Sunday, March 09, 2008

Herbs In & Out Of The Garden: Tips For Growing & Using Rosemary

Rosemary thriving in the homemade greenhouse despite single digit temps.

This was supposed to be a quick post about one little plant in the greenhouse and a new lamb recipe on my food and farm blog, Farmgirl Fare, but somehow it turned into a rambling rosemary learning experience. Now if only I could get my rosemary to ramble this much.

It took me a long time to get up the guts to put a rosemary plant in the ground. I used to keep it in a pot - setting it out in the garden when it was warm, and then moving it into the greenhouse in fall.

When it started getting really chilly, I would bring the pot indoors and set it a few feet from the woodstove in the living room, next to the only available window that receives any measurable sunlight. Within days it would start happily putting on cheerful new growth, and then several weeks later it would die.

Each spring I would buy a new little rosemary plant and the cycle would begin again. This went on for years.

Finally two autumns ago I decided that I should take my chances and transplant my rosemary into one of the raised beds in my homemade, not airtight, and almost always unheated greenhouse instead of bringing it into The Shack. I was nervous, but I figured I had nothing to lose except my beloved little plant that I was planning to murder in a month or two anyway. So I did it. And boy am I glad that I did.

Fresh vs. dried rosemary - there's simply no comparison.

The little plant took off, and now I'm now able enjoy freshly picked rosemary all year long, even when there's snow on the ground. On winter nights I drape it with floating row cover, and when the temperatures really plummet I add an old bedsheet or lightweight blanket, held up off the plant with short sections of bamboo stakes. During the day I uncover it.

It's been as cold as 7 degrees F in there, and yet my rugged rosemary didn't even flinch.

I'm still not sure why I kept killing my rosemary plants in the living room; the gardening books and websites I looked at while working on the post make it sound like everyone except me is able to easily grow rosemary in pots both indoors and out. I know it's warm near the woodstove, but rosemary is a Mediterranean plant that loves heat.

This expert rosemary grower, however, says that when kept indoors rosemary prefers temperatures around 60 degrees. It's possible it was too close to the sometimes icy-cold window, or it might not have been getting enough sun. Or I may have watered it too much. Who knows.

I did relearn an important thing to keep in mind when growing anything in containers, and that is that even if you move them to a warm and sheltered spot, the roots are still much more susceptible to cold that they would be if they were buried in the ground.

A friend pointed this out when I called him last month for 9-1-1 herbal advice regarding the beautiful but now rather dead looking rosemary topiary I'd bought for myself last December after surviving an all day bakery building supply mission to Lowe's.

I assured him the plant hadn't frozen because it had been in the greenhouse and covered. But it was in a flimsy plastic pot that offered no protection from what I'd thought were tolerable temperatures. We learn by mistakes, and this year one of my goals is to stop killing rosemary.

Growing up I never cared for rosemary, despite the fact that we had an enormous rosemary bush in our Northern California backyard. But when I moved to the country and planted a large kitchen garden I was determined to grow it, along with several other herbs I never used, like sage.

There's just something so alluring about growing herbs, even if half of them are simply for show. After all, most gardens and landscaping are only for show.

I am trying to be a better herb eater, though, as evidenced my past pleas for help regarding
what to do with lemon thyme and purple basil. Anyway, somewhere along the line I fortunately developed a taste for rosemary, and now I love the stuff.

Fresh rosemary shines in these Herb Crusted Lamb Spareribs

I suppose this was inevitable since I raise sheep, and lamb and rosemary are a match made in culinary heaven. Unless we're quickly tossing some plain chops or leg steaks on the grill (it's so nice when your meat has enough flavor to stand on its own!), pretty much all the lamb we eat is has been seasoned with rosemary.

You'll find one of my favorite ways to combine rosemary and lamb (pictured above) in my recent post on Farmgirl Fare,
How To Cook Lamb: Onion & Herb Crusted Lamb Spareribs & Grilled Lamb Leg Steaks.

According to Gardening, the three fundamentals for successfully growing rosemary are: full sun (6 to 8 hours a day), good drainage, and good air circulation.

