Over-Wintering Delicious Herbs

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Food & Health, Local Harvest

Over-Wintering Delicious Herbs

Got a window that gets six hours of sun a day? You can grow herbs indoors!

With fall  upon us, it is a bit disheartening to look out at the abundant fresh herb supply and imagine it covered in a quiet blanket of snow. But take heart, while making your gardening to-do lists for autumn, consider herbs that may successfully overwinter indoors.

Also, go shopping! In mid- to late fall, nurseries often mark down any leftover summer herbs to such a significant discount that even if they don’t survive, you are not out a lot of money. Also, you might find some obscure perennial ones to add, like bay or lemon verbena or an annual such as epazote that you may have been curious about. Study up on their growth habits and pland them in a garden spot or pot where they will be happy. Most herbs require at least six hours of direct sun a day.

I did this with rosemary, which is hard to winter over in Utah even when you get the Arp variety, the one that promises the best possibility of success. I got permission from my landlord to plant herbs outside my office building. At a nursery in early October I found several straggley looking rosemary, lavender, sage, rue and oregano plants that cost me about $1-2 each. I had to hunt for them, finding them under tables and among spent tomato plants.

I planted them in the very poor soil, taking great care to place the rosemary plants in the sunniest, hottest places under an overhanging eve for protection from heavy snow. That was about 10 years ago, and the area has now become a beautiful demonstration garden for my herb classes. The rosemary is so huge and abundant I have to whack it back, and all the random sages I purchased have spread. They are variegated, adding color and interest. Ever-loyal lavender blooms right on time for fragrance and the bees. Many passersby stop to admire the garden and ask about the huge rosemarys.

I personally have never had success overwintering rosemary indoors. I think part of the problem is that perennial herbs have a dormant period, and when we bring them indoors, we treat them like it’s summer with too much water and fertilizer. Indoor heat has hampered my efforts, too; adding humidity helps. A student once told me she had great success with rosemary by keeping it in a greenhouse that never went below 40 degrees.

Also, none of the Mediterranean herbs—rosemary, lavender and thyme—like too much water; it makes their stems rot. Pot in sandy soil and let them dry out between waterings.

Parsley, oregano, chives and thyme make a nice quartet of herbs in pots in a sunny window during winter. You could start your oregano from a cutting from your already existing plant and rooting it in a glass of water. Chives are perennial so just dig up a small patch from your garden and pot it.

Chives produce well in early spring and fall so there may be a period where you cut them back (enjoy those tasty cuttings) but they will surely spring forth soon, given enough care and sun.

For thyme, start with a new plant from a nursery if you can find it. Lemon thyme smells especially refreshing on a dark winter day.

Parsley has a life cycle of two years. The first year’s growth gives us the fresh, green leaves we use so either dig up and pot the plant you bought this year or buy a new one. Starting it from seed takes a lot of time.

Greta informs me that pineapple sage grows well indoors and, in addition to the fragrant leaves, produces the most beautiful scarlet flowers. She has also had success with the Vietnamese medicinal hoan ngoc. Use leaves in green drinks.

Some garden herbs are not salvageable. Basil is prone to wilt and white flies and not worth the bother. Also annuals that grow from seed do not need to be saved. Perennials can be left in the ground. To harvest for use, dig roots you need like horseradish and echinacea (in its third year). For warm-weather herbs like passionflower or lemon grass, pot them up, cut them back and bring them inside to nurse them along as best you can until they can safely be placed outside once again. Just for the fun of it, investigate scented geraniums because all geraniums seem to do well indoors in winter.

Merry Lycett Harrison is a clinical herb­alist, teacher, author and wild guide and a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. See “Herb Tip of the Week” at www.millcreekherbs.com or visit the Millcreek Herbs booth at the Downtown Farmers Market.

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