In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
September, 2012
Regional Report

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Rosemary and sage are some of my favorite herbs to preserve for spicing up my winter cooking.

Preserve Your Homegrown Herbs

My garden would not be complete without an area to grow herbs. I also like to grow basil among my tomato plants. Then, when I'm ready to make a pesto, it's easy to harvest vine ripe tomatoes and a few sprigs of fresh basil.

With the cooler temperatures of fall, it's time to begin harvesting and preserving your homegrown herbs so you can savor their fragrance and flavor in winter. Herbs are at their peak of fragrance and oil content now.

Drying is the traditional method of preserving herbs, but freezing them is becoming popular because it is easy and locks in the flavor.

Choose a dry, sunny day to pick herbs from the garden when the natural oils are at their peak. When harvesting herbs for drying, select branches or stems that are healthy and free of insects or diseases. If bugs are present, shake the branches forcefully to dislodge the critters. If dirt or dust is on the leaves, rinse the plants and allow them to dry.

I typically remove any leaves from the bottom few inches of the stem or branch, then make a bundle of three or four stems and tie them together with twine or nylon fishing line. I hang the tied bunches upside down in the garden shed for a month or so. When the herbs are completely dry, I store them for future use.

To store dry herbs, pick airtight containers such as colored jars, plastic containers, or plastic bags. Be sure whatever you use can be tightly sealed. Whenever possible, leave the herb leaves and stems intact rather than crushing them. If you crush them now, the herbs will release their natural oils and have a shorter shelf life. It's best to lightly crush herbs right when you're ready to use them in your recipes. For best flavor, use your dried herbs with one year.

Some herbs are best frozen while still on the stalk. Place an entire bunch of dill weed, sage, rosemary, or thyme in a freezer bag or container. To use, just snip off bits as if it were fresh. Whole stalks can be tossed in the cooking pot. Retrieve them before serving.

Another preservation technique is to snip leaves from stems, rinse them, and dry them thoroughly by spreading them out on a cookie sheet overnight. The next day, freeze them still spread out on the cookie sheet. Once they're frozen, scoop them into freezer bags. This keeps the leaves from sticking together in clumps, making it easier to use them straight from the freezer.

I also keep some herbs growing over the winter in a sunny, south-facing window. Before frost arrives, I dig out a young rosemary and basil plant and pot them in clay pots. After a light pruning, I bring them indoors to grow throughout the fall and winter. It's nice to pick a few sprigs whenever I need them to spice up an Italian dish.

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