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The Garden Scoop

Indoor Herb Gardening

There are few gardening activities available this time of year for those of us with the gardening itch.  Indoor herb gardening is one hobby that not only provides an edible product, but also delivers the human to plant interaction that so many of us need.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to tour a unique indoor herb garden on the U of I campus in Urbana.  The Bevier Café, located in Bevier Hall, is a student-operated café offering a variety of great cuisine for lunch, Monday through Friday (11:30-1:00) during each semester. 

This remarkable facility offers students in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition an exclusive opportunity to participant in all aspects of managing the Café, making it a “real-life” classroom laboratory.

Carter Phillips is the Manager of Bevier Café and instructs students as they complete 10 hours of lab work in the café each week as part of the 15-week Quality Food Preparation and Service Course (FSHN 340). “Students in FSHN 340 get a wide range experiences in this very unique lab,” said Phillips. 

Phillips, who is himself an alum of the Food Science and Human Nutrition program, has recently began to focus on sustainability at Bevier Café.  “Recently we’ve increased our sustainability through a variety of student-led projects,” Phillips explained.  Several of these projects, including the indoor herb garden at Bevier Café, have been funded through the Student Sustainability Committee, which is a student-led organization that funds projects focused on sustainably across campus. 

“I’ve tried to find more local sources for our food, using produce from the Student Sustainable Farm and meats from the Meat Science Lab here on campus,” said Phillips.  Each week the cuisine at Bevier Café features a variety of locally sourced products using recipes often created by the students in lab.

Being an avid home gardener, the move to an indoor herb garden to supply Bevier Café’s herbs seemed like a natural fit for Phillips, “What could be more local than herbs grown within a few feet of the kitchen,” he explains.  As and added benefit, the indoor garden provides Phillips with a year-round outlet for his green thumb.

The Bevier Café herb garden was installed in existing window sills in a hallway near the kitchen area.  The clever use of space takes an otherwise empty spot and fills it with green plants.  Phillips used other campus resources in the construction of the herb garden, with the campus Mills Shop and Sheet Metal Shop creating well-designed and durable planting boxes. 

LED grow lights are mounted above each window sill, since the north facing windows don’t receive quite enough light to support a flourishing herb garden.  The versatile LED lights are set by timers and have the ability to adjust levels of red or blue light to induce certain plant responses, such as increasing vegetative growth or promoting flowering.

If you are interested in developing an indoor herb garden, there are variety of possibilities, but I would recommend incorporating some kind of grow lights for consistent production.  I have only experimented with an occasional single pot in a south-facing window, which had inconsistent yields.  With the currently expanding LED grow light technology, it can be quite easy to give most herbs everything they need in a small space and supply yourself with year-round, fresh herbs. 

If you already have an outdoor herb garden, divide and repot some herbs for indoor winter gardening before the growing season ends.  Often times, potted herbs are available at local garden centers in early fall since it is an excellent time to plant them outdoors.  In fact, back in January I discovered a great variety of potted herbs for sale a local grocery store in the produce section. I recommend planting the herbs in individual pots, as opposed to one large planter, as it allows for easy removal of specific pots for watering, fertilization or quarantine, if disease breaks out.

Before you succumb to the winter gardening blues, I encourage you to attempt some form of an indoor herb garden this winter.  They can be as elaborate or as simple as you desire and nothing beats the taste of fresh herbs for cooking, especially when you grow your own.