Growing herbs in a basement might sound like an impossible feat. How can a cold and dark place host healthy herbs? The good news is that it is totally possible and people around the world are doing it all the time! This beginner guide will drive you through all the steps you need to follow, helping you turn a grey basement into a flourishing family-run indoor farm.
Hence, how to grow herbs in a basement? Growing herbs in a basement require to recreate the right environmental conditions that herbs need artificially. This can be achieved by a set-up that requires 9 steps:
- Planning: space, herbs, and tools
- Choose the shelves
- Choose the heating system
- Choose the potting mix
- Choose the pots
- Choose the grow lights
- Place cable extenders
- Place the plants
- Provide electricity and monitor
Of course, knowing that it is possible to grow any herb indoors is excellent news. However, you do not know yet how to use the necessary tools, how to find them, and what pitfalls you have to avoid. This article has you covered. Just lock half day from your calendar (perhaps a weekend day to enjoy the help of your family and kids) and keep reading!
Set Up Your Herb-Heaven Basement in Nine Steps
Many people assume that growing herbs in a basement or during winter is not possible since there is little to no light, and temperatures are too low. However, nowadays, with often inexpensive tools, all these problems can be easily overcome by recreating the environment herbs need.
I often refer to the herb pentagon. Any herb (and plant) needs the balance of the 5 key components:
For outdoor herbs/plants, all of those are under mother nature control. However, you can control all these factors indoors. This will allow the development of healthy and tasty herbs even in place, like your basement, where naturally, they would have no chance.
Before stepping out of your home, you need to plan in advance what you need. This will save you a massive amount of time (and money) later on as you would know what to buy, what to avoid.
With a measuring tape (or a laser version), measure the length of each side of your basement or the area of it where you want to allocate your herbs. I do recommend to sketch it on a piece of paper that you can bring with you to when going shopping for shelves. As a side effect, you already have a clear idea of how much pots you can grow indoors, so how many plants (or planter) you need (assuming 3 shelves for each shelving unit).
Perhaps you are starting out, and it might be a good idea to just use one shelve only at first. This will allow you to test this new hobby, avoiding to spend a (relatively) significant amount of money. You can always add more, anytime, if you have space.
Ideally, you want to place the shelves along the walls, not only for support purposes but also to be closer to the power sockets. You do not want power cables running in the middle of the floor. You need to place the shelves like those of a supermarket creating corridors.
I would check the basement indoor temperature at its lowest (late night, early morning). Once you know such value, go to any website to look at what temperature the herbs you have in mind can grow. As a general rule of thumb, if the temperature is below 41℉ (5℃), you definitely need a heating system.
However, even with some herbs can survive without a heating system, they will grow at their full potential only when the temperature is around 59-73℉ (15-20℃) depending on the herb. Hence, it is very likely that, at least in the cold season, you need an external source of heat (more on this later)
Important to note that you can grow anything in your basement. Where is the catch? The more “demanding” is the herb you want to grow, the more technology you need to recreate the right temperature and light conditions (again the herb pentagon) artificially.
Hence, if you want to keep your life easy, especially if this is your first attempt, I do suggest to focus only on those herbs that are easy to grow. Here some of my best pick that has shown tolerance to relatively low temperature and poorly illuminated environment (for more on herbs in a partial shade you can have a look to this article):
My favorites are by far mint and chives. I live in the north of the United Kingdom, and both these herbs are performing really well in winter in my living room. Their temperature drops to around 44℉ (7℃) in the coldest day (without heating) and, although, on a windowsill, light is meager here in winter (5 hours at most, and of poor quality as always cloudy).
Nevertheless, as you can see in the picture, they are doing just fine.
In order to recreate the right environment to provide your herb with the right temperature and light in your basement, you need a few tools. Chances are that you might have a few (or many) of them hanging around your house, or perhaps you can find in the second-hand market. The bottom story is that you do not need to spend lots of money if you do not want to.
At the end of the day, these are for your herbs that do not mind whether such tools are new or second hand until they do their job.
