Cold Weather and Your Indoor Herbs (and other plants)

Pundits say every season has its advantages, but I have my doubts. I like a brisk morning as much as the next person, but when I can't get the back door open because of snow drifts, and the car is buried in the driveway, again, and my usually happy indoor chive plants are looking more droopy than sprightly, it's time to say whoa!

When it's cold outside -- really cold -- you probably make sure your pets, automobiles and other treasures are protected from frost, ice, sleet and snow -- oh, oh, snow! Even your precious outdoor plants are probably sleeping under a layer of mulch or snug in some other variety of temperature barrier. Everything may seem safe and secure until the big thaw or breakup. That would be some morning (soon, please) when a warm-ish breeze and weak sunlight will start to work their magic.

While you're checking the insulating strips on your doors, and hoping that slight fogging inside your -- usually largest -- double paned window, is a trick of the light, take a few minutes to check your indoor herbs and other plants.

Winter weather means higher energy bills, and if you don't have a humidifier in your home, that extra, welcome heat can also mean brutally dry conditions for plants. A little extra watering may be in order, as well as some spritzing and an emergency dish of pebbles filled with water. If your plants are stressed, and they probably are, you might see leaves with brown tips or margins. This can mean they're desperate to for humidity, to the point of releasing a little from their leaves to create their own. If their makeshift efforts at environmental management don't work, they may turn yellow or just collapse completely.

Protecting Herbs and Houseplants from Outdoor Air

When outdoor temperatures plummet, you let cold air inside every time you open an exterior door. If that air is in a collision course with one of your houseplants, it can spell disaster. When this is the case, either create a windbreak or move the plant. Most houseplants and many herbs require nearly tropical temperatures. A few blasts of arctic air can kill them -- and that would be a real shame.

Watching Heat Registers

Outdoor air isn't the only problem. Plants located next to heat registers can become overheated, and even crispy, from all the circulating warmth. Move or watched them very (as in very, very) carefully. This sounds like a newbie mistake, but home builders love to put heat registers under windows, the only source of natural light in most homes without skylights.

Managing Window Microclimates

Keeping an herb plant in a sunny window usually pays dividends. The herb is nearby for easy harvesting, and keeping green growing things around is just -- nice. During weather extremes, though, close proximity to a window can be dangerous. Despite advertising to the contrary, heat and cold still seep through closed windows via the action of processes like infiltration. This makes the immediate area around them either hotter or colder than the thermostat indicates -- and sometimes remarkably so. In fact, studies conducted by regional energy companies suggest that up to 25 percent of consumer heating and cooling dollars are spent compensating for heat gain or loss from windows.  

The takeaway here is to make sure houseplants are far enough away from windows to be safe, but still close enough to take advantage of the light windows provide. Exposed (no trees, shrubs or other protection) and windward windows are at the greatest risk for cold penetration, and the directional orientation of the window (north, east, south and west) will play a seasonal role, too.

To get a good idea of the climate you're providing your houseplants, test areas around your windows and   drafts from exterior doors with an instant read thermometer. Do this at different times of day and at night.

You can employ multiple strategies to protect your plants from cold:

  • Close window drapes at night.
  • Make sure plant leaves aren't touching windowpanes.
  • Pull plants back a few inches from cold windows.
  • Consider adding insulation to windows (and doors).
  • Consider installing window film
  • Move plants away from the coldest windows, and double up around warmer windows on a regular rotation so all pots get at least some sunlight.

Other Strategies

  • Consider adding grow lights to your setup, too, and reducing your reliance on windows altogether.
  • Cover plants with clear plastic sheeting or bags for warmth during cold snaps. This is for short periods only, and works best if you can create a tent-like arrangement where the plastic isn't actually touching the plants.
  • Add layers of newsprint to dormant plants you may be overwintering in a garage or shed if you think the temperature in that location will drop below freezing.

