Green Patch: Harvesting Herbs

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Q: My herb garden is growing beautifully
and I have lots of stems to gather and dry. What’s the best way to
harvest herbs so I capture them at their peak?

A: You are wise to plan ahead for a
bountiful harvest because how herbs are handled before, during and
just after they are gathered definitely affects their quality.
Careful attention to details will make harvesting fast and
enjoyable, and also insures that you will be able to taste and
smell summer when you use your herbs for cooking, crafts or tasty
teas.

Begin by bringing your plants into top condition while they are
still in the ground. A week or so before you plan to pick,
carefully check each plant and use a small pair of scissors to snip
out any branches that show damage from insects or disease. Pick off
blemished leaves, too, and use a stick to stir spider webs into
oblivion.

After this pre-harvest grooming, I like to treat plants to a
weak drink of organic fertilizer. Mix a water-soluble fertilizer at
half the rate recommended on the package, and thoroughly soak the
root zones. I pour from a plastic soda bottle to avoid getting the
fertilizer on the leaves. This close to harvest time, I don’t want
anything on the leaves except clean water and sunshine.

Warm sun stimulates the production of essential oils in herb
leaves, especially if the plants are very slightly stressed by
drought. Three days or so before you harvest, put a nozzle on your
hose to provide a fine spray and gently clean the plants by washing
them down at different angles. Pay particular attention to leaf
undersides where dirt often accumulates. Do this in the morning if
you can, so the wet foliage will have ample time to dry completely
before night. Unless the soil is very dry, don’t water your herbs
again until you are ready to gather the stems.

The best time of day to harvest herbs is mid to late morning, an
hour or so after the dew has dried. Only a few hours into the day,
the leaves and stems should be plump with moisture and not stressed
to the point of wilting, as often happens by late afternoon.
Harvest your herbs in small batches, keeping similar species
together, and immediately bring them into a cool room or loosely
wrap bundles of herbs in slightly dampened clean dishtowels and lay
the rolls on a shelf in your refrigerator. This is an excellent
trick to try with herbs you plan to take some time with, such as
mint or artemisia for crafting into wreaths while they are fresh.
Herbs that are promptly chilled after they are cut will stay in
perfect condition for a couple of days, and sometimes even
longer.

If you plan to share your fresh harvest with friends, plunge the
cut ends of herb branches into containers of cool water, and set
them to condition in a cool, dark place. This is a great use for
stems that surprise you by showing more blossoms than leaves.

As long as they are cleaned thoroughly two or three days before
you cut them, herbs destined for the drying rack need not be washed
again. Lay the stems out on a clean surface, and sort them by size.
Bundle together the longest stems with small rubber bands and hang
them in a warm, airy place where they will not be exposed to direct
sun. Short stems or individual leaves are easily dried in a slow
oven, dehydrator or on a clean piece of window screen fitted onto a
frame.

Rinse herbs you plan to freeze. Herbs that lose their flavor
when dried, such as parsley, cilantro and basil, keep well when
chopped, heaped into empty ice cube trays, and then covered with
water before being popped into the freezer. Try the same trick with
whole mint leaves, which can be frozen in cubes of apple or
cranberry juice.

Don’t forget about the plants left behind in your garden, which
may make a strong comeback if given a deep drink of water laced
with a bit of plant food. Many herbs will grow a fast flush of
leaves at the tail end of the growing season.


Barbara Pleasant is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion
and author of several books about gardening, including The Whole
Herb (Square One, 2004).