Over-winter herbs to add soul to warming winter cuisine. With a little bit of care you can keep a fresh supply growing through frosty winters.
While it’s goodbye to summer favourites like basil, mint and chillies there are many other herbs that can happily survive through winter if they are cared for correctly.
Robust culinary herbs like thyme, oregano, marjoram, parsley, chervil, and even sage, are hardy enough to survive our dry, cold and even frosty winters provided you find a sunny, sheltered spot for them.
In winter, herbs need at least four hours of sun a day, and they should be kept out of cold winds, especially if the soil becomes too wet. The best way to ensure this is to pot up a few of your favourite herbs and move them as the sun moves.
Sage is probably the least hardy of the herbs but leaves can still be harvested up until the end of July even though they get smaller and smaller. Sage is also the most sensitive to over watering so the potting soil should drain well. In spring they will sprout again and throw up lovely spikes of mauve flowers.
Sage, parsley and thyme also have medicinal properties for treating winter ailments like coughs, colds, and sore throats. By adding hyssop, which has expectorant properties for relieving bronchitis, and yarrow for lowering fevers, it is also possible to have home-grown winter remedies on hand.
If there is not an area in the garden that receives consistent winter sun, then containers are the best option. Choose containers that are at least 20cm in diameter (larger is better) have drainage holes and are deep enough for the herb’s roots to develop. Use a normal commercial potting soil that drains well.
Generally potted herbs only need to be watered one or twice a week in winter, preferably in the morning. Check the soil moisture levels daily because the soil should not dry out completely. Herbs don’t like wet feet so don’t put saucers underneath the pots.
Another option, especially for apartment dwellers, is to grow herbs on a windowsill that receives winter sun.
Ideally herbs are meant to be grown in full sun, in well-drained soil. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t grow them on your windowsill. You just need to adjust your expectations.
Don’t expect them to act like perennials. Treat them like any other flowering pot plant that you buy for the house and discard when it has finished flowering.
The same applies to herbs. Use them and when they start looking sickly, turf them out and buy a new pot. It doesn’t mean you have failed as a gardener.
The reason why such herbs have a limited lifespan is that the windowsill pots are actually too small for sustainable growth and they are probably not getting enough light. It is also possible that the air may be too hot or steamy and that the temperature changes are too extreme.
Try grouping the herbs close together so that the transpiration from the massed leaves creates some humidity. It’s also an idea to stand the pots on a layer of gravel as this helps retain moisture and keeps them cool without the plants becoming waterlogged.
Their life can also be extended by feeding with a liquid plant food at half the strength. Also, don’t over water. Once a week should be enough.
Keep the soil feeling slightly damp, but not sodden or bone dry. Check that they aren’t sitting in a saucer of water. This causes the roots to rot and the plant to die very quickly.
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.
The rewards of growing herbs are far greater than with other plants. Other plants in the garden are mostly planted for their decorative value. Herbs, on the other hand, can also be used for a myriad of other purposes that stretch from flavouring your food to curing your flu to ridding your home of insects.
Herbs are some of the easiest, most grateful plants to grow. If you follow the following basic guidelines for how to start your own herb garden in this article, they will richly reward you with their flavours and aromas.
Location: Where to Start Your Own Herb Garden
The ideal site for a herb garden is a sunny, open but sheltered spot with well-drained fertile soil. As far as possible it should be free from weeds and overhanging trees and have good access to the house so that the herbs can be harvested in all weather.
Most of the herbs that we can successfully grow in South Africa originated in the warmer climates of the world where they grow in full sun. It is these conditions that we must create for them. The minimum requirement is four to seven hours of direct sun per day.
Remember that your herbs will grow well even if they get less sun. They may tend to grow scraggly and will be more susceptible to diseases, but with a little extra attention they will still be successful.
Herbs are like most people: they do not like to have ‘wet feet.’ It is very important that your soil have good drainage. Most herbs will survive in poor sandy soil, but few will tolerate wet clay soil.
Culinary herbs should be planted away from possible contamination by pets, roadside pollution and agricultural sprays.
Herb Garden Ideas
The appeal of a small formal herb garden remains timeless. Formal designs are based on geometric patterns, which are framed by low hedges and paved paths. For maximum impact each bed is planted with one kind of herb, giving bold blocks of colour and texture.
Paving is an essential element, accentuating the formal lines and geometric design. Natural shades, like sand, terracotta or grey, contrast beautifully with the herbs, adding to the design element. The pathways and stepping stones also provide access to the herbs for ease of harvesting.
