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.

Roast Green Chiles on Your Grill

Several events signal fall in New Mexico: the State Fair, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and the smell of roasting green chile in the air. I can’t do justice to describing the scent except to say that it’s earthy, unique and mouth watering.

New Mexico green chile
Green chile from our garden freshly picked and roasted right on the grill.

If you’re from New Mexico or have traveled here in the fall, you’ve seen vendors roasting green chile in special baskets over sparkling fires. You can purchase chile by the pound or bushel, take it home and freeze enough for the year. Aside from cool evenings and changing leaf colors, there’s no better reason to love New Mexico autumns!

Alternatively, of course, you can grow your own green chile. I wrote about New Mexico chile in March if you’d like to know more about growing the plant. Today, I roasted about eight chiles, all picked from a single hardy plant in our vegetable garden.

I say hardy not because chile is difficult to grow. On the contrary, this particular plant survived a gopher attack near its roots that caused water to just drain down a hole until we plugged it and used drip irrigation only. The gophers invited ants to take up residence a few inches away. And when the weather was unseasonably damp in July, black appeared on the stems and I thought we would lose the plant to a fungal disease.

This pepper plant still has fruit and blooms in late September. Pretty amazing considering the cool nights and the conditions it has endured.
This pepper plant still has fruit and blooms in late September. Pretty amazing considering the cool nights and the conditions it has endured.

Instead, we’ve been fortunate enough to harvest at least 15 peppers off one plant, and we’ve roasted our harvest on the grill a few times.

The reason green chiles are roasted is to blister the skin of the pepper so that you can peel it easily when ready to cook the chile. If you purchase green chile instead of growing it, you’ll get the best flavor and easiest peeling by having the seller roast the green chile for you; they use high heat and toss the chiles for more even blistering. But it’s also simple to roast green chiles from your garden on the grill, especially if you’ve already got the grill on to cook (maybe a patty for a green chile cheeseburger!)

chiles roasting on grill
I blistered these green chiles on our gas grill, which might not roast as evenly, but does the job well enough for freezing.

Simply wash the green chiles and pat them dry. Then place them on the grill about five to six inches above the coals. Turn or roll the chiles to coat them evenly. Patience helps, so that you roast them fairly slowly. You should hear some popping sounds and smell the chile cooking slightly. Using long-handled tongs, carefully remove each chile to a plate, and quickly place them in a plastic bag or other covered container to steam the peel slightly. Whole green chiles are much easier to peel after freezing. I just remove as much air as I can and place my bag in the freezer while the chiles are still slightly warm.

green chile ready to freeze
Seal the chiles while still fairly hot to steam the peels. Then freeze for up to a year or 18 months.

Check out more chile roasting methods from the Hatch Chile Store.

Waste Not: When Your Harvest Overwhelms You

The best part of growing your own edibles is harvesting fresh, healthy food and eating it right away. But what happens if you have a green thumb, great weather or go on vacation? I can’t stand to throw out a single tomato, and I think friends are running for fear I will hand them another zucchini.

zucchini harvest
Look! Even my dog is running from zucchini. I managed to give away or use all of this. I am not responsible for the actions of the receivers. And I learned my lesson about keeping up or cutting back.

But I know there are people who could use the fresh vegetables that I grow, especially in our area. Apparently, food waste is a bigger problem than a few overripe tomatoes from my garden. Tons and tons of produce are left unharvested in fields each year because of mechanical harvesting techniques, how hand harvesters are paid, or because the public demands perfect looking produce.

The last one is part of the reason why so many fruits and vegetables are genetically modified. Consumers are more likely to choose the shiniest apples and the brightest orange carrots, regardless of whether those choices offer the highest nutrition or flavor. I’m here to tell you that anything I’ve grown tastes better than anything I’ve ever purchased. And unless it has evidence of disease or infestation, I’ll eat it because I know where it came from!

green bean inspection
None of these green beans would pass muster in a store. The ones on the left were missed and likely are tough. But they can be frozen separately with other large beans for soups or stews. The middle beans just got caught on a fence or stalk. I can eat those. Something else has eaten on that last one, so I won’t.

Having said that, I’m guilty of choosing the nicest looking specimens when I give any of my harvest to friends or neighbors. End Food Waste Now has started a fun campaign on Twitter encouraging people to support ugly fruits and vegetables and to cut the 20 to 40 percent of global produce waste.

