A Guide To Harvesting Herbs

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Herbs are one of the easiest families of plants to grow in a garden and make a perfect project for the beginning gardener. Whether you grow an herb garden to enhance the flavor of your meals, create calm and soothing herbal baths, cure aches and pains, or add a fresh scent to your home, you’ll get the most from your herbs if you know how to properly harvest and preserve your herbal bounty.

From the Garden to the Table

Harvesting herbs at the right time is necessary to retain the essential oils that are found in the seeds, leaves, flowers and roots of the plant. Harvest herbs in the morning before the heat of the day and after any dew has evaporated. This not only retains the flavor and aroma of the herbs, but it reduces the risk of spreading diseases between garden plants.

Here are some guidelines to help you harvest herbs at their peak of freshness:

  • For leafy plants such as basil, mint or oregano, leaves can be harvested any time during the growing season before the plants flower. Some herbs have a bitter taste after the plant sets flowers.
  • Harvest seedpods for herbs similar to anise after the pod turn brown, but just before the pods pop open.
  • Flowers, such as chamomile or lavender, should be harvested after the buds open but before the flower is fully open.
  • Harvest roots, for herbs such as ginger and chicory, in the fall after the foliage has died and turned brown.

If fresh herbs are not going to be used within a few days or if you want to save some for future use, preserve herbs by drying, freezing or infusing in vinegar or oil.

Drying Herbs for Later Use

Drying is the easiest way to preserve herbs for future use. Drying can be done by air drying or by drying in a dehydrator, the oven or a microwave. Before drying the herbs, the herbs must be prepared:

  • Harvest herbs early in the morning after the dew has evaporated and before the flowers first open.
  • Rinse herbs in cool water and shake off the excess. Remove any damaged or wilted leaves.

harvesting herbs harvesting herbs

Try these tips for drying herbs:

  • Sturdy herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, summer savory and parsley can be tied by the stems into small bundles and hung in a cool, well-ventilated area.
  • Tender herbs such as basil, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm and mint can be bundled in small batches, placed inside a paper bag and hung upside down to dry.
  • Oven dry mint, sage or bay leaves by removing the leaves from the stems, placing a single layer on a paper towel, repeat until there are five layers of paper towels and leaves. Dry in a cool oven.
  • The herbs will be completely dry and ready for storage when the leaves are crispy dry and crumble easily.

Here are a few tips for storing dried herbs:

  • After taking the herbs out of the dryer, let the herbs cool completely to ensure that condensation does not develop in the storage container.
  • Pack herbs in a clean container with a tight fitting lid that will keep out moisture, air and insects. Canning jars, plastic freezer containers, plastic freezer bags and vacuum packaging are options.
  • Store somewhere away from sunlight and heat. Herbs can be kept in a cool, dark closet or pantry for up to 6 months when the temperature is around 80 degrees. Herbs stored at 60 degrees keep their freshness for up to one year.

Freezing Herbs

Freezing may be the easiest way to preserve herbs for later use. For best results when freezing herbs, follow these steps:

  • Wash the herbs thoroughly, drain and pat dry.
  • Herbs with woody stems, such as rosemary, can be cut into sprigs.
  • Leafy herbs, such as basil or mint, can be removed from the stem. The leaves can be left whole.
  • Wrap in freezer wrap, place in a plastic freezer bag, seal the bag and place in the freezer.

For an alternative method to freezing herbs, make herbal ice cubes. Herbal ice cubes can be added to stews, soups, spaghetti sauces and many other dishes. Here’s how:

  • Wash the herbs thoroughly, drain and pat dry.
  • Remove the leaves from the stems for all herbs and chop the leaves.
  • Place a tablespoon of herbs in the bottom of each cube in an ice cube tray.
  • Fill with water and freeze.

Herb Flavored Oils and Vinegars

Herbs can also be infused in oils and vinegars to enhance the flavor of foods. When making herbal oils, add some vinegar to the oil to prevent the growth of botulism. Herbal oils have a short shelf life. To keep herbal oils fresh, store in the refrigerator for up to three days. Herbal vinegars have a longer shelf life because the acid in the vinegar prevents the growth of harmful bacteria.

Herbs have many uses as a food enhancer, medicinal cure, soothing bath or room freshener. No matter how you enjoy your herb garden, harvesting herbs the right way at the right time will give you quality herbs for your herbal projects.

Last Updated: May 27, 2012
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About Coletta Teske Coletta Teske has 25 years' experience in tech journalism, as well as home and gardening topics. She has freelanced for Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing and Microsoft, published more than two dozen computer books for Prima Publishing and Macmillan, and worked as a freelance correspondent for West Hawaii Today. Coletta has been an avid gardener since she was 2 years old. While living in Hawaii, she achieved a lifelong dream of becoming a certified master gardener.

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