Drying, freezing and indoor growing can maintain fresh seasoning supply
By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer
Through December, Troy Huffaker and his wife, Diann, of DTL Herbs Ltd., are teaching herb-related courses at the Macomb MSU Extension offices in the VerKuilen Building, 21885 Dunham in Clinton Township. Upcoming classes, which are $7 apiece and run 1-2:30 p.m., include:
• Preparing Your Herb Garden for Winter, Oct. 5.
• Holiday Cooking with Herbs, Nov. 2.
• Herbal Holiday Gifts, Dec. 7.
Pre-registration is required. For more information or to register, call (586) 469-6440. The Huffakers, who sell all-natural dry rubs, herbal jellies and vinegars, seasoning blends and more, also maintain a blog at http://dtlherbsltd.blogspot.com.
For more information from the MSU Extension, visit http://msue.anr.msu.edu/programs/mi_fresh.
For more information on Fogler’s Greenhouse, visit www.foglersgreenhouse.com or call (248) 652-3614.
Troy Huffaker got the idea, he admits with a sheepish laugh, from do-it-yourself guru Martha Stewart.
On the center of his family’s kitchen table in Gibralter sits a pot planted with six herbs, a pair of scissors stationed beside it. During meals, diners are encouraged to reach over, snip a bit off and season their food as desired.
There’s just something about fresh herbs that far surpasses store-bought counterparts, and it’s a luxury experts say people don’t have to relinquish with autumn’s arrival.
Most outdoor herbs can be brought indoors in pots, so long as they’re given sufficient sunlight — at least six hours daily, said Huffaker, a master gardener and composter, and owner of DTL Herbs Ltd.
“If you have a good, sunny windowsill, that’s the very best place to keep them,” he said.
If that much natural light isn’t available, artificial lighting will suffice. Huffaker said contraptions like AeroGardens, which provide timed light and nutrient alerts, can be fun, but aren’t essential, as even the newly standard compact fluorescent light bulbs will provide sufficient ultraviolet rays for plants.
Perennial herbs usually produce faithfully all winter long, but annuals, like basil and dill, often reach their limit by the end of the calendar year, he said. They’re “not genetically programmed to live forever,” he explained, and as they weaken, they become susceptible to disease.
Kathy Miller, retail manager for Fogler’s Greenhouse in Rochester, said nursing indoor herbs through winter’s shortest daylight periods is the biggest challenge.
“Getting them through December is probably the hardest part,” she said, advising growers not to over-fertilize. She said she’s had the most success with basil, parsley and chives.
Though technically a perennial, rosemary doesn’t “overwinter” outdoors well in Michigan — even though it can grow several feet tall elsewhere — so it’s actually advisable to bring it indoors, transplanting it in stages, said Huffaker.
While the weather’s still mild, dig rosemary out of the garden and put it in a pot, but keep it outdoors in the same place, allowing it to “toughen up” before shifting it inside — into a room with good air circulation — just prior to the first frost, he said.
“It will survive a frost, but there’s no point of putting it through that trauma, that shock, if you’re going to bring it inside anyway,” he said.
Miller said now is “a great time” to harvest herbs. Don’t be hesitant: As counterintuitive as it may feel, it’s critical to encourage growth, she said.
“The more you cut them back, the happier they are,” she said. “That’s what keeps them producing.”
According to Eileen Haraminac, supervising extension educator for the MSU Extension, there are short- and long-term ways to preserve the season’s bounty for anyone adverse to indoor growing, or with too large a garden to feasibly tote everything indoors.
Some herbs, like parsley and cilantro, will tolerate temporary storage in the refrigerator. She recommends cutting such herbs, placing them in a small vase with water, covering them with a plastic baggie before putting them in the fridge.
Rosemary, thyme and chives can be wrapped in a paper towel and stashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, said Haraminac. Keep them only slightly damp; too much moisture will encourage decay, she added.
Basil, she warned, “does not like to be refrigerated” — it often blackens. Put cut stems in a vase, but leave it on the kitchen counter uncovered, plucking leaves as needed and changing the water periodically, she said.
Herbs should be used within a week in all of those circumstances. For lengthier storage, Haraminac suggested drying: Snip them, bind the stems with a tie and hang them in a dry place out of the sun.
She suspends them over a paper bag to facilitate easy collection once the leaves start to fall off, but she warned that air circulation is needed to prevent molding, especially for herbs with high moisture content, like basil, oregano and tarragon. Once dried, rub them together to crumble them and store in small bags or jars.
Freezing also works for some herbs. Harvest, wash and pat dry the leaves, then put them in the freezer. Once they’re frozen, store them in airtight containers or bags, she said.
Another option: Chop fresh herbs into ice cube trays, put a few leaves in each slot, fill the tray halfway with water and press the leaves down to discourage floating, she said. Once the cubes are nearly frozen, finish filling the tray with water. The herbs are then easily accessible for soups and stews.
Fall also is prime time to think ahead, as it’s “pretty equal” to spring in terms of its suitability for planting perennial herbs, said Miller.
Spring may offer a better selection at nurseries and the chance to grow herbs from seed, she said, but bargains abound in fall, and you can safely plant until mid-October in a typical year. To encourage root establishment, keep the herbs sufficiently watered — about 1-2 inches of water a week total from either irrigation or rainfall, she added.
Garlic also should be planted now to ensure a quality crop come spring, said Huffaker. Plant cloves twice as deep as they are tall, about 6 inches apart, he said, and once the ground is frozen, mulch them heavily to prevent thawing.
In general, to prep an herb garden for winter, it’s ideal to apply a top dressing of about 3 inches of “good, clean, quality compost,” he said.
Oregano, marjoram, French thyme, mint and other herbaceous perennial herbs should be harvested and cut down to the ground each autumn, as the new growth will sprout from the roots the following spring, said Huffaker.
Woody perennial herbs, such as sage, lavender and German thyme — whose new growth comes from the previous year’s plant — should just be harvested and pruned in the fall, he said.
Miller said annuals should survive until the first frost and can be pulled out afterward.