Wintering Over Tender Plants

Lemon verbena and geraniums in patio garden

Lemon verbena and geraniums to be wintered over.

Most of us have at least one or two tender perennials that we cannot bear to part with at the end of the summer. Some of us have practically a whole garden’s worth! Whichever it is, it’s good to know a simple, inexpensive way to get those plants through the winter, short of building a greenhouse.

A visit to a hardware store, like Ace, Home Depot, or Lowe’s, can supply you with all that you’ll need to set up a winter nursery in your basement or a corner of your living room or dining room. (Note that you can do a simple version of this if you have just 1 or 2 plants. Remember to place your plant on a very sunny windowsill or provide a small plant light for adequate light [plants get very unhappy with lack of light]. Also make sure you have adequate ventilation [some plants, like rosemary, are very unhappy and get sick if they don’t have enough air flow]).

What you’ll need:

  • A set of sturdy storage shelves
  • Shop light fixtures that plug in
  • Fluorescent plant lights, or fluorescent bulbs one warm, one cool, for each light fixture
  • Lightweight chain
  • “S” hooks
  • Plastic bags or sheeting
  • Outlet strip (optional)
  • Timer (optional)

After you have potted up any plants that are not already in pots, you will need someplace to set your plants.

Utility shelve
s are cheaper than specialty light benches, and are also available in a range of heights.

Make sure you get shelves that are designed for major poundage; I first got the cheap grey metal shop shelves, and they are definitely not up to the task of holding heavy plants.

You can also set up a table or bench, wooden skids on the basement floor, or (as one friend did) shelves attached to the wall above the kitchen sink or your toilet.

Just be sure there is access to an electrical outlet and somewhere to secure your light.

One of the advantages of using utility shelves that you put together yourself is that you can place the shelves at heights that work for your particular plants. I usually leave one shelf out to give me more space for taller plants.

If you have your plants on metal or composite shelves, or somewhere that will be affected by water seepage, line your shelves with plastic.

Also, you can find old plastic cafeteria trays or heavy-duty baking sheets to place under your plants.

You can fill spaces around plants with seashells, gravel/stones, or decorative marbles.


Shop lights usually come in 4-foot lengths, though you can find fixtures in other lengths as well. Plant bulbs (with the right light spectrum for plants) for fluorescent fixtures are available again in different lengths to fit your fixtures. They last a surprisingly long time. Mine have given me about three winters before needing to be replaced. One gardener I know suggests using 2 ordinary fluorescent bulbs, one warm and one cool, to give the same light spectrum and save on costs.

The simplest way to hang your lights is to use lightweight chain. Your light fixture will be hanging from the shelf above it, shining on the plants on the next shelf down.
Run a length of chain lengthwise over and along the shelf from which your light will hang (the chain will be covered by the plastic you put under your plants). Leave a tail of chain hanging down from each end of the shelf.

Use “S” hooks to attach your light to the chain, hanging it at whatever height you want. You can then easily adjust up or down, depending on your plants’ needs. The ends of your light fixture may extend beyond the ends of your shelves. This shouldn’t be a problem. If you have just one or two lights, it’s simple to plug them into an outlet or extension cord.
I find it easiest, however, especially with more light fixtures, to use an outlet strip.
I have attached my strip to the support leg of my shelves with duct tape.

Remembering to turn your lights on and off at regular intervals can be a challenge. If you’re like me, your plants can be subjected to a wildly lit night life and a very dark daytime. To give my plants a nice, steady light diet, I quickly started using a timer. I set it to run from 6:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., so my plants get about 16 hours of light a day. They seem to do well with this. I plug the outlet strip into the timer to regulate all the lights together.

What Plants Can You Winter Over?

There are many plants that will die in New England’s Zone 4 to 6 winter temperatures that can be cared for inside until the next warm season arrives. Here are a few of the plants that I have wintered over or seen being wintered over.

