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:
The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman
Growing and 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 care products.
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.
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