Starting an indoor herb garden from cuttings

An Inexpensive Luxury

by Rebecca Faill

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Fresh herbs are playing a prominent role in recent cookbooks and in grocery store produce sections. Experimenting with these new ingredients is great fun. However, with the herbs running $1.50-$2.00 a bunch in many areas it can become expensive quickly. Some of the herbs are also extremely perishable, making it difficult to use the whole package in time to avoid waste.

For these reasons it is more cost effective to have your own small indoor herb garden. You might even find that it feels luxurious to be able to pluck off a mint sprig on a whim to garnish an afternoon glass of iced tea. You can go to a nursery and buy baby plants or seeds. But if you buy fresh herbs even occasionally, it is even cheaper to grow the plants yourself from cuttings. I have found the following techniques work well with mint, oregano, and basil, but any herb with a similar leaf structure will work, so feel free to experiment.

Next time you buy a fresh package of one of these herbs for cooking, save a few healthy-looking, unblemished stems and wash them thoroughly in cool water. Washing will help get rid of any aphids or other pests that might have hitched a ride home from the store. Washing won't guarantee that this plant isn't carrying some sort of fungal or insect infestation, however, so it is a good idea to keep the new cuttings away from your existing houseplants for a couple of weeks.

Pull off any bruised or browned leaves. Trim off the bottom of the stems so that they are between 3 and 5 inches long. The cut should be made well away from where any clump of leaves attaches to the stem. Cut on an angle so it is easier for the plant to draw water. Stand the stems in a clean glass or jar in cool water. Make sure that at least half of the plant is covered. Put the glass in a sunny spot. Over the next few weeks keep an eye on the water level and add more if it starts to get low. Before long you will see roots sprouting. At this point, the new plant is ready to be potted like any new seedling you would buy at the nursery.

Find a pot with drainage holes, or poke holes in a plastic container that used to hold margarine or something similar. Add a layer of small stones sufficient to cover the bottom of the container. Fill the container two thirds of the way with potting soil and add the rooted herb. Fill in more soil around the cutting up to within an inch or so of the top of the pot. Soak the new plant thoroughly.

After the plant seems established you can start taking pieces for your cooking. Don't just pull off the leaves. Cut off stem pieces, too. This will encourage the plant to get bushy.

In addition to the grocery store, restaurants can be good sources of cuttings. Deserts are sometimes garnished with live mint, and I have seen Thai basil (which has a pleasant licorice taste) used as a garnish on Asian dishes. Don't be shy about slipping the little cutting into your pocket to root when you get home!

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