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Drying: An Easy Way to Preserve Your Herbs

A Jar of dried spice leaves.

Photo courtesy of monicore / pixabay

Leaves

If you’re harvesting leaves, the best time to pick is before the plant begins to flower.

Flowers
If you’re harvesting flowers, harvest the blossoms just before they are in full bloom.

Seeds
If you’re harvesting seeds, the seeds should remain on the plant until they are fully mature and begin to dry.

 

Here are three easy methods for drying your newly harvested herbs.

Air drying
Air drying is the easiest method of drying herbs and can be done in several ways. One way is to air dry in bundles. First, gather the stems in a loose bundle. You want good air circulation throughout and around the bundle. Next, hang them stem side up in an area that is warm, dry, dust- free and out of direct sunlight. Finally, your herbs are ready when they are dry and

crumbly to the touch. This can take anywhere from four days or

up to two weeks if temperatures are on the cooler side.

Drying seeds? Place a paper bag loosely over the bundle to catch any seeds that might fall.

If you are working with a smaller quantity or have plants with delicate leaves or flowers you can place them on a drying rack or screen. This can be a piece of cheesecloth, a window screen or a brown paper bag with holes punched in it. Just like drying in bundles you want good air circulation and to keep the herbs warm, dry and out of direct sunlight.

Preserving herbs by tying bundles of spices to hang from a beam.

Photo courtesy of pixabay

Dehydrating
Using an electric food dehydrator is a great way to quickly dry your herbs, which can be helpful if you live in an area with high humidity. Keeping the dehydrator on the lowest temperature setting, follow the instructions on your dehydrator for how to place the leaves and recommended drying times.

Oven Drying
For oven drying, begin by placing individual leaves on a lined baking sheet. Set your oven to its lowest temperature and keep a close eye on them. You don’t want them to dry out too quickly.

Now that your herbs are thoroughly dry you want to store them properly to maintain their quality and taste. You can store your herbs in jars (glass or plastic) with tight-fitting lids or in well-sealed plastic bags. Make sure to label your containers with the herbs name and date. Keep your herbs in a cool, dark place to maintain freshness.

4 Tip for Keeping Your Basil Productive


Photo of basil leaves.

by Sam Doll

Fresh basil is one of the true treats of the garden. This sweet and savory herb can be used in anything from a fresh Caprese salad, a lovely pesto, or even chopped up as a flavor bomb on grilled meats and veggies!

However, it can be really hard to keep your basil productive, lush, and tasty throughout the summer. If you aren’t careful, your beautiful basil can become scraggly, short-lived, and bitter!

Don’t worry though. With these tips, whether it is classic sweet basil or spicy Thai basil you will have bushy, verdant basil all season long.

1.      Sun is Basil’s Friend

Basil originated from subtropical areas of ancient India. Due to its roots, it loves a lot of sun and a lot of water. Make sure your basil is getting at least 6-8 hours of full sun every day. If you are keeping your basil in a container indoors, make sure that it is near a south-facing window.

Check out our guide to growing windowsill basil!

2.      Water is Basil’s 2nd Best Friend

Basil likes to be well hydrated, so make sure that you are frequently watering and that the soil is well drained. There is no set schedule you should be watering during, just keep an eye on the soil and water when it first appears dry.

3.      The More You Take, the More the Plant Gives

If left to its own devices, the basil plant will grow tall and spindly. Unfortunately, a tall skinny plant does not provide many leaves for you to munch on. To make the basil bushy and bountiful, you need to consistently prune and harvest from the plant.

The key to harvesting basil is to not just pick off the leaves. You want to cut or pinch off the leaves at the stem, right above a set of two leaves or nodes, like bellow. These nodes will create two separate branches, so make sure to leave at least one or two of these below the trim spot on the stem. If you keep this up every one to two weeks, you will have a massive, bushy basil plant by late summer!

Photo of basil plant showing where to trim the stem.

Here is a helpful video guide to show you how to prune your basil

4.      Flowers are Your Enemy

When a leafy plant decides to produce seeds, it is known as bolting. Bolting, which often happens when the weather turns hot, is when the plant expects a period of high heat and little water, so it tries to produce seeds as quickly as possible. You can tell when your plant is bolting because it will have a period of rapid growth and flower production.

Once a basil plant goes to seed, the plant will start to wither away, and the remaining foliage will turn bitter and can take on an anise, or liquorice, flavor. If you let your basil get away from you, this can reduce your harvest season by months.

