Loads of gardening articles and books proclaim that it is easy to grow herbs indoors however it is my experience, and I bet it’s yours too, that most herbs are fine during the summer months but many take a real beating towards the last half of winter. The conditions inside a typical apartment or house during the winter months are just not very conducive to picky plants. If you’re like me you’re probably doing most of your indoor gardening around south-facing windows that are cold and drafty above with the occasional blast of mega-hot and dry baseboard heating from below. Trying to keep finicky sweet basils and rosemary alive between these two extremes is too much for my self-esteem and my sanity so I’ve opted to accept that the tricker herbs are out until spring and have spent the last few years seeking out and experimenting with herbs that can hack these bipolar conditions.
I was given a cutting of Broadleaf thyme (Coleus amboinicus) last summer with the promise that it would root easily and grow like crazy. It has delivered and more! Broadleaf thyme is an unbelievably fragrant, low-growing herb with succulent, broad leaves and a soft, velvety texture. It goes under several names (more on that below) including Cuban oregano, Spanish oregano, and Indian borage but is unlike any thyme or oregano plant (or borage for that matter) you have ever seen. The plant is a tropical perennial and will not survive a cold winter outdoors, but taking a cutting or two to grow in a pot is as easy as snipping off a chunk with a pair of scissors and popping it into some water or moist soil. I offered mine nothing but neglect in the beginning, forgetting about it amidst a boatload of other gardening duties and it STILL grew and flourished. This plant is definitely a trooper!
Grow It: I have found that mine seems to do well in the sunniest spot available. The leaves are still a tad too pale which indicates that it can withstand more direct light. I’ve been growing mine in a standard tropical potting soil with a bit of sand thrown in for extra drainage and a touch of vermicompost at potting time for added nutrition. Like most herbs I add water only when the soil is just dry. Reduced winter light might cause the plant to grow leggy (tall and unhealthy) so be sure to pinch back the top set of leaves (you can use your fingers) every once and while to encourage a bushier growth. Unlike many herbs it will not go dormant so you can keep harvesting the leaves all year long.
Using: Broadleaf thyme has an exceptionally pungent flavor and smell. It is most commonly chopped up fresh and added to black beans or served with fish dishes and curries. I have also heard that it is commonly used in Jamaican jerk seasonings and salt cod. It is used to flavor beer and wine in India and some people put its antibacterial and fungicidal actions to work as a medicinal tea. I tried it this way and didn’t mind it although I found the boiling water brought out the stronger thyme flavor and reduced that hard-to-place fragrant smell that is so strong when you rub the leaves.
The Name Game: Here we go for another round of Name That Plant. I always try and check as many references as possible and cross-check for mistakes so I can give you the correct name but this one is going to take additional research. As mentioned above this plant is not short on common names and is regularly listed under two different Latin names, Coleus amboinicus and Plectranthus amboinicus. Some citations suggest that Coleus amboinicus is the old name, with all names, both Latin and common being interchangeable for the same plant. Others state that Coleus amboinicus is the Latin for broadleaf thyme which has larger leaves and that Plectranthus amboinicus is the Latin for Cuban oregano which has smaller leaves. I honestly can’t find any definitive answers and have decided to offer both options here. I personally lean towards the second option.
I closed up shop on my rooftop garden this weekend. The terra cotta containers are all brought indoors and stored away for the winter. I’ll admit that while I’m sad to see it end for another season, I have begun to realize that I really need the freed-up time and energy to focus on indoor plants. Winter’s reduced light intensity and the dry air created by electric baseboard heating make keeping plants with a delicate constitution a battle requiring strategy and commitment. While this is going to seem a little insane and labor-intensive, a big part of my strategy for combating the intensely dry air involves 1. placement and 2. showering.
Here’s how I do it:
Placement: Organize and locate your plants according to their required conditions. We keep a humidifier in our bedroom for our own sake but it just so happens to serve as a great environment for humidity-loving plants. Plants that require warm, moist conditions are kept in that room, while dry, desert plants are kept elsewhere. The bathroom is an obvious choice for humidity-loving plants however my bathroom is windowless. Because all the humidity and care in the world will not allow you to forgo rule #1: plants need light…. for photosynthesis and all that jive.
Showering: Unfortunately I have too many plants to keep everything that needs humidity in the bedroom. Despite the warm, moist air it is a bedroom, not a jungle, and a small one no-less. Additionally, some plants just can’t seem to get enough humidity in which case they are also subjected to the shower treatment. Once a month, sometimes more, I schlep the begonias, epiphytic cacti, and citrus trees into the bathroom where I place them all into the bathtub and run the shower at room-temperature for several minutes until each plant is thoroughly soaked. I then shake them gently to remove excess water and schlep them back to their permanent locations. You can choose to follow along with rainy days as a way to mimic nature and keep a cycle, however baseboard heating can be so drying the typical rules (watering only during sunny days, and avoiding night-time showers) can be thrown out the window. I often take this opportunity to inspect each plant for diseases or pests and check the soil to see if it needs topping up.
Some plants can not make it through the winter without grow lights to help them along during the dark days of winter, but I am convinced that regularly showering the citrus trees is the main reason they have made it alive through the winter months in time to go outside for the summer.
Today was a dry and mild reprieve from the awful cold, wet and sometimes windy late fall weather we’ve been enduring here in Southern Ontario — a good day to do some garden work. I have found frozen water in the trays underneath the containers on the roof a couple of times recently increasing my concern about getting everything cleaned up in time. You can pretty much forego cleaning up in-ground gardens (I know because I have) and expect minor plant loss, however container gardens in these parts can’t be ignored. The heaving caused by freezing and thawing conditions will crack and destroy terra cotta and some plastic containers. I’ve got A LOT of containers out there and would like to keep the collection I’ve cobbled together for as long as possible.
