by Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
You may have heard that herbs thrive on neglect. While it is true growing these flavorful plants is pretty easy, you definitely want to pay attention to your herb garden. Once they are in the ground and growing, most herbs are quickly ready for harvesting, unlike most other vegetables that need time to ripen and mature.
The key to keeping herbs growing is to harvest often. Leaves are the parts of popular herbs most often used in cooking. Cutting them back a bit throughout the growing season encourages healthy growth and an attractive shape. It keeps most producing through the growing season.
When to Harvest Herbs
When it comes to herbs, harvesting equals pruning. It is often done to encourage growth, especially with fast-growing annual herbs like basil, dill, and cilantro. Snipping new growth causes these plants to branch and produce more foliage. The same applies to slower-growing perennial herbs like thyme, sage, and rosemary. There are several good practices to consider when choosing the best time to harvest.
Just because an herb is an annual plant doesn’t mean you must take the entire herb to harvest the leaves. In fact, you should never remove a whole, healthy plant until the final harvest, right before a killing frost. Pinching or snipping stems and leaves stimulates the growth of more branches and leaves. So as soon as annual herbs are mature enough to withstand a bit of cutting, it’s time to begin pruning for shape and harvesting the foliage you remove. Your first harvest may be small, but you will fill a basket before the season ends if you keep consistency.
Perennial herbs tend to develop woody stems as they mature. Your harvesting efforts during the growing season focus on the plant’s new, tender foliage, so avoid cutting into the woody parts. New shoots do not grow from wood, and doing this will limit your harvest. You can begin harvesting taller stems when they leaf out with 2-3″ inches of foliage.
Most herbs are harvested from the top or outsides of the plant. Dill, cilantro, and parsley leaves and stems can also be gathered from the bottom of the central stem. Lower leaves on these plants tend to brown out as they age. Sometimes pinching out the top of the main stem delays bolting, going to flower and seed early. Remember that some herbs, especially annuals, prefer cooler weather and have a limited lifespan with summer’s arrival.
The perennial chive is harvested by cutting leaves at the base. This is one herb that won’t branch out. The chive is a bulb that multiplies rapidly beneath the soil. Harvest chives by snipping leaves outside the plant, leaving the center intact.
Tip – Harvest herbs when they are dry. They are rich in essential oils and are most fragrant between mid-morning and early afternoon. Cutting wet foliage results in the loss of flavor and texture and can promote fungal diseases and rot.
Harvesting Stems with Leaves
Edible herbs harvested for their leaves include annuals and perennials like basil, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, dill, tarragon, savory, cilantro chives, parsley, mint, and more.
Choose a Stem
- Look for stems with several sets of lush green leaves and green stems.
- Choosing a branch from anywhere on the plant is okay as long as you don’t take more than 1/3 of the entire plant at any cutting.
- Remember, you are also pruning for growth, so consider how you want to shape the herb for the most pleasing look.
Cut or Pinch Above a Node
- Make a slightly angled cut about 1/4″ inch above a leaf node using snippers.
- Use your thumb and index finger to pinch tender stems and remove unwanted buds and flowers.
- Don’t panic if you see a flower. As long as it hasn’t gone to seed, the stem will continue to grow. Harvest stems and dispose of the flower or pinch off just the flower.
Harvest for Shape
- Herbs grow fast! Continue harvesting all the leaves and stems until your herb plant has an even look with a nicely rounded shape.
- Checking up on your herbs every few days is ideal.
End of Season Harvesting
- You may harvest an entire annual herb at the end of the growing season or before the first frost. The plant can be pulled up with roots, or you can simply cut it down to ground level. Although some annual herbs reseed readily, none regrow from the same root next year.
- Perennial herbs can benefit from a hard pruning of two-thirds of the plant after the first frost or in early spring. Now is the time to cut back woody parts to reshape the plant. Pruning and harvesting immature plants in the fall direct more energy into developing a solid root system. For mature perennials with established roots, hard pruning in spring stimulates growth.
Free Garden Classes offered by Watters Garden Center
We go deep into growing better. Check out this spring’s class selection offered every Saturday @ 9:30 am.
June 17 – Perennial Plants that Thrive in Heat
July 8 – Gardening for Newcomers
Until next week, I’ll be helping gardeners harvest more herbs here at Watters Garden Center.