Geraniums/Pelargoniums–everyday geraniums and scented geraniums
Rosemary (the only way to get it through the winter in New England,     where winter temps will kill it otherwise)
African blue basil (this is a more sturdy basil, regular sweet basil isn’t         happy to come inside)
Lemon verbena
Bay tree
Myrtle (Myrtis communis)
Citrus trees

I used this method for many winters and found it to be simple and manageable. I hope you will, too.

Comment below and let me know how this worked for you, and if you had any problems or revelations. What will you be wintering over?


(This post was edited in September 2015.)

Herbs in Autumn

Echinacea (Echinacea sp)

Echinacea (Echinacea sp)

Yummy herbal teas! Intensely flavored herbal additions to your stews and breads, and maybe the Thanksgiving turkey! Oh yeah, sounds soooo good.

 Well, the place to look is your own or a friend’s garden or the local farmer’s market. Drying and storing herbs for your use is simple and gives you a wonderful feeling when you’re using them in your teas and your cooking, plus they taste tons better than anything you buy in the store!

At this time of year, as summer ends and autumn starts the count-down to winter, our herb plants are starting to go into their last hurrah for the season. If they’re annuals, they are blooming and setting seed, making sure they’ll have babies before they kick off. If they’re perennials, they may just now be blooming, setting seed for a new batch of plants beyond where they already live, or they may be thinking about tucking up their roots for the winter and slowing down their growth, getting ready to shed their leaves.

So before those plants bite the dust, it’s time to harvest them and have them ready for winter use.

If you have your own garden, you can pick what you like and put it to dry. Basil is great to dry, and its flowers are edible. You can take a whole plant out by its roots, chop them and any ugly leaves off, and hang it to dry.

Perennial herbs like sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and mints can also be harvested. If they are blooming, the flowers are also edible and can be included in what you dry.

If you’ve been growing nasturtiums, not only do you want to save a few seeds for next year, but you can dry the buds, flowers, and leaves for teas and soups, or put the flowers and/or seed into vinegar.

If you don’t have access to a garden, many vendors at farmers markets are selling herbs. A big bunch of basil will make marvelous pesto, but maybe more than you need right now, so dry the rest. Any other herbs you can find, grab them and dry them.

There are, however, 2 exceptions to the drying rule. Parsley and chives lose much of their “oomph” and taste when they dry, so the best way to retain their goodness is to freeze them. Snip your parsley or chives into small pieces, spread them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and put them in the freezer. When they are all frozen, simply put the frozen herb pieces into a jar, plastic container, or plastic baggie, label!, and keep in the freezer. You’ll be ale to scoop out what you want when you need it.

Now you may be wondering how to dry your herbs. Over the years I have found many ways to let them air dry, here are a couple:

  • Put your herbs on a plate, a wicker paper plate holder (I found mine at yard sales), or a basket. Make sure that your herbs are in fairly single layer, or spread apart. If they hunch on top of each other, they will mold or dry unattractively brown. You can leave the leaves on the stems and strip them off when they are dry, or take the leaves off first, and spread to dry.
  • Hang your herbs in small bunches to dry. You can gather a few stems of herb together and tie them together with a piece of string, or use a rubber band wrapped around them a few times. You can hang your bunches from pegs, like coat hook pegs, from pegs on a peg board, from beams in the attack, or from a clothes hanger. The clothes hanger can be hung anywhere you can find, and the herb bunches can be hooked on using unbent paper clips.

When your herbs are thoroughly dry, you can strip them off the stems, if you didn’t do this previously, and store them in a glass jar (my favorite way) or in paper bags. Some people use plastic bags, which is fine, but I prefer to avoid plastic when I can. I try not to crumble them too much when storing, preferring to do the crumbling just before I use them. They retain more of their flavor and goodness that way.

Label you herbs! You may think you will remember what they are, but they can look really different dried than fresh, and one dry herb can look remarkably like another. I am speaking from long experience here!

For the herbs you will use in cooking, get some pretty bottles or small jars, attach pretty labels, and keep with your herbs and spices. You will be amazed at how good they taste in your cooking, salad dressings, and more.

Next month we’ll look at some of the other ways you can use your freshly, deliciously  dried herbs.