Keep Your Indoor Rosemary Happy

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You need to give rosemary special conditions to keep it happy indoors. Source: http://www.thekitchn.com

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a popular cooking herb often grown in home gardens. It’s a half-hardy shrub and will grow outdoors year round in zones USDA 8 to 10, sometimes even in zone 7 (the cultivar ‘Arp’ is said to be hardysometimes!in zone 6). Still, gardeners in cold climates like mine have to bring it indoors for the winter … and often find it difficult to maintain.

That’s because rosemary comes from a Mediterranean climate, where summers are hot and dry and winters cool and rainy. It suffers greatly from the heat we maintain in our homes in winter. The more your conditions are like those of its place of origin, though, the better it will perform. Try moving it to that rarest of indoor locations: a cool yet brightly lit room. Night temperatures from about 38 to 50˚ F (3 to 10˚ C) are best, but 60˚ F (15˚ C) is acceptable and it can take a few degrees of frost in a pinch. If you can’t give it full sun in this frigid spot, consider adding artificial light.

Overwatering can be a problem in such a cool spot. The plant will use less water than normal and evaporation will be reduced, so you’ll probably find you’ll only need to water every 2 to 3 weeks. That does not mean to let it dry out completely, though! Continue standard watering: a good soaking when the soil is dry to the touch. It’s just that dry to the touch” will occur less frequently than in a heated room.

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A Rosemary Christmas Tree: Doable, But…

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Rosemary plants pruned to look like small Christmas trees.

You may have seen pots of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) pruned to look like Christmas trees in a local garden center or even a supermarket or box store. Since rosemary leaves are very needlelike, their delicious aroma has an almost coniferous smell to it, and the plants have been trimmed to take on a pyramidal shape, the plant could indeed pass for a small Christmas tree… but one with edible “needles”. What a great idea as holiday season decoration!

Except that… very few of the rosemary trees sold in November or early December make it as far as Christmas. In general, few people get more than about 2 weeks of use out of one before the plant dies. And many of those being sold are already in very poor shape before they even leave the store!

The Pros and Cons of the “Rosemary as a Houseplant”

You should know in advance that the rosemary is no philodendron or dracaena. In fact, it actually makes a rather finicky indoor plant.

At the holiday season around the Mediterranean Sea, where it grows in the wild, it would be experiencing full sun, cool days (rarely above 60˚F/15˚C) and cold nights: often just above freezing. It therefore finds our homes very dark and very hot. Plus indoor air is at its driest in the winter while it’s at its moistest in the plant’s natural environment, with a relative humidity that usually stays above 60% whereas in many houses it’s closer to 10%. So your Christmas rosemary is under considerable stress.

That said, if you choose your plant well and place it in the right spot at home, it is possible to not only keep a rosemary Christmas tree in good shape until January, but even throughout the winter.

Choosing a Rosemary Christmas Tree

The most important factor in your plant’s future survival is choosing a healthy one, because rosemary is not a plant that readily forgives mistreatment.

Unfortunately, the rosemary plants sold for the Christmas market are often already in poor condition before you buy them. If the plants you see are have browning, crunchy leaves that drop off when you run your hand over them or they look sparse and their potting soil is strewn with fallen leaves, leave them in the store: they are probably already dying if not dead.

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Soil covered with dead leaves is not a good sign.

Even if the plants’ potting soil is simply dry to the touch in the store, that’s a bad sign: the plant is perhaps already in distress, but may not yet be showing it. The soil should be moist, but not soggy, when you buy the plant.

Ideally you would buy your rosemary tree as soon as it arrives in the store. That is doubly true if you see it in a supermarket or a box store (garden centers, at least, know how to keep their plants healthy while waiting for them to sell!). You can assume freshly delivered plants, at least, have not yet begun their decline!

If it is less than 40˚F (5˚C) outside when you buy you plant, make sure it is carefully wrapped before you take it home. Again, supermarkets and box stores don’t know much about protecting plants, contrary to garden centers. You won’t want any of the leaves to be exposed to cold, so the plant needs to be completely covered. Often that means placing the pot in one bag and covering the top of the plant with a second bag. Accept nothing less!

Finally, don’t leave the plant in a cold car while you continue shopping. Return home with your new plant without delay.

