Indoor and Outdoor Herb Gardening for Beginners

One of the most important things to know before you start growing herbs at home is the difference between indoor and outdoor herb gardening.

That’s because whether you decide to plant inside or outside your home affects the entire process.

This guide covers everything you need to now about growing an herb garden indoors and outdoors for beginners.

 

Indoor and Outdoor Herb Gardens

When it comes to choosing where to grow your herb garden, you have two main options. These are indoors and outdoors.

Like all things, each one has its advantages and disadvantages.

Here, there’s no right or wrong answer. It all comes down to your preference and the space you have at home.

That said, always remember that herbs are native to the Mediterranean. As such, they thrive in an environment that’s similar to it.

This means that they like:

  • Bright, direct sunlight for at least 6 hours a day (Full sun); Lack of sun can stunt or slow their growth
  • Well-draining soil (their roots can rot in wet or very moist soil)
  • Warm, moderate temperatures (they don’t like the cold, so you need to bring them in during the winter if they’re outside)

 

When to Plant Herbs Indoors and Outdoors

The chart below shows you the best time to plant herbs indoors and the best times to transplant them outdoors to your garden.

chart of when to plant herbs indoors and outdoors (best dates to plant herbs indoors and transplant herbs outdoors)
chart of when to plant herbs indoors and outdoors

 

Indoor Herb Gardening

Some people will argue that you can’t or shouldn’t grow herbs indoors.

To a degree, that’s true because it’s “harder” to grow them in your home.

That said, the term harder is in quotes because it’s not necessarily more difficult to do so. Instead, it’s different.

As such, the approach you take growing an indoor herb garden will be different from when you’re growing one outside.

 

Growing Herbs Indoors

The biggest challenge to growing herbs, or plants for that matter, indoors is light. That’s because most plants like (and need) a lot of it. Additionally, your home’s walls block out a lot of that light.

As such, it’s important to choose the herbs you grow indoors properly.

Of course, that’s not to say that it’s harder, or you can’t grow herbs inside.

It’s just different.

Most herbs need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day. As such, it’s a good idea to set them beside a window or on the windowsill.

Ideally, you want them facing the south since that side gets the most direct sunlight.

In case you don’t have anywhere at home that can provide this kind of light at that duration, it’s a good idea to use grow lights.

Artificial lighting allows you to supplement natural light. Here, LEDs and HID lights are the best options. But, even then, you’ll still need to supply 14-16 hours of light since they don’t deliver the same quality the sun does.

As such, having a timer comes in real handy.

The good news is, there’s very low to almost no risk of insects, pests and disease as far as indoor herb gardening goes.

 

Easiest Herbs to Grow Indoors

  • artemisia
  • basil
  • bay laurel
  • catnip
  • chervil
  • chives
  • cilantro
  • costmary
  • curry plant
  • dill
  • germander
  • ginger
  • lemon balm
  • lemon grass
  • marjoram
  • mint
  • oregano
  • parsley
  • rosemary
  • rue
  • sage
  • santolina
  • thyme
  • winter savory

 

How to Grow Herbs Indoors

So what do you need to consider when growing herbs indoors.

These are the most important factors to stay on top of.

 

Light

When it comes to indoor herb gardening, here are your lighting options:

  • Facing South. Go for a window facing south. This side gets the most sunlight. It also receives direct sunlight.
  • Better Yet, Southwest. Even better, go for the southwest corner window. Since the sun rises in the east and moves west as the day goes on, you’ll get the benefit of the afternoon sun which is the brighter and more intense.
  • Use 2 Windows. Pick a corner where there are two windows. This way your plant gets light coming from two sides. Again, the south and west sides are the best. Although, the south and east will do well too.
  • Use Grow Lights. If you can’t get at least 6 hours of direct sunlight, use or supplement with HID grow lights.

 

Simulating Sunlight

As far as indoor lighting goes, the goal is to simulate the sun. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

Why?

The sun emits a full light spectrum.

That’s why we see it as white light. White is the result of the combination of all the colors in the spectrum.

That said, if you put the sun’s rays through a prism, you’ll see all the colors of the rainbow appear (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet).

