Sunday, October 25, 2009

Final Harvest (For the year that is)

First of all, I apologize for any spelling errors or typos that you may see. There seemed to be a problem with the spellchecker on Blogger today and every time I clicked it I lost part of my work, so I quit doing that.

A few weeks ago, I went through the garden and moved some herbs inside. We have Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, Savory, Chives, and Oregano in a big windowsill planter that should give us fresh herbs through the winter. I just need to figure out where to put them now. I was going to put them in the kitchen window, but the box is too wide for the sill, so I need to figure something else out. I'm not sure how long I can get away with leaving them on the kitchen table.

I cut quite a few herbs then, and we dried them. I got them all put away the last couple of days and so today was the day to do one final harvest.

Now, I confess, some of the herbs were not at their very best at this point. The frost has tipped a few leaves, and I had some deadhead blooms clinging to a few, but I figured I would cut them, bring them in and sort through them, to see what I could use.

First, a quick review on harvesting herbs.

Most herbs can be cut to within 6" of the ground throughout the season and will still produce health, happy plants. Perennials can be cut to within 2" of the ground at the end of the season, and it is recommended that you then top dress the root base with some kind of mulch to protect the roots from freezing.

Since our ground freezes solid as a rock, I'm not sure how effective that will be, but perhaps it will at least give the roots a chance to recover from the shock of being shorn before they freeze.

Most herbs like to be pruned and clipped, and will produce bushier plants if harvested regularly.

It is best to harvest herbs early in the day, on a sunny day. I always wondered about this, so I did some research, to find out why. I'm just a curious kind of guy, I always want to know why...

The essential oils in herbs are strongest in the plant when the temperature is cooler, and as the day gets hot, the moisture leaves the leaves, allowing them to wilt slightly. If you can pick your herbs before they wilt, they will have more of the oils in them, giving you a better taste, and a more effective herbs for medicinal use.

However, if you are going to dry your herbs, it is important to get as much moisture off of them as possible, so they don't mold, so a sunny day allows for the dew to dry before you pick them.

So, armed with my herb harvesting knowledge, I went out to cut herbs.

Today was overcast, and it started to rain just as I went outside, but it was nice and cold, and in Michigan, this time of year any time it starts to rain, it's entirely possible that it will end up snowing, so I figured it was now or never.

I started cutting and bringing things in, and before I realized it, I had a lot more herbs than I realized were still out there.

The kitchen table was pretty full, between craft projects, and a big planter box of herbs, so I just started setting things down where I could find room and going out for more.

Pretty soon the whole couch was covered with herbs.

If you click on the photo, you can see it full sized and read the tags, but if you don't feel like doing that, I got Thyme, Sage, Apple Mint, Tarragon, Fennel, Peppermint, Marjoram and Oregano.

This was our first time harvesting this Thyme plant. It was a new addition to the garden this year, so I was letting it grow and get good and healthy. I had plucked a few sprigs to cook with off and on during the summer, but mostly I was just letting it grow. It stayed small until the end of the summer, then took off around Labor Day, so I decided it was strong enough to cut some before I put the garden to bed for the year.

This was the second harvest of the Sage, and I was mostly just pruning it back so the snow wouldn't break any of the branches.

I picked most of the Apple Mint earlier this fall, but there was just enough new growth and a few old branches that still had some healthy leaves on them, that I just couldn't let them go to waste.

The Tarragon was our surprise plant this year. I thought it was dead when it didn't come back last year, but it surprised us by coming back this spring. I picked a little bit to cook with during the summer, but mostly I was just letting it get healthy and strong too.

The Fennel was mostly new seedlings that had come from the original plants when they bolted, I generally wouldn't cut such small plants, but they would have frozen within the next week or so anyway.

Our Peppermint was one of three mints we planted this year. I bought a single plant of each and we put each one in a separate oaken barrel, with some flowers. Next spring we will be hard pressed to find room for flowers. They all grew and spread very quickly. I'm glad we used the barrels. I have been cutting this regularly to make herbal teas, so there wasn't a lot left, but there was enough to cut.

This was the second cutting for the Marjoram. I cut it once early in the year, and then, when it started to bloom I just decided to let it go. This was what was left after the flowers all died off. I didn't realize there would be so much.

Many experts say that flowering will make your herbs taste bitter, so I tasted it. It tastes good.

And finally our Oregano. I have divided this plant several times and will be dividing it again in the spring. It just keeps growing like crazy. This was the third harvest for the year. I have used it fresh all year, I froze quite a bit and all of this will get dried.

If you look close you can see our little princess in the corner. I'm sure it would have gone faster without her help. She discovered that the plants all have different smells, so she kept picking up a sprig of something and smelling it, then putting it back into whatever basket or tray was closest.

It's hard to get mad when she just looks so sincere and fascinated, but I was sure glad when nap time rolled around.

