Savoring Summer: Harvesting and Drying The Garden’s Finest Herbal Treasures…

August 19th, 2010 § 4 comments § permalink

Drying Herbs in the Stairwell

One of the great pleasures of living in New England is, of course, the seasons. The natural world operates on a distinct schedule here, and all life flows along with it at a steady pace. On these late August days, the song of the hermit thrush —an ever-present twilight melody enjoyed throughout summer— begins to fade as flocks of songbirds gather for migration before the full moon. And the sun, shifting position and setting earlier each day on the horizon, glimmers low and gold in the trees now. Although the noontime hours of late summer can be quite hot, and evenings are still spent bare-shouldered, it won’t be long before downy quilts and lavender-scented sweaters are pulled from closet shelves.

August is a month of preserving; of putting up and setting things by. Jars of jam and pickled produce form neat rows in the cupboards, and my freezer is packed wall-to-wall with summertime’s bounty. This is the time of year when my voluptuous herb garden literally spills from its neatly-edged confines. Borders? Fiddle-dee-dee, the mint seems to say, as it runs wildly wherever it may. But I never mind a bit of excess in the garden -it’s so nice to have plenty to spare. Mint, rosemary, basil, thyme, lavender and lemon verbena; their scents perfume my fingers and fill the cellar stairwell with beautiful fragrance. …

Freshly-harvested basil – Tied with twine for drying…

Basil and Mint Bundles

With dry air and scant rain, August is a great month to begin harvesting and drying herbs for winter. In the coming months, I will be grateful for a hint of summertime’s pleasures in warm cups of tea and fragrant breakfast scones. Drying herbs is simple and economical; an easy way to trim your monthly grocery budget and add flavor to daily meals. Have a look at the price of dried, organic basil next time you visit a grocery store. If you need a bit of convincing before bundling up the harvest and making room in your rafters, that little bit of sticker-shock should do the trick.

I grow herbs in my potager amongst the vegetables, on my terrace in containers, and throughout the ornamental gardens as well. Once the morning dew has dried —usually by 10am— I head outside with harvest baskets to gather whatever tempts my eye. Some days, I focus on aromatic herbs for cooking; including basil, rosemary, thyme and mint. But I also keep other uses in mind; gathering lavender, bergamot and hyssop for scenting oils, soaps, and sachets. Dried bundles of artemisia, tansy, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod and other herbs are also useful for wreaths, swags and dried flower arrangements. Once the cellar stairwell and loft are filled —mostly with herbs for teas and cooking— I string clothesline in my dry cellar to hang bunches of herbs, protecting them from dust with loose paper bag ‘hoods’…

Herbs in the Potager

Keep potted herbs attractive by frequently pruning. More than you need? Try drying bundles to use in recipes —including soup and salad dressing— throughout the winter…

Once I’ve collected herbs, I spread them out on the terrace and pick them over; stripping lower leaves and forming small bundles. I like to use natural twine to tie the herbs together, but I will use recycled rubber-bands as well; particularly for large bouquets of flowering herbs. Once bundled up, I hang the herbs in a dry, dark place. When they have completely dry-cured, I will strip the leaves from the stems and store the herbs in tightly sealed jars (clear is fine for closed cupboards – use dark glass if storing herbs in brightly-lit spaces). Although I try to harvest most culinary herbs before flowering —for best flavor— I do allow some herbs to blossom, in order to provide pollen for bees and other beneficial insects in my garden. Flowering herbs make great companion plants in the potager…

Bundles of herbs are picked over and thinned, then bound together with twine…

Harvesting Herbs in Late Morning, After the Dew Has Throughly Dried

Sorting and Bundling Herbs in My Kitchen

Some sage is left to flower in the potager. Other plants are kept tightly pruned through regular harvests…

Rosemary is a beautiful, as well as a useful herb. I like keeping aromatic herbs near my door, where I brush against them as I come and go. Here, I can quickly snip bits to flavor teas, salad dressings or garnish cocktails…

And as wonderful as dried herbs are in winter, there’s nothing quite like the flavor of fresh rosemary and basil —is there? I keep pots of herbs just outside my kitchen door all summer long, where I can easily access them if I need to add a sprig to a special sauce or evening cocktail. Come late autumn, I will bring the potted rosemary inside to my windowsill, and in late September, I will begin sowing flats of basil to grow indoors beneath lights.

Yes, I enjoy thinking ahead to the coming seasons, but I’ve never been much of a pleasure-delayer at heart. I believe that being prepared for the future should never detract from the importance of the present moment. From lemon-mint sun tea and caprese salad with fresh basil at lunchtime to ice-cold mojitos and herb-infused ice cream enjoyed by the light of the moon; savor the rich tastes and sweet smells of the season while you can…

Lemon-Mint Sun Tea (Click Here for Post and Recipe)

Mentha piperita (Peppermint flowering in the garden)

Cuban Mint Julep (aka the mojito) – Click here for recipe and story

Some great herb gardening resources to give as gifts, add to a wish-list or purchase for your own horticultural and culinary bookshelves…

Gardening with Herbs by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead

The Herbal Kitchen by Jerry Traunfeld

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

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Article and photographs ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Liquid Pleasures of the Late Summer Garden: Part Two, How I Came to Know the Cuban Mint Julep…

August 28th, 2009 § 6 comments § permalink

Mel’s Cuban Mint Julep/ AKA The Mojito

I simply can not believe this is the last weekend of August. Where has the summer gone? Here in New England the weather pattern has shifted right on cue and the nights are already getting cooler. Geese are gathering on the water. Labor Day weekend and the Harvest Moon are both only a week away. Sigh. Soon it will be autumn.

