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Herbs of Winter
by Jen L. Jones
October 7, 2007

The realities of the northern winter brought home to the herb gardener - and the one ideal herb for wintering indoors.

When the soft and smoky purple golds of autumn have given way to the steeliness of late November, and we know winter's curtain of snow and ice is ready to descend, then the herb gardener's heart feels a pang of remorse. The dilemma is to decide on which of the herbs, if any, to bring indoors. Trees, shrubs, and robust perennials can fend for themselves; annuals are generally seen as dispensable, and generally, no one suggests that we pot any of these up and bring them indoors; therefore, all is satisfactory in that part of the garden as the cycle of nature takes its course, and the gardener gets a little respite from all her labour.

Not so in the herb garden, where all the ghosts of those articles we have read in the past arise to haunt the responsible gardener. You know the kind I mean: "Wintering Herbs Indoors"; "Herb Garden on your Windowsill"; "Potting up your Favourite Herbs". It's all enough to make the herb gardener feel a little guilty, and we all know that "the guilties" are the disease of the 90's. What if you have been just a little tired from all this digging, raking, and watering? What if you were looking forward (just a little bit) to the day when your garden was all safely ensconced under its snow quilt, and were content to let sleeping herbs lie? And now along comes another one of those darn articles telling you how to bring all the little darlings indoors. Maybe in your part of Canada, they are all frozen stiff by now, and you can laugh away this article. But for those of you who still have viable herbs in your garden, here's a little advice to ease your guilt and let you pick out the best for wintering indoors.

Houseplants in waiting may now languish under the first sprinkles of snow: the thymes, the lavenders, the mints, the parsley, the sage. You could (should?), you know, pot them up - it's still not too late for these hardy garden herbs. The basils (Ocimum spp), an annual, of course, are long gone, blackened and defeated with the first frost of September, and unless you employed a little foresight, your chances of reviving these prized, but persnickity plants, are non-existent. To everything there is a season, and I'm afraid that basil has had its day in the sun. Also, it is much too late for the tender perennial scented geraniums, (Pelargonium spp). "Tender" is the key word to remember when dealing with these perfumed beauties, and likely by late November, if these tropical plants have been left out in the herb garden, well then the full meaning of "tender" in all its awful finality has been brought home. It is these tender herbs which present the gardener with her dilemma: to pot up and bring indoors, to abandon to the elements, or to protect in some feasible way, for the hardy perennials, although they may make unusual houseplants, are not requiring of the same rescue tactics.

Old time gardeners would often bring in their geraniums (scented or not) and overwinter them in pots on the windowsills. As long as the temperature does not dip below 50°F, and they are kept a little on the dry side, geraniums love an indoor winter. If your indoor geraniums are the scented variety, then you will have the bonus of fragrance as well as their evergreen beauty and cheery blooms. Many an old farm house had its windowsills crowded by an assortment of somewhat leggy geraniums, with their friendly blooms of red and pink, all potted up in a make-do assemblage of clay pots, margarine tubs, honey tins, even tobacco cans, and all set in the derelict china saucers from a previous era. Many a once-elegant Wedgewood saucer found itself pressed into extended service as a drip catcher with the pink rosebuds of the " Blooming Rose of Wiltshire" nestling under the dented and rusty "Old Pal's Best Cut" tobacco can. And oblivious to them both, the geranium, deprived of its full allotment of sunlight, stretched nonetheless up the window, its jaunty blooms mocking the winter landscape on the other side of the glass.

When the supply of scrounged containers was depleted, then the remaining geraniums would be hung upside-down, a somewhat undignified posture for these garden grannies, from the cellar ceiling, having had the soil knocked-off their roots. They may also have been shrouded in brown paper bags to block out any light and discourage growth. This then was their fate - to sleep and last out the winter in a dark cellar, - but better by far than the icy death awaiting them outside the farmhouse door. In the spring, the geraniums could be brought back once again into the land of the living and cuttings taken then would root readily. Modern gardeners now tend to buy new potted geraniums each spring as the custom of having blooming geraniums in all the winter windowsills is somehow seen as old-fashioned.

Having said our goodbyes to the basils and tended to the geraniums, we now cast our eyes over to the lavenders, the favourite fragrant herb of all time. Lavandula officinalis, a hardy perennial, does indeed make the adjustment from garden to window-sill fairly well. But don't expect it to bloom, or even to look too sprightly. But when February's blast shakes the window pane and the frost fingers are on the march, if just brushing the leaves and savouring the sweet fragrance brings back to you a hint of summer, then yes, Lavandula does indeed make a worthwhile houseplant. The fragrance of lavender is the ne plus ultra of nostalgia.

