First Frost, Last Harvest
Nothing jolts an herbalist into action like the two words: Frost tonight.
We have an annual tradition in our family, whoever hears those two words in the weather forecast first is responsible for calling and texting the family so we can all jump up and shout, "FROST TONIGHT!”
Though most of us have been harvesting and wildcrafting through the summer and autumn, first hard frost marks the last opportunity to gather any tender plants we might want to dry for winter and spring use.
After the call we all grab harvest baskets and shears and head to our gardens to fill our baskets and snap photos of the abundance to send to each other as we drag it all indoors to sort and tie and hang. It is always a wonderfully hectic day, especially on the years we all miss the weather alert until evening!
As I prepared to write about harvesting herbs, I mentally ticked off all the topics I could include, and the list became silly long. The internet is full of specialty products like herb drying mesh hanging baskets, special herb stripping scissors, big dehydrators and hundreds of other doodads that are super fun but not really needed. Temperature and time of harvesting is different for everyone according to where they live. So, for this article, I'm going to keep things nice and simple, the basics for folks who haven't harvested much before. Every herbalist has their own way to do things, their own tips and tricks. I learned from my mama, who has had me chasing frost since I was wee little. My Ohio garden isn't great big, but it serves me and my family perfectly.
Take your basket outside and start cutting! A killing frost marks the end of our growing season, so tender annuals will be blackened and dead, so why not pull them and use them? I start my frost harvest by pulling my basil up, roots and all. Shake the dirt back into the garden and place in the basket. I do the same with parsley, rosemary, and any veggie plants still producing. In your area rosemary may be a perennial, but we have been unable to overwinter them here, so why not use all that can be used? These rooted plants can be messy if dirt still clings to them, so these plants are flipped roots up and tied with string to hang in our shed outside until dry. Mama taught me the plant will still be fed with the strength and nutrients of the root, even when pulled from the ground.
Next, I trim my perennials carefully. I want to ensure I have plenty to bring in and use for winter yet leave the plant strong to ensure it returns in the spring. I do this by taking no more than half of the leaves available. With clean scissors cut branches of the plant from the main stem. Earlier in the year this is done more carefully, at an angle and near a joint to encourage fuller plants and new growth. But the growing is all done, and you really don't need to be as careful. Keep the branches of each type of herb together in your basket. This year I cut stems of thyme, lemon balm, oregano, spearmint, peppermint, rosemary, sage, mugwort, and feverfew. On top of the piles of cut herbs, I fill my big basket until overflowing with giant fuzzy comfrey leaves and precariously balance the last bright orange calendula blossoms on the very top. This basket sits on my picnic table while I finish my work so any crawly friends have a chance to jump ship and escape. Another harvest basket is grabbed and I wander. As I've mentioned before, mother nature is a much better gardener than I. It is a bittersweet walk, both saying goodnight to the plants I adore as they prepare to sleep until spring, and also soaking in the beauty autumn gifts us. The smell of the crunching leaves under foot, the crispness of the cool air, and the sound of clicking chipmunks and cawing crows is a joyous thing. The land has turned golden and bright, my favorite colors, and it makes me goofy happy. In my empty second basket I gather a few pretty leaves, acorns still wearing their caps, buckeyes, and beechnuts. Just for the joy of them. I gather rosehips, yarrow, and staghorn sumac. I take a moment to take it all in and I say thank you with my whole heart.
I drag all my treasures inside, and prepare to make our traditional harvest day meal, biscuits and sausage gravy from scratch made with chopped fresh sage leaves. It is a meal I make every spring with the first sage leaves, and each fall with the last. Recipe to follow, so you may celebrate with me.
With a full belly, I take thumb tacks and stretch jute twine lines in my kitchen and living room like little clotheslines.
Separating each type of herb into piles on my table, I remove any spotted or damaged leaves, and wipe away any dirt or foreign matter. I do not submerge them in water unless absolutely necessary, as added moisture could lead to mold growth while hanging to dry. With a long piece of jute twine or kite string, I bundle several stems of one herb together and tie them together tightly at their cut ends. A small handful is plenty, you want airflow to reach all of the leaves to dry them. Once tied, secure to one of your twine lines to hang upside down by the same string you tied the bundle. To the strings you can add a label by attaching a gift tag, stapled note, or piece of masking tape with the name of herb to make it easy to identify later. Do not skip this step thinking you will remember. The plants will look completely different when dry, and you will be crushing and tasting leaves trying to remember what is what. Continue until all herbs are hanging.
Rose hips, buckeyes, acorns, calendula blooms, and beechnuts are scattered on brown paper on trays and cookie sheets on every available surface to dry. I chop my comfrey leaves in fat strips and shake them up in a big paper bag.
Now, and this is the very best part, the house smells of herbs and it is time for a big mug of tea and a satisfied grin. This isn't the last of the work to be done, roots will need dug once the green plants die, but there isn't a harvest day throughout the year quite as hectic and satisfying as this one. This is when I call my mama and kids and we all chatter about plants hanging everywhere and cold weather coming.
Leave everything to dry until the leaves are nice and crispy crunchy. When ready, I take down the bundles one at a time and cut the string holding them together. On a paper covered tray or table, I strip the leaves by running pinched fingers top to bottom of the stems, allowing the dry leaves to fall. When I say fall, I mean mostly fall. A few will shoot across the room which makes for a fun game with my Jack Russell terriers. Again, remove any leaves that look dark, brown, or damaged, and any small stems that could be bothersome when adding to dinner. Once stems are removed, lift the paper, fold in half, and pour in to a waiting container. Ideally you want a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, but in a pinch, you can use whatever you have on hand; old spice containers, clean baby food tubs, tiny storage containers we all get with the big sets and nothing ever really fits in them, or sealable bags will all work just fine. Store your jars in a dark and cool spot and your dried herbs will last a long time. The books tell us to replenish our dried herbs after one year, but mama has a jar of rosemary leaves that are just as tasty today as they were 10 years ago. Check them yourself, using your own common sense and see Brandon's article for reference.
As you can see, I use very old traditional methods to dry my harvest. It costs me nothing but time and twine. I do this because this is the way I was taught, and I believe keeping traditions alive through the generations is important. It also shows anyone can do it, it is simple and worthy of your time. If you have never had a last harvest day, perhaps this is the perfect year to start. Let us know if you would like to receive the frantic "FROST TONIGHT" text, and we will add you to the family phone list. In the meantime, stock up on a few groceries at the market so you will be ready to make your own pan of sausage gravy when the call comes.
Frost Tonight Sausage Gravy
1 lbs ground pork sausage
4-6 large fresh sage leaves minced (or 1 tsp dry rubbed sage)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 c flour
4 c whole milk
In a deep skillet, brown sausage breaking apart well, do not drain. Sprinkle flour over browned sausage and drippings and mix until coated. Allow flour to toast while stirring. Add sage, salt, and pepper and stir. Slowly add milk, stirring constantly. Gravy will be ready when thick, serve over hot buttermilk biscuits or thick slices of homemade bread. Add a few fried eggs to the top of the leftovers for breakfast next morning.