September is a plentiful time in the herb garden.
The early, abundant September garden is a gratifying sight which beckons us to the harvest and keeping of the fruits of our labor. Herbs everywhere are leaning from the weight of flowering tops, producing seeds, berries, fruits and mature roots. They are in need of not only harvesting for winter use but being deadheaded, tidied up and managed. Where to begin?
First, with clippers and basket in hand, take a look at your herbs from the garden’s edge to determine what needs doing.
Begin with mints: Every member of the mint family, has square stems and opposite leaves. That means not only peppermint and spearmint, but sage, bee balm, thyme, oregano, basil, lemon balm, catnip, rosemary, savory, marjoram, hyssop, motherwort and horehound.
As a general rule, it is best to harvest the leaves of these plants right before they begin to flower when the essential oil content in them is highest. That is where the flavor and/or therapeutic value is. Once the plant starts to flower, the energy and potency goes away from the leaves into those sweet, tasty blossoms the pollinators love.
Throughout the summer, you can always proactively snip early blossoms off to minimize full blooms, but who does not love the sight of their garden sage covered in purple flowering spikes, loaded with bees? In this case, wait until the spikes turn brown and trim them all off. Soon you will have a lush sage shrub again. To prepare the perennial mint family herbs for winter, cut the tender ones close to ground level and lightly trim the ones like sage, rosemary and thyme that have woody trunks and stems. Treat lavender this way, too.
On to the umbellifers: Dill and fennel have lost their tender, fern-like leaves by now, but the seeds are very flavorful. Keep an eye on them as once they are ready, they quickly fall off. Clip off heads into a paper bag. Finish drying in a dry, dark place.
Edible wild berries: Hawthorn, elder, sumac and rosehips are ready for harvest. In medieval times, elixirs, meads, beers and wines were made with herbs and berries for enjoyment and medicinal purposes. Today, people make jellies, pastes, juice, wine, syrups and tinctures.
Make certain you have the right genus and species of plant; do not use ornamentals which have been developed to look pretty in gardens.
Roots: Roots are usually dug in the fall because that is when they are the strongest. The plant is dying back and all the energy is moving down until next spring.
Echinacea purpurea, purple coneflower roots should be dug in the third year. Slice or chop into small pieces and dry out of direct light or tincture it fresh, 1 part herb to 2 parts alcohol. Use grain alcohol if you can find it, otherwise, vodka or brandy.
Horseradish has a very long tap root so be prepared. The narrow trench shovel is right for most jobs. Wash and whoosh in a food processor with a little salt and vinegar. Warning: When you take the lid off, don’t put your head right over it to smell it unless you want to feel the sensation of your head and airways exploding.
Cut comfrey to the ground in the fall. Try digging the smaller roots of coriander (cilantro) and parsley. Wash and smash with a mortar and pestle and add to broths and marinades for extra flavor.
Valerian and black raspberry are other roots to consider.
Make fertilizer! Speaking of comfrey, it makes the best organic fertilizer. Just chop it up in a bucket, add water, put a lid on it and let it sit for a week, when it will stink like fresh manure. Strain out the liquid and dilute with water to feed plants and soil. Compost the leaves.
Keep plucking: Deadhead the flowering spikes off your basil so the leaves will continue to be useful. Pick those bright, yellow calendula blossoms every three days until frost to have enough to make an infused oil for healing skin.
The slightly cooler days and nights of September give plants a little longer to mature with less stress from the heat and intense sun. You may find you will get your most potent and flavorful herbal harvest now.
Merry Lycett Harrison is a clinical herbalist, teacher, author and wild guide and a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. See “Herb Tip of the Week” at www.millcreekherbs.com or visit the Millcreek Herbs booth at the Downtown Farmers Market.