Using Herbs From A Home Herb Garden

Harvest time in the home herb garden gives one a feeling of complete satisfaction! 

Harvesting and ‘putting by’ or using herbs from a home herb garden has been going on all through the ages.  Putting by is the term for preserving food and flowers by different methods. Harvest time is normally midsummer and again in the fall, however if you have been picking leaves for fresh use then you have been harvesting throughout the season.  Now the season is coming to an end and you have an abundance of herbs and are wondering – if they can be stored or preserved like fruits and vegetables. Yes they can be and it is easy. The end result is year long flavor and use of your herbs!

Drying, freezing and pickling are the most common methods used to preserve herbs. There are several ways to preserve them for use throughout the year:

  • Drying Herbs
  • Freezing Herbs
  • Pickling Herbs in a Medium
  • Making Herbs into a Paste
  • Herb Butter
  • Herb Seasoning Blends
  • Herb Jelly

 The first step in harvesting herbs is, “When to harvest herbs”. 

  • Using herbs fresh, you may harvest them at any time. 
  • Using herbs for preserving is best if the plants have started their blooming stage when the oils will be the strongest. Each herb has its own requirements so check the harvest period for your individual herbs. The ‘rule of thumb’ is to harvest your herbs on a dry, sunny morning just after the dew has dried from the leaves and before the sun is hot and only harvest the healthy plants.  

The second step is, “How to harvest herbs”.

  • Using herbs fresh, pick healthy green leaves. Be careful not to injure the plant by using a scissors to cut leaves. If the plant is large, you may cut off a sprig from the end of stems.
  • Using herbs for preserving the leaves depends up the type of plant.  The Annual herbs at the end of the season may be harvested by gently pulling up the entire plant. The perennial herb plants may be cut back no more than 1/3 of the plant.  This will encourage new growth and help it over the winter months.
  • Using herb seeds for preserving the seeds requires waiting until the seed heads start to turn brown but before they are fully ripe. Cut the entire seed head into a paper bag.
  • Using herb seeds for planting in the future should be harvested just as the seeds start to turn yellow and are about to drop off the plant.  Let some seeds drop off the plant for self-sowing for the following year.
  • Using herb flowers for fresh or drying can be cut with a sharp knife or a pruning shears. Always use fresh newly opened flowers that are bright. 

The third step is, “How to clean or wash herbs”.

  • If your herbs were grown by organic means, then most herb gardeners will not soak the herbs in water. If the leaves are dusty or gritty, spray with cold water and then thoroughly drain before drying.
  • If not grown organically, soak the herbs in cold water for a few minutes. Some gardeners like to add a couple tablespoons of salt to the water to ensure getting rid of any insects on the herbs. Rinse the herbs off and dry them by either gently blotting them between soft towels or you may use a salad spinner.

 The fourth step is, “The actual curing of the herbs”.

Drying Herbs is the most common and preferred method of preserving herbs. The two most common types are:

  • Air Dry: allow air to freely circulate around the herbs in a warm area away from the sunlight and bring them in at night before the dew comes out.  This can be done by bundling together several branches and hanging them upside down in an airy location to dry. Other herb gardeners prefer to strip the leaves off of the stems and dry just the leaves on screens or racks. Seed heads may be dried in paper bags that have holes in the bags for air circulation. The seed heads should be upside down in the bags. The seeds may also be removed and dried on screens.
  • Artificial Air: this involves using heat in drying your herbs. This can be done in a dehydrator, microwave oven, or a slow oven.

Freezing Herbs is the second preferred method and very easy to do. After spraying your herbs with water or washing them and drying them in a salad spinner, strip the leaves and or seeds off of the stems. There are three ways to freeze them. The preferred way is to place the leaves or seeds on cookie sheets lined with wax paper and freeze them. After they are frozen, place them in ziplock bags and squeeze the air of them and put back in the freezer. The second way is to place your herbs in ziplock bags allowing the bags to remain open until all moisture has evaporated. The third way is to chop the herbs, mix with a little water and freeze in ice cube trays; once frozen place the cubes in freezer bags and freeze. Don’t forget to label the bags.

Fresh Herbs can also be preserved in layers with salt between each layer. Once the herbs have become brown and dry, remove the herbs and keep the seasoned salt in an airtight container to use. Fresh herbs may be preserved in oil; use within six months. 

Using herbs, in Herbal vinegar is a great way to use fresh herbs. Chop or gently break up the herbs and place in vinegar in a sterilized jar. You can also use garlic with the herbs. Pour white vinegar with a 5% acidity or red wine over them. Do not use balsamic vinegar. Wait a month and then strain the herbs and garlic out. You’ll have wonderful tasting vinegar to use.

TIPS ON PRESERVING YOUR HERBS:

  • If you have used any chemicals in your garden, whether directly or indirectly on your herbs, you must wash them thoroughly to make sure the chemicals are removed. 
  • Try not to harvest your herbs within 7 to 10 days of using any chemicals in the garden.
  • Make sure you do not harvest herbs in moist conditions or when dew is on the herbs as they will be difficult to dry by hand and will be prone to mildew.
  • Fill your containers to the top when possible as this limits the amount of oxygen in the container.  Adding cotton to the jar will also keep the oxygen content down.
  • Do not store your herb containers in the sunlight or near a heat source as heat will destroy the flavor of your herbs.
  • If you do dry your herbs in a microwave be careful they don’t start on fire.
  • Herbal oils can cause botulism poisoning. Herbal oils should be refrigerated. Check with your local County Extension Office for the proper preservations methods.

 Warning: Herbed oils can cause botulism poisoning.  Check with you local extension office before using this method.

 

I hope you find this information useful.  If you haven’t already signed up for my free mini course on herbal gardening you may want to do so.  Thank you for reading this article.

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