Finally, it’s time for what herbs are all about – the harvest! But knowing when and how to pluck the bounty from different herbs can make the difference between ordinary roast beef and a savory, aromatic meal – or between a nice dried wreath and one that’s a delight to admire season after season thanks to its long-lasting beauty. Here’s a little guide to help you get the most from your herbs.
Pinching herbs above the leaf node (the joint of two or more leaves) allows the plant to branch better.
Photo Credit: ©Pennystone Gardens
The proper tools, like this handmade chamomile rake from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, can make harvesting a breeze.
Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Use shears or lawn clippers to harvest spreading herbs like thyme or chives. It’ll leave a neat appearance and provide speed for quantity harvesting.
Photo Credit: ©Pennystone Gardens
First things first: You need to know which parts of your herbs to harvest. Some herbs are prized for only one part – their seeds, flowers or leaves, for example. Others, like dill, win awards for all three. Here’s a list of some common culinary herbs and what to harvest:
- Dill: leaves, flowers, seeds
- Caraway: leaves, seeds, roots
- Chives: leaves, flowers
- Cilantro: leaves and seeds (the seeds are called coriander)
- Fennel: leaves, seeds, roots
- Lovage: leaves, seeds, roots
- Mustard: leaves, seeds
- Nasturtium: seeds, flowers
Many other herbs are only grown for their leaves. Think chervil, lemonbalm, lemon verbena, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, sweet marjoram, tarragon and thyme. The aroma and flavor these herbs can add to a dish is more than enough reason to grow them! Don’t forget to harvest the edible flowers of herbs like beebalm, borage, calendula, chamomile, chives, lavender and mint. And digging the flavorful roots of herbs like horseradish, ginger and Hamburg parsley is an absolute must!
Harvesting herbs is rather simple: Just pinch or snip off the leaves or flowers as you need them. To make sure they taste their freshly best, use them within 24 hours of picking. If you’re harvesting for future use, take your cuttings early in the day before the sun strikes. Not only will you beat the heat, it’s the best time to capture the herb’s most concentrated essential oils – which are what give it aroma and flavor. (Another tip: Oils are also most concentrated when the herb is beginning to bud.)
Here are some other points to keep in mind:
- Snip throughout the season. For the best flavor, don’t wait until the plants move toward old age.
- When growing a plant for its leaves, make sure to pinch off flower buds to lengthen your herb’s useful season.
- Don’t be stingy when harvesting! Many herbs can be pruned to within 6-8 inches of the ground or to within the last few inches of leaves and still bounce back to produce a bounty.
- Don’t rinse your herbs until you’re ready to use them – except for parsley, which loves a cool bath right away. Washing removes some oils and vitamins. (If you don’t use repellents or fertilizer sprays, rinsing may not even be necessary.)
- Let seeds ripen on the plants for full flavor. Look for ready-to-burst seedpods or brown seeds. (If you’re afraid you’ll miss them, don’t sit up all night waiting. Tuck a paper bag around the ripening seeds near their prime ripening time and tie it to the stem. When the seeds rattle within, cut the stem and shake your harvest into the bag.)
- Be patient when harvesting roots. Wait until the plants are at least 2 years old, then trim small pieces off the roots as you need them. Air-dry for fresh use. At the end of the season, dig the roots carefully and air-dry. Then peel, chop and freeze for later use.
- Harvest flowers when they’re dry. Be sure to shake blooms gently to get rid of any bugs or soil.
- Harvest perennials judiciously their first year to help them develop some vigor.
If you’ve harvested too much, consider preserving the extras by hanging bunches upside down in a well-ventilated area, or you can dry them on screens or freeze them. The technique that’s best really depends on the herb and your intended purpose – cooking, medicinal, herb sugars or crafts. Whatever you do, don’t forget to stop and smell the harvest. Aroma, after all, is one of the major gifts we’re given when it comes to these wonderful plants!