Setting Up an Indoor Herb Garden in Canada

My basil plant.

It is COLD outside, here in Calgary, and I am so grateful that I have an indoor herb garden blessing me with a bit of green to cheer me up. Outside is a beautiful white blanket of snow! I prefer to be insider, finding it prettier to look at than to be in-haha. The temperatures make it unbearable to be outside!

When it is white, white and more white outside, it is nice to see a bit of green and smell the uplifting scent of basil in your kitchen. My succulents and cacti are cheerful, too, but I love the fact that I can USE my herbs. It makes eating in the winter less of a chore!

I used to have a black thumb. Even a cacti would wither in my care. My biggest problem was not doing a little research about the temperature my plants would be the happiest and over-watering them. I was killing them with kindness, mostly, and drowning them or touching them too often. Oops. Now I have learned how to successfully grow a couple types of plants and I wanted to share.

It is a little more complicated than just plunking a couple plants down by the window and throwing some seeds in them, especially in Canada during the winter. You are better off investing a little bit of money, initially, so that you can be successful long-term. You will only need a few things but they are all essential.

Why can’t you just plunk down a pot by the window in the winter? A few reasons.

One is temperature. There are exceptions but most herbs flourish in similar conditions. I don’t recommend putting your herbs by a window in the winter months since it will be too cold for the plant to grow properly. Even if you have double-paned glass, the glass itself will be a little cooler and most herbs like a very warm environment. Basil is particularly picky and will wither if there is a cool pane of glass nearby. You will need to create a well-lit spot for your plants away from a window.

My happy oregano plant.

Second is lighting. There is a second reason not to put the plants by a window and that is lighting. Canadian winters, even on sunny days, just don’t have strong light from the sun. It is a weak sunshine and your plants will need more than that. I have tried keeping my plants warm by a window with mini greenhouses and using natural light, but all I got was a spindly plant with pale green leaves. Unfortunately, the weak lighting from the winter sun just wasn’t enough.  You need more than that. However, there are a ton of options. Even with limited space, it is easy to find an affordable growth light to put your plants underneath that will suit your setup! I have a cabinet in my dining room and I have reserved one shelf for herbs on the bottom. My friend was kind enough to install a growth light to the underside of the shelf and my plants have been quite happy there. They have light, warmth and water. (You can see what type of light I have, generally, HERE). I love that it is in my kitchen so that I can easily grab herbs as I am cooking. If you don’t have a cabinet or a shelf you can screw a light into – or don’t want such a permanent option- there are a couple of things you can set up. You can use a plant light on a freestanding light stand (LIKE THIS ONE), which would fit nicely under a counter or in an unused corner. Or you could use a mini-greenhouse, such as this one from IKEA:


And put a freestanding lamp or growth light above it, such as one of these:

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This will keep your plant both warm and well-lit. There are a lot of websites with information on what kind of lighting to use, but I have both a fluorescent tube bulb and a basic growth light and both are working fabulously.

Happy mint plant! Finally growing.

However, for plants that like to stay warmer (like basil) the growth light is better than the fluorescent, which is better for plants that don’t mind being a bit on the cooler side (like mint). Whatever the setup you prefer, a growth light is a must and they aren’t much of an investment considering the money you will save on fresh lettuce and herbs over the winter. If you are still stuck, Calgary and area have a ton of great plant centers with knowledgeable staff that can help you. My faves are Golden Acre Garden Sentre and Plantation Garden Centre. Look for one in your area and talk to the staff there. Once you find one you like with great staff, stick with it, as it will prove to be invaluable! (I like the two listed above because the staff isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know but let me find someone who does!”)

I particularly like this setup I saw on the Better Homes and Gardens website, which proves that even with tiny condo counter space, you can create a lovely tray of fresh herbs or flowers that will grow year round:

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The third key factor is pots! Other gardeners may disagree with me and may have had success from every kind of pot imaginable- from old tin cans to teacups. However, I have found that terra cotta pots are the way to go! Their thick sides trap heat, which the plant’s roots crave, and the porous nature traps moisture. If you don’t want to be watering your plants every day, this is the way to go.  You can find them for a couple of bucks each, and in all different sizes, at Michaels craft store! Easy. Plus, they are fun to decorate so they will fit any design scheme.

Michaels has them here: (

Speaking of moisture and watering….

The final step is not to over-water. You will need a moisture meter. I can tell you from experience that shoving

My cheerful thyme plant, which may be my fave to use.

your finger in the dirt isn’t enough. It is hard to gauge every level of the dirt and you often don’t know how much water the bottom soil is truly holding. There is advice all over the place on how to keep the bottom soil from getting too wet: using rocks, gravel, netting, you name it, but I have found that if you have the right soil for indoor planting and a moisture meter, you don’t need to mess with all of that. Another good thing about having a moisture meter is avoiding bugs. Most small bugs that live in a plant’s soil are there because the moist environment is a great place to live and lay their eggs. This is how I got fungus gnats! If you leave your plant until it is dry and only water until it is moist and NOT wet, you should be able to avoid the pain I went through (am still going through, actually, a little bit. Those gnats are tenacious). Invest in a moisture meter right away. I have the most basic one and it is amazing.

Buy one at Golden Acre Garden Sentre or wherever you buy plants.

So that is what I recommend. Find a shelf, cupboard, corner or counter that isn’t being used. Pick 2-4 plants you want to try and see how it goes! All you need is a tiny bit of space, a small growth light, a couple of terracotta pots and a moisture meter. Have fun and please let me know how it goes. Happy growing!

Hey gardeners, did I miss anything?

What is your fave herb?

What is your fave herb to grow indoors?

You may also enjoy reading…..

Growing Basil Indoors During the Winter.

Super Easy Tomato Sauce

Herb Garden Woes


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