Get Gardening: How to Grow an Herb Garden

Bring the outdoors in, year-round, with plants that are not only fragrant but delicious. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

The dreary browns and grays of a Midwestern winter leave us all pining for a little greenery. Wouldn’t it be great if we could keep some of it with us year-round?

Well, you can – and it comes with some great smells, too.

Herb gardens are an easy, low-fuss way to bring nature indoors and to keep it there. Experienced gardeners find it’s a simple way to get their fix in winter, and home chefs get plenty of benefits, too. All it takes is a little planning.

“People focus on a lot of indoor plants this time of year because they can’t grow much outdoors,” says Michael Fedoran, greenhouse manager for Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center in Crystal Lake. The company has a sister nursery in Elburn. “We have a number of plants to make your winter a little greener.”

Before you begin, think about what you want to grow and where you’ll keep it. Around northern Illinois, you can grow most kinds of herbs indoors or outdoors. While mint, chives and oregano can survive the winter, others like basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro and rosemary aren’t quite so lucky, Fedoran says.

“The good thing is that you can replant things throughout the season,” says Fedoran. “But the best thing to do is to use that plant the best you can. If you’re pinching off leaves regularly, it will keep growing.”

As any seasoned gardener knows, timing is everything. January and February are too early to start seeds for outdoors – but there’s never a bad time to grow indoors.

Countryside has wire racks that are filled with packets of flower, vegetable and herb seeds. The back of each envelope details when to plant and how to start the seeds. These packets also list how quickly the plant reaches harvest time.

“It’ll say, ‘days to maturity,’ and all you have to do is count back from a certain point,” says Fedoran, grabbing a pack of basil for show. “This one says to start indoors six to eight weeks from the last frost, so in our area that’s usually mid-May. If you count back, six to eight weeks is around mid-March. That’s when you’ll want to start them for outside.”

Impatient gardeners, take comfort. If you can’t wait for seeds to sprout, garden centers like Countryside sell plants year-round, and that includes herbs.

The trick for any house-bound plant is to give it lots of light. A west or south-facing window is ideal, but it might help to use a grow light made specifically for gardeners. Here, too, your local nursery can help.

What type of fixture you buy depends on what you grow. If you’re interested only in herbs, most any light will do, Fedoran says. If you plan to grow other things, particularly fruiting vegetables, then a full-spectrum light is your best bet. This pinkish-colored light emits the same wavelengths as the sun, but without the heat.

“The closer you can get them to the plant, the better,” Fedoran says, noting that 1 to 2 feet is ideal.

“The farther away it is, the less effective it is. If you can get it where it’s hanging fairly close to the plants, that helps. If it’s up by the ceiling, it won’t do a whole lot.”

Your growing plant will need water, but knowing how much to give it is a tricky question. That’s why it’s one of the most frequently asked questions at Countryside.

Fedoran’s answer usually starts with another question: what kind of pot are you using? Terra cotta pots come in all colors and shapes, and they wick away moisture faster than a resin or plastic-based pot.

“Rosemary, thyme or oregano – these things are a little more Mediterranean, and you think of the Mediterranean as being a hot, dry, windy environment. Those plants wouldn’t mind being in a terra cotta pot and a little drier because that’s what they’re used to in the real world,” says Fedoran.

“Plants like parsley and basil like a little more moisture. They would benefit from being in a plastic or resin container that doesn’t breathe and holds moisture.”

The size of your pot may also factor in. Herb plants adapt to their environment, so many varieties are happy in a pot that’s only a little bigger than their container in the store, Fedoran says. If you do want to give it more room, start with a pot that’s just a few inches wider.

“If you had a 6-inch pot I would go to maybe an 8- or 9-inch pot at max,” says Fedoran. “If I put this plant in a 12-inch pot, then there’s a whole lot of soil that has no roots. So, when you water the plant there’s extra water that the plant can’t use it. It just sits there.”

If you doubt whether your plant is thirsty, just pick up the pot. You’ll know it’s time to water when it feels lighter. Take it to a sink and fill the pot with water until it drains out the bottom.

“That means you soaked it pretty good,” says Fedoran. “Let the excess drain away before you put it back. You don’t want to put it in a saucer right away and then let it sit in water. That’s not good for the plant.”

If herbs aren’t your thing, there are other ways to add a little greenery indoors. Every January, Countryside hosts a houseplant sale that puts on centerstage a wide variety of unique things to grow at home.

Fedoran also hosts periodic classes, including a free seed-starting class that’s scheduled for March 9 at noon. You can sign up online at

Warm, sunny days are coming back soon enough, but until then there’s no reason not to enjoy a little greenery inside. Besides, who can complain with a houseplant that takes your dinner to a whole new level? It’s good for you and your plant.

“Once the plant flowers, the herbs lose their flavor,” says Fedoran. “So, keep using it regularly. Green growth is what you’re looking for, so use it as much as possible.”

Easy Herb Pesto
Once your indoor herb garden is flourishing, here’s an easy way to enjoy it fully. Use basil leaves for a traditional take, or experiment with your own delicious combinations of other herbs.
2 cups herb leaves (basil or something of your choice)
2-3 garlic cloves
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup toasted pine nuts or pumpkin seeds (optional)
In a food processor, pulse pine nuts or pumpkin seeds. Add herbs, garlic and olive oil, then pulse ingredients until blended.