How to harvest herbs?

All About Thyme

One of the most versatile herbs, thyme is delicious added to meat, poultry or fish as the dish is cooking. You can also add thyme to soups, beans, mushrooms and vegetable dishes. It’s a staple of European cooking and forms the backbone of the famed herb blend known as bouquet garni, used in French cooking to flavor soups, stocks and stews. Thyme works well with many other herbs, particularly rosemary, parsley, sage and oregano.

Eliminate Coughs: Thyme has been approved by the German government as a treatment for coughs, respiratory infections, bronchitis and whooping cough. Its flavonoids have been found to relax muscles in the trachea linked to coughing and inflammation. To make a cough-eliminating tea: Add 2 teaspoons of crushed fresh or dried thyme leaves to 1 cup of boiled water. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes, and strain.

Beat Fungal Diseases: As an increasing number of fungal conditions have become drug-resistant, new research about thyme’s antifungal activity couldn’t come at a better time. For example, thyme has shown effectiveness against Aspergillus spores—a common type of mold that can cause the lung condition aspergillosis in susceptible individuals. A study in the Brazilian Journal of Microbiology found that not only was thyme effective at inhibiting the growth of fungi, it also increased the potency of the drug fluconazole to kill the disease-causing fungi. Another study in the journal BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine found thyme effective against drug-resistant strains of Candida fungi—the cause of yeast infections.

Soothe Back Spasms: According to James Duke, botanist and author of The Green Pharmacy, thyme’s natural essential oils effectively reduced his back spasms. One way to benefit from these oils is to soak in a hot bath with a handful of dried thyme in it.

Ease Headaches: Medical anthropologist John Heinerman, author of Heinerman’s Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables and Herbs, recommends drinking thyme tea to treat headaches. He uses 1 teaspoon of dried thyme per cup of hot water. He also recommends soaking cloths in thyme tea to make a compress to ease aching muscles of the neck, back and shoulders in order to combat tension headaches.

Help Fight Cancer: New research in the journal BMC Research Notes found that thyme in combination with Middle Eastern oregano was effective at inhibiting human leukemia cells, suggesting that the herb may hold potential in the natural treatment of cancer.

12 Ways to Use Thyme

Add fresh or dried thyme to the following:

• Beans
• Beef
• Fish
• Lamb
• Mushrooms
• Pasta
• Pizza
• Poultry
• Salad dressings
• Soups
• Stews
• Stuffing

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Get the most from your herbs I: Pinch, pinch, pinch!

Basil and other herbs are wonderful additions to the garden even if you never use them in cooking. They add a variety of textures and scents, and their flowers will draw flocks of butterflies and bees. But regular pruning and pinching will give them a nicer shape and a fuller habit, and once you start nibbling and experimenting with what you’ve pinched, you’ll appreciate your herbs all the more!

Plants that are not pinched back will start blooming. Once herb plants produce flower buds, the flavor of the leaves gets bitter. If you’re growing Thai basil simply because you love the big heads of purple flowers, or if you’re growing ‘Lime’ basil for its wonderful aroma alone, then flowers are fine. But if you want to use your herbs in the kitchen, it’s important to keep them from flowering.
When you harvest your herbs, don’t be shy. Your goal is to prune back the stems, not just to pick off individual leaves. Herbs are very forgiving, and as long as you don’t pinch them right down to the ground, you really can’t pinch them too much or too often. Pinching herbs is not a delicate art!
Pruning herbs doesn’t require special tools. You can pinch herbs with your fingers, using your thumbnail and fingernail to cut through the stem. Pinching basil can put a startlingly dark stain on your fingertips. My nails are a lost cause during summer gardening anyway, but you might want to use scissors to snip the stems.

New leaf stems forming on Lime Basil. Count up one or two pairs of leaves from a branch point… and then pinch or snip away the stem above.

For basil, the idea is to leave one or two pairs of leaves per branch. If you look at the base of the leaves where they meet the stem, you will see tiny pairs of new leaves forming. When you pinch through the stem just above this point, each pair of leaves will soon turn into a new branch. When that new branch has two or three sets of new leaves, pinch it again. The plant will get bushier with each pinching, and you’ll get a larger harvest each time. By the end of the season, you could be picking enough basil for a batch of delicious pesto from just one or two plants.

