Saturday, October 16, 2010

Wintering Herbs Indoors (part 1 of 2)

Finally our first frost has come.  Not a tough one and most plants were unaffected, but that automatically changes my focus from bringing in the harvest to bringing in the plants.  I know that some herb gardeners live where winters are frost-free may be able to get away with doing what my body wants right now which is to relax and wait until the seed catalogs come in January so I can plan for a new year.  However in Illinois, in Zone 5, I have to recognize that some of the plants I love cannot possibly stay outside all winter and return in spring after a nap.  Plants like rosemary, tender lavenders, flavored thyme plants, or other plants that will die if the temperature goes below 15°F must be handled in some way and now is the time.
For me I like to have some plants indoors for winter.  The scents and the ability to cook with them in winter are important to me, so over the years I have devised a plan for saving the plants from winter’s chill.
What Not to Bring In
Perhaps you love all the herbs in your garden equally, and you’d like to bring them all indoors. I suggest you don’t, even if you have a huge house with dozens of south-facing windows.
First of all, forget about the annuals, such as summer savory, chervil, cilantro, borage, and dill. Their lives are about over; if you want them indoors in winter, you can start new plants from seed.
Don’t bother bringing in tough perennial culinary herbs whose dried leaves have good flavor—I’m thinking of sage, oregano, and thyme—unless you think you can’t get along without the fresh leaves. Consider the size of the plants, too, and how many smaller plants you could put in their place in front of the window.  I grow lemon thyme in a window box along with a small bunch of chives and that window box always comes back inside in the fall, so I can snip fresh thyme and chives.
Don’t bring in huge tender plants if you don’t have room for them, no matter how badly you need them for next year’s herb garden.
And if space is limited, abandon tender perennials that are easy to start from seed. Marjoram is a good example—unless you ­absolutely must have it for midwinter salads.
Lastly, turn your back on plants that are diseased or pest-ridden. Even plants that are healthy now can become afflicted in the harsh atmosphere of the indoor desert, but there’s no sense in helping disease and pests get off to a good start.
What to Bring In
Several plants are worth bringing indoors. I suggest you keep tender perennials on which you’ve lavished special care and affection. These include unusual cultivars; plants of sentimental value for me that is my lemon verbena; expensive plants such as bay laurel; and herbs that you intend to propagate next spring (such as scented geraniums). And bring in plants that will look great as house plants, such as that prostrate rosemary in the hanging basket.
What about that absolutely wonderful tender perennial pineapple sage or pineapple mint that smells so good? Chances are they are too large for any window you have and may be too big for any pot you have, the solution is to take cuttings right now.  Using a rooting compound, take slips near leaf nodules, dip them in rooting compound and place them in water or moist sand. They’ll root in a couple of weeks and will occupy only a modest space by the window thereafter. If the new plants show signs of taking over the windowsill, take cuttings from them, and so forth, until it’s time to set them outside in the spring, after the danger of frost is past. If you’re not sure about the hardiness of a large perennial plant, you can take cuttings now and winter them indoors in case the original plant doesn’t survive.  I’ve done this with some of my favorite thyme plants because in Illinois, you never know if winter will cooperate and leave a protective blanket of snow in January or not.
What I Brought In
In September, a couple of weeks before our anticipated first frost, I looked over my herb garden, then looked over my sunniest windows, and tried to predict my craving for fresh herbs in the depths of winter. The herbs I decided I had to bring in included five tender perennials: a prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) I was training into a pine tree shape.  My two scented lemon & lemon rose geraniums (Pelargonium crispum ’), W small savory plant I got as a gift, and a lemon variegated thyme.  This year I did not bring in the Pineapple sage, even as a clipping because the plant was so effected by the heat this year, that it just did not seem healthy enough to give me good cuttings.  Oh well!
 How I Did It
All the herbs I planned to bring indoors had spent the summer in the ground. The healthy top growth hinted that the roots had also grown significantly, and so it turned out. I’m always surprised to discover how big the root mass gets when it’s not restricted by a pot.
I mixed up a potting medium that includes course sand and organic matter for nutrients and draining.  When I transplant I try to keep the soil with the roots, just knocking off the excess.  This cuts down on the shock to the plant.  That means I just need the new soil to fill in the bottom and the top of the pat as I am transplanting.  I keep some on hand incase the soil sinks in the winter.  If you don’t like the weight of sand you can substitute vermiculite or perlite.  I use a blend that is 1 part potting soil, two parts peat moss (organic matter) and one part course sand (be sure not to use play sand, that is like clay.)  Dampen the mixture so it does not leach the water out of the existing soil.
You can dig the plants up with a shovel or trowel, but using a trowel requires strong wrists.  This year, following my hand injury, I don’t have the strength back yet, so I used a shovel.  I found it to be much easier and may switch to this from now on.
Choose pots that are slightly larger than the root mass of each herb. I have a wide variety I have collected and saved over the years, but any pot will do, if you want a uniform look you can choose all terra cotta or you can wrap them in aluminum foil like I did one year.  It looked sparkly from outside!  If you have used the pots this year, be sure to wash and bleach them before reusing.  After laying in the plants, I watered them thoroughly and moved the pots into the shade.  I move them closer and closer to the house as it gets colder, bringing them in overnight if frost is predicted, but setting them back out during the day.
I will finish up this post tomorrow with details on the final prep before bringing them in permanently and how to care for the plants while indoors.  Please stop back! You will find part 2 here.
And for more articles and recipes about the use of herbs, check out our Facebook page and websites through
by Marcy Lautanen-Raleigh

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