Bringing herbs in for winter

CA KateSeptember 23, 2005

I just recieved this info. in a newsletter from Organic Gardening:

Herbs Indoors

Herbs can be grown successfully indoors if you give them a little extra care.

For gardeners who like to cook, few plants are as rewarding as herbs. When the outdoor growing season ends, you can still enjoy fresh, homegrown herbs in your favorite recipes.

You can simply dig up your healthiest herbs and bring them inside. By taking note of herbs' special growing needs, you can harvest basil, thyme, and more straight through until spring. Here are three steps for successfully bringing herbs inside:

1. Choose the most robust plants to bring indoors. Before the first frost, dig them out of the garden and pot them up in fresh potting soil. Choose pots that allow for at least 1 to 2 inches of space around the rootball. Water thoroughly. Check each plant for insects, and if there's an infestation, treat the leaves with a soap spray.

2. Reverse the hardening-off process. Keep the pots outdoors out of direct sunlight for about a week. This will accustom your plants to being in containers and to the lower light conditions they'll experience inside. Keep them watered. Prune any lanky growth.

3. Bring them inside. To stay flavorful, herbs need at least five hours of direct sun a day. Turn windowsill plants regularly so that every side receives light. Don't let leaves touch the cold window glass. Fluorescent lights, hung 6 inches above the plants and left on for 14 hours per day, give even better results.

Most indoor herbs prefer temperatures of about 65 to 70 degrees F in the daytime and about 60 degrees F at night. Herbs also need humidity. Provide it by placing the pots on trays filled with gravel and about an inch of water. Protect plants from drafts, but give them good air circulation. Don't crowd pots together. Overwatering will kill most indoor herbs, so between waterings, let the soil surface dry outand use tepid water. Fertilize once a month with diluted fish and seaweed fertilizer.


Basil (Easy) Keep snipping to prevent flowering. When plants become woody, compost them and start more from seed.

Chives (Easy) Pot up the plant and leave it outside until frost kills the foliage. It will resprout in a few weeks.

Mint (Moderate) Mint prefers cool, humid conditions. To allow for its spreading root system, make sure the pot is wider than it is deep.

Oregano (Easy) This herb likes good drainage, slightly dry soil, and regular pruning.

Parsley (Moderate) Challenging to transplant because it has a deep taproot. Surest success? Start from seed.

Rosemary (Finicky) Rosemary needs moist air and well-drained (but not dried-out) soil. Brown needle tips mean you're overwatering.

Sage (Easy) Forgiving when you forget to water, sage is kept in bounds by regular pruning.

Thyme (Easy) Thyme can handle some shade. Compost once stems become woody.

If you want to see the original:

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playthyme(Z7 west TN)

You know, I just don't think this works. To me, herbs need summer sun to develope the necessary essential oils. I use everything I can ( zone 7) as long as it lasts and then wait for the next summer. In my area, many except for basil last nearly until Jan.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2005 at 5:11PM
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brer(Zone 7)

I haven't had any luck bringing them in either.

If I try to use them in cooking, I end up clipping back more of the plant than will grow indoors. I don't find it's worth it. I'm better off just letting them winter over outdoors. I just clip some sprigs and dry them and use dried herbs in the winter (or frozen)

    Bookmark   October 3, 2005 at 1:46PM
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Ahhhhhhhh, to live in Zone 7 :-) For those of us who live in colder zones, bringing in some plants makes sense. I'd hate, for example, to lose a species of a plant it took a few years to find, or lose a first-year tender that hasn't yet grown into its own. Overwintering, if nothing else, provides a distraction for the at least six months of not much happening outside.

While the newsletter seems to give some good advice, I wouldn't count on five hours of sun being near enough if you're not forcing dormancy. Nor would I feed every month -- all plants need some period of dormancy whether they look it or not.

Selection seems to be the key, here.


    Bookmark   October 3, 2005 at 3:34PM
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I never bother to bring in any herbs except the bay, rosemary, and scented geraniums. Everything else is too much work, and takes too much space.

In central Ohio I find sage is hardy (I an pluck fresh leaves for Thanksgiving!), thmye is usually hardy, tarragon and oregano are occassionally hardy and everything else -- I just get a new one in the spring.

    Bookmark   October 3, 2005 at 10:27PM
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I cut a fair amount of lemon balm, mint and chives and preserve them (either drying, freezing, or in butter) and that's enough to get me thru to spring when they start growing again.

    Bookmark   October 3, 2005 at 10:31PM
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playthyme(Z7 west TN)

Martie - i agree bringing in to keep saafe is didderent tnat bring in to supply herbs for the winter. I tried something last winter for the first time. I kept my lemon verbena potted all summer. Before the first frost I brought it into the garage and then actually forgot about it. I don't think I even watered it once. In the spring I brought it out and after a few days in the sun it started to leaf out. I was amazed this really works

    Bookmark   October 5, 2005 at 11:37AM
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teryaki(z5B NE OHIO)

No one in my family has ever had trouble overwintering sage or oregano in NE Ohio. They die to the base and come back every spring.