The hardy perennial thymes, Thymus vulgaris, make good houseplants too - note the word "good" not "spectacular". Quality of light is the critical element, and it is difficult, even if they are placed in a south-facing window, to provide sufficient light for their needs. And so the thymes, too, would probably prefer to sleep away the winter months under a snow-blanket. But when these herb plants are brought indoors, and our attention is redirected from the outdoor display of many herbs growing in the soil, to just one or two in pots on our windowsills, somewhat closer to eye-level, then something quite amazing happens: suddenly we don't just look, we see. The individual plant, whether thyme, lavender, perhaps sage, is no longer just "one of the crowd" but has form, fragrance, detailed texture, and its unique characteristics come to the fore - in short, it now has a "personality". The tiny leaves of thyme now come under the close scrutiny of the thwarted gardener - the pebbly grey-green leaves of sage are mired, and the freshness of the mint leaf (however tiny) is enjoyed anew.

But of all the herbs in the outdoor garden, there is one which especially deserves to be brought indoors, for this herb can patiently wait outdoors until fall chores are done, and the garden tools all but put away. This herb delights in the indoors, and will probably bloom and bloom for you right through until spring. It too has fragrant leaves and an elegant air, and most especially - it can be your favourite herb of Christmas - none other than rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, the piny and invigourating, tender perennial shrub, prized in its home Mediterranean climes, and prized here in Canada too.

Rosemary is indeed the perfect herb for wintering indoors. First, its Christmas associations are timely, having been connected in many legends with the birth of Christ, for example, it is said that the colour of the rosemary blossoms turned from white to blue, because the Virgin Mary hung her cloak on the rosemary bushes to dry in her flight from Herod's soldiers. Its appearance and fragrance are "Christmas-tree" like. With the addition of a red ribbon and perhaps a few small gold ornaments, the upright rosemary really does look like a Christmas tree. Snip finely about a teaspoonful of its fresh leaves and add to a recipe for holiday shortbread, and prepare to be surprised at the distinctive blending of aromatic and sweet flavours.

Rosemary is also wonderful as a house plant because it doesn't readily shed its leaves (although be prepared for some leaf drop as the plant acclimatizes itself to the indoors); it requires little care other than frequent waterings and perhaps misting of its leaves, especially if your house air is dry. When cutting rosemary for use in cooking, it is better to cut a sprig two or three inches long instead of just pulling off some leaves. If you do this, the plant will reward you with improved bushiness and new growth. The blooms of the rosemary are tiny, but oh how perfect. A covering of blue, pink, or white flowers which last and last will likely be your reward for all your attentions. Pests don't care too much for rosemary - probably its protective, resinous, oils are off-putting to most insects.

To pot up a rosemary from your garden, just follow all the standard advice: water well before digging, choose a pot of sufficient size to accommodate the roots, and don't allow to dry out for the first few days. Because rosemaries, although classified as tender perennials, can withstand some below freezing temperatures, there is no great rush to dig them from your garden in the fall. Give your time and attention to those other "softies" and leave the rosemaries to the last. Don't wait though until the soil is frozen. This autumn in Southern Ontario, mid November was rosemary-potting-up time. First frosts here are usually around late September or so, but this fall was particularly mild. Keeping seasonal variations and zone considerations in mind, you can usually leave your rosemaries until after all the other garden clean-up is done.

Louise Beebe Wilder in her book The Fragrant Garden agrees that rosemary makes a good house plant:

And in truth it does become a window well, it makes a charming pot plant, neat, svelte, with its dark, felt-lined leaves held sleek against its sides. The smell of the leaves is keen and heady, resinous yet sweet, with a hint of Nutmeg, and the odour of the dried leaves is so lasting that the plant has become the emblem of constancy, or remembrance ...

Rosemary is the classic herb of remembrance and it would be a sweet gesture to add a small sprig, or perhaps just a few of its needle-like leaves to the Christmas cards going out to those friends we rarely see or relatives at a distance.

Crafting with rosemaries is another wonderfully aromatic pleasure that this plant provides. Depending upon whether you are bringing one plant, or ten, into the house, you may wish to use sprigs of rosemary tied onto your holiday packages, arranged as a small wreath around a candle base, or sewn into sachets for use as bath-bags. A craft that has been practised since Elizabethan times is that of gilding rosemary sprigs for use in Christmas decorations or for distribution to wedding guests. Try spraying a sprig with gold might shrivel a little, but should probably last well through the holidays.

If only one herb could be brought indoors, it should be the rosemary. The basils, geraniums, and so on can be restarted in the spring from seed or cuttings, or bought in pots. The thymes, sages, lavenders, and mints, will all survive outdoors in most winters and grow afresh in the spring. But the rosemary will not survive a Canadian winter (although attempts are underway to develop a winter-hardy strain) - it must be brought indoors, but look at the pleasure it provides in return for such little care! And in the spring, it can be returned to its spot in the herb garden, already a good-sized plant, not a little seedling or rooted cutting. Yes. Rosemary is the one.

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