How to Harvest and Store Herbs

Harvesting refers to the process of removing parts of a plant to be used for consumption. You can’t harvest a plant at any particular time; you must wait until it’s ready to eat, which is when the oils responsible for creating aroma and flavor are at their climax. Timing is delicate since it depends on what part of the plant you want to harvest as well as what you intend to use the plant for.

Below we discuss the various parts of herb plants that can be harvested and how to successfully complete the collection process.

How to Harvest Buds and Flowers

If you are growing herbs such as borage, chamomile or lavender, you will want to harvest the flowers rather than the leaves. You can harvest the bud or the flower at any point when they grow in, but you’ll want to do it before they completely flower. The volatile oils that are in the herb plant are at their peak right before the buds start to open, making this the best time to harvest them.

Another critical component is the time of the day that you harvest the flowers. It’s important that the plant is completely dry, so opt for the early morning, just after the dew has dissolved and before the sun is hot. If your area has gotten rain, also be sure to wipe off any raindrops that have settled on the plant.

To begin, check your herb plant for flower buds that have grown in but haven’t flowered just yet. However, if the buds have opened into flowers, that doesn’t mean you’ve missed your opportunity. While the volatile oils may not be as strong, you ultimately want to collect the flowers before they have become withered and dry.

There are two ways to cut the flowers. The first method is to cut the entire flower bud off the stem, just under the head of the flower. The second way is to cut both the stem and the flower off as if you were pruning the plant. Both ways are acceptable, and there are advantages to each.

If you cut just below the head of the flower bud, the plant will have the chance to grow back quickly, and you can keep harvesting the plant. With the quick turnaround of this method, you’ll want to have a drying screen on hand. If you decide to cut the flower bud and the stem, two new stems will grow, and the herb plant will get bigger.

Also, you can conveniently hang the flowers by the stems to dry, so you won’t need to purchase a drying screen. The drawback to this method is that it will take time for the new stems to grow.

If it’s early in the season and you don’t want to over-harvest the plant, cutting off the flower at the stem and above the leaves is best since it will allow your plant to grow bigger. If you need a lot of flowers in a short amount of time, cutting the buds off at the head is best.

Harvesting and storing herbs

How to Harvest Leaves and Stems

If you choose to harvest the leaves or stems of your herb plant, you’ll follow many of the same precautions as when you harvest the flower buds.

First, the plant should be completely dry, so opting to harvest the leaves in the morning when the dew has dried and the sun is still cool is a good idea. Plus, you can enjoy a more comfortable environment that is conducive to gardening. Some of the most basic herbs that can be harvested include basil, dill, oregano, sage, parsley and thyme.

Keep in mind that you want your plant to grow large and mature, so never harvest all of the leaves at one time. Aim for about 30 percent, leaving big, healthy leaves to continue the growing process. Also, clip the leaves before the plant flowers. You already know that this is the time when the volatile oils are their strongest and will produce the best flavor and aroma.

Additionally, if you don’t want or need the flower buds, there’s no reason to let the plant expend its energy on producing flowers. Once this happens, the stems and leaves form a bitter taste, so pinch off the flower buds and encourage healthy stem growth. You’ll be surprised at just how quickly a healthy plant will create new buds, so be sure to check for these each day.

Now, let’s get down to harvesting our leaves and stems. Never pull the leaves off your plant, even though it may seem like the simplest thing to do. If you want the leaves, cut the stem off and then gently pull the leaves from the stem. This avoids you from putting pressure on the plant itself. If you want the stem, proceed with the same method, except you don’t have to pull the leaves off.

What’s interesting is that once you pull off a leaf from a plant, another one will never grow back in that spot. There are some cases where it is okay to pull off the leaves directly from the plant, such as if there are plenty of larger leaves that are blocking the plant’s ability to absorb sunlight, or if the plant is so massively huge, it just won’t matter. Yet early on, it’s best to cut the stem first, and then pull the leaves.

How to Harvest Roots

Harvesting the roots of an herb plant is a bit different than harvesting the flowers or leaves. The ideal time to do this is in the fall since this is when the roots are their strongest. If you happen to miss this period, you can also harvest the roots in the springtime before new growth starts, but it can be more difficult to find the plant.

Another obstacle is that the roots tend to be wetter during the springtime, so you’ll need to wait a longer period of time for the roots to dry. The only stipulation for fall root harvesting is to wait until the foliage has died off.

Harvesting roots requires patience and a little digging. Most plants aren’t ready to be harvested in their first year, so you will have to wait until their second birthday before you can begin harvesting them.

One plant you can harvest earlier is chicory; one plant you can harvest later (in the third year) is marshmallow. Most other herb roots, including barberry, bayberry, garlic, ginger, stone root and valerian root are best harvested in the second year, in the fall or early spring.

To collect the roots, start with a spading fork and make sure the ground is slightly moist but not saturated. Dig deep using the spade and cut off the plant tops.

Most gardeners opt to dig up the entire plant, but if you plan on having the herb come back next year, make sure to replant a hefty part of the root so that it can grow back. When the roots are gathered up, they will need a good washing.

You can rinse off the roots, but if they still aren’t clean, use a brush to remove the built-up dirt.

Once clean, hang the roots to dry. Some herbs have thick roots, such as Liquorice and burdock, so you may have to cut them vertically in order to speed up the drying process. People are quite surprised to see just how long this process can take; some roots take weeks to thoroughly dry.

Storing Herbs

All herbs should be stored in an airtight jar or container once they have been completely dried. If there is any moisture left, the herbs can grow mold. If the entire stem was dried, take off the leaves and crumble them just before placing them in the container.

Keep the jars away from sunlight and heat, as this will ruin the quality of the herbs. Ceramic, glass or metal containers are best, and they darker the color, the better.

You may use the herbs as needed, just be sure that they have airtight lids so that they stay fresh. It’s time to discard the herb contents when they have mold on them or have become dark and fragile. With proper storage techniques, most herbs can be stored for up to one year.

A second option is to freeze herbs, as they will retain their freshness until they are thawed out. The process is a little different if you choose to freeze them. Start by washing them, and then blanch them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes. Once drained and cooled, they can be placed in individual packages and used as needed. Herbs like parsley, basil and oregano can be thawed out and added to pasta sauce, soups and purees.

Harvesting and storing herbs is not difficult. Once you get familiar with harvesting the different parts of the plant, you will find uses for herbs like you never thought before!

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