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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Growing Herbs to Dry

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
When we rebuilt the deck a few years ago, I took out the junipers in front of our picture window (they burn like gasoline in a wildfire situation, so not a good plant to have next to your house, anyway) and started a kitchen herb garden there instead. But that looked too raggedy too much of the year, so I also potholed spring bulbs here and there and tossed some old wildflower seeds out there too. Now it looks more like a cottage garden, with the oregano, marjoram, tarragon, sage, two kinds of chives, and a little rosemary holding their own. The mints and lemon balm do better over in a shadier spot. Basil gets set out into the vegetable garden each year, and parsley and dill self-seed here and there. The lovage is such a monster that it gets a separate spot on the edge of the garden, along with the anise. Thyme is the only one I haven't found the perfect spot for yet.

I snip and use fresh-picked herbs in my kitchen all summer long, but also dry them for winter cooking and teas. Right now, the marjoram and oregano are starting to form flower buds. The flavor oils in herbs reach their peak just before they flower, so it's time to start harvesting and drying them. Grabbing handfuls of stems, I cut the plants down to a couple of inches above the ground. They'll put out new growth, so I might get two or three more cuttings before fall.

After swishing them around in a sinkful of cool water, and picking through to remove faded leaves and rogue bits of other plants, I shake most of the water off the stems and tumble them into the dish drainer to drip-dry some more. Once the stems are dry, I make bundles with the butt end of the stems rubber-banded together. Using a rubber band is an important part. Although herb bundles tied with string look very pretty and "country-fied", it doesn't work very well. As the stems dry they shrink, fall out of the string loop, and shatter on the floor. If you really want the look of tied herb bundles in your kitchen, tie the string loop over the rubber band. I slip the pointy end of a drapery hook through the rubber band (paper clips bent into an "S" work well too), and hang the herbs up to dry on the edge of a high shelf (a folding clothes-drying rack makes a good hanging spot too).

Another very important part: label the bundles when you first hang them up. I just weave a bit of paper into the tops of the stems. Once dried, herbs can look remarkably similar. Getting mint mixed in with the oregano will make for some very interesting batches of spaghetti sauce next winter. If you like the look of the hanging herbs, you can use them right from the bundles but in my house they'd get dusty and cobwebby, and besides, harvesting brittle bits from the bundles makes a mess and leaves them looking rather ratty.


So once dried, I crumble the leaves off the large stems into a metal colander. Breaking them up with my hands and shaking the colander over a sheet of newspaper, the leaf bits fall through and the smaller stems stay in the colander (sage leaves are best rubbed through a wire mesh strainer). Dumping out any leftovers from the year before, I then pack the herbs into recycled yeast and bouillon jars. The dark brown of the glass helps preserve both flavor and color, and I think things just taste better when stored in glass.

I didn't have enough dark glass jars for all my herbs however, so my tea herbs are in old clear-glass juice canning jars. To protect them from the light, I lined the inside of the jars with paper folded to fit. All my jars are labeled with writing on the lids, but to make these look nicer (and easier to find what I'm looking for), I designed a "master" label on the computer, changed the font color on some, searched Microsoft clipart online to find representative little graphics, and printed out each label/liner. I love the way they look up there.

16 comments:

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Everything looks so neat and tidy, I need to work on that part. Love the tea labels with your own special touch.

Note to self: Grow more herbs!

Tammy James said...

I love those labels too, thanks for the info.

Kathryn said...

This looks wonderful!

What do you use lemon balm for? My plant is growing pretty well, but i don't know where to use it! :)

Christine said...

I love drying herbs. Nothing better than your own garden's dried herbs!

I am glad you talked about labeling them before you hang them up. Because they really can look the same when dried. LOL.

Sadge said...

Thanks, everybody!

Kathryn: Lemon balm is really nice added to teas and other beverages, fresh salsas, cookies and pastries. It's also a healing herb. Brew up a really strong detoction to heal cold sores:
http://firesignfarm.blogspot.com/2008/04/lemon-balm-for-cold-sores.html

MasterpieceMom said...

Finally, a post on Drying Herbs for Dummies. LOL Seriously, every time i've tried reading about it, they assume i know things i don't. This was a great tutorial!

Julie said...

I love your labels Sadge, they look terrific. You've inspired me as I also ran out of the few dark jars I have and I didn't think to just line the clear ones with paper; and they're so cute!

Annodear said...

I love the way they look up there, too!

Thanks for the drying/ storing lessing.

SentimentsbyDenise said...

This is my first year to have an herb garden - I have 6 growing well right now!
Thank you for posting this information, along with your wonderful creativity. I look forward to drying my herbs later in the season. For now, I use them in their fresh state in many recipes.

livinginalocalzone said...

Thank you for all the information! My herbs are growing the fastest and "best" in my garden now (thanks to the rain killing/stunting everything else, sigh) and I have been toying with how to preserve them - I can't use them fast enough. Your method, as Throwback said, looks so efficient and tidy. How long do they keep when you store them?

Sadge said...

Thanks, again, everybody!

Local: Ensure that your herbs are completely dry before storing to prevent mold or mildew. Light and oxidation are the enemies to the flavor and oils in dried herbs. Stored away from light and air, they can keep for years. Your nose is the best test: if, when crushed, they no longer smell like something you'd like to eat, throw them out.

When I go to use my dried herbs, I'll rub them between my palms to release the oils (and then pick out any hard little stem bits). I just checked some cinnamon basil, an annual, I grew years ago and haven't grown since. Crushed, it's still wonderfully fragrant.

Diane said...

Not a problem in Nevada but our (Rhode Island)climate is so damp, especially during herb harvesting season, that I can't dry them in the house proper. My attic, however, gets very hot and has cross ventilation so I tie the bundles to hangers and put those on hooks screwed into the rafters. Most herbs dry in three days. Also, I try to make small bundles so the inner leaves don't rot.
And I plan to steal your labeling ideas. They are beautiful. Thanks.

Cheryl said...

I notice Rose Hips labeled on one of the jars. Is that just snipping off the bulbous part under any rose or is there a special plant for that? Very pretty jars and labels, btw. And thanks for the herb drying basics.

Sadge said...

Cheryl: You can use rose hips from any variety, although some may be better tasting than others. Pick anytime after they've turned to orange or red, but before a hard freeze (light frost, no problem). Wash, snip off both ends with scissors, if desired you can cut hips in half or just dry whole (can remove seeds from the large ones, or not), and dry until brittle - any moisture still in the hips can cause mold in storage. In Nevada, mine dry right on the counter, but in more humid climates you might have to use a warm (110ºF) oven or dehydrator. I crush the dried hips with a rolling pin before using in tea.

Melynda said...

Great stuff Sadge, as always. thanks

Nick said...

I found this info on tips for drying herbs . It seems alike a good primer on how to get started.

There is also some interesting info on how to dry herbs to make tea . Might be something to use all that chamomile for!