Bringing Herbs Indoors for Winter
It’s time to reap the benefits from all that loving labour you have put into your garden since spring. Be sure to take time from your busy harvest to pot up some herbs. For the Canadian herb lover there is nothing more satisfying than lining up pots of herbs on a sunny windowsill. I look at it as sanity insurance against the cold winter months ahead. Let the snow and wind slap the sides of my house silly – so long as I have my herbs it’s still summertime in my kitchen.
Some herbs take more kindly to putting down roots indoors than others. Here are a few of the most rewarding herbs to keep over winter.
Basil: Simply sprinkle a few seeds in a pot in the fall, set in a south-facing window and you can enjoy fresh basil while those winter winds howl.
Chives: Dig a small clump from your garden – be sure you have at least four or five bulbs – and transplant them into a pot. Set them on the deck until the first frost. When they have died back it’s time to bring them in – but don’t put them on the windowsill just yet! Chives need to go through a period of cool darkness – in other words they need to think it’s winter. Trick them by placing the Chives in a dark, cool, place. A closet will do, but a basement is better. Fortunately Chives can’t work a calendar, so you only need to give them the sort of winter we Canadians can only dream of – one or two weeks is plenty! Bring them back out, place them on your sunniest window sill and soon those fresh green shoots will be poking up all over again!
Oregano: The best way to restart Oregano is to take a tip cutting from a plant in your garden. If the plant is an Oregano, that works best. (Groan. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) See below for tips on tip cutting. Once it has rooted place the pot in a south-facing window.
Parsley: You can either start this herb again from seed or dig up a piece from your garden in late fall. Be sure to trim it back after potting it up for lots of fresh growth. Parsley grows like crazy in a south sunny window, but if you find that it’s growing faster than you can harvest it, slow down the growth by putting it in an east or west-facing window or prepare to chow down like a cow.
Rosemary: With its coniferous like leaves, this plant is not only a delectable delight, but can be featured as a mini Christmas tree during the holiday season! Start with a cutting from your outdoor plant, or if it’s not too big, pot up the whole thing and bring it on in. I keep mine in a pot year round, so it’s just a matter of rinsing off any outdoor hitchhikers and bringing it inside long before the first frost. It does best in a south-facing window.
Sage: Either slice off a small clump or better yet, take a tip cutting from an outdoor plant to give sage a new life indoors. Sage is well suited for dry, indoor air, but it is imperative that it gets a spot on the south window sill. Without a few hours of strong south sun a day, it soon starts to look pale and lifeless – sort of like a Canadian in March.
French Tarragon: Like chives, tarragon must have a brief dormant period before making the full transition to the window sill. Pot up a mature plant from your garden and leave it on the deck until the leaves die back. Put it in the coolest spot in your house for a several days, and then place it in a south-facing window where it will get as much sun as possible. Feed well with an organic liquid fertilizer.
Thyme: You can either restart Thyme by rooting a soft tip cutting or by digging up and potting one from your garden. Thyme appreciates full sun but will grow well in an east or west-facing window. This is something to appreciate when you sell out of all the real estate on the south window ledges! You can also consider “thyme sharing” the choice sunny spots in your house.
How to root a cutting: Snip off a four-inch section measured back from the tip. Strip off the lower leaves and insert the stem into a moist, soilless mix such as perlite and/or vermiculite. Humidity is essential, so cover with glass or clear plastic to keep things moist. You can buy trays with lids in garden centres for just this purpose.
Transplanting: Avoid digging up too big of a clump unless you have a big pot to fill. Be careful to shake off as much dirt as possible from the roots to avoid bringing any soil borne diseases indoors.
Keep fresh transplants separate from your other houseplants for at least a week while acclimatizing the transplants to the indoors. If the plant looks healthy and insect free after this quarantine, then bring it on in to get cozy with its winter neighbours.
How’s the Weather Inside? : As a rule, herbs like to be well watered but get grumpy when their feet stay wet. Water fast and furious whenever the top of the container feels dry, or when the pot feels light when you pick it up. When the water starts coming out the bottom, you’re done. Don’t leave water in the saucer – remember, no wet feet! For quicker drainage add some sterilized sand, vermiculite or perlite to the potting soil.
Banishing Bugs: It’s tempting to use regular garden soil when potting up plants for winter – cease, desist and resist! Don’t do it. Use compost or sterilized potting soil instead. Without all the elements of the great outdoors working their circle of magic, diseases and pests will thrive in the confines of the indoors. When potting up plants remove as much of the garden soil as possible without disturbing the roots.
Insect Battles: As they say in hockey, the best offense is a good defence and the same applies to the battle of the insects. A healthy herb can shrug off the odd nibblers, so do your best to make sure your plants aren’t weakened by hot, dry indoor conditions. When a plant starts to stress it begins to build nutrients in its leaves that make it taste like candy to spider mites and aphids. A botanist would explain it much more scientifically than that, but we would agree on the end result – a stressed plant invites pests. If a herb starts to turn yellow or fails to thrive, the best thing to do is quickly give it a crew cut, ridding it of its leaves before the bugs move in for the kill. Cut first ask questions later. Try and figure out what made the herb so unhappy in the first place. Was it getting enough sun? Too much water? Not enough? Was it getting enough nutrients from compost or seaweed? Or maybe too much?
Food for Thought or in this case winter: Avoid over feeding through December. An occasional watering should be all your herbs need, especially if you have added compost to the potting soil About mid-January when the days start to get longer they will start to dry out more often and will appreciate a little liquid seaweed every fourth watering. By February your herbs should be receiving lots of sunshine and will need more frequent watering and some sips of seaweed every other watering. If the soil gets compacted use a kitchen fork to hoe it up a little and then spoon some compost on top. If you want to get cute and are desperate to get your hands on some garden-like tools you might want to buy one of those miniature rakes that they use in Feng Shui desk top gardens. March will bring lots of new growth to carry you through until it’s time for both you and your herbs to get back into the garden once again. In the meanwhile don’t forget to take time this winter to stop and sniff the basil. And the rosemary. And the oregano. And the…well, you get the idea. Have a cozy, warm and herbaceous winter!