It has been a great summer for my vegetable and herb gardens; I have been harvesting Basil for about seven weeks, using it fresh in assorted salads, and making pesto. But I have also been chopping the leaves in the food processor mixed with a little water, then freezing the mixture in ice cube trays. After 24 hours they are frozen, I then take them out and put them in labeled freezer bags for use during winter months in soups and sauces.
There are several reasons why you should not wait until the last days of summer to think about how and when you will preserve your herbs. For one reason, you will be very busy trying to get them all dried or frozen before the first killing frost. But most importantly, you will have missed the prime harvesting time for most herbs. They should be gathered when they contain the maximum amount of oils for full flavor and fragrance.
Most herbs, for culinary use, are ready to harvest just before flowers appear on the plant. Cutting them early in the season enables continued, successive cuttings from the plant.
Harvesting perennial herbs late not only results in a reduction of flavor, but also in the possibility of plant death. These plants need the chance for regrowth in order to survive the winter.
Another caution is to not cut annuals, such as basil, too closely to the ground because the lower foliage is necessary for continuous plant growth. Keep in mind that the entire plant can be harvested that at the end of the annuals’ growing season.
The ideal time to harvest herbs is in the early morning on a clear day. Do this just as the sun dries the dew from the leaves because the oils in the plants are strongest at this time. Scissors are often the best tool for harvesting fresh herbs.
As soon as the herbs have been cut, waste no time in getting them ready for drying. This practice shortens the drying time and generates better flavor and color.
Probably the most common method of drying herbs is the most picturesque. The mention of herb drying inevitably conjures up images of crispy-dry bunches hanging from a nail in someone’s kitchen. To dry herbs this way, simply gather and tie them in small bunches and hang them in a warm, dark place for about two weeks.
A variation is to put each bunch in a paper bag, then hang them to dry. This method helps prevent the herbs from getting dusty, but will increase drying time by several weeks. This method is excellent for drying seed heads; for example, coriander, caraway, anise and dill. Seed heads should be gathered in the early stages of ripening, just as weeds turn from green to gray or brown. Again, they should be collected in the morning as soon as the dew dries on the leaves.
Another variation of air-drying is to take the herb plants apart and spread the parts on screens to dry. An old window screen in good condition works well. Remember to prop it up to permit the air to circulate freely through the screen. Be sure that it is not placed in the direct sun or in a damp area.
The last and fastest drying method is oven drying. Heat oven to 1500 or less, and place herbs on sheets of brown paper. Make slits in the paper to allow airflow around the herb foliage. Leave the oven door ajar so the moisture can escape. The herbs will dry in approximately three to six hours. When dried, they should be crispy and easy to crumble.
However, don’t crumble them for storing, wait to crumble when adding them to your recipe. And don’t forget to label the containers.
For more information on growing herbs contact your local Extension office:
Kent County: Number: 857-6426 or 730-4000
Sussex County: Number 856-7303
Master Gardenr Tip: On Wednesday, August 12, the Kent County Master Gardeners and Delaware State University’s Small Farm Program are hosting an Open House at the Smyrna Outreach and Research Center on the Smyrna-Leipsic Road, Smyrna from 6:00pm to 8:00pm. There will be light refreshments served. They will feature the Master Gardener’s demonstration plots (vegetables, herbs, butterfly, and other theme gardens), the Small Farm Pole Lima Bean Trials, Ethnic Crops (Calabaza, Calaloo Spinach, Scotch Bonnet Peppers, Kabocha Squash, Jalapeno Peppers, Dominican Eggplant, Oriental Long Beans, Mizuna, and Yams) and several sustainable/organic vegetable plots.