Rosemary doesn't require much attention, but to keep your plants from becoming scraggly you should prune them back hard after they flower in summer - just don't cut them all the way back to the old wood.

You can buy rosemary seeds, but germination of the best seed available is only around 20%. Instead, look for healthy, preferably organically grown plants at nurseries or natural foods stores. Or better yet, see if you can swipe some cuttings from a friend, then follow these easy instructions from Fine Gardening to root them.

My herb growing and bread baking pal Beth (aka kitchenMage), who lives in the Pacific Northwest where rosemary thrives, says she starts 50 to 100 rosemary cuttings each year and doesn't even bother using rooting hormone. If you're feeling particularly lazy, try plunking the cuttings in a glass of water and setting them on a sunny windowsill; there's a chance they'll develop roots.

Despite the fact that I grow several different types of basil, thyme, and mint, for some reason I've always thought of rosemary as just being rosemary. But of course it isn't.

From Creeping Rosemary, a tall ground cover that can cover eight to ten feet in diameter or trail down eight to ten feet from a second story balcony, to Blue Boy, that grows out only about 12 inches wide and rarely gets over six inches tall, to Shimmering Stars, a trailing rosemary with pink flower buds that open medium-blue to lavender and is great for making topiaries, there's sure to be a variety of rosemary out there to fit your every taste and space. You can read about several other types of rosemary
here and here (scroll down).

Easy Rosemary Focaccia 2
Lamb burgers with rosemary, shallots, and feta on focaccia 'buns' (lamb burger recipe here and focaccia recipe here)

At least I was aware that rosemary has a life beyond lamb. This versatile, aromatic herb can be used in everything from salad dressings to sorbets. I made some scrumptious and easy rosemary focaccia recently (my first foray into focaccia!), and I created a separate category on just for rosemary recipes I hope to try someday.

This Pane di Ramerino (Italian Rosemary Raisin Bread) is another favorite way to enjoy rosemary.

Rosemary's usefulness extends far beyond the tastebuds, too. According to Rosemary Gladstar in her wonderful book, Rosemary Gladstar's Family Herbal: A Guide To Living Life With Energy, Health, And Vitality, "We've only begun to uncover the many uses of rosemary."

She goes on to say that this evergreen member of the mint family has long been renowned as a memory aid, produces a tonic effect on the nervous system, and is good for circulation. It also strengthens the heart and reduces high blood pressure.

According to Kitchen And Herb Gardener, an enormous beauty of a book by Richard Bird and Jessica Houdret, rosemary can be taken internaly as an infusion for colds, influenza, fatigue, and headaches, and can be applied externally in massage oil for rheumatic and muscular pain.

In addition, rosemary has been used for hundreds of years as a cosmetic herb for its benefical effects on the hair and skin. Infusions are used as rinses for dry hair and dandruff and added to bath lotions and beauty preparations.

You can include rosemary as part of an invigorating bath blend to help aching joints and tiredness, or when preparing a warm herbal footbath, which can help with headaches and mental stress. Its fragrance and texture also makes it excellent for use in potpourris and insect-repellent sachets.

Hmmm. It sounds like I need to add at least a few more rosemary plants to the garden. Don't worry - I'll be sure to let them know that murder isn't on the agenda.

So do you grow rosemary? How do you like to use it? If you've written about rosemary or shared a favorite rosemary recipe on your own blog, feel free to leave a link to your post in the comments section.

©, the greenthumb foodie farm blog where we figure that if you're gonna go to the trouble grow it, you might as well be able to eat it.


  1. I too bring my potted rosemary plant in ever winter. This year I also brought in a lavender plant. Both have died and been added to the composter. I think this spring I will plant directly in the ground on the south face of my house. Mulch heavy in the fall and maybe put a clear plastic bin over the top to keep the snow off. (I live in western pa - thaws Jan & Feb but then snow until april)

  2. Add me to the list of people who kill rosemary plants. I do have one in a terra cotta pot in my kitchen right now, but the poor thing has been struggling all winter. It seems to dry out really fast. I'm hoping to limp it along until the weather gets nice enough to put it outside again. Unfortunately, I don't have a greenhouse and the NY winters are not good for plants like rosemary, so I'm still using trial and error because I'm determined to figure out how to keep one alive!

