Harvesting Herbs and Preparing Herb Plants for Winter

Harvesting herbs and preparing herb plants for winter. (c) Oak Hill Homestead

Gardeners live with the fear that they'll wake up on an autumn morning to black, slimy, frost-bitten plants. We watch the weather forecast carefully, and have sheets and tarps ready to throw over our tomatoes and other sensitive plants to keep them going for just a few days longer.

Our first frost was October 27, quite a bit earlier than usual. Before that, we'd had some 40° mornings, with dew heavy on the grass and steam rising from the pond. There was no escaping the progress of winter, and I had a list of chores to finish up while the weather was still "friendly."

The most pressing of those chores was harvesting the herbs one last time before frost nipped them.

Last year my lemon balm went to seed and is growing wild in our lawn. (c) Oak Hill Homestead

I've added a few more herbs to the garden since my post two years ago about harvesting herbs. I'm slowly moving my herbs from pots on my "herb shelves" near the rosebushes to a raised bed in my garden, but there will always be pots of herbs on the shelves and as many colorful flowers as I can keep alive in the summer. I crave flowers and color and truly miss it in the winter.

Another reason I'll continue to grow some herb plants in pots is because the mint varieties spread like crazy and they're easier to control in pots. Evidently last fall I accidentally let the lemon balm go to seed. There were little seedlings all over the herb garden area this spring, growing in the lawn and under the shelves. I could have pulled them up but lemon balm smells so good when we mow the lawn so I've let them thrive in the ground all summer where they really wanted to be. The catnip did the same, though not quite as prolifically. I don't want that to happen in my raised beds, so the lemon balm and catnip (which are both mint varieties) won't move to the garden.

Basil loves the hot, dry summer weather in Oklahoma. (c) Oak Hill Homestead

My basil plant didn't do quite as well as last year but I moved the pot to a spot that gets less sun. It amazes me that a plant would love the fierce sun and crazy heat of an Oklahoma summer, but that's exactly what basil loves. I let it go to seed in late summer (on purpose this time) and need to gather the seed pods now that they have dried out.

The thyme plant has rooted new plants in several places, so I potted those up to share with friends. (c) Oak Hill Homestead

In the days before that first frost I cut armloads of rosemary, thyme and oregano. After I stripped the leaves off the stems I piled them in baskets to dry; I run my fingers through the leaves each day to turn them to the air so they will dry evenly. They smell so wonderful. There are several ways to dry herbs; this is the one I use the most often.

I've killed so many rosemary plants, but this one has thrived! (c) Oak Hill Homestead

I've killed so many rosemary plants since moving to Oak Hill fifteen years ago. None lasted more than a season.... except this one. I planted this one in the raised garden bed filled with homemade compost and good soil, and fed it comfrey tea. It grew and grew and grew, and even after our first good frost it still looks good. I'm hopeful that it will come back in the spring and continue to grow well.

The scent of rosemary takes me back to childhood summers spent at my grandparents' ranchette, riding my horse through the underbrush. Evidently rosemary grows wild in southern California. It brings back such wonderful memories.

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I gathered basketfuls of catnip, lemon balm and basil too. I have to keep the basket of catnip leaves in a cat-proof location - our male cat is a catnip junky - so I put all of the baskets in the guest room where cats aren't allowed. I accidentally dropped a sprig of catnip when I first brought all the herbs indoors, which made him very happy.

To let the comfrey die in the killing frost would have been a waste. I cut an armful of the leaves to dry for winter salves and a powdered hair rinse I'm making, then added many more to the compost pile. It's an excellent compost activator. (Are you growing comfrey? Here's why I think you should.)

Oregano. (c) Oak Hill Homestead

Since the thyme and oregano plants had rooted a few little plants in their attempts to take over the raised bed, I potted those up and brought them indoors for the winter. I'll give some to friends and have a few left over in case my original plants don't make it through the winter.

I brought the potted toothache plant indoors too because the seeds weren't yet ready to harvest. It's an annual plant and probably won't last until spring, but there are several seed heads that are nearly ripe so that's ok.

The plants that remain in the raised bed are well-mulched and ready for the cold weather. They grew so well over the summer and I hope that they will survive until spring. The herb bed in my raised bed garden is in the most-sheltered corner, and I think they have a good chance.

You might also enjoy:
Six Ways to Dry Homegrown Herbs
What to Grow in an Herb Garden
Ten Ways to Use Basil

Harvesting herbs before the first frost and preparing herb plants for winter. (c) Oak Hill Homestead

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  1. My thyme plants never look very good. They are always leggy and ugly. Do you have any tips? I wonder if it is just too hot here in Alabama for it to do well.
    :) gwingal

    1. I'm in Oklahoma and our summer is probably just as hot as yours, Gwingal. I watered my herbs a lot, maybe even more than I should have. Mine is also in partial shade - it has morning shade and was on the east side of the tomato plants so had late afternoon shade as well.

  2. I absolutely love this post. I am not ready to say goodbye to my herb babies! I am pinning many of your images for reference back to this informative post in the future!
    Here is a post I did about my herbs back in the late summer. I also shared my love of herbs in my latest blog post, my Thanksgiving kitchen tour. Have a great Thanksgiving!

    1. Me too, Amber! Just today I was admiring the new herb babies on my kitchen windowsill, cuttings from the plants in the garden. I hope you can bring a few inside too, to tide you over the winter. I'll run over and read your post. :-)

  3. I learned the hard way when I first started planing herbs about the ones that spread and spread and spread. That is why I keep reading and learning. Found you on Simple Homestead Blog Hop.


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