Part 3 of my continuing series on Mint which began in the June 28, 2012 issue of the NKC Tribune… (see part 2 online here)
Frankly, now that you have so much mint… let’s harvest some.
The best part of the growing plant are the new, young fresh tops. (This is true with most herbs like oregano, marjoram, basil, thyme, rosemary, etc) This is where their “essential oils” are most concentrated.
Harvest as much as you can as soon as you see flower buds forming. Flowering signifies the end of the growing process, telling the plant “I’m done, time to shut down” and go to seed for the next year. So your herbs will lose their flavors and delicate oils the longer it grows once it has flowered.
Yes, you can eat the flower blossoms of all culinary herbs. Yum! (Regular and Garlic Chive blossoms are a fave!) By harvesting the buds, blossoms and upper leaves surrounding them your plants will grow longer and more intensely. Over the course of a summer you can harvest 7 to 10 times!
As mint grows, you will see the lower leaves begin to yellow and fade, no need to throw these out, I dry them for aromatic simmering-water potpourri use in the winter ahead, just label them properly (“non-edible”)after drying. (save the stems for the same use)
When to Harvest
This is my favorite part of growing. You get up early, have nice breakfast, with maybe some mint tea… go outside, make sure it will be a gorgeous sunny day ahead and there is no morning dew on the plants. Begin harvesting while it is still cool out (harvest by one or more of the methods below) and before the sun hits them. The sunlight and heat activate chemical reactions in herbs and they will be lower quality if picked in the hot afternoon. (pretty cool eh…never knew that did ya)
Sidebar: as you harvest herbs on that clear sunny morning, drinking in the incredible aromas that fill your backyard gardens, look around you and thank yourself for doing such a great thing for your life.To Harvest, pinch the top… or build bouquets
In all methods of harvesting herbs, be gentle, they can bruise easily and that will cause them to decompose rapidly.
I harvest mint (and herbs) several ways, first is to pull off the flower buds, blossoms and upper leaves on a regular basis. Check it out: taste a top young mint leaf, then go half way down the plant and taste an older larger leaf, notice how the top leaf tasted so much better!
I dry them on a used window screen, or screen door insert. (you can find these for pennies at the Habitat for Humanity “Re-Store” in Ellensburg – a really nice big one, 3’ x 4’ will run you about a dollar) Or you can buy brand new ones a most hardware stores that sell doors and windows.
Drying takes time, at least a couple of weeks in a cool, dry area with good airflow and no sunlight. Test a flower top or two for dryness. –see below for storing techniques.
Bundle Method – is to cut whole stems and build hanging bouquet bundles. Spearmint grows tall (2’ to 3’ feet high) and narrow, I just cut them off near the soil, gently rinse off under cold running water (no bugs and germs) and individually let them completely air dry of any moisture before tying into a bundle of 7-8 stems. I pull off any yellowing or discolored lower leaves (again save these too for non-cooking aromatic uses – a small bowl of them in the bathroom is really nice)
If you tie too many together and/or they are not completely dry, they can begin to decompose and heat up. That means they will begin to rot and get stinky, yuck. I use unbleached cotton twine or other natural fiber string. Hang them upside down/soil stems up, in cool shaded place, not in direct sunlight.
This usually takes several months. You want the stems to completely dry out, check them by breaking one off at the soil end and when it snaps cleanly, they are dry and ready for storing.
Last, if you want a nice dinner table centerpiece or a room freshener, harvest more stems and throw them in a vase like roses. Remove the lower leaves so they don’t touch the water (they begin to rot in the water and shorten the lifespan). Cut the stems at an angle for more water absorption. Then just change the water, re-cut stems every couple of days and your bouquet will last 7-10 days.
This is the easy part. Gently strip the leaves off the stems, keeping the leaves as fully intact as you can (crushing the leaves causes them to releasing their oils, losing their flavors and aromas) Just keep them in any air tight container away from heat and light, especially sunlight. Ok, I’ll tell you, sunlight can actually ‘burn’ dried herbs, zapping them of their flavors, essential oils and aromas. Heat does the same thing… so never store any herbs over or near the stove.
Jars are best because you can use them over and over for many years. Zip-Lock style bags are fine, but are petroleum based products (and don’t get me started…)
All herbs only last 1 year. Sorry but true. Herbs especially super-aromatics like Mint last even less, maybe 6 months. It’s not that the herbs ‘spoil’ they just lose all of their flavor& aromas as they continue to dry out. Who wants to cook with pale weakling herbs? Besides, I want you enhancing and enjoying your meals with the flavors of herbs every single day.
Time to Crush
To use dried herbs, you need to gently crush them to release their essential aromatic and flavorful oils. Do this by simply placing a small amount in the palm of your hand, using your other thumb, rub the herbs into you palm then add to whatever you are cooking. (hint: smell your palm – see what I said about the aromatic oils being released?) For dried mint tea leaves, I leave them whole so you can easily strain them out before serving. – next: Part IV … the recipes!