Most herbs can be harvested in early to late summer. The best time is a dry sunny day about mid-morning, when the dew has dried but the sun isn’t at its hottest. The very best stage is before the herb plant flowers or just before the flowers open. It is best to dry the herbs as quickly as possible to preserve their properties.
There are 6 items that can be harvested: leaves, flowers, seeds, berries, roots and bulbs.
If you have a young evergreen plant (one year or less) it is best to let it become more established, you could take just a few trimmings but it is unlikely that you can have a large harvest until the second year onwards.
For biennial plants, the leaves can be harvested in the first year and they usually produce flowers in the second year which is also the time to harvest their roots as well.
Annual plants can obviously be harvested in that year but the timing depends on which part you require.
When harvesting make sure you use sharp scissors, a sharp knife or secateurs; do not pull, break or tear off stems or branches. Always choose healthy foliage and take the chance to give the plant a light trim if necessary at the same time.
The following herbs dry well- bay, lovage, lavender, marjoram, oregano, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme.
In my opinion the softer leaved herbs including basil, chervil, chives, dill, marjoram, sorrel and tarragon are not worth drying or should be dried as a last resort and are better preserved by freezing.
Parsley also doesn’t dry well but this herb can normally be harvested all year round so you don’t really need to dry or freeze it. However if you want to it is in its most useful form if ready chopped then frozen in small quantities either in ice cubes or small plastic bags or containers in the freezer. It will thaw very quickly.
Basil, Chervil, Dill, Fennel and Tarragon leaves can be placed in small plastic bags or chopped then mixed with water and poured into ice cube trays for freezing. You just take the cubes as needed and melt them into stews, soups, sauces.
You can also freeze chopped herbs in ‘oil cubes’ for use in frying, just mush them up with a little oil.
Herb butters also freeze well and are a useful addition during the winter months eg a slice of herb butter on a grilled meat or added to flavour noodles, pasta or steamed vegetables is delicious. Pesto also freezes well.
How and when to harvest
The plants should be at least 15 cm tall (6 inches) before you start harvesting them, in the case of young perennial herbs eg lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, you might want to allow the plant to become more established and wait until the following year. Once the plant flowers there is less flavour in the leaves. Pinch out any flowering tips to maintain flavours for culinary use.
Leaves – These should be picked fresh and preferably before flowering throughout the growing season. They are best picked on a dry sunny morning after the dew has evaporated and just before the sun gets too hot (If you pick after this, the flavour of the leaf which comes from the oils in it will evaporate).
Make sure you choose healthy leaves ie with no pests or diseases on them. Try not to bruise the softer leaved herbs such as basil because this will affect their flavour. When I say leaves I mean cut the stem with leaves attached in the first place if it is a small leaved herb. For larger leaves such as bay leaves you would cut them individually.
Always use a sharp, clean, knife or secateurs. Remove lower leaves from the stems you have harvested; they may become damaged, then attach bunches of herbs together around the stems with elastic bands. The length of stem removed will vary depending on how much you need to use/want to dry. It is best to pick small quantities so that they are not left lying around waiting for you to use them or preserve them. The plant will wilt and lose many of its properties if not used or preserved in some way shortly after cutting.
If you are harvesting from a perennial herb, try not to take more than a third of the leaves because these plants are slower growing than the annuals. Eg rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, lavender. For annual herbs, picking will boost leaf production and you will need larger quantities because the flavour is milder than the perennial herbs.
Tip – You could have a few pots of annual herbs which you rotate so that there is always one plant with some leaves to harvest on it. The best way to achieve this is to sow seeds every 2 to 3 weeks for plants such as coriander, basil, parsley, chives and chervil.
If you harvesting several herbs try to keep them separate to avoid transferring flavours between them. Once picked you can use them fresh, dry them (which makes the flavour stronger which is why you use less of a dried herb than its fresh equivalent), freeze them or preserve them in olive oil or use the leaves to flavour vinegar or oil.
Evergreen herbs can be harvested at any time in the year so don’t really need to be preserved just in the summer like other herbs.
Copyright 2008-2011 Madeleine Giddens All rights reserved.
If your herb plants are already flowering or have been for a while, you could try pinching off part of the flowering stem to promote more healthy fresh leaves – there’s still time before autumn! I know this works well with basil and mint.