How To Harvest, Preserve and Store Your Herbs

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We enjoy growing a lot of herbs every summer, typically quite a few varieties.  We usually grow them in 1-gallon pots for easy harvesting and movement.  Growing herbs in containers allows easy overwintering if desired and allows you to space them out more as they grow larger.

Most years, we will grow thyme, marjoram, oregano, sage, chamomile, tarragon, rosemary, leaf fennel, parsley, cilantro, lemon balm and a few different varieties of mint.  We often raise upwards of a hundred individual herb plants, sometimes planting two or three to a single 1-gallon pot.  This gives us bushy plants and reduces our overall need for soil.  If we see something interesting or different in the commercial greenhouses, we’ll often pick them up each year because we love our herbs!

We grow most of our herbs in 1-gallon pots. This allows us to keep a close eye on them and move them around when needed.  We will often plant more than one plant in each pot to maximize our soil usage.

While we really enjoy using our herbs fresh, we raise so many for the purposes of preservation.  This allows us to enjoy the herb bounty most of the year.

What To Harvest From Your Herbs

For the herbs that we commonly grow, here’s a brief list of the parts of the herb that we’re after and when we’re harvesting.

HERBPART USEDHARVESTSTORE
AniseSeedsBefore floweringDried seeds
BasilsLeavesBefore floweringDried leaves
CatnipLeavesBefore & while floweringDried leaves
ChamomileFlowersAfter floweringDried flowers
CilantroLeavesBefore floweringUse fresh
CorianderSeedsAfter seedingDried seeds
DillLeaves & SeedsBefore floweringDried leaves & seeds
FennelSeedsBefore floweringDried seeds
HorehoundLeavesWhen buddingDried leaves
HorseradishRootsFall, 2nd year+Dried roots
HyssopLeavesWhile floweringDried leaves
LavenderFlowersWhile buddyingDried buds
Lemon BalmLeavesBefore floweringDried leaves
MarjoramLeavesBefore & while floweringDried leaves
MintsLeavesBefore & while buddingDried leaves
OreganoLeavesBefore & while floweringDried leaves
ParsleyLeavesBefore buddingDried leaves
RosemaryLeaves & FlowersBefore buddingDried leaves
SageLeavesBefore & while floweringDried leaves
SavoryLeavesBefore floweringDried leaves
TarragonLeavesBefore floweringDried leaves
ThymesLeavesWhile floweringDried leaves

When To Harvest Your Herbs

Inevitably, by late June or early July, we’re all ready having to harvest some of our herbs.  Through mid summer, we will often pick fresh herbs for eating, but sometimes growing in the north here, we see very early flowering due to the extreme photoperiodism.  24 hours of light throws a lot of your common herbs into very early flowering cycles up here.  We have to keep a close eye on the herbs and make sure to harvest before they become too flower ridden.

You will know it is time to harvest your herbs when you start to see early signs of flowering.  This is a very distinct type of growth that looks entirely different from the early growth.  You will often see budding take place.  This is when you know it’s time to harvest, you want to take the plant before it becomes ridden with flowers.  With most herbs, perhaps the exception being chamomile and catnip, you don’t want to harvest the flowers.

Cilantro is unique.  We find it to be an early flowering plant here in the north, but we will typically let these herbs go to seed.  If you didn’t know, cilantro creates coriander with its seeds, which is a great spice to have in the kitchen.  Once these start flowering, we let it go and will harvest when seeds are prevalent.

Preserving Your Herb Harvest

We preserve most of our herbs through drying.  This is the easiest method for us and allows year-round bounty of our herb garden.

We dry most of our herbs for year-round use. We tie the herbs together with garden twine and hang them upside down. This is important to allow the essential oils to be absorbed into the leaves.

With most herbs, at harvest time, we will take the entire plant at once.  We will leave a bit of greenery in the pot in the event that it will grow back.  The harvest typically will shock the plant and it will go back to growing the valuable leaves.  Sometimes you can get a small late season harvest in this case.

