Harvesting, Preserving and Storing Herbs
Herbs are fairly easy to grow, even without a green thumb. If I can do it, I know you can too. Herbs are little gems in the garden that produce a plethora of beneficial fruit, seeds, leaves, flowers, stems, bark and roots. Yet, they are not demanding but absolutely amazing.
As I mentioned before, I was raised in a large city and was never exposed to anything more than a flower box on the balcony. So as an adult, when I first decided to grow vegetables, herbs, and fruit, I began by reading all the ‘How to” guides I could get my hands on. Then, armed with my information, I set out on the adventure of becoming a gardener.
And… quite a strange gardener I have been:
See, I have this little problem. I don’t like snakes, nor do I like creepy-crawly critters up close. Some Gardener! I realize they are beneficial and I want them in my garden, but I have to admit, it took some time to get used to ‘nature’. These days I invite little creepy-crawlies into my yard. I even hung a praying mantis egg and I am excited and waiting to see them hatch. At the garden center I was told that there are 300 baby mantises in the egg and I calculated that they should hatch this coming weekend. I will keep you up to date. I am still not crazy about creepy-crawlies but I love them in my garden – just not on me. .
To ward off any bugs I prepare for the task. You would probably laugh if you saw me Imagine this:
I wear solid shoes. They have to be closed … and socks… and I tuck my pants into my socks. I also wear a light fabric top with long sleeves, spray myself with sunblock and spray my clothing with Off Natural bug repellant… make a ponytail and then wear a big floppy hat, sunglasses… and of course gardening gloves that go to my elbows.
With my “garden armor” and my trusty tools I head into the garden, and happily tend to the flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruit plants. I pull weeds by hand (don’t like using pesticides because they hurt my bugs and eventually the rest of the food chain, including us). I side-dress and work compost (home-made) into the soil in spring, cover the soil with a natural mulch, water and feed my garden and then sit back and watch it grow.
Once we grow it, what do we do with it?
I used to inspect what I grew with more than one suspicious eye. I was in serious doubts with various thoughts: “Is this truly edible? What if it’s a weed? Could this really be food? Did I of all people grow this?” and then finally “Yes, wow, I actually did grow this!”
After a thorough inspection and careful comparisons to images in my books, I would decide the grown item could be trusted. Proud as could be I carried my treasures into the house, washed them carefully, and was inevitably amazed by the rich flavors of home-grown vegetables, fruit and herbs. A first reluctant but now eager gardener was born.
It is quite amazing how much better everything tastes if it is grown at home and picked at the perfect time to harvest. Fresh from garden to table.
When do we harvest?
When it comes to herbs, when and how do we harvest them? It is easy to know when a tomato is ripe, but what about herbs?
For most herbs, during their active growth period, spring and summer, we can just simply snip off a few green sprigs or leaves to use as needed before the plant sets blooms. When preparing meals, I take my scissors (make sure they are clean) into the garden and take a few cuttings of the herbs for my recipes.) Most plants actually like getting cut from time to time. It keeps them from getting too tall and falling over and encourages new, thicker growth. When I cut, or pinch off I usually do so at a junction where a new shoot or leaves come out. For those plants that grow along new ground stems, like parsley, I cut the outer stems at the base. I bring my cut herbs into the house, wash them and add them to the dish I am creating. Adding fresh herbs to almost any dish always adds flavor as well as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
But it isn’t just spring and summer when I want to enjoy herbs. I want to use them year-round. I like to have a little stash tucked away for the cooler months of the year.
How can we preserve herbs?
There are various methods.
In order to have a little stash for the winter, I preserve as many herbs as I can while they are growing before it gets cold. For preserving the leaves of plants, I snip off a few inches before the plant blooms, bundle them (5-10 stems) and hang them in a dark, dry place. A spare bedroom, the attic, a storage shed or storage garage. But make sure not to hang them where they would be exposed to car or other noxious fumes.) I tie bundles together with twine or elastic. Elastic helps when the stem shrinks from loss of water as they dry. usually no more than 5-10 stems.
I hang my bundles upside down in the garden shed. It is dark but has a lot of airflow. I also make sure not to dry strong smelling herbs like mint or lovage with other, less potent herbs to make sure the scents do not mingle. For most herbs it takes about two weeks to dry. If you notice the leaves do not easily crumble, give them more time.
As you are drying a batch of herbs, make sure not to introduce new, freshly cut herbs to the same area. The drying herbs could absorb the new moisture as well as the scents.
Storing your dried leaves
Once your herbs are nicely dried, pick the leaves off and without crushing them, store them in a clean, air-tight, labeled jar in a dark space, away from heat. Heat and light diminish the potency of herbs.
I have tried to dry herbs in the oven, but I don’t find it works as well as drying them the natural way. The temperature in the oven is too high, evaporation happens too fast, and so the essential oils are lost.
I live in Virginia. Our summers can get quite hot and humid and during humid days drying can be a challenge too. It may take a little longer, but I’ve not had something not dry. To compensate for the humidity. I make sure I only bundle few stems, no more than 5 during the summer. Plus, it is a lot cheaper than running an oven for hours and heating up your house while the air conditioner is running.