In the fall, I've made a workbench for myself on our deck and sorted cut herbs for wreaths, swags, and potpourri. That ritual each fall is one of my absolute favorite times, and I'm sure when I look back on the changing seasons of my life in the garden, these will be among my most vivid and satisfying memories.
If you are about to do a little harvesting of your own, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
Where to Keep Your Harvested HerbsNever place your herbs in plastic bags. They will be unable to breath, might well overheat, and your harvest will be lost. You can use paper bags, but I like to use a basket. Baskets don't inhibit airflow, and they are gracious reminders of all those who went before us, harvesting wild or cultivated herbs in baskets or woven hats. If you are out of doors for an extended period, keep your harvesting container in the shade.
What Time of Day to Harvest HerbsTry to harvest in the morning before 10:00 a.m. The essential oils in most herbs are most abundant in plant leaves in the morning, so your herbs will be more aromatic and flavorful if you harvest early. The one thing to try to avoid is dew. If there's dew on the plant, wait long enough for the morning sun to evaporate it.
How to Cut Your HerbsUse a sharp knife. You want to make a clean cut just below a node that won't wound the plant any more than necessary. Tearing at leaves and creating ragged edges is an invitation to disease. Nodes are the areas on plants that produce new growth. They will often look like small bumps or sometimes joints.
Should You Wash Your Herbs?Yes, wash your herbs. I fill the sink with tepid water, immerse the herbs and shake them gently. I do this two or three times, watching for any unwelcome guests, grit, or other problems. After washing, some people spin their herbs in a salad spinner to dry them, or even use the spin cycle of the their washing machines.
I use a gentler approach by shaking my herbs lightly and then placing them on a thick terrycloth towel to dry in a shady spot. When they look reasonable dry, I use them in cooking, or place bulk harvests in a dehydrator to complete the drying process before long term storage.
How Much of Your Herb Plant Should you Harvest?As a general rule, if you only harvest half of your plant or less, then you will be able to enjoy a couple of harvests through the summer. In the fall, refer to the guide for each individual plant to see how best to prepare it for winter in your area.
When to Harvest HerbsHarvest herb plants just before they bloom. After blooming, most of a plant's energy will be invested in producing seed. If the leaves are what you are interested in, make sure to encourage your plants to make leaves, not flowers, by harvesting leaves and stems before blooms appear or pinching back buds before they flower. If you do this consistently, you will extend the useful life of your plant and can still harvest seeds later in the season. This is also a good way to delay bolting. For slow growing perennials like rosemary, harvest new growth in summer and fall.
Herbs you've grown yourself, cultivated and cared for are being processed for your table, your household use, and your crafts. How amazing. This is the real deal. I think this is plant-keeping at its most visceral and satisfying -- to provide for your home, family and friends. The plant oils you smell on your hands will linger for hours: lavender, lemon balm, mint, sage, and whatever other herb choices you made when you were originally planning your garden, certain that spring and summer would roll around eventually.