By Gail Reynolds – Whether you are growing herbs outdoors for pleasure, profit, or production of homegrown flavorings for your home kitchen, the hot and sultry summertime months of July and August present a mixed bag of joys and challenges. At our Timberlakes Farm location in the Missouri Ozarks, the timeslot between mid-June to mid-August (give or take a few weeks either way, depending on the elevation and how far north or south) marks the peak season for fresh herbs.
The summer season joy for the herb gardener, of course, lies in the bountiful harvest of the luscious, aromatic and tasty leaves and leaflet-clusters which transform an ordinary food dish into a gourmet entree. The pitfalls of this season are that the temperatures are frequently very high, throwing the herb plants into the flowering and bolting stage, and there is often a lack of rain.
Unless you’re satisfied with simply eyeballing the beautiful herb flowers and blossoms instead of harvesting the lush flavor-filled leaves, “Hot” is a “Not” if you don’t come up with some harvesting maneuvers to fool Mother Nature. And since “Dry” means “Die” for most herb plants, a plan or method to supply them with regularly scheduled drinks of water is a definite necessity. In the more than two decades that we have been growing herbs outdoors and harvesting fresh herbs for both personal use and for sale to a plethora of fine-dining restaurants throughout the Midwest, we have run into a generous dose of these perplexing summertime problems.
Year after year, we’ve come up with some solutions and try to improve upon on how to beat nature at its own game. I’ll share the methods and maneuvers we’ve come up with for growing herbs outdoors and hopefully, some of them will adapt to your climate, and your herb garden or patch setting.
Water (or Lack of it)
Like most other plants in our fields (annual vegetables and edible flowers), growing herbs outdoors can suffer from the lack of sufficient rainfall from late June through the beginning of September. Some years, there will be some rain now and again. In most recent years during which our region has suffered from drought conditions, there’s been nary a drop for prolonged periods. At our place, our herbs and other produce is planted in double rows with a ditch in between the two rows for irrigation. The ditch is fairly deep and the rows are planted very close to the ditch to allow our irrigation water to reach the roots of the plants on both sides. Because our field is pretty massive and our double rows of plants very long, we pump water from a nearby pond and send that irrigation water down the ditches using flexible four-inch diameter hose outlets which feed off of a stabilized main pipe situated horizontally at the top of the series of vertical rows. I would think that for a smaller herb garden or patch, a soaker hose or standard-sized garden hose would work just fine. The main thing with this type of watering (whether done by hand or with a hose laid to the ground at the top of the double row) is to regulate the water to a fairly constant dribble and not a swift gush. The goal is to fully saturate and fill the ditches with water so that it can reach and nourish the plant roots. We found out early on that a quick water flow looked impressive at that moment, but the water ran down the ditches so fast that it really only wetted the surfaces of the ditch but didn’t do a darn thing for the plants themselves.
Regular Watering is a Must
Unlike many vegetables, which harbor a large and often deep root system and can withstand a missed watering, you’ll find that growing herbs outdoors results in herb plants that do not have a deep root system.
Several years back when we had one of our first very hot and dry summers, we learned our lesson about the water needs of growing herbs outdoors. Prior to that year, we were irrigating our herbs the same as our vegetable plants, usually once a day, in the late afternoon/evening hours and it worked just fine. That particular year, we followed the same course and the herbs, which started to droop in the mid-afternoon heat, taught us a very bitter lesson.
Now, in the absence of any (or an insufficient amount of) rainfall, we water twice daily: once in the morning and once in the late afternoon/mid evening. In addition to this, if any of the herb varieties even look like they want to droop, we dose them with water mid-day or whenever that danger-point rears its ugly little head. Hand watering can do the job quite well if you can invest enough time to ensure that the water is going well below the surface and down to the roots of the herb plants. I’ve done this before with a small raised bed herb garden I had just outside the kitchen door. After a long day’s work (outside the home or outdoors in the heat), watering your herb garden is a pleasurable, refreshing opportunity to pause and relax. It’s also a very aromatic experience, as the herbs seem to put forth their various aromas as their roots suck up the much-needed moisture.
In addition to keeping your herbs alive, watering also helps deliver nutrition from the soil to your plants. While some of the herbs can live for a while with a moderate amount of watering, their foliage tends to become brittle, woody, and lacking in flavor. A regular watering regime allows the herb foliage to flourish, and if you’re harvesting the leaves for peak-flavor, firmness, and color, this should be your goal.
As mentioned earlier, very hot weather throws the herb plant into a bolting situation. This is very simple to understand if you pretend you are a plant for a moment and will give you workable knowledge of how to get around the dilemma. The job description for herb plants is technically not to give us a flavorful food additive. The life-goal here is to reproduce. In the case of most herb plants, this means putting on a bud or blossom, which will produce seeds to be emancipated from the flower into the air, and then onto the ground to reproduce a replica of the plant from which they came.
When the hot temperatures hit the fan, the herb plants (which don’t know that you’re going to be watering them) receive nature’s alert that their time above ground may just be coming to an end. In response to this alert, they begin the budding, flowering, and seed-producing process so that they can get the job of disseminating those seeds for reproduction done in a timely manner (in other words, before they bite the dirt).
To the herb plant, this is a life or death issue, and because of that, all of the plant’s energies and nutrients (previously used to produce hardy foliage) are now spent on the production of the flower head and subsequent seeds.
While the blooms and flowers burst into a robust healthy state, the leaves become brittle and lifelesswhich is exactly what you don’t want if harvesting the leaves is your goal. If you can catch the plant just before it’s ready to bud or blossom, you have the best of both worlds because as the energy and nutrients are heading upward to producing the flower heads, the leaves are abundant with pique aroma, color, and taste.