I’ve got a few entries below…

funny looking tomatoes
Kiss my…tomato! These are both edible, although they would never make it to a produce bin.
carrots
Here’s our dancing carrot, or rather two carrots, likely because I didn’t thin enough.

On a more serious note, I wanted to find out what to do with some of my extra vegetables, knowing there must be people in my rural community who might appreciate them. End Food Waste points visitors to AmpleHarvest.org, which links gardeners and food pantries around the country. I was surprised to find several nearby in my fairly obscure ZIP code.

Gardeners who want to take it a step further and help the nearly 36 million American households where folks have substandard diets and often seek emergency food from pantries and other organizations can join Plant a Row for the Hungry. The program from the Garden Writers Association Foundation encourages community and individual gardeners to plant one extra row each season to donate to local soup kitchens or food pantries.

So, if you have plenty of space, but especially, more harvest from your garden than you can eat, consider donating to those less fortunate. And although home-grown produce lasts longer than store-bought produce, storing fruits and vegetables properly leads to less waste.

Collect and Store Vegetable and Herb Seeds

Last week, I wrote about how to gather and save wildflower seeds to disperse right away or save for the spring. It’s also possible to save seeds from some favorite vegetables in your garden. Fall is the perfect time to gather seeds from vegetables and herbs as plants mature, slow or cease producing fruits and begin to flower.

home garden harvest
Plants begin to mature soon after the big fall harvest. Letting some fruit or seed heads dry aids seed collection.

Before getting started, take a look at the seed packet or tag for the plant you want to use as your seed source. If it’s already a hybrid, your chances of reproducing the exact size and quality of plant and fruit next year could be limited; you don’t know which characteristics you’ll get from which parent plants. You’ll have better luck if you start with fruit from an heirloom or standard source plant. Another potential problem for some crops, such as corn, melons, squash and cucumbers, is cross-pollination. It depends on how closely two different varieties are planted together and whether they flower at the same time. Here’s more information on cross-pollination from Seed Savers Exchange.

Try Gathering Seeds from These Vegetables First

A few vegetables are easier than others for harvesting and saving seeds. Among these are beans, peas, peppers and tomatoes. The easiest of these is peppers. When you slice into a bell pepper or core out a green chile, you access plenty of seeds! To gather good seeds for next year, leave the pepper on the plant until it ripens fully (most likely turning red), even wrinkling. Cut the pepper open and remove the seeds, then spread them out on a plate or cookie sheet to dry completely.

Bean and pea pods should be left on the plant until they turn brown; this can take up to about four weeks past the stage when you normally would harvest the pod for eating. If the weather forecast calls for frost and the pods are not yet brown, harvest any remaining beans for eating, then pull up the plant with the brown pods and hang them in a cool, dry spot until the pods are finished browning. Then open the pods and shell the seeds.

Harvesting tomato seeds requires a little more work. Once the fruit ripens, scoop out its seeds and the gel around seeds. Put the seeds, gel and some water in a glass jar and cover it loosely. Put the jar in a warm spot in your kitchen and stop to stir or shake the mixture every day, allowing it to ferment. You will see a layer of fungus on top, but this attacks the gel and protects the seeds. Eventually, the seeds settle to the bottom. You can pour off the liquid and remove the seeds. Rinse the seeds, then let them dry. For more information on harvesting tomato seeds, see this page from the Victory Seed Company.

bell pepper and tomato seeds
Bell pepper and tomato seeds from packets don’t look that different from those still in ripened fruit. This tomato is ready for seed collection; the bell pepper is ready for eating. To gather pepper seeds, leave it on the plant longer.

Harvest Dill Seeds

One of the easiest herbs to dry is dill. You can use the dill weed in your kitchen until the plant flowers. In fact, the leaves are at peak flavor just before flowering. When the flowers emerge, let the seed heads dry on the plant, then cut the full seed head off after seeds turn brown. Hang the seed heads upside down with a paper bag loosely secured around or just under them to catch seeds as they dry and fall off.

Since the quantity of seeds you’ll gather from your own garden is small, you can use envelopes or small jars for storage. Other than that, follow the same advice as for other seeds – keep them in a cool, dry place during the winter.

dried corn herb seeds
Some seeds are easier to buy, especially lettuce. And some are just pretty!