You can employ multiple strategies to protect plants from drying heat, too:

  • Humidifiers are pretty inexpensive these days and can be a real boon to indoor plants. They're available as large consoles and also in tiny desktop models designed for personal (or plant) use. Make sure any model you consider has an automatic shutoff in case the water runs dry.
  • Grouping plants works, too. Bring outliers into close proximity to one another, creating groupings of multiple plants. This helps create a microclimate where plants share resources like ambient humidity from their pots, sunlight and gentle air flow.
  • Decorative tabletop fountains can also help contribute humidity to groups of plants.
  • Place a fan in your bathroom to blow steam from your shower or bath out into your rooms. This can be especially effective in a small apartment.
  • Keep a large pot of water simmering on the stove, especially on days when your furnace is cycling constantly.  This actually works pretty well, but does require regular monitoring. (I like to add aromatic ingredient to the water like sliced oranges, star anise, cinnamon sticks, mint leaves, lemon balm and cloves, and set the stove timer so I'm reminded to check the water level every couple of hours.)
  • Keep shallow dishes of water on or near your heat registers. If you don't like leaving the water completely exposed to the air (and your curious and thirsty pets), add sand, marbles or small stones to the dish. This creates weight and stability, and discourages the family dogs and cats from using the dishes as second (or third or fourth) watering holes.
  • Open the door to your dishwasher after it completes a cycle and let the steam vent into your rooms. If your dishwasher has a "dry" cycle, turn it off and air dry your dishes instead.
When you're proactive about plant care, you don't have to worry about damage control later when the sun comes out.

Medicinal Herb List - 5 Medicinal Herbs You Should Plant This Year

Fresh cut aloe vera leaf
Medicinal herbs can be pretty useful once you get your head wrapped around the idea of looking for your medicines in the garden instead of at the pharmacy. Growing and learning to use fresh or dried herbs effectively can make minor ailments less irksome and offers a real sense of control over some of life's unexpected hiccups -- and minor burns, sleeplessness, headaches, bug bites, bruises, dry skin and stomach upsets. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control:

"Herbal and other plant-derived remedies have been estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be the most frequently used therapies worldwide."  [CDC]  Now, that's saying something.

Let's explore five herbs you should really be growing for their medicinal properties. I've focused this list on easy to grow and use herbs. One comment I get from readers occasionally is that there's lots of general information about herbs, but info about easy, practical applications for those plants are sometimes thin on the ground. If there are already plenty of demands on your time, the idea of spending a couple of hours in the kitchen preparing your own moisturizing lip balm may seem a bit ambitious. Brewing a five minute tea to help you get a better night's sleep might be just the thing to turn you on to the world of herbal remedies, though.

There isn't much point in growing an herb if you can't find good ways to enjoy it. Each item here includes a few of the maladies that particular herb can treat, as well as at least one simple recipe or recommendation for a specific medicinal application. Think of it as a basic herbal first aid primer: fast, easy, effective -- and pretty fun when you think of how useful you can make your herb hobby with a little snip and prep.

These herbs, and many others besides, are worth a spot in your garden:

Aloe Vera (Aloe Vera or Aloe barbadensis)

Let's start with one of the easiest medicinal herbs to grow and use. Aloe vera is a perennial in the succulent family.  It's well known for its ability to treat burns, and if you haven’t used fresh aloe on a minor burn, you're in for a surprise. It stops pain instantly. Aloe can also perform similar wizardry on bug bites, and will treat inflammation, too. Keep the plant in your sunniest window, or outdoors where there's no threat of frost. Water it sparingly, and it will give you years of useful service. Use aloe by removing a leaf and slitting it to expose the viscous gel inside. Apply the gel topically. For fast relief, just cut the leaf and rub it on the burn or bite. One large leaf can be used for multiple applications of gel. Just wrap the leaf lightly in a damp paper towel, cut side down, to keep it from drying out. For more information about growing and using aloe vera, please visit my posts:

How to Grow Aloe Vera 
How to Repot Aloe Vera 

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Harvested ginger root

Ginger has a wonderful aroma and tastes great in Asian cooking. Ginger root will also settle an upset stomach. It's so effective it is sometimes recommended to treat the nausea experienced by chemotherapy patients. Many experts also recommend it for motion sickness. In fact, some cruise ships routinely offer crystalized ginger at meals and as a general aid to guests in the process of acquiring their sea legs.  Crystalized ginger is a tasty treat, but you can also get the benefits of this tuberous rhizome in a fast, simple tea.

Ginger Tea Recipe

  1. Thinly slice or grate a 1/2-inch piece of ginger into a cup.
  2. Add 8 ounces of boiling water.
  3. Let the concoction steep (sit undisturbed), for five minutes.
  4. Strain 
  5. The tea can be sweetened.
  6. Repeat as needed. 
Dormant ginger ready to sprout
Ginger is easy to grow outdoors in temperate climates. It likes shade and moisture. Humidity helps, too. If your area gets frosty or downright cold in winter, dormant ginger can be overwintered indoors, or a batch of chubby root can be harvested in fall.

