by Matt Gibson
An herb garden is one of the most rewarding ways you can use your outdoor garden area to improve your culinary experience at home. Not only will you have access to lots and lots of fresh herbs to help add flavor to your favorite recipes, you will also probably have more fresh herbs than you know what to do with. Remember, your cuttings will not stay fresh forever, but drying your herbs will help to preserve what you wouldn’t have been able to use otherwise, plus, they still have a lot of flavor after drying.
Drying is not the only way to preserve excess herbs, however, so we put together a comprehensive list of all the different things you can do with your herbs. Harvesting and preserving are two skills that every herb gardener should master. Once you know all of the different ways that you can put fresh herbs to use, you’ll never feel overwhelmed by having a plentiful harvest of fresh herbs from your herb garden again.
The first rule of herb harvesting is the one-third rule. When trimming most herb plants, you only want to take approximately one-third of the aerial growth. This method ensures that the plant will have enough of a base left to regrow itself for another harvest.
There are a few exceptions to this general rule. Chives and most species of the mint family prefer to be harvested all at once. Chives need to be cut to an inch or a half inch above the ground, whereas most mint species prefer to be trimmed just above the first or second set of leaves from the base of the crown. With all other herbs, use the one-third rule when harvesting your trimmings.
When to Harvest
Harvest time varies heavily from species to species. Here are the harvesting suggestions for the most common household herb plants.
Tarragon: Harvest any time after new growth begins in spring.
Cilantro: Harvest once stems become six to 12 inches long.
Peppermint and Thyme: Can be harvested any time, but are at their best right before the plant flowers.
Lemon Balm and Rosemary: Can be harvested any time of year during the growing season.
Oregano: Best in midsummer. Sprigs can be harvested once plant is three to four inches tall.
Chives: Should be harvested as soon as leaves are thick.
Lavender: Harvest any time after leaves have flowered.
Parsley: Harvest any time after mature leaves appear.
Basil: Harvest once the plant is six to eight inches tall.
Sage: Careful to only harvest lightly during the first growing season. After its second growing season, harvest any time year-round.
Every herb is different, and there are different methods for harvesting that work best for various herbs. Herbs with long stems should be cut near the base of the plant, about an inch from the ground. This goes for herbs such as cilantro, lavender, parsley, and rosemary. For leafy annuals, such as basil, pinch off leaves from the tips of the stems, attempting not to leave stubs on the stem. This will encourage new leaves to grow in place of those that you harvested. Leafy perennial herbs, such as oregano, sage, thyme and tarragon, can be harvested from either sprig or stem.
Use Your Clippings
Many herb plants can be duplicated simply by regrowing the plants using a small clipping. Basil, rosemary, and mint are all great examples of herb plants that can be grown successfully from clippings. Just cut a few long basil stems from the plant you want to replicate, remove any flower stems and all but two or three leaf pairs, and place the stems in water, and the clippings will start to produce roots of their own. For rosemary or mint, form long-stemmed sprigs by trimming excess leaves off a fresh new cutting, then place the sprigs directly into the soil. The cuttings will form roots and begin to grow on their own with the help of sunlight and water.
Knowing When to Say When
Some herb plants are hardy enough to survive the winter and can be harvested year-round (like thyme and rosemary). Some only produce during a single season and need to be replanted every year (like sage and mint), unless you plan to bring them indoors for the winter season. Knowing what to harvest and when to stop harvesting will become common knowledge after you have been gardening herbs for a few years, but when you’re just getting started, a little research will go a long way.
Thyme and rosemary can be harvested year-round. All other leafy perennials, such as oregano, sage, mint, and tarragon, need a rest period before the first frost (unless you plan to move them indoors) so that they have some time to recoup before cold weather arrives. Do your last major harvest about two months before the first expected frost, and only harvest lightly from that point on unless you plan on moving operations indoors.