The keys to accomplishing this are two-fold:
1. Give your herb plants regular waterings to ensure that they not only survive but continue to flourish.
2. Nip the bolting problem literally and figuratively in the bud. As long as your herb plants are being kept healthy with regular watering, you need to snip off any prospective bud, bloom, or hint of one that you see.
This is not difficult to do if you are already harvesting the top leaves or leaf-clusters from the plant on a regular basis. Chances are each of those top clusters was thinking about budding out, but you delayed that process, so the plant doesn’t have to start over in the generation of a new bloom. If you haven’t been harvesting regularly, you may just wake up one sunny hot morning and find an entire batch or row of plants suddenly in partial bloom.
It’s a 9-1-1 call and before the day’s out, it’s time to snare a pair of scissors or long-handled clippers and snip them all off. Do this by cutting well below the blooms themselves and attempt to do as thorough a job as possible.
Meanwhile, keep those plants good and moist with an additional watering so they don’t die from the shock of it all. It doesn’t hurt at all, at this point, to also give your plants a dose of the water-soluble fertilizer of your choice. Just be sure to do this at the bottom of the plants (along with your watering is best) and not with a sprinkling over the top. The reason to avoid overhead sprinkling is that the plant tops have just been cut and bruised and overhead fertilizer can (and often will) kill them.
Keeping the Harvest
For those who are growing herbs for profit and have regular customers to serve, the ample supply of fresh leaves and foliage harvested at this pre-bolting point can be packaged up and shipped out. (All herb plant varieties seem to want to play this lovely trick at about the same time.)
For the home gardener growing herbs outdoors, this generous sudden supply of fresh-cut herbs can be overwhelming and most likely not be used up fresh in a timely manner. Because harvesting herbs in this manner will be a regular weekly (or so) endeavor, simply package up the amount of fresh herbs you figure you can handle in your home cooking in a week’s time. Package fresh herbs in sealable plastic containers or bags and refrigerate them. The excess can be dried for winter use and you’ll be surprised how much you end up with at the end of the season.
Drying the Herbs
While cutting the herbs down very low (partial stems and foliage) and then hanging bundles (banded at the stem) upside down in a cool, dry place is a popular method for drying herbs, an alternative drying method has worked better for us. While I’ve used the hanging method in the past, I find it somewhat messy and not always producing a thorough drying of all elements. When you bundle up the herbs, the outer portion will dry more rapidly than the inner portion (which sometimes just rots for lack of sufficient air circulation). If you try to process the dried foliage later on into smaller bits to be stored, it’s very difficult to avoid getting some nasty hard stem pieces mixed in. Then, even though you can transfer the dried bundles to your kitchen where you can simply snip off a dried leaf now and then, the process is messy because the leaves are fairly brittle and so close together. It’s hard to get the job done without leaving a crumbly mess somewhere under the hanging bundles.
Harvesting the morsels
We only harvest the top leaves, side leaves, and leaf-clusters at the very ends of each stem or branch. These will re-generate within about a week or so if the plants are well-nourished and well-watered. Since we are in the business of marketing these fresh tips and morsels to restaurant customers, we don’t have a lot left over. We save a container or so of any extra fresh herb foliage for home use and then dry the rest.
Window Screens are Handy
We take three ordinary same-size house window screens (often available at garage sales for near-nothing). We tie one screen on top of the other at each corner with heavy string or cord, leaving one foot of space between each screen layer, then secure each corner of the third, top screen with a foot-long piece of string or cord. The top corner strings are then tied to hooks attached to the barn ceiling in an area which is dark and receives a good airflow. Visually speaking, this looks like a three-tiered hanging screen shelf hung from the barn ceiling. Once you have harvested your fresh leaves and leaf-clusters and put up the ones you’ll use fresh, take the remainder and spread them over the screen layers. The air will flow over, beneath, and through them to give them a thorough drying out and they’ll retain good color because they’re being dried in the dark. Every once in a while, ruffle up the leaves over the screen to expose all to the air. Once all leaves are thoroughly dried, unhinge the layered screen shelf from the hooks, remove the dried leaves from the screens, and temporarily place them in labeled and sealed plastic bags. Rinse the screens, let them dry out, and hang them up for the next drying go-round.
Keep the plastic bags of dried herbs in a dark place and when you have time, you can chop them down to uniform size and transfer them to labeled sealed glass jars for permanent storage in a closed cupboard, pantry, or dark place.
When you get ready to process your dried herbs into uniform tiny bits to be used for cooking, try using an ordinary colander that has uniform round holes or square slots. Fill the colander about a third-full and place a bowl or pan below it to catch the droppings. With one hand holding the colander, gently rub the dried herb leaves against the bottom of the colander and presto! You’ll have beautiful uniformly-sized dried herb morsels to use in any recipe you’d like.
Kids especially have fun at this job (they love to crunch things) and it’s a super way to have them get involved in processing their own food, especially in front of the fire on a chilly fall or winter evening when there’s nothing else for them to do and they’re bored out of their skulls.
Preserving Herbs for Gifts
One way to transform your dried herbs into gift items is to take a dried herb (say, mint or sage) or a combination of herbs (thyme, rosemary and parsley) and package them into tea bags either to be used as mixed herb packets (bouquet garni-style) in cooking or for hot tea beverages. Another way to preserve the flavor of fresh herbs is by incorporating them in herb vinegars, which come in very handy for all kinds of sauces, soups, and salad dressings, and also make attractive gift items for the holidays or at any time.
I hope this gives you the guidance you need to successfully grow herbs outdoors on your homestead! When you are ready to get started, consult a garden herbs list understand the ideal conditions and care requirements of the herbs you want to grow.
Originally published in Countryside July / August 2007 and regularly vetted for accuracy.