With the onset of fall in my USDA zone 5, it is time to harvest herbs to enjoy gifts from my garden year-round.
Drying herbs inspires me to create herbal vinegars, herbal wreaths, scented potpourri, a fragrant sachet or an herbal bath bag. These make unique holiday host or hostess gifts. If your garden lacks herbs, you can find herbs at roadside stands and at country markets.
Air-drying is one method to preserve herbs. I just hang the herbs upside down in a cool, dark closet secured
with a rubber band and tied with string until they feel crisp to the touch. Then store in airtight jars. A garden shed or attic are good places, too, for drying herbs, placed out of direct sunlight.
To have dried flower heads for potpourri, spread the flower heads out in a single layer on a screen in a cool dark place. Once dry, place flower heads in an airtight glass container until you are ready to make potpourri.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a favorite culinary herb to dry. For best fragrance gather herbs early in the day when the heat of the day will not rob herbs of essential oils. After spreading the leaves on an ovenproof tray, I place it the oven set at 150 degrees for a few minutes. Rosemary needles are sharp, so run them through the food processor after drying. Store in an airtight container to use for flavoring meats, fish or poultry or for a brewed tea.
Dry lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) to put in bath bags and sachets. I place dried lavender blossoms in a muslin bag, (cut muslin with pinking shears to make the bag), tie it with ribbon and place it under the tub faucet so the water takes on the scent of lavender. For a sachet, I add dried lavender, mint and thyme and fill a pretty handkerchief tied with a lavender ribbon. To preserve the scent, I add a drop or two of essential oils of lavender to dried herbs in the sachet.
When I think of mint, tea comes to mind. I prefer apple mint (M. x gracilis) and orange mint (M. x piperita var. citrata). Place the dried mint leaves in an airtight tin. Pour boiling water over an ounce of the dried leaves and let them steep for 10 minutes and strain. I enjoy drinking the tea at dusk when there is a winter sunset.
Freezing is another way to preserve herbs. Freeze herbs in ice cube trays and drop a few ice cubes into soups or stews. Rosebuds, tiny marigolds and borage flowers frozen in ice cubes make a pretty garnish in a punch bowl or in drinks.
Herbal vinegars count on herbs for flavor. Search unique bottles at kitchen shops, flea markets, yard sales and antique shops to decant the herbs. Add olive oil to herb vinegars and use vinegars as salad dressings and marinades for meat, vegetables and fish.
Only use fresh herbs and flowers that have not been sprayed with any harmful chemicals.
My recipe for: Herbal Vinegar
- Wash handfuls of a favorite herb. Place in a clean glass bottle or jar and fill the container with white distilled vinegar. • Set the container in the sun and steep for a week or two.
- Strain to remove old leaves and sediment.
- Pour the vinegar through a funnel into smaller clear glass bottles. Place fresh sprigs of the herb in each bottle for a decorative touch and extra freshness. (Use sterilized bottles run through the dishwasher).
- Store herbal vinegars in a cool cupboard out of direct sunlight.
- I like to add garlic, peppercorns or spices such as stick cinnamon, cloves or allspice to the vinegars for flavor and presentation.
- Herbal vinegars make nice host or hostess gifts. For holidays, I tie a bright ribbon at the neck of the bottle, a sprig of holly and a tag with the name of the vinegar.
Carole McCray is an award-winning garden and lifestyle writer and artist who lives, writes gardens and paints in the scenic Laurel Highlands in southwestern Pennsylvania. She won the 2003 Garden Writers Award of Achievement for her article on Native Seeds published in The Christian Science Monitor Newspaper.