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How to Make Your Herbs Last Through the Winter

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Sherri has expertise in landscape design. Some of her hobbies include gardening and cooking.

You don't have to say goodbye to your herbs just because winter has arrived.

You don't have to say goodbye to your herbs just because winter has arrived.

Bringing Herbs Indoors for the Winter

If, like me, you garden in a temperate climate, you're probably saddened by the approach of the end of the growing season. Winter brings its joys, for sure, but it also brings an end to walking out the kitchen door to snip fresh herbs in the garden. Fortunately, you can bring your herbs indoors for the winter. This can be done in pots as live, growing plants, or in a number of preserved forms.

Not all plants lend themselves to being dug up out of the garden at the end of the growing season or to being managed in pots indoors during the winter months. Yet, with careful planning and a little work, you can enjoy the aroma and taste of your garden’s herbs, fresh or preserved, after the outdoor growing season is over. It's a matter of knowing which will do well indoors and which will not, and of being creative about preserving them through drying, freezing, and storing in oil or vinegar.

Healthy young herbs ready for outdoor planting in the spring or for bringing indoors in the winter.

Healthy young herbs ready for outdoor planting in the spring or for bringing indoors in the winter.

Lavender is an outstandingly hardy perennial herb! It is hardy, beautiful, tasty, and aromatic.

Lavender is an outstandingly hardy perennial herb! It is hardy, beautiful, tasty, and aromatic.

Know Your Herbs

It’s all about the herbs; it’s not about you or me. Herbs have different tolerances, and thus requirements, based on a number of characteristics, and it’s up to us to know their characteristics and to meet the needs those characteristics demand. Characteristics include hardiness, growth cycle, and type of root. When you know these characteristics, you can make informed decisions about which plants will do well in indoor conditions and which will not.

These are young lemon verbena plants growing in a hothouse. This herb is a tender perennial.

These are young lemon verbena plants growing in a hothouse. This herb is a tender perennial.

Which Herbs Are Hardy Enough Survive Winter?

  • Hardy perennials such as French tarragon, lavender, and chive take their rest in the garden over winter. Although the top parts of the plants die back in the winter, the roots remain alive in the ground in a dormant state. In the spring, fresh new top growth emerges. During the spring and summer, cut their new growth regularly for freezing or drying.
  • Semi-hardy perennials such as rosemary, Greek oregano, and some of the thymes may stay in the ground as well. If they don’t make it through the winter, you can replace them in the spring. It’s possible that one area of your yard will work better for these plants than another, so experiment a little. Semi-hardy perennial herbs are thus hardy for some temperate micro-climates but not for others!
  • Tender perennials such as bay laurel and lemon verbena can become quite large and impressive over time. When grown in their natural environments, the bay laurel can reach a height of 40 feet and the lemon verbena 15 feet. In temperate climates, they are either treated as annuals in the outdoor garden or kept in pots all year-round, summering outdoors and resting indoors for the winter as they have no tolerance for frost.
Rosemary is a semi-hardy perennial. It is well worth the trouble to find a suitable spot outdoors or bring a potted plant indoors to reap the culinary and aromatic characteristics of this lovely herb.

Rosemary is a semi-hardy perennial. It is well worth the trouble to find a suitable spot outdoors or bring a potted plant indoors to reap the culinary and aromatic characteristics of this lovely herb.

Growth Cycles

Annual herbs such as basil and dill are planted new each spring, either from seeds or seedlings. Some annuals lend themselves well to a late-summer seeding in pots, after which they can be brought indoors and kept in strong light conditions. Their growth will be limited indoors, but there will be enough leaves to lend some green to the house and some flavor in the kitchen.

Biennial herbs such as parsley, caraway, and angelica have a two-year growth cycle. In their first season, they sprout from seed and reach their maximum vegetative growth late in the summer. In the following spring, if left undisturbed in the ground through the winter, they send up flower stalks at the sacrifice of the succulent growth we cherish as the green herb. When the spring flowers are spent, the ripe seeds can be planted, and the plant’s two-year cycle will begin again.

The magnificent basil is an annual herb that is easy to grow, quite prolific, and is a necessary complement to Italian cuisine.

The magnificent basil is an annual herb that is easy to grow, quite prolific, and is a necessary complement to Italian cuisine.

Root Types

Most common herbs have shallow-to-deep fibrous systems. But some, such as parsley and caraway, have tap roots which do not lend themselves to being uprooted from the ground, nor to thriving in pots over long periods of time. These plants grow like carrots; they seek deep, porous soil to provide an easy path for sending their main root downwards. If their main root is inhibited by lack of space or compacted soil, their top growth will be less than stellar.

Parsley is a biennial herb that comes in two main varieties. This photo shows the broad leaf or "Italian" type. Parsley also grows in a curly variety, which is not as pungent as the flat.

Parsley is a biennial herb that comes in two main varieties. This photo shows the broad leaf or "Italian" type. Parsley also grows in a curly variety, which is not as pungent as the flat.

Simple Rules of Thumb for Deciding Which Plants to Bring Indoors and Which to Preserve

  1. Let hardy perennial herb plants remain in the ground over winter, and enjoy their taste and fragrance during the coldest months by freezing, drying, or preserving in oil or vinegar.
  2. Establish semi-hardy and tender perennials in pots for migration from outdoors to indoors.
  3. Start seedlings in small pots in late summer outdoors for fresh, actively growing young herbs indoors in the winter.
  4. Avoid uprooting those with tap roots.
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Read More From Dengarden

Managing Potted Herb Plants Outdoors During the Growing Season

After planting semi-hardy or tender perennials in pots in the spring for eventual migration indoors for the winter, you may want to sink these pots into the garden soil during the growing season. Doing so will help preserve moisture and even out temperature extremes. At the end of the summer, pull up the pots and clean them thoroughly before bringing indoors.

A Sample Plan for Managing Herbs for Winter Enjoyment

February–March: Start easy-to-seed plants of perennial, annual, and biennial herbs such as chive, basil, and parsley, for transplanting into the summer garden after the last expected frost date for your region.

March–May: Shop local nurseries or online plant supplies for the hardy, semi-hardy, or tender perennial herb plants you want to establish. Plant the hardy perennials in the garden; plant the semi-hardy and tender perennials in commercial potting soil in the pots you will move indoors in autumn.

May: Let the herb plants establish themselves outdoors.

June–August: Make frequent cuttings of new growth for eating and for preserving for winter enjoyment.

August–September: Start those easy-to-seed plants in small pots for fresh herbs indoors during the winter months and for holiday gift-giving.

September–October: Prepare your indoor environment for the potted semi-hardy and tender perennials and the August seedlings you established in pots during the summer.

October: Make sure all plants destined for indoors are safely inside before the first expected frost date.