Clueless indoor herb-gardener... help!

First off, let me know if I'm in the wrong place, please: the posts I've seen here are mostly outdoor and fruit/vegetable-gardening, and I'm doing (as the subject lines imply) herbs in indoor planters. i live in an apartment, so outdoor transplantation isn't viable, else I probably would.
Another confession: I've come into this rather cold, knowing little at all about gardening, so a lot of what I've done up until now seems absurd to serious gardeners, I'm sure.
Here's my setup: I have several pots sitting on my window-sill. I'm growing lemon balm, sweet basil, Genovese basil, and spearmint from seed. The soil is Miracle-Gro Moisture-Control; the window is a west-facing second-story in a suburban community (so it gets pretty much unobstructed light in the afternoon). I water the plants when the soil becomes perceptibly dry, or when the plants become perceptibly wilted -- I use about a half teaspoon of Miracle-Gro all-purpose plant food per gallon of water.
And here is the problem: in terms of color and not dying, the plants seem to be doing OK. However, the actual leaves are flavorless -- especially on the mint; the basil has a mild flavor and detectably basil-like odor; the lemon balm has both full flavor and odor, and the stems on the sweet basil and mint seem to be growing woody. In addition, the mint has rather sparse foliage -- there's a lot of stem between leaves,and the leaves are starting to curl and dry up around the edges. Also, none of my herbs are showing buds or flowers, which I'd rather expected.
It seems I'm missing something crucial in my plant-care here. What is it? Any help would be greatly appreciated.
+-------------------------------------------------------------+ | D. Jacob Wildstrom -- Math monkey and freelance thinker | | Graduate Student, University of California at San Diego | | "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into | | theorems." -Alfred Renyi | +-------------------------------------------------------------+
The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily endorsed by the University of California or math department thereof.
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il Tue, 25 May 2004 23:05:21 +0000 (UTC), snipped-for-privacy@euclid.ucsd.edu (Jake Wildstrom) ha scritto:

Basil stems do grow woody and mint too for that matter. I wouldn't let them wilt all that often, they don't need near death experiences to improve flavour. They need to be watered more often. Only the top bit of soil gets dry, not the whole pot.
Dry and curly? Not enough water for sure, more fertiliser and bigger pots seem to be needed, that way they don't dry out so quick. Is that the correct ratio of fertiliser to water? seems a little on the light side, but I don't know the brand. In summer I had to water my basil every day. The flowers form later in summer. And you don't want basil to flower, you want the leaves after all.
How big are those pots? I get better plants in pots like at least 8" across at the top. I do have some small leafed basil in smaller pots but they are also a smaller plant. My Yates Thrive liquid feed wants 5 ml per 2 litres water every week.
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il 26 May 2004 11:36:37 +1200, "Loki" ha scritto:

Key: 1 US gallon = 3.775 litres 1 imperial gal = 4.545 litres 1 teaspoon = 5 ml
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From what I have heard, herbs need to be stressed a little for full flavor. Dont feed or water them too well.

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On Tue, 25 May 2004 23:05:21 +0000 (UTC), snipped-for-privacy@euclid.ucsd.edu (Jake Wildstrom) wrote:

Too much fertilizer. Waaaaaay too much fertilizer!
You're already using Miracle Gro potting soil and it has fertilizer in it. If you keep putting more in the water you're going to burn the plants up. Besides, herbs don't like that much fertilizer, they like rather spartan conditions.
How hot do the plants get? Too much heat from the sunlight warming the pots can burn off the essential oils that give herbs their flavor. It's already so hot around here that I only harvest herbs in the early morning.
Penelope
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<snip> In my experience, basil tends to respond to less rather than more torture. I've grown it indoors and out and the indoors plants have a superior, mild taste. The outdoor plants, which are subjected to greater temp and moisture extremes (invariably) can produce leaves with a less than optimum flavor, verging on straw-like.
My experience with this is not comprehensive and only applies to standard sweet basil, but thought I would share this observation.
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On Tue, 25 May 2004 23:05:21 +0000 (UTC), snipped-for-privacy@euclid.ucsd.edu (Jake Wildstrom) wrote:

Doesn't bother me if you're asking about growing stuff indoor, some might, but ignore 'em. ;-) Most of us have grown plants inside too.

Everyone starts somewhere!

I generally cut the fertilizer to 1/4 or 1/8th.. depending on how often I had to water plants. If you water some of them frequently, then I'd dilute it more than with those that need more water, and all herbs do not need the same water/fertilzer conditions. Basil is a quick growing juicy leaved and stemmed annual that will require more water than something like thyme or oregano.. I know those aren't in your list, but just for comparison. Lemon balm can take some pretty dry conditions and spreads and are tough plants as I all too well know, it's all over my yard! But more on that later.

