NOTES FROM REGIONAL HERB GARDENERS
Leah A. Zeldes
CHICAGO, Illinois—We’re at the height of the herbal harvest season. While individual herbs come into their peak at different periods, late summer is when most of my herbs are at their best for long-term preservation. As herbs begin to flower, the essential oils providing their scent and flavor reach their highest potency. Thus it’s the best time to harvest herbs for later use. Although I prolong the peak period by pinching off flower heads or cutting back plants, I also begin my serious harvesting and preserving now.
Washed herbs take longer to dry, and their flavor is diluted in freezing or cooking, but sometimes washing is necessary to remove insects or soil. If you must wash them, rinse quickly in cool water, being careful not to bruise the herbs. Shake off any water and then spread the plants on towels for an hour to dry thoroughly.
Freezing is one of the easiest preservation methods for culinary herbs, and compared to other preservation methods, frozen herbs taste the most like fresh herbs.
Herbs that freeze well include chervil, chives, coriander, garlic chives, mint, nasturtium, rosemary, sage, sorrel and tarragon. Frozen fresh herbs keep for two to four months.
To freeze herbs, remove the stems, chop any large leaves and spread the herbs on a jelly-roll pan lined with waxed paper or foil. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze.
When the herbs are frozen, place them in heavy-duty plastic freezer bags, pressing out air, or small glass or plastic jars, and return to the freezer. Label them carefully, including the date the herbs were frozen — plastic sandwich bags full of frozen green things are very difficult to tell apart!
To use frozen herbs, use the same amount as you would fresh. The herbs get soggy when thawed and will be easiest to incorporate into dishes while they’re still frozen.
For convenience, puree herbs such as dill, parsley and chervil in the food processor with a little water, and freeze them in ice-cube trays. Then store them in plastic bags until needed for sauces and soups.
Other herbs, such as basil and tarragon, preserve better when pureed with olive oil. Freeze in ice-cube trays or dollop onto a foil-lined tray; seal the frozen lumps in plastic bags. Then add a lump or two to any dish as it cooks for a burst of herbal flavor.
Drying is the traditional method of herb preservation, but it does change the flavor of most herbs. I like the fresher flavor of frozen herbs, but dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor than fresh ones; use one quarter to one third as much of a dried herb as you would the fresh herb. Many herbs dry well, but parsley and chervil are fairly tasteless when dried.
The simplest, most effective method of drying herbs is to gather them into small bunches with string, twist-ties or rubber bands. Hang in an arid, well-ventilated room until thoroughly dry. Temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees are best. Most herbs take a week or two to dry.
When the herbs are dry, place the whole bunches in airtight jars or tins. Keep them as whole as possible to retain the most flavor and aroma.
If you must store dried herbs in plastic bags, use only heavy-duty, non-porous freezer bags to keep essential oils from evaporating. Hard-sided containers are best. Make sure to label the containers.
Dehydrators dry herbs quickly, but unless you have a huge one, it only will do a small quantity at a time. I find that dehydrated herbs retain more color, but the air-dried ones taste better.
Herbs that freeze well include chives, coriander, mint, sorrel and tarragon.
Aspasia S. Bissas
TORONTO, Ontario—I recently became embroiled in a minor debate in an online herbal community about what makes a plant an “heirloom.” A fellow community member took umbrage at my inclusion of such common herbs as mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and wild chicory (Cichorium intybus). It was her fervent assertion that only plants whose seeds have been saved and passed down from generation to generation can be considered heirloom plants. She presented, as an example, the herb known as pokeroot (Phytolacca americana). Pokeroot grows wild in her particular area, which according to her, automatically excludes it from heirloom status. She claimed, however, that if she were to collect the seeds, then 15 years later give them to someone else who would, in turn, use the seeds to grow more pokeroot and save more seeds to be passed down, then and only then could this herb be considered an heirloom.
