by Ken Lain, The Mountain Gardener, Watters Garden Center
The key to keeping herbs growing is to harvest often.
Leaves are the parts of popular herbs most often used in cooking. Cutting them back a bit throughout the growing season encourages healthy growth and an attractive shape. It keeps most producing through the growing season.
Harvesting equals pruning. It is often done to encourage growth, especially with fast-growing annual herbs like basil, dill and cilantro. Snipping new growth causes these plants to branch and produce more foliage. The same applies to slower-growing perennial herbs like thyme, sage and rosemary.
Annual vs. perennial
Just because an herb is an annual plant doesn’t mean you must take the entire herb to harvest the leaves. You should never remove a whole, healthy plant until the final harvest, right before a killing frost.
Pinching or snipping stems and leaves stimulates growth. So as soon as annual herbs are mature enough to withstand a bit of cutting, begin pruning for shape and harvesting the foliage you remove.
Perennial herbs tend to develop woody stems as they mature. Your harvesting efforts during the growing season focus on the plant’s new, tender foliage, so avoid cutting into the woody parts. New shoots do not grow from wood, and doing this will limit your harvest. You can begin harvesting taller stems when they leaf out with 2 to 3 inches of foliage.
Most herbs are harvested from the top or outsides of the plant. Dill, cilantro and parsley leaves and stems also can be gathered from the bottom of the central stem. Lower leaves on these plants tend to brown out as they age. Sometimes pinching out the top of the main stem delays bolting, going to flower and seed early.
Remember that some herbs, especially annuals, prefer cooler weather and have a limited lifespan with summer’s arrival.
The perennial chive is harvested by cutting leaves at the base. This is one herb that won’t branch out. The chive is a bulb that multiplies rapidly beneath the soil. Harvest chives by snipping leaves outside the plant, leaving the center intact.
Tip — Harvest herbs when they are dry. They are rich in essential oils and are most fragrant between mid-morning and early afternoon. Cutting wet foliage results in the loss of flavor and texture and can promote fungal diseases and rot.