how to preserve fresh herbs for the winter
Zero Waste Living

The Beginner’s Guide: How to Grow, Harvest, and Preserve Fresh Herbs at Home

Fresh herbs are delicious, amiright? But they also can be expensive; and how many recipes use up the entire bunch that you buy from the store or farmer’s market? In the last year and a half or so since we started reducing our waste, I have become increasingly aware of how much food ends up in the trash. And not only in our house (although we have gone through a number of measures to reduce our food waste), but also throughout the US.

Did you know that 40% of all food in the US ends up in the trash? That’s a lot of waste and a lot of money we are literally throwing away. And not only that, but food in the landfill doesn’t just ‘compost’. As it rots, it ends up producing greenhouse gasses which contribute to climate change.

40 percent of all food is waste in US

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Uses for Herbs

Cooking: Dry herbs and fresh herbs are a staple in all dishes, but they can be expensive as well and can come in not the most zero-waste friendly packaging.

Tea: The same goes for tea (yes, did you know you can grow your own herbs for teas?). Some can be expensive and the packaging isn’t always the most eco-friendly. Not to mention that many tea bags contain plastic and can’t be composted.

drying herbs for tea

Medicinal: Many herbs can be used for medicinal purposes through tinctures or teas. I’ll share a little bit more throughout the article, but many people grow herbs for this reason. I probably don’t have to mention how expensive some medicinal products can be, not to mention the packaging isn’t as zero-waste friendly as growing herbs. Of course, as with any medicinal-type of product, check with your doctor before using. AND, regarding packaging and medicines/tinctures, your health comes first, so worry about that over any type of packaging it comes in.

Cleaning products: DIY cleaning products can be a popular alternative to conventional cleaning products due to being more budget-friendly, environmentally friendly, less packaging, and better for our health. Herbs can make a great addition to many of the make-your-own recipes out there.

So what can you do to save money, reduce waste, and have fresh, delicious herbs?

Grow your own!

There are lots of benefits to growing your own herbs. Here are some of my favorite:

  • Super budget friendly!

  • Easy to dry for DIY, zero waste spices, tinctures, cleaning recipes, and teas

  • Speaking of zero waste…zero waste friendly!

  • Natural pest control for your garden!

  • Organic (if you don’t use pesticides)

  • Easy to grow

  • Beneficial for pollinators

  • Host plants for some butterflies (ex. Swallowtail butterflies LOVE dill)


Before we dive into it, I want to talk a little bit about the differences between herbs.

Related Post: The ‘So Big it Should’ve Been an E-book’ Guide to Growing Your Own Vegetables (Zero Waste Style)

Types of Herbs

I know you know what herbs are, but here are a couple of different types  you should be aware of:

Leafy herbs: These are herbs where you don’t typically eat the flowers. Think herbs such as basil, oregano, and cilantro.

Flowering herbs: These are herbs where you DO traditionally use the flowers. Some of these would be chamomile and lavender.

Specific Herbs

Here are some of the more common types of herbs, and some of my favorites:

  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Cilantro
  • Lavender
  • Dill
  • Holy Basil
  • Thai Basil
  • Chamomile
  • Lemongrass
  • Peppermint
  • Spearmint
  • Catmint

You can find herb seeds and transplants at local garden centers, big box stores, online at places like Seed Savers Exchange (my favorite), from gardening neighbors or friends/family.

Related post: How to Plan your Meals in Order to Reduce Food Waste (and Save Money)

How to grow herbs at home

The best thing about growing herbs at home? It’s easy, doesn’t require a lot of supplies, and something kids can help with to!

Growing herbs from seeds

I always start my herbs from seed because it’s much more cost effective and creates less waste than buying transplants. However, it does take a little bit of time pre-season to get started.

What can I grow my seeds in?

To start your seeds, you’ll want some type of seed starting kit that utilizes seed starting trays. I’ve been using the one linked for years – and just buy refill peat pellets each year (you can also cut up toilet paper tubes and fill with dirt instead of the peat pellets.)

However, you don’t need to buy an official kit. You can use toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, plastic berry containers, small pots, plastic takeout containers…the possibilities are endless! I use these items as well when I run out of space in my seed starting trays, and they work just as well!

What type of dirt should I use to grow herbs from seed?

There are lots of possibilities here too…however, there are a couple things to keep in mind.

Yes, you can use any old soil that you can find. Even that you dig up in your yard. However, I personally prefer to buy new potting soil each year because I like to know that the soil is safe – especially when I’m using it for food items.

I look for soil that is:

  • Made for containers
  • Good for starting seeds
  • Organic (a personal preference)

And example is this Burpee Organic Seed Starting Mix.

When to plant herbs seeds

When starting seeds indoors, you’ll want to start them 2 – 4 weeks before you plan to put them outside.

