Fall Composting

   If you have some trees near your home, a lawn and a mower with a bag, fall can be a great time to build up your compost pile. The green grass and fallen leaves make a great mix. I put this mix on top of my compost pile and most of the material will be ready to use next spring.

When my compost bin is almost full I then spread this green grass/leaf mix on my outdoor garden after I've harvested my tomato's and peppers; sort of like a mulch to protect the soil over the winter. Much of this mix will breakdown by spring, what doesn't I work into the soil in the spring. I do not use herbicide's, weed be gone etc. in my lawn. If you do DON"T DO THIS! You could be adding these chemicals to your garden plants i.e. the food you eat.

Please see my first article about composting if you want to learn more.  I have also answered some E-mail questions about composting that good growers might want to read.

Yes, that is a renegade tomato plant I let grow from my compost pile this year. I did not mix the pile around the tomato plant's roots and it seems to be happy, even though it does not get a lot of light. The fruits are free and delicious

Good Growing,
 Dr. E.R. Myers


Herb Storage Wrap Up.

Now that fall is officially here I will have one final post about long-term storage of plants. Once you dry your herbs you want to store them. As I mentioned in my last post, an easy way to determine if your herbs are dry is if you can bend the branch and it ‘snaps’ it is dry. If it bends and does not break, it’s NOT dry enough for storage.

I think it is best to keep the plant as whole as possible so that you don’t break up cells and their contents. Glass mason jars are great for storing herbs. They are easy to clean, you can see what’s inside and the contents are protected from fungal spores. Any container that is airtight will suffice. Once dry you don’t want your plants to come in contact with the oxygen in the air as oxygen speeds up the breakdown of the plant material. No matter what container you use, you should always store herbs in a dark place because light-- especially sunlight will also speed up the break down (decomposition) of plants.

Long term storage is best in a freezer. To save space, you can put herbs in freezer bags if you don’t have room for mason jars in the freezer. I would double bag your herbs and make sure you get most of the air out. If you have a zip lock style bag, a trick I learned is to seal the bag up until there is just enough room for a straw in the bag. You then suck through the straw and suck out the air until the plastic bag pulls in on itself and clings to what is inside the bag. Then, quickly pull out the straw and finish sealing the bag. If it is sealed, the plastic should stay pulled against the contents of the bag. Repeat this with the second bag. If you have limited freezer space you could STACK the freezer bags on a shelf that fits in your freezer. Just measure your freezer and containers before you head to the local hardware store or office supply store. You may want to know that the coldest spot in your freezer is in the middle on the bottom. The worst spot for storage is on the door since you will open it up into the warm room every time you get something out of the freezer. Just like with seed storage  you want to avoid thawing and freezing, keep the stored herbs at a constant cold temperature.

No matter how well you master your drying technique, and even if you have a -20C freezer like most labs use for long term storage your herbs will start to deteriorate over time. Most growers I know get rid of their stored herbs when the new season comes in. Although you could use herbs for years if stored properly, most herbs don’t store well after a year. They are still edible, but they just don’t pack the same vigor and zest.

I am starting my indoor garden now. Some upcoming posts are: How to Speed up Germination, Setting up a Grow Room, Regeneration of Plants and I will talk about various pests like white flies and fungus. You can send any questions or ideas for posts to me at askthedoctor@htgsupply.com.

Indoor growing is so great, it does not matter what the season is you can always grow your favorite plants in the best environment any day of the year. Start with a great light and you will have a great hobby for life.

Good Growing,
Dr. E.R. Myers


Herb Storage Basics

1. Store your dried herbs in air tight containers. Zip lock bags are ok, but a mason jar or air tight tin would be better. Use what you have or what will fit best where you store your plants. You could try two or more methods and see which one works best for the plant you are growing/storing

2. Be sure to label and date your containers. You may think, “How could I forget” Trust me, everyone forgets sometimes. I say just label and don’t worry about it

3. Your herbs will retain more flavor if you store the leaves and/or flowers whole. I’ve heard people grind up their plants to store more in less space. This will not give you the best storage especially if you are looking for color and piquancy

4. Discard any dried herbs that show the slightest sign of mold.  Better safe than sorry, mold will spread so make sure you don't have mold on plants you are storing.

5. Place containers in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. A freezer is the best place.

Dried herbs are best used within a year. As your herbs lose their color, they are also losing their flavor.

Seed Storage link
Good Growing,
Dr. E.R. Myers


Tips on How to Dry Herbs

You can preserve your favorite herbs and flowers by drying and storing them so that you can enjoy them through the winter. For most plants you can tell when they are dry enough for storage when you can bend the stem and it “Snaps” If the stem is soft and bends let it dry a bit more.

Drying culinary herbs is an easy way to preserve them. If done properly you can maximize the aroma and color of your plants. You can dry plants a number of ways. I look at it as two basic categories, fast/manipulative drying and curing/slow drying. For fast drying you speed up the natural drying process with heat and or air movement so that the plants dry in hours instead of days. With curing you dry your herbs slowly in a manor that will allow the cells to continue to live after the plants are harvested and some of the metabolic processes continue. While some cheeses and other specialty foods have enhanced flavor due to mold/fungus, I would suggest never consuming moldy plant matter no matter how much time and energy you put into it. Fast drying minimizes the chances of mold.

Curing is what separates the best from the rest. The curing technique can be done without mold ruining your plants, but the longer it takes for your plants to dry the greater the chance mold will appear. If you don’t have someone to help you with hands on experience, I’d suggest trying a couple different ways and see which you like the best. Some herbs may be best with a fast dry, others you should use the slow technique.