The easiest way to manage this is to cut off or pinch off any flower structures as soon as they appear. This will prevent the plant from bolting and, like with pruning, it will encourage the plant to branch off from where you trimmed it, making your plant even more productive and bushy.

 

If you want to get a little wild, try our Lemon Basil! It’s great in summer dishes and cocktails!

 

Cool Off Fast! – Agua Fresca

by Sandy Swegel

My basic remedy for hot July days is to bend over and run the hose over my head, but a more attractive and effective way to cool off is to make an Agua Fresca (refreshing water), the great fruit or vegetable drink of Mexico and other southern regions. I’ve been making Agua Frescas all weekend.

The Agua Fresca I first enjoyed from my friend Alfredo’s family was cucumber and lime juice.  Then one day we had watermelon Agua Fresca and I was in heaven.  Both were very cooling and refreshing.  What intrigued me most is that these were two of the foods my acupuncturist recommended to me.  TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) has diagnoses of “heat” in the body.  I often get this diagnosis and my doctor suggests three vegetables/fruits that are especially cooling to the body from a TCM energetic point of view…not just temperature:  Cucumber, celery and watermelon.  Turns out that ancient wisdom from TCM is the same as ancient wisdom from Mexican families. “Gotta love it” as a friend says.

There are lots of recipes on the web, but the concept is simple:

Blender 6 cups water 1 pound of Fruit or vegetable:  cucumber, watermelon are traditional. Also try melon, raspberries, strawberries, celery, herbs like lemon balm or basil or mint. Sugar (to taste) 1/4  to 1/2 cup.  Lime to taste. Run the blender to pulverize the vegetables or fruit and lime.  Strain if needed. Pour over ice cubes and add mint or cucumber slice or lime slice garnish.

Variations: Slushy:  Use only half the water. Run the blender a second time filled with ice cubes to get a slushy drink. Sorbet:  Make an agua fresca and put it in the ice cream maker for 20 minutes to make sorbet. Alcohol:  Rum, tequila or vodka added make excellent drinks or sorbets!

Stay Cool and Be Happy.

Photo credits:

http://www.williams-sonoma.com/recipe/raspberry-mint-agua-fresca.html

Basil and Chili: A Love Affair

by Sandy Swegel

Do you like chili peppers?  The plants are super easy to grow and tolerate a lot of droughts and benign neglect in the garden. The only problem I’ve ever had with peppers is that the seeds take forever to germinate. One year my seeds still hadn’t germinated for three weeks, so I gave up and bought plants…. only to have healthy seedlings come up the next week.  I decided I just hadn’t given the seedlings enough heat.

But new research this year taught me something new about seed germination that made me think maybe my pepper seedlings were just lonely.  Turns out that if you grow basil near peppers, the pepper seeds sprout faster and grow healthier plants than if you just grow peppers alone. Companion planting scientifically documented.  A controlled scientific study this year thinks it’s because the basil plants emit sound vibrations near the peppers.  We have no idea yet if the basil is just whispering encouraging words or playing a wild marimba tune.  But the chili plants come out and dance to the music.

Practically, here’s what I’m going to try.  I’m going to start my basil seeds in the tray next to the pepper seeds.  Basil always germinates first for me so I’m hoping they’ll come up and then peppers will come up faster.  I’ll plant both in the garden together too.  And finally, next August…I’ll fix a great salsa with basil and chili and eat them together. It’s a fiesta!

 Photo Credits and More Info:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/plants-talk-to-each-other-nanoscale-sound-waves-grow_n_3229021.html
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130507-talking-chili-plant-communication-science/

Grow Your Own Food: Best Return on Investment.

by Sandy Swegel

There are so many vegetables you can grow in your garden. If only there was enough time. If you have limited time or space for your garden, think about what is the best return on your investment of time and money as well as the best outcome of flavor and nutrition.  Three things I grow even if I don’t have time to grow anything else are:

Salad greens. Loose-leaf lettuces, spinach, kale, chard, and arugula are up and ready to eat in as little as three weeks after planting.  You can pick what you need for tonight’s salad, and let the plant continue to grow for another night’s salad.  Baby greens and mixed lettuces cost $6 per pound add up at the grocery…and they aren’t necessarily that fresh…sometimes they’ve been traveling in a semi-trailer from California for a week already.  Grow your own greens to get maximum nutrition and taste for a couple of bucks worth of seed.