Here just a quick list of those 8 tools you need that will be then individually discussed in the next sections:
- Heating mats
- Potting mix
- Cable extenders
- Grow light
- Nylon cable ties
When you are the local shop (or online), remember to go for metal wire rack shelves (as this one on Amazon). These are easy to move (as quite lightweight), eventual water drops will reach the plants below, they let pass through lights, and they offer “gripping points.” These are important for a few other devices you need to place on the shelves.
Every potted herb should be accessible with your hands as you do not want to use any ladder as dangerous and time-consuming. Hence nothing with more than three levels (otherwise, the height of each level will not be enough to allow for your herbs to grow).
Avoid shelves of wood. Wood will deteriorate over time due to water deposits. Moreover, such shelves do not allow the light to reach the lower levels, do not offer many anchorage spots, and they are generally bulky. If very lightweight, just avoid them, probably would not be able to withstand the several kgs of soil and herbs you need to place on them.
Tip: if you have some old wood shelves that otherwise would be wasted, then go for it. Before proceeding, make sure they are stable, with no cracks in the frame. Once all looks stable, just cover the shelves with some plastic bag (those black bin bags are good enough, with some tape to keep them firm) so to avoid the water to damage them. The number of pots per shelves should not make the shelves to bend.
Avoid shelves with wheels: shelves with wheels definitely help whenever you want to move it around for some cleaning. However, the “joints” between the wheels and the frame are the “weak” spot. Indeed, in the case of significant weight (lots of pots), that joint will break/bend slowly over time.
Worst case, if the wheel is of poor quality, it can break/bend. This will cause the shelf to lean on one side, quite dangerous considering all the plants you will have. The only case I would take a wheeled-shelf is only if the joint/wheels look really strong.
Each herb has its needs in terms of temperature. Some of them can survive (but not grow) with temperature as low as 33℉ (mint, for example), while others will die with everything below 40F (5°C) like basil.
Especially during winter, it is very likely that you will need a system to maintain your herb temperature at a comfortable 59-68℉ (15-20°C).
What to use? Heating maps are the way to go. Although you might not have already at home, they will save you a massive amount of money in the long run. These are waterproof and flexible surfaces than once plugged to the power socket (here the needs for even more cable extenders with multiple outlets) start releasing heat.
They are a “plant” version of the well-known electric duvet for us. These mats are usually adopted for seedlings (as they require a warm environment). Still, none prevents you from using them for fully-grow herbs in your basement. A good brand of heating mats is this one in Amazon.
Avoid radiators: The reason is quite simple. The standard space heater warms the entire basement (including your plants) while a heating map warms up just your plants, a minimal volume compared to the whole basement. This translates into a massive amount of money saved over the long period of time (enough to pay off the purchase of such mats).
Choose a well-draining, airy medium. In general, the majority of the potting mix can provide decent results. However, for the best one, just have a look at this article. Using top quality potting soil is essential to increase your chances of success with herbs. In the rare case you find insects in it (it might happen), you need to get rid off them first. In this article, you have a guide for all the techniques you can adopt from the comfort of your home.
Tip: if you are a DIY type of person and ready for a challenge, none will stop you in creating your own potting soil. This will come out cheaper and way more satisfying. Here you can find a step by step guide I used to create a top-notch potting mix.
You will need some pots. Clay is the best material for moisture and temperature control. However, to avoid overcharging your shelves, I suggest adopting lightweight plastic containers. Regarding the size, given that you are going to place them with (ideally) already developed plants, I recommend around 8inch (around 20cm) in diameter. More on the right pot size can be found in this article.
Planting herbs from seeds is definitely rewarding, but, at the same time, is something that I usually avoid. Indeed, it does require time and extra care to allow the seeds to develop. Moreover, each seed is a surprise. It can sprout or not. You can find seeds on any gardening shop or online. As a side suggestion, just check any review on such seeds if available. I would go for Amazon as quicker and easier.
To grow herbs from seeds, first consult the instructions on your seed packet to determine proper spacing and planting depths – this will vary depending on the plant. Place the seeds and on your airy and light potting mix (just below the surface) and water until it’s evenly moist (not waterlogged).