As with flowers, I believe most vegetables and herbs are simply easier to grow from purchased seeds, especially if you have a trusted supplier. Seeds cost little, and I enjoy trying new varieties, especially to find plants suited to our shorter season. If I find an heirloom or nonhybrid that works great in our garden, however, we might be inclined to gather and save the seeds!

Favorite Easy-to-Grow Vegetable: Green Beans

I love growing green beans so much that I went a little crazy this year. I still love to grow and eat them, but please, come take some off my hands!

fresh-green-beans
These are just a few of the green beans I picked the other morning. Plenty more where those came from! And where they’re going — to friends or the freezer.

Actually, one of the reasons I love growing beans is that they are so easy to preserve. Although you can preserve them with canning, they are so darned easy to freeze that canning seems like a crazy idea unless you don’t have an extra freezer…or two.

Planting beans

This year, I planted two types of Phaseolus vulgaris: A French filet bush bean and a Blue Lake pole bean. Both are warm season plants, listing about a 58 to 60 day seed-to-maturity date. We had a really good germination rate when planting about eight days after the last frost. I planted four more beans three weeks later for a succession. Next year, I will wait a few more weeks for that second planting because all of the plants are mature right now and I have enough green beans for a small city. The alternative is fewer plants in each succession, three weeks apart. It’s just important to plant the final wave of plants so they can mature and produce before the first fall frost. I know the pole beans require room to roam, but I now prefer them to the bush plants for bean production, plant health and for gardener ergonomics.

The package recommended thinning the beans to every 4 to 6 inches. I think I will give the ones on the end a little more room next year for trellising. Beans need warm, loose, fertile soil to germinate and thrive. They have to be directly sowed, not transplanted.

Green bean care

We used an inexpensive studded metal fence post and square welded metal fencing system to support the beans. I’ve mentioned in a previous post how the mature beans, which face south, serve as shade for lettuce plants on the north side of the fence. I can still easily harvest the beans on the north side without stepping on the lettuce, at least if I am paying attention.

green beans on fence trellis
The beans run along the middle fence, with a cucumbers on the end and melons along the south fence.

Water beans regularly and early in the day from below the foliage if at all possible. Wet leaves can cause disease such as white mold. Beans are susceptible to aphids, and I’m sure I had some because I also had ants on and around mine. A fine, hard spray of water, repeated a few days later, can wash off aphids. But since you don’t want to wet the bean plant’s leaves, it’s best to spray them early in the morning on a sunny, warm day.

Harvesting and storing green beans

Harvesting green beans is one of my favorite garden activities. I think that is one reason I planted so many! I love finding a perfectly sized bean hiding under the leaves or on the other side of the fence. I have found they’re easiest to pick in early morning or late in the day when there is no sun in my eyes. It helps to look up when bending low to spot beans hiding under leaves; I hate finding one I have missed that is too mature. You can spot the mature beans by their length and the swollen, rolling shape. Pick them before they get to that point. That usually means harvesting at least twice a week; I try to pick every other day during the height of the plants’ production. I hang a bag on my arm to free up both hands so I don’t damage the stalks or smaller beans as I pull.

green beans on the stalk
These beans were hiding under a bunch of leaves, and the beans look like stalks. But when you find a handful at just the right stage, total bliss.

As I said, green beans are really easy to freeze. I rinse, then blanch and cool the beans. Most articles recommend snapping the beans before blanching and freezing, and I am sure there is a reason for this. I don’t snap before freezing, but don’t take my word for it because I am not a food safety expert. Blanching involves boiling the beans for just two minutes or so – too long makes them limp and depletes their high nutritional value. Immediately place the beans in clean ice water, then spread them out on a cookie sheet or similar tray (I line mine with paper towels). I let them sit just long enough to drain on the towels, then put them in the freezer no longer than overnight. The next day, I put them into a plastic bag and mark them with the date.

frozen green beans
Another package of beans is ready for the freezer. I like them steamed or sauteed with garlic, lemon, parmesan and pine nuts.

Apparently, frozen beans also lose some of their nutritional value after a few months in the freezer. I’ll still take the nutrition that’s left over anything I could buy in the store or yukky canned ones!