Wintering Herbs

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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Herbs add flavor and zing to many of our favorite dishes. It is so nice to step outside the door and snip what you need.

Just because cold weather hits, it doesn’t mean you have to give up the flavor punches that herbs add. Some, more than others lend themselves better to being brought inside in pots. The trick is to know which herbs prefer the indoors and which like to brave the cold.

Some are perennials and, even though their growth dies back, their roots remain healthy and prefer to stay outside in the lower temperatures. Annual herbs, on the other hand, are not cold-tolerant and like to spend their winters potted on sunny windowsills.

Sage, common thyme, oregano, chives, chamomile, mints, lavender and tarragon are winter herbs that can survive the cold. Softer, woodier perennial herbs like germander, marjoram, oregano and winter savory can be cut back by half to get rid of old foliage that may not have been harvested to spur new growth. Cut stems back until the plant is sporting a pair of leaves, no more than a third of the way down.

Winter-hardy chives should be cut back hard. Mint lends itself well to being dug up and potted if you have an abundance. Catnip left outside makes a great snack for kittens while beebalm makes a great pet rabbit snack.

Although many herbs can be brought inside, they may not gain much new growth during winter but they will be ready to go in the spring. Sometimes herbs are brought inside, not for their protections, but rather for convenience and enjoyment. Not much can beat the taste and scent of fresh rosemary all winter long.

Some varieties can be started in pots and remain there all year long. Some that lend themselves well to surviving inside are:

  • These can be left outside in a pot until the leaves die back in early winter and then moved to a cool spot like the basement to wait for spring or put in a bright window to encourage growth. If this is the case, they need 4 to 6 hours of sun and watered twice a week. If it gets too dry, its tips will turn yellow. Once it is 6 inches high, cut the leaves back to a length of 2 inches.
  • This can be potted as long as it sits in a south-facing window.
  • This herb likes a south window and likes to live in a mixture of half all-purpose potting mix and sand or use a cactus potting mix. Water twice a week but do not over water. When it reaches 6 inches high, cut it back leaving 2 leaves.
  • This likes an east or west window. This herb that gives a light taste to roasts, vegetables and fish and likes an all-purpose potting mix, watered once a week and pruned back to 2 inches.
  • This is a natural air freshener and will help keep your kitchen smelling fresh. It likes cactus potting soil and the top few inches of growth to be dry. It is a slow grower and one third of the plant should be harvested at a time. It prefers a south window.
  • This herb is not fussy and will do well indoors or out but does like a south window.
  • This herb that complements roasts and most meats. It likes cactus potting soil and the top inch of this to be dry. An east or west window is fine.

Herbs are versatile. In addition to bringing them in during cold months, they may be dried which will eliminate caring for them.

First, wash them by dunking in a bowl of cold water. To dry them, place them outside in a paper bag or hang them upside down. If you want a faster process, place cut herbs one quarter inch deep on a cookie sheet and place in a 180 degree Fahrenheit oven for 2 to 4 hours or until they crumble easily.

Store fresh herbs by placing stems in water and store dried herbs in tightly-sealed containers. Just remember, when using in recipes, you need three times more fresh as dried because dried herbs are more potent. Dried herbs are better if they are to be added during cooking and fresh is better when added on top.

Herbs may even be frozen. If you go this route, first wash them and chop them and spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze. Chives, lemon balm, parsley and rosemary lend themselves well to this process.

When planting herbs in gardens, remember that some prefer shade and some like sun. Shade lovers include parsley, cilantro, tarragon, golden oregano, wild bergamot, lemon balm and thyme. Sun worshippers include parsley, basil, mint, thyme, lemon balm, chives and rosemary.

Some herbs like to be partnered with certain vegetables when planted. Basil likes to be planted with tomatoes while chives should go with carrots.

Dill does well with cabbage and mint likes not only cabbage but also tomatoes. Marjoram is a good companion for all vegetables.

Herbs are so versatile that some can be swapped for others in recipes. These substitutions include mint and basil, cilantro and parsley, rosemary and thyme, oregano and marjoram and chervil and tarragon.

In a class all their own, herbs are versatile not only to grow but also in ways to use them. Our culinary dishes would be pretty dull without herbs to spice things up. Learning the properties of this food group will make it easier to prepare and use these additions in tantalizing ways.

Photo by Getty Images/robynmac.

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