Ginger root can be preserved indefinitely in a jar filled with Sherry or white wine and stored in the fridge. Just wash, peel and slice roots into manageable pieces first. That way you'll have a ready supply of homegrown, medicinal (and culinary) ginger all year.

You can also start ginger by planting produce department ginger root in spring. Although some commercially available culinary ginger is treated and will not sprout, I haven't had a problem getting mine going. If you have, try ginger from small Asian or other specialty or gourmet markets. Their products are often supplied by organic growers. The next time you have a sour tummy, try a little ginger tea. If you find it effective and want a slightly more challenging recipe, make your own crystalized ginger. It isn't that difficult.

For more information, visit: Growing and Harvesting Ginger

Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis)

Lemon balm is actually one of my favorite herbs. It is also one of the top three herbs used as sleep and relaxation aids. A member of the mint family, lemon balm is a frost hardy perennial that grows like a weed, so you won't have trouble getting it acclimated to your garden. Since it grows in profusion, you'll also have plenty to share. Some herbalists call lemon balm "herbal valium" because it can help dial stress down to manageable levels. For sleep, it may not have the powerful punch of some herbs, but it will take the edge off, allowing you to relax naturally. Lemon balm is often used in combination with other sleepy time herbs like valerian, chamomile, passionflower and lavender. Of them, valerian root is the most potent, but the smell can be off-putting for some and valerian can cause drug interactions. A relaxing tea made with lemon balm and, say, chamomile is just the thing, though.

Lemon Balm Tea Recipe

 As a sleep and relaxation aid:

  1. Add two tablespoons of packed, fresh lemon balm (or 1 tablespoon dried) to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep 5 minutes
  2. Add sugar or honey as needed.

For a more concentrated and effective brew, cut back to one tablespoon lemon balm, and add one teaspoon dried chamomile blossoms and one teaspoon dried passionflower leaves. (Double the last two ingredients if using them fresh.) Both organic chamomile blossoms and passionflower leaves are available dried through common suppliers like Amazon.

For more information about lemon balm, visit:

How to Grow Lemon Balm  

 Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Also known as pot marigold, calendula is a natural anti-inflammatory with anti-bacterial properties. It can also provide pain relief for minor injuries. Calendula is used to treat:

  • Small cuts
  • Blisters
  • Scratches
  • Insect bites
  • Burns
  • Bruises
  • Chafing
  • Diaper rash
  • Sunburn

A salve or cream made with calendula is handy to have around. It offers a number of other benefits when used internally, but we like it for this list because it's wonderfully effective as a skin treatment and easy to prepare.

You've probably seen or grown marigold for its bright orange or yellow flowers. The flats of marigolds available from your garden supply outlet in spring are probably French marigold, not calendula. It's important to make this distinction because some types of French marigold can be toxic. Calendula is readily available from most herbs seed and plant suppliers, and dried (medicinal quality) flowers are also available online. Calendula is easy to grow in the garden. It prefers a sunny location and soil that drains well.

I've included a recipe for the simplest type of calendula salve. It uses petroleum jelly, an ingredient many herbalists dislike because it's a petroleum byproduct. I add it here because it's a common ingredient used in many skin care products that's probably in your medicine cabinet right now. If you make a simple calendula salve with it and like the results, you can easily produce a richer, more natural cream using oil and beeswax for your next calendula project.

Calendula Salve Recipe 1

  • 1 heaping tbsp. dried calendula petals
  • 1 small tub petroleum jelly (approx. 3.75 oz.)

  1. Add petroleum jelly to a double boiler, small slow cooker or heavy pan.
  2. Melt on low heat.
  3. Bring to a simmer and add calendula petals.
  4. Simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Cool slightly.
  6. Strain through cheese cloth into a small, heat resistant container with a tight fitting lid. (A canning jar works well).
  7. Apply topically as needed.

Keep the container in a cool, dark location. (The mixture should be shelf stable for up to 6 months or so.)

Calendula Salve Recipe 2

  • 4 rounded tbsp. dried calendula petals
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, avocado oil or coconut oil
  • 4 tbsp. beeswax (either grated or pastilles - little buttons of beeswax that melt easily)
  • 8 drops therapeutic or food grade essential oil - optional (Use a variety you enjoy. Popular options include lavender, rose, vanilla and lemon.)