Herb Planting Tips
Prepare the ground well in advance, remove weeds (they compete for nutrition), fork in organic matter, such as compost, and rake the soil so that the bed is level. You don’t need to add large amounts of manure or fertiliser because that produces soft growth. The article on site preparation will give you some additional tips on the preparation of your herb garden.
Before transplanting herbs out of their “nursery” pots into the ground, water the pots well because a dry rootball is difficult to wet thoroughly once it is in the ground.
Because “nursery” pots are small, herbs tend to become root bound. To encourage new root growth gently loosen the root ball before planting in the ground. Pinch out the tips of shrubby herbs, like thyme, to encourage bushy growth. Add some bone meal or fishmeal at the bottom of each planting hole.
If you are using a planting plan, first set the herbs in their positions. It is easier to move them around while they are still in their pots, rather than having to transplant them later. Space them according to their expected height and spread so they have room to develop.
After planting firm the soil gently around the plant and water thoroughly to settle the soil and give the herb a good start.
Some herbs, like spearmint, can be invasive. Restrict their spread by planting them in sunken containers. Remove any spreading material immediately. Repot them yearly with fresh soil.
Caring for Your Herb Garden
Water newly planted herbs regularly but once they are established, they are naturally drought resistant. Watering and drainage goes hand in hand. Rather give your herbs too little than too much water. After a good soaking, allow the water to drain away and the soil to dry off. Water again when the top 2 or 3 cm of soil is dry to the touch.
Mulch your herbs once a year with bulky organic material, such as shredded bark.
Fertilizing is very important, especially if you intend to use your herbs on a regular basis. During the growing season (August to April in the Southern hemisphere) fertilize at least once a month. During the winter months one or two doses will be sufficient. Inorganic fertilizing and heavy composting is not recommended because this produces sappy growth that’s more prone to disease and pests.
Use any balanced fertilizer like 2:3:2. Always halve the dosage given on the packaging. The reason for this is that the essential oils of herbs that ‘suffer’ a bit are more concentrated, increasing their flavour, aroma and medicinal value.
If your herbs get too much fertilizer they will grow scraggly and be more susceptible to pests and diseases. Please note: If you are growing herbs for medicinal purposes do not use chemical fertilizer. Use organics. You can also make your own compost tea.
Pruning is essential to encourage healthy, bushy growth. Remove dead leaves and flowers on a regular basis. Should you frequently use your herbs, pruning may not be necessary as you would be pruning automatically.
Herbs are not very prone to pests but if you do have an infestation (aphids, red spider, white fly) either cut back the herbs or use an organic pesticide.
Harvesting Your Herbs
Collect small quantities of herbs at a time and handle them as little as possible.
Do not cut herbs at random. Take the opportunity to pinch out or prune the plant at the same time, removing unwanted shoots and encouraging bushiness. Use a sharp knife or scissors, do not break, bend or tear off the branches. Always harvest from clean, healthy plants in peak condition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Herbs and vegetables are natural companions. If you grow fresh herbs you’re bound to also love the idea of harvesting your own home grown tomatoes, beans, lettuce and anything else in season. We can dream after all!
Here’s our top spring vegetable growing tips and a proven list of popular veggies that can be sown in the garden or in pots in South Africa from mid August to the end of November.
Tomatoes – good varieties are Heinz 1370, Moneymaker, Oxheart, Floridade
Cucumber if you have space because it’s a vigorous creeper
Lettuce – especially those that don’t form a head, like Lollo Rosso and Lollo Biondo because the individual leaves can be harvested for up to three months
Sprouts – one of the easiest ways to get fresh salad greens
Radishes – Sparkler and Cherry Belle.
NB: For lettuce choose a spot that gets afternoon shade or dappled sunshine because full sun in summer is too hot and the lettuce will quickly go to seed.
Vegetables for Small Gardens
Spinach (especially ‘Bright Lights) beetroot, lettuce, bush beans, eggplant, chillies, summer cabbage (‘Cape Spits) and leeks. All these are compact growing vegetables and veggies like lettuce, beetroot and spinach can be used as borders. Chillies also make beautiful pot plants.
Tomatoes can be a bit overwhelming for a garden bed but you can plant a tomato bush in a large pot (about 20 liter) and train it up a trellis or pyramid. To contain its growth pinch off the growing tips when it reaches the desired size otherwise you could have a monster. The small cherry tomato ‘Sweety’ is particularly good in pots.
