Herbal Hacks, Part 3: Garden Care and Herb Drying Tips

The good ideas just keep coming! Read on for the third installment of reader-submitted herbal hacks: garden care and herb drying tips.

flowers-5792157_1920_Image by Prawny via Pixabay In summer, I dry herbs in paper bags in the rear window of my car. It only takes 2-4 days, depending on the amount of sun. – Gail Seeley

Fill a lidded, plastic trash can with water, then measure out and and add your favorite water soluble plant food. Store your watering can inside. This tip will make caring for plants in containers much easier. –Holly Cusumano

Folded and rolled towel cropped_Carol KaganExcerpt from Herbal Sampler, 2nd ed. You can dry herbs in your frost-free refrigerator. This method results in good quality and keeps the bright color of the herbs. Make sure the herbs are clean and dry. Remove the leaves from stems and place on a section of paper towel. Roll or fold the towel to cover the herbs on all sides. Secure with twist ties or rubber bands. Label. The paper towel absorbs the moisture evaporating from the herbs and the refrigerator will evaporate it from the towel. Place it in the crisper section or on a high shelf. Do not put it in a plastic bag or container. Should be dry in 2-3 weeks. –Carol Kagan

Always grow mint in a container so that you can take cuttings and give it as gifts, especially unplanned ones like a hostess gift or to give to a new neighbor. Include a recipe card with a recipe of how you use mint in the kitchen. –Peggy Riccio

Yellow_and_red_Tropaeolum_majus_(Garden_nasturtium) by Mary Hutchison via WikimediaMy husband started us on hydroponics last winter. We were thrilled with the grow lights in the basement for early starts. Basil and parsley did well. However, when we put them on the cart in the driveway to harden them off, here came the bugs. The hole-eaters even hitched a ride back into the basement at night to keep up their meal. So, my idea is to put the plants in a deep, translucent sweater box. Fill it with dirt, put the pots in the dirt and cover the top with an old window screen. The double source of soil helps the roots have more space and keeps them cooler in the heat. It is like a mini greenhouse. The sweater boxes can be found cheaply at the thrift stores. –Elizabeth Reece

Nasturtiums repel whiteflies, aphids, and squash bugs. I like planting them all around my veggies! –Shawna Anderson

herbs-drying from thegardeningcook dot comI have great luck using my car as a dehydrator. Sometimes I set up a clothesline using the coat rack hooks in the back seat to secure the clothesline and then hang herbs to dry, or I will lay them out in the trunk to dry. When we are experiencing the dry heat of the summer they dry in just a day or two! The added bonus is the scent of herbs fills the car. –Jen Munson

I was having problems with slugs on my basil, so I pulled lemon balm leaves, tore them up, and put them around the basil, which was only an inch high. It worked! I deliberately did not use mint because I was concerned it would root and then escape into the garden. –Peggy Riccio

Photo Credits: 1) Floral border (Prawny from Pixabay; 2) Paper towel technique for drying herbs in the fridge (Carol Kagan); 3) Yellow and red Tropaeolum majus (Mary Hutchison from Wikimedia); 4) Herbs drying (thegardeningcook.com)

Hyper-local Hydroponics in Restaurants

By Keith Howerton

Basil harvested from Farmshelf hydroponic growth chamberThe chef looked up at me, astonished, with a crumpled up Genovese basil leaf in his hand. “Oh my god, that smells fantastic,” he said, laughing and shaking his head. We had just gone over proper basil harvesting technique, and I had invited him to pinch off a leaf of the basil he had just grown for the first time inside the restaurant. It’s funny, even chefs at nicer restaurants get used to subpar quality when it’s all they have access to. It’s just so difficult for chefs to get really fresh, high quality herbs in the consistent, predictable quantities they need to run a kitchen. So, they settle. How did he grow basil inside the restaurant? We’ll  get to that in a minute. 

Back in college, I worked in a fairly upscale restaurant. A couple times a week, I remember seeing a delivery person from a big distributor back into the loading dock in a huge refrigerated truck, offload “fresh” produce, and bring it into the kitchen. Then, a few of the cooks would unpackage these boxes filled with Genovese basil, rosemary, and mint. I still remember the first time I gave the basil a smell. It didn’t smell bad, but it didn’t smell good either. And the mint used as a garnish for some of the fancy desserts smelled vaguely of mint, and that’s being  generous. 

Anyone who has grown basil at home knows and loves its rich, sweet scent. But when you shove that beautiful, fragrant basil in a plastic bag and cram it in a refrigerator for a week, it  doesn’t smell so good anymore. It develops off flavors and loses some of its vibrant green color. Sadly, this is what the vast majority of restaurants are forced to do when they want fresh herbs. 

And it’s not their fault! Nor is it the farmers’ fault. You cannot have exceptional quality fresh herbs when there is that lag time between harvest and food preparation. Most fresh herbs, especially basil, have very short shelf-lives. But these restaurant owners have businesses to run, so they choose consistently mediocre quality rather than fantastic quality in inconsistent quantities. 

Anyway, back to the present.  

Hydroponic BasilThis chef is now able to grow top-notch herbs inside his restaurant, just feet away from the kitchen, because he has a sophisticated hydroponic growing system called a Farmshelf.

For those who are not familiar, hydroponics just means growing plants without soil. Instead, the plant’s roots are bathed in water with nutrients dissolved in it. The only thing reminiscent of soil is the very small amount of growing medium used to germinate the seed and anchor the plant. 

Hydroponics is a very complex topic, and there are lots of pros and cons to growing in a hydroponic system rather than growing in the ground. (That’s a discussion for another day.) But for those of us in the restaurant industry, it’s a no-brainer because it allows Basil in Farmshelf Hydroponic Growing Chamberbusy restaurant staff with no in-ground space to grow high quality produce year-round. Additionally, since it is kept nice and clean, this method prevents just about any pest or plant pathogen you can think of. 

The quality difference between what comes out of this chef’s set-up and what comes from the distributor is phenomenal. (Disclaimer: I do work for a hydroponic systems company geared toward the restaurant industry, so I applaud anyone who is using these technologies to innovate and work toward more efficient food systems that provide higher quality produce. In college, I did some work with hydroponics and was excited to learn that there were companies using hydroponics to fill gaps and solve inefficiencies I had seen in the fresh herb supply chain.) As much as I would love to say the quality difference is because we’re just so super incredibly talented, I think this massive quality difference comes down to two main factors: a controlled growing environment and the freshness. 

You know how in hot weather basil goes to flower and develops that off, licorice-type smell? Well, when you’re inside a controlled environment, where the temperatures stay around 80 degrees or less, it may as well be springtime. I have never seen the basil try to flower in this particular set-up. So, you effectively get springtime-quality basil year round when you grow in a system like this. Farmshelf Hydroponic Chamber

As for the freshness, how much fresher can you get than inside your restaurant? And thanks to the massive energy savings afforded by recent advancements in LED technology, it’s now feasible to have some systems plug right into a wall outlet. 

I know I am biased, but man… it’s a beauty, isn’t it?

Photo Credits: 1) Freshly harvested basil; 2) Basil in hydroponic pots; 3) Roots of basil grown in hydroponic situation; 4) Farmshelf hydroponic growth chamber. All photos courtesy of the author.


After getting a horticulture degree from Texas A&M University, Keith was the 2017 National Herb Garden intern, and then spent a year and a half in the Gardens Unit at the U.S. National  Arboretum. He now works for an indoor farm company called Farmshelf and is obsessed with  all things growing food, foreign languages, and cooking (and eating).