  1. Combine oil and calendula in the top half of a double boiler or in a small crockpot. You can also use a large, clean aluminum can placed in a saucepan filled with water to below the level of the ingredients in inside (which helps discourage tipping). The combo will act as a makeshift double boiler, and you can discard the can later.
  2. Bring the water to a gentle simmer.
  3. Continue simmering for three hours, replacing the pan water (carefully) as needed.
  4. Cool slightly and strain the oil through a triple layer of cheesecloth, or a coffee filter, placed inside a large strainer or colander.
  5. Return the oil to the double boiler or other container, and add the beeswax.
  6. Heat until the beeswax melts. Stir to incorporate, and pour the salve slowly into a small tub or heat proof jar (like a canning jar).
  7. Allow to cool and harden.
  8. Store in a dark, cool location for up to six months.
  9. The recipe can be doubled or tripled.
The Difference Between French Marigold and Pot Marigold

White Willow (Salix alba)

White willow isn't a small plant or shrub. It's a tree, and one with pretty impressive bark. The salicin in white willow bark has been used for centuries as a pain medication. Salicin is very similar to the active ingredient in aspirin, and although the chemistry between modern aspirin and white willow bark is somewhat different, willow bark is considered an effective alternative to conventional aspirin for the treatment of common conditions like headaches, muscle aches and osteoarthritis arthritis. Some users can tell them apart by function, suggesting one or the other as being a better fit for a specific type of pain. This anecdotal information can be contradictory, so the best option is to try white willow bark yourself and see how it fits into your pain management goals.

To harvest white willow, strip the bark from young branches in spring by peeling it off gently. Dry bark thoroughly in a dark, well-ventilated location. You can also use your oven, a dehydrator or even the back seat of your vehicle on a hot summer day. Break or tear strips into small pieces, and store them in an air tight bag or other container.

You may not want to grow a 40 foot willow tree in your backyard to extract some bark for tea every now and then, but you might be inclined to maintain a small specimen in a largish pot, keeping it trimmed back. To see if this is something you might like to try, white willow bark is also sold as an herbal supplement in capsule form. Give it a go, and if you find it effective, grow your own.  Special note: Although they are somewhat different, willow bark can cause the same stomach upsets and interactions as regular aspirin, so use caution. It is also contraindicated in most of the same instances as aspirin, including use by children. Do not take aspirin and willow bark at the same time, and avoid willow bark if you are currently taking: choline magnesium trisalicylate or asprin-like salate (Disalcid).

Willow Bark Tea

  • 6 tsp. willow bark
  • 24 oz. water
  • 1 small cinnamon stick

  1. Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive pan and bring to simmer.
  2. Simmer for 15 minutes
  3. Strain through a coffee filter or triple folded cheesecloth.
  4. This recipe (24 ounces) is enough for three 8-oz. cups of tea evenly spaced throughout the day. Allow at least four hours between cups.
The tea can be consumed hot or cold, and may be sweetened as needed.

White willow (also known as European willow) isn't the only option. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, both crack willow (Salix fragilis) and purple willow (Salix purpurea) are often included in commercial herbal willow preparations.

I've chosen herbs for this post that are relatively mild but effective, easy to find, grow and use. We'll move on to some of the more complex medicinal herbs in other posts.  If you give these common herbs a chance, you'll discover they really can be beneficial and convenient medicinal aids. A little hands-on use will likely inspire a greater regard for and interest in the medicinal side of herb gardening. I hope so.

Although the herbs referenced above are considered safe when taken in small amounts and in accordance with accepted practices, discuss any new herbal or other treatment regimen with your physician. This is particularly important if you're pregnant (or nursing), are currently taking prescription medications or are treating a young child or the elderly.

Before you embark on any herbal regimen, it's a good idea to get the most current information, too. There are a number of trusted sites online that discuss the latest research and current best practices for herbal treatments and dietary supplements. Blogs like this one show a brief snapshot, but are not meant to take the place of thorough research or the recommendations made by medical professionals. This probably sounds a bit alarmist since many herbs are common plants used in food preparation. When used medicinally, herbs are often concentrated, as in essential oils, or taken in bulk as supplements. This takes them out of the realm of minor ingredients and into territory that demands respect and caution.

