Even the most amateur of cooks know that, somehow, a homemade dish becomes even more delicious when your own homegrown herbs are the star of the plate. Skip the plastic-wrapped oregano and drooping basil you might find at the supermarket, and follow these tips from gardening expert instead. Here's his sage advice on how to grow an indoor herb garden that spices up your kitchen — both in aesthetic and flavor.
New to indoor gardening? Start with chives. "Chives are probably one of the easiest herbs to grow indoors," says Nardozzi. "They grow very quickly and are a compact plant, so they're good for apartments or other small spaces." (Even once you cut chives down to the soil, they'll quickly sprout up again.)
Cook with it: Ricotta and Chive Gnocchi
If you let chives grow wild, they'll start blooming with light purple flowers. Toss those in with your soup or potatoes as well — they're perfectly edible and add a beautiful touch to the plate.
Just remember: Chives require a large amount of sunlight and water. To make your potting soil "heavier" (in other words, helping it retain more moisture), mix in store-bought compost. Aim for the compost to make up about 10 to 20 percent of the soil's total volume, suggests Nardozzi.
Herbs tend to like things sunny - a problem for some indoor gardens. Make sure to position your pots somewhere that gets plenty of light throughout the day.
Wondering if your spot is bright enough? Herbs growing in with very long stalks and few leaves can be sign that things are too shady, as can the tell-tale "leaning" effect, where the herbs leaves or stems all seem to be reaching in the same direction.
Warning: This plant can get unexpectedly huge. Especially if you live in a warm climate, a small rosemary plant can quickly grow into a large shrub. Keep in mind that you'll need to regularly trim the plant to keep it a manageable size, and may need to replace it every, say, three years if the stems become too woody.
Cook with it: Rosemary Parmesan Popcorn
If you do need to replace a rosemary plant, grow new plants from the mother plant. "You can take some cuttings, dip them in a product called rooting hormone powder, and they'll actually root so you can create your next generation of plants from the mother plant," says Nardozzi.
Not every herb plant needs its own pot, but they do each have special needs. When planting herbs indoors, pay attention to their individual preferences for soil, water, and sun to pair up your plants. For example: rosemary and thyme prefer drier climates and can live happily side by side, while tender herbs like basil and parsley do best with regular watering and belong in a separate planter.
If you have a patio or deck, this Mediterranean herb is best to take outdoors during the spring and summer for extra sunshine and, as a result, a higher yield, says Nardozzi. If that's not an option, however, opt for a variety with smaller leaves, such as spicy globe basil. "You'll have to use more of it in cooking for flavor, but it's more manageable and doesn't go bad as quickly as larger basil pants do indoors," says Nardozzi.
Cook with it: Basil Yogurt Panna Cotta With Raspberries and Ginger
For the best basil flavor, snip the stems in mid-morning, the time when herbs have the most essential oils, says Nardozzi. Store the cut leaves in water until it's time to start cooking to maintain flavor and freshness.
If you'd like to give your herbs a boost, stay away from using home remedies. "A lot of those remedies, like Epsom salts or coffee grounds, have some nutrients, but not enough to make a difference," says Nardozzi. For your indoor herb garden, pick up an organic or chemical fertilizer from the gardening store.
Oregano is the reigning herb of Italian food, but for the most flavor and aroma, Nardozzi suggests Greek oregano (the variety will be specified on the label). Unless you're an avid gardener, buy the oregano as a small transplant; it can be difficult to grow oregano from a seed.
Cook with it: Couscous Risotto with Tomato, Oregano, and Mozzarella
Oregano is a creeping plant, so plant it around the edges of the pot if it's sharing the container with other herbs. It will slowly grow over the edge, giving you more room to plant other plants in the middle of the container.
Returned from a trip, only to discover your herbs are nearly dead? Nardozzi recommends filling a foot basin with one to two inches of water and placing the entire pot inside. The water will cover the drainage holes and rehydrate the entire root ball.
The poster-child for herbal solitary confinement, mint absolutely must have its own separate pot or it will overrun everything else sharing its space. You can cut off leaves often and it will continue to grow, says Nardozzi. To keep it growing happily, you'll likely have to re-pot the plant when it becomes too dense for its pot.
Cook with it: Cucumber Gazpacho With Watermelon and Mint
Good news: almost all of the herbs that humans love are also a-okay for our four-legged friends (the exception: members of the allium family, like chives) but it's still a good idea to take house pets into consideration when you're planting. Cats, in particular, can be attracted to herbs, so keep felines (and how much of their fur your want on your herbs) in mind when choosing the placement of your pots.
You can also check this handy from the ASPCA to make sure that everything that goes into your indoor garden is pet-safe.
This herb adds pleasant flavor and color to both your windowsill and dish. "Some varieties have variegated leaves, meaning the leaves have yellow around their edges, which is nice for aesthetic," says Nardozzi. Experiment with the many different flavors of thyme, such as lemon thyme and orange balsam thyme.
Cook with it: Linguine With Mussels and Sauce Poulette