Managing Perennial Herbs

I harvested chervil, oregano, French tarragon, and sage earlier this week, and I thought I’d share a little about how we’re managing the perennial herb crops today.

From a space efficiency perspective, herbs need extra thought and management both in terms of accommodating their growth habits, and to make sure their product is fully captured by harvesting at the right times.

The perennial herbs, like oregano, can be especially challenging because they spread out via dense root systems, soon taking up far more than their fair share of the garden space. The most important tactic we are using for this category of herbs is to physically control them so that they don’t take up more space than we can afford. Our techniques are root pruning and aggressive harvesting, and we do them both at the same time.

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Chervil, oregano, French tarragon, and sage, ready to dry.

Harvesting and preserving all herbs at the point when they’re producing peak essential oil is really the best way to ensure that they will be readily available whenever I want them throughout the year.

It does help to understand a little about each herb’s complete life cycle. A common mistake that beginning gardeners often make is to assume that, once planted, their herbs will somehow just be there throughout the season to snip when the spirit moves, but that is generally not the case. Perennial herbs will quickly send up flower stalks once the hot weather arrives, marking the end of their harvest stage.

As a case in point, I’ve harvested our Oregano twice this year. First, about two weeks ago, and then for the second time, this week. I may be able to get one more cut before the plant gets serious about going to flower. When I harvest this way, I cut short tips, about two-inches long. This means I don’t have to spend any time de-stemming the herb before or after drying. It’s fun to give the Oregano plant a “haircut,” creating a compact, rounded, topiary effect.

Oregano
A compact mound of oregano after it has been harvested several times and root pruned.

As I take the last harvest, I take my spade and insert it in the ground around the perimeter of the plant, cutting through the spreading root ball. The blade of the spade leaves a small fissure in the soil that helps to “air prune” the roots and discourages spreading a bit. I lift out any adventurous runners outside of the allotted circle, and remove them from the garden.

By late summer, my pantry herb shelf will be replenished with all fresh herbs to last until next year’s harvest window. And, I’ll likely have a few jars to donate to the soup kitchen, as well!

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