It’s time to pinch this Genovese Basil. Soon there will be 4 stems to pinch

If your basil plants are leggy and blooming now, does that mean you’ve missed your chance at a tasty harvest? Not at all! Prune the plants back hard, so just one set of leaves remains above the major branch points. The plant will produce new growth, and the flavor of the leaves on the new branches will be perfect. There’s no need to harvest the leaves when they are tiny, either. Baby spinach leaves may be a delicacy, but larger basil leaves have wonderful flavor as long as the plant is not allowed to bloom. And letting the leaves get larger means you’ll have that much more fresh basil to enjoy.

Pinching to control flowering is also useful if you plan to save seeds. Basil often comes true for me from saved seeds regardless, but cross-pollination can happen if you’re growing more than one variety. You can isolate varieties by planting them on opposite sides of your garden. Or, you can isolate the blooms in time by letting only one variety of basil bloom and keeping the others pinched back. Basil seeds seem to take anywhere from four to eight weeks to mature on my plants. I often start letting a few plants bloom in mid-August to be sure of harvesting seeds before frost turns the plants to black mush. I might even allow just one or two branches to set seed and continue to pinch and harvest from other branches. I’ve heard that permitting any blooms can make the entire plant taste bitter, but to me any new growth tastes delicious no matter what the rest of the plant is doing.

Lime Basil will soon be full and bushy!

Basil is not the only herb that benefits from regular pinching. The same principles apply to other herbs in your garden, whether thyme or oregano, lavender or rosemary, pineapple sage or rose-scented geranium. Stems of thyme and oregano should be cut back by no more than half their length, and the woodier stems of rosemary and sage should be cut back by no more than one third. As with basil, you will see tiny new leaves forming next to the stem, waiting to form new branches when the plants are pinched back. The more you pinch, the more your herbs will grow!

Pinching and harvesting of perennial herbs should stop at least two weeks before you might expect cold weather. Newly cut stems and tiny new leaves are vulnerable to frost damage, and you want to give your herbs a chance to harden up a bit before winter.

So start pinching with abandon, and get the most out of your herbs this summer!

Nearly everything I know about herbs I learned from Tom DeBaggio, in particular from his little book, Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting and Root: An Adventure in Small Miracles. See this Garden Bookworm entry.

Don’t miss the other articles in this series.

Get the most from your herbs II: Eat what you pinch!

Get the most from your herbs III: Save some for later!

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 21, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

Harvesting Herbs from Your Garden

Throughout summer, snip plants regularly to encourage branching and new growth. Harvest successive cuttings whenever you need fresh herbs. Generally, cut no more than one-third of the stem’s length. Exceptions include chives and lavender: When they bloom, harvest the flowering stems at ground level. Use the snippets of culinary herbs in cooking. Use other fresh herbs to make bouquets and teas or for a delightful herbal bath.

Harvest Handfuls

Gather herbs early in the day, after the dew has dried but before the sun bakes the plants’ essential oils. If you’re harvesting an herb’s leaves, cut the stems at their peak, when the flowers start to form. If you like, gather the blooms of herbs when they develop fully. If you’re after an herb’s seeds, wait until they mature and begin to turn brown before harvesting the seeds heads.

Strip Leaves

To prepare leafy stems for use in cooking, strip the leaves off the stems by sliding your thumb and forefinger from top to bottom. Snip off thicker leaves, such as those of parsley, bay, or tansy, which don’t strip off readily. If you plan to remove the herbs before serving the food, skip stripping and use whole stems. Tie them together for easier removal from whatever you are cooking.

Herb Bunches

The traditional way to preserve herbs entails gathering small bunches of 10 to 15 stems and hanging them in a warm, airy place to dry. Wrap stems tightly with a rubber band or tie them with twine. Hang the bunches on a drying rack, on the rung of a hanger, or from a nail. Drying can take up to three weeks, depending on the plant and its moisture content. Strip crisp-dry leaves off stems before storing them. Dry seed heads by placing a paper bag over them and tying it shut around the stems. Place only one type of herb in each bag and label it. The seeds will drop into the bag as they dry. Let seeds dry for several weeks before storing them properly.

Proper Storage

Store dried herbs in airtight glass or ceramic containers away from light and heat (never on or near the stove) to protect their flavor and fragrance. Keep the leaves whole until used (crushing leaves releases their flavor). Use dried herbs within a year of harvesting.

There are many ways to dry herbs so that you can enjoy them all year. Learn when to harvest and how to dry herbs to preserve their essential oils for the greatest flavor intensity and medicinal properties.

