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Winter windowsill herbs 

click to enlarge Potted herbs provide flavor and fresh scents throughout the long Colorado winter.
  • Potted herbs provide flavor and fresh scents throughout the long Colorado winter.

If you feel winters are too long here in Colorado, try growing a few herbs indoors to get you through the long months of garden down time.

What you plant depends on what you like to eat, what you like to smell, and those you may be trying to please. The primary requirement is adequate sunlight since most herbs languish without at least four or more hours a day in a sunny window. East, south or west exposure will work fine, just remember the southern sky predominates in winter, so extra water will be needed for plants placed in a southerly window.

Many herbs that hold their fragrance well when dried such as rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme, all woody perennial herbs, can be harvested at season's end. Dry them in a paper bag in a dark closet for a month, then store them in a jar or plastic bag for use in soups and stews through the winter. They can also be grown as indoor pot plants; just be sure to grow them in clay pots, use a potting soil that drains well, let the pots dry out before watering, and grow them in a cool, sunny room.

Rosemary is only hardy to 15 degrees, so I always bring the plant in for the winter. Potted into a nicely shaped clay pot, its twiggy bark and needle-like green leaves make a handsome sight all winter. It may even surprise you with beautiful sky blue flowers in February or March. The leaves have a woodsy fragrance and a piney, resinous taste that complements a pan of oven roasted vegetables.

Herbs that lose their tender leafy tops in winter, like parsley and chives, are good candidates for growing indoors in winter. With a flavor similar to but milder than scallions or onions, freshly snipped chives enliven almost any dish, and it's the herb I use most in my winter kitchen. They should be added at the very last minute to any hot foods as their flavor diminishes with prolonged cooking. Creamy, mild dishes such as dips, cheese spreads, steamed vegetables, grains, noodles or dressings can all be enhanced with a few tablespoons of finely chopped chives.

To create winter windowsill pots of chives, dig up a clump now from your garden (really, November is not too late), place it in a pot, shear the top back to about 2 inches, and place the pot back in the ground for about a month of freezing weather. The plants will then have experienced the brief dormancy they need in order to send up new growth once inside. When you harvest, snip a few leaves from the outside of the plant leaving 2 inches at the base. Rotate the plant occasionally in the sun and water with diluted fertilizer to keep the green leaves prolific all winter.

Leaf-scented geraniums are plants that offer a wide range of fragrant foliage aromas, textures, colors and leaf shapes. There are more than 50 different leaf-scented geraniums with fragrances including coconut, apple, lemon and nutmeg. Prince Rupert's has a lemony fragrance and a lovely variegated curly leaf that does beautifully in part shade outside for the summer and will also thrive indoors in a clay pot. Frensham Lemon is the most intense lemon fragrance you will find in this family of plants; sniff a sprig and your head will clear instantly. They are hardy only in frost-free areas, and are best enjoyed as potted plants and moved indoors in cold weather. They over winter easily, and get bigger each year. You can purchase named varieties from specialty herb growers or obtain root cuttings from other gardeners.

My favorite geranium is a rose-scented variety, Pelargonium graveolens. I use the leaves to flavor a favorite butter cake.

The cake's texture is firm and dense, like a pound cake, and the fragrant mix of almonds, lemon, vanilla and rose is a floral and fruity sensual delight.

Rose Geranium Cake

2 sticks softened butter

2 cups sugar

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon each: lemon, vanilla and almond extracts

5 large eggs

Rose geranium leaves (8-10)

Blend all the ingredients (except the geranium leaves) for 10 minutes on medium speed. Grease and flour a tube pan (a 9-by-13-inch pan is fine too) and pat the geranium leaves around the bottom of the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes to one hour. Let the cake set in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert on a rack to finish cooling.

I've discovered other ways to use my favorite rose-scented geranium plant. Snap off a leaf and rub it over your neck, your face and your hair for the most natural body perfume imaginable. In fact, snip off a whole branch and you'll have plenty to share. It's also wonderful as a spicy floral enclosure in a letter to a friend. Fold the letter, place the leaf inside, and your message will arrive exotically perfumed.

Yes, the winters are long here in Colorado. On the bright side, this gives us lots of time to dream up imaginative uses for our winter windowsill herbs.

Resources:

For scented geraniums and other specialty herbs, call for a catalog from this Loveland nursery: Rabbit Shadow Farm: 800/850-5531.

A local greenhouse that carries the herbs through the winter is Phelan Gardens: 574-8058.

My favorite book on growing herbs at home and their creative culinary uses is The Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden by David Hirsch, Fireside, 1992.

With questions about this article, or for more information on this topic, or to get on my e-mail list, you may e-mail me at lspear@erashields.com.

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