In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
October, 2001
Regional Report

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Harvest herbs after the dew has dried.

Herb Harvest

October is the ideal time to harvest herbs -- they have had all summer to build the essential oils that give them their flavor. Already the days are shorter, and in a few weeks the temperatures will cool, causing the perennial herbs to begin their dormant period.

What are Herbs?

By definition, "herbaceous" plants are those that die back in the dormant season, as opposed to woody plants whose aboveground parts persist year round. However, the word herb is commonly used to refer to any plant used as a medicine or seasoning.

Herbs have been cultivated for centuries; plants are used in one quarter of all prescription drugs. One of the medications I'm currently taking for breast cancer treatment is derived from the Pacific yew tree. Herbs not only add spice to life, they also keep us healthy.

Herbs and Ornamentals

Many people think they need an herb garden to grow herbs. Not true! Herbs can be very effective planted among your perennial border. Borage (Borogo officinalis), for example, is a beautiful plant with fuzzy silver leaves and blue flowers that is used for soothing the respiratory system. Another way to use herbs in the garden is as a ground cover. Thyme (Thymus spp.) is especially suited to serve this purpose since it is low growing and extremely hardy. It has the added benefit of releasing a wonderful scent when trod upon and is a digestive aid.

Many perennial herbs can be successfully grown in this area. Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) spreads slowly by creeping rhizomes and should be propagated by division instead of seed. Oregano (Origanum vulgare), is another herb that does well here along the coast. It is not fussy about soil type and also spreads by underground stems. These plants should be kept cropped to prevent them from blooming and keep to them bushy and full. Oregano should be replanted from fresh stock every three years. All of these herbs, including the thyme, require full sun and excellent drainage and will perform well with very little water once established.

Harvesting and Storing Herbs

Harvest herbs early in the morning, just after the dew has dried from the leaves, to ensure maximum flavor. Wash them well in fresh, clear water to remove any grit or insects.

Let's take a look at how to store them: When you harvest herbs from your garden you have several options. You can wrap the fresh cuttings in cheese cloth and place the bundle directly into soups or stews. Or you can dry them for use later in the year. To dry herbs, gather small bunches of herbs and bind them with rubber bands. Then hang the bundles from a coat hanger or bamboo stake in a dark, dry location (such as over the water heater) until they are crisp. Another way to preserve your herbs is to pour chicken broth in an ice cube tray, lay in a few leaves of your favorite herbs, and freeze. When it is time to cook, simply empty out a few cubes of the herbed broth and add them to whatever you are cooking.

Place basil leaves on a cookie sheet which has been lined with waxed paper. Place the tray in the freezer. Once the leaves have frozen, remove them from the sheet and place them in a small plastic bag. The freezing prevents the leaves from clumping together.

Seasoned Salt

Seasoned salt is easy to make by adding fresh herbs and salt in alternating layers. Use a small jar with a tight fitting lid. Pour a layer of salt into the bottom of the jar, then layer with alternating layers of fresh herbs of your choice. One blend I particularly like is made up of basil, rosemary, sage, parsley and chives. I call this one "the Italian combo." Cover the jar tightly and allow the flavor of the herbs to seep into the salt for several weeks or as long as you like. The salt preserves the herbs while it soaks up the flavor. When you are ready to use the seasoned salt, strain it through a sifter to remove any large bits that could clog the openings on your salt shaker.

Gift Ideas

Seasoned vinegar and seasoned oil make nice gifts for the holidays, which I'm afraid to say are right around the corner. Purchase small containers at your local Goodwill or secondhand store, wash them well, then place a few sprigs of tarragon into the bottles and fill with olive oil or white vinegar.


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