From the Sept/Oct 2003 issue of The Essential Herbal:
Herbal Harvest-Preserving Herbs for Winter Use
Autumn is here and the farmers markets and gardens are overflowing with the abundance of nature. This is the time of year when I carefully listen to the weather report to try to gauge when we will get our first killer frost, leaving the garden a veritable wasteland of frozen black plants. Before the cold carnage begins, get out there and collect your fall bounty. The best time to harvest your herbs is in the cool of the morning, ideally when they are dry. The midday heat encourages plants to release their essential oils, which you want as intact as possible. Normally it is wise not to harvest more than 1/3 of your plant, leaving plenty for later harvests. In the final fall cutting I usually leave a few inches of stems on my perennial herbs, the ones that return each spring, to provide a little winter coverage.
The annual herbs can be cut to the ground. If they need a wash, submerge them in a basin of cold water, swish gently and dry on cotton towels before bundling. To dry, fasten them in small bunches with a rubber band, include a strip of paper telling you what it is, and hang upside down in a cool, dry, place, out of direct sunlight.
Most herbs dry quite well this way, common exceptions being basil, cilantro, and chives. The next step is very important. When your herbs have dried, take them down and put them in a sealed container. Glass jars work great, but you can use Ziplocs. Label, date, and store in a cool, dark place. I know your herbs look really cool hanging around, but once they dry, they start to lose potency. There is something so discouraging about pulling a dusty, cobwebbed sage leaf out of your soup. It drives my mother crazy. Designate a few to leave up for aesthetics and package the rest.
Some things to consider: Until you are ready to use them, keep your herbs in as whole a form as possible. Rub the leaves off the woody stems before adding to dishes. If stored correctly, most herbs retain flavor until the next growing season and beyond. To determine viability look at color, beige is not a good sign, and rub some of the herb between your fingers. It should have some fragrance.
Herbs can be frozen also. Place loosely in bags, date and label. Basil will turn black so I always blend the fresh leaves with enough oil to make a paste and freeze it that way. Defrost, add Parmesan cheese and pine nuts, whip up in a food processor and Pesto!Another great way to store herbs is in herb vinegar. Just put the clean, fresh herb in a jar, cover completely with apple cider, rice or wine vinegar, let sit for a few weeks, strain, and you have yourself a very tasty, high mineral, designer vinegar.
There are many ways to use your harvest bounty. Seasonings and teas are obvious, but what about trying potpourri, designing an herbal wreath, cooking up an herbal salve or making a catnip toy for Kitty? You could also make some bath salts, herbal waters, or a soothing eye bag for naptime. The mind boggles at the possibilities. There are several good herb books out, complete with ideas and recipes. Three I really like are; Making Glorious Gifts From Your Garden by Marie Browning, Decorating with Herbs by Simon Lycett and anything by Phyllis V. Shaudys.
You didn't grow any herbs this year? No worries. You can buy them at farmers markets and grocery stores or pre-dried in bulk at natural food stores. Try making a ginger pear jam, or a lavender honey. Celebrate fall's bounty with your domestic creations.
Susan Evans is a Certified Clinical Herbalist and owner of Chrysalis Herbs. She provides classes on herbs, gardening and health. Call 303-697-6060 or email @ email@example.com.