If you’re growing herbs to sell, keeping them perky and fresh during transport and once you’re at the market may be easier said than done. With these basic tips, you can take a step towards pulling it off with style.
Quality Begins In The Garden
An herb that has consumer appeal starts with best growing practices. “Bringing a quality fresh cut herb to the market has as much to do with growing a healthy plant as it does with the care given to it during harvesting and beyond,” says author and herb grower Sandie Shores in her article, Selling Fresh-cut Herbs at Farmer’s Market. “A healthy, disease- and insect-free plant will remain fresher and more appealing longer after harvest than one that is moisture and nutrient stressed.”
Next comes the harvesting. For most herbs, a few general rules apply: First, never pick more than 1/3 of the plant’s leaves per time; and second, let the plant recover before picking again. Herbs are best harvested in the morning before the sun has intensified but after the dew has dried. The essential oils that give herbs their aromas and flavors readily escape from the leaves, seeds and stems when bruised or exposed to the sun.
When gathering for your own kitchen, you can use your fingers to pinch what you need at the moment, but if you’re planning to transport, herbs will bruise less and absorb more water if you cut them instead. Snip the last 6 to 12 inches of tender vegetation. This trimming stimulates the plants to put out new growth, so before you know it, you can harvest again.
Each herb in the garden requires different techniques to ensure a healthy and long-lasting harvest. Follow these tips specific to each plant.
- Basil: On each stem, cut off above the new pair of leaves below a decent-sized bunch of more mature leaves. This practice stimulates plant growth, causing two stems where there was one.
- Chives, Parsley and Cilantro: When the herb is 6 inches or taller, clip from the outside of the clump, approximately 1/2 inch from soil level to encourage new growth. Cutting midway up causes the partial leaves to wither.
- Mints: Take whole stems. For big bushy plants, harvest when you see the first flowers forming. Mint will redouble its growing efforts.
- Rosemary, Tarragon and Thyme: Clip green shoots close to stems to stimulate new growth. Try not to cut into the main woody stems. Just take what branches off of them.
- Sage: Although the sage stem is woody, take both stems and leaves.
“The two most important steps you can take to preserve the freshness and quality of herbs after harvesting are to lower the temperature quickly and prevent moisture loss from the herbs by packaging them as soon as possible,” Shore says. The exception to quick cooling is basil, which prefers temperatures between 45 to 60 degrees F and turns brown when it gets too cold.
Shore goes on to say that it’s best to avoid washing herbs unless they’re muddy or harboring insects. Swish the herbs very gently in cold water and allow the excess moisture to evaporate before packaging. Bruised or torn leaves promote quick deterioration after harvest. Soaking an herb bunch in cold water for 10 minutes can help revive slightly wilted bunches.
“We pick all the fresh herbs early in the morning and put them directly in water,” says Mary Ocasion of Churn Creek Meadows Organic Farm in Redding, Calif. “I use strawberry baskets to hold them up.” The Ocasions grow sweet basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, peppermint, sage and bay during the summer, with the addition of flat leaf parsley, curled parsley, dill and cilantro in the spring. “We sell them in plastic containers, with the strawberry baskets holding them up in the water. Whatever doesn’t sell, we hang to dry, then bag them in small bags, which are also sold.”
Once at the market, keep cut herbs out of direct sunlight and as cool as possible. Regularly misting with a spray bottle or clean garden sprayer helps keep them cool and looking their best. Some vendors keep their jars of fresh herbs in coolers, bringing out just enough at a time to display, rotating them back into the cooler if they begin to wilt. Using zipper-top bags to package herbs can work well if you keep them cool and dark, but be aware that if they’re exposed to direct sun, tender herbs like cilantro and basil will quickly turn black.
Coolers work well not just to store your herbs, but to display your wares as well. Stand bundles of herbs upright in the cooler with several inches of water in the bottom. If the day is especially hot, add ice to the water to help the herbs stay cooler and fresher.
Methods for transporting herbs to market and keeping them fresh once you arrive may vary somewhat depending on your part of the country and its weather. But if you remember to harvest only the most healthy plants, cool them immediately, keep them out of the sun and heat, and keep their toes wet, your herbs will have the best chance possible to stay fresh and fragrant on their way to the market and beyond.