Archive for January, 2010

Fresh Herbs Through the Winter

January 10, 2010

My brother in California has the luxury of a year-round herb garden.  For those of us in the Midwest, this is not a possibility.  Our short growing season leaves us either freezing and drying a crop of herbs in the summer for use throughout the winter months or heading to the grocery store once the snow covers the parsley.  These are not the only options, though.  With good timing and a few tricks, one can keep fresh herbs coming through a good part of the winter.  I still freeze ice cube tray after ice cube tray of basil pesto every August, but a few other herbs play a bigger part in my fresh winter eating.  I should note that I’m not a particularly sophisticated cook, so I’m only going to discuss the few herbs I use regularly; it shouldn’t take too much experimentation to apply some of these strategies to your favorite herbs.

Herbs as Houseplants
Though West Michigan’s sandy soil is ideal for most herbs, there are a number of major herbs that won’t survive our low winter temperatures.  The only solutions are to grow them as annuals or to over-winter them indoors.  I try to keep a rosemary plant alive every winter, and have made it as far as March, but I’ve got a good feeling about this year.  I started it as a seed in the early spring, and have it in a pot on the windowsill now.  It’s not too big, as you can see from the picture above, but it’s good for the occasional snip of piney flavor.  If it survives this winter, I’ll replant it in the garden, then re-pot it in the fall.  I’ve also heard of people growing bay laurels (for bay leaves) in pots, and over-wintering them indoors.

An ideal candidate for this sort of treatment is mint—in a yard as small as mine, I can’t just plant mint in a border—it’d creep across the yard (and the neighborhood) in a single growing season.  To prevent this, I keep it in a pot to contain the invasive underground shoots.  In the fall, the pot comes indoors for midwinter juleps or tabulleh.

A slight variation works for parsley.  It’s a biennial, so in its second year, the leaves get tough and it flowers.  It’s inedible the second year, so usually, gardeners dig up their parsley every year and start over the following spring.  You can get a few more months of production from your parsley by potting it up in fall and bringing it indoors.  If you wait until it gets too cool, you run the risk of your parsley going into second-year mode, so do it early.  Don’t bother saving the parsley to replant the next year—compost it when it goes dormant or sends up a flower stalk.

Herbs as Bulbs
The only bulbing herb I grow is chives, but I imagine this would work for any bulb.  I use the same method as you would to force flowering bulbs—pot up the bulbs in fall, subject them to a few months of “false winter” (cool weather, either in a garage/crawl space/attic or in the fridge), then bring them into a warm, sunny room to re-sprout.  The chives send up new shoots within a few days, and can be clipped for several weeks before the bulbs start to wear out.  I always have several pots waiting out in the garage to keep a supply going all winter.  In the spring, I usually give the potted bulbs to friends who are starting an herb or ornamental garden.  Of course, any landscape could always use a few more spikey purple chive blossoms.

Fresh Herbs, in Situ
Finally, some herbs retain enough of their flavor compounds through the winter to be dug up and used as it.  Thyme is especially good for this.  We have some along the house, and whenever I’ve got a pot of stock going, I can dig down to it, clip off a few stems, and throw it in.  Oregano will also put up with this treatment.  Think of it as “winter pruning” if it makes you more comfortable.  The flavor isn’t at its peak, but it’s probably comparable, if not superior, to home-dried leaves that are a few months old.

Whether you’re eating locally year-round (and getting sick of roots and squash) or just looking for a little fresh flavor to get you through the winter, coaxing your herbs into providing a crop for you in the winter is a great way to bolster one’s faith in the spring.  If you have success with any herbs not mentioned here, please let me know in the comments section.

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