by Jean and Roxanne Riggs
While many gardens are grown just for their beauty, the herb garden’s primary purpose is to be harvested for use during the winter months when the garden is not available. For the herb gardener, preserving the harvest is an important part of the gardening season. And it really is something that we need to learn to do correctly so that all of the work that comes before the harvest is not wasted. If you plan to use fresh herbs from the garden during the growing season, you can clip them whenever you need them. However, if you cut the plant down to its roots, it will likely not continue to grow and you will have to nurture a new plant.
Herbs are just like other garden plants in that there are annuals, biennials, hardy perennials, and tender perennials. Each of these is harvested differently.
Annual culinary herbs
Annuals, like basil, dill weed, and savory, are plants that grow for just one season and are used for their leaves. They should be harvested before they go into flower. Once they flower and set seed, the leaves start to deteriorate and much of their flavor is lost. Most of the annual plants can be harvested more than once if only a third of the plant is cut at one time. If the first harvesting is done in July, a second harvest is still possible before the frosts kill the plants.
Annuals that are grown for their seeds, like coriander, dill, and anise, must be harvested as soon as the seeds are ripe and no longer green, or they will seed themselves everywhere for next year.
Annuals have a limited life span, so if you want to have fresh herbs on your windowsill for the winter months, you should start with new baby plants in September instead of trying to bring the old plants indoors.
Biennial and perennial culinary herbs
Biennials (plants that last two years) such as parsley and chervil, have sweeter and more tender leaves the first year. In the second year, the plant’s energy goes into producing flowers and seeds instead of new leaves, and the older weathered leaves have a more intense flavor that is rather bitter.
Hardy perennials are more tender, sweeter, and less bothered by bugs if they are harvested early in the summer, like late June or early July. They should not be cut very much at all after Labor Day, just leaves and tips, so that they have a chance to harden up for the winter weather ahead. Cutting promotes new growth that will not winter well. Shrubby herbs such as sage, winter savory, lavender and thyme, do not do well when pruned severely, and need energy in the stems to come back in the spring.
If you plan to bring tender perennials indoors for the winter, such as bay trees, pineapple sage, lemon verbena, and scented geraniums, you will probably cut some of the branches back to make the plant a more manageable size in the house. These clippings can be dried for use. Otherwise, clip as you need them for your favorite recipes and you will have fresh herbs all year round.
Drying and storing herbs
In order to dry the herbs for storage, fasten the not-too-large bunches with rubber bands that will contract as the stems dry and shrink in size, and hang them in a dark, airy place until they are crisp and completely dry. Then the leaves can be removed from the stem and stored in jars. Be sure to label the bunches.
If you are drying a small amount of leafy material, you can place it on a paper towel on a cookie sheet on top of the refrigerator, where warm air flows over the top when the motor runs. Turn them regularly, and when they are fully crisp and dry, you can put them in jars for the winter. If you put them in the jars before they are completely dry, they will mold. Washing the herbs before drying is not usually necessary, but if you must rinse them, do it gently so that the flavorful oils don’t get left in the water. You must wait until the water has dried before you can bunch them or they will get moldy before they get dry enough to keep for the winter.
Some herbs, like chives, are better kept in the freezer. Just lay the fresh leaves on a piece of foil, fold and label the foil and put it in the freezer. When you need chives you can simply snip off the amount you need, refold the foil, and put it back into the freezer.
We do not recommend drying herbs with heat; that is, in the oven at a low temperature, in the microwave for a couple of minutes, or in a dehydrator. Your house smells wonderful when you use these methods, but heating the herbs means many of the essential oils are evaporating and therefore will not be available when you want to cook with them.
A few recipe ideas
Basil turns black if you freeze it, but you can turn it into pesto that freezes just fine. This is an easy-to-do pesto for your freezer and a favorite at our farm:
Put into your blender or food processor:
1 generous cup olive oil
1 handful basil leaves & tender tops
1 clove of garlic
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 or 4 tbsp. lemon juice
Process until fully blended. Pour into a freezer container, label, and place in the freezer for use this winter. If you want to add pine nuts to the recipe, do it when you thaw the pesto.
When your harvest is fully dry and ready to store, here is one of our favorite recipes for Herbs de Provence:
2 tbsp. savory
2 tbsp. thyme
2 tbsp. lavender flowers
1 tbsp. rosemary
1 tbsp. sage
1 tsp. fennel leaf
Keep the herbs as whole as possible until you are ready to use them. This will help to preserve the flavors. Mix them up and put them into a jar or plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid. We like the newer, small plastic tubs because it is so easy to get at the contents when you want to use them.
A good salt substitute can be made with 2 tbsp. basil, 1 tbsp. thyme, 1 tbsp. marjoram, 2 tsp. lovage, 2 tsp. sage, and 2 tsp. savory.
When it comes to culinary herbs, you should enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. That’s why drying and preserving them correctly is so important!
Jean and Roxanne Riggs operated Sunshine Farm and Garden in Commerce Township, MI.