Each year in early to mid-spring, my perennial herbs start putting on huge amounts of new growth. In order to keep those plants tame, make them bushier, keep evergreens from becoming woody, and delay premature flowering, harvesting quite a bit of that early growth is necessary.
It seems counter intuitive to harvest heavily when plants are just getting growing for the season. However if you think about it, now while conditions for growth are good, plants have the best chance to recover before summer heat, insect pests, and less rain start causing stress. They also have lots of time to put on new leaves, collect sun and develop deeper, broader reaching roots before winter.
Harvest Spring Herbs Fearlessly
So, if you are new to harvesting perennial herbs, do so fearlessly in spring! You can cut back 30% of your second year herbs, or those that you buy mature from the garden center, in one go. Then, once the plant recovers and begins growing you can harvest intermittently until flowering.
As of today (April 11), in my climate, I’ve started cutting bunches of rosemary, thyme, several mints, and oregano. I also have some perennial spices in the greenhouse that I have been harvesting leaves from. These include allspice and bay laurel leaves. (Allspice is grown commercially for its berries. But, at home the delicious leaves can be used in cooking just like bay laurel or added to tea blends).
I have also started pruning plants like lavender and true hyssop that are grown primarily for their flower buds. By doing this now, I ensure even more flowers as a result of plants branching in response to early pruning.
Harvesting and Pruning Flowering Herbs
Whether you are pruning or harvesting, the process is the same. You want to cut back the top few inches into just a bit of the old growth or right above it. This will spur new growth without risking the health of the plant. Aim to cut just about 1/5th -1/4th of an inch above the last set of leaf nodes before your cut.
Extend Fresh Herb Life
Some of those cut herbs you can save to use fresh. Wrap them in a moist paper towel and put them in your crisper to keep them fresh. Or put the bottom part of the stems in a shallow pan of water and stand them up in the fridge. Just remove a few leaves at the bottom to keep the water from becoming moldy. Change the water every day or two to keep it fresh.
Start New Plants
Incidentally, if you want to start new plants from your cuttings, just leave the fresh herbs in water on your counter. As long as you harvest the entire stem, not just the leaves, many spring harvested herbs will easily grow roots in water.
Change the water daily since it loses freshness faster at room temperature. Once you have roots, replant in the garden or a pot.
Dry Herbs Easily
for herbs you can’t use right away, dry them. Tie herbs in small bunches and hang them in protected area out of direct sunlight. Or, use my favorite method.
Spread a bamboo mat (like those used to roll sushi) over your oven racks and lay herbs flat on the mat. If you’re oven has lit pilot, it will be plenty dry and warm in there to speed up the process. If not, then turn on your oven light to generate extra heat.
When herbs are dry, break the leaves into cooking sized bits in a paper bag. Pick out large stems. Then store the rest in an airtight container. After a few weeks of storing, the aroma of your dried herbs will intensify. That’s when they’re ready to use to make your own herb and spice blends.
If you cut the peelings off your fresh ginger, dry those on your bamboo mat to use as powdered ginger for your baking and other needs. No reason to waste the best part!
Herbs for All Seasons
If you harvest your perennial herbs fresh in spring and preserve them using simple drying and storing techniques, you’ll have a year-round supply with very little work. There is nothing like the crisp, clean flavor of lemon thyme or the savory scents of sage and rosemary in the deep of winter. Savor the flavor of spring anytime with your homegrown preserved herbs!