In last month's post, I talked about how to preserve herbs by tincturing them - such a great way to make herbal medicines! But there are many plants that don't lend themselves well to being preserved in alcohol, and some that are just more effective when taken as an infusion. And, of course, some people just don't like tinctures and would rather drink a tea.
So let's talk a bit about how to harvest, dry and store herbs in your home apothecary. Properly harvesting and storing them can make a big difference in how long they retain their potency and resist the growth of nasty stuff like mold.
How to Harvest Herbs
As foraging/wildcrafting and herbalism become more and more popular, it's really important that we ensure we aren't doing any harm to the ecosystems that support us. So before I dive into the nitty-gritty of harvesting herbs, I recommend checking out this blog post I wrote a while ago about how to harvest in a responsible, ethical, and sustainable way.
Did you read it? Are you back now? Ok!
Before you head out to gather your herbs, make sure you've got a few key essentials:
- A sharp, clean pair of small shears or a sharp foraging knife
- If you'll be digging up roots, a sturdy spade or shovel. Personally I love my hori hori knife for this. It's excellent for digging roots, making clean cuts, and doing a ton of other gardeny stuff.
- A basket or breathable bag to store your collected herbs in until you get home
How and when exactly to harvest each herb will vary slightly, so it's not a bad idea to pick up a good herbal or do a little research before you harvest a specific plant. But here are some general rules of thumb:
- Try to harvest around noon on a dry, sunny day. You don't have to be super strict about it, but this is when the plants are at their peak energy and the morning dew has dried off. Bonus points if it's on the full moon, but that's a subject for another post...
- If you're going for the aerial parts of a plant, use your shears to neatly snip off the top third of the plant. This will leave the rest of the plant to keep growing, and you might even be able to come back later in the season for a second harvest.
- Don't tug or rip the plants with your hands - leaving behind strained or raggedy ends make it harder for the plant to heal. Take your time and make sure the cut is a clean one. This is especially important if you're harvesting from trees.
- Roots should be dug in the fall, when the aerial parts have begun to wilt and the energy of the plant is returning downward to the earth. Early spring, when the plant is just starting to emerge, is an ok time too. Dig carefully around the plants, easing your shovel or hori hori knife into the ground and rocking it gently to break up the soil and loosen the roots.
- Put your herbs in a basket or breathable bag for transport home. If you've got tender green stuff, try not to pack them in too much/mash them.
How to Dry Herbs
When I get home, I like to leave my basket or bag open/on its side in my porch for a while to let all the wee bugs make their escape. When I think everyone is (mostly) safe, I spread out my herbs on my table and sort them (I'm usually harvesting more than one thing at a time). If you've got roots, knock off the dirt, give them a rinse, and chop them up finely.
Once everything is sorted, I set my herbs out to dry one (or both) of two ways:
Hanging Bundles - if your herb has sturdy stalks (like mugwort or nettle, for example), group them into small bundles and tie them with string (I use cotton kitchen string). Make sure you don't put too many in a bundle - you want to ensure there's a nice air flow so that they dry more quickly and mold doesn't form. Hang the bundles in a dry, cool place out of direct sunlight. I store mine in my screened porch and in my dining room - it's nice to have them somewhere you can visit them often and check on them to make sure they're drying out nicely. (I think they look sorta decorative, too, if you're into the whole witchy-cabin aesthetic.)
I particularly love the beautiful wrought iron rack my sister got for me. Total medieval cottage vibes, right?
Herb Screen or Mesh Herb Dryer - Some plants are kinda hard to bundle up and hang (think roots, flowers or plants with delicate stems). In this case, I have a screen I made specifically to lay out herbs to dry - it's just a simple wooden frame with window screen stapled on.
I also have a really fabulous, multi-tier herb drying rack that another herbalist tipped me off about. To say it's life changing would be...an understatement. If you're planning to harvest a lot of stuff, I highly recommend springing for one - you can find them online at gardening stores (or the dreaded Amazon, if you dare).
If you're into making stuff, you can do a search for DIY herb drying racks and come up with something of your own. I've seen some really beautiful ideas that are as much form as function - old wooden ladders, driftwood, you name it. You are only limited by the size of your dreams.
Other Tips and a Note About Dehydrators:
- For large, fuzzy leaves like mullein and comfrey, I've found they dry better if you snip them into thirds. In my experience, mullein is especially prone to drying unevenly and getting moldy - breaking it up a bit helps you avoid this tragedy.
- A question I see lot (and a question I had as wee bairn of a herbalist) was whether or not it was necessary to wash the plants I brought home. The answer is...kinda nuanced and subjective. I think it's important to consider where you're harvesting from. For example, if you're harvesting plants from a beautiful, pristine mountain field, you can probably skip the wash. A little dirt is fine. But if you're harvesting really low growing plants, or plants that are in an area with traffic from animals (think parks and trailsides and territorial dogs), it might be good to give them a wash before you set them out to dry. If you do wash them, just be sure you space them out well and let any excess water evaporate before you bundle them so mold doesn't form.
- Keep a close eye on your stuff while it's drying. You want your herbs to feel crisp, but still have color and freshness to them. If you leave them out too long, they can get too dry, start to turn brown, and, well, basically crumble into a sad nothingness of dust and wasted dreams.
- Why don't I mention using a dehydrator? Well, dehydrators are fine. I have a dehydrator, and I love to use it for drying out fruit and stuff. You can certainly use one to dry out your herbs - it'll definitely be quicker than air drying. And, if you live in a really rainy/humid climate like a rainforest, it might be a good way to avoid stuff getting moldy before it fully dries out. But my whole thing is trying to use the least amount of electricity as possible, so I just prefer good old air drying (I'd love to build a solar dehydrator...but that's still in the future). So, to each their own!
How to Store Herbs
When your herbs are all nicely dried out, it's time to break them down a bit for storage. This might involve stripping the leaves and/or flowers off dried stalks, breaking open seedheads, or just sort of crumbling everything up a bit. Herbalists refer to this highly technical procedure as garbling. To garble, I usually grab a big bowl and use my hands to break up my dried herbs into it before storing them.
Over the years, I've tried a few different ways of putting up my herbs (I look back with a tinge of shame at the peppermint I stored unceremoniously in old plastic gelato containers...), and I think the best way is good old glass jars. You absolutely can't go wrong with mason jars, but any glass jars will work, as long as they're clean, dry, and seal properly. I should note; proceed with caution if those jars used to contain pickles, ferments, or olives - sometimes it's hard to get the scent of those out, and nettle with a side of sauerkraut is just...not my jam.
Because sunlight can break down some of the important stuff in the herbs and reduce their longevity/potency, try to store them in a dry, dark place (mine are tucked into my hall closet, which used to contain important stuff like linens until I slowly took it over...).
If you don't have anywhere nice and dark to store your herbs, you can usually find tinted glass jars that can block out most UV rays. Ball jars come in brown, blue or green - I even found purple one time! The darker the tint the better. One note of caution, though; be sure your jar is made of colored glass and that it's NOT just a painted on tint. Having paint leeching into the herbs and slowly chipping off is not ideal.
When you put up your herbs, take note of their taste, appearance and smell - this way, you'll be able to easily tell if they've gone off. If you notice any fuzzy stuff that wasn't there before, or if they just seem brown and sort of lifeless, it's time to toss them in the compost. If stored properly, though, most herbs should last at least a year - and roots for even longer.