Cindy Martin is co-owner of The Tasteful Garden, where “… its all about the flavor.” The Tasteful Garden is a specialized nursery that provides a large selection of kitchen garden plants such as 45 heirloom and hybrid tomatoes, over 50 different culinary herbs and a full variety of fall vegetable starts. The Tasteful Garden's plants are sold mail order through their web site, which has extensive growing tips and recipes for using your garden harvest.

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Herb in Autumn
by Cindy Martin       #Herbs

The question: What should I do with my herbs for the winter? Will they die? Should I bring them indoors? These are the most frequently asked questions, I recieve about herb gardening this time of year. Herb gardening does not necessarily end as soon as the basil flowers and goes to seed. Fall is a good time for cleanup in the herb garden and growing can continue indoors once the weather cools off to extend the season almost year round. 

Some herbs are completely dormant during the winter such as oregano but come back strong in spring from their extensive root systems.2

Extending the Season

Annual herbs, such as basil and dill, will live through only one growing season, during which they will grow leaves, flower and then make seeds. The seeds will lie dormant through the winter and then naturally germinate when spring warms things up again. Perennial herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage grow through the warm season, and will live over the winter, although they are mostly dormant without much growth. Oregano, chives and mint are perennial, but they go into dormancy for winter and look completely dead, though they will grow back in the spring.

Parsley, which is a biennial, generally grows leaves in the first season, flowers in the second season and then dies. It is best to plant parsley in the fall because it loves cooler weather. You can expect it to live through the following summer before it goes to seed. Cilantro, which is an annual and not related to parsley, needs cool weather below 75 F to grow well, and because it only lives for about two months, it is a good idea to grow it after the summer heat has passed.

Timely Tips

Dill, which also likes temperatures in the 70s will grow during fall, but harvest the fresh leaves before frost kills them. Basil can be replanted from new starts and grown in containers outdoors until the temperatures drop below 45 F at night. You can also bring potted perennial herbs indoors for the fall and winter, but remember to gradually bring herbs into your kitchen over about a two-week period, which will acclimate them to growing indoors. (See sidebar for more about growing herbs indoors successfully.)

Fall pruning to shape herbs encourages uniform and vigorous spring growth.1

The perennial herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano, will grow best if they are given a fall haircut or pruning to trim off leggy growth, reshape the plants and trim off any dead branches. If the center of your herbs looks brown and woody, cut slightly deeper into the center area to allow sunshine in that will stimulate new growth next spring.

Preserving the Flavors

When cutting your herbs, bring in the trimmings to save for winter freezing or drying. Freezing them in plastic resealable storage bags works very well to hold their flavor, but you can also use a dehydrator or even your microwave to dry them and f store in jars. Dried herbs are generally milder than fresh ones, however sage and oregano become stronger as their flavor concentrates during the drying process.

Preserving other herbs such as chives, mints, parsley, cilantro and dill can be done by freezing them as well, but I recommend using some different techniques for the best flavor retention. You can freeze the herbs in an ice cube tray filled with water as long as you use it for recipes that call for water.

Olive oil can be used for herbs, which can be used in recipes such as salad dressings or salsas that call for olive oil. Chopping up the herbs in a small food processor or blender with just enough olive oil to coat the leaves, or adding more oil to make a pesto or paste, will work best for basil whose leaves oxidize and turn black when they are exposed to air after being chopped. Basil will stay nice and green with this technique for use all winter long in pasta sauces, soups or salads.

Growing Herbs Indoors Successfully

Growing herbs indoors can be challenging and you may not be successful over the whole season, but try to think of it as a short-term extension of the garden. Don’t worry about trying to grow sweet basil during the middle of January, but you can have it into December and then start again early in March. Find a window located on the south or west side that captures as much light as possible. Make sure you do not place the herbs near heating ducts or fireplaces, since they can really dry out the leaves even if you water them frequently.

Give herbs enough room to grow in their pot.  Thyme, chives and rosemary will remain small and compact through the winter, so smaller pots are better for drainage. Make sure you don’t overwater the herbs.  Rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano must have a period of dry soil before they are watered again, so make sure the soil dries most of the way down. Don’t set pots in trays of water, because herbs do not like to have wet feet.  Instead add gravel to the saucers and fill them with water for humidity, or mist the leaves of the plant once a week with a spray bottle.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2005 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photos courtesy of 1
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Posted: 11/08/12   RSS | Print


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