To keep the moisture, cover the tray with plastic wrap. Since a basement is cold, you will need to put the trays on a seedling germination mat and set the temperature to at least 65F (18°C). This will help provide the supplemental heat your seeds need to jumpstart their growth.
For more information, you can watch this video on YouTube, although I do not agree that basil is the easiest to grow (it’s too temperature sensitive).
Tip: one of the easiest ways, if you want to start from seeds, is to use jiffy pellets; here, a detailed article on the subject. Mostly, these are inexpensive small cocoons that act as pots and soil at the same time. They are portable, they avoid you getting your hands dirty and make the transplanting way easier.
Tip: another unconventional way (the cheapest and most rewarding) is to save supermarket herbs, especially those destined to the bin. Typically you can find basil or mint pot in the supermarket for 50c or less just because close to the “expire” date. In this case, you need only a transplant. Here a detailed guide that explains how I save dozens of supermarket herbs to let them grow inside.
As explained before in the herb pentagon, light is one of the 5 elements and the one where the least error is allowed if you want to succeed growing herbs. The grow light (with the shelve(s) if you do not have them already), might be the most expensive item you need to buy, but do not be scared. Indeed, you can find cheap grow light for beginners gardeners as well. To know how to choose one, read this detailed guide.
Rectangular grow light: you are going to grow potted herbs on shelves that are rectangular in shape (longer than larger). Hence, your grow light needs to cover a rectangular area. This is something you have to watch out as many grow light (mainly LED ones) might be designed for a square or circular area, not rectangular.
What to choose? Many gardeners choose fluorescent tube T5 light sold as 2ft (around 60cm) or 4ft (120cm) long. This is so more than enough to cover one shelve of a large shelving unit (or two shelves in case of two smaller shelving units placed one after the other). Remember, every shelf base needs a grow light.
Plug in and go lamp: to make your life easier, especially if you are starting, I do suggest starting with “plug in and go” system as this one on Amazon. Hence, I do not recommend to buy the bulb alone as then you might also have to buy the appropriate supply (to plug the tube) and a reflector system. Many experts do that, but I would avoid it at first.
Tip: a second solution to make your life easier is to use a LED grow light aluminum board. This is obtained by many individuals LED lights (each one is big as 1c coin) mounted on an ultralight aluminum board. The whole system is extremely lightweight (a few grams). It can be easily installed at the bottom of shelves with some cheap nylon tye band. You can find this great lamp on Amazon here. They are as well plug and go with no extra structure required.
Tip: herbs usually need from 6 to 8 hours of full light. However, you do not want to turn ON and OFF your grow light every single day. So, a good and cheap solution is to use one of those inexpensive indoor outlet time. I use the mechanical version like this one in Amazon, pretty sturdy and reliable.
Depending on the type of grow light, you might need to find a way to sustain it on top of the shelves it has to illuminate. One of the most common solutions gardeners use is nylon Zip ties. You can find a bunch of them for a few dollars here on Amazon. These indeed have the advantage of being small (so they can pass through the holes that you can find in the lamp frame). They can definitely sustain the weight of any lamp you use and can be anchored in the metal wire rack of the shelves.
Tip: if for any reason, you are not using the metal shelves with a wire rack, you might need to use a drill to create the holes you need on the frame (if plastic or wood) to anchor the lamp. I suggest measuring where you want to place the light first and create the holes in those points.
Tip: if your nylon zip ties are too short, they will not be able to go from the rack to the lamp. However, this problem can be easily overcome by using 2 or more nylon cable ties that close on each other (like a chain) that goes from the rack to the lamp. Remember that such plastic ties are not of standard plastic. They can withstand heavyweight for a very long time. Hence, although not aesthetically pretty, they are extremely handy.
As you might notice, you will have a few grow lights (at least one for shelves level). Hence three-level shelving unit will require at least three grow lights, two shelves will need 6 grow lights, and so on. Each light will have a power cord that needs to be connected to a power socket. Hence, as it is quite unlikely to have 6 power sockets close to your shelves, you need to use an extension cord ending with multiple outlets where you can plug each grow light.
