Harvesting and preserving herbs

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener You decided to try growing herbs this summer and now that they are ready to harvest, you might need to know exactly what to do. There is not one rule for all herbs so I will attempt to break it down for you.
: These colorful flowerheads of fennel will turn into flavorful seeds. If you spot green, yellow and black caterpillars, don’t stress. Let them chew away and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful swallowtail butterflies to enjoy. There are two main categories of herbs – the Mediterranean and those in the Umbelliferea family. The Mediterranean herbs include rosemary, tarragon, lavender, sage, thyme and oregano. These herbs are best dried. However, most of these are available through the winter here in Southside although the plants won’t be as lush. Rosemary may be the iffy one because only two cultivars are hardy to this area – ‘Arp’ and ‘Salem’. That said, if you would like to dry them, cut off a bunch and hang in a cool place. Do NOT hang in a basement. Basements are generally too damp, even if you don’t think you have dampness issues, the herbs will mildew. When the leaves are the consistency of potato chips, the herbs are ready to be stored. Remove the leaves, do not crush, and place in a jar and seal tightly. Store in a dark place. When you are ready to use, crush the leaves. By leaving the leaves whole, more flavor is retained. Lavender is an exception here. For the most part, flower buds are used for cooking. Harvest the bud stems before buds open. Drying makes the buds easier to remove. Do this by tying the bundle and hanging to dry. To collect, place a container under a piece of outdoor screening, like you would use for a window. Rub the dried stems across the screening and the buds will fall into the container. Store in jars and in a dark place. The buds remain viable for years. To harvest lavender flowers, cut flowers and stems down to the foliage. Tie them in a bundle and hang upside down to dry. The flowers will retain some color and their fragrance will last for a long time. But honestly, if you just put the stems in a vase you can enjoy the blooms as they are drying. Herbs in the Umbelliferea family or Parsley family include parsley, chervil, cilantro (coriander), fennel and dill. These herbs generally are not as flavorful if dried as with Mediterranean herbs. However, if you dry these herbs they will be tastier than what you buy in the grocery store. I find that these herbs are best dried on a cooling rack in the refrigerator. With this method, the herbs will retain their color and more flavor. The second best way is to freeze in water. I pinch off small hunks and put into each ice cube slot. Cover with water the freeze. When frozen, remove and store in a baggie. Pull out a cube or 2 when needed. Remember, if you want to harvest and store cilantro, you need to do this in May. Although basil and chives are not in this family, they are best handled in either one of these methods. I admit that when I harvest dill, I just put the dill in a baggie and store in the freezer. My husband has it when he wants to make his special deviled eggs. His secret is using sour cream rather than mayo, yummy! Although all parts of the plant are edible, generally with fennel the seeds are harvested. A trick is to take the seeded stems and turn upside down in a paper bag. Shake the stems against the bag and the seeds will fall to the bottom of the bag. The coriander seeds on the cilantro plant can be handled the same way. Don’t delay harvesting or you will find the goldfinches will have beat you to it. While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings remain closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu. If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is checked timely and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask and harvest some herbs this fall.