Put herbs on a sunny windowsill! Bring them indoors and have fresh rosemary and thyme and mint all winter. So easy, anyone can do it! Maybe for some people, but somehow never for me. Every year I’d bring them in, and watch the plants die a slow and painful death. I could occasionally nurture a rosemary along, but keeping herbs from the garden going until spring? Never. I found this demoralizing, and convinced myself I just wasn’t all that good with indoor plants.
I mean, I was ok at some kinds. I ran a 20 family CSA for a number of years, grew most of our own produce, and started thousands of seedlings every year, first for our own farm and then for the urban farm I was the director for in Schenectady, NY. I could start seedlings, even hard ones, just fine. For a few years I even ran a plant CSA, selling medicinal herb and vegetable starts, without a greenhouse or anything other than some sunny windows a a few grow lights. But indoor plants? Big old nope.
On the other hand, I had a surprisingly large number of successes overwintering plants, despite the fact that our low energy, wood heated farm that we lived on until 2016 was quite chilly in winter. And yet, a Makrut Lime at the farm survived many years of chilly winters and low light, until the kids left the gate to the yard open, and a hungry herd of goats ate it to the nubs. Fig trees overwintered cheerfully for me and even fruited in February and March. I kept hot peppers and scented geraniums and some medicinal herbs and host of other things alive all winter, and put it back outside in the summer. But I still couldn’t grow those herbs to save my life, and I figured that when a thyme plant moved in, it became a houseplant. Therein lay the problem.
Just starting seedlings and overwintering things obviously could not make me a houseplant person. Give me a peace lily or a spider plant, and I could usually promise its hideous death. I just didn’t see the point of them. Plants that interested me provided food or medicine – yes, I liked that they cleaned the air, but why wouldn’t you choose ones that you could eat or make tea or tinctures from? Despite the fact that I ran a CSA, overwintered dozens of plants in my house, and sold medicinal herbs and vegetable plants, I’d never conquered the mysteries of the pothos and ficus. I assumed I was just incompetent, and accepted it, convincing myself loftily that “real” and “important” plants were edible, and my inability to keep houseplants alive was an unimportant quirk. I continued to ignore them, thinking of houseplants as an indistinguishable mass of random green things about which I chose to know nothing.
It was the broadleaf thyme that flipped the switch in my head. I’d started growing this plant at the farm because my Haitian and Guyanese member enjoyed it, and I’d taken an extra home and fallen in love with its flowery-thyme essence. When October came around in upstate New York and it was thriving in a pot on my walkway, it seemed a shame to let it die like the ones in the ground at the farm, and I brought it inside. I figured it would die alongside the rosemary and haunt me like the rest of the herbs, but what’s one more plant ghost? It didn’t. And neither did the cardamom ginger and pandan leaf plants I had rooted over the summer and brought inside. Instead, they thrived, and provided leaves and flavor all winter long, alongside the fig and citrus trees, the clumping bamboo, etc…
For someone who hated houseplants and couldn’t keep them, I was starting to have a surprising number of indoor plants. And when a friend from the farm who WAS good at houseplants told me how frustrating she found overwintering herbs, even though everyone was supposed to be able to do it, it finally flipped a switch. I wasn’t bad at this – the issue is that the conditions in northern houses in the winter aren’t all that conducive to growing Mediterranean herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. And the reason for that is the same reason that most houseplants are tropical substory plants – conditions in heated houses in the winter are a lot more like the tropics than they are like Greece – consistent warmth, low to moderate light, etc. That is, the plants that thrive in our homes tend not to be plants that thrive outside in our gardens.
For most people this is probably a gigantic “Duh, Sharon” but it gave me a clue I’d been missing – and that I figured some people also have to have missed, because I’m still reading advice to just bring your herbs and plants indoors. If you want to grow indoor culinary herbs, medicinal herbs, fruiting and flowering plants, what you want are to grow tropical plants, and adjust conditions in your home to approximate those found in nature. While regular oregano may not thrive in your house, cuban or mexican oregano probably will. While culinary thyme is best harvested and dried and used during the growing season, broadleaf thyme will thrive and give you fresh thyme all season.
It was just a matter of learning about the culinary herbs of the tropics – about getting to know pepicha and papalo, culantro and mexican sage. And from there it wasn’t a very far leap to the medicinal herbs the thrive as houseplants – java ginseng and gotu kola and sushni. I was already keeping lemon verbena and nutmeg scented geraniums going over the winter – why not more. And for that matter, why not fruiting and flowering plants? What about ginger and turmeric? My figs and kumquats fruited over the winter – could I grow Australian Beach cherry? Strawberry tree? Roselle? Tamarillo?
Where was the line between a houseplant and an outdoor plant? If what I wanted was to grow as wide a range of edible and medicinal plants as possible, might others want to as well? I googled, but couldn’t find much – plenty of people were growing outside of their zone, but mostly for ornamental purposes. Plenty of people in cold places were trying to keep kale and tomatoes over the winter, but most had never considered tree cabbage or tree tomato, their distant tropical relatives.
My house is huge because I have 11 children, so I have an abundance of windows, although not as many south facing as my house should have if it were better designed. Moreover, because my house is weird (in my town most large houses suitable for big families were converted to something else when families got smaller – mine used to be a recording studio and a urologist’s office) it has a huge driveway. Much of it is covered by raised beds, but I wanted to make use of this resource – originally I’d planned to remove the asphalt, but while the asphalt can be recycled, the contaminated fill underneath would have to be landfilled, probably several dump truck loads of landfill. So I gave up on that idea and began to think about how to best USE the asphalt and its heat absorbing qualities. I’d already noticed that tomatoes and peppers and melons along the driveway did well, and had fewer diseases than those on the soil – what about using the reflected heat and season extension techniques to grow tropical plants for sale, and teaching urban farmer trainees as part of the farm to do so for profit?
Thus began the edible houseplant and tropicals project. I’m hardly the only one doing things like this, but I’m determined to see what I can accomplish in particular, and how I can help others profit from it. So expect to hear more about plant profiles and my adventures in growing weird things both indoors and out. And please let me know what you are growing too!
Teaser photo credit: By C T Johansson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19043804