It seems everywhere I look in the garden, there is something that is ready to be harvested. The herbs are big and full, and the vegetable plants are laden with fruit. I don’t know about your family, but mine is going to consume a good deal of the harvest, and there is still a lot that we couldn’t possibly use before it spoils. Luckily, there are a number of ways to preserve what you harvest for later use.
Herbs are super easy to store for later use. Herbs should be thoroughly washed and dried before processing them for storage.
Many herbs that have been frozen are best used in recipes since they will not present well as a garnish after defrosting. Although they may not look the same, they still maintain their flavor, since freezing preserves the oils in the leaves that give herbs their unique flavor.
Chives are a perennial plant that produce multiple crops during the growing season and can be cut back when they reach a height of at least 6 inches. Using sharp scissors, cut the leaves down to an inch or two above the soil line. Chives lose some of their flavor when dried, so freezing is a good choice for this herb.
Leafy herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, dill, oregano, thyme, mint, tarragon and sage, also require little processing before freezing. Cut back these herbs frequently to promote growth. You can safely cut back these herbs heavily when harvesting without causing any harm to the plant. To freeze, remove leaves from the stems, chop the leaves and store them in freezer bags. These can also be frozen with a two-step process that involves laying out the cut herbs in a single layer on baking sheets and freezing before storing in freezer bags.
Basil does not freeze well on its own but can be chopped, mixed with just enough olive oil to form a thick paste and scooped into ice cube trays to be frozen. Cubes can be added to soups or stews, or defrosted and used as a quick pesto starter. Basil can be dried, but because of its thick leaves, it is best dried in a dehydrator. You can also freeze a mixture of herbs together in ice cube trays with either water or oil. After cubes harden, they can be removed from the tray and stored in zip-lock bags.
Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage can be air dried. Simply gather stems, bind them together with string and hang them in a cool, dark place until dry. In lieu of hanging herbs to dry, they can be dried in a low oven (90-110 degrees) or placed on a frame that has been lined with screening and placed in a warm, dry place until dry. Flip herbs so that they dry evenly. Leaves can then be stripped from the stem and stored in an airtight container.
Herbs should be harvested before they set seed, but sometimes it’s the seed you want. When plants have finished producing new growth, they will put their energies into producing seeds. This process is called bolting.
Once plants bolt, or ‘go to seed,’ they will produce flowers that contain the seeds. Seeds that the plant produces can be dried and stored in a cool, dry place and used to produce a new plant the following year. Some seeds, such as fennel, mustard and coriander (which are the seeds of the cilantro plant), are favored for their culinary uses as well as to propagate the plant.
After the plant is spent, you can leave the plant to dry completely while still in the ground before cutting, but keep an eye on them. You may have some competition from hungry birds.
You can also dry the seeds using the same process of bundling the stems and hanging until dry. Before hanging, fit a paper bag that has a few air holes poked in the top for ventilation over the tops of the seed heads and tie to keep in place. This will serve to catch seeds that fall naturally.
With very little effort, you can have a bounty of herbs for a fraction of the cost of store-bought herbs.
Until next week, happy gardening.
— Irland, a member of the Limestone County Master Gardeners, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the Limestone County Master Gardeners, visit http://mg.aces.edu/limestone.