ATLANTA, Georgia—Here in the South, I pinch sprigs and tips of my herbs for cooking year round, but summer is the best time for a full-scale harvest. Perennial herbs such as chives and lemon balm, up and growing since February, are now at their maximum size and need a major cutting every six weeks or so, starting about April 30. With lemon balm and similar herbs, I cut off the entire top of the plant with sharp pruning shears, leaving only two to four pairs of leaves on the stems growing from the crown—and end up with a great volume of fragrant leaves for pesto, tea, or potpourri. After mid-September, I let my plants harden off for winter.
Over the years, I’ve developed a harvesting routine that saves both time and energy. The evening before the harvest, I mix a capful of liquid dish detergent with water in a quart spray bottle. I spray this mixture on the herbs, taking care to hit both sides of the leaves. Then I hose them off thoroughly with a gentle shower of clear water to remove any soil or soap residue. I cut the herbs the next morning after the dew has dried but before the heat of the sun has volatilized the essential oils. They need no further washing.
Herbs are best dried quickly in a dark place with good air circulation and low humidity: in a back bedroom or closet, even on the kitchen counter in a bowl. My attic in summer is like a slow oven. I spread a clean sheet on the floor, then lay out the herbs—still on their stems—in a single layer. In a day or two, they’re as crunchy as potato chips.
It’s faster to strip dried leaves from dried stems than it is to remove the fresh leaves individually. I put whole, dry leaves in ordinary screw-top quart mason jars, label the jars, and store them in my pantry away from sunlight. For maximum flavor, I wait to crumble the herbs until I’m ready to add them to food. Any dried herbs left over from last year are recycled in my compost pile.
For good regrowth after a harvest, I work in compost, well-rotted manure, fish emulsion, or liquid fertilizer around the base of my herbs, mulch them with wood chips, then water thoroughly. Tiny buds in the leaf axils on the remaining stalks regrow quickly as long as the plants are well watered and fertilized.
While the rest of the country worries about cold hardiness zones, we in the South consider heat tolerance as the limiting factor for the plants we can grow. Tarragon, for example, is restrained in my garden, though it grows vigorously to 4 feet and taller in its native Siberia. Although our scented pelargoniums, which sprout from the roots each spring, and our billowing hedges of fragrant rosemary are wonderful, we have an aggravating inability to grow sweet cicely and angelica to maturity. Lavender and sage rarely persist for more than a year or two, what with high temperatures, high humidity, and harmful soil organisms. I replenish these two indispensable favorites with new starts to maintain an uninterrupted supply.
Plants recommended for full sun in the North need a little shelter from the tremendous heat buildup in the late afternoon; they do best in partial shade here. All planting stops in summer, and my forays outside take place during early morning hours or in the golden hour after sundown. Even my huge albino catfish in the lake don’t eat their dinner until dusk.
Precipitation during the past four summers has been extreme: one year too rainy (tropical downpours at four o’clock every afternoon) and the next too dry (seven weeks at a stretch with no rain at all). When my underground water system was temporarily decommissioned last summer by a falling branch that broke off a faucet, I experienced Life without Hoses. I had to carry water in a watering can from the house or the pond, carefully rationing it out by cupfuls to the most recently planted, desperate plants. I learned how much better it is to plant here in fall or early spring, allowing the root systems to become well established before the heat stress of summertime, and to mulch drought-tolerant herbs to conserve moisture around the root systems. For now, I think I’ll go into the air conditioning and write up a plant order for September or October shipping.