Hi All, I wanted to share my decade of experience in preserving herbs from my garden so I have them available for use all year long. This all started for me when I discovered oregano in the garden of my first house. I was intrigued and inspired by that plant and began trying to grown and preserve as many of my own herbs as I could
I want to start by pointing out that an herb is the leafy portion of the plant while a spice is any other part of the plant. Many spices are very difficult if not impossible for me to grow, but most herb on the other hand are available for growing as annuals if not as perennials. (note that I'm talking about the northeast USA)
Next I want to identify the most common annual, bi-annuals and perennial herbs (in New England):
Annuals: Will die with the frost and not come back without seeds being dropped by either you or the plant.
Summer Savory (will easily re-seed if you let it)
Silver Sage (will re-seeds itself)
Bi-annuals: Come back a second summer with the sole intent of flowering and going to seed. If they seed the fist year they may not come back.
Perennials: Will return year after year so long as they are happy. Some may be a bit tender and must have some extra protection form the winter frost to survive.
Thyme (can be tender, I've had them not survive my zone 5 winters some years)
Lavender (can be tender, pay attention to variety and its "hardiness")
Mints (oregano is in the mint family, as are catnip, lemon balm, and many others)
I know there are many more herbs but these are the only ones I've had direct experience with growing.
In my experience the perennial herbs will continue to persist after a few frosts, and will shoot up again in early spring, making them easier to access more of the year. Once winter comes you have to be cautious with harvesting as some plants will not rebound will if you harvest too much. The distinction can be found in weather they are "herbaceous" this means a plant that dies all the way down to the ground in winter. This includes parsley, chives, lovage, oregano, and mints. These herbaceous plants can be harvested completely as they would have died to the ground anyway. All of the others should be cut back in moderation leaving at least half of the plant for next years growth.
I've also found that more frequent harvests will push the plant to grow more vigorously. This means even when the plant it relatively small you should take small clippings. Harvest no more than half of the plant at any one time.
I use two primary methods freezing and drying
Freezing: This method preserves the flavor of the herb the best, but it also takes up valuable freezer space. Therefore I reserve this method for the herbs that I feel really need it. Specifically parsley, cilantro, and chives. Its my opinion that these herbs become completely tasteless when dried. To freeze them, I simple chop them to my desired consistency (usually quite fine) and put them into a labeled freezer bag. There are other threads on permies where people discuss the pros and cons of using plastic in the freezer in more detail; so I'll skip over most of that and just say that I choose bags here since the volume of herb will diminish over the coarse of winter so the bag allows me to let out the air preserving freezer space, and minimizing freezer burn of the herbs. Once frozen I'm able to simply open the bag, grab a pinch of whatever size I need for use, and drop it into the pot, pan, or bowl. It so easy even my husband and teenager have made a habit of using these herbs.
Drying: This is super easy. Just group the base of the stems together (usually between a dime and a nickle size bundle) and tie them with a length of twine. Then hang them somewhere with no direct sunlight, and good air flow. In my last home that was the wall of the basement stairwell which was right next to the side door. At my current home its the wall of the back hallway. Ill try to get a picture of the area to post here. Once the herbs are dry enough to crumble between my fingers I take down the bunch, strip the stems and discard them, and crush the herb with my hands before putting it into a labeled jar or bottle. Sometimes I don't have time to get to the striping and crushing part for several months, this has never proven to be a problem. The herbs seem to have the same look and taste either way. I will warn that if you harvest and hang the herbs in early or mid summer, sometimes the humidity will prevent them from drying as quickly. Again I have not had any problems with just leaving them hanging for longer and waiting until the humidity drops in the fall to process the herbs. I did once try to dry comfrey this way. For those not familiar, comfrey's leaves have fine hairs covering them all over, which is, I think, why the comfrey didn't dry quickly enough and molded. Comfrey is the only plant I've had that happen with. A friend of mine had the same experience with trying to dry comfrey, so I conclude it really requires a dehydrator or oven. All of my culinary herbs have done fine with my method described here.
I hope this inspires some of you to grow more of your own herbs for home use!
MUSTARD: The one spice I've managed to grow and preserve. This one is also easy, and has the added benefit of a harvest of mustard greens in the summer. Simply let the plants grow, flower, and develop full seed pods. Watch for the birds! They love the mustard seed, especially the yellow finch. At this point its time to be selfish and steel the seed from the birds. Just cut off the tops of each stem where the seed pods are and gather them into a bucket or bin. I then let them dry a bit further in a protected area with good air flow. When they seem good and brittle, and when I find time, I begin crushing the harvested plants by stomping on them in a plastic bin. This should break open the seed pods and release the seeds. Once I feel the seed pods all look demolished enough, I set about threshing them. That means separating the chaff (the dead stalks and seed pods material) from the seeds. There are a ton of videos online about how to thresh to get you started, but frankly once you have the general idea, only experience will improve your methods when it comes to threshing. I store the seeds whole in a labeled jar, and grind them down into a powder in smaller batches with either a coffee grinder (dedicated to only herbs and spices so there is no coffee flavor involved here) or in the dry goods canister of my vita-mix. I like to grow several varieties of mustard at once so I have both yellow and brown seeds all mixed together. Each year I save some of my seeds for planting the following year. I will say that the smell of freshly ground mustard seeds is truly amazing!! It will make you want to start using it in your cooking more!
One of my shortcuts is 'herb ice cubes'. Whiz up a variety of harvested herbs in the food processor and freeze them in an ice cube tray with a little water. These can stay in a ziploc bag in the freezer through the winter for use in soups, sauces, stir fry, etc. Anywhere you might add a variety of garden herbs. One could also do this with one herb species per ice cube but the random mix suits my cooking style and saves time.
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