But wait! Not yet, not yet! Oh Summer, please don’t go so fast. Can’t we find a way to slow it down and squeeze just a little bit more pleasure from this sweetest of seasons? Summer is a time for friends. Go on now, call them out and gather them up. Fluff up your hammock and reposition the lawn chairs. Drag the old cooler and blankets back to the beach. Fire up the grill, mix some drinks and turn up the music. Think of the things and the people that you will miss come winter, and enjoy them while you still can.

Take a favorite summertime cocktail for example. Over the past few years, I have come to associate August with barbeques on patios, visiting seasonal neighbors and the cool, refreshing taste of Cuban Mint Juleps. In fact, hot summer nights and Cuban Mint Juleps have practically become synonymous with grilling and good company around here. And you know, there is a special summer story to my favorite cocktail. Impossible though it may be for me to imagine summer without this delightfully minty drink, I haven’t always known about the Cuban Mint Julep. I owe this great pleasure, among many others, to my good friend Mel.

I met Mel late one summer a few years back, through a mutual acquaintance. This friend-in-common, a great guy named Travis, noted that Mel and I have many shared interests. He mentioned that we might just make good friends. At the time, Mel and her husband Pete had just purchased a house a few towns north of mine, and she was looking for some help with the gardens. So, I went over to check things out. I was taken with the old place immediately, and although it needed work, I thought it was really charming. But as Travis suspected, the thing I liked best was Mel herself. She was straightforward and open, relaxed but steady. She wanted someone to help renovate the old garden, saving as many of the existing plants as possible while creating a new design. I took the job and soon a friendship blossomed between the overgrown shrubs and tangled vines. We spent a lot of time working together the first couple of years. There were plants to move, decisions to make, contractors to hire, rocks to haul and shrubs to prune. And there was weeding to do. There was lots of weeding. You really get to know someone when you work side by side with them for a time. Fortunately, as it turns out, our friend Travis was right. Our personalities were a very good mix.

Late one sultry summer afternoon, after we had been working all day pulling weeds in the hot sun, Mel asked me if I would like something to drink. Then she grabbed a bunch of mint from the garden and disappeared into the kitchen. When she emerged from the vestibule a few minutes later, all rosy cheeks and curls in a 50’s style apron, my friend was holding two frosty glasses filled with ice and a greenish- gold fluid. “What could this be?”, I wondered out loud. “It’s a Cuban Mint Julep”, she replied, handing me a glass. I had never heard of such a thing. But I do love a surprise, and so I sat down beside her and I had myself a drink. Well, Hoo-Wee. That was some cocktail. I must have been muttering in disbelief, because she told me again that it was a Cuban Mint Julep, but I still couldn’t believe my ears. I thought all juleps were made with sticky-sweet syrup and gin, and I am not a fan of gin. In fact I am more of a champagne or summer-sangria kind-of-gal. But this drink was different. It’s actually a lot like a mojito, only more interesting because it’s made with golden rum instead of the traditional white, (far richer and sweeter), and much more fresh peppermint. And Mel makes the old-style Cuban Mint Julep sans the mojito’s sparkling water. I like the taste much better. Sparkling water tends to dilute the delightful flavors of this classic summer cocktail.

And so, as we sipped our drinks in the garden that afternoon, the conversation slowly turned from weeds and flowers to art and chocolate; and from scuba diving to flying; and from quirky rattle-snake shooting relatives to long-lost and better-off-without-’em loves. We laughed and watched the daylight fade to violet over those Cuban Mint Juleps as the twilight settled in. I will never forget that summer night. It was the night we really became friends. I have met some interesting characters and some really good people through my work as a gardener. But this friendship stands out. It is real. Do you know someone you can spend hours with because they are just plain easy to be around?  My friend Mel is like that. She is more than fun, she is good company. She asks great questions and she really listens to your answers. Mel is smart and talented and clever. She is also a great cook – and she makes a fabulous summer cocktail. I am lucky to know her. Some friendships are just meant to be, like hot summer nights and cold drinks.

Here’s to holding on to Summer….

C H E E R S !

mojito muddling mint

Mel’s Cuban Mint Julep


(Makes one cocktail)

2 good size limes, juiced, (plus saved wedges and a slice for garnish)*

2 tsp sugar

1/4 cup of fresh peppermint leaves, more sprigs for garnish

2 oz Excellent quality Puerto Rican Gold Rum

Ice, (cracked to dice size, but not crushed)

*optional: add sparkling water for a traditional mojito

Put the sugar, lime juice and mint leaves at the bottom of a heavy based 6 oz Old-fashioned glass, or 8-10 oz highball if you are adding sparkling water or want more ice.

Muddle with a wooden muddler or handle end of a wooden spoon. It is important to muddle the ingredients thoroughly, in a circular motion, to release the mint oils into the lime juice.

Add 2 oz of rum, toss in a couple of squeezed wedges and stir.

Fill glass with cracked ice and stir again thoroughly.

If using larger glass and adding sparkling water, add water and stir.

Garnish with mint and lime and serve…

* A note on limes: Look for a fresh lime with pale green skin. Limes with dark skin tend to be less juicy. You want at least 1 1/2 -2 oz of fresh, sweet lime juice. Roll the limes between your palm and the counter before slicing in half. And to get the maximum juice, use a hand-juicer.

peppermint close up

Peppermint, (Mentha piperita)

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Article and photographs ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

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