One would surmise, by looking at my herb garden, that I have an eccentric attachment to dill. Not true. I know that somewhere in my herb garden grow silvery sage, aromatic tarragon, lush oregano, pine-scented rosemary and at least five different varieties of thyme, as well as basil, fennel, sorrel, comfrey, pennyroyal mnd many other herbs.
The problem is that wherever you look, all you see are tall (some of them chest- high), wavy spikes of fern-leafed dill topped with yellow crowns getting ready to bloom. I didn't even plant dill this year. These are all volunteers -- the children of a scant half-dozen plants I put in last year. Since dill has a tendency to reseed itself, all you have to do is plant it once and you'll never have to buy pickling herbs again as long as you live.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the plant's penchant for procreation can be a major threat to the typically small herb garden. All of which is a roundabout way to examine the topic of when to snip herbs.
Herbal literature designates a magical time to harvest herbs -- just as the plant blooms and just as the dew evaporates in the early hours of the morning. The very logical reason for this is that, supposedly, oils will then be at the maximum in the leaf, which is usually the part you're after. I have harvested herbs during flowering as well as before and after they have flowered; morning, noon and evening. I have yet to detect any significant difference in pungency. So I have developed a far more practical approach to the subject.
The first rule is that when you need something fresh from the garden, pick it, regardless of what stage it happens to be in at that particular moment. When you're contemplating gathering herbs to dry for the winter, pick them when you have the time to tie them loosely, hang them upside down from a joist and place a paper bag loosely about them so that seeds and stray leaves won't fall all over the floor. I usually wait until the very end of the season because I do find a loss in flavor in the dried herbs after a few months.
Beyond that, here are some harvesting tips for commonly grown herbs. BASIL: This is one that really must be harvested before it blooms. Once that happens, basil stops making leaves, and the leaves are what you want. Thus, you should be diligent about pinching basil back every time you see it sending up a stalk that threatens to bloom. Don't use these stalks for flavoring. They're bitter and make terrible pesto. The best way to preserve basil is in pesto -- an olive-oil, pine-nut, basil combination that's delectable when served over many vegetables, meats and pasta. However, properly dried and stored basil also retains an almost- fresh flavor for a long time. Dry it quickly, using the method described above, and store it in an air-tight container as soon as it's dry. CHIVES: Harvest them any time by cutting chunks out of the plant, rather than picking individual stalks. To preserve, use scissors to cut bunches of stalks into quarter-inch pieces and freeze. Cutting chives early in the spring will encourage the plant to bloom. Stalks that have blooms on them are hard and woody and not suited for eating or flavoring. The showy purple flowers can be harvested and put in a bottle of white vinegar to make pink- tinted chive vinegar. DILL: Cut or pull before it gets a chance to release seeds. After the dill has bloomed, it will go to seed. It takes a couple of weeks for the seeds to dry out enough to drop. When dill blooms, it will no longer produce its characteristic feathery foliage. The blooming crowns, however, have a good deal of flavor and look extremely attractive in a jar of dill pickles. Dill reaches harvesting rapidly, so you can plant several consecutive crops for a continuous supply. Dill planted much after Labor Day, however, won't have as much flavor as sowings that have gone through a hot, dry period. To ensure a good crop next year, allow one crown to release seeds. You will have dill all over your garden. Dill doesn't retain its flavor well when dried. The preferred method of preserving is to chop and freeze, or freeze whole blooms. MINT: Pick fresh now until frost. Mint benefits greatly from constant harvesting. Mint is a perennial -- plant it once and forget about it, but make sure you put it in a place where it can wander. Some varieties don't bloom, but all spread through the ground. Harvest when you're ready, and dry and store as with basil. OREGANO: Real Italian or Greek oregano has that distinctive scent and flavor that makes you think of pizza. Other varieties are probably marjoram, which is the same family and is perfectly serviceable in some recipes but suffers in our winters and doesn't