Home Care

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Put your plant near a sunny, cool window… and remove the decorative pot cover or at least pierce a hole in its bottom to ensure good drainage!

If you want your rosemary tree to last a long time, don’t set it on a table in the middle of warm room like you might a poinsettia. It should go directly in the sunniest, coolest place you have, almost certainly near a large window and somewhere temperatures drop to less than 60˚F (15˚C) at night. Place it on a humidity tray or turn on a humidifier to increase the air’s relative humidity.

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Use your imagination to decorate your rosemary Christmas tree.

You’re thinking of decorating your rosemary tree for the holiday season? Go ahead and do it: that won’t harm the plant… as long as you use small, light ornaments that won’t snap off branches and LED lights that don’t give off heat.

If the air in your home is hot and dry, you’ll find that your rosemary tree will dry out very quickly and may need to be watered more than once a week. If the air is humid, it won’t need such frequent waterings. In both cases, though, wait until the soil is dry to the touch, then water thoroughly, moistening the entire root ball. But don’t leave the roots soaking in a saucer of water either.

There is no use fertilizing your plant during the Christmas season: it will be in “survival” mode – just hanging on rather than truly growing – during the winter and won’t be able to use the minerals you provide it.

Watch out for spider mites (read When Spider Mites Invade for more info) and, if you detect any, give the foliage a good shower to remove both the mites and their webs.

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Rosemary suffering from powdery mildew. Photo: Scott Nelson, Flkckr

Unfortunately poor air circulation indoors over the winter sometimes leads to powdery mildew, which looks like a dusty white powder on the plant’s “needles”, almost as if they were covered in really fine snow. It’s actually a fungal disease. Try giving the leaves a thorough shower to knock off the white spores, then spray with neem oil to keep the disease from recurring. You’ll probably have to prune off sections of dead leaves too. Rosemary will recover from powdery mildew, but it often leads to a loss of symmetry that is difficult to cure.

Spring and Summer Care

When the days lengthen noticeably, normally in March, you’ll see your rosemary start to produce fresh leaves. This is the ideal moment for repotting it into a larger container. It was probably growing in too small a pot when you bought it (growers do that to reduce transportation costs: smaller pots mean lighter plants and lighter plants are cheaper to transport), so repotting is certainly due. Any potting soil for indoor plants would be suitable.

You can fertilize lightly (rosemary is not a “greedy” plant when it comes to minerals) as soon as its growth resumes. Any fertilizer you have on hand would be appropriate: apply it at the frequency recommended on the label, but only at 1/8 of the recommended rate.

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Rosemary doesn’t naturally have a pyramidal shape, so you’ll have to prune yours to maintain its Christmas tree appearance.

New growth also means it’s time to begin pruning. Your plant’s pyramid shape isn’t its natural habit. Although come cultivars are more upright than others, rosemary still tends to remain more of a bushy or spreading shrub than a conical Christmas tree. Prune it to shape, cutting back overly-long branches. Repeat every 3 or 4 weeks throughout the growing season. Obviously, any bit pruned off can go straight into the cooking pot!

When summer comes, put your rosemary outdoors. Start first in a shady spot, then partial shade, then full sun, all over a 2 to 3-week period. Do note that outdoor plants dry out much more quickly than indoor plants, especially those growing in pots, so keep a watering can handy. The goal is the same: the soil should always be slightly moist, never either completely dry or soggy.

Note that pruning rosemary to maintain a pyramidal shape means you’ll be pruning off any flower buds and therefore it’s unlikely yours will ever bloom. If you let your rosemary resume its “natural shape”, however, it may produce its attractive little pale blue flowers during the summer.

When Fall Comes

Only in the mildest climates (zone 9) is rosemary going to be fully hardy outdoors, especially container-grown plants, so you’ll have to bring your plant back indoors come September. Place it in a sunny, cool spot and repeat the recommendations given in Home Care above, notably as concerns watering as needed and increased air humidity.


There you go! Yes, rosemary is a capricious plant when grown indoors, especially when it’s pruned to look like a Christmas tree, but with good care, you can keep yours going for many years.20161130C.jpg

How to “Save” Supermarket Herbs

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Pot of herbs in a supermarket.