  3. I haven't had any luck growing rosemary indoors either. Here in Utah my plants usually survive the winter under the snow, but not always. I envy you having fresh rosemary all winter! I have had good luck freezing rosemary as well as other herbs, which I like a lot better than dried rosemary.

  4. We grow rosemary outdoors here in Central Texas with no problems - normally. But with last summer's unending, uncharacteristic and torrential rains, we lost quite a few to rot because there wasn't enough drainage for them. Such an odd sight for us, because our climate is quite Mediterranean-like. But I'm afraid the forecasts have us back to a bad drought this year, so many others will suffer, but the rosemary should thrive.

  5. Which reminds me, I have a couple rosemary plants languishing with their roots all squished up in their noses out back in some old pots.

    I keep meaning to plant them in with the lavender and then I diss them to go play in the veg beds.

    Bad girl!

    You've inspired me, this weekend, the rosemary goes in the garden.

    Then we'll tackle that whole lamb issue.

  6. Being from England we LOVE lamb.
    Sadly, living in NE Oklahoma means we rarely see it unless we're willing to fork out a fortune for a hunk of frozen. I almost wept when I saw your pictures.

    Should you have any spare why not try my wife's recipe on her blog at


  7. What a fabulous post! I'm looking forward to going back and checking out all the links, too.

    I never have much luck when I try to help my herbs by bringing them in overwinter.. our house is very cold and draughty, apart from when a room is heated when its suddenly VERY toasty (!) .. have always assumed its the sudden changes in temperature or draughts that they can't cope with?

    Rosemary really is a fantastic herb to use medicinally .. I made a tincture last year, and it was very successful in improving my circulation.

    Its quite a powerful stimulant, I know I can't use the essential oil in the bath as it makes my skin tingle. Also, if you bathe with rosemary last thing at night, it can keep you awake!

    Am encouraged by your post to try and propagate some new plants this year.. thank you!

    Also thanks kalyn for the tip about freezing rosemary.. I agree the fresh is much nice than dried and I'm going to try this :-)

  8. Dear Farmgirl: I planted Swiss Chard on your recommendation -- I started them indoors, under an adjustable fluorescent light. Now the taller seedlings have all flopped over! They're still green and growing, just not, um, vertical. Help?

  9. I'm horrible at growing rosemary indoors or outdoors. Tried both so many times,k even bought an indoor rosemary and tried to coddle it. What the cats didn't eat died on its own weeks later.

    I love your little greenhouse!

  10. Great post for WHB! My attempts at growing rosemary have been fraught with failure. I've been fighting off an infestation of whiteflies in my kitchen garden this winter, and unfortunately the rosemary was one of the early casualties. I've got a good family run nursery nearby, so I'm going to pick up some more when they open in a few weeks and plant it outside in my herb garden. We're already getting the beds prepped!

  11. Hi Farmgirl Susan,

    My name is Shannon and I'm the editorial assistant at Following up on a recent email invitation to be a part of our newly launched Foodbuzz Featured Publisher program, I just want to reiterate that I am very impressed with the quality of your posts. I would love to send you more details about the program, so if you are interested, please email me at

    Rosemary is one of my favorite herbs.


    Shannon Eliot
    Editorial Assistant,

  12. Funny you should mention it...I just read a number of articles about the real health benefits of using rosemary:

    I managed to keep a small plant alive indoors over the winter (don't ask me how, I'm usually not so lucky). I kept the soil on the dry side, mostly from the dry heated air inside. I'm going to try planting at least a cutting outside to see if can survive next winter.

    Very informative!

  13. I have been hauling rosemary in every year for the past twenty years. I don't really feel that I HAVE to use it, although it occasionally sprinkles roasts (pork, chicken, fish). Mostly I like to ADMIRE IT. Sometimes I snip it and dip the snippets in water. When I WANT them to sprout roots, they don't and vice versa. When they sprout, I pot them up and give them away. Frankly, it's the only plant I can put in my kitchen window that doesn't attract Buddha, my himalayan cat. He will eat everything I put in the window EXCEPT Rosemary and Cat Grass! Ornery little hairball!

