Tips for Harvesting Flavorful Herbs

Cilantro harvest.By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Harvest and storage methods are critical components of utilizing herbs or other plant material for culinary or medicinal purposes.  Gathering, drying and storing herbs correctly a big difference in the quality and quantity of essential oils in the leaves.  This not only affects the flavor of dried herbs, but increases their shelf-life and medicinal potential, as well.   Of course, it is possible to gather herbs at just about any point in their growth cycle and still obtain a decent product, but for flavor that will knock your socks off,  consider the following tips for harvesting the best culinary herbs ever.

Timing is Everything

Most leafy herbs are at their peak of essential oil production starting just before the flower buds open and for a short time during the active flowering period.  Once herbs are in full flower, all the energy it once used to make flavorful leaves goes into producing seed.   For most herbs, gathering and drying leaves prior to flowering produces the best and most flavorful product.  If you want toOregano flowers are flavorful and medicinal. harvest both leaves and the flowers (for water essences or for potpourri), try harvesting about half-way through the flowering process, but well before seeds begin to form.

Some herbs, like true French tarragon, don’t regularly produce flowers.  For herbs like these, you can either time the harvest based upon the smell and taste of the leaves, or more easily, you can synchronize the harvest with the bloom time of other heat-loving herbs, like sage.   To get the maximum amount of flavor from your herbs, gather and process them in the morning after the dew has dried, but before the day becomes hot.

Stressed-Out Herbs Make Better Seasonings

Sometimes, stressing herbs prior to harvest triggers a survival mechanism that slightly increases the concentration of volatile oils and other compounds in the leaves.  One of the easiest ways to stress an herb is to withhold water for several days and up to a week, depending on the weather, the temperature and existing soil moisture.   The key here is to create a little bit of stress for the plant – not a lot.   If the herb begins wilting during the heat of the day, it’s time to harvest the leaves and provide the rest of the plant with water.

Fresh herbs.Another way to stress herbs is to withhold all fertilizers, including compost, for up to a month before harvest.  Because herbs are naturally adapted to growing on lean soils they are easily over-stimulated by fertilizer, which encourages lots of new leafy growth at the expense of volatile oil production.  This often results in a mild or bland tasting leaves.  If you find your herbs lacking in flavor, it is probably due to over-fertilization.  Try cutting the herb back several inches to encourage new, more flavorful growth.

With just these two simple tricks, you can make the most of the herbs in your garden and produce some of the best culinary seasoning you have ever had!

Happy gardening!

© 2014 Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.

THPOKH-214x321_thumb7_thumb.jpgThe 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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2 responses to “Tips for Harvesting Flavorful Herbs

  1. Jill, my jar sauerkraut spoiled and did not ferment.. I suspect one or all of the following possible errors. Cut the cabbage too small. Packed the jars too tight. Did not keep the brine level above the cabbage. What is your opinion?

    • Hi Cleora. I’m so sorry to hear your kraut went wrong! What a shame! It’s hard to say what happened there – not enough salt, not enough brine, temperature too high or too low… there’s just so many factors involved. Personally, I’ve never known kraut to be difficult to make (though it doesn’t always taste like I want it to! lol). But since I am not a fermented food expert, I did a quick search for you and was surprised to find quite a number of things can go wrong when making kraut. The one that really surprised me was that using “dry” (drought-stricken) cabbage could ruin kraut! Who knew? The following websites had some interesting troubleshooting tips and I would strongly urge you to contact your local Extension office and talk to them about it. They are usually very knowledgeable and helpful on matters related to preserving food. Let us know what happens and I wish you the best of luck!

      http://www.foodrenegade.com/3-biggest-fermenting-mistakes-youre-already-making/
      http://www.picklemetoo.com/2012/11/16/fermentation-friday-sauerkraut-troubleshooting/

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