Harvest Time in the Herb Garden
It's time to get those herbs inside for winter use! This blog tells you how I use all my 18th and 19th century country antiques with the herbs I grow or buy - and you can do this too, even if you're not a cook.
What's nicer than some aromatic rosemary chopped in an old herb bowl, sitting on your kitchen counter? The scent will last for days.
I have always had an herb garden. When I was young and wanted to live in the 18th century I planted herbs that would have been in a period herb garden, - not that I really wanted to use them. Many were medicinal and I didn't want to experiment with that!
Also, many of them were really ugly growing in the garden. Have you seen what hops looks like when it gets big? Did I really think I was going to make beer in the 18th century manner? And tansy is supposed to keep flies out of the house. It doesn't, and it is not a very attractive house plant.
As I got older I became more practical and planted only what I use and like to look at. I am a cook, and I wish I could go out into the garden and cut fresh herbs all year. They make a huge difference in cooking. But here in the northwest hills of Connecticut we have a long and snowy winter, so I have to rely on the herbs I've harvested in the fall.
You may ask what all this has to do with country antiques? The answer is that I use my antiques to gather, dry, prepare, and store my herbs.
A gathering basket is for just that - gathering in the garden. This is an antique one in old mustard paint with some splint breaks here and there. I'm careful with it when I take it to the garden but I use it a lot. It is the perfect size and shape. I don't have to crowd the herbs on top of each other and I can see what I've cut.
Early autumn is the best gathering time for herbs to dry for the winter, before weather has started to dry them up. Pick in the early morning when they are lush and fresh. In my experience, the ones that dry best are those with woody stems. I have never been able to dry parsley or basil, for example. They turn black and rot. But I dry my herbs the old fashioned way - hanging in bunches. I know it's possible to freeze dry them, microwave them, etc. but I've never wanted to try it. I guess a part of me is still in the 18th century. I dry what I use: rosemary, thyme, sage, tarragon, bay, oregano. I also make pot-pourris from the leaves and flowers of lemon balm, lemon verbena, scented geraniums, roses, lavender, marigold, calendula. Pick when they look like this:
To dry them, don't wash them first unless they are really dirty. Just brush them off. The additional water leaches out the oils in the leaves. This is how I do it:
I take the bottom leaves off the stems, in this case, rosemary.
I wrap the stems tightly in twine. The stems will shrink as they dry, and if they're not tied tightly they will fall out of the bundle.
My vintage beehive string holder keeps the twine from tangling.
You have to dry them away from sunlight. It doesn't have to be dark, but it shouldn't be bright, either. And it should also be a dry area. I have an old pole hanging from the beams in front of our big cooking fireplace. It works perfectly.
I also have a couple of those branch hangers made out of a small tree. You can make one yourself, or you can find them at shows and flea markets.
This one isn't ideal for these herbs - you don't want them to touch each other when they are drying if you can help it. They need the air circulating around them. It takes a few weeks for them to dry, longer if it's humid. If they start to turn black toss them. I wouldn't try to dry them during the dog days of summer unless you have central air or live in a very dry climate.
Once they are completely dry, I mean, bone dry, crackly dry, strip the leaves from the stems, or, in the case of small stems, like thyme, just leave the leaves on the stems. They should be stored in clean jars, but not air tight. And they should be kept out of the sun. Here is how I store mine:
These are 19th century apothecary jars, hand blown, with open pontils and tin lids. I love them. You can certainly find antique jars that are less expensive than these are. The ones that were molded have a seam down the side and no pontil on the bottom. They are cheaper. To buy one like the ones above, with no damage and the original lid will cost $150-$200 for the more common sizes (8" x 5"), and $300- $400 or more for the very small ones or very large ones. Molded ones that look like these and have tin lids are usually less than $100. But there are lots of other options. It's fun to search for old jars in good condition at flea markets, and many can be had for very little. I think they are much more interesting than modern canisters. As you can see, I use the small ones for peppercorns, cloves and the like. The herbs above are bay, thyme and sage, all from last year. I will replace them with this year's crop.
