Part 1 of the Series, Methods to Preserve Your Herbal Harvest
Farmers’ markets and gardens and foraging sites are bursting with tasty fresh herbs just for the picking. It is a perfect time not only to enjoy them fresh but also to try preserving them for use later. The frost-tender ones, such as basil and pineapple sage, will be gone with the first nip of cold, but preserving them gives you flavor all year round.
Preserving fresh herbs is a great way to add flavor to your food. You also support a healthy environment by not purchasing pesticide-grown plants. And you’ll save money by not having to buy tiny bottles of the dried stuff that loses its flavor before you have time to use it up or that has already lost its flavor sitting on store shelves or in warehouses.
Nothing brings greater pleasure than being able to supply our own needs from Nature’s storehouse. There is so much to enjoy during the course of the season. The beautiful sights of the gardens, the wonderful aromas and different textures of the various plants, and even the lulling sound of droning bees busily working the flowers. Herbs ensure good pollination of your vegetable and flower gardens as they attract so many of the natural pollinators. They also draw hummingbirds, butterflies and a wide assortment of birds who delight us with their songs and colors.
The second best experience is being able to hold onto this feeling all year round simply by lifting the cover on a jar of sweet smelling herbs and inhaling the fragrance and memories of last summer while anticipating the joys of the next.
Here are my techniques to preserve and store your herb harvest. You will begin by harvesting and preparing your herbs for preserving, either from your own garden or from the wild. These methods also apply for any fresh organic herbs you have purchased at the green grocers or farmer’s market.
You can count the rules of herb harvesting on one hand:
- Water before you start,
- Make sharp cuts,
- Keep the herbs clean (to insure that the plant material is clean, hose them down the evening before you plan to harvest, gently spraying away any dirt which clings to the leaves),
- Dry them quickly (I use a salad spinner), and
- Store them away from light and moisture. That’s all there is to it!
For the most potent flavors, cut herbs in the morning, right after the morning dew has dried, to minimize wilting. The general rule of thumb is that herbs are usually at their strongest potency BEFORE they flower and are in the bursting bud stage.
The One Third Rule
For most herbs, you never want to harvest more than one third of the entire aerial (above ground) growth at one time. This ensures that the plant will have plenty of leaves to regrow itself after pruning. However, there are some exceptions to the rule. Chives, for example, grow back faster if all of the leaves are cut off within an inch to 1/2 inch from the ground. Many species in the mint family (including catnip and lemon balm) regrow more efficiently if all of the stems are harvested at once – cut above the second set of leaves from the base of the crown.
As much as 50% from one picking may be harvest from an annual plant by snipping the stem at least 4 inches up from the ground, yet still above active growth. In time it will grow back and give you a second harvest before summer’s end. In some cases, even a third.
With perennial plants, no more than one-third should be taken. In the case of some plants only the growing tips can be harvested.
To maintain the vigor of your plants, it is vital to have at hand either good sharp shears or a knife when harvesting. Pulling at the plants with the fingers does damage to the root systems and will make itself evident the following season by poor growth patterns. If you plan to harvest roots, they must be cut into small portions and dried using one of the mechanical means to insure proper dehydration before storage.
Cut healthy herbs, removing any sickly, dried or wilted leaves and brushing away insects. Avoid bruising the leaves. After the herbs are harvested, they should not lie in the sun unattended. Do not put them in plastic as the hot sun can make them sweat and cause mold to start forming before you have had a chance to preserve them.
Tips for Harvesting:
- If you are only harvesting a small amount, start at the top and cut at the base of the leaf set. You are cutting the stalk right where the next set sits below; you are not cutting individual leaves.
- If you notice little white flowers, but you don’t have time to harvest, pick off the flowers and harvest as soon as possible.
- Some herbs like basil will keep for a few days in the fridge. Store them wrapped in a damp paper towel, inside of a plastic bag or container.
When to Begin Harvesting
The earliest time that it is safe to harvest your herbs varies from plant to plant. Here are some of the most commonly grown herbs and their corresponding ages or times of year to begin harvesting:
- Basil – Once the plant reaches 6 – 8” in height cut away!
- Chives – As soon as the leaves are thick enough to use.
- Cilantro leaves – Once stems are 6 – 12” long.
- Dill – Leaves may be harvested at any time during the growing season.
- Lavender – Harvest at any time once stems have fully flowered.
- Lemon Balm – Leaves may be harvested at any time during the growing season.
- Marjoram – Any time after mature leaves appear.
- Mints – Any time after mature leaves appear.
- Oregano – Sprigs may be harvested once the plant reaches 3 – 4” tall, but they are best in mid-summer.
- Parsley – Any time after mature leaves appear.
- Peppermint – Harvest at any time during the growing season, but it is best just before blooms appear.
- Red raspberry leaves – Harvest at any time once stems have started flowering.
- Rosemary – May be harvested at any time during the growing season.
- Sage – Harvest only lightly during the first year of growth. Second growing season and thereafter, harvest any time year-round.
- Savory – Any time after mature leaves appear, but before flowering.
- Tarragon – Any time after new growth begins in spring.
- Thyme – Harvest at any time during the growing season, but it is best just before blooms appear.
Seeds are collected as they become available.
Roots are dug in fall after 1 or 2 frosts.
