The ability to pick fresh herbs, or lighten a winter meal with a crunchy home-grown salad from your food garden, makes winter feel a lot less drab, grey and long.
General Tips for Growing Winter Herbs and Vegetables
Growing herbs and vegetables in winter does take a bit more effort and care; after all its not their natural growing season. But growth does continue, although at a slower pace and by choosing hardy herbs and vegetables that prefer cooler conditions it is possible to keep a supply of fresh greens on the table.
In summer rainfall areas where there is frost you need a sheltered, draught-free area that catches the sun. Watch the movement of the sun and move your pots accordingly. Most kitchen courtyards are south facing and cold during winter so you need to seek out north facing patios and balconies or corners that are east or west facing and receive at least four hours sun a day.
In winter rainfall areas there is less need for protection, especially with herbs because most are indigenous to the Mediterranean so they prefer hot dry summers and cold, wet winters. Here the challenge is to make sure that the pots have good drainage and the potting soil is fairly light. Although growth slows down it is still important to fertilise monthly, especially if you are harvesting continuously.
7 Herbs to Grow in Winter
The first step is to pick herbs that are hardy enough to weather cold high-veld winters. We recommend thyme, oreganum, chervil, parsley and sage for culinary use. Thyme, sage and parsley also have strong medicinal properties and to complement them you can grow hyssop (for bronchitis) and yarrow (for infections and fevers).
Herbs like sweet basil, borage, lemon balm and the various mints are too tender and will die down so its worth treating them as summer annuals.
Herbs need at least four hours sun in winter and a sheltered position. For this reason they should be grown in pots so they can follow the sun.
Choose containers that are a minimum of 20cm in diameter, have drainage holes and are deep enough for the herb’s roots to develop. Use a normal commercial potting soil that drains well.
Herbs don’t like wet feet so don’t put saucers underneath the pots. Check the soil moisture levels daily because the soil should not dry out completely. Generally potted herbs only need to be watered one or twice a week in winter, preferably in the morning. Feed once a month with a liquid fertiliser, like Multisol General, Nitrosol or Multifeed, at half the required strength.
When harvesting collect small quantities at a time and always leave two growth points on the twig for re-shooting. Instead of cutting at random rather use the opportunity to pinch out or prune the plant to encourage bushiness. Once picked handle the herbs as little as possible because the subtle nuances of flavour are lost if handled or allowed to wilt.
Thyme is one of the hardiest of all the herbs. It makes a small, bushy potplant and the more the leaves are picked the better it does. An infusion, especially of lemon-scented thyme, helps relieve coughs and colds. In the kitchen thyme can be used, in casseroles and stews, to garnish roasts or added to salad dressings and salads. Thyme is also an excellent anti-oxidant and tonic, supporting the body’s normal functions, building the immune system and countering the effects of aging.
Sage needs a little more nurturing than thyme and its growth tends to slow down and the leaves get smaller in winter. It needs full sun, must not be over watered and should be kept out of draughts. In the kitchen Sage is a robust herb that stands up well to cooking, especially in slow simmered casseroles, roasts and grills. It also combines well with cheese.
An infusion of sage leaves can be used to treat colds and coughs and it also makes an excellent gargle for sore throats. To make a Sage gargle infuse 3 teaspoons fresh leaves in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes, strain and cool. Gargle three times a day.
Parsley needs full sun if grown in a pot in winter and the soil should be kept moist. Regular feeding encourages the production of leaves, which are rich in vitamins A, C, E, and Iron. Even better, parsley has anti-oxidant properties that neutralise cancer-promoting agents.
Build your immune system by eating two tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley each day. Sprinkle it on salads, add it to meat, pasta or cheese sauces at the end of cooking or juice it up in a blender with apple or tomato juice. Always pick the outer leaves, and extend the plant’s life by cutting off the flowering head. The flat-leaf Italian parsley is even easier to grow than the moss curled variety and it has a more distinctive taste.
Chervil is a hardy annual that actually prefers cooler weather and not full sun conditions. Its delicate, fern like leaves make it a very attractive container plant. The leaves are full of vitamin C and have a slightly aniseed taste. It’s best used like parsley, chopped as a garnish or added to salads, soups, sauces, vegetables and meat dishes at the end of cooking.
It loses its taste when dried so use fresh. An infusion of the leaves stimulates digestion, relieves head colds, and acts as a blood cleanser.
Oregano is one of the more robust winter herbs, easily withstanding winter frost. It likes full sun. The more you harvest oregano the better it grows. It has a strong aromatic taste ideal for rich winter food, but use sparingly or it can be overpowering. An infusion of oregano can be used to treat coughs, tiredness and irritability.
Hyssop/Hisop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Hyssop is a lesser-known herb that grows well in pots and tolerates quite cold weather. It has a bushy form and attractive spikes of blue flowers. Both the leaves and flowers can be used in an infusion to treat bronchitis and loosen mucus. The leaves have a peppery taste and are a good addition to thick soups and stews.
Here’s 7 hyssop recipes you can try.
