Harvesting Culinary Herbs

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by Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Harvesting quality herbs is not rocket science, but there are a few simple things you can do to ensure that the herbs that will season your food and go into your herbal remedies will be the best they can possibly be.

Always Use a Sharp Knife

Let’s take a moment to examine the words we use to describe the cutting or harvesting of herbs.  Pinching or pinching back simply means to remove less than 2-3 inches from the tips of growing stems.  This is often done when a small amount of fresh herb is needed or when you want to promote bushier growth.

Cutting an herb “hard” means to cut all of the stems on the plant down to within 4-6 inches of the crown of the plant.  This is sometimes done at harvest time and in certain cases of pruning to reduce an herb’s size or to regenerate non-woody growth.   If in doubt about how much to cut, a good rule of thumb is to remove no more than two-thirds of the length of the stems at any one time.

How Many Years is That?

The way we harvest herbs is  often dictated by their growth characteristics. Annuals such as cilantro, dill, and basil grow leaves, set seed and die all in a single season, while perennials such as sage and rosemary can live for many years.  Biennials grow leaves and die back to the ground the first season and reemerge, flower, set seed and then die at the end of the second season.  If you want seed from biennials, they must be overwintered.  The leaves of biennials tend to become bitter in their second season, so if leaves are your goal, harvest them the first year and start each season with a new seeding.  your goal is a harvest of leaves, you will want to do that the first season.

Since annuals grow to their full potential in one season, they are generally cut hard during the main harvest season.  And depending on the climate, they might still have enough energy to put on more usable growth by fall.  Basil is an excellent example.  Perennials tend to spend the first year or two in the garden establishing deep roots, but not a lot of stems and leaves.  For young perennials, it is better to take several small trimmings or selective stem cuttings during the season rather than cutting it hard.

On the other hand, most mature perennial herbs can withstand either one hard cutting each year, or several lighter trimmings, depending on the vigor of the herb and the length of the growing season.  Whatever you do, don’t ever cut woody perennials hard to the ground during the growing season.  Doing so will slow  growth and reduce winter hardiness.

Of course, not all herbs are grown for their leaves. Some leafy annual herbs such as garlic, onions, dill and anise are grown primarily for their seeds or bulbs. In cases like these, it is best to remove as little foliage as possible to allow the plant to put all of its energy into producing fruit or seed instead of making a lot of new leaves. However, taking a few leaves now and then generally doesn’t hurt overall production.

One notable exception to this rule is cilantro, which is grown both for its leaf and its fruit. If carefully timed, two separate harvests can be had – the first for its flavorful leaves and the second for the pungent fruit.   To harvest this way, simply cut all the leafy stems almost all the way down to the small new leaves growing in the center of the plant and allow them to continue growing.   Just as the plant begins to form flowers, cut the stems to within 4” of the soil and harvest the leaves, then allow them to grow until they set seed and you can reap a second crop of leaves and an abundance of coriander seed.

And Don’t Forget the Flowers

The flowers of many herbs are more than just lovely; they are downright tasty, too. Flowers make wonderful edible garnishes in salads, drinks and other dishes and those of anise and Sweet Cicely can be candied for a flavorful sweet treat. Many herb flowers are added to oil or vinegar to impart wonderful flavor and beauty to the finished product. And, of course, flowers are medicinal and can be added to teas and infusions.

Flowers retain their flavor and beauty better when they are collected in the morning before the dew had dried and the day becomes hot. If the flowers are to be held for a meal later in the day they should be cut with a bit of stem attached and kept in a jar of water in the refrigerator until needed. Otherwise they should be used as soon as possible or either frozen or dried.

Single flowers or clusters of flowers that open all at once are best gathered Oregano-flower-macro-by-Elizabeth-Ju[1]immediately after they open to capture their fresh appearance and aroma. It is also important to remove flowers quickly from herbs that are being grown for bulbs, roots or rhizomes so that the plant will put all of its energy into producing those and not the seeds. Of course, if seeds are what you’re after it is better to take as few flowers as possible.

Flower spikes and clusters of intermittently blooming flowers are harvested when at least half of the blossoms open. Allowing most of the flowers to open makes for a prettier display and adds a bit more color and flavor to teas and oil infusions. But waiting until herbs begin to bloom to take the main leaf harvest doesn’t hurt the overall flavor or medicinal value of the leaves all that much and may actually save you time in the long run.

Happy gardening!

© 2011 Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.


THPOKH-214x321_thumb7The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs

Learn how to grow and use the world’s oldest, safest, and most medicinal herbs with this easy step-by-step guide!  From starting seeds to preparing home remedies, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a treasured resource that you will turn to time and time again.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.
Look inside!


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.


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