Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Harvesting, Preserving & Making the Most of Your Herbs

Karen Kennedy, an educator from the Herb Society of America, visited the Mentor Public Library Tuesday to talk about harvesting and preserving herbs.

She also gave all the gardeners who attended some fun ideas on how to use their summer leftovers.
Kennedy brought several herbs with her to the library. This one is lavender -- in case you couldn't tell from the color of its flowers.
While I couldn't possibly touch on everything Karen said, I did want to share some of the interesting facts and helpful tips she offered for those who couldn't make it Tuesday.

1. What do you think of when you think of herbs? Food, right? Maybe a spice rack. Some greenery growing on the windowsill.

Actually, herbs go far beyond food. They include plants that are used for crafting, medicine, dyes and more.

For example, last year the International Herb Association named Elderberry the herb of the year. And most of us don't think of elderberries the same way we do oregano, cilantro or tarragon. (But perhaps we should.)

"If it's more than just a pretty plant, it's an herb," Karen said.

2. We're talking about harvesting herbs in August; but, frankly, you don't want to wait this long to harvest certain herbs.

Herbs get their flavor from their essential oils, and those oils dictate peak harvesting time.

For most herbs (especially annuals,) you'll want to harvest right before their flowers bloom. That often means cutting their leaves in the spring.

One big exception to this rule: sage. It's better to harvest sage mid-season (around July) because it's camphor needs time to mellow, Karen said.

On a similar note, be careful about harvesting perennials too late in the season. Harvesting stimulates growth; but if you stimulate growth too close to a freeze, your herb will be more susceptible to winter damage.
Dolores Williams and Jennifer Danner check out how Karen Kennedy dries some of her herbs.
3. Because herbs get their flavor from their oils, you want to make sure you preserve as much of their oil as possible when harvesting.

That means you want to harvest at a cool, dry time. The more excess heat you have, the more oil evaporates.

You'll also want to clean your herbs before you let them dry. Karen recommended a 10-percent vinegar solution. No soap. (Also, make sure to sterilize your harvesting implement. You don't want to accidentally spread any plant disease to your other herbs.)

You want to dry your herbs quickly with as little heat as possible. (It may sound like a contradiction but it's true.) While some people use the microwave and even the oven, your best bet is to let them air dry.

You can hang them on a coat hanger or just leave them on a counter, but you want to dry your herbs somewhere well-ventilated, dark, dry and not too hot.

This could take a couple of weeks. (Herbs dry faster in homes with air conditioning.)

When you're herbs are ready, they should have a "corn flake crisp" consistency.

Herbs can also be frozen. Karen said some people freeze herbs in ice cube trays and use them in soups and broths. Fair warning: herbs lose some of their vitamins and minerals when you freeze them.
Karen Kennedy makes a tarragon-shallot white wine vinegar.
4. Looking for a fun way to use your bountiful herb harvest?

Karen has some ideas. She especially likes to combine her herbs with different types of vinegar. (She made a tarragon-shallot white wine vinegar Tuesday night that smelled incredible and, apparently, pairs well with mushroom risotto.)

"A lot of people combine herbs with oils. It can be done, but oils make me nervous," Karen said. "A lot of stuff can grow in oils. If you're not careful, you'll grow botulism."

Karen recommended putting chive blossoms in white wine vinegar. (It turns the vinegar a pretty pink color.)

She said the herbs need to steep in the vinegar for about two weeks before its ready.

No need to refrigerate the vinegar if its base is red or white wine. If there's not at least a 5-percent alcohol base, you'll probably want to store it in the fridge.

That's just a bit of the ground Karen covered Tuesday. If you want more facts and tips on herbs, visit the Herb Society site. For more on programs and events at Mentor Public Library, visit

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