If herbs are an integral part of your urban garden, you’ll want to harvest and use the herbs in a way that really pack a punch.
No matter what you grow, you’ll want to pick your herbs when the volatile oil content is at its peak — around mid-morning before temperatures heat up. In the case of oregano, rosemary and other culinary herbs, harvest 2- to 3-inch sprigs as needed before flowers begin to set. If flowering has already begun, pinch back blooms so the herbs’ leaves don’t turn bitter.
As for herbs grown for their flowers, they’ll be most potent just before their blooms open. So, to relax the afternoon away with a fresh cup of chamomile tea, you need to collect several stems of blooms before they’ve had the chance to pop.
While it’s best to use fresh herbs as close to harvest as possible, you can prolong the potency of just-picked basil and other herbs by placing their stems in a vase of water and loosely covering the top with a plastic bag. Herbs you plan to dry for long-term storage should be rinsed, shaken of excess water, then spread flat and evenly spaced to dry on a clean window screen in a cool, dark place.
Making a fresh cup of herbal tea—think hot or iced peppermint, catnip or chamomile to start — is a great way to ease into using the herbs you grow. To brew a steaming cup, put a few tablespoons of fresh herbs or one tablespoon of dried herbs in a tea strainer or a cloth bag. Place the strainer or cloth bag in a large mug or a ceramic or glass teapot and pour boiling water on top. Cover and let the herbs steep for about five minutes — longer for stronger-tasting tea.
Other Herb Treats
Soaking in an herbal bath is another delightful way to use the herbs you grow. Simply combine large amounts of fresh lemon balm, lavender, comfrey, rose petals and scented geraniums — whatever you like best — and place them in a large tea strainer or cloth bag. Hang the mix from the tap so that the bathwater runs through the herbs, then let the herb mix remain with you in the bath as you soak.
You can even create your own colognes by extracting the volatile oils from herbs. To get started, chop several cups of fresh herbs, place in an airtight, glass container. Cover with a strong alcohol (like vodka) and seal. Store the mixture for several months in a cool, dark place. When it’s time to retrieve the volatile oils, strain out the vegetable matter and freeze the remaining liquid. You’ll be able to pour off the original alcohol, leaving only your herb’s volatile oils behind.
Herbs Around the House
Finally, use herbs to spruce up your home décor. Make wreaths, swags and flower arrangements with fresh or dried herbs like sweet Annie, tansy and yarrow. If you’re planning to use dried herbs, experiment with when and what you cut to obtain a wider variety of colors and textures. For instance, if you cut oregano before its seed pods have fully matured, the dried product offers a pleasing purple tint.
When harvesting herbs, you should choose only those stems that are free of morning dew because damp plants can to mold or mildew before they have a chance to fully dry. (Also, some of your selections will likely be damaged during harvest, so it doesn’t hurt to gather more than you will need.) Gather each kind of herb in separate, small bundles; secure with twine; label them so you’ll know which herb is which; and hang them upside-down in a dry, dark place. Using an oscillating fan to stir the air while they’re in storage can speed the drying process, but it can take a month or more for your herbs to fully dry.
About the Author: Susan Brackney is a freelance writer and author of the Insatiable Gardener’s Guide (Five Hearts Press, 2004).