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5 tips for fresh, tasty herbs

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Jessica Walliser
For most herbs, the more foliage you snip off to use in the kitchen, the more new stems the plant produces.

Homegrown herb harvests are beyond compare. Not only is the flavor of fresh-picked herbs far superior to store bought, it’s also a whole lot cheaper to grow your own. Grocery store herb bunches are costly, while herb sprigs from the garden cost little more than a few minutes of your time.

Whether you grow parsley, chives, basil, sage or any number of other herbs, there are a few important things for you to keep in mind when it comes to harvesting and preserving your homegrown herbs.

1. Harvest before flowering. Yes, there are a few herbs that are used as flowers (think dill blossoms and borage flowers), but most are used as fresh or dried foliage. For maximum flavor, plan to harvest your homegrown herbs before the plants begin to flower. Once the flowering process begins, the oil content can change, leading to an altered flavor.

2. Regular harvests are best. For most herbs, the more foliage you snip off to use in the kitchen, the more new stems the plant produces. Regular harvests mean continued production. Don’t just cut all your basil or oregano on one day; instead, head out to the garden every few days to collect shoots for use in your favorite recipes or for preserving for later use.

3. Cut, don’t tear. When harvesting herbs, do not tear the leaves or shoots from the plant. Instead, use a sharp herb snip or kitchen scissors to do the job. Make sure your cutting tool is clean, as disease is easily spread on unclean equipment. Tearing leaves and stems instead of cutting them can lead to damaged buds and could affect future growth.

4. Bundle as you harvest. If your plan is to bundle and hang your herbs to dry, it’s easiest to do the bundling right in the garden. Rather than bringing the stems indoors and then having to shuffle through them to organize them into bunches, grab a bunch of herb stems with one hand and cut them off the plant with another. Then, take that handful of stems and bundle them together at the base with a rubber band immediately. It makes the whole process a lot quicker. I then unfold a paper clip to make an “S” hook of sorts and slide one end of the hook under the rubber band and the other end over my herb-drying rack.

5. Harvest only during dry weather. Never harvest fresh herbs when they’re wet, unless you plan to use them right away. Water-soaked leaves will rot when bundled instead of drying. There’s no need to wash herbs before hanging them up to dry. Just shake the bundles a bit to knock off any insects or debris. And don’t wash herbs before storing them in the fridge either. Simply slip the freshly cut herb stems into a plastic zipper-top baggie and put the bag in the fridge. You can give the herbs a quick rinse when you’re ready to cook with them.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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