There is nothing better than the flavor and aroma of herbs harvested fresh from the garden. I really miss it when the garden season is over. While I do grow many herbs in containers over the winter to use in cooking, I also like having plenty of dried herbs on hand. Most of the flavors of fresh herbs will be lost in meals that are simmered or cooked for a long period of time.

The intense and concentrated flavor of dried herbs works better for meals that are cooked slowly such as soups, stews, and roasts. Instead of purchasing dry herbs and teas, I try to grow, harvest, and preserve my own.

How to Harvest Herbs for Drying

Herbs can be harvested as needed throughout the growing season once there is enough foliage on the plant to support growth. Snipping the plants regularly help to encourage new growth and keep the herbs healthy. Limit these harvests to less than one-third of the plant so it keeps growing and producing more foliage. The ideal time to harvest most herbs for the best flavor is early in the morning right after the dew evaporates, but before the sun’s rays evaporate the aromatic oils.

When to Harvest Herbs for Peak Flavor and Aroma:

Herbs that you plan to dry for storage should be harvested at their peak to conserve the herbs’ natural oils responsible for flavor, aroma, and medicinal properties. The timing depends on the plant part you are harvesting and how it will be used:

Foliage: Herbs grown for their foliage should be harvested before the plant blooms. The flavor of the leaves turns bitter after the plant flowers and begins to go to seed.

Flowers: Herbs grown for flowers have the highest oil concentration and flavor when picked just after flower buds appear but before the blooms open fully.

Seeds: Herbs grown for their seeds should be harvested after the seeds mature and dry on the plant. They will usually turn dark brown or black when ready.

How to Gather Herbs:

Choose healthy foliage, flowers, or seeds for drying. Use scissors to clip off the stems cleanly. Discard any moldy, diseased, or insect damaged parts.

Leafy Annual Herbs: Harvest leafy, annual herbs like basil and marjoram by pinching off leaves from the tips of the stems right above a pair of leaves. The plant will sprout two branches above the leaves and continue to grow. This is also called “pinching off” and encourages the plant to become bushy and produce more tender foliage. Harvest leafy tips frequently and clip off flower buds to keep the plant producing. Harvest the entire plant before your first frost.

Leafy Perennial Herbs: Perennial herbs such as thyme, sage, and tarragon can be harvested by the stem or sprig. Harvest the herb by cutting the stems 3-4 inches from the base of the plant. Harvest herbs with long stems like parsley and oregano by cutting the stem near the base of the plant. Harvest rosemary by cutting stems above a pair of leaves and it will branch out and continue to grow. Continue to harvest perennial herbs until about 4-weeks before your first frost. As winter approaches, allow the plant to focus on winding down for the season before going dormant.

Blossoms: Some herbs have single flowers, while others present their blooms in clusters along a stem, or spikes. Single blossoms such as chamomile, calendula, and feverfew are harvested by picking the individual flowers when the flower is opened fully. Harvest spiky blossoms when some of the flowers are open by cutting the stem several inches from the base of the plant or above the top set of leaves.

Seeds: Herbs harvested for their seeds, such as anise, caraway, coriander, and dill are dried mostly on the plant. Allow the herb to form flowers and go to seed. After flowering, seeds swell and ripen from green to brown or black as they dry. Seeds are ready to pick when they are dry. Most often, seeds will spill out when the seed head is touched. Hold a container under the seed head and clip the stem so the seed cluster falls into the container along with any seeds released.

How to Dry Herbs for Storage

After harvesting, you want to dry herbs quickly to preserve their essential oils for the greatest flavor intensity and medicinal properties. I don’t add moisture by rinsing my herbs, unless I can see visible dust or pests. Herbs must be dried completely before storing in jars. Ideal drying environment is in a dark, warm, dust-free area with good air circulation. Leaves are ready for storage when they feel dry and crumbly. Here are several methods to dry herbs for storage:

Hang and Air Dry Herbs: Air-drying is the easiest method to dry herbs with stems. Tie the stems into small bundles and hang them upside down in a dry, warm, dust-free, and airy place out of direct sunlight. I like to use elastics around the stems because they will still hold the bunch together as the stems shrink when they are dry.

Air Dry Herbs Using a Drying Screen: Alternatively, you can spread the herbs out on a window screen or drying screen to dry. Suspend the drying screen over two chairs so the air can circulate above and below the screen. See how to make your own drying screen or check out these Stacking Herb Drying Racks from Gardener’s Supply.

Use a Food Dehydrator: Our summers here in Maine are humid, and the moisture in the air can prevent some herbs from air-drying naturally. I use a food dehydrator to dry herbs faster. A dehydrator works by circulating a gentle flow of air through screens. Use low heat so you don’t degrade the quality of the herbs.

