Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
September, 2003
Regional Report

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A paper bag will keep dust off herbs that are hung up to dry.

Harvesting Herbs

Herbs can be harvested for fresh and dry use from early spring through early winter. In the early spring, the herb foliage is succulent. In late spring and summer, the heat develops the fragrant oils for which the herbs are cherished.

Morning Harvests are Best
To best capture this richness, harvest herbs in the morning just as dew dries and flowers have not yet fully opened. Oils, flavors, and fragrances are then at their most potent but still locked within the foliage, ready to be released when you use them. Later in the day, when the fragrance is in the air, the oils have already been released.

Don't cut the stems too close to the ground; leave 2 or 3 inches of leafed branch for continued growth.

Air Drying
Herb branches can be dried by laying them in loose layers or gathering them into bunches for hanging. Either way, cover them with paper toweling to protect them from dust. For hanging, separate the cuttings into 1- or 2-inch, loosely tied bunches. Hang these in a dark, dry place that is a bit cooler than room temperature. Placing the bunches in a paper bag will keep off the dust but still allow drying. When the leaves are crisp and brittle, strip the leaves, buds, and flowers from the woody stem, trying not to crumble the leaves. Place these into a tightly closed jar set in a cool, dark, dry place. After a few days, check the contents for mold, mildew, moisture, or other problems.

Oven Drying
Some herbs, such as basil, parsley, and chives, turn dark when air-dried. Rather than bunching and tying these herbs, lay the separated branches on heavy brown paper and dry them in a 150-degree oven (leaving the door slightly ajar to allow moisture to escape) for several hours. They will retain a measure of their green color. Test for done-ness by crushing a larger-sized leaf: if it does not crumble easily, more drying is necessary.

Some herbs keep their essence better when frozen. These include the basils (although they discolor), chervil, dill, lemon balm, the mints, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, French tarragon, garden and lemon thymes, and lemon verbena. To prepare the herb cuttings, wash them thoroughly and shake or pat off the excess water.

There are several different procedures for freezing, and some are preferred over others for specific herbs. Garlic and shallots, for example, should be peeled and chopped before freezing. Chervil, dill, sweet marjoram, rosemary, the savories, tarragon, and the thymes can be frozen on their stems, while leaves of others should be snipped off and the stems discarded.

Some freezing methods include:
1) Place the whole branches into plastic bags and freeze immediately.
2) Chop the leaves finely into ice cube trays, fill with water, and freeze. Empty the cubes into a plastic bag for one-serving uses.
3) For basil, especially, puree the leaves with just enough oil to moisten the mix, and freeze in one-serving portions. A complete recipe for pesto can be prepared and frozen for convenient spur-of-the-moment uses. If you prefer a less-pungent pesto, combine the basil with parsley or coriander.

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