Cold Hardy Annual Herbs for Southern California
It’s January, and the “cool season” isn’t over yet here in Southern California. There are many herbs that prefer to be grown October-March in climates that stay mild through the Winter, so I thought I’d share some of the herbs are growing in my Winter garden right now and can still be planted out in the garden for Spring. These are called “cold hardy herbs” and there are many that are delicious!
Related article: Fall & Winter Gardening Guide for Southern California
Are some herbs frost-tolerant?
The herbs I’m sharing here are all mostly frost-tolerant (cold hardy) herbs that actually taste better when the nights are cold and the days are mild. For each herb listed below, I will discuss their frost-tolerance. Also, these herbs are commonly referred to as “hardy annuals” because they don’t grow back year after year—they need to be planted each year (annually). Hardy annuals are perfect for our mild Southern California winters because they can handle our occasional frosts unlike other herbs that will perish if the temps drop too low. The ideal time to transplant out hardy annual herbs is in late Fall, but planting out in early Spring can also afford you a pretty decent harvest if the weather cooperates. I prefer to start the majority of my plants from seed, so please check out my Seed Starting section or feel free to leave a comment and I’d love to help with any questions.
Annual Versus Perennial Herbs
I discuss the basics of these two categories in my Basic Herb Growing Guide (available to all subscribers) but annual herbs are herbs that we plant each season and typically die at the end of the season. Perennial herbs can live for years in the garden, although they typically have a “dormant” season. While I won’t be discussing perennials in this article, I think perennial herbs should be a part of every garden, and you can even see a list of some perennial herbs that I recommend you buy from a nursery instead of starting from seed in 5 Herbs NOT to Start From Seed.
Hardy annuals can help you get a head start for Spring:
After my first year gardening, I learned about a category of plants called “hardy annuals.” These are technically annual plants, but they have the unique ability to survive cold, chilly, frosty nights. The benefit of planting cold hardy annual herbs in Fall in mild gardening zones is that you get a “head start” on these plants for an earlier and more bountiful harvest in Spring. The increased time in the ground allow their roots to develop and create stronger plants.
This vibrant herb (pictured above) is so much more than a dinner plate garnish! Parsley is easy to grow from seed and it’s an absolute MUST in the Winter garden. Various online resources state that Parsley can withstand light frosts and occasional temperatures as low as 10-20 degrees! If your parsley dies back due to cold, keep the plants in the ground and mulch them as the plants can possibly re-sprout in Spring.
Parsley is commonly used in soups and chimichurri, but my favorite way to use it is in my Parsley and Walnut Pesto. The pesto makes a surreal condiment to serve with roasted vegetables, steak, or potatoes!
While you might find different varieties of parsley, such as curly and flat-leaf, my recommended parsley for any herb garden is Italian Flat-Leaf. Harvest only what you need, and always pick the outer leaves/branches first to allow the plant to start pushing more growth. In general, try not to harvest more than 1/3 of the plant at any given time.
Parlsey does well in full sun during the cooler months (it’s said to be a cold hardy herb down to 10 or 20 degrees) , but in warmer regions it can also benefit from some partial shade, specially if you are pushing the planting window a little more. I also keep the soil consistently moist, as this is not a drought-tolerant mediterranean herb.
Related Article: 5 Herbs to NOT Start From Seed
Oh my! We use so much cilantro! I know it’s been said that cilantro is highly divisive—some people loathe it—but I pile cilantro on everything and consider it one of my favorite herbs to grow. Of course, it’s also one of the most finicky herbs to grow in our warm climate. Update: I’ve since learned quite a few lessons growing this cold hardy herb. Get my tips for growing better cilantro HERE.
While cilantro only has frost tolerance down to about 25 degrees F, cilantro doesn’t like hot temperatures. It’s one of the herbs that bolts and becomes bitter most easily when the temperatures start to warm up in Spring. Plant it in shade if you are starting to get warm, or plant in partial sun in the cooler season. I personally grow the ‘calypso‘ variety of cilantro because it is said to be slower to bolt than other varieties.
Keep it moist. Cilantro doesn’t like the soil to be dried out. Honestly, I treat it like most of my other herbs and vegetables.
Sow heavily. By this I mean be generous with your seed sowing because cilantro grows slowly from seed. I grow cilantro as more of a cilantro “carpet” rather than largely spaced out. As the plants grow, I do thin mine out to be spaced approximately 6 inches apart as they grow bigger. The cilantro that you thin can still be eaten, so none of it goes to waste!
Is celery an herb? Honestly, we treat it more like an herb for flavoring stocks, broth, or making celery salt, so I thought I’d give it an honorable mention here although I have a complete celery growing guide: The Easiest Way to Grow Celery!
Mature celery plants (not little seedlings) can tolerate light frosts from 28-30 degreesF, which makes it a great candidate for Fall and Winter gardens in more mild climates.
It always bothered me that dill and cucumbers aren’t really in season at the same time here in Southern California. Personally, dill is the most verdant and flavorful during the colder months here in SoCal. By the time the cucumbers are ready in the warmer months, the dill is mostly just flowers and seeds. I do try and push my dill into the Summer for as long as possible, and start my cucumbers as early as possible, but inevitably it’s never quite i-dill (get it?). Dill grows amazingly well all through Winter and Spring for me (being cold hardy at least down to 25-30 degrees), and has become my go-to herb for mixing with yogurt and for drying to toss with homemade popcorn. Yes, you can dehydrate dill using the same process I share for dehydrating basil, and it turns out to be a great addition to the kitchen pantry!
I’ve heard some gardeners struggle with dill, and maybe that has to do with variety? I discovered ‘dukat’ leafy a few years ago and now I only grow that variety because it’s so successful in my climate. As with most things gardening, your climate really matters, as does finding varieties that perform well in your climate. Try a few varieties and see what works for you!
In my garden, the self-seeded chamomile from last season starts to pop up around Fall. It continues to grow through our Winter and then bursts to life in early Spring and Summer. I specifically grow German chamomile (matricaria recutita), which is a self-seeding annual as opposed to Roman chamomile. German chamomile is said to tolerate temperatures down to 20 degrees and some gardeners in zone 6 have reported that they don’t have to cover their chamomile to keep it alive in Winter!
Chamomile grows best for me during our cool season, as it tends to dry out and gradually die back once our hottest months begin. It makes a delicious, soothing tea—which is my main reason for growing chamomile. To preserve chamomile for use throughout the year, I pick the blossoms and dry them for pantry storage. You can watch my full How to Harvest & Grow chamomile tutorial for more details.
Get my recipe for Chamomile Ice cream! It is a divine Summer treat made from the dried and saved blossoms.
Can herbs be protected from cold and frosts?
The cold hardy herbs we have discussed here today can be slightly protected to extend the growing season in colder climates. For example, row covers are frequently used on farms to provide some cold protection. My article on DIY row covers shares the different temperature ratings for various fabric row covers. In some instances you can cover your herbs to provide a little more frost tolerance and extend their growing season.
Other cold hardy, frost-tolerant herbs
For the purposes of this article, I focused on herbs I grow as annuals here, but there are other cold hardy herbs that are perennial that can do well in our cooler season when planted out in the garden in Fall or Spring. Some examples would be: sage, chives, and thyme. Many gardeners in colder climates have success with these perennials year after year. It’s worth trying to see if they might work for you!
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