With proper care, a rosemary plant will last all winter long. (iStockphoto)
Contributor

A gardener’s resolutions, as the new year begins, are modest ones. The world won’t end if a lawn isn’t mowed on schedule, though it will grow better if it is. There is no crime in growing too many tomato seedlings, even if the time could be spent more wisely. Nevertheless, a promise to do better by a plant is an act of optimism, focus and clarity. If, for you, 2016 was a year of loss, this is one loss that you can do something about.

In 2017, I pledge that I will do everything necessary to grow a healthy, productive rosemary plant. The one that went to herb heaven at the end of 2016 will be avenged.

If you are a gardener-cook, fresh herbs are among life’s essentials, from the earliest spring chives onward. Outdoor herbs turn abundant as summer arrives. Come fall, the mint can be dried for tea, the basil crushed into pesto and frozen in little jars. Come winter, when even the sage and thyme go dormant, rosemary is treasured. Sometimes it’s the only fresh herb I have at hand, and it’s versatile, too. I tuck sprigs of it under the skin of a chicken before roasting, sprinkle it over baking winter squash, pair it with nutmeg in creamy soups and purees, poke it — along with garlic — into crevices pierced into a leg of lamb, and add it to sizzling brown butter to pour over pasta.

Rosemary is not only perennial but also evergreen. Where temperatures don’t drop below 20 degrees, it can stay outdoors, in the ground or in a pot. Otherwise, it must come inside for the months of serious cold. Many gardeners, myself included, have kept a single pot of rosemary alive for many years this way, but I am also not alone in having such a stalwart specimen suddenly die a brown and shriveled death. This may just be a sign that it has grown too large and woody to be a good potted plant, but if it happens to a younger one, it’s good to figure out why.

Rosemary is fussy and will continually remind you of how much the ideal winter conditions of the Mediterranean region differ from those of your apartment or house. We may think of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and southern France as warm and somewhat arid, which they are in summer. But in winter, the gorgeously aromatic herbs for which they’re famous go into a different phase, sustained by cool temperatures and moist air, sometimes combined with an ocean breeze. Winter air in our homes tends to be warm, dry and still.

So here’s a strategy. First, see how long you can keep the plant safely outside. This may require bringing it in on especially cold nights. If it’s to move in long term, look for a cool spot that gets as much sun as possible. Use a light, well-draining soil mix.

Feed it every few weeks with some well-diluted liquid seaweed fertilizer or fish emulsion. This will generate long, somewhat spindly new growth, which is soft and tender enough to eat raw in salads. Keep picking it and more will grow, a bit more thickly. Think of it as an edible rosemary lawn.

Mist the leaves from time to time with water in a spray bottle. If the plant is small enough, water it in a sink, spritzing or dousing the leaves at the same time. Doing so will also help to control powdery mildew, as well as aphids and other pests.

I’d say the most important thing about rosemary care is the Zen of watering. The standard advice is to water thoroughly, then let the soil dry out. This could easily be misinterpreted. It doesn’t mean letting the pot sit in a saucer full of water. If watering floods any plant’s saucer, it’s best to pour the excess into a neighboring plant’s pot or into a vessel you keep handy. Overwatering rosemary can lead to root rot and then sudden death.

Letting the soil get too dry can also kill the plant quickly. The balance between too much water and too little is the discipline you must master.

If you do, it might spill over into other parts of your life, sort of like the “wax on, wax off” technique taught to the young pupil in the film “The Karate Kid.” Be mindful in 2017, take courage and hope for the best.

Tip of the Week

You can test the viability of old seed by placing individual seeds on a wet paper towel. Fold the towel over the seed and place it in a plastic food bag. Use 20 seeds for small seed such as lettuce or carrots and 10 for larger ones such as melons or sunflowers. Soak beans and peas overnight before testing. Leave the bag at room temperature for a week — light is unnecessary — and check the seeds for germination. If fewer than half have sprouted, discard the corresponding packet of seeds.

— Adrian Higgins