wintering herbs


About a month ago, just before the start of Fall, I began the process of transitioning our herbs from the raised bed garden outside to smaller containers inside. While I waited for the herb cuttings to root, I harvested loads of sweet and hot peppers and picked sweet, ripe cantaloupe. I also picked at least forty cucumbers. Then I decided to remove the cucumber plant. Though we still have a few weeks before the first frost occurs, the cucumber plant’s leaves and vines had become progressively more diseased and shriveled, and frankly, I’d had more than enough cucumber. In fact, after growing it, I realized I don’t like cucumber nearly as much as I thought I did. So, to deal with the remaining pile of cucumbers, I’ll be pickling some to eat and freezing some for smoothies for my husband.

To transition the existing herbs for indoor use during the winter, I used small 3.5-inch starter containers, a seed-starting potting mix, liquid seaweed fertilizer, a toothpick, sharp kitchen scissors, a large watering can, and a liquid measuring cup with a pouring spout. To save money I re-used the 3.5-inch containers that originally held the young herb plants when we first bought them at the farmers’ market last spring. I filled each container with seed starter potting mix and thoroughly moistened it with a dilution of liquid seaweed and water. I carefully put three tender cuttings from each herb into their own 4-inch container, watered a little more, and placed each container on the sunny ledge of the kitchen window seat. I watered twice a week and waited.

Since it was the first time I tried this technique, I was surprised and excited that almost all of the herbs rooted and grew. The lone failure was the the parsley which just gradually turned yellow in its container. Originally we paid about three dollars for each young herb plant, so this saved me a nice little amount of money. The propagating technique of using young cuttings from the older existing herbs also helped me revitalize the rosemary, which didn’t seem to appreciate the scorching temperatures of summer or its placement in the corner of the raised bed where it grew. After nearly four weeks, I transferred seven of the nine herbs into 8-inch containers filled with an organic potting mix. The tarragon and sage, which seem to grow a little more slowly, will probably be ready to transfer in another week. Our sunlit window seat is now crowded with pots of herbs. In several weeks, when the plants have grown fuller, I’ll be able to walk over and cut a sprig or two from them while I’m cooking.

To help you transition your own outdoor herbs, I’ve included the tools, ingredients, and techniques I used below. If you’ve got a sunny kitchen window that needs a little company, try greening it up with your own indoor herbs. You might be surprised by your success.

Tools, Techniques and Ingredients for Wintering Herbs

Plastic 3.5 inch potting containers for each herb (use or re-use inexpensive containers such as those used by garden stores or farmers’ markets to hold very young plants).

Seed-starting potting mix (Scotts has good organic and non-organic versions. A good seed starting potting mix is usually a mix of sphagnum peat moss and perlite and/or vermiculite, and sometimes additional nutrients. It is much lighter than regular potting mix or garden soil and provides an optimal environment for the cuttings to root).

Liquid seaweed fertilizer (I use Nature’s Guide)

A large watering can or other container you can mix the liquid seaweed and water together in

A small measuring cup or container with a pouring spout

A round toothpick

Sharp kitchen scissors or cutters

A large metal baking sheet

In a large watering can or container, mix the liquid seaweed and the water together using a ratio of 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of seaweed to 1 gallon of water. Fill a 3.5 container with the seed starting potting mix to about 1/2″ below the rim. Pour some of the seaweed/water mixture from the large watering can or container into the smaller pouring container, and use the smaller pouring container to carefully water the potting mix until well-moistened. Since the potting mix is so light, it is easily displaced when you pour water into it. The potting mix will also compact a little after you moisten it, so you may have to add a little more so the soil level isn’t too low.

From the existing older herb plant, make three separate cuttings. Choose stems that look newer and are not too thick or woody, but still a little tender. Cut at a 45 degree angle, below a node, where the leaf grows from the stem, leaving about a 1-1/2 to 2 inch stem that you can plant in the container. Remove any lower small leaves from the lower section of the stem that will be buried in the potting mix. Using the toothpick, poke three 2-inch holes in the potting mix in the container, and gently lower each stem into its own hole, with the leaves remaining above. Lightly press the mix around each stem to secure it, then very carefully water the new transplants in the soil. Until the cuttings root, always water very slowly and carefully so as not to displace them with too much water at one time. Place on the baking sheet to let drain a bit. Repeat entire above process for each herb you want to transfer indoors.

Place containers with newly-planted cuttings by a window where they can get direct sunlight for several hours a day. Water twice a week, keeping the soil very moist. Fertilize with the same liquid seaweed and water mixture at about two weeks. After about two to three weeks you should start to see the cuttings showing new signs of growth such as sprouting tiny new leaves or becoming taller. Most herbs will be ready to transplant to a larger container at about four weeks. Some herbs that are more fragile or slow-growing may need more time to establish a strong root system so the they survive the transfer to a larger container. When you transfer the newly-rooted herb, carefully loosen the soil around the edges of the smaller container so it all comes out as one piece. Using a good organic potting mix to fill the larger container, create a well in the soil in center of the container and place the new plant in the well, filling in around it with more soil and lightly patting the soil down to secure the plant. Water with the same liquid seaweed and water mixture until the soil is well moistened. Place plant by a window where it will get full sunlight for several hours a day, and water as needed to keep the soil moisture appropriate for each different herb.

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