In fact, you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon at some point when the sun’s light reflected off a glass of water or window, and you see something resembling a rainbow.

As such, it’s difficult for artificial light to exactly mimic this. This is why indoor lighting often needs to run longer than the 6-8 hours under sunlight to produce the same results.

It is also why, if possible, positioning your plant by the window that gets direct sunlight is still the best option available.

 

Artificial Lighting

If your home doesn’t get enough direct sunlight, using grow lights or supplementing the sunlight you get with artificial lighting in a good option.

Here, there are a few choices, including fluorescent and HID lights. You do want to stay away from incandescent lights as they produce a good amount of heat.

Since the quality of light isn’t at par with that of the sun, you’ll need to leave them on for between 14-16 hours a day. A timer goes a long way in making things more convenient so you don’t have to consistently keep turning the lights on and off manually.

Below is a chart that shows the different kind of artificial lights for plants.

It lists the different types of bulbs/grow lights, the light intensity produced by each kind and where to use them.

chart of different types of artificial lights and grow lights for plants
chart of different types of artificial lights and grow lights for plants

 

Growing Medium

If you’ve read my guide on houseplants, you know the value of going with a potting mix as opposed to using garden soil for indoor gardening.

Here, you can create your own mix or buy from the garden center.

While most potting soil isn’t actually soil, you may find some that are soil-based mixes.

Soil-less mixes are ideal for houseplants and indoor herbs because you know what you’re getting. That is, there are no diseases, pests or other things that come with it.

Additionally, you’re sure of its ingredients.

Most importantly, potting mixes are lightweight and loose enough to allow air and water to flow through.

The one thing to note with potting soil is that most only come with enough fertilizer for the first few waterings (starter charge). Those with slow-release fertilizer last longer. But, its nutrients are often depleted by the end of the first month or so.

In either case, you’ll need to add fertilizer from then on.

Below is a chart showing all the common herbs, their light requirements, the type of soil they need and ideal soil temperature to grow.

chart showing care requirements of herbs including their light requirement, soil type and temperature
chart showing care requirements of herbs including their light requirement, soil type and temperature

As a guide, you can check out the chart below which shows you the different kinds of soil and how well they absorb and retain water.

This will give you an idea on which soils to use or not to use for specific plants.

CHART - Types of soil by Water Holding Capacity & Infiltration a
CHART – Types of soil by Water Holding Capacity & Infiltration Rate

 

Air

Unlike the outdoors, you don’t have any wind to contend with inside your home. But, there are other things to consider. These are:

  • Air circulation. Herbs, and plants in general, don’t like stagnant air. Thus, leaving them by the window or on the windowsill lets them get fresh air. Similarly, leaving the door open allows air to flow. When you’re at home, you can run a fan as well to keep air moving.
  • High humidity. Herbs also like high humidity. This is probably the biggest problem you’ll encounter among the three. That’s because indoor air is fairly dry. In part because you run your heater during winters and the air conditioning during summertime. As such, setting your pots or containers on top of trays filled with water helps increase air moisture around them. But, don’t let the containers soak in the water. They should be above it on pebbles or something else that works as a platform.
  • Moderately warm temperature. Herbs generally thrive in moderate to warm temperatures. Although some prefer it cooler than others. Daytime temperatures between 68 to 80 degrees work well for most herbs. At night, they enjoy temperatures that drop between 5 to 10 degrees (58 to 70 degrees).

 

Water

Due to the sun, wind and other factors, it’s easier for plants outside to get dry. In contrast, the lack of those things makes indoor plants more susceptible to overwatering.

In most cases, your plant will tell you when they need watering.

That said, here are some simple rules to consider.

  • The type of container affects how much you need to water. Porous pots and containers allow water to escape. In contrast, materials like plastic don’t. As such, plants in non-porous containers don’t need as much watering.
  • Cooler temperature means less watering. If your home is generally cool or it’s the colder time of the year, scale down your watering schedule.
  • Don’t let them sit in water. Herbs don’t like a lot of water. Thus, letting them sit on a puddle of water increases the risk of root rot.
  • Don’t use cold water. Cold water shocks your plants. Instead, let the water sit until it comes down to room temperature before using it.
  • Be careful with tap water. Depending on where you live, tap water will likely contain some or more fluoride and chlorine. Too much of both isn’t good for plants.

