A Guide to Herbs That Grow in Winter
How to Grow Herbs Outdoors and Indoors During Cold Weather
Just about when we’re ready to focus our energies indoors to hearth, home and family; and have the time, cooler temperatures and incentive to prepare some of those elaborate, healthy and hardy meals, the bounty of fresh herbs has diminished. Not to fret. There are more ways to skin this cat than cords of wood in your winter stash. Yes, there are herbs that grow in winter!
The options for a year-round supply of herbs are numerous: with some as close as your windowsill; a few (depending upon your climate zone), just beneath the layer of protective mulch you laid over your perennials in the fall; and a host of others bordering on the fringes of culinary creativity.
The perceived ideal, of course, for herbs that grow in winter, would be to have an ongoing supply of the fresh product.
Within this realm, there are only three possibilities: harvest from the outdoors; harvest from an indoor herb garden; and harvest from the grocery store.
Of these, of course, harvest from an already established outdoors patch is preferable – since in many weather zones, a limited supply (at least) can be available; and most particularly since your planting and maintenance work is behind you.
The least desirable, from my point of view (even though we grow and market pre-packaged fresh-cut herbs through the grocery store venue), is the purchase option.
Wintertime Outdoor Harvest
Unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a mild climate zone – with no fear of frost (or such few frost days that you can temporarily protect your herb patch), you should know these things:
• At the first frost, say good-bye to growing basil outdoors (since it’s an annual) until next spring.
• Also at the first frost, unless covered with a very generous topping of straw (or other type of cover), tarragon will most likely leave you for the season, as well.
• While the exposed foliage of oregano, thyme and sage garden herbs may become somewhat discolored and bruised by the first frosts – they will continue to produce usable leaves (even if left uncovered) until heavy duty prolonged cold temperatures set in.
• If you are growing chives, expect them to die back for a good winter’s rest at the first heavy frost or freeze.
• Salad Burnet and Winter Savory thrive during the winter (covered or not).
• Covering your herbs that grow in winter with a heavy layer of straw can buy you months of continued harvest and, provided you are not snowed in as you read this, you can still do that now.
• If you live in a fairly moderate climate zone, such as we do in southwest Missouri (where relatively mild temperatures are not uncommon in some years), you might be surprised at the amount of herbs still viable and harvestable throughout the winter months in your outdoors home patch – using this coverage method (which is a nice composting thing to do for your herbs at any rate).
• Simply lift up the straw cover, gather yourself a handful of the herb of your choice, and reposition the covering. Done deal.
• Snow cover, in my experience, does not seem to be the governing factor here (in fact, over the straw, it provides an enhanced protective environment).
• But prolonged periods of below-freezing temperatures will send most herbs directly into hibernation.
• To harvest herbs under the snow, simply slough off the snow, then remove the straw covering enough to harvest your herb handful, then reposition the straw.
• Of course, there are limits here, and if there’s a tremendous amount of snow covering, you may not be able to remember which herb is where; it’s not worth the digging; and there are other indoor options.
Indoor Herb Gardens
• Of the indoor herb gardens, there are two, in my opinion, that make sense: an indoor potted garden inside your home; or a potted or planter garden inside a greenhouse (or glassed in sun room area) if you have one.
• If you do happen to have a greenhouse/sunroom type area that can be closed off and where the prevailing temperatures can stay above freezing – this is an ideal way of maintaining a fresh supply of herbs during winter.
• The advantages of this alternative, if available, are the daytime sun should provide the necessary heating; an open door on warmer days should provide the necessary air circulation; and you can expand the amount of herb plants harbored here since you’re not taking up usable home space.
• Whether your indoor herb garden is in the home or greenhouse-type setting, you have two alternatives planting methods: seeds or cuttings.
• The location of your indoor garden is dependent upon choice, availability, and space.
• Containers: If you are going to use cuttings from your existing outdoor patch, use fairly large containers, so that the plants will not become root bound. If you intend to seed your plants, a smaller container will suffice.
• Drainage: No matter the size of the container or the choice of planting method, make sure that your pot, planter or container has sufficient drainage (as nothing will kill most herbs quicker than having their feet stand in water for a prolonged period of time). Place some gravel or broken glass, pot pieces, whatever in the bottom before you put in your soil.
• Soil: Use potting soil, rather than your ground soil as it is not as heavy or dense, and is better aerated. Plant cuttings vs. seeds: Plant cuttings (for some herbs) will generally take longer to produce usable herbs for you, than direct seeding into the pot.
However, your yield from the newly seeded plants will be less over the long haul, than potted perennial cuttings once they take hold.
In some cases, if you want these herbs fresh, you may have to seed them: basil, dill, cilantro, and parsley.
• Plant cuttings: Taking plant cuttings can be done at any time (even this late in the season) so don’t be shy.
