Herbal Gardening - Herbs in Winter

Herbs are hardy and self-sufficient plants, but even they will benefit from some simple steps to help them through the winter.

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Winterizing your herb garden isn't going to be difficult, but the actions you take will differ somewhat depending on the type of herbs you have planted. Just as with other plants and flowers, some are annuals while others are perennials. That means the last either die off with the cold weather or simply become dormant, but rise again the following spring.

Basil, for example, doesn't do well in colder climates and will often not survive the winter. They can, however, be grown indoors, or simply planted again next early spring. Sage and Thyme winter well on the other hand, though their leaves may wither and the stalks may appear dead. If you are not sure, try scraping the side of a sample and look for green material. That's a sign that the plant is still alive and will blossom later in the season.

Most herbs  do well in soil which would be considered "poor" when growing other plants, and therefore generally require little or no fertilizer. If you do fertilize, however, avoid adding any after early August. You won't want to encourage a spurt of new growth that won't have time to mature before winter sets in. That will leave the new growth vulnerable, making it difficult for it to survive the snow or frost.

As growth begins to slow, the plants prepare themselves for winter. Many will lose their leaves. In the case of some of them, the stalks may actually harden and die. In the case of perennials, however, the roots are still alive even though dormant. As the snow clears and the ground warms in the Spring, they'll sprout again, rest assured.

After reading this section, you might want to take a look at the section: Preparing Your Herbs for Spring.

A similar warning as the one about fertilizing applies to pruning as well. Trimming back the plant in August or September will stimulate new growth, but those new shoots don't have time to mature before winter, and often will not survive. That doesn't help the herb's chances the following spring, since that dead growth has to be cleared before new growth can take its place.

Good drainage is an important issue for almost all herbs, since most prefer slightly dryer soil. Peppermint prefers it slightly moister, but remember, the key word is "moist", not "wet". Rosemary, Lavender, Thyme and several others are Mediterranean natives so they're used to rocky, dry soil and lots of hot sunshine. The coming of winter makes this point even more important in those cases.

Wet soil will draw more heat out of the plant than dry. When it becomes cold enough, of course, the plant freezes. That can crack roots, cause frost heaving as the ground alternately freezes and thaws over winter, and other ill effects.

Adequate drainage is encouraged by the right mix of sandy loam and clay soil. The clay retains moisture that is later released to plants as the surrounding soil dries. Sandy loam provides lots of spaces for air to move around, while allowing excess water to pass through easily.

A good mulch will help the surface enormously. A mixture of pine bark and needles or a similar commercial mixture is great. Sawdust is also helpful. In special cases, it can be helpful to build a small wire cage around the plant to help retain the mulch and (if lined with plastic) block excess cold wind.

Prepare properly for winter and you'll find your herbs eager to sprout at the earliest opportunity in the spring.

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Herbal Gardening - Herbs in Winter
Page Updated 3:40 PM Saturday 6/28/2014