Sustainable Spices: Harvesting Culinary Herbs from the Garden

Culinary Herb Garden

If your idea of living sustainably involves becoming more self-reliant, growing and harvesting your own food may be part of the plan. While most garden crops (lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes) have their own short seasons, culinary herbs, once well-established, can be harvested repeatedly from spring through late fall.

Harvesting herbs is easy (though a bit monotonous). It can be cost-effective, letting you remove some pricey items from the grocery list. And it can make a meaningful difference in the taste of whatever you cook. If you’re not sure whether herb harvesting is worth the effort, just compare the aroma of fresh-cut herbs from your garden with those sitting in your spice rack. The olfactory evidence should be pretty convincing.

Harvesting & Drying Herbs, Step by Step

  1. Using kitchen shears, clip herb stems in lengths of at least 4 inches – longer if possible. (If you like to cook with fresh-cut herbs, rather than dried herbs, this is the one and only step. To dry herbs, keep reading.)
  2. Shake off any debris (insects, leaves from nearby trees) before bringing the herbs inside. If you feel the need to rinse the plants, be sure to let them dry out completely before moving on to Step 4. Pat the leaves dry and place them on a clean, dry towel in a sunny spot. If you’ve grown the herbs without any chemicals, you may want to skip rinsing altogether.
  3. Cut string (twisted cotton cord works well) into lengths of about eight inches.
  4. Bundle herbs into small bouquets, tied together by the cord.
  5. Hang herbs in a relatively dark, dry area of your home (a dry basement, an infrequently used stairway, a hearth) for up to a week. If your herb-drying area has nails or hooks on the wall, simply tie the cord ends together to make a loop that can be slipped over the nail/hook. Another option is tying the cord ends around a clothes line or wooden drying rack.
  6. Check your herbs every few days. When the leaves are crunchy, they’re ready to be ground.
  7. Prepare to grind your herbs by covering the kitchen counter with paper towel or a clean dry cloth. Place a medium-size bowl on the towel. Wash your hands well.
  8. Hold each herb bundle over the bowl and gently rub the herbs between your palms until the leaves fall off into the bowl. You may need to pull off some of the leaves, particularly if the plant has not dried out completely.
  9. Sift through the bowl of ground herbs, removing any stems, flower buds or other debris.
  10. If you want the herbs ground further, use a blender until the herbs reach the desired consistency. Remember, herbs typically are sold in both a fine powdered form and a rougher, more textured one. It’s your choice.
  11. Place the ground herbs in small labeled jars and store them with your other spices. They should last at least as long as store-bought spices.

One word of caution: If you have herbs that look quite similar (oregano and marjoram, for example), consider harvesting them at different times. Once dried, they can be pretty difficult to tell apart.

If some of your herbs grow more prolifically than others and you find yourself with a few too many jars of one spice, consider adding surplus harvest to a gift basket or bartering with green-thumbed friends.