One of the most common foods grown in home gardens are herbs. From porch-based bucket gardens to window pots to small garden plots, culinary herbs are a favorite the world over. Most home gardeners grow some type of herb for their kitchen – many grow several.
Some herbs are prized for their leaves, some for their stems, some for both, and still others for seed. How you harvest will depend on the type of herb you’re growing.
How To Harvest Herbs for Maximum Flavor
Harvesting Herbs for Leaves and Stems
Herbs grown for their leaves or stems are best harvested before they begin to flower. Many gardeners trim flowering stalks off their herbs as soon as they appear, hoping to continue harvests. This only works depending on the herb. It may be best to harvest before flowering and then allow the plant to flower (so you can collect seeds) or replace it with a new starter.
Cuts should always be taken in the early morning after the dew has dried but before the heat of the day has begun. If the herb is a perennial, stop harvesting about a month before the killing frost. This way they can harden tender growth and be ready for winter.
Harvesting Herbs for Seeds
For herbs grown for their seeds, most will need you to wait until the seeds are at a specific development point. Most of the time, this is when the seed pods have turned from green to brown to gray. At this point, they should be harvested quickly before they open. They will usually shake or scrape off of the plant.
Harvesting Herbs for Flowers
Herb flowers can be harvested just before full flower if needed for drying or decorative purposes. This is especially true of chamomile. For flowers to be harvested for oil-based flavor, they should be picked when the buds are at their largest but have not opened. Tarragon and lavender can be harvested in the early summer and cut back to half-height to encourage a fall flowering.
Harvesting Root Herbs
Root herbs can be harvested in the fall after foliage has mostly faded.
Herb Harvesting Tips
Herbs grown for a leaf or stem harvest should be pruned early in the spring. Cut back about half of their growth. This encourages faster growth. Once the plant is well established, up to 75% can be harvested without harming the plant. For most annual herbs, they will recover and allow three or four harvests in this manner before flowering. Perennials often have a slower growth pattern, so two harvests may be the most possible and no harvest (only trimming) should be done in the first year to encourage root growth.
To harvest for cooking, just cut as much as you need when you need it, so long as it won’t harm the plant. To harvest for preserving, most gardeners take large harvests all at once in order to make the preservation process faster (all at once instead of several times in small batches).
Herb Preserving Tips
There are many ways to preserve herbs and the choice will depend on what’s being preserved and the tools at hand to the gardener. Drying is probably the most common and easiest. Freezing is another favorite and some herbs (especially roots) are preserved by pickling.
When drying herbs for preservation, do so in daytime heat if at all possible and avoid oven or other methods that can lead to burning and ruining of the herb. Most types of leaf and stem herbs are best dried in small bunches, hung upside down and encased in paper sacks to absorb excess moisture. Some herbs like garlic can be hung as-is in tied bunches, others may require that they be laid out in sunlight for a few hours to cook away their waxy coating.
If freezing, many methods are possible from simple chopping and freezing to purees of butter or olive oil. Root herbs are often sliced, grated, or chopped for freezing. Some root herbs like ginger can be pickled in vinegar as well.
Want to learn more about harvesting herbs?
Check out these helpful resources:
Harvesting and Preserving Herbs for the Home Gardener from North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
Growing Herbs in the Home Garden from West Virginia University Extension Service