Window gardens

This window treatment features Juncus grass, mustard greens, splotched pansies and Mascara lettuce. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Plants)

Outside, your garden's plants and colorful blooms are long gone while cold temperatures take over. This may not be a gardener's favorite time of the year, but it doesn't mean you have to let the winter blues get you down. In fact, I have a solution that will help you combat both a bleak indoor setting and the extra pounds you may have put on over the holidays: Plant a windowsill garden.

Working in the earth, even if it comes out of a bag, is good medicine for the spirit. Filling a container with herbs or a few greens will brighten any home.

Devise a plan

To get started, gather your family around for a planning session. Select varieties of vegetables and seasonings that you know everyone will enjoy growing and eating.

Greens, radishes and green onions are good vegetables to try indoors. Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano, pineapple sage, bay and mint will provide nice texture and fragrance to your garden while adding flavor to your meals.

Keep in mind that availability, space and light could limit your choices. Check with your local garden center or the produce section of your grocery store to see what herbs and seeds they sell. As for the lighting and space, think location. Where you place your plants is just as important for your indoor garden as it is for your flower beds outdoors.

Find a sunny window, or create your own oasis of indoor light. To do this, all you need is a grow light or a light fixture with one cool and one warm fluorescent bulb. Mount the fixture on a shelf or create your own support. Make sure the light or the shelves are adjustable. As the plants grow, you will need to modify your setup, keeping the lights 6 to 12 inches above the tops of the plants at all times.

Consider using a combination of natural and artificial light. This will give you the best results during the often dreary, short days of winter. To increase lighting overall, place a mirror or white board under your garden. This will reflect the light back into the plants, further brightening the growing conditions of the area.

Ready, set, grow

Now that you have your location, it's time to get supplies. A clean container and sterile, well-draining potting mix will serve as your foundation. Check out your stash of garden supplies or add these items to your shopping list.

You will need a container large enough to accommodate the plants you want to grow, yet small enough to fit in the available space. Or consider using several smaller pots, one for each plant, to create a garden of potted herbs and vegetables.

Make sure the pots have drainage holes and a saucer to catch the excess water. Place some pebbles in the saucer and set the pot on top. When you water thoroughly, the excess water collects in the pebbles below the pot. Then it evaporates, increasing the humidity around the plants.

Once you've gathered and purchased all your materials, you can start planting. Fill the container with moist potting mix and plant the seeds directly into the soil at the recommended depth. Water to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.

Cover the container loosely with plastic, and place in a warm, bright location. Once the seeds sprout, take off the plastic and move the container to a sunny window or under the lights. Thin seedlings so they have enough room to grow into full-sized plants. Water thoroughly whenever the top few inches of soil is crumbly and slightly moist.

Growing greens

If you want to get a jump-start on your herb garden, purchase plants instead of using seeds. Fill the bottom half of the windowsill container with potting mix. Carefully slide the herbs out of their pots, loosen the roots and set them into the soil.

Arrange the plants in the container so taller herbs will be in the center and shorter ones will be on the outside. Once arranged, fill the rest of the area with soil, making sure the plant roots are covered at the same depth they were growing in their own containers. Leave about an inch of space between the soil surface and the top of the container to make watering easier and less messy.

Water your plants anytime the top few inches of soil is crumbly and dry, but wait to fertilize. Many potting mixes are fortified with fertilizer, so let your plants be your guide.

If the plants become pale and stunted, try a dilute solution of any flowering houseplant fertilizer. Use as needed throughout winter, but not more than the label recommends. If insects invade your garden area, pick them off or control them using water or insecticidal soap.

In no time, you will be on your way to growing fresh garden herbs and greens from your windowsill. And those post-holiday blues will be buried in the soil.

Melinda Myers is a horticultural expert with Birds & Blooms. For more information or to sign up for a free email newsletter, go to http://www.birdsandblooms.com.