By Pamela Denholm
I love my garden, and have six raised beds, but I don’t grow a lot of fresh annual vegetables, like squash, tomatoes, and eggplant – can you imagine why? Well, the truth is it all ends up going to waste because, as a business owner and mother, with dogs and cats and chickens, my garden sometimes falls lower down on the list of priorities than I would like. Somehow caring for living things that can move and make a noise takes precedence over living things that are quiet and firmly rooted. Many times over the years, I have nurtured heirloom seeds into seedlings, lovingly planted them in amended soil, watered and mulched and watched over them, just to get absolutely crazy busy for two weeks. When I finally get around to checking on the garden, I find I’ve fed beautiful fat worms all the kale they could eat, or nobody watered the tomatoes and the leaves are pale yellow. I gave up. Besides which I have unique access to all the best growers – as do our customers who have similar gardening tales to mine – so what’s the point of torturing myself with all the heartache? And then I discovered herbs. They are tougher than the fragile annuals, sage for example, will grow in a sandbox if you let it and LOVES heat. Thyme will revive beautifully after a dry spell, and I challenge you to try and kill mint or chives. And fresh herbs are expensive to buy in a store, plus there is something profoundly connected about cooking with fresh herbs you plucked out of your garden. I have to say, I get great joy too finding all the different varieties and adding them to my growing collection, which is spreading out of the raised beds and into the flower beds because, most perennial herbs have beautiful flowers too.
I do find that over the summertime I am totally spoilt for choice of herbs, but come winter time, I look at the herb and spice bottles in the store with dismay. It’s not easy to find organic herbs, and it kills me to buy something I had in abundance in my own garden just weeks earlier. So, how to preserve them? Here are a few of my best suggestions, note: the first thing you need to do regardless of your method, is harvest and wash your herbs:
- Drying – Make small bunches leaving leaves on stems, tie them with natural string and hang them anywhere they will have consistent flow of fresh air. In the summer time, that can be on your porch, on your screen door (somebody I know bought an old screen door which she hung on her porch, and attached the bunched herbs using paperclips – beautiful and ingenious). It can also be on a windowsill, or a shed (but not anywhere where homestead animals like chickens or goats are kept – they tend to kick up a lot of dust). You can also punch holes in brown bags and dry your herbs inside the bags. This will take about 1-3 weeks. Store in airtight container, dispose after 1 year.
- Dehydrating – It is best to remove leaves, especially for plants like sage, or basil, that has big leaves. For plants with teensy tiny leaves, like thyme, you can leave the stems intact. Place them on the tiered levels of a dehydrator, or in a single layer on a cookie sheet in your oven. The temperature of your oven should be about 170 degrees, it will take 4-5 hours. The flavor tends to be more concentrated, stems can be removed after dehydrating. Store in airtight container, dispose after 1 year.
- Make pesto – Oil, salt, garlic, parmesan, pine nuts or walnuts, your chosen herb, and a blender is all you need. Freeze the result in little baggies or ice trays. The ice trays can be emptied into a bag for portion control. These pesto’s are awesome on pasta’s and on breads and even in breads for herbed bread recipes, or on pizzas.
- Make your own seasoning – Use a coffee grinder rock salt, your choice of other DRIED herbs, chili if you like them, and give it a whirl. Store in airtight containers for up to one year.
- Flavor vinegar – put a few stalks of lavender or other fragrant herbs in a bottle of vinegar, leave it in the sun for two weeks. Change herbs after first week. This can be added to a bath to soften water and add fragrance, or as a cleaner. The essential oils of the plant are extracted into the vinegar. Store in airtight container, good for six months.
- Flavor oil – immerse your fresh herbs in a jar of oil. Coconut oil is the most popular, and leave for a few weeks. You can use the oil for all manner of personal hygiene products, or for cooking. Store in airtight container, freeze after 4 weeks. I love adding calendular flowers and leaving it to bake in the sun. When it cools, you have a good, healing skin salve.