Gardening Herbs

Herbs: Just Let Them Freeze!

Herb garden outdoors

By Larry Hodgson

Why is it so many gardeners insist on trying to bring their herb plants indoors for the winter? Don’t they realize the poor plants are only going to go downhill? Most will be dead well before spring. Why do they mistreat their plants like that?

Potted herbs dying on a windowsill.
Most herbs either decline or die outright when they are brought in for the winter. Photo: koskoz, reddit.com

Most of the herbs we commonly grow are perfectly happy outdoors in the winter. They evolved in a temperate climate and do fine in the winter cold. What they don’t like is being brought indoors to low light, low air humidity and excessive heat (most need at least a reasonably cold winter in order to thrive). 

A herb dragged indoors against its will usually looks alright for a month or two, perhaps giving you some hope, but by Christmas, decline will have set in. Leaves wilt and dry. Diseases suddenly appear. Insects show up out of nowhere. Soon, they’re pretty much ready for the trash bin. And even if you do manage to coax them through the winter, they’ll be in much worse shape than plants of the same species that spent the winter outdoors.

Exceptions

There are, of course, a few exceptions: herbs that do reasonably well indoors. Maybe they don’t put on much growth over the winter, but at least they don’t keel over. In its small but precious group, you find plants like bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), scented pelargoniums (Pelargonium graveolens and others), rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus, syn. Rosmarinus officinalis), Japanese coriander (Persicaria odorata), stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) and lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora, syn. Lippia citriodora). These plants overwinter relatively well in the house in the winter, especially if you grow them under very bright artificial light, but most others would prefer staying outside in the winter.

Herbs That Like It Cold

Lovage plant showing green leaves.
Lovage is one of the many herbs that prefer spending its winters outdoors in the ground. Photo: Jamain, Wikiimedia Commons

The herbs listed below are perennials, biennials or even shrubs adapted to temperate climates. They prefer to spend the winter in the cold. Bringing them indoors stresses them and can even kill them. Even if they do survive this mistreatment, they won’t produce much in the way of useable herbage indoors.

PlantHardiness zones
Angelica (Angelica archangelica)2 to 9
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)4 to 8
Caraway (Carum carvi)4 to 9
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)2 to 9
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)6 to 9
French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa)5 to 9
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum)3 to 9
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)3 to 8
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)3 to 8
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)6 to 9 (4 to 9 for some cultivars)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)4 to 7
Lovage (Levisticum officinale)3 to 8
Marjoram (Origanum majorana)7 to 10
Mint (Mentha spp.)2, 3 or 5 to 9 or 10
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)3 to 9
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)3 to 11
Rue (Ruta graveolens)5 to 9
Sage (Salvia officinalis)5 to 9
Sweet cecily (Myrrhis odorata)4 to 9
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)3 to 8
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)3 to 9
Winter savoury (Satureja montana)3 to 9

If you live in an area that is too cold for any plant listed (for example, you live in zone 3 while the plant’s hardiness zone is 5), it’s still better to keep it cold, but without exposing it to the worst winter weather. For example, bringing it into a barely heated garage or a cold room, never a spot at room temperature. No lighting will be necessary in winter for these plants if they’re kept as cold as they prefer to be: they’ll be dormant.

Annual Herbs

Finally, there are still other herbs that are either annuals or are best treated as annuals. The best way to save these from winter is to collect their seeds and sow them again early in the spring.

  • Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
  • Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
  • Borage (Borago officinalis)
  • Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
  • Coriander or cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
  • Dill (Anethum graveolens)
  • Hot pepper (Capsicum annuum)
  • Summer savory (Satureja hortensis

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

6 comments on “Herbs: Just Let Them Freeze!

  1. My herbs are planted in troughs. I brink them into a frost free greenhouse in the winter and have never had any trouble.

  2. Rosemary is a common landscape plant here, rather than a mere herb. The trailing sort is used as a groundcover plant. We will be adding some this winter to cascade over a tall stone retaining wall. Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) should be more popular than they are, but are likely unpopular because people believe that they are like the native bay laurel (Umbellularia californica). Their roots are complaisant enough for them to work well as evergreen street trees. Lemon verbena works well in landscapes also, but should get cut back after winter. Regardless, these three are considered to be landscape plants rather than herbs.

  3. Here in South West Texas, most of us gardeners let our herbs freeze out unless we own an expensive greenhouse and grow them in pots. The polar vortex this past Feb. took most of our plants, but some of the herbs came back. Rosemary does not do well in our heat and is finicky to grow. I have an Armadillo that has an affinity for digging up my Rosemary, he must like the aroma.

  4. Thank you for such a detailed list of hardy herbs. I am going to plant my potted oregano and take my chances, I had been having misgivings and this post confirms them. That depressing light deprivation blight.

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