What’s Growing On: Harvesting herbs

(Unsplash/Kevin Doran photo) A selection of herbs.

So, you put in your first herb garden and now you need to know when you can start harvesting your herbs to eat and to dry for winter.

Each herb has its own best time for harvesting. It may also depend on your intended use for a particular herb. In general, harvest in the morning, after the dew has dried off the leaves, but before the sun is too hot. This maintains the maximum oils in the herbs.

If you wish to harvest for fresh use, cut stems when the plant has at least two-thirds more growth than when you planted it. You can do this throughout the growing season. Always cut above a node or leaf, or where you see the potential for new growth, such as leaves that are waiting to grow larger. This will encourage buds in the leaf axils to grow into new stems so providing more growth and more leaves for a later harvest.

The first harvest is usually chives as they are the first to grow and mature in the spring. Most chives are used fresh by cutting three-quarters of the long, cylindrical leaves in bunches, leaving some to continue to grow. The fresh flowers buds can enhance a salad and/or be used as plate decorations with different foods. For winter use, cut the leaves into small pieces and air dry them on paper towels. Always make sure your herbs are free from insects, soil and other debris. You can also place them in ice cube trays and fill the trays with water and freeze to use individually at a later date.

Larger leaf herbs such as basil need to be processed quickly before the leaves turn brown or black. They also can be placed in ice cube trays but filled with olive oil, which helps them to keep their glorious green color. You can make a pesto by putting them in a blender with olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and parmesan cheese. Blend thoroughly and either place in jars or freeze in single portions. If you have red or purple basil, place the leaves in a bottle with white vinegar and in a short time it will impart its colour and taste to the vinegar. It makes a lovely gift to give away.

Herbs such as thyme, sage, marjoram and oregano can be harvested by cutting stems six to eight inches and hanging in bunches in a dark, dry place until they are almost crumbly when you touch them. Store in bags with labels. These may be left whole and only crushed when you are ready to use them.

Parsley and mint can be harvested in big bunches. Chop them finely, place in a single layer on paper plates and dry for 15 to 30 seconds at a time in the microwave. Keep checking and drying until they are totally dry to the touch. When dry, pack in jars. Check every day to be sure no moisture appears on the side of the containers, otherwise mold will develop.

Another method of drying leaves is to use a food dehydrator that gently blows warm air above and below the drying trays. Do not set the temperature too high (140 F (46 C) for six to eight hours seems to be about right) and follow the manufacturer’s directions. You can also dry them in your oven on screens or racks at the lowest temperature setting. Herbs may also be freeze dried. However, the equipment for home freeze drying is expensive and it will not be discussed here.

A common beginner’s mistake when drying herbs is to assume the herbs will be recognizable when needed. However, when dried and crumbled, all the leaves look much the same. Always label your clean, clear jars carefully at the time you prepare them, and be sure to include the date on your label. When using the herbs, keep in mind that dried leaves are two-thirds stronger than the fresh leaves so when you use them, a lesser quantity is required.

Always store your dried herbs in a cool dark place. Remember that their oil content and freshness last only six months to a year so do not store them indefinitely. Especially do not store your herbs above your stove where there is humidity and fluctuations of temperature.

After harvesting your herbs, it is helpful to give your plants a little boost by feeding them diluted fish fertilizer. Remember to stop harvesting about four weeks before the first frost and mulch the plants for added winter protection.

Bon appetit.

By-the-Sea Gardeners is a community group that provides a forum for gardeners in the Saint Andrews area to share their interest and enthusiasm in gardening. To learn more about us, follow By the Sea Gardeners Club – St. Andrews on Facebook. Contact: Richard Tarn, 506-529-3110, or Mike Hutton, 506-529-3629.