How To Harvest Container Herbs for Healthy Cooking

I’ve found over the years that I’m more motivated to cook a healthy home-cooked, low-cholesterol dinner when I have fresh herbs on hand. So, sometime between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day every year, we go out and purchase a dozen or so herbs and plant them in three large containers we keep on our deck.

While a garden would be great, we have too many deer and rabbits and other critters to make that possible. Oh, who am I kidding. I’m from the Bronx…and am so very NOT outdoor girl. Frankly, the thought of gardening in an actual garden makes me sweat.  (And not because it’s hot. Gardening – for real – is a lot of work and I know absolutely nothing about it.  And that is probably as it should be.)

Though it is fun to visit my friend Chris’s amazing garden.  And she’s very generous with her bounty, so that’s fantastic.

Herbs_June2014But truly, I do find that I cook more – and more healthily – if I have fresh herbs at hand all summer long. Hence, three huge pots on our deck. And one big problem.  I know how to plant them…and water them (which is pretty much never…thus my success.)  But I do not understand how to harvest each one properly – and some, not at all.

Sure, I go out there with my scissors and cut chives- that’s pretty self-explanatory. But every summer I wonder if I’m supposed to cut the woody part of the rosemary.  Or how to tame the oregano that tries to take over.

And the arugula, well, I have no idea. I’ve tried just cutting a few leaves. I’ve tried cutting it to the soil.  No matter what I do, I can’t seem to figure out how to harvest that arugula before it flowers and turns bitter.

I decided to give up on arugula, but then had an idea.

I could, um, try to learn how to clip arugula … and rosemary… and all my other herbs.

Amazing concept, right?

In just an hour or so on the internet, I learned a lot. (Anyone who is a gardener and can supply more insight, please comment!)

The best resource I found online was from a site called, Gardener’s World. In their aptly titled article, How To Pick Herbs (!), here’s what I learned overall and about four of my favorite herbs:

Overall – the idea is to clip early and often! And don’t let parsley chives or basil go to seed (oops, I need to get rid of the chives I was so happy made it through the winter outside!)

“Culinary herbs are the original cut-and-come-again crop, so if you’ve got them in the garden, don’t be afraid to get snipping and picking. The plants really will benefit from it, and you’ll have wonderful flavours to add to dishes. Most herbs and leafy plants naturally want to create seeds, and once they get to that stage, it means the end of a herb like parsley, chives or basil. So pick leaves early and often to encourage the plant to put out more foliage and prevent it from running to seed. It may be cheating Nature but it extends the life of your plants and gives you handfuls of herbs to enjoy.”

  • PARSLEY. “When cutting parsley, always remove the whole leaf, together with the leaf stalk, nipping it back to where it joins the clump. Avoid the oldest leaves as these tend to be tough.”  This was total news to me – I used to just cut the leaves…and let it flower.
  • CHIVES. “Chives grow quickly in spring and summer. Cut as you need them for use, trimming right down to the base. Keep four or five pots at the ready, so you always have some at different stages to harvest.”  For me, never going to happen, so I’ll just keep cutting my one chive plant down – that should keep me in pasta heaven all summer.
  • ROSEMARY.  “Cutting rosemary for culinary use will prevent the plant from becoming woody. Use secateurs (???) to trim 10cm – 15cm from each shoot, as required. Avoid cutting back into woody, leafless branches.”  LOL: secateurs are British for pruning clippers. Which, um, I don’t even own.  So I’ll be using scissors.
  • BASIL.  “When harvesting basil, nip out with scissors or between finger and thumb, the tips of the plants back to just above a pair of leaves. New growth will emerge at this point. Don’t nip just below the leaf, leaving a short stem, as this will simply wither.”  I had to read this about 5 times before I realized it said, simply, to make a cut ABOVE where 2 leaves join, not below.  

But it didn’t help me with my all-time favorite herb, cilantro. From a site called GardeningKnowHow.com, I learned How To Harvest Cilantro.  Essentially, you have to clip some EVERY WEEK or it will ‘bolt’ which apparently means go to seed. And you clip off the top 1/3 or so – don’t clip down to the soil. I was doing NONE of this in prior years, so am happy to give this a whirl.

Last but not least is arugula.  And sadly, it seems clear from my research that I need to give up on arugula, because you have to plant it over and over again to keep it going all summer long, and frankly, I have the patience of a gnat. That said, I had already bought 2 plants, so I’m going to try what I learned from heirloom-organics.com’s How To Grow Arugula:

To harvest Arugula, pick off the outside tender leaves at the base of the plant. Leave the center growing point intact for future harvesting. Discard larger leaves as they tend to get tough and very bitter tasting. Leaves can also taste bitter in warmer weather. Eat fresh or cooked like spinach.”

Lastly, regarding oregano, it seems that it’s just bound to take over, so I’ll just let it.

I’m looking forward to a summer of herbs inspiring healthy home cooking.

Recipes anyone?

Going Lo-Co is a blog about one woman's journey to lower cholesterol without medication via food and lifestyle changes and the crazy things that happen along the way.  Read more at www.golowcholesterol.com.

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