“Winter’s herbs are summer’s herbs, too, but they seem to matter more in winter,” writes Joe Eck and the late Wayne Winterrowd in their warm and wise book To Eat: A Country Life. The book, out earlier this year, is a celebration of gardening and cooking with the harvest, a wonderful poem, in prose, to the life-long, life-affirming relationship between growing and eating. If you haven’t picked up a copy — it will make wonderful winter reading — I suggest you do.
The chapter that’s on our mind most these autumn days is the one on winter herbs. The authors make several good points, maybe the most important of which is that fresh herbs are much more complex and flavorful than dry herbs. We appreciate our home-grown fresh herbs in the winter for the very reason that they bring a bit of summer into our kitchens. Another is that the herbs that go best with winter cooking — dishes like stews, soups, roasts, even omelets — are those that can be overwintered successfully for fresh harvests, with some work and preparation, even in Vermont where Eck and Winterrowd’s North Hill Farm was located. What are those herbs? Bay, sage, parsley and rosemary.
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The secret to keeping herbs alive, if not growing, over winter is to bring them indoors. A greenhouse is ideal for this technique, but your winter herbs can also be brought into sun rooms or other brightly lit locations in your or near your kitchen, even on sunny windowsills. The idea here is to encourage growth and leafing over the summer season and then to harvest the plants, bit by bit, when moved indoors.
If you’re looking for actual winter growth or seeking to grow herbs that require summer-like conditions to survive, like basil, then consider an indoor raising area with lights. The newer t5 fluorescent lamps make indoor summer growing easier than it’s ever been (with less energy usage to boot), but you’ll need a serious setup with high intensity discharge lamps to allow herbs to flourish in a way that allows continuous harvests.
Sage, so popular with pork and in stuffings, is the most recognized winter herb. It’s fairly hardy, and will usually survive winters in Zone 6 and warmer. But its best grown in pots so that it can be carried indoors during those freezing months. Sage doesn’t like wet feet so be sure to make sure the soil is well-drained in those pots. The idea is to feed it well during the summer — frequent dressings of compost plus kelp-based supplements should do — and allow it to grow as thick and leafy as possible. Then, when the weather turns, bring it inside.
Your sage won’t grow much if at all during the winter. But the leaves will remain viable for harvest as needed. There won’t be much left by spring planting time, but if you’re attached to your plants — and easy thing to become once they’ve lived inside with you all winter — trim them back and plant in the garden for best growth. But I would recommend — as does Joe Eck — that you start with fresh plants in newly prepared pots once spring rolls around.
Another herb easy to develop a relationship with is rosemary. We’ve kept plants around for years and even given them names (okay, “Rosie” was an obvious choice). The best way to keep it alive season after season is to plant it in the garden in the spring then dig it up for transfer to a pot in early fall. You may need to trim it back a bit before potting — do that a week or two ahead of potting and dry the trimmings — but you’ll be surprised how well the plant takes to this kind of treatment. Harvest at will over the winter — again, don’t expect much growth — then replant in the garden at the last frost. Again, good drainage is important. Don’t NOT overwater.
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You wouldn’t want to transplant your bay tree back into the garden. Keeping it in a large tub or pot will assure it will stay around for years. The problem with bay is that it needs a such a large container that moving it can be difficult (we suggest a dolly and/or a burly twentysomething). Eck and Winterrowd talk about their bay tree being 25 years old (speaking of twenty-something) and the annual act of leaf pruning from the tree — its trunk is nine inches around! — provides leaves enough for their uses as well as gifts. That the authors have done this successfully for so long is encouraging. They lived in Vermont, after all, and bay is sensitive to cold. We ‘d love to hear your experiences growing bay leaf. Our personal experience was in coastal California where cold was seldom (almost never) a problem.
Parsley can be grown in smaller containers making it easy to relocate inside. Again, don’t expect too much (or any) growth over the winter unless your greenhouse is heated or you’ve brought it into the house and you supply additional light. In cooler, moist climates parsley often will not go to seed during the summer months. If it does –try moving your pot into the shade as the weather gets warm– do a late planting well ahead of the time you’ll move it indoors. Even a leaf or two of fresh parsley picked from a kitchen windowsill in the dead of winter and added to a soup or simple pasta will bring a bit of summer to the coldest day.