Chapter 7 : Caring for The Herbs

Planting, transplanting, starting your herbs from seeds, harvesting and preserving.  Once you get your plants growing, you'll no doubt want to keep them from year to year -- somehow.  This chapter shows you how.  This chapter also gives you some tips on harvesting and preserving your herbs for the off season.

Yes, the growing season has been lovely.  But all good things must come to an end.  And it looks like fall is fast approaching.  It feels as if winter is just around the corner.  So what does a good herb gardener do right about now?

No, you don't sit down and cry, lamenting about a lost season.  This is the time you can spring into action, harvesting the herbs you have, preserving them for the long winter -- and transplanting those you can to keep them growing next year as well.

It may sound like work, but keep in mind that these herbs have provided you with an incredible amount of joy this spring and summer.  And they're about to provide you with more flavorful meals during the cold winter months.  And some of these herbs may just help you avoid some of the toughest germs, and colds going around this winter.

Besides, you know darn well this really isn't work -- it's a labor of love.

If you're planting or even transplanting seedlings outside, the best method I've found is to dig the hole, adding just a "dash" of compost and bone meal for drainage as well as extra nutrients.

You'll discover as you grow a larger variety of herbs that many herbs grow best in an alkaline soil.  Knowing this, you may want to add a tablespoon or two of agricultural lime.   This helps the roots to absorb nutrients more efficiently.  All of this, gets mixed into the soil in the hole before putting the herb in.

You'll discover too that even though your herbs are eventually destined to be part of an outdoor garden, you'll want to start them indoors.  Some herbs just seem to get a much healthier start when begun inside.  Some of the plants you may want to start inside include basil, borage, marjoram, oregano, chamomile, catnip, sorrel and thyme.

Simply place the seeds in the flats containing well-drained, airy soil with lots of organic matter.  Borage and sorrel, though, would rather be in soil that is most and rich.

When your seedlings are about four inches tall and the weather is warm, you're ready to "introduce" them to the outside environment.  As strange as this may sound, it is very necessary.  It's a step many beginning gardeners fail to do, simply because they don't know about it.

Introducing these plants gradually to the out of doors is called hardening off".  This process should not begin in earnest until the overnight temperatures rise to a dependable 50 degrees or more.

Also, ensure that the plants you're "hardening off" are placed in sturdy containers with moist soil. Start the process simply by placing the flats outside starting at 9 a.m.  Leave them here for several hours.

Remember that you are dealing with delicate seedlings.  Don't take them out on windy days.  These guys are small; even a light gust may know the pots off the deck or patio. 

The potential for broken stems in this situation is extremely real.  If any of your plants, by the way have any lids or cellophane coverings, by all means, remove them before you take them out.  One the first day be especially vigilante that the soil doesn't dry out or the leaves don't droop.

Repeat this process for the next five or six days.  Every day increase the amount of time the seedlings spend outdoors.  The only exception to this is the unexpected, wild fluctuations of temperature as sometimes happens during the spring.

If the temperature varies more than 15 degrees from one day to the next in either direction -- warmer or colder -- then shorten the seedlings exposure outside.  Basically, what you're doing is acclimatizing your plants to the environment. 

Don't place the herbs out if it is extremely rainy or excessively hot.  The process won't be ruined when they're kept in for a day or so.

Do this for about five days.  After that your plants should be ready to be planted outdoors.

Alternatives to hardening off.

Some herbalists prefer to use other methods than the hardening off to prepare the seedlings for the outdoor garden.  One method is a low-water approach. 

In this method, you don't place the plants outside, you leave them indoors, but you decrease the watering of them in increments.  Each time, allow the soil to dry out a little more than the last time. Do this for two to three weeks.

Eventually you'll only water them when they begin to droop.  Once they're to this point, they're ready for the outside world.

Propagating new plants

You've planted your herbs, they all seem to be doing quite nicely thank you.  But now, you'd really like to take that next step.  Propagating new plants.

There are three main methods you can do this.  You can create more plants through dividing the roots of the existing plants, by taking cuttings of the herbs in your gardens or through a method called healing in or layering.

Root division.

This is a simple approach to creating more herbs.  With a spade or shovel, work the roots from a clump of the densely growing herbs.  Taking this grouping out of the ground, separate the plants starting at the roots.  You want to do this rather carefully. 

