When harvesting time comes around in
the garden each year, I feel a shift inside me. Starting
in March, I am planning and buying seeds, planting and
transplanting, watering, weeding, controlling somewhat what I
want, and where in "my garden". But then as I start to
collect herbs and flowers, I realize that most of what is
happening in the garden has nothing to do with me. I provide seeds
and water and minerals, but then nature does the rest. The
plants collect carbon from the air, they grow and make intricate
leaves and luscious blossoms, the bees and hummingbirds come to
pollinate, plants spread and intertwine, and all without my
intervention or direction!
So as I pick peppermint leaves or chamomile flowers, each year I
find myself just stopping to examine and smell them, wondering how
they come to be at all. Such shapes and colors and medicinal
qualities. And I'm amazed at how nature is so interconnected
with me even when I am not aware of it.
Before harvesting any annuals, I look for a couple of lively
looking plants to save for next year's seeds. I mark these
with a yarn bow to remind myself not to harvest from these until
the seeds are ready. Then the harvest begins. I head
out to the garden in the cool morning hours, carrying along some
clippers and an assortment of baskets and bowls. I like to collect
when I've watered the day before, or it's rained recently, and
then most of the herbs won't need washing.
I collect each herb at the peak of it's season; nettles in the
spring, mint and lemon balm in the summer before they bloom, and
echinacea in the fall. There are many books which list peak
harvest times for a multitude of herbs, like:
Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman
Using the Healing Herbs By G. & S. Weiss
Botany in a
Day by Thomas J. Elpel
Or you can
use your senses and intuition to feel when the herbs are at their
peak of vitality.
Harvesting begins. Some herbs you will want to use fresh,
like basil to make pesto, or nettles as a potherb. And those
you will simply pick at their height of flavor and abundance, and
carry them to your kitchen. But you will probably want to
dry others for future cooking, herbal tea blends, or homemade skin
When I dry herbs, I try to plan ahead how I will use them.
If I'm going to make herb teas, I pull leaves from the stems while
fresh, or chop them up with a knife or clippers. That way
they are easier to mix and store and use once they are dry.
Some herbs are best dried first, and then the leaves can be rubbed
easily off the dried stems, like thyme, rosemary, and savory.
Basil seems to dry easier and remain more flavorful if I pull the
fresh leaves off the stems before drying. Peppermint,
spearmint, catnip, and lemon balm can simple be cut into pieces
with clippers while they are fresh, stem and all. Then they
dry much more quickly. Chamomile flowers are pulled off as
the outer "petals" begin to bend backwards, and calendula flowers
are clipped off as the heads open. Be very regular with
harvesting flowers, and your plants will keep blossoming. If you
neglect them, the flowers will go to seed, and the plant will get
the message that it can stop the reproduction process.
Your flowers will dwindle. So for flowers, the more you
pick, the more you get.
I always chop parsley and dill up with a knife and cutting board
when they are fresh, and then dry them. If you are
harvesting herbs with tough stems, like raspberry leaves or
yarrow, it works better to use your garden clippers, rather than a
knife, to chop them up. As the garden gets more crowded and
full, sometimes the pathways begin the disappear. Then I
begin to harvest whatever has flopped into the pathways, like
raspberry stalks. And the remaining vertical stalks can go
on to product berries. Roots are usually dug in the fall,
like Echinacea and yellow dock. It is much easier to deal
with roots by scrubbing them and chopping them with a knife while
they are still fresh. They will be too tough when they are
dry, and they will take much longer to dry.
When I'm ready to take the herbs indoors for drying, I leave as
much unwanted material outside, as is possible: stems, dirt, bugs,
and other debris. I even wash roots outside when there is a
large amount. It makes a big difference in the kitchen.
There are many ways to dry herbs. Small amounts can just be
spread on plates or trays on the kitchen counter. I use a
food dehydrator for larger quantities. Here in Colorado we
have a very dry climate, and very often I just balance the
dehydrator trays full of herbs all about the house. But if
weather becomes moist, then it is easy just to stack them up and
plug in the dehydrator, and dry the herbs on low heat. I
like the round dryers with many trays, like American Harvest.
You can use one tray, or stack up to 12 or even more. Look
for one that has temperature settings, including very low heat, 90
to 100, for preserving volatile oils, vitamins, and enzymes.
I also hang herbs from clotheslines in the workshop, using clothes
pins, or I use my trusty "lingerie dryer" that I got at a yard
sale for 10 cents. It consists of 8 plastic spokes with
several clothes pins each, and can dry a big volume of hanging
herbs in a small space. Another dryer that I love is a
hanging tiered dryer covered with mosquito netting that can be
hung outdoors under a tree, in the shade. It's called The
Drying Pantry, and the phone number on the dryer is (801)
531-8996. (I even got a video with it, with instructions on
drying all kinds of fruits and vegetables as well.)
I check my drying herbs often and turn them to make sure every
part is thoroughly dry. And I always label the trays.
They all look unique and unforgettable when they are fresh, but
it's amazing how similar chopped green bits look once they are
dry! When the herbs seem totally dry, I store them in jars
with labels, including name and date. If I mix several into
herbal tea blends, I write all the ingredients on the label, and
also what the blend is for, like a bedtime tea, or a tea for
colds. I store the jars in a dark closet or cupboard, and
they remain flavorful and medicinally effective for many months.
You will all find your own favorite harvesting tools and tips, and
you might even want to start a notebook. You can have a page
for each herb, and jot down what you find works or doesn't.
Sometimes from one year to the next, you might forget that
brilliant new technique you discovered by accident for getting
leaves off of a particular herb.
This article nor
any portions of it may be reproduced or used without written
consent from the author.