Harvesting Herbs for the Winter

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

Author’s potted herbs– sage, parsley, rosemary & thyme

Most would agree that fresh herbs taste better than dried.  There is no need to forego the companionship of fresh herbs once winter sets in.  You can make good use of the herbs you are growing in your garden by bringing them into your homes, potting them up and putting them in a sunny window.  If this isn’t possible, you can consider drying which concentrates and preserves the flavouring oils contained in the leaves.  Read below for some of the many options you might consider as our summer months draw to an end.

MOVING HERBS INDOORS

Many herbs can be brought indoors and with proper care, survive the winter months.  They need ample light, even moisture and moderate temperatures.  Remember to pot up the herbs in your garden early.  Do not wait until frost is imminent, because herbs are best if gradually acclimatized to the indoor environment, especially to the lower light conditions. Use a quality potting mixture and a good sized pot.  Prune back the foliage and roots if necessary.  You will get some wilting of leaves and some may die, but you should see some new growth soon.  Remove any dying leaves as they turn yellow.  It’s also a good practice to dip your plants in an insecticidal soap solution before moving them indoors to guard against aphids and spider mites.  If you have the time, gradually move your plants into shadier locations and eventually indoors to your sunniest window.

I have had good success with bringing in my rosemary plant and it remains quite happy in my kitchen window.  I do occasionally mist the leaves and I am lucky to have a south facing window.

I take cuttings from my basil and put the cut stem in water.  Be sure to do this before the cold as basil can die overnight.  Once there are some tiny roots, transfer it to a pot with some good quality soil.  It will require five or six hours of direct light.

Author’s basil cuttings

AIR DRYING

The simplest way to preserve herbs is by air drying, which usually takes two to three weeks.  Tie large leafy-stemmed herbs with rubber bands into loose bundles and hang them in a room or closet with good cross air circulation. It is best to gather the leaves in the early morning after the dew has evaporated. They should feel crisp when fully dry.

You can also spread the herbs over a screen or netting in a dark ventilated area, but you must be sure they are completely dry before storing to avoid any mould.

Photo credit: Amy Kimball, Herbal Houseplants

DEHYDRATOR

My neighbour had a very old dehydrator that hadn’t been used in years.  As has happened in this pandemic, she pulled it out of her cupboard and began to use it.  I had an abundance of basil which I gave to her.  She put it in her dehydrator and within a few hours I had wonderful dried basil that is much greener and fresher than anything I would get at the store.

You can also set your oven to 175 degrees and lay the herbs on cookie sheets in a single layer.  Depending on the herb, this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.  Be sure to check every 30 minutes since herbs all dry at different rates.  Allow to cool completely before crumbling.

MICROWAVE

Microwave ovens preserve the colour and flavour of herbs, but can only handle small amounts at a time.  Place the herbs on a paper towel in a single layer and microwave using 30 second intervals. You may have to experiment as temperatures of microwaves tend to be different.  Let them cool completely before storing.  I’m not a huge fan of this method as I don’t find the microwave heats evenly and it is just too fiddly for me.

STORING DRIED HERBS

They can be stored in airtight containers away from heat, light and moisture. It is best to use glass or metal tins with tight fitting lids.  Plastic breathes and will allow the herbs to absorb moisture.

Herbs can also be stored in the freezer.  I have had great success with parsley and coriander.  I store the leaves in an airtight ziploc bag and find it easy to take out what I need for soups, etc.

Another method would be to chop fresh-cut herbs and evenly spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place in the freezer for several hours.  Pack the frozen herbs in small containers, label and date the containers and keep frozen for 6 to 8 months. 

Or, you could freeze finally chopped herbs in stock or water for use in stews or soups.  This can be done in ice-cube trays.  Remove the frozen cubes and store in a ziploc bag.

Richters Herbs website has lots of information about the preservation and storing of herbs.

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