Supermarkets sell pots of herbs at very attractive prices… and who doesn’t want fresh herbs for their kitchen? However, the plants they sell rarely live very long. Why is that? And what can you do to make them last longer?

Produced for Rapid Consumption

It’s important to understand from the start that herbs sold in supermarkets were never intended to last long. They’re designed to “hold” for a period of 1 to 2 weeks. Yes, that short a time! They’re mass produced with ordinary consumers, not gardeners, in mind, people who only want fresh herbs and have no expectation that they will last any longer than the produce they would put in a refrigerator. And they do get their money’s worth: a potted herb lasts up to 2 weeks while cut herbs sold in the same supermarket will only last 4 or 5 days.

You Can Extend Their Life… Sometimes

But if you’re read this text, it’s probably because you’re fairly savvy gardener, not a typical supermarket consumer. You have a hard time resisting the temptation to “save” plants and you may already have one on hand and are wondering what to do with it.

The good news is that you probably can considerably extend the life of these otherwise moribund herbs if you will be planting them outdoors, but, if you expect to be able grow them indoors on a windowsill, your success is likely to be only modest. That’s because herbs, almost without exception, are uncomfortable indoors. Their true place is outdoors, in pots or in the ground. (For more information on that subject, read An Indoor Herb Garden: Not as Easy at it Looks. But if you’re willing to accept “modest success” as being acceptable, here is what to do to keep supermarket herbs alive:

Buy Early

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Just skip half-dead herbs: buy the healthiest ones you can see.

First, if you want to buy herbs sold in supermarkets, don’t wait too long. Supermarkets aren’t plant nurseries and supermarket personnel rarely take any care of the herbs they sell, counting instead on a quick turnover. They rarely water them. Instead, they just toss plants when they stop looking good and bring new ones in, just like they do with vegetables and fruits. Also, lighting in supermarkets is abominable, yet living herbs need light to survive. Total neglect and no light? Things aren’t looking too bright!

The secret is to purchase the plants as soon as possible after they arrive in the store, while they still look healthy. If they already have that half-dead look, they probably are half dead! Leave those plants the store!

Too Densely Planted

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There are far too many basil seedlings in this pot. You’ll have to thin or divide if you want a certain success.

Supermarket herbs are sold very densely packed into their pots. Most are just young seedlings only a few weeks old and would look wimpy on their own, so producers jam them at a rate of 10 to 20 per pot. That gives a fuller, more mature looking pot, but one that is way too crowded! Even under ideal conditions, the seedlings would soon be struggling for survival.

One possibility then is to simply thin the plants, leaving only 2 or 3 plants per pot. Do this by cutting off the excess plants at the base. Yes, with scissors! Just keep the healthiest specimens in each pot and prune out the others. Obviously, you can use the thinnings in your cooking.

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Divide the herbs and repot. 1 to 3 plants per pot should do.

Or unpot and divide them. You probably don’t need 10 to 20 basil or coriander plants, though, so logically you could simply produce 2 or 3 pots (4-inch/10-cm pots would be appropriate), each containing from 1 to 3 plants. Put the others back in their original pot… and use them up quickly. Or just compost them.

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You’ll also see herbs all on their own in a plastic sleeve, without a pot, yet with a root system. These were grown hydroponically. As long as their roots still appear white and moist (not brown and dry), you can try “saving” them too. Just pot them up (again, at a rate of one to three plants per pot) in soil, as above.

Keeping Herbs Healthy

Now that your herb plants have room to grow, it’s time to consider how you’re going to care for them.

Start by watering them well. This will help the plants better recover from transplanting, which is always a bit of a shock to their system.

And from now on, water whenever the soil is dry to the touch. Note that they will need less frequent waterings at first, then more as they grow to fill their container. There is therefore no proper frequency to recommend: you have to touch the soil and use your judgment. (Or lift the pot: pots become lighter as plants dry out, a sign it needs water.)

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In winter, herbs need as much sun as you can give them.

Now place them in direct sunlight in a heated room. In winter, unfortunately, the sun is low and weak and only shines for a few hours a day. Thus plants, after an initial encouraging recovery following thinning or repotting, will probably slow down again and many will indeed begin to gradually waste away… but at least they will have lasted 1-2 months rather than 1-2 weeks!

