Saturday, 4 July 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.