grocery store produce sections. If you have several basil plants you could harvest small amounts from the tips of each plant simultaneously or could harvest the growing tips of one plant while you let the other plants grow bushier. The next time you need basil, harvest tips from the second plant, etc. Even with several plants, you may only get enough basil for small batches of pesto.

Because basil is an annual plant, once it has flowered it will begin to complete its life cycle and die. If you see flowers beginning to form, pluck them off to keep the plants producing leaves. Once the last frost date in late May occurs, you can transplant your basil to your garden or outdoor containers to provide you with fresh basil during the summer.

It is best to water herbs thoroughly when they are dry to the touch. Add water until it drains from the bottom of the pot, but do not let the pots stand in water. Good drainage is very important when growing herbs in pots. It is very important that the container has at least one drainage hole and the soil mix has good drainage properties. If the water doesn't drain well, check the holes in the pot to make sure they aren't clogged.  If that is not the problem, you may have to repot the plant using soil that has better drainage. Adding perlite to a commercial soilless potting medium should help drainage.

• Provided by Mary Boldan and Donna Siemro, University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners. Send questions to Ask a Master Gardener, c/o Friendship Park Conservatory, 395 W. Algonquin Road, Des Plaines, IL 60016, (847) 298-3502 or via e-mail to cookcountymg@sbcglobal.net.