by Arielle Illia
Storing Herbs from the Garden
If I was allowed just one garden bed, I would undoubtedly fill it with perennial herbs. There is nothing better than fresh herbs harvested right before a meal to me. In our time in Oregon we devoted a little section of our garden entirely to herbs, these plants grew bigger every year, so much so that they often needed trimming. When this occurred we would air dry the herbs or preserve them in recipes.
We went from hardiness zone 8 all the way to zone 3 once we made the move to Alaska. Prior to relocating I did verify that I would still be able to garden, however this climate happens to be just a tad too cold for most herbs to perennialize (or survive winter). I must admit part of my heart broke when learning this but I knew where there is a will, there is a way.
The game plan for this year's garden was to grow herbs and harvest as much as possible, and much to my surprise we ended up with a bounty of herbs. I never would have imagined so being our first growing season here in Alaska but mother nature did what she does best and transformed the small seeds into bushy productive plants in the matter of just a few months.
Drying has become my absolute favorite way to preserve herbs. If you have dehydrator, that can greatly help expedite the process. Since we operate on a small solar system we take advantage of time and natural air flow, the summer heat helps too and once we moved into fall, we utilized the heat from the wood stove to assist in drying herbs.
I am not sure what I was thinking when we planted well over 50 chamomile transplants, all summer long we were harvesting chamomile, but in my defense in years past they had not grown to this extent. Eric and I joke about picking it because the task itself can take well over an hour and just when you think you have made a dent, you hazily look up and realize you still have the entire other half of the row to harvest. We repeated this process over and over again, so needless to say, we will be sleeping well this winter.
To harvest chamomile you take two fingers and pinch the flower bud off, it's okay if you end up with a little bit of the stem too. The flowers are best picked just before the petals have opened all the way and the stamen is smaller. We often pick chamomile past its prime and it still makes excellent tea, at this point the petals will be pulled back towards the stem and the stamen will be quite large.
We then lay the flowers out until they are dried, preferably in an area out of direct sunlight with good air circulation to help aid in the drying process. We used a window screen this year for the majority of our drying. Once dry we store in mason jars for a good night's sleep. We also tried drying marigold leaves this season and found them to be a potent sedative as well.
Parsley is a wonderful all purpose herb in our opinion and in most places it grows as a biennial. In Oregon we could harvest it up until the fall and it would regrow the following spring. This year we were fortunate to have a thick growth of parsley, every two weeks or so I would harvest bunches to hang and dry.
I try to snip the older growth along the edge of the plant rather than the new leaves in the center (the growing point), as close as possible to the base for a long stem to help with tying the stems in bundles. Once tied with twine and hung to air dry, parsley takes approximately 2-3 weeks to be completely dry for storage.
You will know it is ready when the leaves are brittle and fall off the stems with little convincing. They are now ready to be stored in mason jars and pair well with winter soups and pan fried potatoes. We found grinding the leaves in an electric grinder or blender will help save on storage space and be more convenient for recipes.
Dill is typically grown as an annual and is a primary ingredient for us in our...you guessed it, dill pickles. We also have been pairing dill with salmon since this has become a new staple in our diet. It is a wonderful fresh herb in salads, dips, and soups but we find it is often past its prime when the cucumbers are ready so we snagged a healthy dose of fronds (leaves) and flowers prior to the plants maturing.
When harvesting dill you can remove fronds and flowers, I try to avoid the flower heads that are starting to form seeds and pick the newly forming buds. We then laid these out on a sheet of wax paper in the freezer and moved them to ziplocs after a day in the freezer, this way they don't freeze in a unmanageable clump. They stored quite well in this manner and worked great for our canning days in late summer. The same plants produced seeds that we were able to harvest later in the growing season. Dill seed can be removed by hand when dry and stored in mason jars, or you can opt to hang plants upside down like we did to aid in drying, which will fill your whole 320 sqft house with their aromatic scent for weeks to enjoy. Smirk.
Cilantro is the one herb that is notorious for bolting when the warm weather arrives and ours did just that in late spring. When harvesting, I snipped leaves from the lower portions of the stalky plants to air dry on a flat surface until they could be crumbled into a mason jar. We later used the cilantro for our green salsa that we canned in October, long after the cilantro was in its prime.
We left the cilantro plants in the garden all growing season to allow them to continue the process of going to seed. We had not harvested coriander seed until this year and boy we were missing out. This seed is incredibly fragrant, it has notes of citrus and pine for an earthy and spicy flavor. It has been our go to herb for just about everything.
When harvesting the seeds, if possible wait until they turn from vibrant light green to brown on the plant, indicating they are dry and then pick the clusters. If rain is in the forecast (this was our situation) you can snip the entire plant and hang in a dry area then harvest the seeds or you can harvest the seeds while still green and bring them inside to dry, laying them on a flat surface with good air circulation. We store the seeds whole in mason jars and grind them when adding to recipes.
For woody stemmed herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, and oregano (most mild stem) the process is quite simple, you can snip stems and branches or even the entire plant when harvesting, which may be indicated if you live in a colder zone and the plant will most likely not be able to perennialize, tie bundles with twine and hang to air dry. Once leaves are dry, it is easy to run your fingers down the stems and the herbs should be brittle enough to crunch and fall off, these can then be stored in mason jars for tea, recipes, and canning.
Herbs will store best in a dark, cool room but if you plan to use them quickly or are short on space they will be okay in sunlight. Our herbs and spices are regularly used and sit on our kitchen shelves where they receive indirect sunlight, we store the extras in our conex which provides better long term storage conditions. Ziplocs work well for storing herbs too.
Thankfully, chives and mint are the two herbs that we can count on to perennialize. Yay for two less herbs I will need to start as babies again next spring!
This year we learned to embrace dry herbs, and they are now incorporated into all our meals just as we would have with fresh herbs, and although the process of harvesting and drying can be time consuming we have found it to be quite rewarding. Dry herbs are just another creative outlet for us folks that love being inspired by the foods we eat.