Will Herbs Survive the Winter in Pots?

As winter approaches, many herb gardeners start to worry about their potted plants. Will my herbs survive the cold weather? Do I need to bring them indoors or can they stay outside?

The answer depends on the type of herb, your winter conditions, and how much preparation and care you give them. While some tender varieties will need to move inside, many hardy herbs can tough it out through the winter with proper protection.

The Biggest Threats to Herbs in Winter

While freezing temperatures can damage and kill some herbs, the biggest threats to potted herbs in winter are actually moisture-related.

Wet soil and excess rainfall are more likely to doom herbs over the winter than cold alone. When soil stays soggy for too long, the roots suffocate and rot. Herbs in pots are especially vulnerable since they can’t absorb and drain away excess moisture like those planted in the ground.

That’s why one of the smartest things you can do for winter herbs is to shelter the pots from rain and snow. Place them up against the house or garage, under overhangs, or beneath deck railings. You want the herbs protected from being rained and snowed on but still exposed to sun when it’s out.

If you don’t have any covered spots, erect a simple A-frame structure over your potted herbs using plastic sheeting or tarps. Just be sure it doesn’t enclose them too tightly—some airflow is still important.

Cold-Hardy Herbs That Can Stay Outdoors

Many culinary herbs originally came from Mediterranean regions so they can handle cold temperatures quite well. As long as you shelter them from excess moisture, these herbs are hardy enough to survive most winters outdoors:

  • Chives
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Sage
  • Thyme

Not only can these plants endure cold snaps, but most will continue actively growing through winter—albeit at a slower pace. That means you can keep harvesting leaves and stems for cooking, though yields will be smaller.

Chives are one of the best herbs for winter harvests. Their grassy hollow leaves hold up to frost and snow, letting you snip some to flavor soups, stews, baked potatoes, and more. Just be sure to leave some growth intact.

Mint is notoriously cold tolerant and practically impossible to kill. Spearmint and peppermint will keep producing young leaves into winter. Since mint spreads aggressively, keeping it confined to a pot is smart anyway.

Oregano and marjoram are compact perennial plants with tiny leaves that hold up to chill and wind. Prune plants back to encourage new growth. Shelter pots from excess moisture.

Parsley is a biennial that can be harvested all winter long. The curly leaf varieties are more cold sensitive than flat leaf types. Shelter pots and snip leaves as needed.

Sage has broad, thick leaves that withstand cold. For harvests, choose young leaves and protect plants from soggy soil. Shelter pots from winter rain and snow.

Thyme is an especially hardy herb that keeps growing through winter. Just avoid harvesting more than 1/3 of the plant so it can maintain vigor.

Preparing Perennial Herbs for Winter

Herbs that return year after year like thyme, oregano, sage, and rosemary can survive winter outdoors with proper care and preparation:

  • Prune back any dead or damaged growth so the plants direct energy to their roots and crown.
  • Check for pests and disease. Treat any issues to prevent them from flaring up again later.
  • Group pots together in a protected spot. This allows plants to shelter each other.
  • Elevate pots on blocks, bricks, or overturned pots. This improves drainage so roots don’t sit in wet soil.
  • Mulch around pots with 2-3 inches of straw, shredded leaves, evergreen branches or other insulating material. This protects roots from hard freezes.
  • Water sparingly, just when soil is dry 2-3 inches down. Too much moisture will rot roots and kill plants.
  • Remove dead leaves and foliage to prevent diseases. But leave any greenery still alive in place for insulation.
  • On exceptionally cold nights, temporarily cover plants with burlap bags, fabric row cover, or an old blanket. Remove covers in the morning.
  • Shield pots from wind, which can damage leaves and dry out plants faster. Put up a windbreak of boards, bales of hay, or lattice panels.

With a little TLC and winter protection, your rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano will survive the cold months and return vigorously in spring. Just avoid harvesting more than a third of each plant so they maintain strength.

Frost-Sensitive Herbs to Bring Indoors

Some herbs originating from hot climates can’t handle freezing weather and must come inside for winter. This includes:

  • Basil
  • Lemon verbena
  • Stevia
  • Geraniums
  • Lemon grass
  • Bay laurel
  • Mints (if winters get very cold)

You have two options for overwintering tender herbs as houseplants:

1. Bring the entire potted plant indoors before frost arrives. Choose the healthiest, most vigorous plants from your garden.

2. Take cuttings and root them in small pots to grow fresh plants inside. This lets you take only the best stems and leaves.

For full outdoor plants, prune back any dead or damaged material first. Check for pests and treat if needed. Select compact, healthy plants and transplant into containers with drainage holes.

Good potting mix options include half potting soil and half compost or coconut coir. You can also add perlite or vermiculite to improve drainage.