Methods for Preserving Herbs
The easiest and most popular method for preserving herbs is drying. Simply trim long stems, bundle them together at the base of the cuttings with a rubber band or a piece of string, and hang them upside down until they dry. Check the bundles occasionally during the drying period to make sure that they are not growing mold or holding beading liquid, such as water or dew. Once the herbs are dry, put them into airtight glass jars, label them, and store them in your spice rack for year-round use.
Another way to dry herbs is with a food dehydrator. Not only will a food dehydrator speed up the drying process significantly, it also greatly lowers the risk of molding or contamination. Food dehydrators have many other great uses, including preserving other garden goodies, such as fruits and vegetables.
Some tender leafy herbs, like basil, mint, and cilantro, lose a ton of flavor when dried and are usually used fresh or not at all. To preserve herbs like these without destroying the flavor by drying them out, freeze them in ice trays submerged in water. After the cubes have frozen, toss them in a freezer bag, and label it so you know what herbs are frozen into ice cubes inside.
When you’re making spaghetti a few months down the road, toss a few basil cubes into the pasta sauce. When the summer months are calling for a refreshing mojito, you’re ready to go with ice cubes that already contain the fresh mint leaves your mojito needs. You can also freeze whole leaves of your garden herbs by lightly coating the leaves with olive oil before freezing them flat in a resealable bag. Need to preserve a bunch of different herbs at once for a fresh herb medley? Try running the fresh herbs through a food processor with a bit of oil to make a paste. Put it on wax paper and freeze it, then cut off what you need when a recipe asks for fresh herbs, and put the leftovers back in the freezer.
Another tasty way to use excess garden herbs is by making an herb butter to spread onto breads or melt on top of corn on the cob, roasted vegetables, or grilled meats. Mix a big handful of fresh, chopped herbs with a half cup of softened butter. Scoop the mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap, and hand-form the herb butter into a stick using the wrap. Refrigerate your herb butter for at least two hours prior to use. Aside from corn, veggies, meats, and using it as a spread for fresh breads, herb butter could also be as a tasty base for cooking your morning eggs in to add some fresh herbal flavor. Either freeze the majority of what you make or be prepared to use it hastily, however, as herb butter only lasts about one week in the refrigerator.
Infused Oils and Vinegars
Excess herbs can also be used to create delicious oil or vinegar solutions. Just add freshly cut herbs to bottles of your choice of oil or vinegar. Save bottles, bottle tops, and corks to use and reuse for infusions. Just remember, when creating an oil infusion, fresh herbs should be at least partially dried before coming into contact with oil. When drops of water come into contact with oil, there is always a risk of bacterial contamination. Use pretty bottles for your infusions, and be sure to drop in whole sprigs of herbs for decorative purposes. If you have a bunch of extra herbs and end up making lots of oil and vinegar infusions, there’s no need to worry. These homemade infusions make great gifts for friends and family, so you can share the benefits of your herb garden with those you love.
Salt or Sugar Mixes
Rich, savory herbs such as rosemary, oregano, tarragon, and marjoram pair well with sea salt, while sweet herbs like mint go well with sugar. Just alternate between layers of salt or sugar and layers of whole leaves from your garden’s herb plants. Run the leaf and granule mix through a blender until the herbs are well incorporated, and store in sealed airtight containers until you are ready to put them to use.
As you can tell from the wide array of ways that you can use excess herbs, there’s no way to have too much of a good thing. Drying excess herbs and making your own spice rack is just one of many ways you can use excess herbs from your garden to your advantage. From a tasty herb butter used to brighten up a vegetable medley or dress up an ear of corn to herbally infused bottles of oil or vinegar perfect for gifts and personal use alike, there’s no excuse for letting fresh herbs go to waste. Having excess herbs is always a good thing, as long as you know what to do with them.
Want to learn more about preserving herb harvests for year-round use?
Garden Therapy covers Preserving Herbs
Savvy Gardening covers How to Preserve Your Garden Fresh Herb Harvests
Mother Earth Living covers Your Guide to Fresh Herbs Year-Round
Natural Living Ideas covers 11 Secrets For Harvesting & Preserving Your Herbs To Use All Year Round