Harvesting Herbs In Five Easy Steps

There’s nothing like the satisfaction of harvesting herbs from your garden. You’ve planted, watered, weeded, and fertilized them month after month and now it’s time for the big payoff. Here’s what you need to do to capture all that aroma and flavor for the coming year.

Step One – Prep the Plant

A day before harvesting, water your leafy herbs. This will help them survive the loss of leaves. While you’re out there, take a close look at your herb. If it looks stressed or – worse yet – under attack by insects or fungus, don’t harvest. Fix the problem first.

Step 2 – Gather Equipment

Gather your harvesting equipment. Use sharp clippers so you don’t mangle the stems. Have something to carry the clipped herbs; a bucket, a large basket, or paper grocery bags will do the trick. Wear garden gloves, ideally the ones with stretch knit fabric and rubberized palms.

This rosemary bush is ready to be harvested. I’ll be cutting back about a third of the height.
Step 3 – Make the Cut

Go out to the garden and start snipping stems. Ideally, this should be done during the cool of the day when your herbs are at their best. For most herbs, cut about one third to one half of the plant’s height. Removing too much can over-stress the plant.

If you’re gathering dill, caraway and other seeds, watch for the seeds to plump and turn brown. Clip the heads immediately or you’ll lose your harvest to hungry birds or high winds.

Harvest edible herb flowers such as lavender, borage and pot marigold when the flowers have just opened. The heads will be firm and at maximum flavor.

For all your herbs, harvest only parts that are in good condition. Leaves, seeds or flowers that are damaged or wilted won’t improve after they’re clipped.

After clipping my rosemary, the bush is more compact and tidy. This bowlful of rosemary will last for a year of good cooking.
Step 4 – Clean and Dry

Bring your harvest indoors. Spread it out on a table or kitchen counter and remove any debris. Lay the stalks in a single layer on an absorbent towel or screen placed on a flat surface. Allow them to air-dry for 6 to 8 days – more for thick-leaved herbs such as sage and rosemary. Each day during the drying, fluff or stir the herb stalks to expose new parts to the air.

This winter savory will be set aside for a week or so to allow the leaves to dry.

Some gardeners prefer to speed up the drying process. I don’t recommend using the microwave oven to do this. The microwave will only work for a small handful of herbs at a time. Larger quantities will tend to cook like spinach, leaving you with a fragrant microwave and a mushy mess.

Conventional heat ovens aren’t much better, but for a different reason. Many ovens have a minimum temperature setting of 200 degrees. The essential oils that provide flavor and fragrance in herbs are volatile at temperatures of 150 degrees and above. Using your oven will give you a fragrant kitchen but less flavorful herbs.

Step 5 – Store For Future Use

Remove leaves, seeds and flowers from the stems once they are crackly dry. Place them whole (not crushed or ground) in airtight containers. I prefer wide-mouth jars with screw tops. Label with the contents and date of harvest.

That’s all there is to it. You can count the rules of herb harvesting on one hand. Water before you start. Use sharp clippers and sturdy gloves. Harvest stems from healthy plants. Dry them quickly. Store away from light and moisture. You can now clip your herbs with confidence.

Here’s the end result: coriander seeds, winter savory, and sage harvested dried and ready to use in the coming months.

Ann McCormick, Southwest Gardening contributor

If you enjoy herbs and organic gardening, you’ll want to meet Ann McCormick, the Herb ‘n Cowgirl. A life-long gardener, she has devoted her time for the last 20 years to writing and speaking about her favorite subject. Ann is a feature writer for The Dallas Morning News.The Herb ‘n Cowgirl also shares her love of herbs and her gardening techniques as a speaker and media guest. She lives in Fort Worth, TX with her husband of 35 years and an assortment of dogs. To find out more about the Herb ‘n Cowgirl visit her at www.herbncowgirl.com.

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