Water well after transplanting and let plants recover in shade for a few days before moving inside. Pick a sunny south or west facing window where they’ll get at least 6 hours of direct light.

Plants will go partially dormant from the less intense indoor light. Don’t fertilize until spring or you may encourage leggy, weak growth. Water only when the top inch of soil is dry. Remove any dead leaves or stems to prevent disease.

Taking cuttings from tender herbs is even easier. Remove 4-6 inch sections of stem tips that don’t have flowers or seeds. Strip off the lower leaves and stick the cuttings in small pots of moist potting mix.

Keep the cuttings in bright indirect light, water when dry, and new roots should emerge in a few weeks. Once established, move to a sunny window for winter. Basil, mint, lemon verbena and stevia root readily from cuttings.

Caring for Indoor Herbs in Winter

Follow these tips to help potted herbs thrive indoors through winter:

  • Give them plenty of sunlight from a south or west facing window for at least 6 hours a day. Supplement with grow lights if needed.
  • Watch for drafts from windows and vents that can damage leaves. Avoid placing pots near heat sources.
  • Use gravel trays or pebble trays to increase humidity around the plants. Top off water as it evaporates.
  • Don’t overwater. Let soil dry out slightly between waterings. Good drainage is critical to prevent root rot.
  • Remove any yellow or dying leaves to keep the plants looking fresh and prevent pests or diseases.
  • Pinch and prune back growth to encourage bushy, compact habits. This also provides cuttings for new plants.
  • Turn pots periodically so all sides get even light exposure and growth. Stake tall plants for support.
  • Fertilize monthly with a diluted houseplant fertilizer or compost tea. This fuels new growth through winter.
  • Take new cuttings periodically to refresh indoor plants. Discard leggy or weak mother plants and root their best stems.

With proper care, you can keep herbs like basil, lemon verbena, bay, and mint thriving indoors all winter long. Just be sure to give them enough sunlight, prune often, and don’t overwater.

Fall and Winter Herb Care Guide

Follow this seasonal checklist to help your potted herbs survive winter with vigor:

Late Summer/Early Fall:

  • Assess plants and remove any weak, diseased, or pest-infested parts.
  • Take cuttings from tender herbs to propagate new indoor plants. Choose non-flowering stems.
  • Prepare new pots and potting mix if transplanting herbs indoors. Let them recover in shade before first frost.
  • Start reducing watering frequency as growth slows.

Early/Mid Fall:

  • Transplant frost-sensitive herbs into containers to bring indoors. Give them time to adjust before moving inside.
  • Prune back any dead or damaged growth on outdoor herbs. Remove flowers and old leaves.
  • Check soil drainage in pots. Repot into fresh mix if needed. Elevate pots off the ground for winter.
  • Place pots together in a sheltered spot protected from winter rain/snow. Avoid enclosed spaces with no airflow.
  • Add insulating mulch around outdoor pots. Leave some room between mulch and plant stems.
  • Continue harvesting outdoor herbs like parsley, sage, thyme and chives as desired. Leave some growth intact.

Late Fall:

  • Move any remaining tender herbs like basil indoors before frost arrives. Place in a sunny south or west window.
  • Water outdoor pots only when soil is partly dry. Avoid excess moisture on leaves and crowns.
  • Temporary covers can protect plants from early light frosts. Remove covers daily when temps warm.
  • Harvest tender herb leaves before frost damage can occur. Take fresh cuttings for indoor propagation.

Early Winter:

  • Allow frost to kill back any remaining tender herbs left outdoors. Remove dead plants and foliage.
  • Check indoor herbs regularly and remove any leaves or stems that are yellow, dried out or dying.
  • Keep indoor herbs in the sunniest window possible. Turn pots to encourage even growth on all sides.
  • Water conservatively, allowing the soil surface to dry out before soaking again. Good drainage prevents rot.

Mid/Late Winter:

  • Prune back any dead or unsightly growth on outdoor herbs. Avoid removing more than 1/3 of the plant.
  • Watch for early signs of new growth on hardy perennial herbs. Hold off fertilizing until spring.
  • Fertilize indoor herbs monthly with diluted liquid fertilizer. Take new cuttings to replace aging plants.
  • Remove protective coverings from outdoor pots as the weather begins to warm up.
  • Gradually introduce tender herbs to outdoor conditions again after final frost date passes. Harden off for 7-10 days first.

Spring:

  • As weather warms, begin regular watering and fertilizing of outdoor herbs again to fuel new growth.
  • Transplant successfully overwintered indoor herbs back outdoors after any danger of frost. Harden off first.
  • Take cuttings from indoor plants to start a fresh batch for next winter before setting survivors outdoors again.

By following this timeline and using the right winter protection strategies, you can help your potted herbs survive the cold months and return vigorously in spring. Pay close attention to moisture levels, sunlight, and pruning for both outdoor and indoor plants.