Most herbs dry easily, and if properly preserved, will retain their flavor and aroma long enough to carry you into the next growing season. As with a lot of gardening, timing is everything. Here are some tips for gathering, drying and keeping them fresh while in storage.
Tips for Gathering Herbs
Don't harvest your perennial herbs to heavily in their first year. Give them time to settle in. Once established, gardeners in warmer zones can harvest up to 2/3 of the foliage at a time-once in the spring and again in the summer. Gardeners in cold climates should only take 1/3 of the foliage each time and stop harvesting 5-6 weeks before the first expected fall frost so roots have time to store food for the winter.
Harvest your herbs early in the morning, just after the dew has dried, but before the sun warms them up too much. This is when the volatile oils are at their peak.
Once harvested, remove insects and any damaged leaves. To keep the volatile oils from dissipating, try to keep herbs out of strong light while preparing them for storage.
Culinary herbs will have the best flavor if harvested just before their buds have opened (when harvesting leaves), as soon as the buds have fully opened (when harvesting flowers), after the seeds have turned from green to brown (when harvesting seeds), or at the end of the growing season (when harvesting roots). Stems can be harvested as needed early in the morning on a dry day.
To cut stems cleanly and avoid damaging the plant, always use a sharp shears or scissors. Select only the highest quality foliage and blossoms when harvesting.
Catch ripe seeds as they fall by tying a piece of cheesecloth or an old nylon stocking around the seed heads. Avoid plastic bags. They can trap condensed moisture which can lead to mold.
Tips for Drying Herbs
The best place for drying herbs is someplace dry and dark, with good ventilation. Attics, closets, the tops of appliances like hot water heaters or refrigerators, or inside a gas oven (with a pilot light) are all ideal locations. Some people also use the interior of their cars while parked in the shade.
If necessary, you can speed up the drying process by using fans or dehumidifiers. You can also use your oven (set on the lowest temperature setting possible) but keep in mind that herbs will dry very quickly, and should be monitored closely.
Herbs can also be dried in the microwave oven. Sandwich them between paper towels and place a cup of water next to them. Set the microwave to run for 1 minute on the lowest setting. After one minute, check their progress. If you see sparks or if the leaves or stems are starting to turn black, try drying them for shorter increments of time.
Long-stemmed herbs (lavender, mint, yarrow) are easiest to dry in small bunches tied with a string or small rubber band. Hang bunches from hangers or nails to dry them. If your drying herbs in area prone to dust (like a barn or attic), cover the bunches with small paper bags. If you prefer not to hang them, separate the stems and lay them across drying racks, or spread them out on cookie sheets.
Seed heads can be blanched in boiling water to remove any unseen insects before being hung up to dry. To dry them, cover the heads with paper bags or cheesecloth to catch the seeds as they fall.
Leaves and flowers can be left on their stems to dry. Roots should be given a quick cleaning with a stiff bristled brush and cut into 1 inch slices. Lay the slices in a single layer on racks or trays to dry.
Flowers and leaves will turn crispy when they are finished drying. Root slices are finished with they turn hard and woody.
Tips for Storing Herbs
Decorative herbs can be secured with ribbon and hung in bunches around the kitchen or elsewhere in the home.
Herbs used for culinary purposes should be placed in airtight glass or metal containers or in plastic bags. Keep them cool, dry, and away from bright light.
Herbs can also be stored in the freezer. Harvest them at their peak, clean them, and place them (either chopped up or whole) into airtight containers or freezer bags. When you're ready to use them, simply break off as much as you need and return the rest to the freezer.
Another easy and convenient method for freezing herbs (and especially good for entertaining) is to fill ice cube trays with water and chopped herbs. For example, add cubes of lemon verbena to a pitcher of lemon aid. For the holidays, try freezing fun shaped cookie cutters with chopped herbs and water You can wrap the cookie cutters with foil to keep in the water.
Many herbs tend to look alike once they are frozen or dried. You'll thank yourself later if you take the time to label your containers carefully before storage.
I have lots of herbs growing. When is the best time to harvest them for drying and storage?
Each herb is different, but here are a few general rules for drying and storing herbs:
Herbs used for their foliage (leaves) should be harvested before they flower. If grown primarily for their essential oils (flavor and aroma), they will have the greatest concentration of oils after they produce flower buds, but before the buds open.
If you're harvesting herbs for their seeds, collect the seed pods as they start to turn brown or gray, but before they open.
Herbs collected for their flowers should be harvested just prior to peak flowering.
Herbs grown for their roots should be harvested late in the season after the foliage turns brown.
As a general rule, you can start harvesting when the plant has enough foliage to sustain growth. Harvest in the early part of the day and harvest no more than 2/3 of the plant at one time. Perennial herbs should not be harvested later than one month prior to the first frost to ensure they have time to store resources for winter.
The best way to dry herbs is to hang them and let them air dry. Clean herbs under running water if necessary. Shake off excess water and remove any dead or damaged foliage. Tie stems into small bundles and hang upside down to dry in a warm, dry place out of direct sunlight. To catch seeds or petals, cover the flower end of the stems with a paper bag (with air holes). Other methods of drying include laying herbs across screens or drying them on the lowest settings of a food dehydrator or conventional oven or if you have the time and patience, drying them for short 1 to 2 minutes increments in a microwave (after a few days of air drying). When dry, leaves will be brittle and crumble easily. Store them in airtight glass or plastic containers (or bags) in a dark, dry location like a pantry or cupboard.
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