Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bright Lights Big Basil

     "Grow your own wonderful fresh cooking and other herbs indoors all year long, and stop paying grocery store prices! Get started with your own indoor herb garden in minutes and have fresh herbs 
within weeks!"

All Photos by Shane VanOosterhout
     I lifted the above quote from, one of the many websites selling indoor herb kits. For their low price of $29.95 you receive 12 different herb seed packets and a growing kit that includes a plastic tray with a lid: "the perfect climate for fast herb growth." 
     The perfect climate...where? Hawaii?  Spain?  The South of France?  Last time I miniaturized myself and crawled under a moisturized plastic dome I thought of Minneapolis on July 20, 2011 when the heat index hit 119 degrees and the dew point spiked 82%.

Full-spectrum light from T5 florescent bulbs.
     Yes, heat and humidity are necessary for seed germination, but so is light--a lot of it, and forget about a bright windowsill because winter's sun in the northern hemisphere is far too feeble. The only way to achieve an adequate growing climate for herbs indoors is to provide an artificial light source.  So, let's talk a little about foot candles, or how the strength of light is measured when it strikes a surface.
     Today, January 28, more than a month past our winter Solstice, at 1:30 in the afternoon, my light meter reads about 1800 foot candles when I touch it directly on the window glass. At six inches away from the glass, the foot candles drop to 1500. 
     Herbs need, at the very minimum, 2,000 foot candles of light, which is still on the far end of wimpy when you consider that the bright summer sun delivers 10,000 foot candles, the same time of year when seasonal herbs are at their peak.
     When I place a light meter on my growing table it reads about 4,400 foot candles, as you can see in the photo below.
My dad's old light meter from the 1950's.  Vintage.

     During the first week of January I sowed a handful of herb seeds in four-inch pots. By the way, I've been using the same Basil packet since 2009 and the seeds are still viable. Truth is most garden seeds have a long shelf life if they are kept perfectly dry at room temperature. 

Renee's Seeds are excellent, and the packets are very well-designed.

Baby Basil's first set of true leaves rising above its cotyledon.

       Indoor seeds should be started in a soil-less mix (literally contains no soil particles), not potting soil. Potting soil holds too much moisture for tender baby plants with tiny root structures. The (non) soil temperature must be warm--70 degrees, and consistently moist (but not wet) or the seeds will not germinate.  As for those plastic domed mini greenhouses?  Watch out, they quickly become tropical mini rain forests--great for terrariums, terrible for herb seedlings, which are vulnerable to rot. 

Second set of true leaves.

     Once the new plants have their second set of true leaves, transplant them into a high quality potting mix--light, fluffy, with added perlite, and allow the soil to dry between watering. Notice in the photo above that the stems are thick and strong, not spindly or bending over.  Also notice that the distance between the two sets of leaves is compact, not leggy, and the foliage is a lovely, rich green color.  

     In a few weeks from now I'll be making pesto!  

Larger pots can accommodate up to four Basil plants.

Parsley seedlings.
I love Rosemary!

This fine lady is more than a decade old. Her tiny flowers are pure white.
Severe pruning stimulates tender shoots on old wood. 

Shane VanOosterhout is The Passionate Gardener.  
For more garden inspiration, you can follow him on Facebook


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thanks Shane

Anonymous said...

This gave me a creative idea. By the way, my snowdrops bloomed in November and my crocus were out yesterday on the south side of my house.