Yard to Table: Harvesting and Drying Herbs

Several perennial herbs grow well in waterwise gardens, and are worth their ornamental value alone in xeric landscaping. My favorites are rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender. They’re also useful in the kitchen; I keep several rosemary plants close at hand in containers for fresh use. As long as I move them near the south wall of the house and brush off winter snow, they should make it through the winter in our zone (6B).

fresh herbs from waterwise garden
I enjoyed clipping these stems of fresh herbs about as much as I’ll enjoy them in recipes later. From left to right: culinary sage, thyme, oregano and basil.

I prefer to dry thyme, and this year I’m drying sage for the first time – we have plenty of the plants for their violet flowers and pollinator value. Sage is the perfect companion for chicken, and I’d like to use more in recipes this winter.

Fall came on suddenly this year, and with it plenty of rainy days in a row. But I was able to head out yesterday between rains and take cuttings from our sage, thyme and a groundcover the nursery labeled oregano. I’m not sure yet of its culinary value, but I’m going to give it a try.

Fall actually is late for drying many herbs. The best time to harvest is as flowers bud, but just before they open. I missed that window of opportunity on my sage, but many of the thyme stalks still had not budded. And I’ve been harvesting basil all summer, preventing the plants from flowering.

harvesting perennial herbs
I had to rush to harvest the thyme in the foreground before a storm rolled in. One of several culinary sage plants shows in the background, just before the rock wall.

Drying herbs

The first step is to rinse the herbs and shake them loosely to remove excess water. You can dry herbs in a dehydrator, especially if you live in a humid climate or want to dry them quickly. The dehydrator thermostat should preheat to about 115 degrees before placing your herbs on trays in a single layer. For extremely humid climates, you might have to bump up the temperature to 125 degrees. Most herbs dry within 1 to 4 hours, so they should be checked often after an hour on the trays. Dehydration works best for tender-leaved herbs such as basil, oregano and mint.

rinsed and bunched herbs for drying
Herbs rinsed and bunched, ready to hang for drying.

For herbs such as sage, thyme, parsley, rosemary and summer savory, bunch drying works fine. I bundled each of the herbs with rubber bands, including the oregano, since we don’t have a dehydrator and I’m experimenting. My bundles are probably a little larger than recommended, but drying is typically so much easier in our area, where humidity normally is below 20 percent, or nonexistent.

You can dry herbs outdoors, but the sun can fade some of their color and flavor. They need to hang upside down in a dry spot with plenty of air circulation. Our shed fits the bill. It has a window on one side and slats on the other for a nice cross-breeze, but seldom to never gets wet inside.

hanging herb bunches in old apple shed
It’s not pretty, but it works. Our old all-purpose shed was likely used to store apples in the past. I hung a piece of metal fencing from nails to give me more spots for hanging. The only other tools needed were jumbo paper clips and rubber bands.

Most herb bunches dry in a few days to a week. No matter the method you use, herbs are dry when the leaves crumble upon touching.

Other drying methods

Hang a bag loosely around or under tender herbs such as parsley to catch leaves as they dry, especially if using a garage or shed. Just be sure to keep it loose or cut plenty of holes in the side. The herbs won’t dry and can easily get moldy if you don’t let air circulate around them.

You can also dry tender herbs in the microwave because their moisture content is so low. It works well if you only want to put aside a small quantity. Rinse the stems, pat them dry, and pull off individual leaves. Air dry the leaves on paper towels, then lay them in a single layer on a paper towel that is placed on a microwave-safe plate or paper plate. Lay another paper towel on top. The amount of time required depends on your microwave, but should be no more than few minutes. I would recommend microwaving the first batch for about 40 seconds, then in 20 to 30 second increments so that you don’t overdo it.

Use the single-layer method for conventional oven drying by placing rinsed and dry leaves on a shallow cookie sheet and leaving them on low heat (about 180 degrees) in the oven for 2 to 4 hours. Just recognize that this method cooks out some of the flavor.

I’ve already made and frozen lots of pesto, so I decided to preserve the rest of my basil short term by placing the rinsed, clipped stems in a jar of cool water on a sunny windowsill. The basil will last at least as long as the remaining tomatoes from our garden. It’s amazing how fresh the leaves stay using this method!

preserving basil in jars of water
The jar on the left contains basil I harvested nearly two months ago; it’s not only fresh still, but has grown roots! I added a new jar of freshly cut stems that will outlast my late-season tomatoes.

Storing and using dried herbs

The best way to store dried herbs is in labeled, plastic containers. You can crumble the leaves before storing so they’re a better size for cooking. Remember that drying concentrates the herbs’ flavor and requires less quantity in recipes that call for fresh herbs.