Herbs – Harvesting & Saving

I’ve been reading a book called "Green Thoughts" by the late Eleanor Perenyi. She lived until the age of 91 passing away in 2009. Her 72 essays on gardening will live forever. She’s a hoot and her writing is delightful. I’m currently enjoying the essay about herbs. Her insights couldn’t come at a better time. My small herb collection is growing like crazy and I need ideas about how to use more of them and preserve the extras.

It’s easy to find space to grow your herbs.You don’t have to have a traditional knot garden for them. Make the most of a small sunny garden by tucking them between established plants in a border or perennial bed. One of my favorite color combinations is purple and gold so Tricolor or Purple sage mixed with Golden oregano is right up my alley. Variegated lemon thyme is another colorful herb that would also fit right in.

When shopping for herbs it’s a good idea to snip a leaf and crush it between your fingers. . You’d be amazed how different herbs can smell and taste depending on the source of the plant.

Thyme can smell like caraway, pine, camphor, lavender or turpentine and "these assuredly would be fatal to a bouquet garni" , according to Eleanor Perenyi. Rosemary plants can vary widely in taste, too. There are so many kinds available now, both upright and creeping, all originating from different stock. You don’t want to ruin chicken dinner by using the crushed leaves of one that tastes of pine or turpentine.

Trim your herbs often to keep them bushy and productive. Fresh herbs are at their finest in summer when they peak in flavor and essential oils. Most herb stems can be cut and kept in a jar of water, out of direct sunlight, for a few days of use. I’ve even had basil send out roots in the water.

Gather herbs in summer and preserve them for the rest of the year so you’ll always have some for flavoring.
Most herbs should be harvested before the plants are about to bloom. That’s when the leaves are at their peak flavor and oils are strongest. Harvest on a sunny morning after the morning dew has evaporated. To fully harvest annual herbs such as basil cut all stems back to just above the bottom two sets of leaves. Perennial herbs like sage should be cut back to about a third of their height also just above a set of leaves. As you collect your harvest, keep them out of the sun or they will quickly wilt.

Some herbs with a high water content like tarragon, basil, chives, lemon balm, mint and dill freeze well. Frozen herbs will keep their flavor for several months. Unlike dried herbs whose flavor is more concentrated when dried, frozen herbs can be used in the same proportion as fresh.

Dry other herbs by hanging in bundles or laying on a shallow basket or screen. if drying on a screen or basket remove large-leaved herbs from the stems before spreading them out. Smaller leaved herbs like thyme, savory or rosemary can be left on the stem to dry.

Herbs are dry when they crackle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. Strip them from the stem and pack in labeled jars as they tend to look alike when dried. Crushing the leaves releases their essential oils, so don’t do that until you use them.

The five herbs I consider essential in the kitchen garden are basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary and thyme. I also grow lemon verbena for tea, potpourri or in sachets for my closet and drawers, I grow lemon grass which has citronella oil to help ward off mosquitos.

You may choose herbs for salsa or tea or Italian dishes. Herbs can by used in cosmetics, natural dyes, crafts, potpourri or medicinally. Herb flavored vinegars, tea, honey, butter, cheese, salt or sugar are great ways to use your herbs. I like them all.