How To Preserve and Over-Winter Your Outdoor Herbs

How To Preserve and Over-Winter Your Outdoor Herbs

Nov 12, 2010
(Welcome to Erin, who's trying out for a spot on our editorial team. Enjoy!)

Fall seems to be lingering in many parts of the country this year, so it may not be too late to bring some of your favorite plants indoors for the winter. I can't bear to leave my herbs outside, plus nothing is better than having fresh herbs all winter long. I'm looking forward to sage and rosemary in my Thanksgiving stuffing, fresh basil pesto when I need a pick-me-up during the coldest storm in January, and oregano and thyme in a hearty soup for a cozy dinner with friends. Oh, yes, it's going to be a good winter!

What You Need

Potting soil
Organic fertilizer or compost tea
Small spade or trowel
A bright window


1. If your herbs are in the ground, then carefully dig around them, trying to get a good amount of the root structure. Then gently remove some of the garden soil. Natural garden soil is structurally different from potting soil and won't drain well enough for potted plants. Also, check them to be sure you aren't bringing any dormant critters inside!

2. Settle your herb into a pretty pot or container (make sure it has a drainage hole) and fill with potting soil. The soil should come up to the same level on the plant—don't bury it too deep, or leave it too shallow. Water thoroughly and let it drain.

3. Give it a very light application of fertilizer or compost tea. And don't fertilize it for the rest of the winter. Too much food will dilute the pungent herby flavors.

4. Place the plant in a bright window. Herbs need at least 4 hours of sun, but 5 or 6 is better. Since it is winter, and they're not getting as much light as they did in the summer, they aren't going to grow as well as they did in summer. So, don't expect amazing results—the leaves will be smaller and fewer, but still have great flavor. (Alternatively you can use an overhead florescent light.)

5. Don't overwater. Soggy herbs are dead herbs, so be very careful how much you water them. Don't let water sit in the saucer, or it will rot the roots. Don't let it completely dry out, either, or they will drop their leaves.

6. Herbs like to be the same temperature you do—between 60 and 70 degrees, and they don't mind getting a little colder at night, so no need to crank up the thermostat. Also, if the air in your home tends to be dry, you'll want to spritz them with water a couple times a week. If you have several pots, group them together to help them stay moist, plus it looks great!

Additional Notes: Generally basil, thyme, marjoram, sage, oregano and parsley will be happy indoors. I've had mixed results with mint—it seems to be OK for a few months but dies just before spring. On the other hand, although rosemary is supposedly very difficult to grow inside, I've had good luck with it. It'll depend on the growing conditions in your particular home.

Also, if your plants aren't allowed a dormant period they won't perform well next year, so you may have to start over with fresh plants in the spring.

It's best to start with full-grown plants—I don't recommend trying to start seeds until spring when the days are longer. And don't forget to enjoy them! Cutting and using your herbs regularly will encourage them to continue putting out new leaves, and won't leave you itching as badly for fresh flavors.

Thanks, Erin!

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(Images: Erin Carpenter)

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