  14. (Greg Draiss/Horticulturist)

    Hardly any herbs do well indoors in the winter even those that are from arrid climates. Warmth from the woodstove combined with poor quality sunlight and its' short duration combine to wreak havoc on sun worshipers (us and the plants).
    Cooler rooms may cause fungal accumulations on the soil if the oils is moist.

    Try planting rosemary in a clay pot in a sandy soil such as a good succulent mix. Never use ordinary garden soil for any herb let alone rosemary and never feed with full strenghth chemical plant foods. A little dressing of compostshould suffice. Also does your water have have salt of chlorine in it. Either of these can harm herbs or any plant.
    Greg Draiss
    epigram media service

  15. Great post! I really enjoy your blog!

    I am a "rooftop container gardener" in New York City and it seems that my rosemary is one of the only plants that just will not die! I leave them outside, fully neglected, even in the cold winters... partially because the huge terra cotta pots are too heavy to move. Now basil, on the other hand, seems to last under a week no matter where I plant it. Go figure!

    But I am still jealous of those people in Arizona that have rosemary hedges. They literally take a lawnmower to it and always bounces right back.

  16. I always killed my rosemary in winter, too. Until... I had a small plant in the garden. I decided to dig it up and pot it and bring it indoors before it got cold (I'm pretty sure I did this in September). Somehow, it didn't succumb to the usual rosemary afflictions - mites, whiteflies. I bring it out every year now early, around April - it's still cold (I'm zone 5).It usually blooms right away, then sheds a ton of needles. The trick is, when I bring it in, it only makes it as far as my garage's sunny front window. This has been going on now for 6 years and that little rosemary plant is a full-fledged bush(about 3 foot x 3 foot) in a huge concrete pot!

  17. I am in Virginia zone 6 -7, there are only two Rosemary's that I know of that can survive the winter.
    The first is Rosemary "Arp" there is a variety developed in Texas. possibly Hardy Hill. The Arp is true performer. I have forgotten to even mulch it for years. It is planted in the ground and does fine I think all the way to zone 5. It is available at most better nurseries. I would ask them to special order it for you.


  18. I have had a rosemary plant outside for nearly 12 years now. I am in North Georgia. It has grown into a 4' x 8' bush & we had to prune it this spring because it was taking over the herb garden. It also gave off two 'baby' plants and they have to be moved this weekend. It has survived many extended, deep freezes with no problem. It was down to 18 degrees for 4 nights in a row last winter. Not only did it live but it started blooming at the end of January. I think I have a monster on my hands!


  19. My upright variety of Rosemary never survived the winter (zone 7a). I now have a trailing type which has survived several winters.

  20. Rosemary will grow really really well indoors, just make sure you give it alot of sun, allow soil to dry out a little , cutting back on water in colder months, and provide clay pot with good drainage and a good draining potting mix. Rosemary doesn't like moist soil! It doesn't have to be kept really warm, by a stove would be a bit to dry and hot, indoor temps are fine even on the cooler side. I have three I have had indoors for years, I have them in a large clay pot in front of a south east facing glass door in va. They are huge and healthy and I do nothing special, other than avoiding over watering and cutting back more on water in winter. Even sitting by this door in winter they are quite warm enough! I hope that helps, and good luck fellow rosemary lovers!!


March 2013 update: My apologies for the inconvenience - I know word verification is a pain - but I've had to turn it on to help stop the ridiculous number of anonymous spam comments I've been getting every day. Thanks for your understanding.

Welcome to! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. While I'm not always able to reply to every comment, I receive and enjoy reading them all.

Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and I especially love to hear about what's going on in your own garden. I know, too, that other readers also delight in reading about your garden successes, failures, helpful tips, and lessons learned. Feel free to leave comments on older posts!

I try my best to answer all questions, but sometimes it takes me a few days to get to them. And sometimes, I'm sorry to say, they fall through the cracks, and for that I sincerely apologize.

I look forward to hearing from you and hope you enjoy your visits to my kitchen garden!