Culinary herbs are leaves and seeds that are used to flavor food. Most culinary herbs–including oregano, sage, savory, catnip, and marjoram—come from perennial plants with non-woody stems. Rosemary, however, is a woody shrub, and basil and dill are annuals that must be replanted every year. Some annuals, like dill and cilantro, reseed themselves, which means they can come back year after year. Most culinary herbs grow best with plenty of sun and warmth and well-drained soil.
Choosing Herbs to Grow
Gardeners can choose from dozens of cooking herbs to grow in their gardens or on their windowsills. The best ones for you to grow are the ones that thrive in your climate and conditions and that you will use. Herbs are flavorful additions to salads, soups, omelets, and other dishes, especially if you use them when they are fresh. But unless you are growing only a plant or two, you will probably grow more than you can use at any one time. That’s where preserving comes in; preserving lets you grown your herbs now and cook with them later without losing all the wonderful fragrances and flavors.
If you are harvesting leaves always choose healthy leaves and harvest them before the plants flower, which is when leaves are at their most aromatic. Harvest in the morning after the dew dries but before the sun gets too hot. To grow plants for seed you must let the plants continue to grow past the flowering stage and let central stem grow. Allow the seeds to get brown or gray before you harvest them, but don’t wait too long or the seedpods will open and the seeds will scatter.
You can preserve most of the common culinary herbs through either drying or freezing. The traditional way to dry herbs is to tie small bunches of stems together and hang them upside down in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area out of the sun, like an attic or, in a dry climate, a screen porch.
This method works very well with dill, thyme, parsley, and sage. Chives are so thin you can just cut thin into small pieces and dry them on a plate in a warm room.
Basil, tarragon, mints, and other herbs with fleshy leaves tend to get moldy if the drying takes too long. To speed up the drying process you can use a food dryer or a warm (100 degrees F) oven. Put a layer of paper towel on a baking sheet and spread leaves out on the paper towel so they are not touching.
Make three or four layers—paper towel, then leaves—and put the baking sheet in the oven until the leaves are dry enough to crumble between your fingers. A minute or two in a microwave yields similar results.
When the dried leaves are brittle and crumble easily, separate them from the stems. Crushing the leaves before storing saves space, but you will get the best flavor if you crush them just before you use them.
Cooks use not only the leaves but also the seeds of fennel, dill, and cilantro. Collect stems with dry seedpods and put the stems in paper bags with holes near the top for circulation. Collect seeds from the bag after the pods shatter and release the seeds.
To preserve their flavor, store dried herbs in airtight jars or plastic bags out of direct sunlight, heat, and moisture. It’s important that they are totally dry before you store them, otherwise, they will get moldy. Stored properly, dried herbs can last a year.
Basil, mint, dill, chives, and parsley freeze well. Rinse the leaves in cold water and dry them. Spread them, well spaced, on cookie sheets in the freezer, then place them in freezer bags and put the bags in the freezer. Just break off a piece of frozen herb when you need it. Or, you can put chopped up leaves in ice cube trays filled with water and freeze the leaves in the water. Frozen herbs don’t look pretty, but they keep enough of their flavor to be tasty additions to recipes.
Want to learn more about growing and preserving herbs?
Growing and preserving herbs is fun and rewarding. Find some tips from experienced herb growers at these sites:
Learn About Harvesting and Preserving Herbs for the Home Gardener from North Carolina cooperative extension.
Read About Growing, harvesting, and using culinary herbs, from the University of Rhode Island cooperative extension.
Find other sources from a directory of herb-related websites.
For A Constant Source of Herb Information, Tips, and Everything You Need to Know, Visit Herb Gardening Tips.
Lynne Lamstein gardens in Maine and Florida and is currently working on a sustainable landscape. She has a degree in ornamental horticulture from Temple University.