I spent all day sorting, cleaning off the dead and damaged leaves and bundling them into bunches to hang dry. I bagged up the smaller bits and pieces in paper sacks to dry.

I usually dry herbs in my truck, but with no sun, and no prospect of sun, it would take a while to dry, and I'm not sure where I would fit all of those anyway, so I opted for alternate drying methods.

This is probably silly of me, but I get excited about some of the littlest things. When we bought our Fennel, it was in a mixed planter with several other herbs. As soon as I planted it, it bolted, and never really did much this year. This had me unsure of what I had. I didn't know if I had one of the decorative annuals, grown mainly for their seed, or Florence Fennel, a sweet perennial which forms the swollen base we call a bulb. Well, I had some seedlings come up from the first bunch that seeded off, and lo and behold, even though they are tiny, I could see them starting to form the infamous bulb, so now I know that I have Florence Fennel, and I am looking forward to seeing it in our garden next year. I was so excited that I had to take a picture of one of the tiny plants.

I use fishing line to tie bundles, as I can tie them fairly tight, and not worry too much about them slipping when the herbs shrink.
I use the same technique I learned in Cub Scouts when I was 8 years old to whip the end of a rope. For those of you who weren't in Cub Scouts, or who don't know how to whip a rope, here's a quick demo,

I know, I'm no Pablo Picasso, but this may give you an idea

Gather 8-12 stems in a bunch, hold the stems tight.

Make a loop in the fishing line, (I loop it around my finger to hold it in place.)

Lay the loop along the bunch of herbs. Make sure the end sticks out past the end of the stems.

Wind the line from the spool tightly around the stems of the herbs. This will also wind back around the base of your loop, that's OK, that's supposed to happen.

Once you have at least 8-10 winds around the stems, and your bundle feels tight and secure, cut the line, about 8" from the stems, so you have enough to work with.

Tuck the end you just cut into your loop.

Now, pull the other end of the line. This will tighten your loop. Pull it all the way tight, trapping the first end inside. Keep pulling until it is very tight. The windings you made will probably all kind of slide together at this point, if they weren't tight together before. That's OK.

Take your two ends and tie several double overhand knots.
For those who aren't Knot people, the knot you use when you tie your shoes, before you make the tree and the bunny that runs around it is an overhand knot.
A double overhand knot just means you cross your strings one more time before you pull them tight. Fishing line is very slippery, and doesn't have anything to create friction and hold the knot tight, so you need to make several loops in the knot to hold it tight.
Go ahead and tie as many knots as you think you need so it won't slip. If you know a fisherman, (fisherwoman? fisherperson?) have them show you the neat fishing knots they know. They will work just as well on herbs.

Finally, you can either trim your loose ends, or you can make them into a fancy loop to hang the bundle to dry. At this point I also suggest making some kind of tag or label and tying it on, because spearmint, peppermint, oregano, lemon balm,and catnip all look the same after they are dried, but they are hardly interchangeable in recipes.

You may end up with something like this:


  1. The herbs look so pretty all bunched up like that with their tags. I'm afraid if we have to wait for a sunny day to harvest them, they'll never get harvested!


  2. Troy,
    Wow what a great tutorial - so much good information I think I will go back and read it again!

  3. Jane, I just threw the bundles in that basket for a place to put them, and Diann was the one who said that they made a good picture. She has an eye for that kind of thing.

    You're right, if we wait for sunshine, we may wait until spring.

    Thanks Vickie, by the way, I keep waiting to hear more about your class, is it ongoing or is it already over.

  4. It was only two weeks, not long enough for sure-but I start a new one about cleaning green by the same lady this week. Maybe I'll join that herb society and some of their knowledge might rub off. Of course I already know so much just by reading your blog!

  5. Troy,
    What are you going to do with the Apple Mint? That just has a nice ring to it.

  6. I have been using Apple Mint mostly for teas. Three big leaves, two Lemon Verbena Leaves, and a Stevia leaf, all chopped together to release the oils, will make one cup of tea that is just sweet enough, has a hint of mint and a hint of lemon. Apple mint smells incredible, kind of like an apple cellar, filled with mint. It tastes smoother than spearmint or peppermint, less bite to it.

  7. Vickie,

    I have been loving the applemint tea Troy makes for me! next year I am hoping we add orange mint as well.

    I have seriously been thinking of making a few small muslin sachet bags and fill them with the mints to keep in my dresser drawers (and in the linen closet). I also think they would be nice dropped into a hot bathtub for a relaxing soak!

  8. Troy and Diann,
    I just happened to come back and see the answer -I think I need a tea garden it sounds so good.
    Those sachets sound like just the thing to make.
    Thanks for the answer

  9. Awesome job! I love the last picture. Those pretty and neat bunches look just like the ones my grandma used to make back in Ukraine.

  10. I envy your nice big bunches. Linda