If you've ever looked around your apartment kitchen and wished for a more homey feel, then consider planting yourself a verdant herb garden—right on your countertop. "They provide you a sense of responsibility," says Dimitri Gatanas, owner of the Urban Garden Center in Manhattan. "It's like you have a goldfish or a pet." Here's how to start.
Light and ventilation are the two most important variables when it comes to growing herbs indoors—and can make the difference between a flourishing shrub and a dead, withered plant. When choosing a growing space, find a south-facing window, which will receive the most light (east and west work too). If your herb is stationed above a radiator that's mysteriously hot in the summer, or next to a drippy, frigid A/C unit, you'll have to factor that into how well it will grow. Plenty of natural air circulation is best.
In the summer, it's easier to start with a grown plant than to begin with seeds—which should be planted in winter. You can find grown herbs at most garden centers and some grocery stores.
You'll need a container with good drainage—but if your pot doesn't have holes, you can always fill the bottom with rocks as a substitute before adding potting soil or mix. A container without good drainage can lead to rotten roots.
Once your plants are potted, water your herb regularly, but be attentive. "People tend to overwater," Gatanas says. "That's your biggest killer." If the leaves turn yellow, that's usually sign to cut back. Gatanas also recommends using a water-soluble or slow-release fertilizer to keep your little green friends happy. Then remember to rotate the pot so the herb grows evenly and doesn't become "leggy."
And, finally, use them! Herbs are healthiest when they're regularly pruned. Whether you use them for cooking, drinking, drying, whatever, remember that herbs need haircuts too.
Here, three of our picks to try cultivating this summer—and how to pick the one that's right for you.
If you think you have a "black thumb": "One of my personal favorites is the bay leaf plant," Gatanas says. "It's only a little tree. It's pretty tough. It can take a lot of abuse, and it doesn't require a lot of water, but it's a perfect plant for a home." Bay can get by on slightly less light than other varieties of herbs. Make sure it has good air circulation, and then prepare to feel a surge of gardening confidence as your bay flourishes.
If you have lots of light: "I don't know too many people who don't like a pinch of basil in their pasta or to make a nice salad with tomato and mozzarella," Gatanas says. Basil requires full sun, so if you don't have a south-facing window or a supplemental light source, this one might not be for you.
If you love a good mojito: "In the summertime when people have drinks, there's nothing wrong with a little bit of mint in a cocktail," Gatanas says. Dazzle your dinner guests and tell them their drink was harvested. They can't not be impressed. Mint also thrives with slightly less sunlight than basil, so it's good choice to grow indoors. When the top layer of soil (about an inch down) feels dry, it's time to give it a drink.
If your herbs start to fizzle, try making some adjustments. "Most of the time it's lack of light and too much water," Gatanas says. "People feel like they need to water just because they have a plant."
After you've grown the herbs, here's how to properly chop them: