Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Herb Garden Treasures

One of the gardens I have neglected to tell you about is our Herb Garden, which occupies a raised bed across one end of Veggie Garden 1.  I think this is the 3rd year since I added herbs to the plants we grow, and I have to say it is one of my favorite sections of the garden.  Not only is has it been useful, it is pretty too. And its a good value, considering a very tiny jar of dried herbs/seasonings can cost 4 or 5 dollars or even more when you buy them at the grocery store, and fresh--well how fresh could they be?  But, a whole plant usually costs less than that, and then I can dry enough to fill several pint jars of our favorites out of the garden each year, plus have all the fresh herbs we want to use from spring through late fall.

Herb garden in early spring

Early in the spring, I cleaned out a few weeds, scratched up the soil, mixed in some manure and trimmed the few plants that survived the winter and were ready grow.  Those that came back from the previous year included: chives, sage, thyme, oregano, and lavender.  Others that do not survive our winters are, basil, parsley, rosemary, cilantro, and tarragon.  

I started herbs from seed as well, just to see how they would do and to have lots to share. Most grew pretty well. Here you can see baby dill (below left) and baby thyme (below right).  The basil grew sort of weird, with lumps on the leaves, and had a strange smell, so I ended up purchasing a couple plants after all. 

After initially prepping the soil, trimming the existing plants and adding in the new ones, there was very little to do with this portion of the garden.  The herbs seem to do best when left alone!  So I let them have a bit of water when the sprinklers are on, and let them grow.

When it comes to picking and using the herbs, you can really cut some to use fresh at any time when the plants are big enough, have established roots, and will survive the cutting.  Herbs, like a lot of other plants will actually flourish, and have more growth after a good trimming anyways, so don't be afraid to cut and use pieces of fresh herb often.  

washed Sweet Basil leaves
If you plan to collect a large amount and dry it there are a few tips to consider. Most types of herbs are at peak flavor just before they flower.  Also, I learned that it is best to cut the herbs in the morning, after the dew dries off but before the hot sun affects the oils in the plant and therefore the flavor or fragrance as well. Some info sources I read say do not wash the herbs before drying them (again, something about optimum oil retention)....however, we have very sandy soil and when it rains or the sprinkler is on, the foliage gets spattered with dirt and I just have to wash them! I usually place the herbs in the sink or wash bin, and fill it with cool water, swish them around, shake off excess water and then allow them to air dry on a clean towel before use. I don't really notice any quality difference with doing so.  A final tip I learned as to drying herbs is that leaving pieces larger for storage and then crushing them when ready to use them later on will also preserve more true flavor/fragrance.

There are several options for the actual drying process:
1.  Collect the herbs into small bunches. Tie the stems, and hang the bundles upside down in a dry, dark, airy place until thoroughly dry. This is supposed to be the best way to preserve the most oil in the foliage, giving best flavor and fragrance when dry. I do not really have a place to hang herbs so I do not use this option.

2.  Place stems of herbs in a single layer across a wire cooling rack on a cookie sheet. Place in the oven set to lowest temperature possible, and leave the door ajar to release moisture.  I have done this with all kinds of herbs with success for a few years.  The downsides include: takes a long time, heats up the house, have to keep a close eye on it, and cannot do very much at a time.

3.  Food Dehydrator Option:  This past Christmas I received as a gift something that has been on my wish list for quite a long time--an electric food dehydrator.  It is from Harbor Freight, and is not one of those super duper really expensive ones, but it is sufficient with 5 trays and a lid with vents.  It uses a low powered heating coil in the bottom; heat and moisture from the food rise and escape out of the lid.

I have been using it all summer to dry several harvests of herbs. The first time around with Parsley, for example, I washed, towel dried,  picked the leaves off the stems and piled them onto each of the 5 trays--it took about 5 hours to completely dry with the trays really packed full, but the color stayed beautiful green and the smell and taste seem to be great! The full dehydrator yielded a packed pint jar of dried parsley.   With subsequent batches, I tried to allow more air flow by not filling the trays so full, and the processes was much quicker, reducing the drying time by a couple hours.  Different types of herbs however will take varying amounts of time.  I picked off and only dry the leaves of the parsley, basil and sage, but for herbs like thyme, rosemary and oregano (small leaves) I place whole sprigs on the trays and simply strip the leaves off the stem after drying.
sprigs of Thyme in the dehydrator

Oh, almost forgot, I do the chives by the oven method because I like to snip them with scissors and dry in little bits which would fall through the trays of the dehydrator.

Once the herbs are thoroughly dry, they may be stored in an air tight container. I use pint-sized canning jars, and add cute homemade labels too.

Such an easy, fun, and money saving section of our landscape!