When do you put them outside? That all depends on your zone. In the US, the USDA has come up with a plant hardiness zone map, which helps you determine when to start seeds/transplants outside based on average frost date and soil temperatures. This is a SUPER handy guide, and one that I recommend to any gardener!

Another resource is the seed packet itself. The seed pack will tell you when you can plant outside, if it is recommended you start indoors, etc.

Of course, if you’re planning to grow herbs indoors, you don’t have to worry about when to plant them. Just do so whenever!

How to grow herbs outdoors

Whether you start herbs from seed (see above), or you bought herbs pre-planted and partially grown from garden centers (called transplants), you may be wondering how to grow herbs outdoors. Here are different options:

Planting herbs in the ground

Herbs can easily be planted right into the ground, but it’s important to keep one thing in mind. Some will take over…looking at you mint family (catnip, spearmint, etc) and chives.  Additionally herbs like cilantro and dill don’t necessarily take over, but they do reseed very easily year after year.

Be sure to pay attention to your plant hardiness zone (linked above) and see what herbs are considered perennials – plants that come back year after year.

How to grow herbs in pots or containers

Pots are perfect for herbs that spread, for small spaces, or if you don’t want to grow in the soil from your yard. Almost all herbs grow well in pots!

All you’ll need are pots and/or containers (I typically prefer 12″ or larger for outside, smaller for inside), and soil.

Before rushing out and buying pots, I would highly encourage you to ask around to your friends, neighbors, family, local community, or groups like the Buy Nothing Project, Freecycle, Nextdoor, Facebook Marketplace, etc. I check out these sites often and see pots and containers regularly. Not only can pots/containers be expensive, but by buying secondhand, you are choosing the more eco-friendly option by using something already in existance, and helping someone get rid of clutter!

What type of dirt should I use to grow herbs in pots?

Like I said above, you can use any type of soil for container/pot gardening. However, I like to know the soil I’m using for my food, and what has been put onto it.

Here’s what I look for in soil for my pots:

  • Made for containers
  • Organic (a personal preference)

I use something like this:

Kellogg Garden Organics 2 cu. ft. All Natural Raised Bed and Potting Mix Premium Outdoor Container Mix

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How much sun do my herbs need to grow outdoors?

Full sun is best, but not required. What is full sun? Full sun is usually designated as 6+ hours of sun.

However…this is true for MOST herbs. I have a lot of shade in my backyard where I grow my herbs, so they definitely don’t get full sun all day long. The two herbs I haven’t had a lot of luck with not being in full sun are lavender and basil. But I regularly grow chives, dill, cilantro, catnip, mint, parsley, and more in areas that get part-sun.

Not sure? Don’t be afraid to try! Herbs are generally easy to grow (the exception I’ve found is lavender in my area.) Additionally, the seed package/herb tag or plant marker should give specific care for each one.

How much water do my herbs need?

Water daily. Self-explanatory. Those herbs get thirsty! If it rains? You don’t need to water. Super hot and dry outside? You may need to water twice a day.

Mulch such as the actual mulch wood chips or mulch in the form of grass clippings (from non-fertilized/pesticide and herbicide free grass) or leaves chipped can help retain moisture.

Natural Pest Control

When it comes to any gardening, you may deal with the occasional pest. However, the great thing about herbs is that many of them are natural pest repellents. Some examples are lavender and lemongrass. However, there are some natural pest-control methods you can use if you find something unwanted on your herbs.

Marigolds: Marigolds are a natural deterrent. I grow them all over my veggie and herb garden. I usually start them by seed when I start my other veggies indoors so they are ready to go when the plants are!

Make a DIY garden spray such as this oneI haven’t found that I need to use a spray on my herbs, but this spray is made with all natural ingredients (and ones you likely already have at home) in case you do.

Eggshells: Eggshells can be a great way to deter pests such as slugs. Adding eggshells can also add nutrients into your soil. 

A dish full of beer: No, I haven’t gone crazy. This works for slugs! I promise. Just pour a can or bottle of beer into a bowl, and leave it out for a day or two. If you have a slug problem, they like the sugar/yeast in the beer and will come on down for a drink. 

AlliumsThese are super cool pom-pom looking type flowers known as alliums. Alliums are part of the onion family (which are natural pest deterrents).

Diatomaceous EarthDiatomaceous Earth can be a good natural pest deterrent for lots of insects. However, it does not differentiate between beneficial and problematic insects, so use this only if you must outside in your garden.


How to grow herbs indoors

 We’ve talked a lot about growing herbs outside, but you can also grow them indoors. The process to start the herbs from seeds or planting them directly in containers would be the same process as mentioned above.

If you are growing inside, you’ll want to put near a bright window (doesn’t need direct sun necessarily, but bright light). Having the option to grow herbs inside is perfect for growing climates that are short (hello, Minnesota) where you want fresh herbs year round. It’s also super handy to have yummy herbs available for cooking!