They're not getting enough light. Insufficient light causes etoliation..where the plant increases the length of the stems between the leaves in hopes of reaching light (think of those forgotten potatoes growing long white stems looking for light as an extreme example), and often chlorosis accompanies it..yellowing or lightening of the plants' leaf color...pale green instead of deep green leaves, or in the case of the lemon balm a bright green with shiny leaves.
If you have a south facing window, they may be happier there. If not, supplementing their light with a florescent light set up with plant lights. They have plant spot lights, incandescent, but they put out a great deal of heat along with the light. You can find florescent set ups in many lengths or plant lights in different lengths that may fit something you already have. I wouldn't put them in ceiling fixtures so much though as they need to be pretty close to the plants the closer the better to give them enough light to grow sturdy stocky plants rather than spindly growth that it sounds like you're describing. You can grow plants anywhere in the house as long as you can provide them with enough light, but most people do not have enough light, even in windows alone...and when you do grow plants relying on windows, you should rotate the plants 1/4 turn a day so it gets more even light around the plant.
Garden plants generally want 6 hours of light a day, and many herbs we like and grow are from sunny rocky hillsides.. those thyme and oregano plants I know you don't have. Others, still like sun, whether they're mints, or basil.
Flavor wise, the plants need that sunshine and balanced nutrients to grow well, if they're not getting enough light to grow well, they can't USE the nutrients you give them. Without proper lighting, what would be a "normal" amount of water can drown a plant as it cannot utilize it without the light to fuel the photosynthetic process, can't kick the chloroplasts and mitochondria in gear to use those raw materials you're providing.
So flavor won't be there without the light allowing them to grow.
Ditto on flowers. But, the optimal time to harvest plants is just before they bloom.
Spearmint is one of the mildest mints, so it's not going to be really strong no matter what. (also, if someone tries to sell you peppermint seed.. laugh and don't buy it..peppermint is started from cuttings, or divisions..vegetatively. All the garden books I've read which mentioned it says there are no viable peppermint seeds). But, peppermint of the sort grown around here for extract making, is smooth leaved, no hairs, dark dark green with a bit of a maroon cast around the edges and under sides of leaves and on stems. They are VERY strongly flavored!! WOO!
I'd suggest either providing what you have with more light. Or if you started them all from seed, and have some left, plant some more, put them under a florescent grow light ..keeping the light about 2" above the pots, and as the plants grow..about 2" from the growing point of the plants. After the plants get oh, 6" or so tall and are looking stocky and healthy, pinch out the growing tips, that will encourage the plant to form side shoots, and they'll grow bushier.
And the last thing.. fresh herbs are not as potent as dried, so you generally use more fresh herb than dry. Experiment once you get some stocky happy plants going. You can grow them in an unused area, or basement, and bring them up and rotate them in the windows, when they start showing signs of getting pale needing light, put them back under the grow lights and bring up another!
Good luck!
Janice

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Hi Jake Wildstrom,

and
I
Don't worry. You are in the right group.
By UseNet hierarchy:

indoor planters are container gardenning.

herbs are edible.

at
We don't try, we don't know. Most of the testing I do on gardenning up to now are a total failure of stupid thing. But I do learn from it.
Regards, Wong
-- Latitude: 06.10N Longitude: 102.17E Altitude: 5m
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On Wed, 26 May 2004 21:09:40 -0600, Janice

<snip> Janice-- I believe I'm correct in assuming that basil is generally not a hybrid? DaveH
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On Thu, 27 May 2004 20:53:22 -0400, DaveH

I don't know of any, 'though of course there must be *some*, herbs that have been hybridized. There are certainly many different varieties of basil, but I've never heard of anyone saving seed and having something significantly different come up.
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On Thu, 27 May 2004 20:53:22 -0400, DaveH

Did I say it was? Don't recall doing so. If I did, it must have been a misunderstanding, I do sleep type at times, but can't tell I don't have what I wrote, so can't tell what you're referring to. ;-)
Janice
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<snip>

No, no. I had an odd experience with some saved Basil seed--the leaves tasted like the resulting plants weren't coming true. You seem quite knowledgeable so I posed the question, somewhat out of the blue. DaveH
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On Mon, 31 May 2004 11:57:41 -0400, DaveH

Ahhh ok. ;-) Well, yes any basil grown next to others can and probably will cross, forming a hybrid offspring, a naturally occurring, but a hybrid none-the-less, so that when you plant the seed that occurs, you're in a crap shoot as to what the resulting plant will taste like...if you have a bunch of different kinds of basil growing in close proximity. And there *are* a lot of different kinds of basils, sweet, cinnamon, lemon, some that are like camphor scents.
In general, if you think you will want to save seed from some particular type of basil, and you want it to be true, you will need to somehow keep pollen from other types from getting to the flowers of the type you wish to save. There are different ways of doing that.
You could just grow that one kind of basil. Or , you could just keep all blossom spikes on other kinds from forming, just pinch or trim them off any time you see them, until the one you want to save seed from has finished blooming and has set seed. Then you could allow another to flower.. and set seed, keeping any others shorn, and so on.
You could also just cover the developing flower spike *before* the buds have opened, with a very fine material like nylon stockings, or a tightly woven cheesecloth (not the loop kind).. whatever you choose, it needs to exclude pollen and insects. Then chose another flower head on another of the same type..in the same stage of development. Once you see the pollen grains on the anthers being ready..powdery and will come off and use a soft brush like a small water color brush and brush the flowers and brush onto other flowers. I would think they would be too small to actually take anthers from flowers and applying them to pistils on others. They may even be self pollinating, but I think just making sure only one kind is allowed to bloom at a time is the easiest way.
It's best to use, pick for drying, or freezing the basil and most herbs just as they're about to bloom, that's when they're supposed to be most flavorful. Once they bloom they're going to put their energy to producing flowers and then seeds and the rest of the plant tends to lose quality, leaves are smaller, paler, stalk woodier.
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snipped-for-privacy@euclid.ucsd.edu (Jake Wildstrom) wrote in message

