Herb Gardens & Drying Herbs

Growing most herbs is easy, uncomplicated, and one of the least stressful plants in the garden to harvest.  With fruits and vegetables there is such a narrow window of time when you either need to harvest and eat them or preserve them before they spoil.  With most herbs you just cut them, hang ‘em up to dry for a couple weeks, and then at a convenient time take them down, strip the leaves from the twigs, put them in little containers, and then store them in a cool, dark place.  

Herbs can grow almost anywhere as long as they get sun and water.  I prefer to have most of my herbs in their own area to more easily monitor and water them.  The herbs I have in my herb garden still co-exist quite happily surrounded by Dahlias, Black Eyed Susans, Echinacea, Roses and Irises.  These two photos show how my herb garden used to look before my large Rosemary bush and yellow tea rose died.  Since then I’ve done a lot of rearranging and transplanting and have even added a couple rose bushes and a fountain.  Below is how my herb garden looked last winter after everything died back and I removed my five variety apple tree to open the area up to more sun.

I grow the herbs I use the most in my cooking, and that would be Basil, Dill, Cilantro, Parsley, French cooking Thyme, Rosemary, Tarragon, Oregano and Marjoram.  Basil is probably the herb I use the most, but ironically it’s the one plant I have the hardest time growing from seeds or starts.  Slugs and bugs love Basil as much as I do, so that’s a problem.   I buy larger Basil plants to ensure a good amount, and this year I placed them in my regular garden and got a great crop.  Cilantro and Dill are also two of my indespensable herbs, and I also grow them in my veggie beds.  All the others do well together in my separate herb garden.  Dill grows like a weed, and it deposits its seeds everywhere in the soil, so I end up pulling up a lot of dill plants in the spring.  You never have to buy Dill seed or Cilantro seed because they are so easy to pull off the plants at the end of the summer when they are dried out. Chances are you’ll get more seed than you need.  

For some good basic rules and advice on herbs you can find a good pdf print out by the OSU Extension Service at:

   http://extension.oregonstate.edu/fch/sites/default/files/documents/sp50921_drying_herbs2009.pdf     

Below is what I do when I process my herbs by hanging only. I’ve used my dehydrator on some herbs and I also plan to experiment with the microwave to see which method results in the most flavorful herbs.  Until then, here’s what I started out doing and it works great for me and my needs so far:

1. First, I cut the herbs off the plant in the morning when the oils are the strongest. You may want to rinse them off to get off dirt and bugs, but if you do that make sure you shake out as much water as possible before hanging them.
2. The rules say to cut the herbs right before budding, and based on my own experience I am fairly sure that does provide for the best flavor, so I take care to cut right before budding, or as soon as budding starts.  Basil, like most herbs, can be harvest continually throughout the summer.  I cut everything back leaving about a fourth to a third of the plant.  This last summer I did this three times to my Basil, Oregano, Marjoram, parsley and chives.  I didn’t do this with my Tarragon which doesn’t really get good growth until later in the summer.  I’m not sure this works with dill or cilantro however. 
3. I hang my herbs upside down in an area away from direct sunlight. Near the ceiling works well in my house. It’s warmer up there and the herbs dry faster.  Tape the date to the hangers so you know when you hung them.  The longer they hang the more the flavor is compromised.  The last bunch of basil, oregano and marjoram I hung took about two and a half weeks which was probably too long, but they still had great flavor. 
4. I came up with the hanger arrangement above, and it also works well to place herbs in metal basket racks  They’re contained but still get a complete flow of air through the mesh.  The three tier metal mesh baskets are decorative also.  In my previous post there is a photo of another hanger I use that works great.
5. I find that it’s best to not have huge clumps of herbs banded together so the air can circulate through them better.  You don’t want the herbs to dry on the outside but still be moist on the inside. 
6. When it’s time to strip the herbs from the twigs it goes very quickly.  Since the dry leaves can really fly everywhere and make a mess it helps to have them on a large clean table top where they’re easy to scoop up.  I recommend not crushing the leaves until right before cooking.  It preserves the flavor so much better. I then store the herbs in small containers and keep them in a cool, dark place.  If you store them properly they will hold their flavor well. 

In my next post on herbs, I’ll try to get up some photos of the actual process of stripping and storing the herbs.   

 

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