by Susan Tito
Strategically placed near my front door, my culinary herbs have served me well all summer long, seasoning many a tasty meal for my family and friends. Now that the days are getting shorter and nights are noticeably cooler, it’s time to decide what to do with these indispensable plants. Should they be overwintered indoors? Harvested and dried? Or should I (tearfully) bid them farewell and start from scratch next growing season?
Every year I ponder what to do with my herbs. I usually choose a variation of options 1 and 3, but many gardeners cannot fathom letting herbs go to waste.
Before the threat of frost, I haul all my herb pots into my kitchen and cram them into a bay window with western exposure — a decidedly less-than-ideal location, as the site only gets filtered afternoon sun. I call this my Better Than Nothing Approach to herb preservation.
At the very least, I reason, I’m provided with fresh, flavorful, home-grown herbs through the best food holiday of all, Thanksgiving. However, soon after, as the conditions in my house begin to take a toll, there is a sharp decline in the quality of these window-grown herbs.
My thyme sheds its leaves like a molting parakeet, oregano develops crispy brown tips that eventually engulf the leaves, and sage leaves turn an unpalatable tan before their edges curl up and resemble the tongue of that annoying kid you knew from elementary school who mastered “the roll.”
By January, rosemary is the only herb that is viable.
Of course, my limited success with bringing herbs into the house has everything to do with the fact that I’m not trying too hard to keep them going. I could invest in some grow lights and pay better attention to the temperature, humidity and watering needs of individual plants — or I could do what I always do, which is start over the following year.
Many frugal gardeners would never dream of just chucking their herbs. For the thrifty among us, drying is a viable option. We’ve all seen bundles of herbs suspended from the ceiling in a specialty shop, adding charm as well as an alluring fragrance to a room.
If you decide to go that route, the key is to harvest herbs at the optimal time — before that first killing frost. Morning (after dew has evaporated) or dusk is best. Herb leaves contain essential oils responsible for their distinctive aroma and flavor, and their concentration is highest at these times.
Gather herb stalks in groups of five or 10, tie the bundles with twine, then hang them upside down in a well-ventilated room. This is crucial for herbs such as basil and mint, which are slow to dry because of their high-water content, as improperly dried herbs could become moldy. It’s also important to avoid sunlight, which can zap essential oils.
Another way to dry herbs is to place them in the oven. This method considerably speeds up the drying process, although I admit it makes me feel like I’m working on a craft project, something I generally dislike.
Spread your cut herbs in a single layer on a baking sheet and place it in an open oven set to the lowest temperature possible. Drying time can vary depending on the herb, but the final product should be done in anywhere between one and three hours. Once they are dry and crumbly, your herbs are ready to store in an airtight container.
As with all plants, herbs can be perennial, biennial or annual. Some perennial herbs for our region include chives, lavender, sage, thyme, oregano and mint. These plants can remain in the ground until the next growing season. Refrain from harvesting them about a month before the first frost, as this will stimulate plants to put out new growth, which will make them vulnerable to freezing temperatures.
After the first hard frost, cut your herbs back and cover them with a few inches of mulch. In springtime, as temperatures warm, remove the mulch and wait for new herbs to emerge.
Some perennial herbs, such as thyme, take nicely to being transplanted into pots and grown indoors. Dig them up (be sure to get all the roots!) and pot them with a high-quality mix. Of course, you’ll need to provide good light, so place them in the sunniest window you have or install grow lights so that they can go the distance (unlike my herbs).
Regardless of whether you overwinter or harvest them, your superb herbs can provide much-needed spice to your life, long after gardening season ends.
Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at email@example.com.