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Tips for growing, harvesting and cleaning herbs from your garden

Herbs are probably heartier than any vegetable or fruit that you grow. I say that as I know that some herbs can easily take over where you have planted them. Summer is a great time of year to use herbs in vegetable and fruit salads, in grilling and cooking in the microwave and on the stove top.

I know from phone calls and emails that many of you are having fun raising herbs but are not sure how to pick, use and store them properly to maximize their fresh scent and flavor. Growing, harvesting, preserving and cooking with herbs is an adventure and part science. The best way of learning is to try them, experiment and make some notes so you have a reference for the future.


To make the most of the herbs you should begin by knowing the nomenclature. The aptly named tender annuals (basil, cilantro, summer savory, etc.) get their name because they will not survive a frost and are planted new from seed or small plants every year. Woody perennials, herbs that are hardy and spread, like mint, sage, oregano and winter savory, named because of their branching habit, woody stems and their ability to survive much colder temperatures and return year-after-year.

A hopper full of freshly cut basil waits to be topped off before being taken to a scale to be weighed at Kruse Farm Supply Friday, April 17, 2015. The business is celebrating 45 years of operation this year and starting a new green market.
A hopper full of freshly cut basil waits to be topped off before being taken to a scale to be weighed at Kruse Farm Supply in April 2015. Flavor 574 photo/Jennifer Shephard

Some herbs you can plan to use daily and at the same time plan to do some preservation. There are recommended ways to harvest specific herbs. Once they are harvested it’s important to handle them properly and preserve them in the best way to maintain the flavor. In the summer months, the more you harvest herbs the more growth is encouraged. The young, flavorful leaves of tender herbs should be harvested above the leaf buds where the plant branches out. Tender annuals such as basil may be harvested by pinching them back.

You need to know and remember that once a plant’s energy goes into the flower, the flavor in the leaves can become bitter and diminish. If you enjoy annuals herbs such as basil, summer savory, and cilantro know that they will live longer if their flowers are pinched back. Wait to harvest parsley and similar herbs until the roots have developed and the plant is strong enough for regrowth. I’ve found kitchen scissors are the best for harvesting, but you can use a knife to cut the herbs, or you may gently twist and pull them off with your hand.

Perennials that have flowered, such as thyme, shouldn’t be harvested back to branching growth, instead harvest young leaves directly below the flowery tops. Woody perennials like rosemary should be harvested at new branch growth off a central stem instead of on a central stem — plucking from a central stem inhibits growth.

Perennials are able to tolerate cold temperatures and may be stored in the refrigerator. Use a plastic container with a tight lid. Use paper towels or parchment paper to separate the clean, dry herbs in loose layers. This will allow the maximum air flow between them and seal tightly. Small amounts of herbs may be placed in food storage bags.

To properly clean herbs, follow these steps:

In a large bowl filled with cool water, submerge fresh herbs with about 1 tablespoon of salt. The salt water will drive any insects out of the herbs that might be hiding, without damaging the plant itself. Remove the herbs from the salt water, submerge in plain cold water and drain in a colander. Dry herbs completely by blotting them with a clean kitchen towel.

More information on growing herbs can be downloaded from the Purdue University website. Until next week, enjoy fresh herbs and if nothing else make some refreshing garden tea!

For more nutrition and healthy eating tips from Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross, subscribe to the Food & Nutrition email newsletter.

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