Thursday, September 17, 2015

Saving the Summer: Collecting Seeds and Drying Herbs

Strawflowers
Strawflowers
This is my favorite time of year. I was born at the autumnal equinox, so each September brings me to the successful completion of another of my many years and the beginning of a new one. It is a time of hard work and satisfaction, harvesting what we have grown and planning for an even better harvest next year. It is a time of great color: the red of ripe tomatoes and chili peppers, the yellow of squash and aspen leaves, the orange of pumpkins and chrysanthemums, the purple of asters and eggplants. It's no wonder we want to preserve that color as long as we can, even by drying these colorful strawflowers.

Orange Poppies
Orange Poppies
Another way to preserve that color is to save the seeds of this year's brightest flowers to plant in new places for next spring. Many annuals self-seed; that is, they drop ripe seeds around themselves before they die. These seedlings come up in the same place ― and often in unexpected places — the following year. To gather such seeds, you need to place bags over the flower heads before the seeds fully mature. I'm not a great admirer of plastic, but I must admit that the self-sealing snack and sandwich bags are a great help for this, saving the time and effort it takes to tie on paper bags and being waterproof besides. We start saving the seeds of our poppies this way in late spring. This year we were able to offer seeds of orange, red, pink, peach and white poppies at the farmers' markets. We hope to have an even greater variety next year.

Black-eyed Susans
Black-eyed Susans, going to seed
Be aware that flowers grown from commercial seeds or bought as greenhouse plants may be hybrids. Their seeds may not produce flowers that are identical to the ones that produced them! This is not always a bad thing. You can get some interesting new varieties this way. Sometimes such flowers will revert to their wild ancestors, which are probably better for the environment. We are using more and more native wildflower seeds for ground cover and filling bare areas in the gardens.

Sunflower Seed-Heads
Sunflower Seed-Heads
Several herbs have seeds that may be used in cooking. While our poppies are not the ones commercially grown for the seeds you buy at the supermarket, we can use some from the prolific orange poppies in this way. Dill seed is wonderful for pickling; harvest he ripe seeds for drying. If we let our cilantro mature completely and produce seeds, they are the same ones you buy as coriander seeds. Bag them and remove the entire seed heads. Nasturtiums, which we grow for their red, orange, and yellow edible flowers and the peppery leaves we add to salads (the pickled flower buds are also an inexpensive substitute for capers), often produce a nice crop of seeds that can even be grown attractively in hanging baskets over the winter. Sunflower seeds can be salted for snacks or used as birdseed.

Spearmint, strung to air dry
Spearmint, strung to air dry
We have not had a dehydrator very long and are still exploring its capacities for drying herbs. We started by air-drying our herbs, an easy process which you can do if you have a light, airy space where you can hang bunches of plants, tied together with string, upside-down for a few days. Herbs with strong odors and flavors, like peppermint and spearmint (Mentha species), are probably best dried this way. DO NOT dry herbs in a garage: the fumes and particulates from gasoline and motor oil will ruin them. Air-drying is appropriate for anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana), dill (Anethum graveolens), oregano (Origanum vulgare), sage (Salvia officinalis) and thyme (Thymus species). Thyme, however, is best dried hung inside paper bags. I've used the scientific names here because there are so many different common names in many languages for these plants. “Officinalis” indicates herbs used for healing properties. “Vulgare” just means “common”, not anything naughty. And I almost forgot catnip (Nepeta cataria) for your cat. Our cat, Katana, would never forgive me for that!

Annake's dehydrator
Annake's dehydrator
Herbs best dried in a dehydrator include: sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), bergamot ― also called bee balm and Oswego tea (Monarda didyma), cilantro/coriander (Coriandrum sativum), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), and sage (Salvia officinalis). Lemon balm, oregano, and thyme should be dried with the fruit leather insert in the dehydrator. I have just included herbs we grow in the garden or greenhouse. As we acquire new ones and learn more about the dehydrator, I will update you with new information from time to time.

Herbs ready for oven curing
Herbs ready for oven curing
Although they may appear completely dry, herbs (air-dried ones especially) may not be. To avoid problems like mildew, it may be best to do a final “cure”. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread the sprigs of herbs on aluminum foil. Heat for no more than 10 minutes (13 for sage). Store in an airtight container — a jar with a screw-on cap or a sealed plastic bag. You can store as sprigs or separate leaves. Or you can crumble the leaves by rubbing them between your hands over an open bowl before sealing them in a container. When cooking with dried herbs, use only ¼ to ½ of the amount you would use of the fresh herbs. The dried ones are much stronger. It is a good idea to start with a small amount, taste the result, and add more if needed. Otherwise your “culinary delight” might turn out to be a “culinary disaster”. This is true about the commercial dried herbs bought at the supermarket, as well.

Chives in bloom
Chives in bloom
Unfortunately, some of my favorite herbs don't dry well. These herbs should be frozen in ice cubes or mixed with butter and frozen (thaw and use as an herb butter). Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), which I would grow for its lovely flowers even if I didn't eat it, is one of these herbs. Others include: sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), borage (Borago officinalis) and tarragon (Artemesia dranunculus). Sprigs of rosemary and thyme may be frozen on baking sheets and stored in air-tight jars.



Savor the summer,






Annake's spice rack
Annake's spice rack, first of a planned two...


 Creative Commons LicenseThis post by Annake's Garden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.