Most herbs have to be chopped or ground up to use them in cooking. Dried herbs are much stronger than fresh ones, so you use about 1/4 the amount if a recipe calls for fresh herbs (conversely, use 4 times more fresh herbs if the recipe calls for dry).
I have one little antique mortar and pestle that I use only for herbs.
It has cracks, but it is very usable and the perfect size. When I got it I cleaned it thoroughly (who knows what it was used for, although probably for herbs), and I have used it for 30 years for grinding up dry herbs. I grind them as I need them, not ahead of time. You can find nice little 19th century mortars and pestles easily, and if they are unpainted, they are not expensive - under $50. The painted ones, in old or original paint, without age cracks are very expensive.
Lots of herbs can be used in pot-pourri. Combined with dried flowers, cinnamon sticks, dried orange or lemon peel, cloves, nutmeg, allspice berries, dried star anise, are all candidates to concoct an intoxicating fragrance. I dry lemon balm and lemon verbena for a nice citrus pot-pourri. They look like this in the garden:
I also love scented geraniums. I have a lime scented one and a lemon one.
These are dried just like the other herbs. To dry rose petals or petals of other flowers for color in your pot-pourri (marigold, cornflower), and citrus peels, spread them out on newspaper in a dry spot where they will not get any sun. Leave them for 2 days and then turn them, and then turn again every day after that until they are really dry.
Here's how you make pot-pourri:
In a large, non-plastic bowl, mix (bone dry) petals, leaves, dried berries (cloves, cinnamon, bark), and mix them well. Add to this spices, a fixative, and essential oil.
The fixative acts as a preservative and keeps the pot-pourri smelling good longer. Ground oris root is a good one and can be found in health food stores. Myrrh, frankincense, vetiver root, patchouli leaves, dried lavender, cinnamon and nutmeg also act as fixatives. Pick the one that will go with your scents best. Essential oils really give the potpourri that lasting scent. You can find them online or in craft stores. Again, pick the one that goes best with your concoction. A lot of mixing is key.
After all the ingredients are well blended, put them into a crock or jar, cover, and let it sit for a week. Then open it, mix it, add more petals or oils if you think you need them, and let it sit for another week. You can add things as you go. It should actually take 6 weeks to 2 months for the scents to blend and mature. When it is done, you can add colorful petals (again, bone dry) if it looks dull.
I love a citrus pot-pourri. Here's my recipe:
4 cups of dried lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon geranium, and lemon thyme leaves.
1/2 cup dried marigold or calendula petals
1/4 cup dried orange peel
1/4 cup dried lemon peel
1/4 cup cloves
1/2 cup ground oris root
6 drops of orange essential oil
When it's all done, fill your favorite antique bowls or boxes with it. (You were wondering when I was going to get back to antiques, weren't you).
This is a spice pot-pourri I made last year with dried lemon slices. It is in an early 19th century painted bowl which is about 5" across.
A small apple box also makes a good pot-pourri container.
And a pewter bowl is great. You can find little bowls and boxes, including pewter ones, at flea markets for not much money. Putting them around your house adds a wonderful hominess. And if you ever passed up an antique you really liked because it smelled so musty you couldn't stand it, next time think again. Put some pot pourri in it for a month and the mustiness will be gone forever.
For me, herbs just go with antiques and antique houses. Even if you're not a cook, a bunch of fresh herbs in an antique crock on your kitchen counter will look good, smell good, and may even inspire you to cook!
So grow a few herbs. They are really easy to grow, very tolerant of novice gardeners, generally need little water, don't need much feeding, and as long as they get full sun, they thrive. They even like to be grown in pots on your porch or patio, but they will need a bit more water.
Country homes in the 18th and 19th centuries couldn't be without their herb gardens. Neither can you!