Tomatoes.  You’ve tasted one of those grocery store tomatoes that look perfect and taste like absolutely nothing?  Enough said. You have to grow tomatoes because homegrown tomatoes taste so much better than anything you can buy.  But tomatoes have also gotten really expensive.  One or two tomato plants easily save you a couple hundred dollars if you regularly eat tomatoes in your salads and sandwiches.  Cherry tomato plants are especially prolific.

Herbs. Fresh herbs are the best way to give oomph to your cooking.  They taste so much better than dried herbs and can often star in a simple dish …such as a basil leaves served with mozzarella and tomato.  Many herbs are perennial (like thyme and oregano) and only have to be planted once.  Annual herbs such as basil and dill produce lots and lots of flavorful leaves.

It’s always fun to grow your own food and everything there is to grow, but if you’re strapped for time or space, let the local farmers grow the long-season crops like winter squash, the root crops like onions and carrots, or the water-hogging melons.  You’ll be enjoying your own magnificent home-grown healthful salads all season.

How to Become a Great Gardener

by Sandy Swegel

I garden and landscape for a living.  I have accumulated a massive amount of information about the best ways to grow things, to take care of the soil, to encourage native plants and bees, etc.  When I’m talking to people, they naturally assume I have a degree in horticulture or botany.  So it surprises people to learn I have a BA in History and an MA in Theology. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because my friend’s kids are all starting college and trying to decide what to major in.  I had no idea when I was 18 that I would one day garden for a living.  But studying history taught me to think and analyze and reflect. And studying theology taught me the world is a mystery and it’s important to learn to observe and notice and simply “be” with nature.

So I encourage everyone to become self-taught gardening experts. You don’t have to go to school or even study.  You just need to start noticing what’s going on in the natural world. No teacher can tell you as much as your own personal experience will.  If you’re just a little systematic about it, you can be a much better gardener at the end of this year. Here’s some homework to learn how to become a great gardener:

Journal. Keeping a garden journal of what you do, what you plant and what the weather is like is a great way to learn.  You may not know why what you are writing is important (when you planted, when plants started, days without rain, birds and insects observed, etc) but in hindsight, you can figure out when to plant so there are flowers for hummingbirds, or how much rain it takes to have big fungal outbreaks.  Even just being able to read the seed packet you glued into your journal when it’s time to harvest will be a big help.  Keep notes. Understand them later.

Pick a specialty this season. One year I decided to learn herbs.  I bought seeds and plants of every herb I could think of and grew them in a tiny 4 x 6-foot garden. I learned tansy is a big space hog that kinda stinks and crowds out the other plants, that cilantro and dill practically grow themselves, and that ginger root from the grocery store grows beautiful plants and tons of free ginger.

Take pictures of everything that intrigues you. Take shots of plants in other people’s yards, wildflowers on walks, blooming containers, weird plants you’ve never seen before. The photos will show you what you like and what really interests you.

Observe. Just look and notice everywhere you go. Ask questions of gardeners. Wonder about the weather. Notice creepy crawly things or buzzing flying things.  Again. Just take notice with a sense of wonder. You’ll make sense of it eventually.

One thing I’ve noticed about our BBB Seed readers:  you notice the natural world. You stand in awe at beautiful landscapes, tiny birds in nests, and clever ways people arrange flowers in a shabby chic decoration.  Use these great powers of observation and really teach yourself something new this year.

Iced Tea

by Sandy Swegel

I learned to think outside the box yesterday…outside the tea box that is.  All this summer heat has me drinking lots of iced tea trying to cool down.  I traditionally get my tea from a box.  Boulder tea company Celestial Seasonings makes an awesome variety of herb teas, especially the zingers, that are full of flavor.  Luzianne Tea from the grocery story is my tea of choice for making the Southern Sweet Tea I grew up with. (1 quart of water, 4 black tea bags, 1 c sugar, lemons). But my clever gardening friend Barbara walked me through the garden yesterday, introducing me to a new use for plants I was already growing.

Citrus flavors are the most obvious to use. I had tried some of the lemony herbs before…but anything with lime or lemon in its name is a great choice. I quickly learned to smell the foliage to get an idea if it would be tasty.  If I didn’t have Barbara with me, I might have googled the herb first to make sure it was edible.

For our iced tea party, I made several teas from single ingredients…a lemon verbena tea, a mint tea, and a basil tea.  We then tried the flavors alone and mixed some together.  Teas with a combination of herbs had more interest and depth but my favorite ended up being the lemon verbena with a splash of mint!

