Of course the best thing about growing herbs is being able to open the back door or nip over to the window box and snip off a few sprigs as and when you need them.
Over the growing season a healthy plant is happy to be regularly snipped. But in autumn, before the first frosts kill off all but the most hardy, it makes sense to gather and preserve what you can for the winter.
If you follow these drying tips you should be able to capture all the flavour and much of the colour, allowing you keep on using your herbs even after they have gone over.
Read Jekka McVicar's tips for growing herbs
How to harvest herbs
Use clean sharp scissors or secateurs and cut off the soft new top growth which will taste and cook better (being less tough/bitter).
Pick stems, not single leaves. Use the same principle as with grapes in a fruit bowl – picking whole stems not just the leaves – as this will leave the plant looking less scraggy. The more you harvest during the growing season, the better the plant.
Only pick healthy leaves for storing. Avoid discoloured, damaged or pest infested foliage.
In summer: If you want to harvest all the plant during the growing season cut stems down to four to six inches but make sure to give a liquid feed (seaweed is good) afterwards to help it recover.
In autumn: Give annual herbs a final chop a good few weeks before the first frosts.
When cutting perennial herbs such as rosemary don’t cut into woody growth unless you want to prune them into the available space.
Perennials should be cut several weeks before the first frosts are expected otherwise they might not make it through the winter.
Sage and some thymes are tough enough to be picked through the winter if slightly protected.
How to dry herbs
Although herbs look lovely hanging from the kitchen ceiling that is not the best way to dry them. Speed is the key. You want to dry them quickly but gently so as to retain as much of the flavour as possible. Drying them in the dark will help keep their colour.
Good places to dry herbs:
- An airing cupboard
- In a very low oven
- The plate warmer of an Aga or Raeburn
- A roof area or similar dark but dry space where you can maintain a constant temperature
The ideal temperature is between 70-90F or 21-33 C
How to air dry herbs
Have a number of trays, wooden racks etc. Cover slatted racks with muslin or similar to allow air to penetrate.
Arrange different plants on different trays and dry apart so that the flavours don’t mingle.
Spread out the stems. The key is to ensure a good air flow.
Turn the herbs regularly for the first few days.
Drying herbs in the oven
Be very very careful not to overheat as herbs like mint can quickly blacken and lose flavour. It can be a good idea to leave the oven door ajar to avoid this happening - best of all use the plate warmer.
Lemon verbena, which dries particularly well, takes one or two minutes on the lowest oven setting.
How to know when dried herbs are ready
You will know the herbs have dried out fully when the leaves crumble.
Which drying method is best to use?
Generally speaking heavier, woodier, thicker stems will air dry well eg sage, rosemary, bay and dill
Leaves with higher moisture such as lemon balm, mint, tarragon and basil are better oven dried.
How to store dried herbs
Store dried herbs in glass jars, ideally dark ones, clearly dated and labelled in a cool, dark, dry cupboard or similar. They should keep their flavour for up to a year.
For more information: Jekka's Herb Farm