The drying days of summer.

bee on zinnia flower

Summertime is all about colourful flowers and fresh vegetables… oh, what to do with all those zucchinis, but don’t forget the herbs! A diverse group of plants, herbs are generally defined as any plants with savoury or aromatic properties that can be used for food, flavouring, medicine, or fragrances. Some are tricky to grow and require expert knowledge to use them safely, but there are many that are so easy to grow and use, that they should be a mainstay in any garden.

But don’t relegate them to a separate area of the garden. Tucking them in amongst your vegetables places them in the line of sight every time you fill a basket with ingredients for supper. Not only will you remember to grab a handful on the way back to the kitchen, they’ll also attract many beneficial insects into the garden. I have little pockets at the ends of each vegetable bed for my perennial herbs and annuals such as basil, parsley and dill are planted amongst the vegetables. Calendula and chamomile self-seed so I allow them to grow where they choose.

Calendula and tomatoes
Calendula growing cheek-to-cheek with tomatoes, where they ensure good pollination.

As the summer progresses, the untidy habits of citronella, oregano, mint and other unruly friends, may take a bit of controlling, but let them sprawl across the path and they’ll smell heavenly every time you brush past.

Many herbs can be dried for use in the winter. Choose a dry day to pick your herbs, after the dew has dried but before the sun gets hot. If you’re preserving the leaves of herbs for medicinal use, they should be picked before the plant flowers. This is when the medicinal properties are at their peak. For culinary use in the kitchen, keep picking throughout the summer until the plant starts to bolt or die back for winter. In fact the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.

Traditionally, herbs were dried by tying the stems in bundles and hanging them upside down.  A warm, dry spot, out of direct sunlight is best; avoid the kitchen. Wrap muslin or a paper bag with several holes around the bundle, and tie it at the neck. This is the way I dried my herbs in the past, but I usually forgot all about them, remembering them months later, covered in dust and cobwebs. If you’re better organized than me and have a suitable drying spot then go ahead and use this method.

sage and parsley
Sage and parsley picked for drying.

These days I use a  dehydrator and last week I filled the trays with sage. Other favourites of mine are parsley, oregano, thyme, mint, citronella balm, nettles, and chamomile.

Click here to see details of the dehydrator I use to dry herbs and vegetables.

With the exception of parsley, these are all hardy perennials, so there’s no need to re-plant each year. Other than needing full sun, these plants are easy to grow, trouble free, and drought resistant so if you don’t have space or time to grow anything else, start with a few herbs.  They’re easy to start from seeds, and you won’t be disappointed; you’ll discover there’s a world of difference between home-grown and store-bought herbs.

I usually buy my herb seeds from Richters Herbs. Here are some of the varieties that I grow:

  • Italian Parsley – dark green, glossy leaves, with a strong flavour. Annual.
  • Garden Sage – The main culinary variety of sage. Sage tea is effective for sore throats. Hardy perennial.
  • Greek Oregano – the true oregano collected wild in the mountains of Greece, with excellent flavour. Hardy perennial.
  • Apple Mint – with a distinct minty apple taste, it lends itself to apple mint jelly, as well as teas that will calm an upset stomach and soothe body and soul. Hardy perennial.
  • Spearmint – an indispensable culinary herb, spearmint is the most popular mint in Greek cooking. Hardy perennial.
  • Chocolate Mint – for teas with the fragrance of peppermint overlaid with something ‘chocolatey’ which adds up to a striking ‘peppermint patty’ scent. Hardy perennial. All mints grow best in part shade.
  • English Thyme – the most popular variety of thyme used for culinary purposes. Hardy perennial.
  • Citronella Balm –  for teas. Citronella is the most fragrant variety available with double the oil content of other varieties of lemon balm. Hardy perennial.
  • Stinging Nettles – for nettle tea. Hardy perennial.
  • German Chamomile – The most prolific producer of flowers, used for chamomile tea. Annual that self-seeds easily.
  • Erfurter Orange Calendula – grown for calendula salve, I choose this variety as it’s said to possess superior medicinal action. Annual that self-seeds easily.

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