Yarrow/Duisendblad (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is a hardy perennial makes a beautiful pot plant with its feathery leaves and pink flowers. Grow in a sunny position in deep, wide pots and keep the soil moist. Yarrow is a good indicator plant because it’s always the first to show that watering is needed.
It’s principally a medicinal herb can be used to bring down fevers, and helps relieve infections, influenza, and sinusitis. Both the leaves and flowers of the plant are used as an infusion. Add peppermint or a teaspoon of honey if you find the leaves a bit bitter.
7 Vegetables to Grow in Winter
Don’t try and sow vegetable seed outdoors during June and July because the ground temperatures are too cold for germination. Sow them indoors in pots or seedling trays. Lettuce, broad beans, kale, radishes, sugar snap peas and spinach are available as seedlings from nurseries. Once germinated, plant them in pots in a sunny, sheltered position. They should receive at least four hours of sun a day.
Although growth is slower because the lower temperatures reduces the uptake of fertilizer, it is still important to fertilise.
Sprouts can be grown all year round because they can be sprouted indoors and grown on a sunny windowsill. Margaret Roberts and Kirchhoffs have put together a special sprouting mix consisting of Mung beans, Chickpeas, lentils, Alfalfa and Soya beans.
Sprouters are available from health food shops but a quick sprouter can be made from a wide-mouthed glass jar covered with cheesecloth tied with a rubber band.
Place seeds into the jar, cover with water and leave overnight. Pour the beans into a sieve the next morning and rinse under running water. Rinse bottle and return beans to the damp bottle. Cover with cheese cloth and secure. Tilt jar to get rid of excess water, otherwise beans will rot and go sour. The washing procedure must be repeated every morning and evening – in three days the beans will be ready to eat.
Lettuce is an easy vegetable to grow in pots. It needs a rich potting soil mix and should be watered regularly. Plant a row of lettuce in a window box or encircle a standard or tree topiary. Varieties with interesting or coloured leaves are very decorative.
The loose leafed varieties are the most practical because you can harvest the individual leaves for up to three months before replanting. Others, like the butterhead or iceberg, are picked when the heads form so its best to sow seed at sow at three to four weekly intervals to have a constant supply. Fertilise monthly with Multisol P or Ludwig’s Vigorosa. Strawberries and marigolds are good companion plants.
Suggested varieties: “Salad Mixed” (a variety of loose leafed and crisp lettuce), ‘All Year Round’ (Butterhead), Lollo Rossa and Lollo Biondo (Loose Leafed).
Spinach or Swiss Chard also needs full sun and a potting mix that is rich but drains easily. Spinach needs regular watering and frequent feeding to produce lots of lush green leaves. It will produce over an extended period if the leaves are picked regularly. Spinach is ideal for pots because the plants only need to be 20cm apart. For something different and colourful, try the new ‘Bright Lights’ with its red and yellow stems and different coloured leaves.
Suggested varieties: ‘Bright lights’, ‘Swiss Chard Lucullus’, ‘Fordhook Giant’.
This zesty little vegetable adds colour and a tang to salads. It is ready for harvesting within a month so seedlings should be planted at regular intervals to ensure a yearlong supply. Radishes can be grown 3cm apart so they are ideal for small, sunny spots in between other plants or in pots.
Suggested varieties: ‘Red Cherry’ and ‘Cherry Belle’.
Broad beans thrive in well-fertilised and well-drained soil so it is important to plant them in deep, wide containers at least 40cm in diameter. They are climbers so the growth needs to be supported and trained. Make a pyramid from stakes tied together or buy a more ornamental obelisk and turn your bean plant into a garden feature. Water regularly especially during flowering and when the pods are developing. For larger pods pinch out the growing point when the lowest pods are 75mm long. Young beans, no thicker than a finger and 75mm long are the most delicious and can be cooked in their pods. A word of warning, do not disturb the plants when in flower as this may result in failure to set pot. For an optimum harvest, fertilise with Multisol K once a month.
Suggested variety: Aquadulce
Kale is a valuable winter vegetable that is extremely hardy. It likes rich soil so potting soil should be enriched with an addition of compost and plants should be fed monthly with Multisol N or Ludwigs Vigorosa. Plant seedlings 40cm apart, which means that a large, deep pot should accommodate about five plants which should provide a regular harvest of leaves. Cut the centre of each plant first to encourage the production of fresh side shoots. The leaves are rich in vitamin C and iron. To prepare Kale for cooking strip the long leaves from the tough stem, shred them away from the white midribs and cook like spinach.
Suggested variety: Chou Moullier Marrow Stem
Sugar Snap peas should be planted 40 cm apart and staked for a tidy effect and for ease of picking. Plants grow between 75 to 100cm high and the first fruit should be ready for harvest within 120 days. Water regularly especially when in flower. Pick regularly so that the pods do not become tough. Petunias are good companion plants as they deter caterpillars.
Visit the Eco Herb Store for a range of organic herb and veggie seeds.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March 2015, and has been updated for comprehensiveness and accuracy.