Harvesting Fresh Herbs- What You Need to Know Today
How much can you harvest - For most herbs, harvest about a quarter to a third of the plant at a time after a specimen reaches about eight inches tall. Allow the plant to grow back at least that much before harvesting again. This is a good option if you use fresh herbs in cooking or don't want to have a marathon weekend this fall trying to dry bushels and bushels of plants all at once. Even if you're after, say, leaves as well as seeds from a particular herb, you can grow one specimen for leaves, pinching blossoms during early summer and harvesting for as long as you can. A second plant of the same variety can be grown for seed and allowed to mature naturally.
Avoid harvesting using plastic bags - Grocery bags are bad for the environment and bad for herb harvesting, too. Heat and lack of air flow can cause herbs to wilt prematurely -- or in extreme cases, steam inside the bag. This can happen pretty quickly if you leave a plastic bag filled with herbs in a sunny spot while you, say, decide to run indoors for a minute -- or five.
Choose the best herbs. Discard bruised or predated (bug chomped) leaves whenever possible. It's also a good idea to check the literature on each herb you'll be harvesting to determine the best time and method of collection. Remove any dead or unsightly leaves now. It will save you time and hassles later.
Check the undersides of leaves for the presence of eggs or pests and discard any problem leaves you find. The undersides of leaves can be a common hiding place for bugs and egg caches.
Prefer harvesting in the morning - Herbs are considered more flavorful before the hot sun hits them but after most of the dew has dried. This may have something to do with the distribution of oils in the plant. I have to say I usually try to harvest right after breakfast, but even if I don't make the deadline, I forge ahead and hope for the best -- can't say I've noticed anything wrong with that approach. Just keep in mind that earlier is probably better.
Don't harvest too many herbs, or too much of one herb, at any one time. It's easy to overdo the harvesting and end up with more fresh cut herbs than you can process or use. Most batches take a while to clean -- and a few hours if you're going to go ahead and dry them. Using a dehydrator, I usually figure eight hours per batch just to be on the safe side. That's four to six hours for drying and a couple of hours for cooling, packaging and labeling. This varies from herb to herb so use restraint until you know what types of volumes work best for you.
Wash and dry herbs carefully - There may be pests on the herbs you harvest, and getting rid of them can be a challenge. Heat often works: Use a dehydrator or place herbs in a slightly opened paper bag in a warm area of your garden on a dry day. This will encourage most bugs to skedaddle. You can also wash herbs multiple times in a brisk stream of very cold water, submerging leaves and stems for a number of minutes after washing. This will drown lingering pests and hopefully they'll depart down the drain with the water. Dry herbs in a salad spinner or shake them and place them on paper towels to dry. Less water after washing means a faster drying time.
Sort now - With most herbs, you'll want the leaves or blossoms or seeds. It's usually easier to take the plants apart sooner rather than later. That means stripping the leaves from the stems and/or isolating the blooms for drying. I usually harvest any seeds after drying by breaking up the dried flowers.
If you're into grilling, herb stems can be useful, so don't pitch them. You can use stiff, chubby stems as kabob skewers. Rosemary is a favorite for this and works well with pork and lamb. If stems are too frail to use as skewers, make small bunches of them secured with cotton twine. They're great to throw into the coals to add herb infused smokiness to chicken, steak or pork. Some fun options include: sage, thyme, oregano, marjoram and lavender.
Short term storage - You can keep cut herbs fresher longer by placing their stems in a glass of cold water in your fridge. This can extend their useful life from three days to around five or six. If they get droopy, cut a half inch off the stem ends and replace the water.
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