Edible tree barks (the inner bark) are good to eat at any time. However, make sure you learn to harvest properly so as not to damage the tree or make it susceptible to disease and harmful insects.
Edible tree sap-some trees (think maple) yield a sugar-rich sap which can be drunk raw, fermented into alcoholic beverages or gently boiled down to syrup (10 liters sap makes approx. 1 liter syrup). The most copious flow is usually during the first half of March, with up to 2 liters per day. There also tends to be a greater flow during the day and is best when nights are frosty, and days are warm and sunny. Volume varies with species, as does the sugar content. This is another area where I encourage learning to properly harvest and care for the tree’s continued wellbeing.
Collecting Seeds for Next Season’s Harvest
If you’ve grown (or eaten) some fabulous herbs this summer, be sure to save your seeds so you can grow the same varieties next year. Buying new starter herbs each year can be costly. It takes nothing but your time to learn how to identify when your herbs are seeding, to harvest those seeds for next year’s crop, and to dry and store the seeds.
Your herb garden has given you great pleasure from the planting of the first seeds, through the excitement of the first sprouts and continuing to the mature plant which you have enjoyed in so many ways. Now it’s time to think about next year’s herb garden and harvesting the seeds provided by your plant.
Why Save Herb Seed?
- It saves money and increases self sufficiency.
- Saved seed is well adapted to your location. It has survived the local weather, soil type, and pests. Therefore, you know it will be successful again.
- You can save from plants with interesting characteristics.
- Saved seed can be shared and swapped.
- It increases plant variation, increasing the local gene pool and biodiversity.
Most herbs will begin to flower in mid-summer, attracting the insects they need for fertilization. Once this process has taken place the petals begin to drop revealing the seeds or seed pods. It is very important that you pay attention to your plant during this time if you desire to harvest the seeds. Many herbs are, by nature, self-seeding and can shed their seeds in a matter of days.
Seed Collecting Tips
If your herbs are in pots, the best way to harvest seeds is to gather sheets of white or light colored paper (I use freezer paper) so you can lay the herb on its side. With the plant on the paper, gently shake the plant allowing the seeds to fall. Many herb seeds like chamomile are tiny and this will aid you with seeing the seeds. Next you will need to remove any dried leaves or plant parts which have shaken loose. Spread the seeds on the paper to dry and place in a sunny area with little or no drafts.
If you have larger plants, you can spread sheets of paper under the plants and gently shake the seeds loose. Although most seeds can be easily harvested, many plants such as the mints are notorious self-seeders and will come back year after year.
An easier way to harvest seeds from larger herbs is to cut long flower stems and tie them with a rubber band, like you would to dry herb leaves. Then place the flower bunches upside down in paper sacks and in a few days shake your bunches to release the seeds. This method requires the added step of bundling, but you don’t have to pick out as much plant litter from the seeds.
Drying Harvested Seeds
Drying seeds will take from 7 to 9 days and with larger seeds, possibly longer. When the seeds are bone dry, gently pour them into glass jars or paper seed packets (small manila envelopes work great). Envelopes are actually preferable to glass jars for storage because they allow any moisture in the seed to evaporate naturally.
There is some confusion as to how to keep seeds viable for a couple of years, as the news about seed banks and the high tech methods have created a false sense of need. You don’t need high-tech, expensive equipment! You already have everything in your house that you need.
Store your seeds in a relatively cool, dry and dark place. Some take storage further by freezing their seed. This can prolong their viability by several years, if done with very dry seed. Temperature and humidity are the two main concerns in any seed storage setup. A place that is consistently cool and low humidity are what’s needed, as temperature fluctuations will shorten the life and viability of your seeds. Your refrigerator or freezer is ideal; you won’t need a lot of room as seeds are usually small.
Freezing seeds does not harm them, and can greatly extend their lifespan if done properly. All seed banks freeze their seeds intended for long term storage! Humidity is a greater concern with freezing, as a blast of warm humid air on frozen seeds when you open your freezer can damage them. If you live in a high humidity area, smaller packets of seeds for one year’s planting will be ideal, as the packet can be pulled from the larger seed storage without exposing the rest of the seeds to temperature/humidity fluctuations.
Preparing Your Herbs for Preserving
- Rinse herbs in cool water and gently shake to remove excess moisture. Discard all bruised, soiled or imperfect leaves and stems.
- When washing the herbs, pat dry carefully afterward to remove all water. Tip: If you have a salad spinner, they work wonderfully to dry the herbs after washing.
- Choose a Preservation Method. It helps to think of herbs as any other leafy green. Just as spinach, kale, and collards have distinct attributes, some herbs are light and fresh while others are deep and earthy. These differences call for different preservation methods, each enhancing the herb’s unique characteristics.
- Prepare the herbs in the manner outlined in the method you choose. I will be explaining methods of preserving in further articles. Stay tuned!
Methods to Preserve Your Herbal Harvest, an 8 Part Series
To see the other articles in the series, click on the links:
Part 2, Freezing Methods for Herbs & Spices
Part 3, Drying Methods for Herbs & Spices
Part 4, Extracts/Tinctures from Herbs & Spices
Part 5, Preserving Herbs & Spices with Infused Vinegars
Part 6, Making Teas from Herbs and Spices
Part 7, Herbal Infused Honey
Part 8, Making SAFE Herbal Infused Oils
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