Herb gardens are lots of fun to plant and enjoy during the summer. If you picked up a few easy herbs to grow from the garden center this spring, you’ve probably enjoyed the bright flavors of fresh herbs in your cooking. But the delightful aromas don’t have to end in the fall. You can harvest your herbs, preserve them, and liven up your meals with your homegrown bounty all year long.
We can grow quite a variety of herbs here in Iowa, thanks to our lovely summers. Now that we’re getting near the end of the gardening season, it’s time to harvest and preserve your herbs so you can use them all through the winter.
Harvesting Your Herbs
Your herbs will have the most intense flavor just before they start to flower. If you notice buds forming on your herbs, clip them off to encourage them to produce edible leaves instead.
It’s best to harvest in the early morning before the sun is at its strongest.
To harvest your herbs, clip off the stems about an inch above the soil. Make sure to use clean and sterilized trimmers or scissors.
Preserving Your Herbs
There are a few different ways to preserve your herbs. You can air dry them; dehydrate them; make infusions with oil, butter, or vinegar; make extracts, or simply freeze them. The simplest method is air-drying. Here’s how to do it.
- string or twine
- paper bags
Tie up your herb bundles with string or kitchen twine. With plants like rosemary, dill, sage, thyme, and bay, you can make large bundles with 8-10 stems per bunch. With basil, tarragon, lemon balm, and mint, you’ll want to make smaller bundles with 3-5 stems per bunch. Once you’ve tied up your bundles, you can hang them upside down somewhere with plenty of airflow. Curtain rods or indoor clotheslines work great. Hang for a minimum of two weeks.
If you’re worried about the leaves falling off or starting to crumble while they’re hanging, you can put a paper bag over the bundle so any bits of leaves will fall inside the bag. You can tie the bag shut at the top with more string or an elastic band. Just make sure you cut about 6-8 holes in the sides of the bag to allow air to circulate.
Check your herbs every few days to see how they’re doing. If you hit two weeks and you’re still not sure if they’re dry, leave them for another two weeks. It won’t hurt them to hang longer.
Important Note: your herbs must be completely dehydrated before you store them. Otherwise, they will grow mold in your storage container.
Once they’re dehydrated, you can carefully take them down and pull the leaves off the stems. You can grind or crumble up your herbs now, or you can store the leaves whole and grind them as you use them. You can crumble them up in with clean fingers, or in a mortar and pestle.
Storing Your Herbs
You can store dried herbs in several ways. Our favorite is in small mason jars. Mason jars are quite affordable and easy to get, and they look beautiful in your spice cupboard. You can also reuse old spice containers that you’ve emptied. Or, you can store them in the freezer in freezer bags.
Dried herbs in jars should keep well in your cupboards for 1-2 years. A great way to test for freshness is to crush a little bit of the herb between your fingers and check if they still have their distinct scent. If there’s no scent left, it’s not going to add much flavor to your dish. Freezing some of your dried herbs for topping up your containers will prolong the herbs’ shelf life up to a few years.
Have you started preserving your herbs yet? Give it a try this year and enjoy the flavors of your garden all year long! If you’ve got any questions about preserving herbs, or you want to start planning your garden for next spring, stop by our garden center today.