Citrus Flavors Lemon Basil, Cinnamon Basil, Lemon Verbena, Lemon Balm, Lemon Grass

Mint flavors Chocolate Mint, Peppermint, Garden variety mint, Monarda fistula (minty with a light citrus tone).

Other herbs Anise, Fennel

Edible flowers I made the Elderflower and Queen Anne’s Lace teas a few weeks back when they were still in young bloom. Elderflowers Queen Anne’s Lace Rose Hips

Extras to add Sweetener: honey, agave, liquid stevia or sugar. Citrus slices: lemons, limes, oranges Ginger slivers Mint sprigs

The basic recipe is about the same for all the teas. We’re making the tea for flavor not for medicinal use so it won’t be as strong as herbal concoctions.  Barbara just puts her herbs in a jar, covers with hot tap water and lets it sit overnight.  I don’t plan ahead as well, so I made simple hot teas and then refrigerated and later filled with ice cubes.

Basic Herbal Iced Tea Recipe 1 T leaves per cup water Boiling water. Steep 5 minutes Strain. I made the teas double strength to compensate for the ice cubes melting.

We set the teas out on the table with honey and sliced lemons and slivers of ginger and let everyone mix and match to find their favorite.

Go forth and experiment!

Eggplant Pizza

by Michael Scott of Eagle Rock Backyard Farms

Ingredients:

5 cups heirloom tomatoes, chopped 2 large eggplants, sliced into 1 inch discs 1/4 cup onion, sliced 1 large red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, seeded and chopped 1 cup fresh mozzarella cheese, grated 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated 4 or 5 large garlic cloves 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped Salt & pepper to taste

Directions: Lay sliced eggplant onto a paper towel and salt lightly. Place a couple more paper towels on top of the eggplant. This will help draw some of the moisture from the eggplant and will make it a little more firm instead of soggy.

With a food processor, finely diced tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and garlic. In a large skillet heat olive oil over medium heat. Add diced tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, garlic, balsamic vinegar, red pepper flakes, and salt & pepper to taste. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes until sauce cooks down and becomes thick.

While you are cooking the sauce down, heat oven to 350. Place eggplant onto a cookie sheet single layer and bake for 25 to 35 minutes until eggplant is slightly brown.

Top each eggplant with sauce, grated mozzarella, and parmesan cheese. You can either place the eggplant pizzas back in the oven until cheese melts or under the broiler to give your cheese a little crispness. This is how I prefer them. Sprinkle with chopped basil and Enjoy!

Seeds in the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Now that we’re at the peak of summer, you’ll start to notice that you’re likely to have more seeds in the garden than it has flowers.  The heat and long days of summer have stimulated seed formation in most plants and this is a good thing.  Don’t just deadhead the seeds and compost them… there are lots you can do with flowers gone to seed.

Collect the seeds to grow again.

Once seedheads have dried a bit (turned brown) and the seeds are loose, you can collect the seed…either to save in paper envelopes for next year or to spread around the garden now where you’d like them to grow next.  When collecting seeds to grow next year, pick the healthiest plants with the best color. You probably know that some plants are hybrid and don’t necessarily come true from seed…but sometimes they do, so I like to risk it.  This year we let a squash grow in the compost pile even though everybody knows squash don’t come true, but it was cute…and now we’ve been eating great acorn squash a month earlier than the garden’s because the plant didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be good.

Eat the seeds.

This is especially yummy before the seeds mature when they are still green and tender.  Green herb seeds and cool season vegetable seeds are little flavor powerhouses.  It’s time to nibble on broccoli flowers or herb seeds – cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, even basil.  All the flax in my wildflower patch has gone to seed.  I’m gathering them to sprout and either put on salads or dehydrate into crackers.

Gather the dry seeds for birdseed in winter

Sunflower and flax seeds are some of the seeds that birds like, so I gather extra dry seed to put out in January for the chickadees. I leave most of the seed on the ground for them… but sometimes it’s hard for a tiny bird to find seeds through a foot of snow.  Besides, if I put the seeds in the bird feeder, I (and the cats) get the pleasure of watching through the kitchen window.

Let the seeds be.

You can grow perennial beds of annuals.  There’s a phrase to get your head around.  The plants don’t overwinter but by letting the seeds drop, they replant themselves.  Let the cilantro and dill and parsley and leeks seed themselves around and you never have to start those seeds again.  The little seedlings will produce good plants for you this fall and some will wait for Spring to grow.  I love it when Nature does all the work.