Q: What is the best way to dry herbs? My basil and oregano are doing great and I want to save some to use after my garden is finished.

Answer: The optimum time to harvest herbs for drying is right before any blooms open on the plant. If you are harvesting lavender flowers, of course you cut them when the blooms first open. For leafy herbs, carefully pick the leaves or cut the stems to avoid bruising. For best results in terms of retaining flavor, use a food dehydrator to dry the herbs quickly. First rinse the leaves with clean water, draining off as much dampness as possible before lining the dehydrator trays with single layers of leaves. Place the trays in a pre-heated food dehydrator at 125 degrees. The herbs will take from 1 to 4 hours to dry, so check them frequently so that you don’t over dry them. The herbs are ready when the leaves easily crumble and the stems break. Follow instructions included with the food dehydrator if available. If you don’t have access to a food dehydrator, use paper towels or clean window screens as drying racks. Anything that will provide good air flow will work as drying racks for drying herbs. Treat the herbs just as before, and once spread out for drying, put the drying racks in a warm spot with good air circulation. Fans can be used to help move air through a room, although the warmer the air, the faster the drying. This technique will take a number of days, depending on the weather.

Such annual herbs as basil may be harvested until frost. Perennial herbs like oregano may be harvested until the end of August. You want the perennial herbs to have time to stop actively growing before we have our first frost. Store the herbs in airtight containers such as small canning jars. Keeping them in dark, cooler cabinets will protect the flavor. Use them liberally to bring some of your garden flavor to your culinary creations and enjoy!

Q: My squash is all finished and I have an opening in my garden. What would you recommend that I put in to keep the weeds from taking over?

Answer: You are definitely on the right track for protecting your soil by keeping it covered. You could always replant summer squash and/or zucchini up until the middle of August. You might be surprised at how well the squash will do in your late summer garden going into fall. It takes 50 to 60 days for summer squash and zucchini to mature, so you’ll be enjoying fresh squash in late September into early October. If you have had your fill of squash, you could plant buckwheat for a quick cover crop that pollinators love. Buckwheat is a weed suppressor so it is ideal to shade out warm season annual weeds. Sow it densely if you have had a bad weed problem. Use 1 to 1½ pounds of seed for every 1,000 square feet of garden. Buckwheat also scavenges Phosphorus and some micronutrients from the soil that have been unavailable to plants. Buckwheat has many fine roots which help to loosen up soil making it more friable. It is a warm season cover crop and will be killed back by frost. When the buckwheat plant debris is allowed to biodegrade on the top of the soil, it will make Phosphorus and other micro-nutrients available for plants to take up. You could also begin planting broccoli, collards, and cabbage transpants, and kale, lettuce, and radish by seed. Using mulch to help smother weeds is a good strategy for home gardens. Use an organic material like wheat straw to cool the soil surface, retain moisture and smother weeds. It’s hard to believe but it is now time to start fall gardens.

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Mary Jac Brennan is the agent for fruit and vegetable horticulture for small farms and local food for the Forsyth Cooperative Extension. Contact Mary Jac about commercial production, local foods, and sustainable agriculture questions. For information on home and gardening issues, contact the Forsyth Cooperative Extension office at maryjac_brennan@ncsu.edu or call 336-703-2850.

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