Further Drying Seeds: Remove the seeds from the seed heads and spread out in a shallow layer in an open container to dry further for about 1-2 weeks. Separate the seeds from the seed head and chaff.

I like to place the seed heads in a paper bag with a few holes poked in the top for air. After a few weeks, I give the bag a good shake to release the seeds from the seed head. Then I separate the seeds from the dried plant material and spread them out in a shallow container for additional drying before storing.

How to Store Dry Herbs:

Once the herbs are completely dry and brittle, remove the leaves from the stems and store loosely in clean glass jars or containers with airtight lids. To retain the herbs’ flavor and potency, don’t crush or crumble them until just before using. Label your jars the name of the herb and the date.

Store your jars in a in a cool, dark place, away from heat, humidity, and temperature fluctuations. Believe it or not, the kitchen cabinet is not the ideal place to store dry herbs. I keep the bulk of my herbs stored in large jars in a in a cool, dark little-used closet. I fill up small herb jars with about a month’s worth of herbs for the kitchen cabinet. Dried herbs will remain potent for at least six to 12 months when stored properly.

Keep in mind that strength in dried herbs is more concentrated than fresh herbs. If you have a recipe that calls for fresh herbs, substitute with about one-third the amount of dried herbs.

Growing your own culinary and medicinal herbs is very rewarding. Here are some additional articles on growing and preserving your own herbs:

  • 7 Culinary Herbs to Start from Seed
  • 5 Herbs That Thrive Inside
  • How to Grow, Harvest, and Preserve Bee Balm (Monarda)
  • How to Harvest and Preserve Red Raspberry Leaf Tea
  • How to Make Your Own Herbal Drying Screen via Herbal Academy
  • Growing Chamomile for Tea
  • How to Propagate a Rosemary Plant from Stem Cuttings
  • How to Divide Chives

Good planning is key to a successful vegetable garden.

Whether you are new to growing your own food or have been growing a vegetable garden for years, you will benefit from some planning each year. You will find everything you need to organize and plan your vegetable garden in my PDF eBook, Grow a Good Life Guide to Planning Your Vegetable Garden.

Harvesting and Preserving Herbs for the Home Gardener

Horticulture Information Leaflets

Preserving Herbs

Skip to Preserving Herbs

Herbs acquire their fragrance and flavor from oils that evaporate into the air when the leaves are crushed. Ideally, you should use fresh herbs for cooking, but it is possible to retain some quality for later use. There are several methods to preserve herbs.

Freezing is one of the easiest methods to preserve herbs. Rinse the herbs quickly in cold water, shake off the excess, then chop coarsely. Place generous pinches of herbs in water-filled ice cube trays and freeze. Transfer herb-cubes to plastic bags or air tight plastic containers. Another method for freezing is to spread the herbs loosely onto a cookie sheet to freeze, then transfer the herbs into a large plastic bag and seal. When they thaw, herbs will not be suitable for garnish, but can be used in cooking. Do not re-freeze herbs after thawing.

Drying is the traditional method of herb preservation. If the herbs are clean, do not wet them. Otherwise, rinse dust and dirt from the foliage, shake off the excess water, and spread the herbs out to dry on paper towels or dishcloths until all surface moisture has evaporated. Remove any dead or damaged foliage. Then, tie the stems into small bundles with twine or string and hang them upside down in a warm, dry, airy place out of the sun. Be sure to make small, loose bundles and allow for good air circulation around each bunch.

UV rays from the sun and moisture from dew and frost can discolor and severely reduce the quality of many herbs. Thus, it is best to dry herbs indoors in a large empty closet, attic, or unused corner of a room. Drying herbs look quite attractive drying in a kitchen or pantry. If none of these places are practical, herbs can be dried in a barn, shed, or (least desirable) under the cover of a porch. Sage, thyme, summer savory, dill, and parsley are easy to dry. Basil, tarragon, and mints may mold and discolor if not dried quickly.

An alternative to hanging herbs to dry in bunches is to spread the herbs out on window screens. Suspend the screens over sawhorses or the backs of chairs. Turn the leaves often to ensure even drying.

To air dry herbs with seeds, tie the herbs in small bundles and suspend inside a paper bag with holes punched in the sides. Suspend the bag in a dark area with good air circulation. Collect the seeds when they are dry, and store in rigid light-proof containers.

