Two weeks ago we talked about propagation techniques you can use to grow your own herbs and spices. Although we covered many of the topics associated with growing herbs there is one part I left out, the harvesting and storage of herbs you are now growing. This week I will go into some detail on how to cut, store, and use the different parts of the herbs we grow. Although there is no way for me to cover all the herbs and spices you use at the table, I hope you will glean some helpful information from this third article on growing herbs and spices. Let us get started.
Depending on the specific herb you are going to harvest, there are several parts of the plant you need to be familiar with. Leaves, seeds, flowering tops, and roots are all used in the collection process. The flavors the herbs produce are concentrated in the oils they manufacture. If the herb or spice you are harvesting is picked at the right time, the flavors they add to your meals will be amazing. Most herbs are grown for their leaves and should be harvested before the plant goes into flower. After flowering, most herbs become bitter so you should always harvest before the flowers are formed. The best time of day to harvest your herbs is in the early morning hours just after the dew on the leaves is dry. Remember; do not soak your fresh herbs as the oils used in complementing your palate may be lost.
Make sure when collecting your herbs that you keep your herbs separated as to not mix the different oils together. You can place your fresh herbs between two sheets of paper towels to collect any moisture left on the plants. Do not dry your herbs in the sun as this may bleach out their color and essential oils may be lost. Some people like to bundle their herb cuttings together and then dry them. Place your cuttings or bundles in a dark dry spot to cure them as they dry. Remember to place a paper towel around each of the individual bunches in order to collect any parts of the plant which may break off. The paper towel also helps in the drying process by absorbing any moisture. I have always liked the slow drying process rather than using an oven to dry the herbs because I believe they have a better taste when dried naturally.
Have containers ready to store your dried herbs and a labeling system to identify them once they are dry as many herbs look alike once dried. Many dollar stores have small glass containers with lids which work wonderfully. Do not try to harvest too much from your herb garden at any one time as your herbs will continue to grow producing additional cuttings for you. If it is late in the season and your plants are not growing as fast, you may want to harvest additional cuttings which can be stored for use at a later date. Your best tasting herbs will be the ones used fresh from the garden. Below are some of the most desired herbs and instructions of how and when to harvest.
Basil grows quickly after transplanting into the garden. As the new plants begin to spread, harvest leaves using a sharp pair of scissors. Cure your cuttings in a dark dry place. Once dried, you should be able to crumble the leaves very easily. Some people like to store small packages for use during the week. Use small freezer bags for these portions and be sure to label them accordingly then place in the freezer to keep them fresh. When you see flowers appear on your plants, be sure to pinch or snip them off with scissors to prevent your plant from turning bitter. Always keep your herbs actively growing for best taste.
When cutting Chives you should remove all the new growth leaving only a few inches of stem on the mother plant. The mother plant will quickly re-grow its foliage. Bunch the cuttings you have taken and make sure you remove any yellow or tough shoots. Next you will need to chop the shoots into one inch sections with a sharp knife then place them in the freezer. Do not forget to label all your herbs.
Dill is normally grown for its seed but even the foliage can be used in food preparation. The best leaf flavor is achieved as the plant goes into bloom. Harvest small cuttings being sure not to injure the seed heads the plant produces. Store your cuttings in the freezer until you need them. The seed heads should be harvested right after the seed pods begin to turn yellow. Bunch the seed pods together and hang upside down in a one gallon open plastic bag. As the seed pods ripen, the pods will open and the seeds will drop to the bottom of the plastic bag. Dill seeds can be used to make Dill Vinegar. Seeds harvested and properly stored in a cool dark place will keep their flavor for several years or more.
Oregano should be harvested before the flowers form and you should take bunch cuttings leaving only three inches of the stem on the mother plant. The mother plant will quickly respond with new growth and you should be able to harvest again in about another month. Because we use so much oregano in our cooking, you will need several bunches to give you enough for the kitchen. Dry your oregano in a cool dark place then crumble the foliage and place in a storage container. Continue harvesting monthly.
Parsley is another herb which we normally use to prepare many dishes. When harvesting parsley, cut plants back about halfway to the ground leaving a minimum of three inches of stem. Because parsley grows very quickly, the plant will be ready to harvest again in about three weeks. Bunch your cuttings together and dry as mentioned above. Curly parsley should be harvested from the outside first as new growth is initiated from the center of the plant. As these stems curve down, remove the older stems first allowing the new growth to fill back in.
Rosemary is a great plant just for show alone but when harvesting cuttings I like to take the fresh new growth from the top of the plant. I do not take the hardened stems; rather I leave these to put out new tender growth. When you take your cuttings, try to take no more than three inches off the plant and bunch your cuttings together. Wrap cuttings in a paper towel and dry in a cool place. Once the cuttings are dry, remove the leaves from the stem, discard the stems, and put the leaves into a container. Rosemary harvested fresh has a very strong flavor so do not add too much to your dishes. If your plants are long and leggy you will need to trim them back to encourage more tender new growth for additional cuttings.
Thyme can be harvested mush the same as rosemary. I like to take just the tender tops of the plant avoiding the woody stems. Make sure your cuttings are taken before flowers emerge. Dry your cuttings in a paper towel then remove the stems and discard them. Store your leaves in a sealed container.
Root herbs such as garlic should be harvested around mid July through August or at least a month after the scape or flower stalk has been removed. After the scape is removed, garlic bulbs begin to swell. In about a month the foliage will begin to die from the bottom up. When several of the bottom leaves have died, but the top leaves are still green, it is time to dig the bulbs. Be careful not to injure the bulbs while digging. Cut roots to a quarter inch from the bottom of the bulb. Remove any sand or dirt with a light spray of water. Dry bulbs by either hanging them in a braid or placing them on a wire rack. Drying takes at least two weeks for most varieties. When you are ready to use your cured garlic either slice or crush the cloves to your taste. Fresh garlic is best for cooking as the longer the bulbs are stored the stronger the flavor is.
I am sorry I could not cover more herbs and spices for you but these last three articles should give you a better understanding of what you can grow and how you can use or store your herbs and spices. My main point is that you should at least grow a few of the herbs listed here and try them in your kitchen. Do not forget that if you would like more information on herb gardening, pick up the new book “Herb Gardening from the ground up” by Sal Gilbertie and Larry Sheehan. Keep gardening and remember, without plants we would not be here!