This piece originally appeared on Fix.com
When beginner gardeners ask me which plants are hardy and forgiving, my answer is always herbs. If a busy gardener asks me which plants will thrive in near-neglect, my answer is herbs. When a foodie gardener asks about fast-growing plants that will feed both people and bees, my answer is herbs.
Herbs are the answer to many gardening questions for good reason: they’re an incredibly versatile and prolific group – almost to a fault. In fact, many herbs can be compared to cucumber plants. By the end of the summer, they’re being given away by the bushel because no one is sure what to do with them past some basic dishes. This doesn’t have to be the case for your abundant herb garden this year. We’ve got better ideas.
Creative Ways to Use Garden Herbs
The most common motivation for growing harvesting herbs is to enhance dishes. However, there’s a plethora of alternative uses for your herbal bounty.
Herbs in dinner dishes are always welcome. But how about trying them in desserts? Fruit salad, sorbet, yogurt, cakes, and cookies, for example, will take on new life when lavender, basil, scented geranium, roses, and other edible flowers are included.
- Herb-infused oils and vinegars make beautiful gifts.
- Herbal butters
- Herbal salts
- Herbal sugars
- Add them to jellies and syrups.
- Put collected seeds such as lavender into a small, decorative envelope to hand out as wedding or party favors.
- Fill a miniature manila envelope with seeds and glue it to the inside of a card for a special gardener.
- Make lavender pillows for relaxation and scenting closets and drawers.
- Create lavender wands to tuck into dresser drawers.
- Some herbs make great dietary supplements for pets and livestock (be sure to research specifics first).
- Herbs are excellent to add to nest boxes in your chicken coop.
- Pop herbs such as lavender, rosemary, sage, scented geranium, chive, and dill flowers into your flower arrangements.
- Use herbs in homemade soap recipes.
- Use them in homemade sugar scrubs and bath salts.
- Herbs such as rosemary, chamomile, and sage are perfect for making herbal hair rinses that produce natural shine.
- Make small muslin bags filled with lavender to toss into the dryer.
- Make an herbal wreath for your entryway for a fresh, summery scent.
When and How to Harvest Herbs
Whether you use them fresh or dry, there’s no hard and fast rule about when herbs should be harvested. But there are some general rules of thumb.
1. Take into consideration the part of the plant you’re harvesting. Keep in mind that leaves aren’t the only part of herb plants that are used; flowers and seeds are useful as well.
2. All herbs should be harvested in the early morning hours. Once the morning dew has dried, but before the heat of the day has set in, is the perfect time.
3. Herb plants should be mature before they are harvested. If you start clipping away at the leaves and stems of a very young plant, there may not be enough of it left to sustain its life. Depending on the herb, it will need at least six weeks (usually longer) to become established and mature enough to handle a trimming.
4. Always aim for harvesting no more than one-third of the plant at a time. Once your baby plant grows up, you can take up to one-third of it and then give it some weeks to regroup. This is a general rule, but not written in stone – there may be good reasons to harvest sooner than later (see below).
5. There are some very good reasons for keeping specific herbs pruned on a regular basis – “bolting” is one of them. Bolting prompts a plant to suddenly flower all at once (often during high temperatures). As gardeners, we often want to keep them from blooming as long as possible, because flowers mean the end of the plant’s lifecycle. In vegetables, we encourage blooming because that’s when the fruit is produced. However, we are usually after the leaves of herbs, so we want to keep most of the blooming at bay.
6. The best way to keep up leaf production is to pinch off anything that even resembles a flower. Many times it’s the annuals like cilantro and basil that you’ll want to keep your eye on. Harvesting them often will keep the plant in production longer. Woody, perennial herbs such as rosemary and thyme tend to flower and keep producing regardless of blooms.
7. If you’re harvesting an herb’s flowers for their oil or flavor, you’ll want to collect them right after the flower buds appear, but before they actually open. This is the time when the oil concentration is the highest.
8. For flowers to use in crafts, pick the blossoms after they start flowering, butbefore they have fully opened.
9. If you’re collecting herb seeds, you'll want to do so from mature plants after they produce seed heads. Wait for the seed pods to change color and begin to dry on the plant. Then, right before they burst open and scatter, carefully clip the stems off and secure a paper bag around the seed pods or heads. Hang them upside down in a cool, well-ventilated place, and as they fully dry, they will drop off into the bag.
How to Dry Herbs
The easiest way to dry your herbs is to simply cut a handful of stalks from the plant (the longer, the better). Use a rubber band to secure the bottom of the stalks together. Rubber bands are better than string because the herbs shrink as they dry, and the rubber band will shrink with them. Label all of your herb bundles and hang them upside down in a cool, well-ventilated place for a few weeks until they dry completely.
Another drying technique is to place herb stalks into a paper bag, fold the top down, and secure it with something like a chip clip. Place the bag in the refrigerator for several days. The dehumidifying action of the refrigerator will not only dry them faster than the hanging method, but also help to retain their rich colors.
No matter which drying method you use, once the herbs are dry, you can break away the leaves from the stems and place them into airtight containers. Store your herbs in a cool and dark place.