Make cold-weather mealtimes memorable by enhancing dishes with winter herbs. You might harvest fresh from the garden, tend a pot tucked into a protected corner, or snip your greens from a windowsill garden. No matter how you grow them, winter herbs taste incredible. Learn which winter herbs work best outdoors, along with tips on tending an indoor crop.
Many winter herbs thrive easily in the Great Outdoors in Zones 6 and warmer. The list includes sage, common thyme, oregano, chives, chamomile, mints, lavender and tarragon. Even in Zone 5, if you toss a frost blanket over some of the hardiest herbs, like thyme, oregano, and mints, you can sneak beneath the cover and harvest when weather permits. The harvest may be on the meager side (it’s not wise to take more than one-third of the plant), but in the depth of winter, any fresh greens are a treat when you live where winter brings snow and cold.
In warmer zones, gardeners usually plant winter herbs—the ones that thrive in cooler weather—during fall. It’s a good idea to tuck winter herbs into the landscape in a spot that’s easily accessible from your home. This not only makes harvest quick on chilly days, but plantings near your house also benefit from the milder microclimate your home creates.
Mistake No. 1: Planting Too Late
Making late additions to the landscape can result in devastating losses next spring, especially in areas where the ground freezes. Perennials are the most susceptible to late planting, as alternating freezing and thawing of soil literally shoves plants out of soil, exposing crowns. Shrubs and trees can go into the ground later, but for best winter survival rates, you should have all plants in place by six weeks before soil typically freezes.
Mistake No. 2: Pruning Shrubs
Pruning causes plants to produce new growth, which is tender and highly vulnerable to freezing temperatures. Wait to prune shrubs, including butterfly bush and caryopteris, until spring, when all danger of frost has passed. At that point you can remove any winter killed branches. In future years, aim to get pruning done by late August, so plants have time to harden off before freezes arrive.
Mistake No. 3: Planting the Wrong Varieties
Fall lettuce crops can linger well into December in mild winter areas. Plant cold-tolerant varieties to ensure the longest harvest period. Good choices for fall planting include ‘Four Seasons’ lettuce (shown), ‘Arctic King’ and ‘North Pole.’ To overwinter lettuce in regions with cold winters, plant ‘Winter Marvel’ or ‘Brune d’Hiver.’ In mild winter areas, sow seeds of ‘Four Seasons’ or any oakleaf type.
Mistake No. 4: Not Watering New Trees
Trees that you plant in fall need consistent watering as they enter their first winter. If winter brings frozen soil without snow, give your tree a drink during any times of above-freezing temperatures. One hose-less way to ferry water to a tree is with a water bag in a cart.
Mistake No. 5: Failing to Deadhead Self-Sowers
Plants that self-sow aggressively in the landscape can be beautiful in bloom, but a gardener’s nightmare if allowed to go to seed. Clip seedheads on plants that tend to self-sow heavily in your garden. Good candidates include joe-pye weed, goldenrod, boltonia and black-eyed susans.
Mistake No. 6: Skipping Mulch
A winter mulch can be a gardener’s best friend, especially around new additions to the landscape. That extra mulch layer can help prevent frost heave around new plants that may not have an extensive root system to help keep them anchored in soil as it freezes and thaws. Put a 2-inch-thick layer around the base of plants to insulate roots.
Mistake No. 7: Spraying for Weeds
Be sure to read the label of your favorite weed killer. For common chemicals like Round-Up, 50°F is usually the lowest temperature where the product remains effective at killing weeds. Many plants essentially stop growing as soil temperatures fall into the 50-degree range, so at that point spraying is a waste of time and money. The answer is to spray early in the fall season, while plants are actively growing and air temps are still in the ideal 60-degree range.
Mistake No. 8: No Pre-Snow Clean-Up
In snowy winter climates, aim to clean up the garden before early snowfalls arrive. Doing this helps to reduce winter resting places for pests and diseases that go into hiding once snow flies. It’s also easier on you—no frozen fingers.
Mistake No. 9: Not Destroying Veggie Crops
It’s vital to destroy spent vegetable crops, especially those that hosted problem pests, like Mexican bean beetles. Don’t toss these plants into a compost pile unless you know it heats enough to destroy pests and eggs. It’s safer to dispose of infested plants and fallen leaves in bags you put at the curb for garbage pick up.
Mistake No. 10: Failing to Use Frost Blankets
If you have a garden that’s actively producing when frost threatens, there’s no excuse for not investing in some season extending equipment to keep the fresh flavors—and nutrition—coming into your kitchen. This kit costs under $25 and comes with built-in hoops and the ability to extend up to 18 feet.
Mistake No. 11: Letting Grass Grow Too Long
In snowy regions, grass that goes into winter without being mowed is more prone to develop snow mold. Try to give grass one last cut before winter snows arrive. Also, once the ground freezes, stay off the lawn. Frozen grass is more prone to breaking as you walk on it, which can damage individual grass crowns.
Mistake No. 12: Not Wrapping Vulnerable Shrubs
Take time to wrap shrubs and small trees with a winter coat of burlap for protection against cold temps. Plants at risk include those with borderline hardiness and evergreens prone to winter burn. Spray evergreens with an anti-transpirant before wrapping in burlap. Before adding the burlap, protect trunks against chewing rodents by tossing mouse bait that’s enclosed in a protective container near the base of the plant.
Mistake No. 13: Failing to Protect Trunks
As food sources become scarce, rabbits, mice and voles can make quick work of bark on unprotected trees and shrubs. Use tree guards around young tree trunks, and surround shrubs with hardware mesh. You can also try to attract raptors like owls and hawks, which prey on these mammals, by erecting artificial perch poles.
Consider growing a few of these winter herbs in containers that you can drag into a garage or shed if temperatures take a stern nosedive. You can also keep a frost blanket or pot cover handy to toss over containers on coldest nights.
In colder zones, winter herbs are best raised indoors on a sunny windowsill. Good candidates for indoor harvest include a variety of herbs, many of which you can start outdoors in pots before hard freezes zap the garden. This list includes oregano, sage, thyme and chives. Dig a small clump of these herbs in late summer and tuck it into a pot that you’ll shift indoors as late fall arrives. You can also handle parsley this way or simply sow it from seed indoors.
Basil starts easily from seed indoors, as long as it’s in a bright window. South-facing is ideal. Other winter herbs that prefer the strong light of a south-facing window include rosemary, sage, chives and oregano. A potted bay or rosemary plant can shift indoors whenever temperatures dictate. Both of these plants benefit from bright light in winter. Bay needs good air circulation to stay in tip-top shape; rosemary needs cool nights in the 50s.
To transition chives and tarragon indoors, pot a clump in late summer and allow leaves to die back with frost. Trim dead leaves, and bring the pot indoors to a cool spot for four to five days. A cool basement or attached garage works fine. After the cooling period, place the pots in a bright window, water if soil is dry, and wait for growth to resume.