If any edible garden is going to be a cost saving endeavor, thought has to be given to preserving the harvest. The labor in harvesting and preserving herbs is not onerous, but it must be done in a timely fashion.
Timeliness is essential. Harvest your herbs before they bloom, while they are at their most flavorful. Cut them in the morning, after the dew has dried, but before the heat of the day.
For hundreds of years farmers and gardeners have been drying herbs. Before they knew about UV rays, they did understand that sunlight will diminish the flavor of herbs, and often discolor them as well. Hence the general direction to dry any herb in a dry area, out of the sun.
I have harvested herbs like mint, parsley, rosemary, lovage, oregano, marjoram, tarragon and sage, washed them and let them dry off before bundling a few stems together. I putt the whole bundle in a paper bag with the stems coming out the open end, then tie the bag shut and hang it where it will be out of the sun and out of the way for two or three weeks.
I also use this technique for herbs whose seeds I want, like dill, caraway, and chervil. After drying for a time the paper bag just needs a bit of whacking to knock the seeds loose. The collected, dry seeds can then be stored in a small glass jar. Don’t forget a label.
Herbs, like thyme with its small leaves, can also be dried on a drying tray placed in a dark warm place. A window screen works well. If you have a lot of herbs to dry this way, you can put spacers, perhaps 2x4s, between the trays and stack them. When thoroughly dry, store the herbs in small glass jars.
Many people have herb and spice racks near their stoves. Very handy for cooking, but actually not very good for the herbs which degrade from the light and heat.
Some people like to dry herbs in the oven. I have never done this and I think you have to be careful not to dry them too quickly, or at too high a temperature, or you’ll lose the volatile oils, and the reason for drying the herbs in the first place. Don’t have the oven any hotter than 180 degrees, and keep an eye on the herbs which should be adequately dry in 3 or 4 hours.
Those who really want to be done with the task fast can use a microwave oven. Place the herbs on a paper plate and turn the microwave on for 30 seconds, stir them up, and repeat. Do this for 1 to 3 minutes until the herbs are dry.
Herbs must be dry before storing or they could turn moldy.
Chives and parsley can also be frozen. Wash and dry them, snip the chives and chop the parsley, then spread on a cookie sheet and freeze, just as you would a harvest of berries. When they are frozen they can be put into freezer bags. Since they are frozen separately, the few can be removed as needed. They will not be useful as a garnish, but will add their flavor as well as fresh.
Actually, any herb can be washed, then chopped and mixed with water. Take that mixture and freeze in ice cube trays. When the ice is frozen, remove the herbal ice cubes and put them in a labeled freezer bag. A single frozen herbal cube can be added to a dish as needed.
I don’t think basil dries terribly well and it discolors when it freezes. I harvest a good amount of basil, put it in the food processor with an appropriate amount of olive oil. The flavor stays fresh. I take the resulting puree and put a spoonful or two in plastic sandwich bags, twist shut, and then put several of them in a labeled freezer bag. When I need basil for a sauce, I just pull out one little bag and add it to whatever dish I am making.
While most of us think of culinary herbs as those we use in flavoring stews, marinades, and rubs, a glance at any herbal tea mix will tell us that we could very well be putting up our own tea mixes as well.
We use fresh black stem peppermint for tea during the growing season, and dry the leaves for winter use. Some people like to add a leaf or two of lemon balm or lemon verbena to a pot of black tea.
I’ve known mothers who swear by a tea made with fennel seeds for soothing a colicky baby.
Peter Rabbit’s mother made a chamomile tea, and chamomile is an ingredient of many soothing teas. On the other hand, borage tea is said to give one a lift, and comfrey tea will cure what ails you.
However you use them, herbs are beautiful in the garden, and useful in the kitchen. All year long.
I’d also like to remind everyone that The New England Wild Flower Society’s Nasami Farm Nursery in Whately opens its 2009 Spring Season Thursday, April 16 and will remain open Thursdays through Sundays until June 14. The Society’s nursery propagates and features over 450 native plant species for sale. For more information logon to www.newfs.org.
April 11, 2009