The Herb Gardener's Handbook - Growing, Harvesting, Using & Preserving Herbs
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
Chronicles & Confessions of the Veggie Patch
An unfolding adventure tale of amateur vegetable gardening, peasant style.
-With detailed steps for establishing your own organic vegetable garden.
Series Post 6
I leaned against the kitchen counter and waited for the verdict.
“This is really good!” – they all chorused.
“I really like it,” said Mom while Dad and Pap nodded.
I made a face as they continued to eat the soup. “Yeah... I really do, too,” I agreed slowly.
“Why do you sound so sad about it?” Mom laughed.
I wasn’t sad. I was bewildered. Just what is in a regular can of tomato soup that was so different from the fresh ingredients I had used for this homemade recipe?
I have never been able to gag down tomato soup. I had only made it that afternoon because Max and I were feeding our nephews grilled cheese sandwiches and I wanted to use the basil. Although the recipe called for canned diced tomatoes, the other ingredients in the soup were fresh, and the basil was from the first herb harvest of my life.
I supposed I might now be experiencing the sentiment of gardeners that store-bought produce does not compare to the fresh, home-grown version. I was truly surprised how much I enjoyed eating that tomato soup – a recipe I had snagged online when looking up what to do with basil. I wondered why I hadn’t tried growing fresh herbs sooner! It was much easier than I had thought.
A few more meals later, lots of videos, research and pruning, I began to write this post. I now bring you a one-stop resource for all things herb. I wrote this as though writing for the "me" in the days before any herb-knowledge. My hope is that it will be exactly what you need.
From seed and back again, and all in-between, below is the Herb Gardener's Handbook. Learn how to be a caretaker of God’s gifts the herbs! Please share it, save it, and reference it whenever you want!
What Are Herbs?
Herbs. Vs. Spices
The Most Common Cooking Herbs
Growing Herbs from Seeds or Cuttings
Caring for the Plants
Using Herbs in the Kitchen Preservation Methods
Storing Dried Herbs The Winter Season
Harvesting Seeds for New Plants
The Scoop on Perfume
A Note about Herbal Medicine
What are Herbs?
“Herbs” refers to any plants with parts (leaves, etc.) that are used in food, medicine or perfume. Herbs can be perennials (die back in winter and return in spring), biennials (life cycle is two years, flowering the second) or annuals (life cycle is one year). Some perennial herbs are shrubs, like Rosemary, and some are trees. These would not be considered “botanical herbs/herbaceous plants,” like other herbs, since they have woody stems. Some herb plants are used to produce culinary "herbs," or to produce both "herbs" and "spices," such as dill weed (herb) and dill seed (spice).
Herbs vs. Spices
In general, herbs and spices are distinguished by which parts of the plant are used. Culinary herbs are primarily produced from the plant’s leafy green or flowering parts, whereas spices are often produced from other parts, such as seeds, bark, roots and fruits.
Note: When referring to herbs in a medicinal sense, any parts of the plant are called “herbs” (not “spices”), including leaves, roots, flowers, seeds, root bark, inner bark, resin (sticky substance exuded from trees and some plants, such as pine sap) and pericarp (fleshy layers of the fruit surrounding the seed).
Most Common Cooking Herbs
Below is a compilation of some of the most common culinary herbs and spices.
*Pastas, pesto, salads, and soups
*Flavoring, teas and desserts
*Leaves in salads and sauces; flowers as garnishes or salad toppings
Cilantro (the Spanish word)/Coriander (from the French word)
*Latin cuisine; or in Asian cuisine, roots are used to make Thai curry pastes.
Coriander Seeds (spice – the plant is just called “Coriander” once it has gone to seed)
*Subtle sweet-and-sour flavor; both sweet and savory dishes
*Beverages, desserts, entrees, side dishes
*Bitter, strong taste; often accompanies cinnamon
Dill (yields both herbs and spices)
*A pleasant anise-like flavor to seafood, soups, salads and sauces; dill pickling
Fennel (yields both herbs and spices)
*Slightly sweet, little-bit-spicy anise flavor; sometimes used as a vegetable
*Light spice, mellow sweetness; often used in Asian cuisines
*Sweet flavor; teas, cookies, cupcakes, scones, syrups and dressings
*Flavor meats; use in teas and baking
*Zesty lemon flavor
*Milder flavor than Greek Oregano; soups
*Pastas, pizza toppings, sauces, soups, and stews
*Curly Parsley for garnish; Flat-Leaf for flavoring pasta sauces and soups
*Flavor pork, lamb, and poultry
*Use in soups, stews, and poultry stuffings
*Spicy flavor; use in egg, chicken, and fish dishes, or in béarnaise sauce.
