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Jun 1, 2010 03:06 PM

When and how should I "harvest" herbs?

I am a very unknowledgeable novice. I bought a variety of herbs and replanted them in windowboxes that are on my sunny back porch. I would like to have them fill out and be able to use them all summer, but I don't know exactly how to achieve that. Do I just pull/cut leaves off as I need them, or do I take a whole stem? If I take the stem, where do I cut it? Right now there aren't too many stems, so if I take one off, will I get more? Also, should I wait until I need the herb, or should I "harvest" without needing it. In other words, does cutting some off encourage the rest to grow? I know these may sound like stupid questions of a total newbie, but I would hate to kill a whole plant, or prevent its growth, by taking pieces off in the wrong way. Here's what I have, in case the specific varieties matter: basil, a couple varieties of mint, tarragon, oregano, lemon verbena, dill, and rosemary.

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  1. There was a previous query on just about the same topic, maybe there are some good hints in that thread:

    With dill, cut off what you need, dill is short-lived and if you want to assure a steady supply, it is best to do succession planting every two weeks or so; cutting doesn't really cause additional growth. For basil remove leaves from the top - roughly the top third - to encourage strong, bushy growth. Same goes for mint, and verbena (I've not grown it before, but I think verbena is a member of the same family as mint). Cut tarragon sprigs (the whole sprig/branch) at the ground level, from the outside of the plant. Oregano can be sheared off the top or cut off whole branches/sprigs as needed. For rosemary, you can prune entire branches away, or just the top third or so to encourage branching - it really depends on the shape and density of the plant. Mine are about chest-high, so I don't worry too much about them!

    2 Replies
    1. re: janniecooks

      Lemon verbena is a shrubby plant that is totally different from flowering verbenas. Harvesting can be used to shape the plant and encourage branching. Most of the leaves are near the tips of branches.

      1. re: Eldon Kreider

        I think perennial herbs grow more slowly than the annuals. You want to cut most before they flower and remove any flowering stems to keep the annuals going as long as possible. I think there is a rule of thumb not to cut more than 2/3 of a plant at any one time. Cutting a stem will cause annuals to get bushier and hence more productive. Except mint can probably be cut to the ground and it will still re-grow. I think some herbs are better fresh so I recommend finding some recipes you want to try and harvesting the herbs as needed. Last year a zucchini/potato gratin recipe gave me a new interest in fresh oregano.
        Keep in mind that dill and cilantro/coriander are two examples of annuals the are used fresh but also produce seed that is preferred for some recipes.

    2. Thanks for the responses and advice so far. So now I have a further question about my dill. Am I to understand that once I cut it, that's it? In other words, I bought a small dill plant from the nursery for a couple of bucks to put in my windowbox for it to grow once, get one harvest of a few sprigs, and then get no more? Am I missing something here? I can buy a huge bunch of dill for less than I paid for the plant!

      6 Replies
      1. re: queenscook

        Can you plant your dill in the ground? It can grow huge - so you could lop off masses and it will continue to prosper. If it is just in a window box, it might object to getting a good lopping. Window box dill should be judiciously snipped. I have dill in the yard just mixed in with the flowers. I hack at it and it never dies back until winter.

        1. re: Sal Vanilla

          While I'm otherwise quite happy to live in Queens, NY, the very small house I live in has no sunny yard, just my cement back patio, so I'm stuck with window boxes and potted plants.

          As far as the dill is concerned, now that it looks like I'm getting the flowerheads, I guess I'll try to harvest some seeds from them and try to plant some more.

        2. re: queenscook

          Many of the annual herb plants I have seen are over-priced. Some are priced the same as perennials yet it's only a 3" pot, maybe a few seedlings or a single plant. I only buy annual herbs as a 6-pack, usually under $3. Perhaps buying seed would be much cheaper and you can start more plants thru the summer.

          1. re: dfrostnh

            Holy moly did I get ripped off! I started a few things from seed but also bought a few seedlings. They were charging $4 per seedling!

          2. re: queenscook

            Dill is an annual plant, you can harvest once it's large enough to support some cutting. Don't cut too low and it'll keep growing back for months. Harvest the flowers/pollin and seeds just as you would fennel tops, also dry the dill leaves and store for winter cooking. If you feel the need to have more dill, plant another batch 6 weeks later and you'll be stylin, especially if you want to cure some salmon. If seeds drop to the ground, expect volunteer plants next season.

            1. re: queenscook

              Depending on the variety of dill you bought it may do better in a large separate pot rather than a window box. There are small varieties (such as "Bouquet") and large ones (like "Mammoth"). But even the smaller ones will outgrow a window box. You'll need more plants if you want to get through the summer with fresh dill so go out and buy a packet of seeds (select a small to medium size variety) and some potting soil, and plant 3-4 seeds in a pot now. When the seedlings come up and are going well clip off 2-3 and allow the remaining 1-2 to grow on. 2 weeks after planting the first pot repeat the process again, and so on throughout the summer. Dill sprouts and grows easily but the plants are short-lived and go to seed quickly. When one pot flowers go ahead and use the flower in cooking or pickling. At the end of summer/beginning of fall allow your current plants to produce seed for collection and use through the winter. This schedule of planting also works for basil and cilantro, both can be short-lived like dill. Any seed you have leftover from this year should still be viable next year so actually for the cost of one transplant or less you could get two seasons worth of herb.

              I also recommend making a paste of fresh dill instead of drying it. Dill oils are very volatile and dissipate rapidly from the dried herb leaving you with something that tastes like...well, nothing. An explanation of making herb pastes using wild garlic as an example is here:

            2. I consider all my herbs as "cut and come again," including dill. Morwen, thanks for that idea about paste vs dried dill!

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