Once separated you can place one of the groupings back in the original spot.  The other group or groups may be planted anywhere you like.

Creating herbs from cuttings.

This is another straightforward approach to propagating herbs.  In either the spring or the fall, you'll take a long, woody shoot from the plant of your choosing.  Cut the shoot at an angle close the grand.

Remove the leaves from the very bottom of this cutting.   Coating it with a rooting powder, you'll pot it in a light soil mix.  Water this well.

Creating new herbs through layering.

Bend a long woody shoot; bury the middle of the stem under a few inches of soil.  Hold it down with a small rock.  Within a month two six weeks, the cutting or the healed-in stem develops its own root system.  It's at this time that it's ready to be transplanted.

Harvesting, preserving herbs.

Growing herbs is just part of the fun of keeping your herb garden.  Though I have to admit it's a great deal of fun.  Another aspect of herb gardening which many people enjoy is the harvesting and the preserving of the herbs once the growing season ends.

Ask five different herb gardeners and you're bound to get five different ideas about the best method to harvest these plants.  The great herbalist and nun of the 12th Century, Hildegard of Bingen firmly believed that all medicinal plants should be harvested when the moon was waxing, just prior to it becoming full.  Herbs taken at this time, she believed, possessed their greatest potency.

She did concede, though, that the herbs would be preserved for an extended period of time if they were harvested during the waning of the moon.

Many herbalists have other ideas though.  Many believe, for instance that herbs should be gathered only during a full moon.  This is the time, they contend, when the sap of the plants and the strength of their oils are the greatest.

While you may consider these ideas "old wives' tales" they do seem to have some validity.  The seasons of harvesting seem to play a part in the potency.

Herbs whose medicinal active ingredients are found in their roots and rhizomes -- like ginger, ginseng and mandrake, for instance -- are more potent when harvested early in the spring or in late autumn.  At this time, they have actually reserved much of their energy and essence below the ground.

In harvesting these types of herbs, dig widely around the plants, in order not to cut or damage the root system.  Wash the roots with cold water and thoroughly dry them.

It's also true the essence of a plant becomes concentrated with each succeeding night.  The herbs, therefore, are most potent when they're picked in the early hours of the morning well before the sun's heat and the light actually dissipate any essential oils in them.

And it's best to harvest the herbs on a morning that is clear and dry, just after the dew has evaporated from the leaves. Just about all herbs should be harvesting before they bloom.

The active healing substances of these plants also lose their potency after the flowering process, for obvious reasons.  They've just spent much of their energy on actually blooming and generating seeds.

When you do harvest herbs, be sure to use sharp pruning clippers.  You don't want to tear the stems.  If you don't cut too low on the stem, you'll discover that some herbs -- basil is particularly noted for this -- will produce more growth for harvest.

As a part of keeping your garden growing, you may decide to deliberately not harvest several plants of various species.  You may decide to allow them to seed towards the growth of next year's garden. 

It's easy enough to collect these seeds.  Choose the specific, individual plants which will go to seed.  Just before the seeds have matured, place a paper bag, upside down, over each flower.  Tie the mouth of the mouth of the bag with string or twine. 

When the seeds have matured, cut off each seed head with the bag attached.  Turn the bag right side up, tap the seeds into the bag and then remove the string and the plant.

Preserving your herbs.

I admit, my initial idea of preserving herbs was taking the bottle of ginseng and placing it in a cool, dry place, just like the label instructed.  Guess what?  I soon discovered fresh herbs didn't work that way.

What I did learn that preserving and storing fresh herbs is every bit as fun and rewarding as growing them.  And this is especially true when it comes to medicinal herbs.

And don't worry, I promise you this process is neither difficult nor painful on your part.

Now that you've harvested the herbs, you'll want them to last as long as possible.  The best way to do this is through a drying process.  In days past, it was custom to simply hang the herbs in a warm, dry, shady location, waited until they crumbled easily and placed them in various containers. 

Custom also dictated that the roots were washed, split and then spread into a single layer on a clean tray.  And this method is still practiced diligently by a few herbalists.  It isn't unusual to walk into a herb shop and actually buy a "bunch" of herbs.

But, that's not to say it's the best approach.  In fact, there are two distinct disadvantages to using this method.  First, it takes up a lot of space, sometimes more space than you can devote.