give that rich flavor of the real thing. Italian and Greek oreganos are perennial. You can usually tell the difference because the real oreganos are a creeping sort, at least for the first year, while the marjorams will grow tall and bloom quite quickly -- within a month or two after planting. The real oreganos don't bloom until the end of summer. There are so many oreganos and marjorams that it's a little unfair to make generalizations -- I can only base advice on my own experience. I've found two excellent oreganos, both extremely hardy and prolific and both heavily flavored. One is a green Greek oregano that, in its first year, remained very low to the ground and spread widely. In its second year, however, it grew quite tall, a good 12 to 18 inches, while continuing to spread. The other is called golden creeping oregano and has marvelous lemony foliage. It is quite compact but very determined to sprawl. Neither bloomed in the first year, but both appear to be planning to do so this year. Both are also very easy to propagate simply by pulling or digging a small clump, roots and all, and transplanting. I purchased both varieties from Earthworks in Arlington. Annual marjorams are best harvested for storage before they bloom. Stalks with blooms on them don't have the subtleties of flavor found in the leaves. Keep plants bushy by cutting blooms off. Perennial oreganos can be harvested anytime; many will stay green until hit by a good hard frost, as late as December. Dry marjorams and oreganos as you would basil. PARSLEY: This wonderful biennial can be grown so successfully in a flowerpot on a windowsill over the winter that you really shouldn't bother harvesting it to store. It loses a lot of flavor when dried but can be frozen without chopping. Parsley can be picked anytime. It is supposed to winter over and produce another crop the second year, before going to seed. But second- year parsley tends to be rather bitter and not terribly attractive. You're better off sowing a few seeds in a large pot come September and then putting the young plants in your garden in the spring after picking fresh parsley all winter. SAGE: Sage is a lovely silvery perennial that dries most satisfactorily. The advent of its blosssoms has a marginal effect on this aromatic herb's flavor. Dry as described above and store in plastic bags or loosely covered jars. ROSEMARY: There are new varieties of this pine-scented herb that are supposed to be winter hardy. I have one this year for the first time, and I'm going to try to winter it over. However, chances are that if you have a rosemary plant, it's not a winter-hardy type, since the latter is hard to find (Earthworks is the only place I know of that carries it). It must be dug and potted to survive the winter. Keeping rosemary over the winter on a windowsill is not impossible; just be prepared for a good deal of the plant to dry up and turn brown, unless it has plenty of light. As long as it keeps growing, however, it will be fime in the spring. On the meantime, use either the dried of fresh leaves plucked right off the plant. JARRAGON: This most satisfying of herbs is remarkably versatile, its licorice-laced tang enlivening virtually anything it touches. Tarragon doesn't bloom, will stay green until the first frost, and can be harvested for drying or freezing with equal satisfaction. It's also delicious if mixed in large quantities with butter (which you store in the freezer) that tastes fresh in the middle of winter. Dry as described above. THYME: There are many varieties of thyme and more are being created every year. A thyme freak at heart, I have a fantasy of growing every variety of thyme in existence. These marvelously fragrant and supremely hardy plants are perennials and they dry beautifully. Large bunches of thyme are perfect for making dried herbal wreaths because the leaves won't fall off the stalk as soon as they're dry. I have some thyme that I dried last fall sitting on top of the refrigerator in a plastic bag and it still retains that wonderful fragrance that makes it such an important ingredient in soups and stews. I have dried thyme left over because last year I was picking fresh thyme right through the winter. Even under a foot of snow, the heart of the plant was green and lush, if a little chilled, and the flavor impeccable. I didn't mulch the plant, but, of course, we had a pretty decent winter. A layer of clean straw or grass clippings should give you fresh thyme throughout a more normally cold winter. In any event, the root system will survive and next spring your plant will expand twofold at least. NOTICE -- Beginning next week, Adrienne Cook's garden column will appear on Thursdays, in the Home section.