Growing and Storing Herbs in Winter

Various fresh herbs hanging up to dry.

As the garden season comes to and end, you do not have to say goodbye to your herbs. Storing herbs has been done for thousands of years and allows you to enjoy the fresh taste of herbs all winter long. Drying is the most common method for storing summer herbs for winter use, but freezing works just as well and is becoming increasingly popular. It is also possible to grow many herbs indoors all season long, allowing easy access during the cold winter months.

Harvesting Herbs

Gather your herbs after the dew has dried on them, and make sure they are free of dirt and insects--wash them if necessary but let them dry thoroughly before preparing them for drying. Wet herbs will clump together and go moldy in the drying process.

Drying Herbs

To dry your herbs for storing, gather them in bunches and tie the stalks with string or sewing cotton. Leave a loop so you can hang the herbs in a cool dry place, such as an airing closet or on the veranda. If the air is suitably dry you can also hand your herbs from tree branches, but make sure you enclose the leaves and blooms in muslin bags tied round the stalks to prevent insects from getting at them.

Make the muslin bags yourself out of a rectangle of muslin folded and sewn up on the side and the bottom. Leave one end open to insert the herbs, and make sure you have bags large enough for the bigger bundles of herbs.

You can also dry herbs flat on cleaned flyscreen, but make sure you cover them with a sheet of muslin as well.

If you want to speed up the drying process, place the herbs on cookie sheets and dry in a very low oven (about 70 degrees F) or in a microwave oven in 10 minute bursts on high until they are crisp.

When the leaves are dry and crackly, put the muslin bags on a kitchen bench and remove the herbs. Discard woody pieces of stalk, and crush the leaves finely with your fingers or with a pestle and mortar. Store in clean jars for use throughout the winter.

Freezing Herbs

Many herbs freeze well, such as basil. All you have to do is chop the leaves and store them in small freezer bags or ice cube trays. This will keep them in quantities that can be used in your cooking without having to defrost or chop the frozen mass.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Susan Patterson adds, "Frozen herbs will last about one year."

Herbs such as lemon verbena, mint, and borage can be frozen in water as ice cubes for use in drinks.

TIP: Susan suggests, "Store ice cube frozen herbs in an airtight container."

Growing Herbs Indoors

During winter, you can grow herbs indoors to keep up your fresh herb supply. The best rooms are the kitchen or bathroom, as these stay slightly warm and humid through the winter months. Sow your herbs in pots and place them on a windowsill or in a place that catches the full benefit of any sun.

If sufficient warmth and light are a problem, you can place your indoor herbs under a fluorescent light or sun lamp, but don't leave it on all the time, just for the recommended 4 to 6 hours a day.

The best herbs to grow indoors are parsley, basil, thyme and sage--just what you need for those warming winter soups and stews. Try the new "mini" basil, a small bushy plant that grows well indoors and can be transplanted to the garden in spring.

Don’t over water your herbs, but don’t let the soil dry out either. Just keep them moist and they'll stay healthy. Never place your potted herbs in saucers--the water will collect at the bottom and rot the roots.

To keep your herbs growing, just snip off the amount of leaves you need for the dish you are preparing. Your indoor winter herbs won't be as lush as your outdoor summer garden produces, but they will give you the unrivalled flavour of fresh herbs.