How to Grow Fresh Herbs in the Winter

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Rosemary is not an herb usually associated with Southern comfort food. Indeed, I cannot remember a favorite childhood dish seasoned with this versatile herb.

I can still see the loaded rack of spices in the pantry and the piles of cookbooks on a shelf, but nope, can’t recall eating anything with rosemary, and it’s not like rosemary is an herb that you could easily overlook. It’s one of the more pungent, and a little goes a long way in transforming a dish from forgettable to memorable.

Luckily, this evergreen shrub is very easy to grow for year-round use, when provided sharp drainage and plenty of sunlight. It does well in containers or in the ground. Since winter weather may deter me from venturing out to the garden to clip some for the kitchen, I like to keep some growing in containers just outside the door on my sunny, southwest-facing deck.

See more: How to Grow Herbs Indoors

Rosemary, Oregano and Thyme

I have great success with several other evergreen herbs in outdoor containers. A few are very hardy and will tolerate our coldest winter temperatures, but others will benefit from being dragged into a sheltered setting such as an enclosed porch or garage during very bitter spells.

The aforementioned rosemary is a good example. While certain hardier cultivars such as “Arp” and “Salem” have survived for decades in the ground across Tennessee when sited well, rosemary in a container will be more vulnerable to freeze injury. If temperatures are predicted to go down to the low teens, I’ll move mine into the garage until we return to more typical winter temperatures. For this reason, I like to use resin containers, which are both lightweight and resistant to breakage.

Oregano is hardier and not likely to need this extra help; however, I rarely use this herb fresh. I just like the aesthetics of its growth habit, which provides a vigorous ground-cover underlying taller herbs, and the foliage often reddens a bit in winter.

Thyme will also offer this groundcover character, but on a much less vigorous scale, and you can add it to most winter dishes, especially anything with chicken, soups and hearty omelets, so plant plenty. Of course, it is a requisite ingredient in bouquet garni. I confess to failing with growing thyme in the ground, apparently unable to provide the sharp drainage it requires. I’ve had much better luck with it in raised beds and containers. English or common thyme are good bets. Lemon thyme is another that does well, but be aware that the citrusy flavor does not lend itself well to some dishes.

See more: Saving Herbs for Fall and Winter

Parsley and Cilantro

Parsley and cilantro are closely related but have entirely different flavors. Both are cool-season plants, actually, biennials that should be started from seed in early fall! You may be able to find them as transplants in the smarter garden centers in the fall, though, sadly, they are most commonly found in the spring offerings. Sadly? Yes, because if planted as a fall crop, I can often harvest from autumn through winter and right up to the onset of high summer. Flatleaf parsley is best for culinary purposes, and parsley seems to be a touch hardier for me than cilantro.

People love cilantro or they don’t, and I fall into the camp that loves it. My family’s favorite quick salsa can be whipped up even in the wintertime since it uses mostly canned ingredients, but the addition of onion, lime and fresh cilantro make it sparkle with freshness on the drabbest of winter days. Hot chili and dip and chips! Yum.

See more: Homegrown Herbs and Fruits Let You Drink Your Yard

Bay Leaves

You might be surprised to know that occasionally I find a large evergreen shrub lurking in protected garden sites across Tennessee that reveals its identity with a pinch and sniff. It is Laurus nobilis, the plant that provides bay leaf. Common names vary. Bay laurel and bay tree are a couple, but be aware that many people may confuse those common names with cherry or English laurel or even with sweetbay magnolia, both unrelated. Sometimes it is just best to shop for plants using the botanical name, trust me!

You can avoid the gamble of this Zone 8 plant surviving in your landscape by growing it in a pot and giving it shelter during the most wicked winter temperatures. (However, despite being a Zone 6 and 7 state, we’ve had mostly Zone 8 winters for the last several years.) It is often used as a hedge in the Mediterranean countries of its origin, so feel free to prune it as you like for shaping and restraining its size. In warmer climates, it actually grows into a sizeable tree. Of course, the dried leaves can be easily stored in a jar for your favorite stews and soups. I consider it essential for slow-cooked pinto beans with ham hocks and onions. Of course, gumbos, jambalaya, and red beans and rice need bay leaf, and surely you knew that bay leaf is required in any shrimp or crawfish boil.

Any of these evergreen herbs are more likely to survive winter in containers if well established, so plant early next fall for best results. Though still worth a shot, be aware that newly planted containers will be considerably less hardy, so be prepared to pull them into sheltered areas more often than well-established plants. Use good, porous potting soil and provide as much sunlight as possible. Water only as soil begins to get quite dry, which will not be very often during our typically rainy winters.

See more: Winter Garden To-Do List

Grow Your Own Bay Leaves

Just how old are the bay leaves in your cupboard? Freshly dried bay leaves are far superior to the ones bought in the store, which may already be months old. The evergreen shrub Laurus nobilis, the plant that provides bay leaf, is available at many nurseries and can be grown here in Tennessee, though it will need to be brought inside during cold weather.

Fresh bay leaves are not recommended as they may be somewhat bitter and overly strong, but it’s easy to dry your own bay leaves. Simply pick a few leaves from your plant and allow them to dry a few days before using them in a recipe. Leaves can be dried by simply cutting off a branch and allowing the stem to stand in a dry vase for a few days, or you can pick the leaves and lay them on paper towels without any overlap for a few days. Freeze freshly dried bay leaves in a jar or zip-close bag to retain that freshly dried potency for months.

DIY Bouquet Garni

A “bouquet garni” classically means a bundle of herbs wrapped in cheesecloth that can easily be extracted from soups, stews and casseroles.

Three ingredients are considered the base for bouquet garni – thyme, bay leaf and parsley. You can also add other ingredients for specific dishes, such as tarragon, chervil, black peppercorns, rosemary or even cloves.

Carol Reece is a University of Tennessee Extension ornamental horticulture specialist who also assists with programs such as Master Gardener. She has horticultural degrees from Mississippi State University, where she taught plant materials and landscape design.

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