Here’s what I do to clean-up the container garden:
- Bring houseplants and plants that are still producing fruit indoors – I did this back in September well before the first frost.
- Harvest remaining produce – I found a couple of missed tomatoes, sweet potatoes, hot peppers, and a few small red onions.
- Remove all plant matter from terracotta and small containers – Cut them into manageable pieces and compost. If you don’t have a composter put them into garden waste bags for city composting.
- Remove stakes from containers and pile together.
- Dump soil from pots that will be stored away – I dump all of my soil into the large, plastic garbage cans that are used for growing tomatoes. They stay outside for the winter.
- Hardy perennials can be safely overwintered in large planter boxes – I sometimes add a blanket of mulch or dried branches, but they do just fine regardless. You can prune them back if breakage is an issue, but the plants in my boxes are so tough I leave the stems for added interest. The birds like to perch on the branches on mild winter days searching for seeds to munch on. They also collect dried grass bits for their nests come spring.
- Soak and scrub all terracotta pots and containers that are too fragile for outdoor storage – I wash mine in hot soapy water to which I add a couple of splashes of oxygenated bleach (aka hydrogen peroxide).
- Over-turn, stack, and store your pots somewhere sheltered such as a garage, basement, or shed. I don’t have any of those so I stack mine on shelves in our hallway and tuck the treasured containers away in the back of kitchen cupboards.
Related: Preparing Your Garden for Winter
Despite the cold — and the fact that we experienced a brief and light snowfall this afternoon — outdoor gardening is still happening here in Toronto. I am yet to put any of my gardens to bed. The side garden is fine really. Doing a last clean-up is pretty much my choice. I choose to be lazy until such time when and if I am struck with the spirit of Martha.
Hardneck garlic before planting. I bought these cloves at the Organic Farmer’s Market… specifically from The Dufferin Grove Market and the Plan B Farm. They were still selling cloves today if you’re looking in Toronto.
The rooftop container garden is another thing entirely. I have really got to get on that action. Dead annuals need to be composted, soil collected, pots scrubbed clean and brought indoors, and everything put away — it’s a crucifixion! Things are starting to freeze up there. I should be out there right now, not inside in the warmth, heating my body by the warm monitor glow. I’ll get on that tomorrow.
Planting Thyme in the cold, wet dirt. Sure is fun!
Thankfully I have been slowly working on the community garden since the first signs of fall back in September. I planted hardneck garlic last week, and Egyptian clumping onions at least a month prior. I pulled up or cut back most of the dead calendula and borage, pulled up a zucchini plant, harvested everything that wasn’t going to see another day, and laid straw down. Rather than overwintering potted perennial herbs as I often do, I elected to plant the marjoram and various thyme varieties in a section of the new community plot. All of the still-green tomatoes were picked and are sat on top of the warm fridge ripening. I’ve got a single precious ‘Black Pear’ tomato left that I am saving until the absolute perfect moment to enjoy on a fried egg sandwich with pesto.
As things get colder I am finding myself longing for the days of summer when I was out in the garden sweating in a t-shirt. Sweat and heat exhaustion sound good right now. I was at the community garden on Saturday wearing several layers to protect against both the cold and the rain. When I got home my hands were frozen and went through that terrible dethawing process that is a mix of both itchiness and pain. I love gardening and even those those wet days can be some of the best for things like planting perennials even I can’t sell it. Digging in cold wet dirt just sucks!
At a Toronto area You Grow Girl meet up last week we discussed our gardening successes and disappointments of the last year. Beth, a rooftop container gardener mentioned that she was most disappointed by her container-grown ‘Chinese Five Colour’ (or color for the Americans) Hot Pepper plant, stating that the plant was boring and the peppers bland, and tasteless. I was surprised since my experience with this variety has placed it onto my list of current favourites and a plant that I will definitely grow again if not promote to other gardeners, especially container gardeners. This is one of those discussions that reminds me how varied our gardening experiences can be, even with the same varieties and seemingly similar growing conditions. I sometimes forget in my enthusiasm when reviewing a plant that my outcome isn’t universal. I am reminded that what works for me might not work for someone else, and vice-versa.
And knowing this I still feel an irrational obligation to defend the plant like I’m defending my taste for souvenir picture trays or cheesy poutine. “You don’t know!”
And so, I give you:
In Defense of ‘Chinese Five Colour’ Hot Peppers
- I grew this plant as an experimental comparison to last year’s favourite, “New Mex Twilight’ hot pepper. The plants are very similar in that they are both produce gorgeous green foliage with purple stems and veins, with small hot peppers that start out light purple and evolve into a rainbow ending in bright red when fully mature. In comparison, the plants were very similar but the ‘Chinese Five Colour’ produces larger fruit. The larger fruit stood out sharply in contrast to the leaves. It was really stunning!
- I will say it again: gorgeous green foliage with purple stems and veins that produced an abundance of rainbow-coloured fruit.
- My peppers are indeed HOT!
- One plant produced enough fruit to braid an attractive string of drying peppers. Everyone I know will be in hot peppers for eternity.
- Grew easily into a large plant in a medium-sized container.
- Colette of Urban Harvest (whom I purchased the plant from) informed me that this variety is rare while ‘New Mex Twilight’ is not. I am a sucker for a good back story and admit to being completely duped by the term “rare.”
With Kitty aka “Voltron: Defender of the Universe” who comes running whenever the camera is out.