Other runner plants like peas and beans can also be planted in pots and supported on a frame. Try chillies and eggplant in pots as well.
Vegetables for Large Gardens
If you are lucky enough to have plenty of space you can also grow the more rambling types of vegetables like squash, patty pans, cucumber, and watermelon.
Vegetable Growing Tips
Like herbs, vegetables do best if grown in a sunny position. Prepare the beds by digging them over well and mixing in compost. Growing veggies from seed is much cheaper than buying seedlings and most veggies can be sown in situ. Just store the left over seeds in the seed packet in the fridge or in a dark drawer and they will remain viable for longer.
There’s a saying that ” a good gardener always plants three seeds – one for the grubs, one for the weather and one for himself.” It seems to work.
Keep the soil moist during germination and thin out the seedlings when they are big enough to handle. For a good crop fertilise with a balanced organic fertilizer two weeks after germination and at monthly intervals after that.
All the planting instructions are on the seed packet (planting depth, final spacing etc) so don’t forget to read the instructions!
To control insects spray with Ludwig’s Insect Spray or Margaret Roberts Organic Insecticide. Both are ECOCERT approved for use by organic gardeners.
And a last word from Prince Charles:
To get the best results you must talk to your vegetables.
This article wad first published in September 2015 and updated on 26 October 2016.
Borage (Borago offcinalis), an annual herb, is one of the easiest herbs to grow. It does not need a lot of water. Grows happily in poor soil, and just needs a sunny spot to seed itself. Coming up year after year.
The seed germinate so easily that it can be sown in any season in mild climates. In very cold areas it is best to sow in spring.
For the best results choose a sunny spot that is sheltered from strong winds, as the soft main stems break easily.
Dig the soil well over and add a generous amount of compost or manure.
Either buy young potted Borage plants from your local garden center or sow seeds 30cm to 50cm apart in shallow drills. Water well till the plants are established or the seeds germinate. Then water only when dry.
Feed once a month with a balanced organic fertilizer at half the recommended rate.
Young leaves and the flowers may be used fresh at any time of the year. Older leaves can also be used, but they are too hairy for most palates and need to be chopped very fine.
Drying the leaves and flowers is possible, but it is usually not worth the effort. Freeze the lovely blue flowers by carefully putting them, one by one, in ice cube trays and gently covering them with water. When needed pop a flowery ice cube into a glass of white wine, fruit juice or any other beverage.
Borage is an outstanding companion plant and mulch for most plants, being an excellent source of minerals, especially calcium and potassium. In particular, borage and strawberries help each other and strawberry farmers always set a few plants in their beds to enhance the fruits flavour and yield.
Borage is also a good companion for tomatoes – both seem to improve in growth and disease resistance when planted near each other.
Bees love the flowers, yielding an excellent honey.
If the Borage begins to take over your herb garden it is easy to thin out by pulling the plants out by hand. The shallow roots dislodge easily. Remember that the stalks are prickly. So you may need to wear garden gloves.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2007 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.
Herbs can be grown very successfully in containers and can be an attractive addition to any garden or patio. Apart from their aesthetic value, they are a practical solution for people who have limited gardening space at their disposal.
Most garden centres and nurseries stock a large selection of containers. They come in many shapes and sizes and are made from various materials like plastic, concrete and real clay. Finding the right container is a matter of personal taste, as almost any container can be used for planting herbs.
Herbs can be planted on their own or in combination with other herbs. When planting more than one variety in a container, care should be taken that there will be ample growing space for all the plants.
Prune the faster growing varieties regularly to ensure they do not overgrow their slower companions. Also, competition for space and nutrients will result in some varieties flourishing while others will suffer and, in most cases, eventually die.
It is never wise to plant any of the mint varieties in the same container as other herbs. In most cases the mint will overgrow the entire pot.
Proven Mixed Herb Containers
An Italian Chef’s Selection
Sweet basil Italian parsley Oregano Marjoram Thyme
A Perfume Pot
Lavender Rose scented geranium Lemon balm Lemon thyme Pineapple sage
A Salad Bowl
Garlic chives Rocket Salad burnet Parsley Celery
A French Chef’s Selection
Tarragon Chervil Parsley Chives Sage
A First-Aid Medicine Chest
Hyssop Peppermint (prune regularly to prevent it from overgrowing the other herbs) Rue Thyme Yarrow