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Plant Palette: Keep your rosemary growing strong

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I love rosemary, but I can’t for the life of me keep it alive reliably over the winter months. I've lost track of how many poor unfortunate rosemary plants have died in my care over the winter.

They grow gloriously large and fragrant over the summer, only to die an untimely death when winter comes.

Although what we buy this time of year tends to be a very soft green succulent new rosemary plant, you will on occasion find plants for sale that are a bit older which reveal that rosemary is, in fact, an evergreen woody shrub.

Rosemary is known to be a great flavor for roasted meats, but my other favorite way to use it is with roasted winter squash. Paired with a bit of butter and a dash of salt, it's pure heaven. The leaves are the part of the plant crushed and used in cooking.

For me, once I smelled fresh rosemary, I knew I had to grow the plant for myself. I just love the scent. I grew it for years before I actually cooked with it!

In its native Mediterranean region, rosemary grows up to 4 or even 6 feet tall. Like a lot of herbs, the key to success with rosemary is reproducing its native environment. Rosemary is adapted to cool, moist winters and hot, dry summers.

I have never managed to kill a rosemary plant in my garden or growing in a pot on the patio. But I'll admit, I have killed my fair share of innocent rosemary plants by bringing them indoors for the winter. There is a fine line between the cool, moist conditions that encourage plant health and the cool moist conditions that encourage root rot and plant death.

But keeping plants excessively dry causes its own set of problems. Outdoors, rosemary prefers hot, dry summers, but that does assume you are watering the plant when it gets dry. Allowing the soil to dry between waterings is a good idea, but allowing the soil to become dry as a bone is not. Indoors, letting the plant get overly dry, coupled with low humidity allows pests like spider mites that prefer dry conditions to thrive.

With some planning and attention, rosemary can survive winter indoors:

  • Use well-drained potting mix
  • Keep the soil moist, but not soggy and
  • Position your rosemary where it receives as much light as possible.

As a reward for your overwintering efforts, your plants may show off blue, pink or white flowers in late winter/early spring for most cultivars, although there are a few that flower into the summer.

I've never successfully overwintered a rosemary plant indoors for more than one winter. At least at my house, they are a very finicky plant to grow indoors. I have had great success growing rosemary outdoors in the garden, but it has limited hardiness in our area.

Rosemary is considered reliably hardy only in Zones 8 to 10. A few cultivars, such as ‘Arp’ and ‘Hill Hardy’ claim they are hardy down to Zone 6 with added protection of an extra layer of mulch.

I have planted these more "hardy" rosemary cultivars in a protected little niche right up next to my house. Planting close to the house keeps my mums safe over the winter — I thought surely it should work for rosemary. No such luck. The rosemary died every time.

For the last few years, I've planted my rosemary in a relatively large (16-inch) pot. I've tried bringing it into our unheated garage for the winter, but it died every time there too. My neighbor has an enormous rosemary plant in a pot that she overwinters in her kitchen each winter. We've talked about how she cares for her plant indoors and it’s no different than what I do. I guess some people just have a "the touch" with certain plants. And the absolute perfect spot in their kitchen to boot.

Historically rosemary has a lot of medicinal uses, curing a wide range of afflictions, from depression, to infections and wounds. According to legend, rosemary improves memory, and so is often named the herb of "remembrance" used symbolically in weddings and funerals.

One of my favorite rosemary legends I read about says that when a rosemary plant flourishes in the garden, it means that the woman wears the pants in that family. One centuries-old writer described this legend and wondered how many rosemary plants men have secretly injured in order to destroy evidence of their lack of authority in their household. I don’t know if this legend is true, but to be on the safe side, ladies, keep your rosemary growing strong!

Jennifer Schultz Nelson shares practical ideas and information to bring out the gardener in everyone in her blog at www.groundedandgrowing.co.

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