Harvesting Herbs

Passionate food lovers and gardeners agree that herbs are healthy and delicious. Herbs fit beautifully in dried flower crafts, like seasonings and home remedies. It’s a waste to let them grow, blossom, and fade without taking advantage of all their many properties. So we offer this simple guide to harvesting and preserving your herbs.

When you harvest your herbs will depend, to some extent, on whether roots, flowers, or leaves are used, and on what you’ll be using them for. For instance, if you’re crafting potpourri, you might gather rose petals, calendula flowers, or poppy pods. In the kitchen, you might need basil leaves, chive flowers, or dill seed. Making medicine, you might reach for feverfew leaves, camomile flowers, or marshmallow root (herbs intended for treatments are harvested and dried by the same “rules” as other herbs).

Whenever you are harvesting herbs, keep these points in mind:

  • Fresh herbs are fragile. Handle gently, taking care not to crush leaves or flowers.
  • Pick herbs on dry days only, late in the morning, after the dew has evaporated but before the sun is hot. Or pick at dusk.
  • For medicinal uses, harvest roots in fall before the ground freezes, and don’t harvest first-year plants-the roots need time to develop, strengthen, and store the medicinal properties.
  • Check plants daily: many open or mature quickly once they begin.
  • For optimal flavor, harvest culinary herbs just before buds open. (Once the plant flowers, it concentrates its vitality on blooms rather than leaves.)
  • Harvest seeds when they turn from green to brown. Some may be brown but are still moist inside, so make sure seeds are also brittle and crushable.
  • Harvest flowers just before full bloom.
  • Discard wilted, yellowed, or insect-attacked leaves, flowers, seeds, or roots.

Dill, rosemary, savory and sage-the treasures of your herb garden can translate into teas, medicines, and heaven-sent seasonings. Harvest culinary herbs before their flowers bud, dry using a variety of simple techniques and enjoy.

A piece of screening, elevated so air can flow under it, is perfect for drying small-stemmed plants such as thyme, and flowers such as lavender and geranium (left). Harvest flowers just before full bloom, seeds-sunflower, poppy, and coriander-when turn from green to brown.

Many soft-leafed herbs such as fennel, chives, parsley, lovage, and dill are even better frozen than dried. Put clean, dry herbs, whole or chopped, into plastic freezer bags. Or slip them into ice-cube trays and top with water. Hanging herbs in paper bags keep dust and insects out.

Drying Herbs

The best approach is to always dry herbs as quickly as possible. Pick a dry, warm spot with good airflow. Kitchens are not ideal for drying herbs because airborne grease may cling to plants. Dry your herbs in a dry barn, basement, spare room, an airy closet. Darkness isn’t required, but it does help retain flavor in culinary herbs and color in dried flowers. If the herbs aren’t drying in a few days, a little extra air circulation from an air conditioner or fan can help. Don’t cool the air, just circulate the air. Make sure the airflow is indirect and gentle, and not too hot.

Drying Herbs on a Flat-Screen

A piece of flat screen, elevated so that air can flow under it, effectively drys small-stemmed plants such as chamomile, thyme, flower heads such as flower petals such as roses, and the decorative leaves of lady’s mantle or scented geraniums. Larger-stemmed herbs, particularly those used for cooking, such as tarragon, can also be dried on a flat-screen. Start with stripping the leaves from the stems. Spread flowers or herbs in a single layer and cover them with a thin sheet of paper towel or cheesecloth to protect from the dust. Stir them every day, changing their position to ensure even drying.

Drying Herbs Upside Down

Gathering stems together with elastic bands and suspending them with a piece of string from a clothes hanger or the ceiling is a popular method of drying crafting and culinary herbs such as artemisias, sage, and rosemary. Hanging herbs sometimes attract dust particles or insects. To protect your herbs, tie the bundles and slip them into paper bags before you hang them. Punch some holes in the bags to aid airflow. Keep the herb bundles loose and small; large, tight bundles may hinder airflow, distort the herb’s shape or promote mold. Select four to six stems per bundle.

An excellent choice for everlastings is to dry them in empty dry vases, jars, or tin cans (avoid using plastic, which encourages mold). Don’t crowd your herbs. Keep them separate. Tie a piece of chicken wire over the top and stick the stems through the holes.

Machine Drying Herbs

Oven drying must be done with extra care. Similar to the screen method, the herbs are dried in a single layer. The secret is to maintain a low enough oven temperature (38°C/100°F) for over three to six hours. If your oven’s lowest temperature is higher than 100 Fahrenheit, this might not be an option for you. Oven drying requires careful watching and regular stirring. If you can smell the herbs while they are in the oven, it’s a sign that they are losing precious oils. A less labor-intensive option is to use a food dehydrator. Use the lowest setting, and make sure you check the herbs often. Leafy herbs such as scented geraniums and nettles might dry in a couple of hours, while flower heads might take up to two days.

Herbs should be “crisp” when dry. Drying can take several weeks at room temperature (only a few hours with machine drying). Dried herbs should retain their color. If they have faded a lot or turned brown, they were dried too quickly or at extreme heat and, in the case of culinary herbs, have lost a significant amount of flavor.

Avoid storing dried herbs in plastic containers or plastic bags. Plastic containers invite mildew and mold. If you have the space for it, you can leave delicate crafting herbs such as baby’s breath to hang. You can also store herbs in clear, covered glass jars. Be sure to keep the herbs in a cool, dark place. Replace dried culinary herbs annually.

Freezing Herbs

Many soft-leafed herbs freeze well. These include chervil, basil, parsley, chives, cilantro, lovage, and dill. To wash the herbs, you can run them through the salad spinner. After you have cleaned the herbs, slip them into plastic freezer bags. You may want to chop the herbs in advance if you’re going to use them as a garnish. If you are not going to use them for garnish, you can freeze them whole. Herbs crumble when frozen. When you cook with frozen herbs, use one teaspoon of frozen herbs to half a teaspoon of dried.

You can slip fresh herbs into ice cube trays. Top the herbs wi water before freezing. Try sprigs of mint or blue borage flowers to garnish summertime drinks.

Bottle Your Herbs

Herbal vinegars-a great treat-can be expensive to buy but easy and economical to make at home. And they are another way of preserving the harvest.

Single herbs-or combinations thereof-can be turned into herbal vinegar. Some cooks use a hot steeping method, warming the vinegar and herbs together, then leaving them to steep. Others insist heat destroys the acidity of the vinegar and dilutes the herbal taste. Whatever your opinion, cold steeping is faster and easier, and produces a highly flavored vinegar.

Start with good-quality white or red wine vinegar, rice vinegar, sherry vinegar, or cider vinegar. Take one clean, large glass jar and fill it three-quarters full with the herbs of your choice. Make sure the herbs are fresh, clean, and in good shape. Top the herbs with vinegar. If the herbs float, take a wooden spoon and gently push them below the surface. Leave the blend to steep for at least four weeks (several months is better)—Strain, bottle, and store away from direct light. Slip a clean, fresh herb sprig into the vinegar when you bottle it if you plan to use it or give it away soon.

Here are two recipes to get you started:

Italian blend

Place handfuls of clean, dry oregano, basil, and rosemary into a large glass jar. Add flat-leafed Italian parsley, two hot peppers, and a few unblemished, clean, and peeled garlic cloves. Top with white wine vinegar.

French blend

Place handfuls of clean, dry tarragon, thyme, and chives into a large glass jar. Add two bay leaves, a few peppercorns, and a clean, peeled shallot or two. Top with rice or white wine vinegar.