Herb gardens are at their peak: Harvest the bounty now, then get ready to plant hot-weather varieties | Home/Garden

Sadye Matula

Table of Contents Flavor saversSummer herbs I love cooking with herbs, and I think they are well worth the effort it takes to grow them. Fresh herbs add so much to the flavor of our cooking. Now is a great time to generously harvest and preserve herbs that soon will […]

Table of Contents

I love cooking with herbs, and I think they are well worth the effort it takes to grow them. Fresh herbs add so much to the flavor of our cooking.

Now is a great time to generously harvest and preserve herbs that soon will languish in summer’s blast furnace, and it’s also a good time to plant herbs that will thrive in the coming heat. So this is a great time in the herb garden.

While the heat will take its toll on chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, French tarragon, lavender, parsley, sage and thyme, which are best planted in fall or late winter, they should be at their most productive through the month of May. 

You might even want to preserve some of these herbs by drying or freezing for use during the summer.

Herbs are marked for sale at the Herb Society’s spring sale in 2017.

Flavor savers

TO DRY HERBS: Harvest the stems long enough to easily tie them together. Next, rinse with water and blot dry. Make small bundles of about three to five stems held together with rubber bands and insert an unbent paper clip or S-shaped piece of wire to make a hook. Hang the bundles in a cool, dry place with good air circulation — like a spare bedroom with the ceiling fan left on.

Another way to dry herbs is to lay leaves or short sprigs on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels. Place them in a cool, dry, location with good air circulation. Do not use a warm oven or microwave to speed the drying process. Although the heat will indeed speed drying, it will also cause the loss of volatile, flavorful oils and reduce the quality of the dried herbs.

When the herbs are thoroughly dry, store them in tightly sealed containers labeled with the name of the herb or herb blend and the date. You can leave the leaves whole or crumble them to the desired fineness.

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Brightly colored sticks identify herbs at a garden sale.

TO FREEZE HERBS: Harvest, rinse and blot dry. Remove leaves from woody stems and chop finely before freezing. Place chopped herbs in a freezer bag spreading them out in a one-half inch layer. This makes it easier to break off usable pieces later when the herbs are frozen solid. Force out as much air as possible, seal and freeze. Be sure to label the bag with the date and name of the herb since chopped frozen herbs tend to look the same.

Summer herbs

A variety of herbs that will thrive in summer heat can be planted now. By far the most popular is basil.

BASIL: Ocimum basilicum asks for nothing more in the garden than full to part sun and average garden soil that drains well. Water during dry weather and keep beds mulched to conserve soil moisture and control weeds.

Basil grows quickly from seeds, which may be planted now through July. Transplants, which are readily available at area nurseries, can be planted in the garden through August.


Basil is the star of the summer herb garden.  

Allow newly planted basil transplants to grow for a while before you start to harvest. For standard size varieties, you can generally start to lightly harvest when the plants reach about a foot tall.

Individual basil leaves may be harvested for use, but more typically the plant is pinched or cut back. Cut or pinch basil just above a pair of leaves, removing no more than a third of the plant at one time. This leaves plenty of foliage to keep the plant healthy and productive.

Harvesting and using basil for seasoning is wonderful since the full, rich flavors are at their peak when used fresh. When basil blooms, the young flower spikes can be chopped and used just like the leaves.


Rosemary can be planted into the summer garden.

SPANISH TARRAGON: Another of my favorite summer herbs is Mexican or Spanish tarragon (Tagetes lucida). Native to Mexico, this marigold relative produces large bushy plants two to three feet tall by the end of summer. The foliage is rich with the flavor of tarragon and is an excellent substitute for French tarragon, which languishes in summer heat.

In late summer and fall, this carefree plant bursts into bloom with masses of golden yellow marigold flowers — a display that earns it a place in flowerbeds as well as herb gardens. Dormant in winter, this perennial herb returns year after year in spring.

PERILLA: Perilla frutescens is an annual East Asian herb with a unique flavor. I like it in fresh salads, but it is used in a variety of Asian cuisines, especially Japanese.

The form I grow has dark purple, ruffled leaves similar to coleus or purple basil. I use it freely in flower gardens as well as with herbs. Although an annual, perilla self-seeds freely, and it is common to see new seedlings appear in the spring where it has grown previously.

SWEET ANNIE: Artemisia annua is not a culinary herb. I grow the traditional Chinese medicinal herb for its wonderfully fragrant foliage. The aroma is rich, sharp and clean and is retained for an amazingly long time after the foliage is cut and dried.

This is a great aromatic herb for crafts like potpourris, sachets and wreaths. Start seeds of this warm season annual herb in April or May each year or plant transplants from the nursery.

Other herbs that may be planted now that do well in summer heat include:

  • Sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum)
  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
  • Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

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