*Add mild tang to fish, pork, poultry and vegetables
*Slightly bitter flavor, cousin of ginger, often in Indian and Caribbean cuisine
*Used as a substitute for sugar
As with all plants, there are several varieties of each herb to choose from when deciding what to grow. For example, parsley has some main varieties, including Curly and Flat-Leaf. Curly is the most common. It is versatile and easy to grow. However, there are also several Curly varieties! - such as, “Forest Green” or “Extra Curled Dwarf.” Flat-Leaf varieties include “Titan,” “Italian Flat Leaf” and “Giant of Italy.” Each plant has its own unique look and taste, and each tolerates different growing conditions.
Growing Herbs from Seeds or Cuttings
If you do not purchase plants from the nursery, you can either start from seed or use cuttings from existing plants. Some herbs are more easily started from seed than others, such as basil, parsley and cilantro. Others are best started from cuttings or purchased as plants, such as thyme and rosemary. (A quick online search of your herb of interest will give you this information.)
Steps for Starting from Seed
1) Use potting mix, and be sure that containers have excellent drainage.
Tip: Consider using a seed-starting potting mix, which is lighter. If it is difficult for seeds to sprout due to heavy soil, they may rot before germinating.
Tip: Covering the soil lightly with milled sphagnum moss (not peat moss) may help prevent some disease issues, as it has a natural fungicide in it.
Tip: If you intend to keep plants in containers rather than transplant in the garden, use larger containers from the start. Some plants, such as parsley, don’t like being transplanted. (Research the size of container recommended for each plant.)
2) Cover the containers with plastic bags (keeping the seeds moist) and place in a warm area out of direct sunlight. As soon as seeds germinate, remove the plastic.
3) Once seeds have germinated, herbs now need sunlight. A south-facing window is best. Consider using grow lights if sunlight is a problem.
Tip: Consider making or purchasing a liquid organic fertilizer (see Post 1) that will help keep herb seedlings strong. After germination, apply a diluted solution weekly for best results.
Tip: If you plan to transplant herbs into the garden, “harden off” before doing so. “Hardening off” means moving plants outdoors for a portion of the day to gradually get them used to outdoor conditions - direct sunlight, dry air and cold nights.
Steps for Starting from Cuttings
The following process does not work for some annual herbs, such as parsley, cilantro and dill – which should be grown from seed. It does work well for soft-stemmed herbs, such as basil, peppermint and stevia. For woody herbs, such as rosemary, sage, and thyme, be sure to take cuttings from new, green growth. Old, brown stems do not sprout roots well. (Research the herb in question to know if a cutting can be rooted in water as below.)
1) Cut a stem 4-6 inches long at an angle just below a leaf “node” (the place on a stem where leaves grow). Do not take cuttings from herbs that are flowering, as the plant’s energy will go into forming flowers rather than roots.
2) Remove any leaves from the lower portions of the stem to prevent them from being submerged in water and rotting. Snip off any flowers, buds or large leaves (so energy goes into root-production), being careful not to damage the stem.
3) Stand the cutting in a glass of water. The topmost leaves need to have good airflow. No leaves should be submerged.
Tip: Use filtered or spring water. Distilled water lacks important trace minerals, and chlorinated water can hurt plant tissues.
4) Place the jar in a warm place with indirect sunlight.
5) Change the water at least every other day to prevent algae and bacteria.
6) Once roots appear (a few days to a couple of weeks), you can snip off leaves as you need them. As the plant grows, transfer it to a bigger jar, or plant it in soil.
Tip: If planting in soil, help roots to toughen by dropping small pebbles onto them each day for about a week.
7) Once the plant is established, it needs sunlight.
Caring for Plants
From seed to plant, herbs need good drainage. It’s best to water seedlings by pouring water into a tray under the container and letting it soak into the soil, then drain the tray. Water from above when herbs become larger.
When seedlings begin to grow leaves, pinching will help them continue producing well. “Pinching” means removing the main stem just above the node to cause two new stems to begin growing. This pruning encourages branching and will develop a stout, bushy plant.
Seedlings & Mature Plants
Culinary herbs require sunshine and well-drained soil to grow best. Avoid over watering. They like soil that is moist but not soggy.
Herbs love to be pruned often. (See “Harvesting Herbs” below.)
