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How to Harvest, Dry, and Store Herbs



Harvesting

Most herbs can be used fresh, dry, or fresh-frozen. The rule of thumb is to use twice as much of the fresh or frozen herb as the dried form (the dried herb being a more concentrated form).

Harvesting and drying herbs is not complicated. The key two words to keep in mind are volatile oil. It is this important part of the plant which is stored up mainly in the leaves, which gives the plant its aroma and taste. And it is this key ingredient which must be preserved in the drying process. Air drying is the simplest method and has been done in this manner since before forever. Food dehydrators take advantage of this principle by applying a gentle flow of air which hastens the process. A dehydrator is a worthy investment for any kitchen with large quantities of foodstuff and plant materials to be stored. The idea time of season to harvest most herbs is just when the flower buds are forming, but just before they open. The best time of day is in the morning when the dew has dried off the leaves and there is no moisture clinging to the plant. The volatile oils will be at their best this time of day.

To insure that the plant material is clean, hose them down the evening before you plan to harvest, gently spraying away any dirt which clings to the leaves.

As much as 50% from one picking may be harvest from an annual plant by snipping the stem at least 4 inches up from the ground, yet still above active growth. In time it will grow back and give you a second harvest before summer's end. In some cases, even a third.

With perennial plants, no more than one-third should be taken. In the case of some plants only the growing tips can be harvested.

To maintain the vigor of your plants, it is vital to have at hand either good sharp shears or a knife when harvesting. Pulling at the plants with the fingers does damage to the root systems and will make itself evident the following season by poor growth patterns. If you plan to harvest roots, they must be cut into small portions and dried using one of the mechanical means to insure proper dehydration before storage.

The following chart will specify which part of the plant to harvest and when it should be done.



Harvest Chart
AA = as available
BF = before flowering
WB = while in bud stage
WF = while flowering
D = dried (precedes F, L, R, or S)
F = flower
L = leaf
R = root
S = seed
X = whole form

NOTE: Roots are dug in fall after 1 or 2 frosts.

HERBPART USEDHARVESTSTOREHERBPART USEDHARVESTSTORE
AngelicaSAADS Lemon BalmLBFDL
RFall of 1st yearDR LovageL, stemsWFDL, D-stems
L, stemsBFDL, D-stems SAADS
AniseSAADS RfallDR
Anise HyssopLBFDL
FWFDF Marigold, Lemon GempetalsAAUse fresh
Marigold, TarragonLAADL
BasilsLAADL MarjoramLBF, WFDL
BeebalmL, FWFDL Marjoram, SweetLBF, WFDL
BlackberryLBFDL MintsLBF, WBDL
BonesetF, LWFDF, DL MotherwortL, flowering topsWFDL & tops
BorageF, LWFDF, DL MugwortL, stemsWBDL, D-stems
MulleinFAADF
CalendulaFWFD petals LAADL
CatnipLBF, WFDL
ChamomileFWFDFX Nettle, StingingLBFDL
ChickoryRFallDR
ChickweedPlantWFD plant OreganoLBF, WFDL
CilantroLAAUse fresh
Clover, RedFWFDFX ParsleyLAADL
*Comfreyyoung growing tipsBFDL Pennyroyal, Eng.LWBDL
RFallDR PumpkinSAADS
CorianderSAADS *Pyrethrum, DalmationFWFDF
CostmaryLBFDL
DandelionLAADL Raspberry, RedLWFDL
FspringUse fresh RosemaryF, LAADF, DL
RfallDR
DillL, SAADL, DS SageLBF, WFDL
Sage, PineappleF, LBF, WFDF, DL
EchinaceaRFall of 2nd yearDR SavoryLBFDL
ElderberryFWFDF SelfhealPlantWFD-plant
ElecampaneRFall of 2nd yearDR SkullcapPlantWFD-plant
EphedraplantWFD plant SouthernwoodLBF, WFDL
Evening PrimroseF, LWFDF, DL SpeedwellPlantWFD-plant
Sweet CicelyLBFDL
FennelSAADS SAADS
FeverfewF, LWFDF, DL RFallDR
Sweet WoodruffL, soft stemsBF, WFDL, D-stems
HopsFemale strobilesWhen amber brownD strobiles
HorehoundLWBDL *TansyF, LWFDF, DL
HorseradishRFall aft. 1 or 2 frostsDR, or use fresh TarragonLEarly & late summerDL
HyssopLWFDL ThymesLWFDL
.
Lady's BedstrawRFallDR ValerianRFallFR, DR
Lady's MantleF, LWFDF, DL Violet, SweetF, LBF, WFDF, DL
LavenderF in full bud stageWBD bud
YarrowF, LWFDF, DL
*Indicates a plant not meant for internal use.
The term plant refers to the above ground portion of the plant.