Go to your herb patch and simply dig up a generous portion of your oregano, sage, thyme, tarragon, Winter Savory and Salad Burnet. While you’re there, dig up a clump of chives. You don’t need the entire plant, just slice out a portion (all the way to the root base) that you feel will be adequate. Sometimes with sage, you can simply pull a side portion away from the mother plant. Don’t be put off if the plant looks and acts dead. As long as the roots seem viable, you’ll be in business.
Divide up your clumps (I usually simply gently tear them apart for separation). Then, before you plant any given variety, cut the plant growth portion (leaves or where foliage used to be) down to about one-to-two inches from the base. Also, cut the root portion to about one-to-two inches from below the base.
Wet down the potting soil in your containers and plant the cuttings so that only about an inch of the top is visible.
Place containers off the ground to prevent any freezing.
After this, keep your soil moist (but not drenched) and make sure that the area in which they are housed does not get too hot (if heated by the sun)-it’s okay to open the door in the afternoons-nor too cold (freezing prohibitive)
• Sowing Seeds: Prepare your containers as you would for plant cuttings, only sow a sprinkling of seed on top of the wetted potting soil, and then cover (all but sage, which germinates by light) the seeds with a slight covering of potting soil. Moisten down and wait.To germinate, most herb seeds will need at least a 65ºF environment during the better portion of the day and will need sunlight, so place the containers accordingly. Keep the soil moist (not soaking—this will cause rot rather than germination) until the little puppies start to show signs of life. Then, water as you would any plant, but only begin harvest after the plant is well underway (about their third true leaf groups) and then, only harvest sparingly.
Purchasing Fresh Cut Herbs
Unless you’re really really in a bind, shy away from this option if you can. In the first place, the price is prohibitive and, generally speaking, because herbs are so perishable the quality of the herbs is lower (over its grocery store shelf life) that the fresh-cut (from your own patch) to which you have become accustomed.
Better now, to gear toward some value-added creative stuff to winter you over.
Creative Value-Added Herb Products
(Great for holiday gift giving as well as winter home use)
If you still have any herbs growing outdoors (Salad Burnet and Winter Savory at the very least should be), gather them NOW.
If you have harvestable herbs in pots, planters, or underneath your straw (and possibly snow), gather them NOW.
Once they’re gathered, take a few hours out of your day and make some herbal vinegars or hang them to dry (in an airy warm place) for use in some creative dried herb mixes later on.
Homemade Vinegar Recipes Using Herbs
• Sterilize some bottles and their lids (wine bottles are okay, the glass bottled water-types are exquisite and pint canning jars will suffice). I use a bleach/detergent mix to wash, then soak in boiled still-hot water to sterilize.
• Once the bottles are cooled and thoroughly dry (this is a must, as water in the vinegar mixture will cloud it up), place a few herb sprigs (upside down) into the glass container.
• Pour in room temperature vinegar (white is preferred, but cider will do) to within about 1/4 inch of the top of the container.
• Seal the container with a cork, its own screw on top, or jar lid.
• Melt some paraffin wax; then let it cool down (not to the “white” stage, but less than “burn you” stage) and carefully submerge the lid into the paraffin BELOW the closure point so that the wax covers the lid as well as the top part of the container.
• Repeat this about three or four times (reheating the paraffin up to the desired temperature, if necessary).
• These will be ready for use in about three weeks. Use in stews, soups, salads, and as a meat or fish marinade to obtain the desired flavor of any given herb.
• As gifts: You can be creative and tie something around the neck of the bottle or jar, just at the bottom of the lid. You can do this after you complete the paraffin process or you can do it before (making sure it doesn’t drop into the wax as you’re sealing the lid on).
Dried Herb Mixes
• If you’ve been savvy enough to have dried some herbs early on – or have just now harvested some to dry – you can save these for use all winter long. And while these are never as tasty as the fresh variety, they can come pretty close.
• If you want to be creative, you can drum up some ideal time-saver combinations and shorten your holiday gift-giving list at the same time.
• Dried herbs (single-type or mixes) can be stored in any air-tight container; OR can be placed in tea bags (and then stored in air-tight containers).
• Tea bags are pretty neat since they enclose the dried herbs and will offer the flavor (but the not the little green things floating in your food) and can be pre-made into just the right amounts for one meal, with no measuring later on. Also, packaged in a tin, they make ideal gifts.
Some suggestions (or used in dried form, the combos you are accustomed to in the fresh form):
• Beans: Parsley, Sage, Thyme, Savory
• Beef or Venison: Oregano, Thyme, Tarragon (or Sage)
• Chicken: Basil (or Dill seeds), Sage, Thyme
• Fish: Basil (or Fennel Seeds), Parsley, Chives
• Bouquet Garni (for soups, stews): Parsley, Thyme, Bay
• Bouquet Provencal (for soups, stews, sauces): Thyme, Rosemary, Fennel Seed, and Bay.
At any rate, between the fresh, dried and value-added combinations, your family should enjoy a very delicious herb-filled wintertime.
Wishing for you the best of wintertime and holiday season, and enjoy your herbs that grow in winter.
Originally published in 2011 and regularly vetted for accuracy.