 

Fertilizer

Like water, indoor plants don’t require as much fertilizer as they do outside. One reason is they don’t grow as much or as fast indoors.

You’ve probably noticed that the same species of plant is smaller when grown indoors compared to when it’s left outside.

Similarly, there are fewer elements, like wind, that affect the fertilizer.

 

Outdoor Herb Gardening

Besides growing your herbs indoors, you can likewise plant them outside. For all intensive purposes, growing outdoors is “easier” when it comes to herbs.

The main reason being that there’s more access to sunlight.

That said, outdoor gardening has its own challenges as well. As such, it’s important to go through the important things to consider with outdoor herb gardening.

 

Related

 

Sunlight

One of the most important keys to herb gardening indoors or outdoors is light.

As mentioned earlier, most herbs enjoy lots of direct sunlight. That’s 6-8 hours a day. So, it’s a good idea to choose a spot where they can get this.

You can likewise opt for the herbs that thrive in shaded areas for sections of your garden that get indirect sunlight or have trees and other structures with a shade over it.

That said, not all sunlight is created equal.

As such, just because you place your herbs outside doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll get the proper amount of light they need.

Here, it’s important to understand where your house and/or garden is facing.

Below is a chart that shows what kind of sunlight each herb needs and how many hours of sunlight they need per day.

chart on herbs sun exposure. how much sunlight do herbs need per day and what kind of light do they need
chart on herbs showing what kind of light herbs need, how many hours of sunlight per day and ideal temperature

 

The Sun Rises in the East & Sets in the West

You probably already know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. This means that the morning sun comes from the east. And, the afternoon sun from the west.

Since the afternoon sun is brighter and more intense, plants that like a lot of sunlight, like herbs, are better off facing west than east.

That said, facing east also offers enough light for sun-loving herbs. That’s because they get light from early in the morning, about 9 a.m. all the way to 3 p.m. From there, they get indirect light or some shade (3 p.m. onwards).

This gives you at least 6 hours of light, either way.

 

North vs. South

What’s more important for your herbs is that you keep them away from the north side.

Why?

It gets the least amount of sunlight among the 4 directions.

Since the U.S. and Canada are above the equator, the sun comes from below. The opposite would be true for countries that are in the southern hemisphere.

As such, having your plants face south allows them to get direct light as the sun moves from east to west.

In contrast, the north is on the other end, which only gets indirect sunlight.

 

How Much Sunlight Does Your Garden Get?

The easiest way to figure out where your home and garden are facing is to use a compass. This gives you an idea of where the sun will come from.

Once you have a basic idea of where you want to put your plants, it’s time to track the sun during different times of the day.

I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to use a piece of paper.

All you need to do is note down where the sun falls during the:

  • Morning
  • Noontime
  • Afternoon

Also, do take note of any shade or shadows that are cast by trees or other structures. These will keep your plants from receiving direct sunlight.

Finally, it’s worth the extra effort of re-doing this exercise during different times of the year. You’ll quickly realize that the sun’s behavior is very different during spring and summer compared to wintertime.

A final word about herbs and sunlight. One thing I noticed with herbs is that most want a lot of sun. But, they can also tolerate less of it.

Since most herbs aren’t grown for their flower, you can “sacrifice” a bit of sunlight (if you can’t get it). That’s not the case with vegetables or flowering plants.

 

Space

Another issue to consider outdoors is space. Unlike indoors where your herbs will reside in containers, you have a lot of options outside.

But, there are two main things to consider here.

  • How many plants do you want to grow? The more plants you want to grow, the more space you’ll need. The good news is herbs are often smaller than other plants. And, you can grow them on tables and other areas besides the floor.
  • How much room does each plant need? Spacing is key between plants. It allows them to grow and not be encumbered by their neighbors.

Ultimately, the total amount of space you’ll need is based on both: (a) how many plants and (b) how much space between them you need.

