Enjoy herbs this summer

Published 12:09 am Sunday, May 22, 2011

To be honest, our best herb gardens occur during milder times of the year between October and May. The intense heat of summer takes its toll on many of our favorite culinary herbs, such as thyme, parsley, dill, cilantro, chives, lavender and French tarragon. But herb gardens should be looking great now, and heat loving herbs can be planted for summer production.

Herbs that like milder weather should be at their most productive now. They’re best planted in fall or late winter and by now should have produced large, productive plants. Because production will drop as the weather gets hotter, harvest them generously now. You might even want to preserve some of these herbs by drying or freezing them for use during the summer.

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When drying herbs, harvest the stems so they’re long enough to be tied together easily. Next, rinse them with water and blot dry. Make small bundles of about three to five stems held together with rubber bands and insert an unbent paper clip or S-shaped piece of wire to make a hook. Hang the bundles in a cool, dry place with good air circulation — like a spare bedroom with the ceiling fan left on.

Another way to dry herbs is to lay leaves or short sprigs on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels. Place them in a cool, dry location with good air circulation. Avoid using a warm oven or microwave because the heat will cause the loss of volatile, flavorful oils.

When the herbs are thoroughly dry, store them in tightly sealed containers labeled with the name of the herb or herb blend and the date. You can leave the leaves whole or crumble them to the desired fineness.

Summer herbs

Basil is the most popular summer herb. It thrives during our hot, humid summers and asks for nothing more in the garden than full to part sun and average garden soil that drains well. Water the plants during dry weather and keep beds mulched to conserve soil moisture and control weeds. Basil grows quickly from seed, which may be planted now through July. Transplants, which are readily available at area nurseries, may be planted in the garden through August.

Allow newly planted basil transplants to grow for a while before you start to harvest. For standard-size varieties, you can generally start to lightly harvest when the plants reach about 1 foot tall.

Individual basil leaves may be harvested for use, but more typically the plant is pinched or cut back. Cut or pinch basil just above a pair of leaves, removing no more than a third to a half of the plant at one time. This leaves plenty of foliage to keep the plant healthy and productive.

Dan Gill is a LSU AgCenter horticulturist.