    Bookmark   October 5, 2005 at 6:56PM
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jannie(z7 LI NY)

I am in Zone 6, New york. I have NEVER been able to bring rosemary inside successfully. I treat it like an annual. Buy an new pot every spring. The rest can ride it out if left outdoors. Or I bring in some for the winter, and keep them in a south-facing window. Thanks for posting the article. Always looking for tips and inspiration.

    Bookmark   October 6, 2005 at 12:56PM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

Since you live in California I wouldn't bother. Everything should be fine outside. That is not to say some things will not die down in Winter, but that's what they're meant to do. Talk of taking bay, rosemary etc indoors is for those in cold climates. You (and I in the UK) can harvest woody herbs all winter. Sage,thyme,oregano,bay and rosemary will all continue through the winter. Mint, parsley and chives will die down but come back. As for basil I can't help you. I grow it under glass and start again each year because I don't get sufficient summer heat.

    Bookmark   October 10, 2005 at 5:54PM
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CA Kate

Flora: you are correct.... don't have to bring anything in, and the basil dies, but I've already frozen enough Pesto to last the winter. I just copied-off the beginning of this thread because so many others were asking.

    Bookmark   October 10, 2005 at 8:30PM
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kaseyboy(z5 Michigan)

Is Lavender supposed to be a perrenial? I got beautiful bushes growning last year, but they died out over the winter.

Also, I have an oregano bush (it's so big, I have to call it a bush) in my front flowerbed. It I leave it out over winter, will it come back if I cover it with straw or something to protect it?

Chives are way easy. I've left mine in same pot on my back deck for about 8 years now (including through the winters). All I do to it is water in summer and keep buds picked.

    Bookmark   October 12, 2005 at 3:53PM
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All Lavenders are "perennial", but several are not hardy in Z5. A general rule of thumb is that if it is some variety of Lavandula angustifolia, it's worth the shot. Species like L. stoechas and a lot of the L. intermedias are either marginal or not hardy in Z5. The most-sold lavs are: Hidcote, Mustead, Lady, Blue Cushion.... they are all hardy.

A few hints to help your lavs along: lavs are very suseptible to truck-rot. Don't mulch them close to the trunk, if at all. Be sure they are in an area that won't have standing water or stay really wet during the winter. My lav growing mantra is: Benign neglect, benign neglect :-)

Your oregano shouldn't need anything on top of it to survive.


    Bookmark   October 13, 2005 at 7:49AM
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lori_londonuk(zone 8-9)

I bring in some mint roots to resprout new plants from when the mint starts looking a bit tired before the frosts (around now). I will also bring in some pots of french parsley. It won't really grow inside but that means I don't end up buying expensive imported bunches of the stuff when I need it for cooking. I've also started growing giant italian parsley from seed in my greenhouse this autumn, I'll probably leave it outside once it's established as I've heard it's pretty hardy.

Thyme stays outside and partially dies down but not completely: rosemary stays outside doing its evergreen thing, likewise for my largish bay tree sitting in a container outside, but next to the house wall.
My lavenders (probably Hidcote) are fine outside - I don't bother with stoechas any more since I lost one, but that may have been more about winter wet than frost - hard to tell.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2005 at 8:44AM
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Well, it's been a looong time, since I've posted here. Starting up a new business took up all my time for most of this year. Was just browsing, while I fight a head cold (on the excuse that I can't work, while medicated) and saw this post. Thought I'd add my two cents.

I've been bringing potted herbs indoors for several years to enjoy during the winter. Each year I overwinter 30 to 40 pots. Winters in New Hampshire are long and cold. Some plants survive fine outdoors up here (e.g. mints, thymes, tarragon, chives), but many don't make it (e.g. sage, rosemary, basil). So, I grow lots of herbs in pots outdoors spring through fall and bring them inside just before the first frost. Some plants do great; some just hang in there until spring. But, even if I don't get enough fresh herbs to use for all my cooking, adding some snips of fresh leaves to the dried stuff adds a nice dimension of flavor.

Here's what I've learned. Every "dont" listed is something I did, so the end result described is from personal experience, not book-reading.

1) Give plants all the sun you can. This is more important than humidity, temperature or proper soil moisture (which is a close second). I have several southern windows where the bulk of the plants go and a couple of eastern windows for those that can take a little more shade. I don't use supplemental light, but my southern windows have unobstructed sun.

2) Tropicals, like Vietnamese coriander and Rau Om, don't like to be right up against the window, since it gets pretty cold there. Tough plants, like, oreganos, thymes, mints, etc. could care less.

3) I usually dont bother with annuals, since they get very leggy indoors. Thats one of the reasons why I grow Vietnamese coriander and Mexican culantro instead of cilantro. An exception this year is Greek columnar basil (also called Greek bush basil). It is supposed to do well potted indoors. It is almost three feet tall and sitting in a southern window as I type this, so we shall see how it goes. Even if it doesnt make it, the plant puts out very dense growth only 10 inches wide and I think the flavor is more like Genovese basil than sweet basil (although I have seen it listed under sweet basil). It doesnt flower, doesnt bolt, and did fine all summer in a 10-inch pot, so it is a winner in my book.