Tip: avoid cable hanging around, tight them to the frame of the shelves with the nylon cable ties.
Tip: the lamps on the top shelves might need a cable extender on their own. Indeed, their power cable might not be long enough to reach the floor where the main cable extender with multiple outlets is located.
More advanced gardeners might also suggest an automatic watering system. For beginners, given the tight budget and the fact you are testing this out, I will totally skip this step and use classic watering cans.
Tip: the watering can need to have a long and small neck to easily every single pot on the shelves that might get very crowded.
Growing Herbs Even in Winter
Growing herbs in a basement is not only a viable option if you don’t have any suitable outdoor growing spaces, but also to garden during winter.
As long as you can keep the temperatures high enough, a basement garden will provide plenty of room for your herbs and is also less likely to be disturbed by pets or children.
It can help you save money, too. Although you will have some start-up expenses to deal with (such as buying grow lights and soil), some of these are one-time costs that you will quickly recoup. More info on the real costs in the running grow light can be found here.
This is especially true if you live somewhere with a short growing season. Given that herbs are often much more expensive at the grocery store, you can save some serious coin by growing your own herbs in the basement during the winter months.
Basement herb gardening may not be the best choice if you’re hoping to save money gardening during the summer. In that case, it’s probably time to move your operations outside. Otherwise, there are plenty of advantages to growing herbs in the basement.
Basement Gardening: Challenges to Keep in Mind
Most herbs require at least some sunlight and warmth to get growing. Lighting is one of the most significant challenges when it comes to growing herbs. You need to supplement this with grow lights. You can just ignore these facts as your herbs simply will not develop, or even worse, they will die.
Watering is another critical issue for your herbs. Here you can find 21 tips (for basil, but applicable to many other herbs) to increase your chances of success. You might also consider using water crystals (here a detailed article on the subject) to control the water amount on your potting soil better.
You also need to stay away from herbs that are ill-suited for container gardens are going to be equally ill-suited for basement gardens. These include plants like bee balm (which isn’t great for indoor growing, due to the need for pollination) and fennel.
Finally, since your herbs are not going to be growing directly in the ground, they will need to be fertilized. You can easily do this with liquid fertilizer or organic matter, like compost. Still, you will need to keep in mind the extra time involved in caring for your plants.
Luckily, all of these challenges are easily overcome with a bit of planning and gardening experience. As you get more skilled at growing herbs in your basement, you may even find the work in caring for them a source of pleasure (as many do!) and part of your daily routine.
5 Tips To Save Money While Growing Herbs in Your Basement
Growing your own herbs can be expensive – there’s no doubt about that. Unfortunately, basement gardeners need to artificially recreate what usually comes for free on a kitchen counter like sunlight and good ambient temperature.
However, there are 5 tricks to cut down some costs although these might make your life as herb grower a bit more complicated
1. Go Shelf-less
In case you are on a tight budget and cannot afford to buy a shelf, you can still have your basement garden. However, in this case, you need to place your potted herbs on the floor. This comes with some disadvantages, such as:
- A lower number of herbs you can have;
- Watering can get a bit uncomfortable as you might need to bend;
- It will require some creativity from your side to provide the light plants need. Indeed, without shelves, the grow light will not have any anchorage/support. Hence, you might need to create some kind of structure (even using some chairs and a piece of wood) from which you will hang the lights on top of your herbs.
For instance, you can buy those grow lights with desk clip or clamp and place them on the border of some chairs (or any other furniture you might have) placed close to the herbs. A clamp that is quite popular at the moment is Simple Deluxe, on Amazon.
2. Second-hand Grow Light
Gumtree, Facebook, eBay, and even the local newspapers can provide you with the opportunity of finding second-hand grow light. Indeed, sometimes people just after a few months they got bored (happens way more often than you can imagine), or they are just moving out. In these cases, they need to get rid of unwanted items. Here where you can find very good deals.
If you spend some time, you can easily find 50% off second hand grow lights that are almost brand new. The only thing you need to check is how old is the lamp. Assuming 8 working hours a day, everything below 5 months of use (around 1000 hours) is a good bargain. Of course, the younger, the better.
