Do you love your herbs but have a hard time growing them indoors for year-round use? The good news is that your herbs can live long after your plants are gone – if you take steps to preserve them. It’s easy to dry herb leaves, flowers, stems and roots, and with a little elbow grease, you can make infusions or essential oils for culinary use, personal beauty care or to make your home smell wonderful.

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Drying herbs and seeds to save for use during cold weather is a great way to enjoy the fresh aromas and flavorful tastes from your garden year-round.

Photo Credit: Judith K. Mehl

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Use dried herbs (like this lavender) or fresh ones (like the sage) to create custom oil infusions.

Photo Credit: Judith K. Mehl

Hyssop

Hyssop leaves and flowers are great for teas and infusions – and its essential oil is a prime ingredient in some liqueurs.

Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Calendula

To harvest calendula, pull off each petal and dry.

Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Don’t let the fancy terms scare you. Anyone can make an infusion or essential oil. And drying herbs is easiest of all. Either way, it’s worth a little extra effort to have your herbs available year-round.

To dry your herbs, pick leaves and flowers early in the day after the dew burns off and right before flowers open because that’s when they hold the most volatile oil. Take 6-inch cuttings and strip off the flowers just as they open to dry flat. Dry the leaves on the stem in a warm, airy place away from light and humidity. Make individual bouquets of the cuttings from each herb, tie and hang upside down to dry.

Flowers and leaves can also be dried on screens. Herbs may be oven-dried if the temperature can be set under 100 degrees. Even then you can leave the door open, since too much heat destroys the oils (which are what provide the flavor and aroma). Just place the leaves in a single layer on a large baking sheet and put in the oven. Stir and check often. When the leaves break, the herbs are dry. If they powder, however, they’ve been left in too long.

Once dried, the leaves can be removed and crumbled for culinary use in the same mouth-watering dishes as fresh herbs – from meat dishes and soups to herb butters and oils. The flowers are most often used for teas, bath soaks, creams and potpourri. You can use both for making body oils and lotions or just store them in a tight jar away from heat and light. The herbs retain their flavor and aroma for six months to a year.

Or try making an infusion with water. Basically you’re making a tea of sorts – and you can use this for bath soaks and such. Just pour ¼ cup to a quart of boiling water over the leaves and flowers. Cover and steep for 15-20 minutes.

An infused oil is only slightly different, with the benefit of longevity. Make it when it’s convenient and use later. Start with a completely dry glass container (moisture can spoil the oil). Place a ½ cup of herbs in a pint of oil. Cover with a cloth and let it sit in the sun for 10 days. If you store the oil at room temperature, it should be good for up to a year. (But my guess is your herbed oil will be so popular, it won’t last that long!) Use your favorite herbs and oils for salad dressings or bread dips. You can also make a tarragon oil to baste fish – just combine 6 tablespoons fresh or 3 tablespoons dry tarragon with 2 ½ cups of sesame seed or light oil. It’s delicious!

An essential oil takes you farther down the infusion path, and it takes a bit more work. A truly pure essential oil is only accomplished through steam distillation, and that’s best left to commercial companies. But if you want to try your hand at an easier version, just place your herb of choice in a nonmetal container, cover with an olive or safflower oil, and let it rest for 24 hours. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth and squeeze to release the fragrant components. Add more flowers or leaves and repeat the process six more times. Store the oil in tightly sealed bottles. A few drops can be added to baths, lotions or soaps.

Treating yourself (or others) to a luxurious herbal potpourri, infusion or oil isn’t hard to do – so while you’re picking your herbs for their many culinary uses during the growing season, start planning how you’d like to preserve their flavor and aroma for months afterward. It’s a whole new decadent way to enjoy your garden’s harvest year-round!