If growing in containers indoors, be warned that indoors plants can still attract some insects, including aphids, white flies and mealy bugs. Wash leaves on occasion with water to remove them. Soap sprays will deter them. (See Post 5 for a write up about soap and bugs.)
It’s important to harvest/prune regularly. Snip off whole stems rather than individual leaves to encourage bushy, new growth, but never take more than one third of a single plant at once.
“Bolting” is when a plant begins to grow quickly and flower (go to seed). When plants enter this phase, they stop producing leaves. This often happens when weather becomes very warm. If bolting begins, it cannot be reversed. Therefore, pruning before flowering occurs will keep herbs producing for longer. Bolting is inevitable though, so growers might plant several of the same herb at different times as a way to have fresh leaves for an extended period.
For some herbs, like dill, it’s necessary to harvest the whole plant.
(When it doubt, a quick online search will reveal details for how a particular herb should be harvested.)
Using Herbs in the Kitchen
This is the fun part!
Fresh or dried herbs are used for flavoring and garnishing food. The possibilities are endless. Basil is most often associated with Mediterranean foods and tomato sauce. Parsley is used in sauces and salads and sprinkled as a garnish. Cilantro is a staple of Latin and Asian cooking… and on it goes.
If unsure how to prepare or use particular fresh herbs, find out how the culinary experts do it by looking up quick videos. There are so many herbs that no one source gives details about all of them. So it takes a little bit of work to gain understanding about the herbs you choose to work with, but not too much. Don't let yourself feel overwhelmed; it's easy once you start.
(As for me, after all these years, I’ve finally discovered a purpose for kitchen shears that actually has to do with the kitchen! I’m quickly and easily snipping fresh “herb” leaves into foods.)
Note: To use dried herbs in recipes that call for fresh ones, use about half the amount. Oils in dried herbs are more concentrated.
In general, to use herbs in teas, pour boiling water over a teaspoon to a tablespoon of the dried herb (double amount for fresh), or more to taste, and steep for 3-5 minutes. Steeping for up to 10-20 minutes will create a stronger and sometimes more bitter-tasting herbal infusion.
Note: The other form of herbal tea is called a “decoction.” This means boiling less-delicate seeds, roots or stems and simmering for up to an hour, with the intent to extract the most and best “medicinal compounds” possible. This is sometimes recommended in Herbal Medicine. (See “A Note on Herbal Medicine” below.)
Tip: For a cold drink instead, place herb sprigs in water and infuse for 6 hours or more in the refrigerator. This is also the way to make fruit-infused water - using fruit instead of herbs.
Infused Syrups and Honeys
Infuse dried herbs in sugar syrups or honey to add unique flavors to sweeteners. Rose petals, mint, anise, chamomile and lavender are popular choices. Use one to 2 tablespoons of herbs per cup of honey. Infuse for up to two weeks, since it takes longer for honeys to absorb flavoring. Strain when desired flavor is achieved.
Tip: Herbs (such as thyme or oregano) can be used to make homemade cough syrup by infusing them in honey.
Flavored oils such as chive or basil can be used as cooking oils.
The best oils to use for herbal infusions are pure plant oils such as olive, sunflower or almond. Make small batches, so they can be used before going rancid. Start with 1 ounce of finely chopped dried herbs to 10 ounces of oil.
Among other methods, a sun-infusion method exists (not often recommended due to botulism risk), as well as a direct-heat method. The latter requires heating oil and herbs in a double-boiler or perhaps glass jar in a pot of water (materials should not directly contact bottom of pot). Simmer on low heat to taste (about 30 minutes to create lightly flavored oil). Strain, cool, bottle and label with date and contents. Store in the refrigerator.
For olive oil with herbs for dipping, mix herbs in your oil and serve, or allow to sit for a few hours beforehand. Discard unused herbal oil afterward.
Note: When infusing fresh herbs into another substance, there is a risk of botulism (bacterial food poisoning from improperly preserved foods). Unless something is done to stop the process, fresh herbs, vegetables or meats continue their process of decay even after being frozen or canned. Therefore, if infusing fresh herbs, it is recommended to use the infused substance on the same day or shortly after.
Infused Vinegars & Alcohol
When herbs are infused in vodka, it is usually for medicinal purposes and called a “tincture,” however, you can also infuse different types of vinegars, vodka or wines for uniquely flavored cooking and drinks. Herbal wines, vinegars and vodka (for mixed drinks) are all made the same way. All recipes generally follow the same procedure as below (perhaps with minor differences).