FAST TECHNIQUES: Using a food dehydrator would probably be the easiest and fasted, but I don’t have one and have never used one. If anyone has ever used this I’d like to know how well it works. Some fast dry techniques I have used would be to put the plants in a gas oven with just the pilot light for awhile. You can use an electric oven on low if you leave the door open a crack. To dry your plants in an oven spread your herbs on a cookie sheet and check them every hour or so to see how they are progressing. If you can bend the stem and it “Snaps” they are dry and ready for storage. The big worry with using any oven is you will forget and ruin (cook/burn) your plants. A real tragedy after spending a growing season nurturing your plants.
Another way to dry plants quickly would be to put the plants parts, leaves, flowers whatever you are drying between two or more air filters or window screens and then place this over a large fan propped up on bricks or blocks. SEE PICTURE BELOW This should dry out the plants in a short time and leave them looking fresh. The lack of heat may help keep plants tasting better and you don’t have to worry about the heat ruining your plants. You can stack several screens on top of each other if you have a lot of plant material to dry (I only have two screens in the picture). As long as air can come out the top screen you are ok. Of course the more screens you have stacked the slower the drying will be.

SLOW TECHNIQUES: Many people may prefer air drying or curring because this is easy to do, it does not need electricity but more importantly, it allows herbs to take on their full flavor if a proper drying environment is provided. You can do this by hanging your plants upside down in bunches in a well ventilated attic or room, this is often called bunch drying.  The best conditions for air drying are a room temperature of 70-80 degrees F or warmer and good ventilation to take the evaporating moisture away from the plants. This is usually not the environment in a garage or basement especially in the fall when the weather is cool and in many areas moist. If you live in an area with cool moist fall weather, you could designate a closet or spare room to drying you herbs and put in a fan to help make a proper environment. HTGSupply.com has a “Dry Net” that will fit in a closet or grow tent and dry plants quite well.  Click on the picture below to see more information on the DRY NET

You could also just spread the herbs out on window screens. Be sure to suspend the screens over sawhorses or the backs of chairs. This allows air to move all around the plant for good drying. I have also spread out the plants on newspapers (the paper absorbs some moisture). If you are going to use newpaper turn the plants/leaves each day to ensure even drying and have a fan in the room blowing over but not on the plants. My favorite drying method for small amounts of plants, because it is easy and works for me is to put the plants in a brown paper bag and let them dry. The paper bag lets some moisture escape so you don’t get mold, but does prevent rapid moisture loss so you get a slow curing quality plant.  I do this for plants  I harvest only small amounts of like rosemary or lavander.

I’d like to hear any other drying techniques that you have tried.

Good Growing,
Dr. E.R. Myers


How I Harvest and Dry Outdoor Plants

1. Use a sharp knife or scissors to cut a single stemmed plant or individual branches from the plant. You should not do this in the morning when plants have morning dew on them. Give the branches a shake to get rid of any critters that are on them. Don’t forget to remove any dry or diseased leaves.

2. Take each branch and trim off the leaves. If you are using the leaves trim them over a colander and rinse them before drying. If you are going to dry the flowers, you can discard the leaves to the compost pile and keep the flowers on the main stem. I don’t rinse flowers with water; for the most part flower parts are more delicate and may be damaged and being thicker are more susceptible to mold.

3. I often use the bag method, where I place the plants in a brown paper bag in a room with good airflow. Check everyday, if you see any mold, take the plant out of the bag, throw away any moldy parts and put a fan blowing directly over the plants on a screen or newspaper to increase the rate of drying. I have never had mold in the bags, but it could happen if you have high humidity and mold spores as you harvest and process the plants.

Obviously each plant species will have tell tales of when the right time to harvest is. The best way to know when to harvest is experience. One thing is for sure, no plant should be picked before its time. How plants mature and when differs, some plants mature all at once while most indoor grown plants will flower/fruit from the top down. In other words some plants you should harvest all at once, others in pieces over time. If you don’t have an experienced grower to show you the ropes do it yourself and try different techniques.  I'd be happy to hear what works and what does not.

Good Growing,
Dr. E. R. Myers


The Fall Harvest

For me, one of the best things about growing plants is harvesting them. Growing good plants is very important, but if you dry them and store them properly you can enjoy the fruits of your labor for months or more. In some ways you can maximize or even enhance your plants with proper drying. So, as fall approaches I thought for September I’d dabble in how to dry and store herbs, something I’ve been doing for awhile but have no professional training in. Any tips, comments or questions as always are welcome. I appreciate the E-mail questions and comments, keep them coming! Of course you can store fruits and vegetables but this month will be for flower and leaf storage. Maybe later I’ll write about storing other things from your victory garden.

As a grower, you know homegrown will taste better, is healthier and will be cheaper then commercial bought plants. If you have a bounty from the outside garden I suggested you start in April you can store this excess to take you through the winter or until your indoor garden is up and running. Most leafy plants and flowers can be stored for long periods of time. Many herbs like cilantro, basil, parsley, marjoram and others can be preserved and stored through the winter and into the next growing season. Flowers can be dried and stored in a similar manor, but keep in mind it may take longer for big flowers to dry.
The first thing to know is that bruising and mold are the two biggest problems you need to over come when storing long term. I hope to give you some tips to improve or help you start storing your plants for long term use. And, if you did not have an outside garden this year, take my advice and try one next year!

Good Growing.
Dr. E.R. Myers