Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Got Any Thyme?

There’s an herb factory in my basement. Valuable herbs. I’ve often wondered why spices and herbs at the market cost so much. Growing and drying your own is truly simple, requires no special equipment and nothing but time. When I see my herbs all lined up hanging on my basement clothesline, I feel like I just stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie. Very content in my ability to survive off the land. Maybe you have a little pot of basil growing in your window sill or a patch of mint gone out of control in your garden. Either way, you can easily dry those herbs and save them to use all fall and winter.

The best time to cut down your herbs for drying is just before the flowers bloom. That said, you can actually harvest them anytime. Doing it just before the flowers only ensure you get the strongest oils, but those oils are there all the time. You can cut as much as two-thirds of your plant back. It won’t mind at all and will probably come back even bigger. Enlist your kids in this endeavor. Show them how if you run your hands over an herb plant you can smell it’s scent on your hands. Teach them to identify the spices they know on the plants they see growing. If you don’t have your own, stop by a garden center and have a little touch and smell lesson. My daughter loves to identify herbs wherever we go. She now grows a few of her own herbs, like catnip and chocolate mint.

There’s nothing to drying herbs, really. After you’ve cut back all the plant you want, wash them, shake out as much water as you can and gather them up in a bunch with a rubber band or some string and hang them to dry. There are lots of ways to do this. Hanging them is good because all the oil runs down and concentrates in the leaves. I hang mine from a clothesline I rigged up in my basement near the dehumidifier (speeds the process). When I’m organized and thinking ahead, I save up enough paper bags to cover the plants as they hang so that any leaves that fall off are not lost. But sometimes I just hang them the way they are because they look so cool and I’m too lazy to track down more bags. I dry so much that I can afford to lose a few leaves.

When the herbs are dry (I wait about a week or so or whenever I remember, but they may be ready much sooner), I strip the leaves and crumble them over a large bowl or bag and then fill recycled spice jars and odd little jars I’ve picked up at the Goodwill. You can buy pretty glass jars and fill them to give away as gifts too. A jar of “thyme” is a clever gift for a busy friend. Be sure to check your jars frequently for the first few weeks after you have filled them in case some moisture gathers on the lids. If moisture appears, they aren’t dry enough and you’ll need to the herbs out and dry them on a screen. Any moisture left in your herbs will cause them to mold.

Dried herbs are stronger and more concentrated than fresh herbs, so you never need as much as you think. I use my herbs in all my cooking. This year I’m hoping to make some tea. So I’m growing chamomile, sweet marjoram, mint, and stevia for that endeavor. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Here’s a list of some of the herbs we grow and dry:
Basil (several varieties – my favorite is thai basil)

You can also freeze herbs. This seems pretty soggy and messy to me, but I know people who do it. One clever way to do it is to chop up your herbs with some water and fill ice cube trays. When they are frozen, drop them in to Ziploc bags and store in your freezer. Then when you need a particular herb, you can just pull out a cube and pop it in to your sauce or soup. Clever idea. Never tried it. Maybe this year I will.

A word about growing herbs. Most prefer lots of sun, but aren’t too picky about soil. Many are perennial, so you only have to plant them once. If you grow from seed, it’s a good idea to start them inside so that you can recognize them when they are growing. Many look a little like weeds, especially when they are first starting out. Good perennial herbs in our area include: oregano, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, and mint. Others grow easily as annuals – parsley, cilantro, basil, and dill. If you plant mint – contain it in a pot or barrel. It will take over your entire garden and you will fight it for years to come. I know of what I speak and fight the constant battle with my patch of mint. My husband would happily Round-up the entire mess, but I persist. Oregano is another that can get big and out of hand, so keep after it. Parsley sometimes grows well into the winter if it is protected. Cilantro goes quickly to seed, so use it as soon as you can and plant succession plantings of it so it’s fresh when it’s time to make salsa. Tarragon can become hugely tall – plant it in the back of your garden.

Growing herbs is easy, huh? A sunny window is all you need to get started. Save small jars and paper bags. Find some clothesline and some clothes pins. Plant a few herbs and hook your self up. There’s no need to pay top dollar for a jar of spices again.

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