The dog days of summer are upon us and September is fast approaching, bringing with it cooler, crisper air. September is traditionally a large harvesting month in the Bluegrass, which makes it ideal for cutting and preserving herbs you intend to use during the winter.
Herbs are best when dried fresh because they can lose their quality as they age. Herbs provide tasteful and creative alternatives to flavor foods, especially when your diet calls for little or no salt.
Herbs to be harvested for the winter should be cut in the morning after the dew has evaporated, but before the sun is bright in the sky. The essential oils in herbs will disperse into the air during the day, so it is important to collect them while they are at their flavorful peak. It is important to cut only the amount you can work with in one day – it is better to cut and preserve small batches over several days instead of a huge batch in one day.
Drying herbs is the best way to capture the flavor and the most popular way to do this is to cut the stems long and gather them into bunches. The bunches are then secured with a rubber band and hung upside down in a dark, well-ventilated area. A tool shed or barn is ideal, but an attic, garage or an unused room or closet will also work as a drying area. Herbs can also be placed in a single layer on a screen and dried in the same manner as the bunches.
It is important to remember when drying herbs, the room temperature should not be over 90 degrees. Herbs need warmth and air circulation to dry quickly, but getting them too hot will greatly diminish their flavors. The length of time required to dry herbs will differ depending on the thickness of the herbs.
When the herbs are completely dried, they must be stored away from direct sunlight to prevent the color from fading. Most dried herbs will keep for at least a year when stored in glass or plastic containers – canning jars or recycled jars make ideal storage containers. Remember to label the jars because many herbs look alike after they are dried.
There are a few herbs which do better when stored in the freezer vs. a cupboard. Put the following dried herbs into individual plastic bags and place them in a deep freeze: chives, parsley, mint, basil, lovage, sorrel and French tarragon.
Now is also the time of year to get your herb garden into shape for the approaching winter. Remove annual plants and garden waste, prune perennials and spread a generous layer of compost or well-rotted manure over the entire area. Come the spring, your herb garden will be ready for planting.