DRYING

A simple process which brings our twenty-first century minds in touch with history. Grandma used the rafters in the attic, or a back room on the north side of house, to dry her herbs. Her home was her place of work and every space was utilized. An area with low light and an open window for ventilation is all that is required. Air conditioning is a bonus as it speeds the drying process by removing humidity from the air.

Dry the leaves right on the stems. When you have gathered your material, wrap a string or elastic band around the bottom of the stems and hang upside down to dry. Overhead rafters (shades of Grandma) are ideal, but a pushpin stuck into a back wall works well too. It is preferable to bundle the stems in small quanities as they will dry more quickly. By the time a large bundle is sufficiently dried, it has usually collected more dust than you would care to eat. Either that, or gone moldy.

Another method is to place the plant material loosely in a paper sack into which a good number of holes have been punched in the sides for ventilation. Tie the top with a string and hang to dry. This serves to keep the dust from the plant material and allows for something suitable for labeling.

Always attach some type of label or identification to your drying material.
Once dried it can be extraordinarily difficult to distinguish between one herb and another.

Yet another method ideal for small amounts is to place the plant material into a wicker or plastic open-weave basket which is lined with a paper towel. Place on a side table out of direct light and 'fluff' the contents from time to time to prevent settling.

Once dried, leaves are easily removed by stripping them from the stems. One exception is thyme. It can be tedious to strip its tiny leaves, so the dried stems and leaves are both ground for use. Try it both ways and see which you prefer.

To harvest seeds, such as dill, place a paper bag over the seed head, then snip from the plant. You should attempt to get the seeds just before they have turned completely dark, and they are still attached to the plant. Once they begin falling, they go rather quickly. If a few seeds fall from the head when it is gently tapped, then it is time to harvest.

If you plan to harvest a great deal of plant material, check your owner's manual for your oven. If your electric oven can maintain a temperature of between 80°F and 90°F, then you will be able to dry your herbs by placing them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. The herb is dry and ready for storage when the leaves crackle between your fingers.

Ideally, you should invest in a dehydrator if you plan to store a great many herbs. This is almost essential for roots (the roots will need to be cut up into small pieces, or sliced thin). It also makes the whole harvest ready for storage in a very short time. Try to get one that will operate without heat (air flow only - essential for things like lemon balm) or has a thermostat (set at the lowest setting).

Replace your dried herbs with a fresh harvest each year. Although there are a few special exceptions to the rule, after one year they begin to deteriorate in flavor and potency.

Most herbs can be placed in plastic bags and fresh frozen. Basils will develop a dark color, but the taste will be unaffected. Use as you would fresh herbs.

One final method for drying delicately flavored herbs such as chives or salad burnet involves the use of your frost-free refrigerator. Lay the blades of chives on a plate and place in refrigerator UNCOVERED. If you're familiar with the way uncovered produce dries out, you'll understand what's happening. Flavor isn't lost, but the chives will be "pseudo" freeze dried.



STORAGE

Your herbs would soon lose their value if not stored properly. Glass is the best storage container, and dark brown glass the ideal as it protects the contents from light. Dark brown iced tea jars made excellent storage containers.

Light and heat are stored herbs greatest enemy.

Store your herbs in a cupboard or closet set aside for this purpose. Even a portion of a cupboard away from heat and light will keep your harvest in top condition and ready for use.



Certainly nothing brings greater pleasure than being able to supply our own needs from Nature's storehouse. There is so much to enjoy during the course of the season. The beautiful sights of the gardens, the wonderful aromas and different textures of the various plants, and even the lulling sound of droning bees busily working the flowers. Herbs ensure good pollination of your vegetable and flower gardens as they attract so many of the natural pollinators. They also draw hummingbirds, butterflies and a wide assortment of birds who delight us with their songs and colors.

The second best experience is being able to hold onto this feeling all year round simply by lifting the cover on a jar of sweet smelling herbs and inhaling the fragrance and memories of last sumer while anticipating the joys of the next.

Melancholy cannot exist in an herb garden.




© 1998 by Ernestina Parziale

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