A great part of the joy of growing your own herbs is in the harvesting. I love to harvest my flowers and herbs this time of year for use in cooking and crafting. You planted herbs which would produce leaves, flowers, seeds and roots for use during the winter. Now is the time that you will see the fruits of your labor. The great bulk of your harvest will be leaves-parsley and chervil, sage, thyme, basil, marjoram, lemon balm, the savories, tarragon, rosemary and perhaps spearmint.
Of course, you have been using your herbs all summer long. You snipped bits of chives and parsley to scatter over eggs and creamed dishes or to spice up low-calorie diets. You gathered those which took your fancy as you wandered about the garden with the salad bowl in mind, or perhaps tucked a sprig into a favorite book or into your purse for fragrance.Now it’s harvest time, the time when the bulk of your plants must be gathered for your pleasure and used through the winter. Now you can go into the garden and gather loads of fragrance and fun.
Harvest time is a time of planning too. You must decide which plants to bring into the house, which to dry, which to make into gifts. You will want to mark those plants which you wish to pot for the winter, even though it is not necessary to dig them until just before frost. When making this decision, keep in mind that you will want:
A variety of culinary herbs for the kitchen window sill.
A few larger plants to provide sprays for bouquets or iced drinks, to toss into your bath, and for other favorite uses.
Several small compact plants to pot for gifts.
Pots of plants to place in different rooms throughout your own house.
Just when is harvest time? The time for harvesting is decided, not by the time of year, but by the readiness of the herbs. Most herbs are ready to harvest just as the buds are opening into full blossom. This is when the plants contain the most volatile oils and therefore the greatest fragrance and flavor. Fortunately for you, not all varieties will be ready at the same time. But if you should discover that several are just right on the same sunny morning, take a separate box, basket or tray for each herb and label it. Otherwise, unless you are more of an expert than most of us, you may have trouble sorting the herbs after they are dry.
It is best to gather herbs in the early morning of a warm, bright day when the dew has evaporated, but before the sun is high and hot. This is the most pleasant time for being in the garden, and it is a fragrant, relaxing way in which to begin your busy day.
It is important, too, to harvest as early as possible in the season so that the plants will come up again vigorously before the growing season is over. For me, this first harvesting is a difficult decision. I wander about the garden, enjoying the beauty of the plants, their delicious fragrance and lush growth. And each year, in spite of previous years’ experience to the contrary, I think, “What if they do not come back again? Will I ruin this lovely garden?”
But don’t you believe it! You are more likely to destroy by holding back than by cutting! If you wait to harvest perennial herbs late in the season, you will lose not only their flavor but probably the whole plants as well. Do cut early enough to assure regrowth. Otherwise, your plants may die during the winter. Do not cut annuals too close to the ground. Leave enough foliage so that the plants will continue to grow. You may hope for another harvest this season, at which time you can take the whole plant. Cut perennials about two-thirds of the length of the stalks and side branches, less if the stalks are stiff and woody.
You may pick sage, marjoram and basil at any time. The new growth of sage is always flavorful, and so is that of marjoram at any time before the young plants blossom. Basil scarcely has an off-season even though, like other herbs, it is at its best just at blooming time.
If for some reason you do not manage to harvest all you want of a particular herb when it is ready, gather some later on even though its peak cutting season has passed. Once I made a final bottle of basil vinegar in a greedy rush when the weather forecaster said, “Look for a freeze tonight.” The resulting product could barely be distinguished from that made earlier.
If the herbs you harvest are to be dried, it is important to gather them when the oils are at their best. If you do decide to dry some of the last-minute crops, it might be well to label your jars so that you will know which are prime and which are seconds. Of course, you will also keep some of your favorite herbs growing in the house throughout the winter, and those you will use fresh.
As soon as you have carried your herb crop indoors, quickly rinse off the dirt from the lower leaves and shake off all excess moisture. Then spread the herbs on either window screens laid across two chairs or on some stretched cheesecloth.
Remove any yellowed, decayed and very coarse leaves, and dry your harvest in an airy place away from direct sunlight.
When to Harvest
Harvest these herbs when they are just starting to bloom: basil, tarragon, horehound, mint, sweet marjoram, lemon balm, costmary, fennel, winter savory, sage, summer savory, lavender (also may be cut later).
Clip the tops of these at full stage of bloom: hyssop, rosemary, lavender, thyme.
You can harvest both the leaves and flowers of these four herbs, and you can also pick rosemary leaves separately.
The following herbs should be harvested in the young leafy stage: parsley, caraway leaves, chervil, lovage.
It is the flower heads of the following herbs that you will want to harvest: camomile, German camomile, and marigold. You can go ahead and cut the flower heads off and just dry them on a screen. Camomile is great for the skin and is used in herbal bath sachets along with some oatmeal (uncooked) and grated soap. Put equal amounts of each in a washrag secured with a rubber band and used as a wash cloth in the shower.
The culinary herbs that you will wish to dry include sweet basil, parsley, thyme, chervil, rosemary, spearmint, marjoram, summer savory, sage, tarragon and lemon balm. Lemon Balm cookies are easy to make with 2 tablespoons of chopped Lemon Balm added to a basic sugar cookie recipe. There are some great books on making vinegars and herbal seasonings at you local library and bookstore. With the holidays right around the corner, you may want to obtain one of these books and start crafting some gifts!
As far as the other culinary herbs in your garden are concerned, do not dry chives, but pot for winter use, put in vinegar or freeze. Dill should not be dried either, but the leaves can be frozen fresh or the seeds dried. Parsley may be potted, salted, frozen or dried. If you want to dry parsley, place it in the microwave between two paper towels for one minute intervals until dry. If you try to air dry it, it will simply turn brown and unappealing. Burnett, which is too delicate for drying, can be grown indoors in the winter.
Harvesting herbs in the fall is a fun way to bring your garden indoors for the winter. You will be rewarded with countless hours of fun for not only for you but those you bless with the gifts from your garden.