Moreover, check for the Energy Star certified. This certification identifies low consuming appliances. If possible opt for a LED grow light, they consume less (more on cost in running a grow light here);
3. Recycled Pots
The rest of your equipment is pretty inexpensive to come by second-hand. You can pick up pots used or even repurpose materials like old yogurt cups, egg cartons, and other materials. Just remember to create some holes at the bottom for drainage;
4. Free Endless Herb Cloning
It is possible (and relatively easy) to grow from one herb growing dozens of them (without seeds, you just need the herb). This is possible through propagation by stem cutting. A great technique to generate an endless source of herbs for free used by many expert gardeners around the world.
The only drawback is that you might need to start this well in advance (2-3 weeks), or buy rooting hormones. Here more details on those safe chemicals that will accelerate the propagation process.
5. Create Your Own Potting Mix
As discussed in the potting mix section, you can also create your potting mix (more details in this article), saving some dollars. If you really want to go cheap (I do not recommend), you can use outdoor gardening soil after sterilization (detailed guide in this article). You might also need to add some perlite to increase drainage ability. Again, this should be only a last option as potting soil can be found relatively cheaply.
Growing herbs in your basement is certainly not without its challenges – nor is it without any work. However, it’s a rewarding task that can return the freshest herb you can imagine to your (and friends) table during the whole year.
Now you know all the know-how to grow your own herb basement. However, for inspiration purposes, here I will quickly provide you with an overview of those that brought indoor herb gardening in a basement to a new level. Ready for some inspiration?
Do you live in a large city, far from any growing area? If this is the case, very likely, the herbs you buy in the supermarket are a few days old. However, what can you do? Nothing right? Wrong.
Robert Laing, Farm ONE CEO, decided to take responsibility for the situation and develop in the heart of one of the busiest cities in the USA (New York) a “vertical farm.” Essentially, through shelves, watering, temperature, lighting, and ventilation systems, Robert controls every aspect for the growth of herbs and plants of what they would unused basements.
You might wonder about the quality. However, at the moment, even top Michelin restaurants are using the products of such unconventional farm? Why? Because the product is picked and delivered locally within a couple of hours. This guarantees the highest freshness, something essential for such level restaurants and impossible before. Yeah, as you can notice, I do love the idea!
With your basement system, you can replicate such success and have, at your hands, the freshest herbs for your dishes.
More inspiration? Check the video at the end of the article.
The London Underground Tunnel Garden
This case is even crazier than the Manhattan one. Indeed, London is full of unused underground tunnels developed during the war as a way to protect from air attack. However, nowadays, a company is converting them into underground farms.
They use advanced growing techniques (hydroponics, but again, you can succeed easily without it) and even aiming to carbon neutrality.
The herbs are grown and delivered to the local market. In this video, they also highlight how an underground allows controlling better temperature and humidity, necessary for optimal herb grow. Moreover, pests-free is another great advantage!
More details in the video at the end of the article
What herbs can grow without sunlight? Any herb can grow without sunlight, at the condition of providing them with good quality artificial light from grow light whose spectrum matches the herb requirements.
The Manhattan Basement Garden
The London Underground Tunnel Garden
What To Look At When Choosing A Grow Light – https://yourindoorherbs.com/learn-how-to-choose-a-grow-light/
The Best Grow Light For Beginners – https://yourindoorherbs.com/recommended-tools-lets-make-the-indoor-gardener-life-easy/growing-light-2/
Cost in Running a grow light – https://yourindoorherbs.com/how-much-does-it-cost-to-run-a-grow-light/
Potting Soil and DIY recipe – https://yourindoorherbs.com/2-aspects-of-the-best-potting-soils-and-diy-recipe/
Ways To Sterilize Potting Soil – https://yourindoorherbs.com/easy-ways-to-sterilize-potting-soil-with-infographics-and-video/
21 Tips to Grow Massive Basil That Applies to The Majority of Herbs – https://yourindoorherbs.com/21-easy-tips-to-grow-massive-basil-indoor/