Growing and drying herbs in summer is a great way to benefit your culinary world

Drying herbs on a hanging rack is one of five good ways to achieve dehydration.
Drying herbs on a hanging rack is one of five good ways to achieve dehydration. bestdryingrack.com/Tribune

Herbs in general are fun to grow, and interesting to watch as they develop. Some are useful as dyes or medicines, others for culinary use. Beware of the herb thugs, though, for they’ll take over all of your gardens. Herb thugs in my yard are tansy and clivers (medicinal use), and garlic chives (aka Chinese leeks) and lemon balm (culinary use). If you ever plant a comfrey root, be certain that’s where you want to grow it. If you change your mind and try to move it, you’ll have two comfrey beds, for a piece of root left in the ground grows into another bed.

I now have three beds of comfrey. I’ve heard that some folks make a salve or balm of comfrey that works on skin problems such as diaper rash, but it’s a good idea to research its use, for some folks have declared it’s carcinogenic under certain conditions.

It’s quite frustrating for those of us who eat from our gardens to encounter out-of-season vegetables or herbs in a recipe. For instance, zucchini plants produce more than we can reasonably use in summer, but when it’s called for in a winter recipe, we must swallow our pride and buy some if we’re intent on following that recipe. The same is true of mint and basil.

Both of these herbs are dead and gone in winter, although we can buy them fresh now in the supermarket. Growing your own in winter means growing in pots in the greenhouse. Basil turns black and freezes at 38 degrees. Mint plants last longer into winter but they spread, and will take over the world if so permitted. And in the greenhouse, mint wants to outgrow its container. If you’re growing it in a container outdoors to keep it from spreading, pick up the container and turn it at least once a month during the growing season, for it will travel out through drainage holes and spread despite your efforts.

One solution is to dehydrate your herbs, and now, before they bloom, is the best time flavor-wise. There are five ways to dehydrate herbs: in a dehydrator, outdoors on a rack, hanging bunches under cover, in the microwave and in pillowcases. I know some folks have successfully dried produce in the back window of a car, but that will be too hot for dehydrating leaves. They’ll cook instead.

To dehydrate herb leaves, cut basil, oregano or mint twigs about an inch above soil line, preferably in early morning. You can get more than one mint cutting per growing season in our area. Pull off damaged leaves, wash and dry the whole twig in a salad spinner and/or between towels, and then dry the whole sprig in the dehydrator. Flavor is best if you dry the whole sprig, then once leaves are brittle, break them off. Check for dryness after two hours. When dry, leaves can be crumbled, and sprigs snapped. Once you pull off whole leaves, put them in a bowl screened against insects. Over the next week or two, periodically stir the leaves in the bowl to make sure all are equally dry, and then crumble them for storage in a suitable spice-type jar.

All leafy herbs used for culinary purposes should be harvested in this manner, but methods of drying can vary. Our low-humidity climate is suitable for drying outdoors in the sun on nylon net-covered frames, with net covering against insects or birds. These must be brought indoors each night to avoid dews that settle in the cool of night. Another way to dry leafy herbs is to drop them into a pillowcase, fold over the top and hang it on an outdoor clothesline. Again, bring it inside nightly to avoid evening dew. After this dehydration, you’ll have pillowcases with a wonderful scent. If you happen to be growing hops, the scent of those flowers will help you sleep.

Or you can bundle the washed and dried stems, tie twine around the stems, and thread twine through the bottom of a paper bag that can slip over the stems so you can tie the twine to a rafter or peg in your attic, tool shed or garage, and let your herbs dry dust-free inside the bag.

To dry herbs in the microwave, make sure they’re very dry, then place branches between two sheets of paper towels and microwave on high for two to three minutes. Again, I’d pull off the leaves and put into a bowl, stirring occasionally after this drying, to make sure all are completely dehydrated.

Another way to preserve sweet basil is to make pesto of basil, olive oil, parmesan-like cheese and garlic. Freezing basil alone or in water turns it black, but you can make the pesto (omitting some of the ingredients until thawed) as long as you freeze in olive oil. Basil and other leafy candidates then remain green. I usually omit the garlic until thawed because it may have a musty flavor after freezing and thawing.

Chives are more difficult to preserve, turning strawlike in the dehydrator. A better way to preserve them is by freezing them in ice cube trays with water (drain before using on baked potato) or with oil, or by freeze-drying in vacuum-sealed bags.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.