How to grow herbs, houseplants in windowsill container garden

Sadye Matula

Table of Contents What you need for a window gardenBest herbs for beginner windowsill gardeners in NCContainer plants for intermediate, advanced windowsill gardeners Common mistakes when planting herbs, windowsill gardening Five tips for small-space gardening successPlants for small spaces with little or no sunRelated stories from Raleigh News & Observer […]

Windowsill gardens, small container gardens and houseplants are ways to help you exercise your green thumb when you don’t have a large space for planting.

Small container gardens are perfect for those who live in an apartment with a small or no balcony, in a dorm or in a rental room of a house.

Among the most popular plants to grow in windowsills and small spaces are herbs.

  • Herb gardens can sit in small containers on a balcony or on a large windowsill.
  • Growing herbs and adding them to dishes can enhance your recipes.
  • The leafy textures of the plants and their ability to grow in compact spaces can spruce up the appearance of a home.

Here’s what you need to know about growing in small spaces:

What you need for a window garden

The N&O talked to Bridget Zazzara (the Green Goods buyer and manager at Logan’s Garden Shop in Raleigh) and Charlotte Glen (the state coordinator of the NC State Extension Master Gardener program).

Here’s what you need to successfully begin a window garden.

Containers: “These can be recycled containers, but make sure you have drainage holes in the bottom of the container!” Glen said. “The holes need to be large enough to allow water to drain out. Small slits made with a knife are typically not large enough. If possible, drill round holes.”

A sunny spot: It’s crucial to have at least six hours of afternoon sun for edible plants, Zazzara said.

The best practice is to assess the light you have and find plants that work for it, rather than stretching a plant’s needs to fit into your space. Choose plants that match your conditions.

Here’s what to know, Glen said:

  • South-facing windows will get the most light.
  • East-facing will receive morning sun.
  • West-facing afternoon/evening sun.
  • North-facing mostly gets indirect light.

Use the “Find a Plant” feature on the NC State Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. There are over 400 houseplants and thousands of landscape plants to learn about.

For more information, visit plants.ces.ncsu.edu/find_a_plant.

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With adequate bright sun and watering when needed, growing your own herbs, such as basil, can be done on a windowsill or in your garden. Paul Videla [email protected]

Soil: Look for a mix designed for containers, not “garden soil” or “soil amendment,” Glen said. Make sure you read the label to see if the mix contains fertilizer, and see how long it’s designed to feed your plants. Your local garden center can help you find what you need.

Fertilizer: Even if your mix contains fertilizer, the nutrients will run out, so you will need to supply more, Glen said.

“For containers, I recommend using a slow release fertilizer designed for container use that contains some of each of the major nutrients, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) — that is what the three numbers on a fertilizer container represent. The percentage of those nutrients contained, in that order (N-P-K),” Glen said.

The best ratio depends on what you’re growing. If you’re not sure, snag something with similar amounts of each, such as 20-20-20. (You might have to scour the label to find these numbers.)

Space: Give your plants sufficient space so they can stretch as needed, Zazzara said. (Herbs don’t need much space, while a windowsill tomato plant, for example, will require a space with more height and girth.)

Air flow: Make sure the plant gets fresh air, as good air flow prevents fungus, Zazzara said.

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Homegrown cilantro is perfect for a summer salsa, said Megan George Cain, co-founder and creative director of The Zen Succulent, a Black-owned succulent terrarium in Durham.  Kyle Robertson TNS

Best herbs for beginner windowsill gardeners in NC

We asked Megan George Cain, co-founder and creative director of The Zen Succulent, a Black-owned succulent terrarium in Durham, to recommend some windowsill staples for beginners.

Cain’s Top 3 are basil, cilantro and dill.

Those herbs are compact, easy to grow and add a pop of green to your space, letting you try your hand at gardening in a low-commitment, easy-to-manage way, she said. Plus, their harvest will introduce fresh, bright flavors into your everyday foods, making you want to plant more.

Here’s what to know about growing basil, cilantro and dill:

Basil: If you regularly make a Sunday sauce, get some basil growing ASAP.

Basil has a summer harvest season, according to NC State Extension’s Container Garden Planting Calendar for Edibles in the Piedmont.

And a tip for success: Plant basil once the temperature is consistently above 50° F.

Here are some need-to-knows about growing basil, according to the Growing Herbs guide by NC State Extension’s Forsyth County Center:

  • Height: 20 to 24 inches.
  • Spacing: 10 inches.
  • Light requirement: Sun.
  • Propagation: Grow basil from seed.

Cilantro: Cilantro has a bushy texture, giving your window some weighty green, Cain said.

“Cilantro is my go-to for summer salsas,” Cain said. “You can also use it for garnish on a dish. That can be for a formal dinner, or even just to make your meals a little more special.”

Cilantro has an early summer harvest season, according to the Planting Calendar for Edibles.

And here are two tips for success:

  • Choose a “non-bolting” type of cilantro.
  • Get a container that is at least eight inches deep for large roots.

Here are some need-to-knows about growing cilantro, according to the Growing Herbs guide:

  • Height: 24 to 36 inches.
  • Spacing: 12 to 18 inches.
  • Light requirement: Sun or partial shade.
  • Propagation: Sow seeds in early spring. This plant doesn’t transplant well and it isn’t heat tolerant. Cilantro needs light to germinate.

