The best time to begin picking your herbs for drying is long before they flower. I always seem to miss that date when they are hearty enough to have a good supply of leaves, but not so hearty that they’ve begun to set flowers and seed. This year I was a little late, especially with my thyme which was blooming profusely when I finally got around to harvest.
For best flavour I pick my leaves early in the day before they get too warm. I put out a stool, sit down with my basket and scissors and start clipping away. Depending on the herb, my technique varies.
For oregano, I grasp the stalk low and pull up slowly to tear off the leaves, leaving a bare stalk behind. Usually the stalk breaks near the tender top, and I pick those leaves off by hand, avoiding any of the blossoms. I wash them in a salad spinner and place them in an even layer in my dehydrator.
I dry them at somewhere between 105C and 115C for as long as they take to become crumbly. Depending on the moisture content and relative humidity, that can be anywhere from a few hours to a few days. If the leaves are overlapping here and there, it’s good to move them around every once in a while to get more even air distribution.
The slower you dry the herbs, the more flavour they retain, so some patient people dry their herbs at room temperature. This may be impossible in humid parts of the country where mould would take advantage of yummy herbs sitting out on a counter or hanging in a dark corner.
To pick individual leaves off of thyme would be unbearably tedious so I cut the stalks whole, trim off the flowers and bring in the entire bunch to wash. Once they’ve been dried in the dehydrator the leaves are easy to separate from the stalks.
Basil, parsley and sage are simple to harvest if I just patiently sit and pluck off the foliage, trying not to take too much of the stem along with the leaf. If I save any chives at all for drying (and I sometimes don’t bother), I’m careful only to take the freshest youngest leaves.
I love coriander seed, although they aren’t ready to harvest just yet. When the time comes I simply pull the ripe seeds off in my hand and leave them to dry for a few days on the kitchen counter in a wooden bowl. The leaves (cilantro) don’t keep very well, but I put a few in the freezer for soups and winter casseroles.
Rosemary I primarily use as a fresh herb, but whatever is left at the end of the season will be harvested similarly to thyme, stalk and all, then separated after drying.
For those without a dehydrator (heck, mine’s borrowed from my sister-in-law), herbs can be dried in the microwave. Use two layers of microwave-safe paper towel under the herbs and two more on top. Dry for thirty seconds at a time, and most will be done in under two minutes. It’s easy to over-process herbs this way, so be careful.
I find that some years my oregano produces ample leaves, while my sister-in-law might be drowning in basil and a neighbour may have more rosemary than he knows what to do with. Exchanging and bartering herbs is a custom that goes back centuries, and who am I to argue with tradition?
It’s been two months since I transferred over my hardy herbs and seeded the annuals in my new herb spiral.
Visually, the spiral does not disappoint. I love the way it’s slowly filling out, with cilantro growing tall on the north-east corner and oregano getting bushy on the south. Basil and sage enjoy the afternoon and evening sun from their vantage point on the west. Rosemary sits cheerfully atop the spiral where conditions are driest and most intimidating. Alternating jalapeno and habernero pepper plants wind their way slowly from the bottom of the spiral upwards. Parsley thrives in the relative shade of the cilantro, while thyme enjoys its own space in the full sun. Garlic plants fill out the remainder of the north-east side of the herb spiral, towering over a struggling lemon basil plant that a friend donated to my culinary garden.
Chives and spearmint have been banished to pots on the side (spearmint invades aggressively if left to it’s own). Ok, if you look closely you’ll see that I have chives in the spiral as well, but I swear that if they produce so much as one offspring, I’ll banish them entirely. Chives left to blossom and go to seed can produce dozens of little plants that pop up yards away from their mama plant. Much as I love chives, I don’t love them that much. (I harvest the chive blossoms for Chive Blossom Vinegar – see June 2010 – and that generally prevents those pesky progeny).
I’ve been eating oregano, sage and thyme for two months now, cilantro leaves for at least six weeks, and bits of rosemary in recent days. My favorite is the fussy sweet basil that began slowly this spring but is now gaining ground. I’m hesitant to strip my two plants of too many leaves before I’m certain they are strong enough to endure the annoying fluctuations in weather that have plagued us this summer.
Herbs are an essential part of my kitchen, and having the herb spiral a few feet out the back door has proven to be a spectacular addition to my culinary creativity. It looks and smells fantastic as well, and isn’t that the goal of any zone 3 gardener?
The Herb Spiral sits just outside my back door:
An herb spiral is a raised circular bed designed to provide herbs with a variety of growing conditions. They’ve been around since the middle ages and are once again in vogue among gardeners, especially those who practice permaculture.
Herbs that prefer drier conditions are placed near the top of the spiral and those that prefer more moisture are placed near the bottom. Micro-climates allow for some plants to have access to more heat and others less. Shadier spots near the north side favor herbs that prefer less direct sun.
I began building my own herb spiral last fall. Early this spring I transferred my sage, oregano, thyme and chives from other locations in the yard and planted some garlic. I seeded cilantro and parsley and they are well on their way.
I was given some spearmint but left it in a pot alongside, as it can become very invasive if planted directly in the soil. In the fall I’ll bury the pot to the rim and that should allow the spearmint to over-winter.
I bought basil and rosemary from the garden centre and planted them this week. I’ll use an empty juice bottle to cover them overnight for the first few weeks until all risk of frost is over. I also added a dozen pepper plants – red hot cherry and jalapeno.
Building the herb spiral:
This was a fun project. I picked a location close to my back door and began by laying out a pattern using a garden hose. I dug up the grass around the herb spiral and saved the sod. On the circular area where I planned to put the spiral, I placed cardboard over the grass to kill it, then placed the clumps of sod upside down on the cardboard to build volume.
I placed landscape fabric over the area surrounding the circle and defined the spiral with pavers and bricks. I filled in the surrounding zone with cedar chips and small flat white stones. I added soil and created a spiral pattern with stones, and left it for the winter.
In the spring I added more soil and raised the spiral an additional foot to create a greater difference in height. I then transferred my plants and seeded some of the others. I bought a few bedding plants to fill out the spiral and in the end I was very happy with the outcome.