9 Tips for Actually Sticking with Your Indoor Herb Garden This Year

updated Jan 6, 2021
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Did you get the gift of an herb garden this holiday season, but you’re not sure where to start? Understandable. As adorable as mini herb gardens can be, growing your own can be intimidating—especially in winter, which isn’t exactly plants’ favorite time of year.

But don’t let that discourage you from digging into your new edible plant hobby, which can reward you not just with the pride in a successful green thumb, but also with tasty herbs that might be tough to find elsewhere.

“When I started cooking Vietnamese food professionally in New York, it was really hard to find a lot of the herbs that were so crucial to the cuisine. People claim to love Vietnamese food because it’s so fresh with a wide variety of greens, but I found that restaurants were just using the same rotation of mint, Thai basil, cilantro, and shiso,” says Phoebe Tran, Content Coordinator at Local Roots NYC (@localrootsnyc).

Tran says working on a farm in Vietnam really inspired her to pursue farming as a career, and now she is able to bring a better and more interesting variety of ingredients to New Yorkers through Local Roots NYC.

With a few tips from Tran—as well as gardening experts Ashlie Thomas (@the.mocha.gardener) and Timothy Hammond (@bigcitygardener)—you can bring the same joy to your kitchen. Here’s their advice for newbies.

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Start small, and get to know your plants

“Start with a few herbs, master those, and then grow more,” says Thomas. “Starting off small maximizes your chance for success, and allows more time to learn and discover what works.”

So if you got a set of three, stick to those for now—you can add more once you gain confidence.

As for self-professed “black thumbs,” they generally fall into two camps, says Tran: “They either forget and neglect their plants or over-care for them, most often through overwatering.”

Before you can create a care schedule for your plants, you should do some research on what they like. For instance, some herbs (like easy-to-grow mint) prefer moist soil; others (like rosemary) prefer it a bit drier. If you ignore the needs of your plant, you’re setting yourself up for failure at the outset.

“I think the key here is A) not giving up and claiming that you have a black thumb too soon and B) getting to know your plants,” says Tran.

Pay attention to seasonality (and know your hardiness zone)

“Just because you see tomatoes in your grocery store year-round does not mean that you will be able to grow them in your garden year-round,” says Hammond. He says it’s important to educate yourself about what plants grow at what time of the year.  

That’s especially true if you’re hoping to grow anything outdoors, on a patio or balcony.

For people growing outdoors, I think they need to understand seasonality and the difference between growing an annual herb (like basil) and perennial herb (like mint),” says Tran.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources for understanding whether your plant is a one-season wonder (annual) or will come back year after year (perennial). If you received seed packets, Thomas advises reading them closely and then hitting up the brand’s website for more info.

“Additionally, you can check out our local university extension’s website for growing specific things in your exact area,” says Thomas. To find that info, Google your state plus the phrase “university extension” and “gardening”—you should be able to navigate from there to pages with more precise advise on growing season and timing.

If you’re planning to plant outside, you should also figure out your hardiness zone, which tells you which plants can thrive in your climate.

Not knowing your hardiness zone can lead you to think you have a black thumb, when really, your region might just not be right for that particular plant at that time. If you’re wanting to bring your plants outside, do some research first to make sure it’s not too hot or too cool for your plant.

You can find out your hardiness zone and learn more about it on the USDA website.

Credit: Amelia Lawrence/Apartment Therapy

Fertilize sparingly

Newbies tend to be more fertilizer-happy than is necessary, which can actually cause plants to flounder.

“Mishaps with fertilizers are a big problem starting out,” says Thomas. “Sometimes, adding the wrong type or adding too much will not only harm your plants, but it may potentially leave unfavorable residuals in your garden bed,” says Thomas.

Put in your research time on the type of nutrients your plants need, the best fertilizer (with minimal long-term effects) for your plants, and how frequently you should feed them.

One hint for beginners: Keep fertilizer out of the soil during cool months, when plants are not at their peak growing phase.

If you want to enrich the soil, Hammond suggests reaching for all-natural compost made from your kitchen scraps—such as coffee or eggshells—instead.

Place plants in a well-loved space

“I love positioning my windowsill herb garden in the kitchen where they’re most easily accessible when I’m cooking,” says Tran.

Giving plants a prime location also makes it easy to check on their health and water when necessary. “You know the saying, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ This applies to your garden space as well,” says Hammond. “Locate your garden in a place that you pass by daily. This way, it is fresh on your mind.”

Get close with your soil

You’ll need to get your hands dirty to have happy plants. “Don’t be afraid to touch the soil—that really is the key to watering,” says Tran. “Always check soil moisture by sticking your finger in up to your knuckle.”

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Invest in some basic, sturdy tools (but don’t go crazy with it) 

“Do not buy every tool or gadget. It will not make you a better gardener,” says Hammond. “If I could only use or recommend one tool for outdoor gardening, it would be a hoe cultivator tool combo.”

Thomas says beyond the basics (hand trowel, garden fork, pruning shears, gloves, shovel), she recommends a good garden hat to protect you from the sun, and labels so you don’t forget what you planted where.

Don’t buy planters just because they’re cute

“Remember that the type of planter you use, no matter how cute, has an effect on how frequently and how much you water your herbs or plant,” says Tran.

An adorable, tiny planter may be easy to overwater while a correctly sized one (with great drainage) for your plant may be a better choice to keep the moisture levels consistent.

Beginners will have the best success with a pot that features a drainage hole so that they can help prevent accidental overwatering.

Unsuccessful season? Don’t give up

“People typically give up after they have one unsuccessful season,” says Hammond. “Change your mindset and understand there are no losses in gardening, just lessons. Learn from every experience you go through and realize that your gardens’ success is directly related to the amount of time you spend tending to it.”

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Consult expert resources

Tran recommends “How Not to Kill Your Houseplant: Survival Tips for the Horticulturally Challenged” by Veronica Peerless for those claiming to have a black thumb.

Thomas suggests getting connected with other gardeners on social media. A few of her favorite follows include @gardenaryco, @blackgirlswithgardens, @lovely.greens, @deannacat3, and @thegardenvoyeur.

Hammond’s website Big City Gardener is full of information and his YouTube channel has tons of videos that walk you through gardening how-tos, as well.

An important thing to remember, experts say, is that plants are living things. “They’ll love you back only as much as you love them,” says Tran. But fortunately, she adds, “They’re also more resilient than you think, so if you have a place to put them outside when the weather is nice, then they’ll probably bounce back on their own.” 

Adds Thomas: “There will be times where you may get frustrated (especially with pests and animals), but it helps to recognize that you have to learn to work with nature and not against it. Things will happen beyond your control, but you accept it, learn from it, and grow beyond it.”

In the end, Hammond says, everyone has to start somewhere. “All the people you say have green thumbs or are fantastic gardeners started the same as you—killing things and confused,” he says. “They just happened to stick with it.”