Microwave drying is a quick and easy method to dry small amounts of herbs. Lay a single layer of clean, dry leaves between dry paper towels and place them in the microwave for 1 to 2 minutes on high power. Drying will vary with the moisture content of the herb and the wattage of the microwave oven. Let the leaves cool. If they are not brittle, reheat for 30 seconds and retest. Repeat as needed. Thick leaved herbs may need to be air dried for several days before microwaving.

Conventional ovens can also be used to dry herbs. Spread the herbs on cookie sheets and dry at the lowest temperature setting possible. Home food dehydrators also do an excellent job of drying herbs. Follow the directions provided with the dehydrator.

Herbs are sufficiently dry when they are brittle and crumble easily. When the leaves are dry, separate them from their stems and package the leaves in rigid containers with tight fitting lids. Glass or hard plastic are best, although heavy-duty zip-lock plastic bags can be used. To preserve full flavor, avoid crushing the leaves until you are ready to use them. Store dried herbs in a cool, dry place away from sunlight, moisture, and heat. Many herbs can be keep for a year if stored properly.

Best product
for Drying Herbs

When to harvest herbs is really dependent on the type you are growing and the plant part you intend to use. For example, when harvesting mint, you’ll just be picking the leaves. In other cases, you may be picking the flowers, seeds or roots.

As a general rule, herbs grown for their leaves should be harvested before they flower. After they flower, most herbs tend to lose their flavor or become bitter. You also want to pick the leaves when they are tender and contain the highest amount of oil, which supplies taste and fragrance (see The Herbal Harvest). For most herbs, the best time to pick is early in the morning just as the dew evaporates, but before the heat of the day. Do not wash the leaves or aromatic oils will be lost.

Many flowering herbs, like lavender, borage and chamomile, should be harvested before they are fully open. Harvest herbs grown for their seeds, like dill, fennel, coriander and caraway, as the seed pods begin changing color. Roots crops, like ginseng and goldenseal, should be dug at the end of the summer or early fall.

Preserve your precious bounty! Planet Natural offers a large selection of harvest equipment and supplies — from drying racks to vacuum sealers — to keep what you grow safe through the winter and beyond.

Harvest early and frequently to encourage plants to produce new growth. It’s okay to prune a perennial to about half its height. You can cut back an annual even more — to just a few inches. Many culinary herbs, including chives, basil, mint, parsley, and oregano grow back quickly and benefit from the constant pruning.

Keep harvesting annual herbs right up until frost. Perennial herbs should not be “snipped” past August. Harvesting perennials after this date (or one month before the first frost) may stimulate new growth that will not harden-off before the cold of winter.

Tip: Gather lavender and tarragon flowers in early July and then cut the plants back to about half their original height to promote a second bloom in the fall.

Almost always, herbs taste best when used fresh (see Cooking with Fresh Herbs). After picking, their flavor and aroma tends to deteriorate much too quickly. If you cannot use them shortly after harvest, there are several short-term storage methods that are recommended to help keep their flavor for a couple of hours to a couple of days.

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Several long stemmed herbs, like basil, cilantro and parsley can be stored in a glass of water similar to cut flowers. Just trim the ends and stick them in a glass with about an inch or so of water. Place them on the kitchen counter and they’ll remain fresh for up to a week.

Many fresh herbs, including rosemary, chives and thyme, can be stored a week or longer in your refrigerators’ vegetable bin. For best flavor, wrap them in a damp paper towel and then place in an open or a perforated plastic bag. Do NOT rinse until just before they are to be used. Keep in mind, the longer herbs are stored the greater their flavor loss will be.

For long term storage, and to retain the highest flavor and quality, consider drying herbs. Dried herbs can be kept for two or three years, but should really be used within a year. Any longer than this, and they won’t be as tasty or as fragrant. Sun, oven or dehydrator drying is not recommended, because the herbs will lose too much flavor and color.

To dry sturdy, low moisture herbs, like rosemary, thyme, dill, savory, sage, and parsley, cut whole branches of the plant and gently rinse in cool water. Tie the cuttings in small bunches and hang upside down in a dark, well-ventilated and dust-free room. When dry, usually within 2 to 3 weeks, remove the leaves from the stems and store whole in an air tight container. Crush or grind just before use.

Herbs with large, tender leaves and a high moisture content, including bay leaf, basil, lemon balm, lovage, mint, lemon verbena and tarragon, should be dried quickly to prevent mold. You can dry these herbs on frames covered with netting or window screen. Simply strip the best leaves from the stems and lay them in a single layer on the drying rack. Turn during the first few days and after about a week, when the leaves are completely dry, remove them and store in tightly closed containers for later use. Learn more about harvesting and drying herbs from the University of Illinois Extension.

