Gardening Herbs

How to Preserve and Store Homegrown Herbs

Dried herbs hanging from a cieling.

By Larry Hodgson

This spring you sowed and planted herbs for the first time. Well done! It’s a wonderful project. I’m sure you watered them in times of drought, gently fertilized as needed, chased insect pests away, even talked to them. Well done again! You did everything right. But now you have to think about making the most of your efforts: harvesting your herbs and using them for their exquisite taste.

Throughout the summer, you can harvest most of the herbs that are grown for their aromatic leaves (sage, parsley, thyme, rosemary, basil, chives, etc.) as you need them, even daily, a few leaves at a time and that’s marvelous. However, if you want to store your herbs for use during the off-season, from fall until next summer, you also have to learn how to preserve them. 

When to Harvest for Storage

When it comes to preserving herbs, it’s interesting to know that the perfect time to harvest is just before the plant flowers, usually in mid to late summer or early fall. In other words, pick them when you see flower buds, but before they start blooming.

*Herbs that are usually grown for their seeds rather than their leaves, such as dill, anise, coriander and caraway, are harvested after they flower, of course. When the seed capsules turn brown, take that as a sign it’s time to harvest them.

Why at that time? It’s because plants store up a maximum of sugars, lipids, minerals and essential oils as they prepare to bloom, then break many of them down to feed the flowers and the seeds that follow. So, right before flowering is the time in the herb’s growth cycle when it contains the highest concentration of “flavor,” especially the aromatic oils that give herbs their delicious aroma and bite. So, herb leaves dried at the “about-to-bloom” stage will have a particularly good taste and you won’t need to use as much of them.

Harvest in the Morning

Freshly harvested herbs in a colander.
If possible, harvest herbs in the morning, after the dew has evaporated so their leaves are dry. Photo: cookpad.com.

For most herbs, the best time for harvesting is early in the morning on a dry day, just as after the dew has evaporated, but before the heat of the day has set in. If possible, avoid washing the leaves, otherwise aromatic oils may be partly removed. If you must rinse them (there could dust or dirt on the leaves), at least dry them by patting them gently with a towel after.

That some dried herbs (thyme, sarriette, sage, etc.) are actually tastier than fresh herbs? That’s because drying removes liquids that dilute the aromatic elements and thus this intensifies their flavor.

Hang ’Em High

Herbs can be dried by hanging them upside down in bunches. Photo: Petr Kratochvil, publicdomainpictures.net

Most herbs can be dried by the traditional method, that is, by tying them together in bunches and hanging them from the ceiling in a dark, well-ventilated room. The drying time will vary depending on the type of herb and the conditions, but it will take at least a few weeks in most climates. The idea is to dry them slowly but surely, before molds and mildews have time to move in. When the leaves and stems are crisp to the touch, you can crush most herbs into a powder and store in a plastic bag or jar. Dried herbs can last for years!

Using the Microwave

In my youth, we used to dry herbs in a convection oven, and of course you can still do it, but it uses a lot of power and makes for a very expensive harvest as well as needlessly heating the kitchen in what is often already very hot weather. These days, you can obtain equally good herbs much faster and more cheaply using a microwave oven.

A microwave oven makes a wonderful dehydrator. Photo: Mk2010, Wikimedia Commons

Just place the leaves in a single layer on a paper towel. Now cover them with a second paper towel and place in the microwave for one minute on high. If the leaves are not dry enough, repeat, increasing the duration 30 seconds each time until you obtain nicely dry and brittle leaves. Each herb requires a bit of adjustment, but you’ll find the sweet spot soon enough. It costs significantly less to dry herbs in the microwave oven than in a conventional one.

Try a Dehydrator

There are many models of electric dehydrators and they all work well with herbs. Photo: amazon.ca

This method seems to be becoming very popular and is very easy and convenient, but involves greater expense because you probably don’t already own a dehydrator and will have to buy one. And also, you need to find a place to store it when it is not in use. (Yes, yet another kitchen appliance, as if you didn’t already have enough of them!) That’s why I insisted on methods of drying that use tools you already have on hand first. Still, dehydrators do a really good job and don’t cost much to run.

Ideally, you’d follow the method recommended by the manufacturer, but in general, you should preheat the appliance to about 95 °F to 110 °F (35 °C to 45 °C) first, but certainly never above 130 °F (55 °C), otherwise the aromatic oils in the leaves will tend to be lost through evaporation. Spread the stems and leaves on the tray in a single layer, then place it in the appliance. Don’t try to dry herbs with very moist products like fruits and vegetables: that can alter their taste and texture. Usually, the herbs will be dry in 2–3 hours.

Solar dryer. Photo: tompress.be

Alternately, you could try solar heating to dry the leaves. There are several simple models of solar dryers you can make or buy, often just superimposed mesh trays placed in full sun. 

I must admit I’ve had little luck with this method: it requires hot air and low humidity (ideally 100 °F/38 °C or more and an atmospheric humidity of less than 60%), both of which I have trouble providing in my area, where tbe harvest season tends to be fairly cool and quite humid. In arid climates, it will work like a charm!

Helpful Hint

A Four-Wheel Herb Dryer

If you have a car, you won’t need to buy a dehydrator to help dry your herbs. Use your vehicle to do it.

Just park your car in direct sunlight. Spread stems and leaves of herbs on a baking sheet and place the sheet on the dashboard, under the windshield. Then roll up the windows and close the doors.

The herbs will dry out quickly, certainly before the end of the day, and because they dry out so quickly there is no risk of mold. In addition, your car will give off a delicious herbal aroma for several days!

Note that you don’t have to sit in the car during the drying process. In fact, I strongly discourage it!

Freeze Your Herbs

Ciboulette coupée sur un plateau.
Chives and many other herbs can be frozen on a cookie sheet. Photo: @OmNomAlly

Some herbs are difficult to dry at home (chives, mint, dill, lemongrass, lovage, etc.), but freeze readily. Some may lose their texture, but they do retain their taste. 

To freeze them, remove any stems and rinse the leaves with water, then gently pat dry with a towel. Spread them out on a cookie sheet and freeze them (better chop the leaves of chives and lemongrass into short bits first). When the leaves are frozen, just scoop them up and store them in a plastic bag or other airtight container, then keep them in the freezer until use.

You can also freeze the herbs in an ice cube tray. Photo: enjoyherballife.net

Another way to freeze herbs is in ice cube trays. Chop them finely, spoon them into the compartments, cover them with water (always use oil in the case of basil, otherwise it blackens) and place the tray in the freezer. When the cubes are frozen, transfer them to an airtight bag for storage. For use, just drop the cube into whatever dish you are cooking and stir: it’s very practical.


There you go! Storing herbs isn’t rocket science, but you do have choices to make. I suggest you pick the method most convenient to you.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

9 comments on “How to Preserve and Store Homegrown Herbs

  1. LISBETH TUCKER

    I want to ask a question. Do you give information on house plants?

  2. Parsley freezes really well too. Just grab a chunk and add to whatever you are cooking.

  3. Have you heard of California bay? It is not likely available there. It grows wild here as a big and bulky tree. It ‘can’ be used for culinary applications, but the problem with it is that people believe that it is a substitute for culinary bay leaf, which it most definitely is not. Both species are known as bay laurel, and both have strongly flavorful foliage. However, the California bay is much more pungent, and capable of ruining an otherwise good recipe. It is actually sometimes available in markets!

  4. Freeze dry, oil, butter & vinegar are also good ways to keep herbs. NEVER store garlic in oil for more than three to five days & it must be refrigerated or it can make you sick or kill you.

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