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Note to Self: Dry the Basil Next Year

January 11, 2010

December 14, 2008

The garden has entered its winter slumber in fits and starts. Now, as much of the edible landscape has finally succumbed to temps below freezing and wicked wind chills, I’ve had a chance to dip into the jars of dried oregano and thyme and whatever else I was smart enough to cut and dry. I have had ample opportunity to miss basil. What is a red curry with eggplant and peppers without the licorice flavor of thai basil? A pause to reflect and plan is required.

Herbs are given prime real estate in my gardens. Annual and perennial plants become established, then do what well-watered, manure-fed plants do best – produce and reproduce. Lots of green leaves lead to loads of flowers that later spill seeds to ensure the next season’s crop. Other herbs spread by root runners and take over whole sections of garden.

Despite warnings from other, more seasoned gardeners, I have befriended the invasive mint, after learning firsthand of its important role in Middle Eastern salads and sandwiches, where they take the place of our ubiqitous and comparitively nutrient-poor lettuce. As any falafel, fattoush and tabbouleh lover knows, parsley is equally treasured as a food, unlike in Western kitchens where it is relegated to seasoning or garnish. I have a stand of spearmint planted long ago among the day lillies and lily of the valley. That mint has found itself most often used in the mohitos favored by summer visitors. The peppermint goes into salads, sandwiches and teas, and the little chocolate mint is a mystery.

Our garden herbs also include oregano, sage, parsley, thyme, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm, fennel, dill, bay leaf, Thai and Italian basil, tarragon and chives, both garlic and regular. Dried herbs are the savings bank of the summer’s garden.I cut at least twice, sometimes more depending on the herb. Oregano is best mowed down by the shears before it flowers. After producing buds, it will be more peppery-tasting. Clever folks might grab some buds and leaves and flavor a nice bottle of olive oil. After the initial cut, it will re-grow to be harvested at least once more.

Most herbs follow the same rule. Cut them down or collect leaves, as with basil, before they flower. Once inside, small bundles that are not so tight as to constrict air flow around the leaves can be hung from the rafters in a dry loft or attic. I have had equal success laying them out on newspaper, as long as the cats can’t get to them. Once dry, strip the leaves from the stems over paper and funnel them into herb jars recycled from the spice rack.

Yes, you can dry herbs quickly in the microwave, but I wouldn’t say painlessly. Remember the term ‘essential oils’? I tried drying various herbs in the microwave many years ago. I spread them on paper towels and carefully nuked them, only to find that after two or three rounds on the same towels, the paper would catch fire in the microwave. Not the kind of excitement I need in the kitchen. The oils from the herbs leeched out onto the towels as they spun, leading to a scenario not good for the kitchen nor the herb.

I found a newspaper folded up on top of the fridge the other day. I had completely forgotten about the thyme gathered this summer from an overgrown potted plant on the deck. The dried herb was still in perfect condition and I quickly made use of it with mushrooms and onions destined for a supporting role with steak. The rest filled a small jar. I thanked myself for putting it away, despite the unconventional method of preserving it for winter use.

No discussion of gardening literature would be complete without mention of the row-altering classic How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons.

If only I had seized the opportunity to stash away some basil while the plants were heavy with lush green and purple leaves. While ice cube trays filled with pesto provide a quick and easy serving or two of well-dressed pasta, winter has made me keenly aware of the wisdom in drying basil as I do the other herbs. Sometimes gardening know-how takes years to sink in. Too many recipes require basil, and the stuff that comes chopped in a jar from the supermarket doesn’t cut it. This is my note to self: dry the basil next year. I don’t know if the flavor holds up after being dried, but it is worth a try. Maybe chop it first.

For more information on the growing habits, history, culinary and medicinal uses of garden herbs, check out Rodale Institute’s gardener’s Bible, Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, or their more recent Rodale’s Complete Guide to Organic Gardening, which includes a new glossy photo section on garden pests and diseases of plants. For a more specific text, look into Rodale Organic Gardening Basics Volume 5; Herbs. Or find a copy of Botanica’s Organic Gardening, which offers great photos and interesting history of herbs. No discussion of gardening literature would be complete without mention of the row-altering classic How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons, whose philosophy is based on the biointensive (sometimes called ‘biodynamic’) gardening lessons of Alan Chadwick. Jeavons now heads Ecology Action, and his books can create a quiet little revolution in your garden.

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