Dry your own herbs to enjoy all year.

Have you ever sat in a traffic jam and seen a billboard beside a new development that reads "If you lived here you'd be home by now"? Earlier in the spring, I wrote three columns about planting and enjoying container herb gardens. So now I can say...

"If you had planted your herb garden you'd be enjoying fresh herbs by now!"

If you DID plant your herb garden - container or traditional bed - you should now be savoring the fruits of your labor. Perhaps, like my wife Cheryl and me, you like to get up early and take your first cup of coffee outside and enjoy the wonderful aroma of fresh herbs before the heat of the sun evaporates the dew.

In this column, I'll have some pointers on enjoying your herbs year 'round by harvesting and preserving them.

If you missed those three columns on starting a container herb garden, you can find them archived at my web site. Go to www.landsteward.org then click on "The Plant Man" heading in the menu and scroll down the list of column titles.

Yes, nothing beats the taste of fresh herbs picked from your own garden and added, seconds later, to the pan simmering on your stove. But when fresh herbs are no longer in season, there's no reason to resort to those jars of stale supermarket herbs that have lingered in your pantry for years... if you take action this summer to preserve your own herbs!

The simplest way to do this is to air dry them. The best time to harvest your herbs is in the morning, as soon as the dew has evaporated and before they are subject to direct sunlight. Aim to pick them just before the flowers open as this is when the oil in the leaves is at it's highest level, providing the greatest flavor.

You can snip off just the leaves or harvest entire stalks. If you wish the plant to continue growing fresh leaves, harvest no more than a third of the plant at any one time, allowing it to regenerate. Towards the end of the season, of course, you can snip off far more if you wish.

If you've harvested entire "branches" you can air-dry them by tying the stems together and hanging them upside down in a dry, fairly warm area away from direct sunlight. There is no need to wash them first, unless they have dirt or other inedible bits attached. If you do need to rinse them briefly in lukewarm water, pat them dry immediately with paper towels before hanging.

You can also place a layer of herbs on cheesecloth stretched on a frame, or on a wire rack like the ones you use to cool cakes after they come from the oven. This is a method you can use if you're drying individual leaves rather than bunches. An old wire-mesh spatter guard also works well as long as it's supported in some way to allow air to circulate underneath.

Either of these methods should take between two and four weeks to yield an excellent supply of dried herbs. Test them periodically to see how they're doing. The leaves should be brittle but not so dry that they crumble to dust between your fingers!

Two excellent web sites have a lot more information on drying your own herbs: http://www.containerherbgarden.com/ and http://lancaster.unl.edu/hort/Articles/2003/Herbs.htm

Storing your herbs is quite simple, too. Place them in clean, dry jars with tight-fitting lids. Dark glass jars are the best as they reduce exposure to sunlight. Be sure to label the jars and write the date on the label, too. It might be tempting to line up your jars on the counter to advertise your culinary prowess, but herbs will keep better and retain their aromatic goodness longer if you store the jars in a dark place such as a pantry or cupboard.

If you didn't plant herbs this spring, make a note to start your own herb container garden next year. Let me know if you need advice or specific suggestions and I'll respond via e-mail.