Who doesn't love a spicy homemade autumn soup? If you are lucky, you can make one with vegetables you have harvested from your own garden. But even if you don't have a vegetable garden this year, you can at least grow a pot of herbs to snip off for a fresh handful of flavor.
Herbs are a useful plant in our Mediterranean climate. They are easy care, often drought-resistant and colorful all year. There is an herb to fit nearly every landscape need. Rosemary can be formed into a delightful aromatic hedge. Thyme can drip over a stone fence or will tolerate foot traffic. Lavender adds color, fragrance and bees to a garden. Most herbs will thrive in a large outdoor pot.
But herbs are useful beyond their beauty as landscape plants and fresh picked spices. If you think ahead a bit, you can harvest and dry your herbs to use on your culinary adventures all year long. Now is a good time to harvest most herbs.
When we harvest herbs, we are most interested in maximizing the volatile essential oils that give herbs their flavor. It is best to harvest herbs is when it is cool, for instance in the early morning, because heat dissipates the oil rather than concentrating it in the leaves.
For leafy herbs such as oregano and basil, the oil is at the maximum just as the flowers begin to open. Flower herbs like chamomile should be harvested when the flowers are fully in bloom. In Marin, June is a good time to harvest lavender, just before the bracts open.
To harvest herbs for drying, use clippers or scissors and cut leafy herbs halfway down the stem so there is enough left for a second growth. If you are harvesting flowers, cut just below the bloom. At this time of year, herbs can be cut to the ground. They will come back.
Once you have collected the herbs, rinse them in cool water and gently shake to remove excess water. Tie the herbs into small bundles with string. You need good air circulation so don't make the bundles too big. Hang the bundles upside down so that gravity brings the oils down into the leaves. You should keep them indoors in a warm, dark place. Often a garage is a good place to hang drying herbs. Keep them out of the sun to avoid discoloration and oil dissipation.
It takes about a week of hanging to dry the herbs in a warm, dry fall season. If it is damp, it will take a few days longer. Once the herbs are dry, strip the leaves off the stems and store them. It's just that simple.
Metal, colored glass or ceramic containers are best for storing herbs. You can save the stems to make into aromatic winter fire starters.
Marin Master Gardeners have many ideas for using home-dried herbs. One favorite is an herbal salt made with dried sage, thyme and oregano mixed with sea salt. This is delicious on a roast chicken. We also make a soothing herbal tea using lemon balm, sage, peppermint and citrus. If you are more adventurous, you can try our oregano-chili chimichurri mix. These herbal concoctions are often available for purchase at Marin Master Gardener events.
Closer to the holidays, Marin Master Gardeners will present a seminar demonstrating how you can make your very own "Gifts from the Herb Garden." If you collect and dry your herbs now, you will be ready to go.