Dill: “Dill is one of the most underutilized herbs. You really don’t realize how versatile it is,” Cain said.

Add it to dips, or stack it on your sandwich for texture and freshness.

Dill has a summer to fall harvest season, according to the Planting Calendar for Edibles.

And here are two tips for success:

Here are some need-to-knows about growing dill, according to the Growing Herbs guide:

  • Height: Three to five inches.
  • Spacing: Three to 12 inches.
  • Light requirement: Sun or partial shade.
  • Propagation: Sow seeds in early spring.

For NC State Extension’s full Container Garden Planting Calendar for Edibles in the Piedmont, visit content.ces.ncsu.edu.

For the full “Growing Herbs” guide by NC State Extension’s Forsyth County Center, visit forsyth.ces.ncsu.edu.

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Dill is a perfect windowsill plant for beginners looking to add fresh herbs to their meals. JOHN ROTTET JOHN ROTTET

Container plants for intermediate, advanced windowsill gardeners

Intermediate windowsill/container gardeners should try growing African violets and other flowering plants. “These plants need more light (and typically need to be relatively healthy) to flower,” Glen said.

Advanced windowsill/container gardeners should branch out to vegetables that must flower and produce a fruit. Try tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers. These need more light and more space to grow, so they’re more challenging, Glen said. Starting these plants from seed can add to the challenge!

Common mistakes when planting herbs, windowsill gardening

Here are common mistakes to avoid when starting a windowsill garden, Glen and Zazzara said:

Don’t overcrowd plants: “Some people plant too many herbs in one container,” Zazzara said. “Some herbs, like rosemary and mint, should be planted on their own since they will outgrow and choke out other plants.”

Don’t use stones: “There’s no need to purchase stones or use any other material to fill the bottom of the pot. That actually reduces drainage rather than increases it,” Glen said.

Don’t overwater: “Overwatering is the most common mistake with potted plants. Just because the surface of the soil looks dry it does not mean all of the soil is dry,” Glen said.

Stick your finger in the soil to see if it’s still damp below the surface, or you can pick up the container to see how heavy it feels. Remember, dry containers will be very light!

“Some people are heavy waterers thinking they need to soak their stuff every single day, which is just too much,” Zazzara said.

Don’t underwater, either: Rather than giving your plants frequent but light waterings, you should only water when the soil becomes dry. But don’t wait until it’s parched!

“When you do water, water the plant thoroughly to soak the soil,” Glen said. “Keep watering until excess water drains from the bottom of the container and the soil column is completely moist.”

Don’t let the water pool: You can’t let your plants remain in their saucer of water. This can contribute to a waterlogged root zone, and nutrients can build up on the soil, Glen said.

Don’t skimp on sunlight: If you’re growing the kind of green that needs a lot of if, of course.

“Herbs and veggies need five to six hours of afternoon sun to have successful crop production,” Zazzara said. Make sure your plants are in a sunny spot to soak up maximum vitamin D.

Five tips for small-space gardening success

Glen gave The N&O five tips for growing on a windowsill or in a small space:

  1. Start small: Start with a few plants and grow from there.

  2. Experiment: Try different plants to find what works best for your windowsill.

  3. Grow what you like: To eat or look at!

  4. Go leafy: For edibles, leafy herbs and vegetables will be most successful. Look for lettuce/leafy green mixes designed to “cut and come again.” You will be able to harvest these several times. Sow or plant a new batch every three to four weeks to keep the harvest coming.

  5. Dive even deeper: Take the NC State Extension Gardener online course in Houseplants, Succulents, and Cacti to learn more about successfully growing and using houseplants to enhance indoor spaces. You can find more information at extensiongardener.ces.ncsu.edu.

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Any space can accomodate a plant, it’s just up to you to find the best plant for what you have, said Megan George Cain, co-founder and creative director of The Zen Succulent, a Black-owned succulent terrarium in Durham. JULI LEONARD [email protected]

Plants for small spaces with little or no sun

Cain’s succulent shop in Durham is packed with houseplants, container plants and, of course, succulents galore.

She and experts at other local gardening stores can help you find the perfect plant to add some green to your space, whether you have an exorbitant amount of light or a mostly dark space, or anything in between.

(Also, it doesn’t have to be green! Zen Succulents sells succulents with blue and pink tints to match any aesthetic, Cain said.)

“Indoor gardening is for everyone and every space, but you need to make sure you pick the right plant for what you have,” Cain said. “There are low-light plants for spaces such as bathrooms with no windows, and there are tropical plants for spaces with tons of light.”

Here are some low-light plants for low-light and dark spaces:

Sansevieria (“snake”) plant: “I have Sansevieria in my bathroom right now,” Cain said.

Zanzibar (“ZZ”) plant: This is another low-light plant that can do well in a dark space.

Pothos plant: “If you have some light, pothos plants love the moisture of a bathroom,” Cain said. These are perfect to hang inside a shower.

This story was originally published April 15, 2022 10:37 AM.

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Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is a service journalism reporter for The News & Observer.

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