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Growing Herbs Indoors - Thyme, Oregano and Sage
submitted by Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator
Holiday cooking, and it's wonderful aromas, are often due to the addition of culinary herbs such as thyme, sage and oregano. These herbs are easy to grow in the home garden, and they can even be grown indoors throughout the winter, providing a source of fresh herbs for cooking.
Herbs grown indoors should be placed in the sunniest window available, but will still require supplemental light to do their best especially during winter's short, dark days. Any fluorescent light fixture will provide a good quality light spectrum for your plants. Use a timer to provide a minimum of 10 hours of light per day. Place the herbs as close to the light as possible, 8-10 inches is ideal, since light intensity drops dramatically at greater distances. Follow the seeding and growing guidelines below, when starting herbs for your indoor garden.
Common thyme, Thymus vulgaris, is native to the western Mediterranean region, and prefers full sun with loose, well-drained soil. Very well-drained, or gravelly soil is especially important for woolly or creeping thymes that may develop root rot if grown in soils with poor drainage. Thyme grows as a small, often creeping, woody shrub with tiny pink, white or red flowers, and is often hardy to Zone 5.
Establish thyme with transplants or by seeding. Scatter seed directly on the ground in spring. Keep the emerging plants moist until they are established, then thin them to about six inches apart. Once established, the plants will need little extra watering or fertilization. Thyme reaches a height of 12 inches and a width of 10-12 inches. It can be propagated by cuttings, layering or division. Harvest the entire plant by cutting it back to 2 inches above ground in midsummer and again at the end of the season.
Thyme has small, wiry stems so only the leaves are used in cooking by stripping them from the stems. It's often used to season turkey, potatoes, tomatoes, summer squash or eggs.
Oregano, Origanum vulgare, is another native of the Mediterranean region. It also requires a site with full sun, well-drained soil. Oregano is a perennial and can be propagated by seeds. Direct seed it in the garden and do not cover seeds, they need sunlight to germinate. Flavor can vary greatly among seed propagated plants, so propagate by root divisions or cuttings from those plants known to have strong flavor. Oregano reaches a height of 12-24 inches and a width of 10-20 inches.
Sprigs of oregano can be cut off when the plant is at least 6 inches high. In June, one-third of the top-growth of vigorously growing plants can be harvested. Allow the top-growth to regenerate, then the plants can be harvested again as needed throughout the summer.
Oregano is often used in Italian cooking on pizza or with tomatoes or peppers. It also works well with lamb or steak. Oregano leaves should be stripped from the stems and chopped before use.
Common garden sage, Salvia officinalis, is a perennial herb hardy to Zone 3. It grows like a small woody shrub, about two to three feet tall, and prefers sandy, well-drained soil with full sun. The leaves are oblong, somewhat wooly and gray-green. Sage can easily be started from seed or transplants.
Sage is a strong-flavored herb used in sausage or stuffing, and also works well with poultry, rabbit, pork or baked fish. Harvest young sage stems before they bloom and strip leaves from the stems before use.
Using Fresh Herbs
Harvest young, tender stems that have not bloomed for the best flavor. After cutting several stems from your plant, it will regenerate new growth so allow it to keep growing throughout the winter. Be sure to wash stems well before using, even when growing them inside as houseplants.
Fresh herbs are usually added to recipes toward the end of the cooking time to preserve their flavor. Less delicate herbs, such as thyme, oregano and sage, should be added during the last 20 minutes of cooking. When using fresh herbs in a recipe that calls for dried herbs, the general guideline is to use 3 times the amount of dried herbs indicated.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office