If you don’t have the intense natural light they need, consider hanging a 2-tube fluorescent lamp 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) above your herbs, leaving it on 14 hours a day. That will give respectable results. You’ll find more information on using artificial lights to grow your herbs here.

In summer, if possible, acclimate your herbs bit by bit to full sunlight over a 2-week period and place them outside. There you will see them really come to life!

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Humidity tray.

Indoors, good atmospheric humidity is important. You could, for example, place the pots on a humidity tray. See Houseplants Love Humidity Trays for more information.

Watch out for insects! They love plants growing under stress and herbs grown indoors are definitely under stress. Sometimes just rinsing them thoroughly with clear water is enough to knock the pest off. If not, a treatment with insecticidal soap (an organic product available in garden centers) should help.

Individual Cases

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Basil as sold in a supermarket, suffering from overcrowding. You’ll have to thin or divide the plants.

Basil: It’s short-lived indoors, but could survive up to 2 months if your conditions are fairly good. In summer, on the other hand, it will positively thrive… if you grow it outdoors.

Chives: A rather sparse grower indoors, but at least it is long-lived. In the spring, put it outside for the summer so it can recuperate… and leave it there until late in the fall. Let it go through a few nights of frost before you bring it back in and it will do much better the second year.

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Coriander packed tightly a pot. Again, thin or divide!

Coriander: This is a fast growing annual: even repotting and giving it more space to grow can only extend its life by a few weeks. Once it starts to go downhill, toss it in the compost.

Mint: Keep the soil moist and you should be able to get a bit of growth indoors. It’s once it’s outside for the summer, in a partially shaded location and in moist soil, that it really picks up.

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Parsley too needs space to grow: thin or divide!

Parsley: Parsley tends to recover quite quickly after you thin or repot it, but then it slows down as indoor conditions begin to weigh on it. Even so, you should be able to get it through the winter alive while harvesting a few leaves. If you grow it outdoors over in summer, on the other hand, you’ll probably produce more parsley than you can possibly use. It’s a biennial: once it starts to flower, it will become bitter and you’ll need to replace it.

Rosemary: This ought to be a tough, long-lived plant, but plants sold in supermarkets have usually been so badly mistreated they die once you get them home. (Actually, you see a lot of already-dead rosemary plants still on sale in supermarkets!) I therefore recommend skipping supermarket plants and getting one from a reputable nursery. If you insist on trying it indoors, give it a sunny window in a barely heated room and water it very, very carefully. But it only really thrives when it’s outside for the summer.

Sage: Sage tends to languish in the house, but will do modestly well in a room that’s a bit on the cool side (it’s from a climate where winters are cool). Full sun is a must.

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Stevia may need a bit of pruning, but is otherwise easy to grow indoors.

Stevia: This super-sweet plant is one of the rare herbs that is of tropical origin and is therefore adapted to indoor conditions (we keep our homes at tropical temperatures!). Even so, it finds the short days of winter difficult and tends to etiolate (stretch for the light), so just prune it back as needed. When spring comes with its longer days, it will be much fuller.

Thyme: It does fairly well indoors in a pot, at least if you offer it full sun, but its indoor growth will still be stretchy and floppy. A summer outside will really do it good!20161103c

An Indoor Herb Garden: Not as Easy as it Looks

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Most herbs suffer in silence indoors over the winter.

Can you really grow herbs indoors over the winter and thus always have fresh herbs to add to your menu. Yes, but… and it’s a big but.

And that’s in spite of the fact that lifestyle magazines and television shows keep on pushing the idea that growing herbs indoors is as easy as pie. I can pretty much guarantee that none of the journalists who promote the technique have ever tried it. They only repeat, like parrots, misinformation gleaned from others just as misinformed. So let’s dot a few i’s here.

Why Things Go Wrong

The problem is that most herbs just aren’t adapted to the conditions we can offer them in our homes during the winter, especially low light and dry air. Even in front of a large south-facing window, the light received by windowsill plants December through February is equivalent to no more than deep shade outdoors in June and July, notably because days are very short and often cloudy to boot. Fluorescent lights help, of course (set the timer for 16 to 18 hours a day to ensure maximum light), but give moderate light at best, enough to keep the plants alive, but not enough to promote the dense healthy growth of herbs grown outdoors.

