Fall Is Not the Time to Be Timid in the Herb Garden

By Conrad Richter

Canadian herb gardeners are a timid bunch. They like the idea of herbs growing in the garden but when it comes time to do something useful with those herbs they sheepishly confide that they haven’t a clue what to do.

What are they afraid of? Getting arrested? I know grow-ops have been in the news a lot, but we are not talking about that herb that you smoke.

Actually, fall is the time to be bold just like the changing colours. Get out and harvest herbs for drying such as basil, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme. Grab any sharp object such as a kitchen knife or scissors, or a machete if one’s handy, and hack down the best looking branches. Haul them to an airy place for drying but keep them out of the sun. Sunlight is the lifeblood of living plants, but it’s the enemy of dry herbs, causing them to turn grey and lifeless.

Some people like to tie the branches into bunches and hang them for drying. Very picturesque and aromatic. But I prefer to dry herbs the way my mother taught me: strip the leaves off the biggest stems and place them on screens that allow the air to circulate. A sweater dryer works really well. When the leaves are crisp to the touch, they are ready for storage. Resist the temptation of crushing the leaves into a powder - smells nice, but you lose flavour with every aromatic whiff that escapes to the air. Stash in air-tight containers kept in a cool, dark cupboard.

Indiscriminate clear cutting and drying is unwise. Some herbs do not dry well and will quickly lose their colour, aroma and flavour. These herbs, such chives, parsley, cilantro, tarragon, are better turned into homemade herbal vinegars and oils, into pestos (yes, you can make pesto out of herbs besides basil), or frozen. Freezing herbs is easy, just chop them finely and freeze with water in ice cube trays. Or pack small bunches in tin foil and toss in the freezer.

Fall is not only about hacking down your herbs, it is about planting for next year too. Herbs can, and should, be planted in the fall. Many of the popular herbs are perfectly hardy in our area and if you plant now they will be ready for harvest earlier next year. If you don’t already have a garlic chives, or a french tarragon, or lemon carpet thyme, this is the time to run down to your local herb nursery to rectify that dereliction.

Some people think if they are going to plant anything in the fall it has to be bulbs - you know, tulips, narcissi, daffodils and the like. But the herbally inclined among us think of the fall planting herbal bulbs, garlic, shallots, and even saffron.

Sure supermarket garlic comes from California, Mexico and China, but did you know that Ontario grows some of the best garlic around? Garlic is one of the hardiest herbs known, and fall is the time to plant it, right up until the ground freezes. And nowadays it comes in designer varieties such as ‘Music’, ‘Purple Trillium’, and ‘Inchelium Red’. ‘Susanville’ garlic is my favourite because it’s mild and excellent for roasting. Straight from the oven you can spread it effortlessly on French bread or tomato slices. The shallot, garlic’s near relative, botanically and gastronomically, is a hardy bulb that comes in equally intriguing varieties, including the ‘Frog’s Leg’ variety that will have you jumping for more.
 


Uxbridge Cosmos, September 29, 2005. Conrad Richter is president of Richters Herbs.
©2005 Conrad Richter

 
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