KEEPS CROPS FRESH!

Home gardeners love True Liberty® Turkey Bags for their ability to preserve harvests, keeping crops fresh, healthy and stable, with all the aroma and flavor locked right in. Use them to store veggies, dried herbs and after market flowers.

Freezing Herbs

Another easy method for preserving herbs is to freeze them (see Freeze Fresh Herbs for Long-Term Storage). Simply wash the herbs and pat them dry, spread them out in a single layer on a pan, and put the pan into the freezer. When frozen, place the herbs in an air tight plastic container or bag and keep them in the freezer until ready to use.

Basil, borage, chives, dill, lemongrass, mint, oregano, sage, savory, tarragon and thyme all freeze well and will maintain their quality for up to six months. Chop chives and lemongrass before you freeze them. These herbs are thin and will freeze quickly.

Tip: You can create festive party drinks by freezing sprigs of mint and woodruff. After washing them, chop the herbs and place them in ice cube trays. Fill the trays with cold water and freeze until use.

Harvesting, Drying and Storing Herbs

One of the advantages of growing your own herbs is being able to harvest fresh herbs when you need them for cooking. Also, herb gardens allow you to grow specialty herbs that may not always be available at local markets. Preserving herbs for future use allows herbs to be available throughout the year. There are several ways to preserve herbs. Some methods may be preferable over others depending on what type of herb you are growing.

Harvesting Herbs

Herbs should be harvested when the oils responsible for their flavor and aroma are at their highest. Proper timing depends on the plant part you are harvesting and how you plan to use it. Herbs can be harvested when the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. With annual herbs, they can be cut back 50-75 percent and still recover. With perennial herbs, remove about one-third of the growth at any one time. Use a sharp knife or pruners to make clean cuts.

Try to harvest early in the day after plants dry off and before it gets hot. Herbs are best harvested before they start to flower otherwise leaf production declines. Deadheading or removal of flowers as they appear will result in the continued production of new leaves suitable for harvest.

When harvesting foliage from herbs, be certain that the plants have not been sprayed with pesticides. There are a variety of products to control insects and diseases but many of them are not cleared for use on herbs harvested for foliage to be eaten.

Drying Herbs

The traditional way to preserve herbs is by air drying or using low heat. Drying concentrates the flavor of herbs so you may need to only use one-third to one-fourth the amount of fresh herbs in recipes.

After harvesting, gently wash the herbs and dry them thoroughly on paper towels. Remove any dead or damaged material. Tie the herbs in loose bunches that allow for good air circulation around each bunch. The bunches could be put into small paper bags with the stem ends sticking out of the top of the bag. Punch holes in the bag to allow for ventilation. The bags help protect the herbs from dust and other contamination while drying. Hang the herb bunches in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area out of the sun. A garage, shed, barn or well ventilated attic work well. It may take up to a month for herbs to dry completely.

Tray drying is another method that works well with short stemmed herbs or for individual leaves. A simple frame that has screen wire fastened to the bottom works well. Put herbs in a single layer across the bottom and place the trays in a warm, well-ventilated area out of the sun. Leaves may need to be turned to insure even drying.

Drying with heat can involve the use of conventional ovens, micro-wave ovens or dehydrating ovens.

Home food dehydrators do an excellent job of drying herbs. Refer to the owner’s manual for specifics and settings.

Oven drying works well if the temperatures can be closely monitored. Oftentimes, oven temperatures cannot be set low enough and the result is loss of flavor and color. However, if oven temperatures can be held between 90 and 110 degrees that would be the ideal oven drying temperature. Setting your oven at the lowest temperature and leaving the oven door slightly open often results in temperatures that can be maintained at that level. Check the progress of drying often and turn the herbs if necessary. It may take 3-4 hours to dry herbs using this method.

Microwave ovens can also be used to dry small quantities of herbs quickly. Always observe safety precautions when drying herbs in a microwave and check manufacture’s recommendations for using their product when drying herbs as the risk of scorching herbs and the possibility of starting fires exists.

Prepare herbs by washing and drying very thoroughly. Any excess moisture on herbs leads to them cooking and not drying. Place herbs between two pieces of paper towel and microwave on high for 1-3 minutes. Check the progress every 30 seconds and turn the herbs to insure even drying. After removing from the microwave place herbs on a rack and allow them to cool before storing.