Below is a chart of the common herbs and how big  each one will eventually get so you can plan out spacing.

chart showing herb types, mature size and spread. Also, how much spacing each plant needs.
chart showing herb types, mature size and spread. also, how much spacing each plant needs.

 

Soil

Herbs like loam soil. They generally like well-draining soil as well. Although, some herbs thrive in moist soil.

The best way to figure out what kind of soil quality your garden has is to use a soil test kit. And, do make sure to test different sections of your garden. Often, certain areas have richer or poorer quality soil depending on the conditions they get.

If your garden doesn’t have the ideal soil, you can improve it using compost, peat moss or other amendments.

Additionally, it’s important to check the soil’s pH level. pH affects how much nutrients your plants are actually able to draw from the soil. When it comes to herbs, soil that’s slightly acidic to neutral (pH of 6.0 to 7.0) works best.

In case your garden soil’s pH is much higher or lower than that range, you can use sulfur or limestone to amend the soil pH.

To lower soil pH to 6.5, the chart below shows you how much sulfur to use based on your soil’s current pH levels and what kind of soil your garden has.

chart of how much sulfur to lower soil pH
chart of how much sulfur to lower soil pH

To increase soil pH, you can use limestone.

And the chart below will show you much limestone you need to add to increase soil pH to 6.5 depending on your soil’s current pH and the type of soil your garden has.

chart on how much limestone to increase soil pH
chart on how much limestone to increase soil pH

 

In case your garden soil doesn’t cut it, don’t worry. You’ve got another option – raised beds.

Raised bed gardening is when you create an enclosure (often wooden) to house your plants. This enclosure allows you to add your own soil, in this case, your own growing mix. Doing so lets you to use high-quality soil instead of the poor one that your garden has.

 

Wind

This is another factor that you don’t have to consider indoors. But, outside, you can’t always protect your plants from strong, unruly winds.

Here are a few things to consider about wind:

  • Strong winds can knock down plants that aren’t well-established into the ground.
  • Taller plants run the risk of being swayed in one direction. As such, they’ll end up growing slanted towards one side.
  • Wind speeds up the drying process. So, you need to monitor moisture more frequently. Or, run the risk of them getting too dry.

Thus, when it comes to wind, you have a couple of options:

  • Avoid planting in areas where wind can be a big factor
  • If you can’t, find ways to mitigate its effects

 

How to Water Your Herbs

Watering outdoors is also more challenging than doing it indoors. That’s because you have to deal with external elements. These include:

  • Sunlight which speeds up evaporation
  • Wind which can dry out the soil faster
  • Rain which can be unpredictable. Thus, you don’t know how often and how much water it will provide on any given month.

Herbs don’t need a lot of water. As long as you give them one inch of water (or rain) a week, they’re happy.

Like most plants, it’s too much water that often kills them. Not the other way around.

One of the easiest ways to track how much water your plants get naturally is by using a rain gauge. They’re cheap. And, they’ll let you know how much water your plants get from the sky.

From there, your job is to figure out whether you need to supplement it or not.

Here are some important tips to keep in mind when watering your herb garden.

  • Water deeply less frequently. Water deeply each time so the moisture gets down into the soil. This makes the roots go down underground to search for water. In contrast, shallow water evaporates more easily. It also makes the roots “lazy” as they’re able to get water from the surface. Thus. encouraging poor root development.
  • Water in the mornings. Mornings is the best time to water your plants because the morning sun isn’t as strong as it is in the afternoons. So, there’s less evaporation. But, you also don’t want to water a night because you can end up allowing excess water to stay overnight causing your plants to sit in puddles.
  • Your Hose. Hoses work great for watering your plants. But, they can be a hassle too. Length and pressure problems aside, hoses can kink or run over your plants as you drag them. Since they water from above, you need to be careful not to wet foliage which can lead to issues later on.
  • Too much is worse than not enough when it comes to watering plants. Overwatering is the number reason houseplants die. Herbs are the same. Too much water prevents them from getting enough oxygen. And worse, it puts them at risk of root rot as well a s fungal problems.