Your Herbal Harvest
For fresh use, you can pick a few leaves or a sprig at any time. Plant frequently used herbs
conveniently outside your back door - you don't want to have to hike to the back forty for a sprig of parsley!
If you're planning a large harvest of leaves to store, you need to take a little more care. Harvest leaves just before
the flowers open, to get the maximum benefits of the herb's properties. Pick them early in the morning, after the dew has
dried but before the heat of the day. You can harvest them simply by cutting off the top of the plant - for annuals, about half;
for perennials, about a third - or, if it's an annual you have no further use for, simply pull up the whole plant. Don't wash
the plant, unless it's really filthy, but do shake off any bugs, cobwebs, or dead leaves. Because plants tend to flower at different
times, your harvest of leaves will probably be spread out over the summer.
Harvest flowers at the same time of day as leaves, as soon as they're fully open.
Roots should be dug at the end of the growing season, when the maximum amount of nutrition has been stored. Use a spading fork or
small cultivator to gently free the roots from the soil - don't just rip them up! Discard any damaged roots. Again, try not to wash them
unless you have to; use a vegetable brush to gently loosen any dirt remaining. If you do need to wash them, do it quickly in cold water
and don't soak them.
Harvesting seeds tends to vary from plant to plant. Some seeds, like those of borage, simply fall to the ground as soon as they're
ripe. Thyme seeds are very small and hard to see. Parsley and coriander seeds shake off very easily, and frequently the plants will have
sown next year's crop for you before you realize they've gone to seed! One tried and true method of harvesting any seed you're not sure of
is to tie a small paper bag over the flower head when the seeds start to form. If the seed is small, drops when ripe, or tends to
spring excitedly off the plant, you will be sure of catching it.
To prepare your herbs for drying, pick through them and discard any weeds or discolored leaves. Small leaves, like thyme or oregano, can
be dried on the stem; larger leaves should be removed. Cut flower heads off them stems, and chop roots into small (1 inch) pieces.
The best place to dry your herbs is somewhere dark, warm, and dry, with good air circulation. An attic is ideal, as is a shed, a
well-ventilatd closet, or your oven on the lowest setting with the door left ajar. There are a number of commercial drying racks and cabinets available,
or you can make your own - I have several racks my husband made from 2 x 4's and chicken wire or screening which I use for drying everything from
herbs to soap. You can lay your herbs on racks, or you can hang them in bunches - if you hang them, tie them loosely and either put a paper bag with holes
punched in the sides over them, or be prepared to pick them up frequently as the stems shrink.
Dry leaves until they are brittle and break easily. Flower petals should be dry and rustle but not crumble. Roots should be dry enough to break into
pieces, not squash. Dried herbs will retain much of their color and scent, but be much lighter.
Once your herbs have dried, you'll need to prepare them for storage. Strip leaves from the stems and discard the stems, remove petals from the flowerheads.
Some people like to crumble the leaves at this point; I've found that the flavor and scent last much longer if I don't break up the leaves until I'm ready to use them.
Store your herbs as soon as you have dried them, so they don't pick up any moisture from the air. They should be stored in the dark, in air-tight containers. Dark glass
jars - amber, emerals, or my favorite, cobalt - are ideal; but if you only have clear glass just keep them in a dark cupboard. For herbs that are going to be used frequently,
keep a small jar aside to use, rather than opening a larger jar more frequently and exposing the herbs to air. You can also use earthenware containers with tight-fitting
lids, or air-tight wooden boxes. I have occasionally used plastic Rubbermaid or Tupperware-style containers, but I don't recommend them as the plastic tends to attract moisture
and your carefully harvested herbs will rot.