Use about 4 ounces by weight of dried chopped or ground herbs to 1 pint of vodka, wine or any type of vinegar. Add ingredients to a glass jar and seal tightly. Place in a warm place for two to six weeks, shaking every day or so. Strain the plant material with cheesecloth. Store out of direct sunlight.
Tip: Port, sherry, Madeira, mead and sparkling wine are good candidates for herbal wines.
Dried herbs are safe from bacteria, mold and yeast, and will remain potent for six to 12 months.
Note: Air circulation is the key factor for all herb drying.
To prepare herbs for preservation, harvest in mid-morning after any dew has dried and before newly developed essential oils have been evaporated by the sun. Remove old, dead, diseased or wilted leaves. Rinse in cool water and pat dry.
The following are herb drying techniques. (Herbs are dry when the leaves crumble or stems break when bent.)
Sturdy herbs like parsley, rosemary, sage, summer savory, and thyme are the easiest to air dry. Tie the herbs into small bundles and hang up to dry in a space that is hot and dry and has an air current. For better color and flavor, choose indoors rather than outdoors.
Tender-leaf herbs with high moisture content, such as basil, peppermint, oregano and tarragon, will mold easily if they do not dry quickly. Hang small bundles of these within paper bags tied closed. Be sure the location has air circulation. Punch holes in the sides of the bags. As leave and seeds dry, they may fall to the bottom of the bags.
Ideal conditions for using the sun’s heat to dry herbs are 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 60 percent humidity or less. Be careful not to over-expose herbs to direct sunlight, which causes them to bleach. Using drying screens or a solar food dryer are options for this method. These tools can be DIY projects.
A home dehydrator can be used with nearly all herbs but is especially good for those with high moisture content, which can mold if not dried quickly.
Home food dehydrators fall into two categories—those with stack-able trays or boxes with removable shelves.
First, remove long stems from herb sprigs.
Next, spread leaves on shelves (or trays) in the dehydrator. Remove any trays not being used to help increase air circulation.
Finally, dry herbs on the lowest setting. A suggested temperature is 95 F to 115 F, but in conditions of high humidity, use 125 F. Typical drying time is 1-4 hours.
Unfortunately, since herbs need to be dried at about 100 degrees, most ovens cannot accommodate. Also, some ovens don’t have vents for air circulation. Yet, oven drying can still be a good way to dry herbs such as bay leaf, mints, or sage. If using this method, spread on a baking sheet, and bake at about 100 degrees for 1-4 hours.
Another method of oven drying is for gas ovens. Place the leaves on a paper towel to absorb moisture. Do not allow the leaves to touch. Cover with another layer of paper towel and another layer of leaves. Repeat for up to five layers. A gas pilot light gives off enough heat for overnight drying without even turning on the oven. The leaves will be flat and retain color.
Leave sprigs to dry for a few days in a paper towel (to absorb moisture) or a brown paper bag in a frost-free refrigerator. (Do not put in a plastic bag, which will not allow moisture to escape.)
Some herbs, although they can also be dried, retain their flavor better if frozen, including basil, chives, cilantro, lemongrass, peppermint and parsley. However, keep in mind that most plant foods are not the same after freezing (they're mushier) and are best added to dishes like soups.
The following are methods for freezing.
For hardier herbs like rosemary, dill, thyme and sage, they can be frozen raw with leaves remaining on stems. Clean and dry sprigs, then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and flash freeze. Once frozen, transfer to labeled freezer bags. They can be removed a sprig at a time as needed.
Ice Cube Method
Chop herbs as desired. Put herbs into ice-cube trays, add water and freeze. Keep the cubes in a labeled freezer bag. These can be added to cooked soups, stews and sauces. The ice cube melts quickly and the herb is added to the cooking meal.
Oil-Based Ice Cube Method
Puree the leaves in a food processor with oil to make an oil-based paste. Freeze paste in ice-cube trays, the same way as above, but do not add water.
Flat-leafed herbs can be stored with this method. Remove stems. Roll into bundles. Compress bundles in bottom of freezer bags. Roll bag around bundles and secure. Rolled herbs can be easily sliced into meals.
It is best to store dried herbs as whole leaves, if possible, to preserve aroma and flavor. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry location. (Light or warmth cause deterioration.) A good practice is to label the container with the date and name of the herb. Use dried herbs within six months to one year.
Tip: When using multiple herbs, add the herb’s scientific name to