Extension Viewpoints: Bringing herbs indoors for the winter

By Kathy Kunemund
PREVIEW Columnist

As summer begins to wind down, it is the perfect time to start thinking about bringing your herb plants in doors. Prepare to bring them in by early to mid-September or as nighttime temperatures reach 45-50 degrees. You will need to plan well in advance of a frost or freeze. This will allow time for the plants to adjust and actively grow throughout the winter.

Just like hardening off plants from a nursery to the outdoors, you should follow a plan to bring them back indoors. For the same reasons, sudden changes can result in poor growth and even death of a plant. When integrating them back indoors, set them in a spot with indirect light. After a week or two, move the pots to areas that meet their light requirements. It is normal for herbs to drop some leaves as they become acclimated. To slowly introduce your plants to indoor surroundings, you must assess their needs for light, water, humidity and fertilizer. 

First, select which herbs you want to move indoors. Herbs that grow well indoors include chives, parsley, rosemary, oregano and sweet basil. Next, select a location in your home that can provide adequate natural light for your specific herbs. They will need approximately six hours of direct sunlight. A west or south facing window should provide adequate light. Plants contain hormones that direct growth of stems toward sunlight, so your pots will need to be rotated frequently. This will ensure uniform growth of the plant. Herbs do well in containers on countertops, shelves, plant stands and tabletops. Avoid placing plants directly on radiators and on in-floor heating systems. Also do not place them near heating vents or baseboard heating. Excessive heat may cause soil to dry out too quickly. 

If your herbs were planted directly in the ground, they will need to be repotted for indoors. If they are already in containers, repot if larger containers are needed for growth. In either case, inspect plants for insects or disease and treat as needed. A simple soap and water solution can be applied to leaves to wash away insects. Herbs thrive in soil that drains well. Remember to use pots that have drainage holes. Insert a few pebbles at the bottom of the pot to provide adequate drainage before adding soil. Herbs do not tolerate overwatering. Let the surface of the soil dry out before introducing more water. Overwatering can cause root rot and encourage pests.

Humidity and temperature are other important factors to consider. If humidity levels are low during winter months in your home, try misting the leaves periodically. Another option is to tilt the pots over the sink and gently rinse the foliage under the faucet. Either of these methods will keep the leaves clean and keep pests at bay. Herbs also need adequate air circulation. When grouping plants together, make sure there is room between them that facilitates air movement. The optimal growing temperatures indoors should be between 60 and 70 degrees. 

Lastly, herbs should be fertilized every two weeks with a low-dose, water-soluble fertilizer. Always follow the manufacturers’ directions for application. Overfertilizing can adversely affect the aroma and taste of herbs. 

Trim plants often to prevent them from becoming leggy. If allowed to do so, the flavor of the herbs can be diminished. When harvesting your herbs for cooking or drying, take cuttings a few inches from the base of the stem. This will encourage the plant to produce new growth and remain compact. If herbs are allowed to flower, the flavor of the herb can be compromised.

Following all of these steps will ensure that the plants you have identified are safely inside before the first frost and your herbs will be healthy and productive throughout the winter months. Bringing your herbs indoors will give you a fresh supply for cooking all winter long. 

Information for this article was taken from “Growing Herbs Indoors” by Kathleen M. Kelley and Elsa S. Sanchez, Department of Horticulture, Penn State College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension, 323 Agricultural Administration Building University Park, PA 16802.

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This story was posted on September 4, 2020.