How to harvest herbs

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that for many years, I would ‘save’ my herbs throughout the summer instead of using them as often as I could. Well, I did not make that mistake the past year; in fact, I planned plenty of recipes around the fresh herbs we had in our garden (like this chimichurri sauce.) Not only did we enjoy fresh herbs all summer/fall, but I still had some leftover when it became time to harvest.

When do I harvest herbs?

So, how do you know when to harvest? Let’s bring back that USDA plant hardiness map (I told you it’s important.) To know when to harvest is to know your average first frost date. For my zone in Minnesota, it’s usually sometime in September (October if we’re lucky.) Some herbs are hearty and can withstand cooler temps, but my rule of thumb for harvesting is before the first frost, unless I plan on covering them with a blanket the nights it gets below 32 F.

How do you harvest herbs?

So how do you harvest herbs? If it’s the end of the growing season and you’re done with the plant (and important: aren’t planning on having it grow in that same spot next year), you can easily pull the stem out of the dirt or cut the stem near the base of the plant.

If you’re hoping to have the plant come back next year, I would recommend cutting the stems off at the bottom, but leaving the roots in the ground.

If it’s during the growing season and you just want to harvest a little bit at a time here are some tips:

  • Leafy herbs: Simply pull the leaf off where it is attached to the stem. That’s it!

  • Flowering herbs: Slide the stem in between two fingers, and pull up gently once your fingers touch the base of the flower. Easy peasy.

There really isn’t a way to screw it up!

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How do you dry and preserve herbs

Once you have harvested the herbs, it’s time to figure out how you want to use them. There are a few options. First, I’ll get into drying herbs.

Here are 3 ways you can dry herbs:


  • Take a bunch of herb stems and tie them together (bouquet-style) using any type of string

  • After you’ve tied them into a bouquet, hang upside down in a cool, dry place for 1-2 weeks


  • Place a thin cloth onto a microwavable safe plate

  • Lay the herb stems onto the cloth and place the plate into the microwave.

  • Microwave in 15-20 second intervals until dry. Be careful, the plate can get really hot!

Hanging rack:

  • This hanging rack is great if you have a lot of herbs you need to dry at once. I have one that I hang in the garage, and I can dry a ton of herbs without having to try and find places all over the house to hang bouquets. You simply lay the herbs on each shelf and wait until the leaves are dry.

Once the herbs are dry, crumble them up and store in airtight containers until needed!  You can use the spices in recipes or teas. Locally grown, organic (if you don’t use any pesticides), and zero waste friendly!

Other ways to preserve herbs

Many people, myself included, like to dry herbs. However, there are a couple of other options you can do to preserve your herbs.

  • How to freeze herbs in oil: Freezing herbs in oil helps to preserve fresh leaves. The easiest way is to pour neutral cooking oil or olive oil in an ice cube tray, and add 3-4 herb leaves to each ‘cube’. Freeze and store in an airtight container.
    • Note: you can try freezing them without oil in an air-tight container if you would like. I will admit I haven’t had the best of luck with this method personally.

  • Use them in sauces: Making sauces with your herbs to freeze or can is a great way to use up excess herbs. Pesto, spaghetti sauce, or chimichurri are great options, but you can find tons of ideas on Pinterest!

  • Use them for medicinal purposes: Lots of herbs are medicinal and can be used/made into tinctures or for different types of ailments. One I tried this year was this sage/honey cough syrup with my excess sage. As with the option above, you can find a ton of specific ideas on Pinterest.

  • Make an infused all-purpose cleaner: I love making my own all-purpose cleaner (scroll down to page 4 for recipe) using citrus peels and vinegar. However, you can add different herbs for all sorts of yummy smelling goodness. For example, using some excess sage (yes, I had a lot this year!), I made a lemon and sage cleaner using the recipe linked above and just adding some sage leaves!

  • Store in a cup of water in the fridge: If you know you want to save some of your herbs to use fresh in the near future, you can store them in a cup of water in the fridge. I usually just put the whole stem into the cup and simply check the water every other day or so. I’ve had herbs last 2 weeks (easily – maybe even longer) using this method.

  • Transplant indoors: You can always try transplanting some of the stems from the ground/pot into a small pot for inside. That way you can have fresh herbs all year long!

Growing, harvesting, and preserving herbs can be fun and rewarding! By simply growing a few herbs in the summer/fall, you can enjoy herbs through cooking, teas, tinctures, and cleaning recipes all year long.

What is your favorite herb to grow? What do you do with it once you’ve harvested it?

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Jennifer Love
4 years ago

What great advice to help one get started! My son is so interested in this but I don’t know where to begin. Thanks!

4 years ago

THere’s nothing better than being able to pick fresh herbs from your backyard!

Elena Pappalardo
4 years ago

I may have to start harvesting, thanks for a great article!


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