Helping Pollinators Through Dry Summers
My bee keeper friend Charles showed me a picture of his bees during our recent heat dome event. Except for a few guards left to mind the glass-sided hive, hundreds of bees were heaped in a panting pile by the entrance to the hive, trying to get a little cooler. They survived, thanks to shade Charles was able to provide, but he said that in dry, hot summers like this, bees and other pollinators struggle to find enough nectar and pollen. In the woods and meadows, very little is still blooming as native plants show signs of drought stress. Many gardens are similarly parched and it can be challenging to keep plants growing well. We know such times are likely to become more common, even here in the maritime Northwest. The wise gardener will think carefully before planting water hog prima donna plants, and tend garden soil carefully too.
My own gardens are abuzz with pollinators even before the sun is up. That’s largely because I’m growing a curated mixture of herbs and annual flowers in each location, notably oreganos of every kind I can find. When other plants turn crisp, oregano and other hardy Mediterranean herbs flourish, relishing the sun’s warmth. Dry soils encourage herbs to concentrate the essential oils that build both flavor and health benefits in our kitchen herbs. However, young plants and new transplants are more vulnerable to heat and drought, so watch them closely and supply moisture as needed. Fall and early winter are the best times to plant hardy herbs, since winter rains supply water for free. Or so they have; even the endless Northwestern rains have been arriving later and leaving sooner than usual and that pattern too is likely to become more common.
Pick Them At Their Peak
Hardy herbs are as welcome in our kitchens as they are to hungry pollinators. If harvested and dried or frozen at their peak, home grown herbs will have more flavor than store bought ones, but can quickly grow stale in warm, humid kitchens. This is a good time to harvest garden herbs and purge their kitchen cousins. Give older dried herbs the sniff test, toss any that lack savor on the compost heap and wash out the containers thoroughly.
To preserve the goodness of both fresh and dried herbs, freeze small amounts in tightly sealed containers. Keep just a tablespoon or so in the herb rack, refreshing supplies as needed from the freezer. Herbs and spices last longest when stored in small glass jars with tight fitting lids, since glass protects flavor and quality better than plastic. This is especially important if your herb and spice rack is near the stovetop, where it’s convenient but exposed to flavor-degrading heat and moisture.
For fullest flavor, harvest fresh herbs in the morning while the foliage is still refreshed by dew. Ideally, you’ll want to gather leafy herbs from unflowered stems, as blossoming changes the chemical composition and therefore the flavor, and not for the better. For soft, leafy herbs such as basil, chervil, chives, mint, oregano, and parsley, trim up to half the length of the stems each time you harvest. They’ll grow back quickly and can be gathered again every few weeks. Only rinse herbs if they are dirty (unusual), as immersion in water can dilute the essential oils.
Dry fresh herbs in a single layer on bakers’ cooling racks over clean newspaper in a warm, dry place out of direct light (attics are great). When crisp, freeze most and store the rest in labeled, tightly sealed glass containers, NOT a sunny windowsill, as sunlight and heat degrade essential oils). To keep dried herbs potent for months, freeze in double containers (sealed glass jars tucked inside plastic boxes works well without flavor loss or contamination).
Making Herb Salts
High summer is a perfect time to make herb salt blends, filling pretty glass shaker jars for holiday gifts. Once they’re baked and re-ground (see below), herb salts are shelf-stable for up to a year (sometimes more). If you’ve tried herb salt blends, you’ll have some ideas about which combinations you prefer. However, the more moisture is introduced from fresh foliage, petals, grated citrus rind, garlic or shallots, the more important it is to process salt blends properly. These days I’m using up to a 1:1 ratio of fresh ingredients to kosher salt, grinding everything together, spreading the salt in a flat layer in a rimmed baking sheet to bake. When baked enough, the salt will get crusty and form crisp sheets that must be broken up and re-ground before you can pour it into jars or shakers.
Herb Salt Sampler
Our house salt is this basil salt, vivid green and redolent of summer even in January. I usually make it with Genovese basil, including the Everleaf Genovese variety. It’s definitely performing as advertised, still growing strongly without blooming when other basils have been blooming for over a month and tastes fantastic.
Supreme Basil Salt
1 cup lightly packed chopped basil foliage and stems
1 cup kosher or coarse sea salt
Preheat oven to 225 degrees F. In a food processor, grind salt and basil to a paste, then spread with a spatula into a flat layer in a rimmed baking sheet to bake. Bake until a crisp sheet forms (it will shatter when nudged with a metal spatula), about 15-20 minutes. Cool, then break up the pieces and re-grind to fine grains and pour it into glass jars or shakers. Makes about 1-1/4 cups.
Lemon Garlic Salt
1-1/2 cup kosher or coarse sea salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh garlic cloves
Finely grated zest of 2 organic lemons
Preheat oven to 225 degrees F. In a food processor, grind all ingredients to a paste, then spread with a spatula into a flat layer in a rimmed baking sheet to bake. Bake until a crisp sheet forms (it will shatter when nudged with a metal spatula), about 15-20 minutes. Cool, then break up the pieces and re-grind to fine grains and pour it into glass jars or shakers. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.