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It’s finally time to start harvesting my herbs! Actually, I’ve been harvesting my herbs for a while, I was just still calling it “pruning” instead of “harvesting”.
There is a difference between pruning and harvesting herbs, but it’s a fairly small one 🙂
Remember my first post about how to prune your herbs? The gist of it was that when you prune your plants, prune them just above a pair of leaves. This will allow two new stems to regrow from the stem you pinched off, helping the plant to continue flourishing and even grow bigger than before!
Well, harvesting your herbs is the same idea; they both mean pinching or cutting off pieces of the plant, but they have different purposes. Here’s what I said in the original post:
- To put it simply, pruning is strategically removing pieces of your plant in order to help it grow properly. There are many things you can accomplish by pruning your plants, and pretty much any plant can benefit from pruning. It can shape your plants so that they grow bushy instead of tall and spindly, encourage new growth (especially useful for herbs), get read of dead pieces, increase the yield of flowers or buds, and much more! You can prune a plant throughout it’s whole life to help encourage the type of growth you want.
- Harvesting, on the other hand, is removing pieces of your plant for your use or consumption. Unlike pruning, you only want to harvest plants when they are ready to eat (or dry, or whatever), when they are at their peak flavor or scent. And you need to be strategic here too so that you don’t kill the plant by harvesting too much.
Basically you’re going to be cutting off pieces of your plant, and if you plan to eat those pieces, it’s called harvesting; if you are just trying to help the plant grow better it’s called pruning 🙂
As far as harvesting goes, it’s the same basic idea; try to cut stems above a pair of leaves so your plant can continue to grow. There are a few other differences depending on what part of the plant you want to harvest…
Harvesting the stems or leaves of a plant
– Never harvest more than about 30% of your plant at one time
You have to leave some big, strong leaves on the plant so it can continue to grow.
– Do not let your plant flower
If you only want the stems or leaves and aren’t going to use the flowers, there is absolutely no reason to let your plant expend all of it’s energy creating a flower! Once the flowers start growing, the stems and leaves change and become nasty and bitter. Pinch off any flower buds as soon as you see them starting to form!
I took the above picture of a tiny flower bud on our giant dill plant. The dill has been trying to flower for about three weeks now, but I pinch these buds off every time I see them. We only want our dill for its leaves, but if you want your dill for its seeds (or any plant for its seeds) you have to let it flower, cuz that’s where seeds come from 🙂 (More on that below.)
At the peak of its growing season, you’ll probably need to check your plants every day to watch for new buds. But you should be watering your herbs a little bit every day anyway, so you can check at that time.
– Don’t just pull the biggest leaves off your plant!
You still want to pinch or cut off the stem of a plant a quarter inch above a pair of leaves if possible, just like when you’re pruning. This is the best way to make sure that you get more than one harvest out of your plant.
If you start pulling leaves off your plant you are basically just killing it. Not only will those leaves never regrow, but if you pull the biggest, oldest leaves off of the plant you are removing its life support (remember? Photosynthesis?)
If you only want the leaves, cut the stem off above a pair of leaves and then pull the leaves off the stem. But don’t pull them directly off the plant.
And of course, now I’m going to contradict what I just said… Ready?
There are a few instances in which it’s okay to just start grabbing leaves off your plant.
- If your plant is SO HUGE that it won’t really miss a couple of leaves here or there, you can grab a couple of leaves as well as the stems you’ve properly cut off.
- If you’ve pruned your plant and have a couple of little stem buds ready to grow, but the older, bigger leaves are blocking ALL the sun, you can pull those leaves off. All leaves that get sun will support the growth of the plant, but it is helpful for new shoots to get direct sunlight; they will grow faster that way and your plant will get bigger, faster.
The important thing to remember is that once you pull off a leaf, the plant will never regrow there!
– Harvest right when the plant starts to flower
The oils in the plant that make it so yummy are at their peak right before the plant starts to flower, so this is the best time to harvest the leaves.
But make sure not to let the plant flower! The best thing is to harvest the stems and leaves when you pinch off the flower buds, that way it’s two birds with one stone 🙂
Harvesting the flowers of a plant
If you’re growing plants like chamomile, then you probably want the flowers instead of the leaves. You can harvest the flowers at any point after they are grown, but it’s best to harvest them sometime between when they are fully grown and when they start to wither and die.
Always try to harvest flowers when they are completely dry. If your plants live outdoors, wait until the morning dew has dried, and if it has rained recently make sure the water droplets have dried off.
There are two ways to harvest the flowers of a plant: cut the entire flower off the stem just below the head of the flower, or cut the stem (including the flower) off as if you were pruning the plant normally.
There are benefits to both methods. If you just cut off the flower head, the plant will regrow fairly quickly from that one spot and you will be able to continually harvest the plant. But you won’t have any stems to hang the flowers by, so you’ll need a drying screen (or I just use a mesh strainer…)
If you cut the entire stem including the flower above a pair of leaves, then two new stems will grow and your plant will keep getting bigger. If it’s early in the season I’d recommend this method so that you don’t stunt your plant’s growth too soon. Also, you’ll be able to hang the flowers by their stems in order to dry them. However, this method of regrowth is pretty slow; it will take a long while for the new stems to grow to the point where they will produce flowers again, so if you need a lot of flowers and quickly, the other method is better.
Harvesting the seeds of a plant
If you want the seeds of your plant, you need to let the flowers grow, die, and wither on the stem.
Usually you want to pinch off dead or dying parts of your plants, but if you want the seeds you have to leave the flowers on the stem, even after they have died. Soon a seedpod will replace the withered flower. Don’t pick the pod right away; leave it on the stem until it ripens. Usually you can tell because it will become brown and dried, or may even crack open on its own.
If you’re worried that the pod will crack open on its own, put something down on top of the soil around the stem at the base of the plant to catch the fallen seeds. If you let the seeds fall into the soil, the plant will most likely regrow itself next year (it’s called self-seeding).
Remember, seeding is the final stage of a plants lifecycle. Once it has produced seeds, it has accomplished its goal of trying to survive for another year, so it isn’t likely to live past that point if it’s an annual plant. If it’s a perennial it will go into “hibernation” mode and just sort of sit there dormant until next spring.
To harvest the seeds, wait until the pods are dried and brown, then cut the main stem of the plant off at the base (yes, cut the entire plant down) and then gently shake the plant over a paper plate or into a paper bag. If you need to harvest the seeds before the pod is fully ripe and dried out, pull the pod off the plant and hang it from the stem or lay it flat to continue drying.
And that’s all I know about harvesting your herbs!
We are growing dill, basil, catnip, rosemary, and mint for their leaves, and we have chamomile growing for the flowers. If we grow dill again next year we will probably let it flower after a while and harvest some seeds, but we’re skipping that piece this year.
All you gardeners out there, is there anything important that I missed? What plants are you growing, and what parts do you plan to use?
This post is part of a series about growing herbs indoors. You can see the rest of the posts in the series here.
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