To Everything There is a Season
After months of planting, tending and growing, it is now time to reap what we have sown. An author once wrote that harvesting herbs can be an odd blend of glamour and strain. It’s a lot of work to gather all the leaves and blooms at the right time and labor through the process of preserving them, but it’s also hugely satisfying to fill beautiful baskets with bunches of herbs and decorate your kitchen with clusters of your crop.
A Time for Every Purpose
Timing is everything, and the purpose you have for each type of herb influences how you harvest it and how you choose to preserve it. The oils in the plant are what contain the flavor and smell we are trying to capture. It is key to pick the plants at their peak. Overripe herbs get stalky when they direct their energy toward flower and seed production, so the flavor weakens as their peak wanes.
The proper timing depends on what part of the plant you are using and what it will be used for. Leaves have the highest concentration of oils just before budding. Begin your harvest when there is enough foliage on the plant to maintain growth. It is best to collect in the early morning after dew dries but before heat sets in.
Fall is the best time to harvest herb roots, such as ginseng, bloodroot, chicory and goldenseal after their foliage fades. Annuals can be harvested until frost. Timing varies with each herb, so you’ll want to research the herbs in your garden to make sure you choose the right time for what you have.
A Time to Preserve
Though it is ideal to use fresh herbs for cooking, we can retain some of their fragrance and flavor to use when the growing season is over. We have many options for preserving them.
A Time to Gather and Dry
Traditional Bunching Method – To gather herbs for quick drying, use the “bunching method” of collecting. When the plants are completely dry, cut the herbs with kitchen shears at the lowest set of clean leaves. It works well to grab a small group in one hand and cut the stalks with the other. Do a quick check for weeds, insects and discoloration at this point. Then lay the herbs in your harvesting basket so they all point in the same direction and are easy to bunch. Group about a dozen stems together and secure tightly with a rubber band around the base at about an inch and half from the stem’s end.
Hang the bunches in a cool room away from direct sunlight because light destroys the herb’s essential oils and color. The bunches can become part of your kitchen décor, or you can string them across your pantry. Make sure air can flow around the bunches to speed up the drying process. Most fast-drying herbs get crispy dry in a week or less, depending on the humidity level.
When the leaves are hard and the stems get brittle, it’s time to strip the leaves. You can either roll the whole bunch back and forth between your hands over a bowl, or take one stem at a time and sweep down the stalk with your hand to drive the leaves into a container. Store them in reused jars with lids inside cabinets away from light. They should keep for a year.
The herbs that are easy to dry include sage, thyme, summer savory, dill, and parsley. Basil, mints, and tarragon must be dried quickly or they can mold and discolor.
Screen Drying Method – You can also dry herbs by spreading them out on window screens. Simply place the screens horizontally on something so that air flows through the mesh. Spread the herbs out over them, making sure to turn the leaves over frequently so they dry evenly.
Microwave Drying Method – This method works well for small amounts of herbs. Layer paper towels and clean, dry leaves in the microwave oven. Heat for one or two minutes on high. Let them cool and then test for brittleness. If they don’t break easily, heat again for 30 seconds. Repeat as needed.
Conventional Oven Method – You can also dry herbs in a conventional oven. Spread the leaves out on a cookie sheet and bake them at 150 degrees. Stir often until dry. If you can smell them as they bake, turn down the heat.
Dehydration Method – Another excellent tool for drying herbs is a home food dehydrator. Follow the directions provided with the dehydrator.
A Time to Freeze
Freezing is another easy way to preserve your harvest. Rinse the plants first in cold water, pat dry with a paper towel, then remove leaves and chop. You can put liberal amounts of herbs into ice cube trays with water and freeze them that way. Once they are frozen, you’ll want to transfer them to air tight containers. Or, you can spread the herbs out on a platter to freeze. Either way, this method is not suitable for using the herbs as garnish, but they will be great for cooking. They should not be refrozen.
Harvest More Than Just Herbs
Nuts aren’t herbs of course, but at this time of year they are ready for harvesting, too. Just for fun, it’s amusing to compete with the squirrels to see who can amass the most nuts. The Weasel Nut Gatherer gives you a great competitive edge, almost guaranteeing you can out-gather the squirrels. It’s easy to roll it along to pick up pecans, acorns, walnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts, chestnuts, filberts, gum balls, seeds, and more. No bending over, and it saves time. To bring a little fall beauty into my home, I like to collect buckets full of acorns and glue them to a large cardboard ring to create a wreath.
Fall is such a picturesque time of year. While you are out working to harvest your herbs, don’t forget to soak up the gorgeous array of autumn color all around you. Enjoy the beauty of the harvest time now, so you can relish the flavors through the next season to come.
Tools List: Weasel Nut Gatherer