Herbs are a wonderful addition to the garden; they are beautiful enough for the flower beds and flavorful enough for the dinner table. They pack a punch in just a few leaves so you can grow and harvest them all summer long without tarnishing the landscape.
There are two different kinds of herbs you can grow in your garden: perennial and annual. Both types enjoy a sunny spot in the garden with well-draining soil, although there are a few that will happily grow in shady conditions with more moisture, such as parsley, chives, mint and lemon balm.
Perennial herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, lavender and oregano continue to grow year after year. These plants tend to have woody stems and bush-like habits. They make for lovely bedding plants and work well in containers. In milder areas, some perennial herbs are evergreen, allowing you to harvest fresh herbs for winter cooking.
In summer, these perennial herbs will be growing fragrant new leaves and flowering. The flowers are a great source of pollen for bees so I like to let the plants grow wild until the flowers fade, which usually happens in early summer. Then the plants can safely be cut back by one-third to one-half of the size.
Harvest perennial herbs with improving the overall shape in mind. Prune out branches at the base to thin the plant as those branches will not regrow. Cut the tops off of branches where you want the plant to become fuller, as those branches will send out a number of smaller, secondary branches from where the cut was made.
Sift through the cuttings in search for healthy-looking leaves that can be used for cooking. Discard any diseased, damaged or buggy leaves and only save the best for your soups and stews. To dry herbs, tie them in loose bundles and hang in a warm, dry area away from direct sunlight. Check on them every few days to turn the bunch or loosen the leaves to ensure they have proper air flow. Remove the leaves and store until next year in airtight glass jars.
Annual herbs such as basil, cilantro, parsley, and tarragon grow vigorously in the summer and go to seed in the fall. They have more delicate leaves than perennials and soft green stems. While they also work well in garden beds and containers, they will need regular pinching (using a sharp thumb nail or pair of scissors to cleanly take off the top growth) to deter flowing and promote more leaf growth. The gardener’s job in growing annual herbs is to keep them from flowering; once they go to seed then they are finished producing tasty leaves.
Harvest annual herbs from the herb garden by pinching off just enough leaves for your current recipe throughout the summer. I made this tomato salad with heirloom cherry tomatoes, basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Add some fresh mozzarella if you want a real treat.
In mid-late summer, as the plants reach their maximum height, you can choose to harvest some of all of the plants at their peak of freshness, or allow them to set seeds which you can harvest to grow next year’s annual herbs.
Annual herbs can also be air dried but much of their flavor is lost in the process so freezing is recommended. You can also freeze perennial herbs this way if you have multitude of harvested fresh herbs and a little extra freezer space.
While some people successfully freeze herbs straight into freezer bags, you can preserve more of the fresh flavor by adding chopped herbs to ice cube trays with water or oil. Water preserved herbs will last longer but oil preserved herbs will add more flavor to dishes. Either way, you can simply pop a few cubes into your winter meals and instantly add a touch of summer freshness!