After herbs are dry remove the leaves from the stems and package in sealed containers in a cool location, out of sunlight. To preserve the full flavor of herbs try to avoid crushing the leaves when packaging. Ideally herbs should be crushed just prior to adding them to recipes.

With proper storage, most herbs retain their flavor for about a year.

To dry herb seeds, cut stems with seed heads just as the heads begin to turn brown. Gather them into small bunches and hang the bunches upside down in paper bags that have ventilation holes punched in the sides of the bags. Hang the bags in a warm, well-ventilated area out of the sun to dry. Once dry, the seeds can be shaken from the seed heads. Carefully rub the seeds to separate seed from the capsules. Laying the seeds on a clean flat surface and gently blowing across the seeds will help remove any debris and chaff. Collect the seeds and store in sealed containers. Seeds may take longer to dry than leaves. Make sure the seeds are thoroughly dry before storing to avoid the possibility of the seeds becoming moldy.

Freezing

While freezing herbs is perhaps the easiest method, herbs handled this way are most useful used in the cooking process, as frozen herbs are not suitable for garnish. Freezing will alter the appearance quality but not the flavor quality.

After herbs are washed, they can be coarsely chopped and generous pinches of herbs can be placed in water filled ice cube trays and frozen. The cubes can then be transferred to plastic bags and placed in the freezer. Individual cubes can be taken out as needed.

Herb leaves can also be blanched in boiling water for about one minute and then quickly cooled by plunging them into ice water. The leaves can then be put into tightly seal plastic bags and frozen.

  • Introduction
  • Herb Directory
  • Preserving Herbs
  • Recipes
  • Credits

Harvesting Herbs 101 (Basil, Chives, Cilantro/Coriander, Mint, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Tarragon, Thyme)

Confession time: When it comes to planting and tending herbs, are you all prudence and patience, employing optimal growing practices with the greatest care and attention? But then, when it comes time to harvest those same herbs, do you throw caution to the wind? Do you dig in with grubby, bumbling fingers, blindly ravaging your otherwise immaculately cultivated darlings in a rush of panic while the herb’s intended destination—a sauce, perhaps—boils over on the stove?

Hey, we’ve all been there: Growing herbs, especially from seed, requires months of work before there’s much of a payoff, and sometimes you just can’t stomach any more waiting, or for that matter, researching. And sometimes, in the midst of dinner prep, you have to move quickly. But at the risk of sounding preachy: Whoa, Nelly! Indiscriminate harvesting might get the rosemary into the recipe but, ultimately, you’re only hurting yourself. Deliberate herb pruning can actually encourage fuller growth and a bigger yield in the long run. In other words, pick smart now, eat more later.

That said, we’ve all got our own right way and wrong way to harvest herbs. Below is a compilation of recommended methods, but if you do things differently and have a bone—er, a leaf—to pick, by all means, speak up!

HARVESTING BASIL

Recommended tool: Fingers

Regular harvesting: There are two important rules of (green) thumb here that apply to harvesting most herbs. One, never pick more than one-third of the leaves on a plant at a time and, two, after doing so, let the plant recover before going back in for a subsequent haircut. Beyond these two truths, folks have all kinds of methods for harvesting basil, from selectively picking single mature leaves all over the plant to snapping off entire stems, but we like the following approach best.

Locate a pair of new leaves on the main stem, several inches below the top of the plant and below a decent-sized bundle of larger, more mature leaves. Using your thumb and forefinger, pinch the plant just above the new leaves. The plant will then essentially double its efforts and form two primary stems where once there was one. Nice, huh?

One other tip: When you see a little tower—sort of like a corncob or a fuzzy caterpillar—of tiny green leaves forming at the end of a stem, pinch it! Otherwise, that tower will turn into flowers, and while many folks find basil blooms deliciously intense, nipping them in the bud encourages the plant to spend its energy creating lots of leaves rather than tiny blossoms. And when we’re talking precious pesto, we want quantity!

End of season: Basil is an annual, and while you can bring the plant indoors when temps start to drop, you might be better off harvesting the remaining bounty and making pesto to freeze and use throughout the winter.

HARVESTING GARLIC CHIVES
Recommended tool: Kitchen shears or pocketknife

Regular harvesting: You can start harvesting when these leaves are at least 6 inches long. Whether you want just a couple for a garnish or you need a bigger batch, always clip from the outside of the chive clump and always cut about half an inch up from the soil. This will encourage the plant to spread out when sending up new growth. One note: Don’t cut midway up a leaf. You might think you’re leaving life behind to flourish, but any partial leaves will wither. On the other hand, if you’re ready to harvest an entire clump, grab it like a ponytail, twist it, and cut half an inch up from the soil.

