Good Only in Theory?
The idea has merit: flowerpots of flavorful herbs decorating windowsills and providing savory additions to meals through the winter. A good part of last season’s garden is packed in the freezer and glistening jars of canned tomatoes line shelves in the basement. The greenhouse is offering a steady supply of lettuce, arugula, and other salad greens.
Still, I’m beginning to miss garden-fresh vegetables. Sprinkling some fresh chives on a pan of roasted potatoes might infuse the whole dish with freshness.
The problem is that chives doesn’t thrive on a windowsill, unless the windowsill is very, very sunny. Chives will grow well through the winter with artificial light, but that means a bank of lights permanently poised a few inches above the leaves — so much for the rustic charm of indoor potted herbs. And maybe my taste buds are dulled, but when I snip chives to add to a dish, I take a handful. The plant would need at least a few weeks to recover sufficiently to withstand another harvest.
The same could be said for growing parsley indoors; after each picking, you have to wait too long for another.
I haven’t thrown up my hands at the possibility of growing culinary herbs indoors through the winter. I just have to be very selective in what I grow. Any such herb must pack a lot of flavor into each leaf, survive well indoors, and look pretty. I offer at least two candidates: rosemary and bay laurel.
Rosemary and bay laurel are both native to the Mediterranean region, but represent extremes in appearance. Bay laurel has a formal demeanor, made more so when the plant is shaped into some geometric form. Starting over 30 years ago, I trained my bay laurel plant to a single upright stem capped by a ball of fragrant leaves. Rosemary’s natural inclination is to grow as a scraggly shrub. Some gardeners – including me – train the plants to small trees, which is very decorative and each harvest helps prune the plant to keep the head bushy.
Both rosemary and bay laurel are perennial, woody plants. This is good because such plants have the potential to live on year after year, and as they age, they develop character. Strips of bark are peeling from the old, thickened stem of my rosemary plant, giving the plant a wizened, old look. My bay laurel stood as a two-foot-diameter ball of glossy, green leaves crowning a thick trunk, shaded ever so slightly with a patina of green algae.
Like most herbs, rosemary and bay laurel thrive best in sunny locations. You can make up for insufficient light in winter by keeping both plants cool. Neither plant minds cool temperatures — a cool house in winter is no cooler than a Mediterranean winter. Even if the plants grow little, if at all, under these conditions in winter, both have short internodes that are amply supplied with flavorful leaves. Harvests are hardly noticeable. Both plants can recuperate outdoors basking in summer sunlight.
Bye, Bye Bay
You may have noted that I’ve been referring to my miniature bay laurel tree in the past tense. That’s because recently, after 33 years, the tree and I parted ways. I realized I had too many potted plants, and, as part of the purge, bay laurel went to another home.
Not that I retract any of my praise for it as an indoor herb plant. The plant was very attractive year ‘round, and the flavor . . . dried bay leaves can’t compare with the rich, oil-y aroma of a fresh plucked leaf. The main problem was that I use it too rarely too justify the plant.
Rosemary and bay laurel are not the only possibilities in indoor herbs. I once had a lemon verbena plant which filled the air with a lemony aroma whenever its leaves were rustled as I walked past. The plant was somewhat gangly and the aroma became overpowering to the extent that IIbegan tiptoeing past the plant. When a blast of Arctic air came through the bedroom window one winter night and killed the plant, I never replaced it.
Thyme and oregano are other possibilities in indoor herbs. Both creep along the ground, so might be good for hanging baskets. Indoors in winter, with low light and cool temperatures, the plants begin to lose their leaves to look pretty ragged. And neither of these herbs have strong enough flavor to withstand repeated winter harvests. I prefer their flavors dried anyway.
For now, I will rest on my past and present laurels: one aromatic, scraggly shrub and one aromatic, tidy tree. Do you have any other especially good candidates?