Also, the atmospheric humidity in most homes is closer to that of the Sahara Deser than what herbs would like, that is at least 50%.

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Barely 3 weeks after being brought indoors, this basil is already dead.

Plus plants weakened by a lack of light and dry air become prone to diseases and bugs, including whiteflies and spider mites. And eventually start to die back.

But don’t give up hope just yet: there are some herbs that do fairly well in the house and you can keep most at least alive if you know how to handle them.

Indoor Herb Scorecard

Easiest

 

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Bay laurel is one of the few herbs that actually does well indoors.

Bay Laurel or Bay Leaf (Laurus nobilis): This leathery-leaved plant is the easiest herb to grow indoors. You can place it in sun or partial shade or under a fluorescent lamp. Its growth is very slow, but it does grow, and it seems indifferent to the entire indoor temperature range, from 34˚ to 95˚F (1 to 35˚C). By bringing your bay laurel indoors every fall and putting it back outdoors every summer (it can stay outdoors all year in zones 8 to 11), it will gradually become a fairly sizeable shrub or even a small tree, but that will take decades.

Watch out for scale insects, though! Most bay laurels sold these days are already infested (read Another Bay Laurel Bites the Dust for more details), so make sure you get yours from a reliable source.

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Parsley does fairly well indoors… if you give it your brightest light.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): If you pot yours up and place it in a brightly lit spot at normal room temperatures, it will grow slowly but steadily throughout the winter. The leaves may be a bit floppy, but they’ll still be edible. Watch out for spider mites though. It’s not worth saving parsley for a second year. It’s a biennial and begins to bloom in the spring, then becomes bitter. It’s done its job: just toss it in the compost!

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Stevia is one of the happier campers indoors.

Stevia or Sweet Leaf (Stevia rebaudiana): This ultra sugary herb is one of the few that is of tropical origin (most classical herbs come from climates where winters are cold or even freezing) and, therefore, very tolerant of the warm temperatures we maintain in our homes. If you set the thermostat to please yourself and your family, it will be happy too. Give it as much sun as you can and if it starts to etiolate (stretch for the light), just chop it back. Give it normal houseplant care, including watering when the soil is dry to the touch.

There are other herbs of tropical origin that may not be traditional cooking herbs in European cuisine, but that have the advantage of doing fairly well in our homes. This group includes the various scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) and rau ram or Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata). Lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp.) is a tropical grass (zones 9 to 12) that can also be grown indoors. Given it’s origins, you’d think it would do well there, but in fact, keeping it alive can be difficult unless you can offer it a very sunny windowsill.

“Think Twice” Herbs

These are herbs that will do all right indoors, but only if you meet their special needs. These aren’t necessarily going to be the stars of your windowsill, but they ought to be able to produce a bit of a crop indoors.

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Young basil plants do all right indoors, but mature plants tend to keel over.

Basil or sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum): More people fail with basil than any other herb, but it will grow quite well indoors if you know what to do.

It’s important to understand that sweet basil is a naturally short-lived plant, little more than an annual. So when you try to bring in a basil plant from your summer garden, you’re dragging in a plant that is just about to croak: it rarely survives the transition between outdoors and in. However, if you sow basil seeds (ideally under lights), you’ll be starting afresh with a new young plant and should get excellent results… at first. It does go downhill more quickly indoors than out, so when it shows any sign of decline, harvest it and make a huge batch of pesto.

By resowing occasionally and always harvesting basil when it is still young and vigorous, you should get great results. Just give the plants the best light you can.

Note that basil loves heat: this is not a plant to put in a cool room. Keep in a spot that remains relatively warm even at night (preferably above 60˚F/15˚C) and it should to fine.

So much for sweet basil. There are perennial basil species that are naturally long-lived and that will do much better indoors, thriving over the entire winter in bright light. This group includes African blue basil (O. ‘African Blue’), holy basil (O. tenuiflorum) and lemon basil (O. x citriodorum), including the popular variegated form, O. x c. ‘Pesto Perpetuo’. Note though that these easier-to-grow basils don’t have the same taste as sweet basil (O. basilicum).