The trusted websites below will help you get information about specific herbs used for their medicinal properties: 

National Institutes of Health - Office of Dietary Supplement
Medline Plus - A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine
WebMd -  Although not considered a definitive resource, this is a good place to start. Just perform a search for a specific herb.
Mayo Clinic - Accesses the section on supplements
Medicine Net - Herb toxicities and drug interactions
University of Maryland Medical Center - Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide

You can also perform a general web search using the term "latest research" and the name of the herb in question. I like to use a special section of Google called "Google Scholar" because it’s drills down on academic, scientific and other reliable content. You can find it here: Google Scholar  

Lemon Balm Photo:  Forest & Kim Starr [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Small Space Gardening and Other Edible Growing Strategies

Growing beans vertically
Vegetable and herb gardening is on the rise in the U.S., and it doesn't take a horticulturalist to see the benefits of turning a corner of your yard, deck or patio into a fresh salad station. One of the biggest trends in backyard gardening nowadays involves harvesting large yields from small spaces.

Greening your outdoor spaces with more edible plants makes sense. A cost-analysis conducted by the Burpee Garden Seed Company (W. Atlee Burpee & Co.) back in 2008 showed that gardeners can net an up to 1 to 25 cost savings by producing their own home grown produce, even after buying extras like soil amendments. That makes fresh summer salads, autumn soups and impromptu stir fries a bargain. If you've paid a prohibitive sum for a couple of pale organic tomatoes, you probably already know backyard produce production is the way to go.

More than that, homegrown produce can be cultivated using fewer (if any) pesticides and other additives, and there are lots of vegetable and fruit varieties to choose from, including newer cultivars that are hardier, more pest resistant and produce bigger yields with less work. On the other end of the scale, you also have more control if you want to steer clear of GMOs and provide your family with heirloom seed stock not available in your average supermarket. You can harvest the crops you grow when they're ripe, too, and not on a large grower's schedule when they're transport ready but still green and rock hard. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even recommends growing your own produce as a healthy and inexpensive way to supplement your diet.

Let's take a look at a few smart, space saving planting strategies you can use this year:

Square Foot Gardening
- Square foot gardening is the current darling approach to high-yield vegetable gardening for the casual grower. It relies on a nutrient rich growing medium to produce more vegetables and herbs in a smaller footprint. Less space can mean less work, too. If your soil is hard, rocky or nutrient poor, don't worry. Square foot gardens are installed in raised beds above the existing topsoil. That compacted clay won't be much of a problem, and after a few seasons of enhanced worm labor, may even show signs of improvement.

Gardening in Containers - Garden pots are getting a modern treatment with the addition of built-in water reservoirs. Extra water in reserve makes it easier to keep deck and patio plants hydrated during hot summer afternoons. If you've experienced wilted basil or brown cilantro in past seasons, this may be your year to plant a prolific patio garden without worrying about the H2O portion of the equation.

Going Up - The concept is easy: grow vertically not horizontally. This could be as simple as training squash or cucumber plants along a fence or pole, or involve a complex vertical mesh support system mounted to the side of a wall or fence. Vertical gardens can often support vegetable varieties you wouldn't expect to see picture frame style, like lettuce, basil and spinach.

More sophisticated vertical gardens can use any of a number of different growing media and support structures, but they typically require less spacing between plants than in traditional row or flowerbed gardens because water and nutrients are more readily available to to thirsty, hungry plant roots.
Watermelon grown on a straw bale.

Straw Bale Gardening - You have to admit, gardening in a bale instead of a pot is a pretty ingenious idea. Straw is a perfect soilless growing medium -- so much so that some experts call it a method of outdoor hydroponics. You supply the water and fertilizer, and nature supplies everything else. You can easily install two tomato plants or three cucumber or pepper plants (or a combination) per bale, and even include small herbs like creeping thyme along the sides as a quasi-border. The bales are elevated, so they're super convenient if you have back or other mobility problems. For information about how I got started with straw bale gardening, visit my blog post: Straw Bale Gardening 

Inverted Gardening - You've seen those plastic baskets designed to secure plants upside down. This potting method distributes water directly to -- rather than away from -- the plant roots, and keeps tender seedlings somewhat protected from pest infestations. Inverted gardening systems have a couple of drawbacks: If you're growing tomatoes, small determinate varieties do best, and you'll need to water a couple of times a day during high summer as moisture evaporates more quickly from the suspended soil ball. If you like the idea of maintaining a relatively effortless herb garden, this can be a fun way to start. Kids enjoy these inverted setups and can learn a lot about plant keeping pretty effortlessly.

Indoor Hydroponics - Growing herbs and vegetables indoors summer and winter can be easier and less expensive than you think. It's a whole new way to garden. Before another season passes you by, consider learning how to make your house your best garden microclimate. The free hydroponic magazine, "Maximum Yield" has great articles about how to start and maintain successful indoor gardens. You can visit their site, Maximum Yield, or pick up a copy at your local hydroponics outlet.