Grow your winter herb garden

I always liked the idea to be a gardener. But, as my sad, half-dying plants testify, I don’t have a green thumb. I’m still not sure what exactly possessed me, but while shopping I bought some herb plants on a whim. I am determined not to kill them immediately. And so begins the great experiment.

The recent cold snap, reminding me that winter is just around the corner, did nothing to boost my confidence that I could manage to keep any plant alive. However, through extensive research, I have found that we Minnesotans can still enjoy fresh herbs throughout the freezing winter. I’ve compiled a few tips to help you grow tasty and hearty herbs so you can spice up your recipes, eat healthy all winter long, and hopefully avoid the hurdles I encounter.

Grow your winter herb garden

Choose your herbs

First, think about what herbs you would like to grow. Maybe you like to put mint in your tea or toss thyme in your stew. During my impulse herb buying frenzy, it didn’t occur to me that some herbs do much better in cold weather than others. I was lucky to buy chives and mint, but my poor basil will have to fight to survive the cold season.

These are the best and strongest herbs for your indoor winter herb garden:

  • mint
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Chive
  • Tarragon
  • sage
  • Rosemary

You can grow other herbs, as I will try with basil, however, their flavor will be noticeably less robust and growth will be more difficult throughout the winter. While I don’t use tarragon or sage on a daily basis, I fully take this opportunity to explore different recipes and use herbs that I might not have tried otherwise. A great experience indeed.

Arrangement of your garden

Especially during the winter months when the days are obscenely shortened, it is crucial that your herbs receive as much light as possible. Generally speaking, most herbs need at least six hours of direct sunlight to thrive. Sun all day is ideal. This intense light is what helps develop the oils in the herbs to create stronger scents and seasonings. The placement of your herb garden is key. Your herbs will be happy and get the best light from the south and west facing windows.

However, it can still be difficult for your herbs to receive their six hours of sunlight per day during the winter. So like me, you can choose to buy a grow light. Your grow lights certainly don’t have to be expensive, but when deciding which light to buy, make sure it’s a full spectrum light. This mimics the full spectrum of the sun that your herbs will need to grow. If you choose a grow light, aim for twelve hours of artificial light per day to prevent the growth of fine, spindly grasses.

Watering

Most herbs appreciate well-drained soil. Make sure to plant your herbs in pots with a hole in the bottom for good drainage. You don’t want your herbs to stay in the water. You also don’t want to overwater. I have been warned to be diligent during the winter months as gardeners are more prone to overwatering which can quickly lead to root rot and kill your herbs. Always favor drier soils than overwatering.

So when should you water your herbs? The easiest way to find out is to check if the soil is dry to the touch. Other signs that you should water are if the herbs are wilting or if you notice the leaf tips turning brown. It helps to stick to a watering schedule, but if you forget (certainly not me…), these herbs are pretty tough and will bounce back.

The cold of winter

As hardy as these herbs are, they don’t really like freezing temperatures. Most prefer a comfortable range between 65 and 75 degrees. You can help your herbs the best you can and avoid placing them near fans or in cool, drafty places in your home. And if you do decide to place your herbs near the window to get that extra light, make sure they don’t actually hit the cold window glass.

These herbs also benefit from a little humidity, which is quite rare in winter. You might already have a humidifier for yourself during the winter and these are definitely helpful in helping to invigorate your herbs as well. Another more DIY trick to creating humidity is to gather your herbs and place them on supports in a tray. Fill the pan with water and the water will eventually evaporate around the herbs providing them with moisture. Make sure you don’t spray your herbs or let them sit in water, otherwise they may rot the roots.

Ask the experts

My herb garden experiment is an ongoing one, but for all my research I am sure I will fall into inexplicable situations for which I have no answers. This is when you consult the masters. Well, the Master Gardeners. The University of Minnesota has a hotline where you can ask a master gardener any question and they’ll get back to you within 48 hours. They are trained master gardeners who teach horticulture statewide and volunteer their time and expertise to help anyone who wants to learn more or is desperate with a plant emergency!

Good planting.

Find the number or email of your local master gardener with the Telephone helpline for master gardeners at the U of M.

Read this next: Pick up your fresh, local produce at these Minnesota winter farmer’s markets


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Terri S. Tomasini