End of season: Chives are a perennial and can overwinter outside. Just let the plant die back and leave it alone.

HARVESTING CILANTRO/CORIANDER

Recommended tool: Kitchen shears

Regular harvesting: Cilantro is ready to pick when the green and leafy stems are at least 6 inches long. Snip the stems near the ground. As with chives, you can cut them a few at a time or in a bunch.

End of season: Let any unused seed pods dry out and brown and, voila, coriander! To harvest, clip the brown, seed-bearing stems and let them dry fully in a paper bag. After a few days, the husks will split open and reveal their edible seeds.

HARVESTING MINT

Recommended tool: Fingers

Regular harvesting: This one, you can unleash your 2-year-old kid on. (In fact, do! Mint is such a voracious grower, it can withstand, and even benefit from, an enthusiastic picker.) To harvest, just pinch anywhere, anytime. For a mega harvest, wait until you see the first flowers form then cut the whole plant back to the first or second set of leaves. The mint will grow back even bushier. Because that’s just the kind of plant it is.

End of season: Mint is a perennial and will die back when cold temps arrive then return again in spring, in almost any zone. As with chives, you can let it winter in place outdoors.

HARVESTING PARSLEY

Recommended tool: Kitchen shears

Regular harvesting: As with garlic chives, select bunches to cut from the periphery—never the interior—of the plant. Cutting the stalks near the base will encourage new, bushy growth.

End of season: Parsley is an annual a biennial, meaning its lifecycle is two years. (Thanks, Mary!) Harvest in bulk at the end of the season and freeze for winter use.

HARVESTING ROSEMARY

Recommended tool: Kitchen shears

Regular harvesting: As with mint, this one is hard to screw up. Clip at any time, anywhere, on any stem, other than in the woody parts. Leave those alone.

End of season: Similar to chives, rosemary is a perennial and can overwinter outside in the ground, or inside or outside in a pot. Let it die back at the end of the season and then leave it alone. No watering!

HARVESTING SAGE
Recommended tool: Fingers or kitchen shears

Regular harvesting: If you’re starting sage from seed, wait until year 2 before you go whole hog with harvesting. In year 1, pinch lightly as needed. In year 2 and beyond, you can get greedier, cutting entire stems—especially older ones, since that will encourage new growth. (In other words, sage is the opposite of rosemary: Aim for the woody bits.)

End of season: Sage is a perennial and can last up to five years, especially if you’re good about pruning.

HARVESTING TARRAGON

Recommended tool: Kitchen shears

Regular harvesting: With this guy, you definitely don’t want to cut off entire mature stems. Instead, snip newer baby shoots of light green leaves from all over the plant, leaving the woody parent stems behind to produce new growth. To remove individual leaves from a shoot, pinch the shoot and run your fingers down its length, like a zipper.

End of season: Tarragon is a perennial and can yield several years of delicious, licorice-like leaves. At the end of the growing season, simply cut the stalks back to 3 or 4 inches above the crown and let them idle.

HARVESTING THYME

Recommended tool: Kitchen shears

Regular harvesting: The method here is similar to tarragon. You want to leave the woody stems alone, but any new green shoots? Those are fair game. To encourage further growth, snip right above a bunch of leaves. (Pun alert: Thyme is a hardy grower. You cannot stop thyme. Insert groan here.)

End of season: In all except the hottest climes, thyme is a perennial. It’ll die back and get its beauty sleep in winter, though gardeners in cold zones might want to cover it with a tarp or tree boughs to avoid—well, killing thyme. (Get it? Killing “thyme”? What? Too many puns?)

SPEAK UP!

Got your own method of pinching parsley? Or have thoughts to share on another herb entirely—lavender, perhaps? Post a comment below and keep the conversation rolling. You might also be interested in the Freezing, Drying, and Storing Herbs 101; the Drying Chile Peppers 101; and the Selecting Seeds and Seed Starting 101s. If you’re a diehard herbophile, you might consider joining the Herb Lovers group. And you can always find more things to cook, preserve, make, craft, plant, grow, and pinch in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.

PHOTOS: (PARSLEY) ABRUNVOLL, (SAGE) CHIOT’S RUN, AND (THYME) JABB, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS/FLICKR; (ALL OTHERS) JENNIFER

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