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Chives needs a cold treatment before you bring it in.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa): These three cold-climate plants tend to decline indoors… unless you give them a cold treatment first. Pot them up in September or October, but then leave them outdoors until they’ve gone through a good frost or two (or three). Now, when you do bring them in, they’ll think it’s spring and start to grow vigorously.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare), sage (Salvia officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris and others): These plants prefer to be outdoors in the winter and you may find mature plants don’t adapt well to being moved indoors. You’d do better to take stem cuttings in the autumn and grow the cuttings indoors instead. They’ll still be in their “young and vigorous” stage of life, allowing you a decent harvest.

Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is particularly easy variety for indoor growing.

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Rosemary: not the easiest herb indoors.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): I’m always annoyed when gardeners gush on and on about how beautiful their rosemary is in the winter and how they have no problem growing it. You see, I just don’t have quite the indoor conditions it wants, that is a cool but intensely sunny room. Nor to most people. And a rosemary plant that doesn’t like its conditions is soon a dead rosemary plant.

Look for a spot when temperatures remain below 60˚C (15 ° C) at night (and in fact, during the day as well if possible), yet above freezing, and water it carefully, just enough so that the soil is barely moist and you too can have rosemary you can be proud of.

True lavender or English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): It prefers to spend its winters in the ground, but can sometimes remain alive indoors under the same conditions as rosemary – bright sun, low temperatures, and careful watering – although it won’t do much more than just sit there. My personal thought is that lavender really is an outdoor plant and there is no really good reason to want to grow it indoors.

Less hardy Spanish Lavender (L. stoechas and its hybrids, zones 7-9) can also spend the winter indoors under similar conditions. Bringing it indoors is a way for cold-climate gardeners to save it from the cold.

Mint (Mentha spp.): There are many species of mint and some do better indoors than others, but in general these are rock-hardy herbs that actually prefer a winter outdoors. When you try to grow them indoors, they tend to gradually deteriorate, unable to adapt to constant heat and dry air. But if you have a barely heated but brightly lit room or a cold greenhouse, they can do quite well. Unlike the two previous plants (rosemary and lavender), that prefer to their soil to remain barely moist, water mints well, although without exaggeration: they don’t like to dry out.

Herbs Not Worth Saving

Dill (Anethum graveolens), anise (Pimpinella anisum), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), borage (Borago officinalis) and chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium): These are annuals and will be nearing the end of their life cycle in fall, if in fact they are not already dead at that time. There is no use trying to save from the cold a plant that it is genetically programmed to die only a very short time later!

You can always sow seeds of these plants indoors (fluorescent light might well be necessary) if you want access to fresh leaves during the winter, but they probably won’t produce seed indoors and for several of these herbs, seeds are the part most often consumed.

Winter Care for Herbs

If you do decide to bring some herbs indoors for the winter, remember they’ll need as much light as you can give them as well as good atmospheric humidity. For the latter purpose, the use of a room humidifier may be necessary. Water them generously when the soil is dry to the touch.

If you grow your herbs in front of a window, stop fertilizing in late November. You don’t want to encourage them to grow under poor light, as that will lead to weak, etiolated growth. Start fertilizing again at the end of February or in early March, when the days are longer.

If you grow herbs under lights, that’s a different story: you’ll be able to maintain long days (16 to 18 hours) all year, so they’ll keeping growing all through the winter. Feed them monthly with an all purpose fertilizer.

Keep your eyes open for pests, especially spider mites and whiteflies, but also aphids. Treat them with insecticidal soap if you see any. And remove diseased leaves on sight, as they can spread like wildfire on stressed plants… and the average indoor herb is very stressed!


With a the information above, you should be able to cultivate at least a few herbs in your home this winter… and maybe even impress your guests with a bouquet of fresh herbs on the table in mid-January!

But be honest with yourself: growing herbs indoors may be trendy, but is not an ideal situation for most of them. You’re putting them through considerable stress and most would really prefer being left outdoors for the winter.

My thought is the following: for everything there is a season… and winter is just not the season for most herbs. A truly laidback gardener would learn to accept that herbs are summer plants and leave it at that.