Harvesting, Drying & Storing Herbs Submitted by Susan Gail Wood
Before harvesting herbs to dry, I use the spray nozzle on my hose to clean plants the night before. This is helpful when drying for wreaths, potpourri or any use other than culinary. For culinary use, spray plants off the night before then rinse freshly cut herbs, if needed, in a sink of cold water. Shake off excess water & lay the bunches out to dry on fresh towels or newspapers. 

Pick a sunny or cloudy day to cut herbs in the morning after the dew has dried – about 9 a.m. in Houston. The essential oils will be at their peak at this time. Inspect the leaves to make sure there are no bugs or defects and remove anything undesirable. Cut only the amount you can handle in the space available for drying as this process will take from several days to a week from start to finish.

For perennial herbs cut back only up to 1/3 of the plant at a time. It appears quaint to hang bundles of herbs here & there to dry, but this takes longer as there is not good air circulation within the bundle. If this is the way you want to dry them, it’s OK, just be sure to use rubber bands to secure the bunches as stems will shrink as they dry which would allow the bundle to fall apart.

I prefer to dry herbs quickly by laying out freshly harvested herbs in a single layer on clean newspapers or a drying screen. Elevate the screen a few inches to allow air circulation above and below for fastest drying. Drying in bundles may take a week; drying flat on newspapers or screens just a few days depending on the thickness of your herbs and humidity of your home. You can find all sorts of screens made just for drying herbs online or get a friend to make some for you.  I bought portable window screens years ago – they can be opened for drying and closed for storing. Available now on Amazon of course. I use the dining room table and/or the bed in my spare bedroom to dry herbs in bulk. Use drying screens (over newspapers to collect small bits) or overlap newspapers on the table or bed so you can collect all herbs easily once dried. Spread the herbs out so they don’t overlap each other. This helps you space out the harvest for maximum air circulation. 

Leave herbs such as pineapple sage, mint, lemon balm, lemon verbena, basil, Mexican mint marigold, rosemary and oregano on their stems for two days.  Turn them over after the first day. Then strip leaves off stems by holding cut stem upright by the growing tip to strip in a downward direction with your thumb and fore finger. In other words, pulling leaves off in the opposite direction of growth. Now you should only need another day or two of drying to complete the process.

Cut lemongrass into ½ - 1” pieces as needed while fresh. Lemongrass has a saw tooth edge on leaves which can easily give you a paper cut if not handled with care. (BTW: lemongrass is one word, not two, as many people mistakenly call it.) It grows rapidly in summer heat so you can harvest frequently. If using fresh for tea you can tie long pieces into a knot to fit in your teapot.  

When growing basil for culinary use do not allow it to bloom as this adversely affects the flavor. Handle gently to keep from bruising the leaves. Harvest the entire plant before the first freeze; basil will not survive temperatures near 32 degrees. Make pesto in fall before freezing weather.

Cilantro does not keep its flavor when dried. That’s why it is almost always used fresh or can be made into pesto instead of using basil. All parts – flowers & stems – can be used. Unripe green seeds add a pop of flavor to dishes. Ripe, brown seeds are called coriander and are used as an ingredient in curry. Ripe seeds smell & taste different from fresh cilantro!   Dill and fennel leaves are usually used fresh too. Dill seed can be sprinkled on bread or used along with dill weed for a wonderful herbal spin on grilled cheese sandwiches. Grow fennel to attract butterflies even if you don’t enjoy the licorice flavor in cooking.   Cilantro, dill and fennel are cool weather annuals planted in the fall and harvested in spring.  Parsley is a biennial.  Use parsley fresh for best results.  Once you’ve harvested these it’s time to plant basil which thrives in summer heat. 

I usually cut back catnip after blooming in late spring to harvest and dry for my cats. They love to play with a white cotton sock with the toe of the foot stuffed with dried catnip. Tie the top in a tight knot and you have a catnip toy that will withstand lots of play. My catnip usually suffers through the summer whether it’s too wet or too dry and I end up having to replace it in the fall.

To enjoy the small, yellow flowers of Mexican mint marigold, stop cutting and harvesting it by the end of June. This allows the plant time to set buds for blooms in late October or early November. I add the fresh leaves to red wine vinegar (steep for 2 months) then mix with a good olive oil for a great salad dressing. Dry the water from fresh herbs before adding to vinegar.

Harvest lemon verbena leaves by pruning the plant throughout spring & summer. Lemon verbena will usually drop all its leaves when the weather turns cold or freezes. Although it may look dead in spring, give it time as it is one of the last herbs to bud out when weather warms up again. Lemon Verbena tea, used fresh or dried, is very relaxing with a wonderful fragrance too.   

Now that you have dried your herbal harvest you will want to protect it from absorbing any moisture until used. The absolute best method is to store dried herbs in a glass jar or airtight glass container in a cool, dark place (your pantry). Once you run out of jars you can use gallon or quart size zip lock bags. Another choice would be to staple shut folded over tops of paper bags full of dried herbs. Be sure to label your herbal bounty with name and date of harvest. It’s best to use your dried herbs as soon as possible. Don’t try to keep them for more than 6 months to a year.

If you harvested more than you can use in that time, give some away to friends. Remember the motto of The Herb Society of America: “For Use and For Delight”.

If your recipe calls for fresh herbs you can substitute 1/3 of the amount needed with dry herbs. Or substitute 3 times the amount of dried with fresh. When cooking, add herbs to the final 5-15 minutes for best results. Bay leaves can be added initially for soups & stews then removed before serving. Give at least an hour for cold dishes to absorb the flavor of added herbs. Add dill to potato salad. Pineapple salvia, lemon balm & lemon verbena give a nice flavor to a fruit salad or fruited beverage. Be creative with herbs by adding them to your favorite recipes. A small amount can go a long way; use just a little at first then increase the amount to suit your taste.