We simply snip the base of the herbs.  We then wrap the entire plant together with garden twine to create a bouquet of the herb.  For the most part, we’re good at identifying herbs by smell and appearance, so we don’t need to label them.  You might want to label them if it’s your first few times growing them, especially if you’re harvesting several herbs at once.

The “trick” to getting fragrant dried herbs is to hang them upside down while they dry.  This allows the plants essential oils, which is what we’re after, to concentrate into the leaves while they are drying.  This creates a higher end product which is often better than what you can buy in the store.  You don’t want to use a common dehydrator for drying the herbs, unless you’re really in a hurry.  This will often create less-intense dried herbs and they are easy to over-dry.

Pick a place to hang your herbs that is generally cool and has good air ventilation.  If you have air conditioning, which let’s admit that almost no-one has in Alaska, this will be beneficial.  Air conditioners will remove moisture from the air and speed your drying process.

After hanging your herbs, you simply have to wait.  You’re waiting for the herbs to become crisp to the touch and fully dried.  You don’t want to store your herbs too early as you might see molds develop or general spoilage.

Preparing Your Herbs For Storage

When your herbs are fully dried, you generally want to prepare the herbs for storage.  When you want to preserve the dried leaves, you will need to spend some time separating the dried leaves from the stems.  If you’ve grown multiple herbs, keep them separate at this stage.  Mixing them, for something like an “herbs de’ Provence” would come later.

For most herbs, you will need to process them.  For most, this will mean crushing the dried herb leaves into a course mixture.  We use a mortar and pestle for this, but you could use any handy device that you have.  You want to keep some of the original texture, so don’t over do the crushing.

For some herbs, like chamomile, you’ll want to preserve the entire flower.  For these types of herbs, we just lay them out on a cookie sheet with a piece of wax paper.  Once the flowers are fully dried, then you can easily store them in a container.

Storing Your Herbs

This is our DIY herb and spice storage rack. Many of these herbs were grown by us or are mixes that we have made. We try to keep a very healthy supply of herbs and spices on hand!

The best container for storing herbs is usually glass.  This will allow minimal absorption of the oils, is the best at preventing air exchange and will allow for the longest shelf life.  If you can get an airtight seal, this will be best.  We use old glass herb containers to store our herbs.  We make sure to clean and sanitize the containers before storage.

If you have a particularly large bounty, a great method is to vacuum seal jars for storage.  There are attachments for food vacuum sealers that can evacuate the air from a standard canning jar.  This would give you the longest shelf life possible.  It’s often difficult for us to come up with enough of a given herb to justify using this storage method, but some small jars might work well if you have access to this.

For best results, keeping your herbs out of the light will be best.  This, again, will extend the shelf life.  We enjoy “showing off” our herbs and have built a custom herb holder.  This obviously doesn’t keep the light away from the herbs, but we usually are going through our herb stock somewhat quickly and haven’t had any problems.

Using Your Herbs:

This is the best part!  Herbs can enhance almost any type of dish, even if the recipe doesn’t call for it.  We heavily use thyme and oregano in virtually everything, not just Italian dishes!  You can fancy up even the most simple of dishes like potatoes and eggs with a dash of your herbs.  We like to eat robust, flavorful food and our herbs help us with that all year-long!

We won’t go into the complexities of how to cook with herbs, but have generally found that if you stick to some basics, it’s hard to go wrong.  The trifecta of thyme, oregano and marjoram work together well in most things.  Sage is great on chicken dishes.  Chamomile and mint make for great tea in the winter time.

You can make your own custom herb mixtures with many recipes that you can find online.  You might need to buy some herbs or spices to complete the recipe, but it can mostly be your home-grown herbs.  We will often do this for things like ranch seasoning or a home-made herbs de Provence mix.

If your recipe calls for fresh herbs and you need to use dried, you want to use about half of what is called for.  If your recipe calls for dried herbs and you want to use fresh, you’ll need to (at least) double the amount used.  That’s about the only “rule of thumb” you need to follow.  Oh, and using more than is called for usually won’t hurt anything!

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