Did you start growing the herbs indoors then move then outside into the hot sun? they could be suffering from shock. anyway I would trade in the lemon balm for some lemon verbena, gives you a better lemon flavour. I have some herbs growing in 2 gallon pots this season that are doing well all around, they seem to have good growth and flavour. I have old english thyme, orange thyme, rosemary, lemon verbena, outside in my garden I have winter green, catnip, spearmint, oregano, lemon balm, garlic chives, dill, anise, etc. They are all being watered generously, and are growing fast. Could also be that you used too much ferts like another poster mentioned.
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Thanks to all who responded. The comment that they're probably getting insufficient light seems particularly to the point: I guess I'll have to get some supplemental lighting in (I do not, alas, have a south-facing window in the apartment). I'm a bit worried about the contradictory messages with respect to fertilizer: what signs other than flavorlessness can I use to determine if I'm over- or under-feeding them?
As for switching the balm for verbena -- hmm, maybe so. I've found the balm to have a pleasantly citric flavor, but I've never tried to grow verbena. I'm loathe to stop growing the one perennial I have which seems to be doing what it's supposed to, though.
+-------------------------------------------------------------+ | D. Jacob Wildstrom -- Math monkey and freelance thinker | | Graduate Student, University of California at San Diego | | "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into | | theorems." -Alfred Renyi | +-------------------------------------------------------------+
The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily endorsed by the University of California or math department thereof.
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il Fri, 28 May 2004 04:33:28 +0000 (UTC), snipped-for-privacy@zeno.ucsd.edu (Jake Wildstrom) ha scritto:

If it was a clay pot, unglazed. you could tell it was too much fertilizer by all the salts that would congregate on its surface. I guess one thing we don't know is, is your water hard or soft?
If you follow the instructions on your packet your fertilizer should be ok, but leave it off for a few weeks if you think you've overdone it. The leaves can go yellow from lack of nitrogen, they can also brown at the edges.
Or as my "The houseplant expert" books says: "If edges are yellow or brown, the possible causes are many and varied - overwatering, underwatering, too little light, too much sun, too little heat, too much heat, overfeeding, dry air or draughts." (!!!)
heheh good luck!
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snipped-for-privacy@zeno.ucsd.edu writes:

Keep your lemon balm and enjoy it. Lemon verbena is more of a shrub compared to lemon balm; it grows to four feet tall (or more) and has a woody stem, more like a small tree-like shrub. It would do better as a potted plant than in a box with other herbs. At least that's the way mine is.
My attitude is to keep doing what works. If the lemon balm is growing well, no need to replace it, just add another plant.
Glenna
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writes:

I've been growing lemon balm for a couple of years now - I planted it from seed in a window box type pot and off it went. It even seems to be everygreen - in the winter it was quiet but still greenish (I'm in the UK).
However, I'm intrigued about what another poster said about too much ferts being obvious by the salts accumulating on the unglazed pot. I wonder about this cos - here goes, don't freak you guys - many of my pots that I grow stuff in (outside in the garden) are graves for my pet rats. This way I get to take the lost ones with me if I move house (which I have done many times over the last ten years). Pretty much all of what I grow (both herbs and flowers) seem to do very well. I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this. I don't use any other sort of fertilser (except abit of horse cack now and them) on the pots at all.
One of my pots (has dill in it) has white stuff that looks to my untrained eye like it could be salts on it. I don't think the rat inside the pot was particularly salty though. ;-)
So - how might this affect me dill ? And why one rat pot and not any others (I must have about thirty pots all told). And another thing - I have never ever considered the fact that herbs grown in pots that have little dead bodies in might not be good to eat. I have not suffered from eating the basil and parsley and so on that I have been growing for the past few years anyway. But it's just occured to me that it might not be a good idea to grow edibles in them. Thoughts ?
They are probably very dessicated little bodies, cos I have a wood chest that I put the pots in when they are newly used in order to let the bodies dry out and thus not be so attractive to foxes, who would like to dig freshly smelly things up IME. I also wire the top of the pots with chicken wire to prevent them being violated.
Please don't freak you guys - this way my little ones carry on being beautiful for years after they die.
Rachael
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