I countered with another example — that of dandelion. Disdained as a common weed nowadays, dandelion seeds were once carefully saved and brought to the New World by immigrants who couldn’t do without this indispensable plant. Yet it would be a very rare instance indeed for someone today to save dandelion seed. So, should dandelion be considered an heirloom plant? Perhaps a lapsed heirloom? Personally, I would consider both the pokeroot and the dandelion to be heirlooms, without any special effort at saving seeds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re Mother Nature’s heirlooms, passed down through the ages.
In truth, my fellow community member and I both are correct in our differing views of what constitutes an heirloom. After conducting further research, I discovered the term “heirloom” is interchangeable with antique, old-fashioned, heritage and historic. If the nomenclature is a tad confusing, then the definition of what makes a plant an heirloom is even more so; basically, there is no definition. A quick online search soon makes that much more clear, though various groups choose sets of guidelines to suit their purposes. Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) takes the same view as my opponent, choosing the narrow definition of a plant whose seeds are saved and passed down through generations, much like a family’s prized set of silverware. Others have a broader view of what constitutes an heirloom.
It generally can be said that heirlooms are plants that are non-hybrids, open-pollinated and can be reproduced true-to-type from seed. These plants can be annuals, perennials or biennials, unchanged from their ancestors or, in the case of cultivars, in existence for more than 50 years. Roses have their own special guidelines. According to the American Rose Society (www.ars.org), any rose in existence before 1867 is considered an heirloom.
Perhaps what makes an heirloom is not an official definition, but what it means to an individual. To me, wild herbs can be just as valuable as the oldest Bourbon rose or rarest purple tomato. They are ancient plants, unaltered by human whim. Their attributes are their own, naturally occurring.
Even if chicory can be found on every roadside, or if melilot grows wild with abandon, to me they always will be heirlooms.
PORT TOWNSEND, Washington — Moving from the Rocky Mountains to the
Pacific Northwest has been an interesting and wonderful experience. I left Wyoming on a freezing winter morning in March with plans to start planting my new garden the first warm day of spring. I arrived in Port Townsend to discover spring had arrived ahead of me! There were daffodils, primroses and crocus, plus a large assortment of plants I didn’t recognize, in glorious bloom. The slugs I had anticipated were a minor problem when compared to the five resident deer that munch their way through our neighborhood every morning, noon and evening.
I decided I needed to slow down and educate myself before planting. I had been fantasizing about growing a grand assortment of new plants, but I had no plan on how or where I wanted to plant them. I read a stack of books by Northwest gardeners and walked the neighborhoods to familiarize myself with what was growing successfully. If I discovered an interesting yard, I introduced myself to the gardener and asked questions about their plants and gardening habits. I took a class on gardening in the Northwest for newcomers. Because I had to have a garden, I planted a multitude of pots for the deck and porch. Every new lavender I encountered ended up in a pot. A strawberry pot was stuffed with a dozen different herbs, and I experimented with pots of herb and flower combinations.
My most important decision was to wait and amend the soil before doing any yard planting. Because my yard is small, I didn’t want to waste space growing grass. The “grass” around the house was mostly weeds, so there was no angst in the decision to kill it off. My husband and I laid down a layer of the packing paper used in the move over the grass. We had a mix of weed-free compost and manure delivered and spread an 8-inch layer of it over the paper. We only water if it becomes very dry, and plan to begin planting this fall. In theory, the grass will be dead and planting will be easier. I will remulch after planting.
This summer I made a sketch of our space and have taken time to learn not only the sunny and shady spots, but where the water puddles after rains and places that always seem dry. I hope to group plants according to their drought tolerance or need for supplemental watering.
While impatiently waiting to be able to plant, we are installing our paths and walkways. Because of my no-bare-earth planting policy, I am planting creeping thymes and veronicas between the pavers.
Finally, I will be ready to plant a multitude of herbs, perennials and bulbs. Because of time and money considerations, we will plant in stages. I am hoping by taking time to plan, the garden I have planted in my head will be a beautiful reality in good time.
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