Throughout my childhood, my grandmother did not let a day pass her by without extolling the marvelous health benefits of fresh herbs: their vitamin content, their antioxidant and antiinflammatory properties, their immune system boosting attributes. Her lessons stuck with me, and now, many years later, I couldn't imagine my garden without a patch of fresh herbs.
I dry them in small bunches all through the summer, to build up an adequate supply of spices for the cold season, but they are, of course, best consumed fresh, just picked from the garden at their peak of flavor.
This is a luxury only available during the summer, so here are a few tips about herb drying, for all year round benefits (dried herbs still maintain a lot of the properties of their fresh counterparts, even though the latter are better).
Never pick herbs after the rain, but do pick them early in the day, after the morning sun dried up the dew. Always pick the young leaves, they are tender and more flavorful, and the large foliage around the base of contains emergency reserves of food and energy; the plant will not appreciate you taking them away from it.
If you grow herbs for their flowers, pick the blossoms just after they open.
Dry herbs in bunches, hung in a place where the air is warm and still. When they are completely dry, store the leaves whole if you have room, in paper bags labeled with the contents and the date. Herbs lose their potency when stored for too long.
Herbs are not demanding plants, but some rules must be followed when growing them in order to ensure their success.
There are two kinds of herbs: those that adapted to the wind swept, sunny and dry cliffs of the Mediterranean shores, like rosemary, basil, thyme, sage, lavender, calendula and savory, which thrive in full sun and dry, limey soils, and those that enjoy shade, like parsley, mint, lemon balm, chives, dill and tarragon, which like a consistently moist soil and not too much sun exposure.
If you have a large area available for herb planting, it may be feasible to accommodate both growing conditions, but if not, the solution is to grow the moisture loving plants in pots, where you can control the shading and the moisture levels.
Some suggest that herbs grown in containers will benefit from a slow release organic fertilizer. In my experience herbs go crazy if you over feed them, and don't forget that potting mix already has a fair amount of fertilizer mixed in, usually enough for three months, which pretty much takes care of the whole growing season, at least for annual herbs.
Clip off the flowers of basil and calendula before they go to seed, otherwise they'll be done for the year. When October rolls around you can let the latter go to seed, to provide you with seedlings for the following year (calendulas are cold weather annuals and their seeds need chilling during winter in order to thrive). October is often their best season anyway, they bloom a lot more once the weather cools down.
If parsley makes it through the winter, like mine did, it will start forming inflorescences. Other biennial and perennial herbs, like lovage and dill, will also be happy to direct their energy into producing offspring. They will either grow umbels or foliage, not both, and it's the gardener's choice what to do about it.
Personally I enjoy seeing herbs go to seed, and the butterflies love their flowers too, they provide food and shelter for their caterpillars.