Growing herbs in the flower or vegetable garden is easy and enjoyable, and they add beauty and fragrance to the garden all through the spring and summer months.
It is easy to extend this enjoyment to the rest of the year with a little time spent preserving the appropriate parts of the plant for later use.
I have good intentions every fall, but somehow the right time comes and goes before I make the effort. This year will be different, I hope.
Most herbs wilt quickly after cutting, and if you want to keep them fresh for a few days before processing, place the sprigs in a plastic bag filled with air and they can be kept in the refrigerator.
You may choose to dry, freeze or preserve your herbs in oil or vinegar, or use them in pickles, jams or jellies according to varieties.
Probably drying is the easiest way to go for most herbs, whether you are working with the leaves, stems, seeds, flowers, bark or fruit. Moisture needs to be removed gradually from a plant, and drying in the oven is not satisfactory because the water evaporates too fast and essential oils will be lost, resulting in poor flavor and decreased scent.
Sage, rosemary and thyme dry well tied in small bunches and hung with string in a warm place. Do not make large bundles because the air needs to circulate freely; about 10 stems at a time is about right. Hang the bunches with stems upward. If just leaves are to be worked with, put them on cheesecloth, or brown paper punctured with holes, on the rack you use for cooling cookies. One to two weeks is generally right.
When completed, the leaves should be dry to the touch and fragile, but not so dry they crumble to powder.
Once dried, remove the leaves from their stems and keep each leaf whole as much as possible. Crush only right before using. Ideal storage is in glass bottles, out of strong light.
Flowers can be dried in the same way, and should retain their color. Borage flowers are attractive, and of course, lavender is always a favorite.
Seeds of herbs such as fennel, dill and coriander will dry well if the seed heads are hung over a box or sheet of paper, or hung up in a paper bag to collect the seeds as they fall.
Freezing retains flavor well in culinary herbs such as parsley, chives, basil and tarragon and is certainly an easy method. Either pack them in plastic bags, singly or in mixtures, or chop leaves finely and freeze in water in ice cube trays.
I freeze chives in this way, and just keep the frozen cubes in a bag in the freezer to mix in with cottage cheese in the winter.
To be more creative, why not try herb butter?
To a cup of softened butter (or substitute if you must) add the juice of a lemon, some salt and pepper, and about three tablespoons of chopped herbs. I just love a mixture of parsley and chive butter spread on a baked potato. Or you can use rosemary, sage, garlic, thyme or tarragon on fish or meat. One of those flavored butters spread on thick toast along with some homemade vegetable soup would make a wonderful winter meal.
A sniff test between the contents of those little tins in your cupboard and the fresh spices and herbs from your garden is no contest at all. So go out and pick some sprigs while you are in the mood, and you have the ingredients for a tasty season to come.
Janet Del Turco is a local gardener and a graduate of the Ohio State University Master Gardener program.
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