Margaret Lauterbach

Time to tend to herbs: Dehydrate some, prep others for winter

Margaret Lauterbach
Margaret Lauterbach

Tend to your herbs, harvesting leaves for culinary use just before the plant blooms, if possible. The best time of day to harvest is early morning after the sun has dried dew. Always cut stems, then strip off leaves for drying either before or after dehydration. To use fresh herbs, use twice as much as called for in a recipe unless the recipe specifies fresh herbs. When they dry, the flavor concentrates.

To dry fresh herbs, use a dehydrator or dry on homemade racks made of wood and nylon net in the sun. (Bring them in at night to avoid evening dew.) Cover them lightly with paper towels or cheesecloth. Our climate is sufficiently arid to dry leaves and sliced fruit outdoors. Or you may bundle herbs and tie stems, poking a hole in a paper bag for the cord and hang herbs upside down in a dark dry place such as an attic or shed. The paper bag then would shield the herbs from dust.

I’ve been harvesting summer savory every few weeks, and putting clippings in the dehydrator, yet haven’t bothered to plug it in. Our air is so dry that foliage will dehydrate in time with the good air circulation the trays allow. Mint is juicier, so I would plug in the dehydrator for that.

Other herbs need attention now too. Cut flower heads off basil plants, forcing bushiness (and more leaves) on the remaining plant. When you have a quantity of leaves, remove them from stems and chop them in the food processor and mix with olive oil. If stems are green and bendy (herbaceous), you may include those too. For pesto, I freeze chopped basil, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and chopped nuts (walnuts or pine), omitting garlic. I find garlic tastes musty after freezing, so I add it only to the thawed pesto.

Freezing basil in water turns basil black and unappetizing. If nighttime temperatures are forecast to be below 40 degrees, remember basil freezes at 38 degrees, and cool temperatures fall, so it will be colder at the ground surface than the forecast. One test indicated that the temperature at the soil surface was six degrees colder than the weather bureau measure (about 5 feet off the surface). We often don’t get much advance warning of these chilly temperatures, but you can cut off whole basil plants and stuff them in pillow cases. Hang them outdoors in daytime, bring in at night to avoid evening dews. When dry, you can strip off the leaves and crumble for use as dried herbs. Be sure to label your containers whether sweet, Thai, Mexican or Tulsi basil, for example. They all look alike when dry and crumbled.

“Arp” variety of rosemary may be hardy here, depending on the site you choose, but most other varieties of rosemary probably won’t survive our winters, even our warmer winters. French tarragon should survive our winters, but I’ve brought it into the greenhouse. Oregano will survive outdoors, but sweet marjoram will not. Harvest and dehydrate that for culinary use. Sage is hardy through our winters, but you may find some dried leaves more useful in the kitchen than outdoors.

If you grow caraway, harvest the seeds when they turn brown. I’ve already harvested mine. There are annual caraway plants, but the usual form is biennial. If you start biennial seeds one year and again the following year, you’ll have annual harvests of these seeds. Once you harvest them, it’s a good idea to put them in the freezer for a week to kill any tiny insects that may have invaded.

Other herbs we grow for seeds are dill (we use both the leafy parts and the seed heads), anise, coriander (the seeds produced by cilantro or “green coriander”) and cumin. I’ve not been successful growing cumin or anise. If you plant dill and let some remain in the garden and don’t heavily mulch your soil for winter, you’ll never have to plant dill again.

If you don’t want a forest of sweet cicely, harvest those brown woody seeds before they fall to the ground. If you have lemon balm in one location in your yard, you’ll have it in dozens of places unless you snip off and destroy seedheads. That and motherwort take advantage of any tiny bit of soil to plant themselves.

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