 The other disadvantage is the time factor. Yes, it takes at a minimum a few days, and in some instances weeks for the leaves, stems and flowers to dry on their own.  And we haven't even begun to talk about the roots, which in some instances may take up to a month or more to completely dry properly.

Time is of the essence, literally!

When drying herbs for medicinal or healing purposes, time is literally of the essence.  The faster the herbs are dried, the more potent the volatile aromatic oils in the herbs will be.  And that's precisely why most of the commercial herb producers use special equipment for drying herbs.

In order to speed the process somewhat many herb gardeners simply place their herbs on a baking sheet or on a section of clean window screen, then place this is an oven set at 95 degrees.

This method is not only convenient, but inexpensive as well.  Of course, this has a few disadvantages as well.  One of the biggest being that in the heat of summer not many people really want to use the oven to cook -- let alone for drying herbs. 
If your oven, moreover, is one of those (and there are many out there) that don't heat evenly, it can cause you some problems.  Some of the herbs may actually dry out too much, while other sections are too moist.

Now, you say, I'm knocking down options right and left.  So what's left?  Some herbalists buy a small produce dryer.  This is a table top appliance with built-in removable trays.  It uses a hot air fan to dry the herbs.  As you might have already guessed by its name, it also dries produce.

Drying is just the beginning.

Whoa!  Don't stop now!  Drying is just the first step in the preservation process.  Once the herbs have dried, many herbalists then reduce them to a powder.  This is the most convenient form for use. 

Traditionally, herbalists have made their powders using the old-fashioned mortar and pestle. And it's a method that many still use today, especially if you don't have many herbs to grind.

If that seems a bit old fashioned to you -- as it did to me -- try grinding your herbs in a coffee grinder.  You may want to purchase one separately for this purpose.  You might not want the flavors of either mixing with the other.

Coffee-flavored lemon balm is just as bad as basil-flavored coffee.  You may if you like use the same grinder for both, but it seems far easier just to keep two separate grinders for the two separate purposes.

For those gardeners who have large amounts of herbs, a large grinder is advisable. 

Storing your herbs.

Take a quick look at the bottled commercially bought herbs and spices you already have in your kitchen cabinet, please.  Carefully examine the bottle they're in.  Is it a clear glass or plastic bottle?

Chances are it is clear.  That way you can actually see the type of spice you're purchasing.  At least that's my take on why the bottles are clear.  And probably because clear bottles may cost less than dark amber ones.

But you're about to learn a powerful lesson in preserving herbs:  clear glass is the worst thing you can keep your dried herbs in.  And here's why: light, the giver of life for these plants for so long, is also the destroyer of potency and flavor once the herbs are dry.  It's ironic, but it's true.

Instead, store your dried herbs in opaque containers -- glass or ceramic are best.  Fill the container to the top.  This limits the amount of oxygen in them.  As you use your herbs and there are less of them in the container, you can prevent oxygen from seeping inside by adding cotton to the jar.

Carefully stored aromatic herbs, like sage, rosemary and thyme, can actually remain potent for a year and more.  Expect herbs that don't carry much of a fragrance, like alfalfa to last even long.

Moisture kills.

Moisture is another enemy of your dried herbs.  If they should happen to get wet once they've been dried, quickly dry them again.  This prevents the growth of mold.

You'll also want to be vigilant to the problem of insects.  Drying takes care of many of the pests, but always keep an eye open for insects.  To help avoid this problem, keep the containers tightly closed when you're not actively using your herbs.

Freezing fresh herbs.

So far, we've discussed drying herbs to use later -- especially if these are for healing purposes.  But if you're storing culinary herbs, there's no reason why you just can't freeze these.  This is simple and makes cooking with them come February when that much needed soup could use some fresh herbs easy.

This is all you do.  Cut the stems or the leaves of the herbs.  Rinse them.  Pat them dry, then freeze them in resealable bags.  The bags can be of the smaller variety, then you can take one bag out and have just enough for your meal.

You can also freeze chopped fresh herbs in ice cube trays with water.  After the water and herbs have frozen, transfer them to freezer bags. This is actually a great way to use them for soup.

Now that autumn is approaching, you've harvested and preserved your herbs, what's left to do? 

Why don't you just sit down with the cup of herbal tea and plan next season's garden.

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