4) Water less in the winter, since most plants will slow down with the shorter days. Drier soil is better; damp soil will kill many plants. Exceptions include tropicals, like Vietnamese coriander and Rau Om.

5) Leafy plants, like standard oregano, thyme, African blue basil, lemon savory, etc., I cut about two thirds the way back before I bring inside. The new leaves will be better adapted to the reduced light and the older leaves usually drop anyway in a few weeks.

6) Rosemary I don't cut at all, preferring to prune it in the spring. Same for bay laurel and other, tough-leaved plants. Thick, fleshy leaved plants, like Cuban oregano, Spanish oregano, Portuguese oregano (also called broad-leaved thymes) I leave as is and let hang naturally. They look nice that way.

7) No matter how hard you try, you will get pests, especially white fly and white spot. I use a pyrethrum-based pest spray, which is rated as safe for fruit, and a copper-based fungicide. Have never had luck with the tea-type fungus remedies.

8) Keeping a few carnivorous plants around, like a Cape Sundew (Drosera capensis) or one of the heavily branched sundews (D. multifida extrema), will also help control white flies. Capes are easy to grow indoors and look cool, too.

9) Herbs are tough plants to begin with, so I fertilize infrequently and use a dilute plant food, when I do.

  1. Prune regularly to remove dead and yellowed leaves. Don't let dead leaves pile up on the soil; since they will become a breeding ground for mold.

  2. If you intend to bring plants in for the winter, try growing them in pots all summer. The transition will be a lot easier for them. There are some varieties, like Blue Boy rosemary and Grolau chives, which are bred especially for pot culture. Oreganos do great in pots, too, especially the less hardy varieties, like Cretan, Italian and Syrian. For plants that I put in the ground, like Berggarten, purple and tri-color sages, I take cuttings and root them.

  3. For potting soil I use plain, old Sam's Choice from WalMart. Nothing fancy, but it drains well and still holds moisture.

  4. The toughest time is December. Days are the shortest and the plants are just coming out of the adjustment period. If you can keep them hanging on until the New Year, they will usually start perking up and will look a lot better within a month. Up here, I think the snow on the ground actually helps by reflecting a lot of light up to the plants from below the window.

  5. Since its deciduous, lemon verbena, no matter what you do, will drop its leaves within a few weeks of being brought indoors. Dont try to prolong the agony, since it will just end up getting spider mites. Just move the plant to a cool place out of the light until March. Bring it out, give it sun, water it, and it will put out all new growth. If you leave it out until first frost, it will drop all its leaves outside and save you the trouble of cleaning them up for a month before you put it away.

  6. Some plants, especially mint cuttings, can have a funky smell, when you first bring them inside. That will change to the normal smell as the plants adapt and mature.

I hope some of this is useful. Overall, I think that herbs as a group are easier to grow and less fussy than plants grown for their flowers or fancy foliage. And, they are a lot tastier.


    Bookmark   October 26, 2005 at 4:23PM
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The rosemary keeps pretty well indoors through the winter with very little watering, but then in March, it's need for water increases and you have to be very careful to monitor it--since you can't tell very well by looking at the foliage then whether it is too dry.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2005 at 11:23PM
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Can I successfully winter over white sage in the house? I have 3 nice plants potted so I didn't have to disturb them. Now can they survive inside and what care do they need? I am sure desert plants will not survive zone 4 winters outside, they don't have to thrive just keep alive until next spring. Any suggestions would be appreciated. TIA

    Bookmark   October 29, 2005 at 1:07PM
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teryaki(z5B NE OHIO)

My parsley, rosemary, lovage and marjoram are all showing new growth. The basil's the only transplant that doesn't seem to like being inside under the grow lights.

And in fairness to the basil, I waited a good month too long to bring it inside, because of some bad advice I got from a family member.

Gonna use the marjoram on some whiting fillets tommorrow. :)

    Bookmark   November 1, 2005 at 10:24PM
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Hi all! I have a pot of chives I inherited from my mother. It was outside all summer. I was going to plant it but never got around to it. Now it is inside and dying. I really don't want to lose the plant. Should I trim it back and see if it grows back? Can I let it sit in the basement over the winter then plant it outside next year? Or should I just keep watering it and see what happens? (Or some other option I am not thinking of?) Thanks!!!

    Bookmark   December 8, 2005 at 5:52PM
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teryaki(z5B NE OHIO)

Chives? You should just stick them outside now. If you can dig a hole in the ground for the pot, that'll give the roots more protection. You can transplant them into the garden in the spring.

    Bookmark   December 11, 2005 at 12:26AM
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Okay - Thanks Teryaki!

    Bookmark   December 15, 2005 at 8:42PM
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very new at this!! also very excited about it!! I just recently planted a herb garden for the very first time and i'm finding it addictive everyday I come home with a new one! I am somewhat concerned about what will survive the winter and I
m finding a lot of what you all have to say helpful

    Bookmark   July 22, 2008 at 1:08AM
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