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Drying & Storing Garden Herbs

Well friends, it's mid-Summer! And, despite a very strange year of up and down weather patterns, we are finally beginning to harvest the fruits of our labor. Preserving and storing our mid-summer herbal harvest is a deeply satisfying way to carry the magic of life-giving sunshine into the (soon-to-be) cold winter months.

Drying our own herbs is remarkably simple and doesn’t require any expensive  equipment—just some rubber bands and a piece of screen or a drying basket.

If you’re ready to harvest your own herbs and flowers, I'm here with a few pointers on drying and storing your bounty:


Harvesting Herbs & Flowers


To harvest these lovely bits, you’ll need a basic pair of kitchen or garden scissors for delicate plants like mint, dandelion leaves, thyme, sage, etc. If you’re working with thicker stems, bring along a good pair of pruners. Generally, you want to harvest in the spring or early summer, picking the strongest stems with healthy, intact leaves. If using more than flowers, cut close to the base of the stems, leaving some foliage so you can potentially get another harvest or even two. Be sure you harvest in the morning after the dew has evaporated.


Harvesting Roots


To get the most value out of harvesting roots, we want to do so in the late fall or early spring (when the ground thaws: when there is enough plant material for us to identify the herb, but they haven’t yet started pushing their energy into new growth - think February). You’ll need a digging tool to carefully dig around the plant and loosen the soil so you can get down to the roots. It’s important not to harvest the entire root system - give that lil babe plenty left to re-grow.

Best practice: give your plants a year or two off before harvesting again.


Cleaning & Prep


Herb & Flower Cuttings: You're going to want to process your harvest for drying as soon as possible. Shoving a bunch of plant material together into a bag or leaving them out in the sun to deal with later will damage the plants and actually start the composting process. If you are transporting cuttings, lay them in thin, covered layers. Paper bags or kitchen towels can work well for this, but avoid plastic bags as they can create heat and trap moisture - hello, mini greenhouse.

Give your harvest a gentle shake to notify insects it’s time to crawl away and then lay your harvest in a thin single or double layer on a clean surface. You will want to get them in the shade as soon as possible. Now's your chance to pick out anything that is wilted, diseased, or has spots/ insect damage. Gently wash the herbs in cool water to remove dirt or clinging insects and shake off any excess moisture.

Harvested Roots: You’ll want to clean your harvested roots as soon as possible. If they are relatively straight, you can put them in water and use a scrub brush to scrub away the dirt. Seriously, go for it with the scrubbing - because any dirt remaining on your roots will end up in your formulations. If the roots are twisted or wound around each other, use a pair of pruners to cut them into smaller pieces so you can get them really clean. Roots become more and more difficult to chop as they dry so doing so at this stage isn't a bad idea - after your roots are very clean.


Drying Your Harvest


One of the easiest and time-tested ways to dry long-stemmed herbs (lavender, rosemary, etc) is to bundle the stems and hang them upside down. You can use twine if that's all you have but it's better to use rubber bands instead; as the stems shrink, so does the rubber band! Drying in small bundles is best —about 10 stems or so, and even less if you’re drying dense plant material. The best way to do this is: take your bundle of stems and divide it in two piles. Hanging your first bundle upside down, begin wrapping it with your rubber band - closer to the ends of the stems than the flowers. Next add the second half and wrap the entire bundle until the rubber band is almost used up. Loop the last bit over several stems to hold it in place. Lastly, split open the bundle and hang it on a hook so that the stems and flowers hang down on both sides. Ta-da!

If you are drying for the seeds, you can slip a small paper bag over the dangling tops and secure it in place with twine or a rubber band. Then the seeds drop into the bag as the botanical dries. This isn't just a great way to collect herb seeds but also a fantastic way to save seed from other flowers and vegetables as well.

You can also dry your herbs: outside by using a mesh screen or inside using a dehydrator. I keep a screen in a shady, well ventilated area in the backyard. Currently when I go out and dead-head my Calendula I place them on the screen. I'll revisit this in a few weeks and collect the seeds from them - I can't wait to share them with y'all at our seed swap in the Spring.

If you're going to use a dehydrator make sure you keep a close eye on it! This method is really best for roots and barks. Follow the directions on your dehydrator for the lowest setting and check your herbs often. They can dry in as little as a couple hours but may take longer, so don’t plan to set it and forget it. And definitely don’t give in to the temptation to hurry the process by cranking the heat; you're more likely to end up with overly dried herbs that have diminished potency, color, and flavor.


Storing Your Harvest


Be ready to store your herbs as soon as they are dried. They lose vitality if left out for too long after they are dry, and you don’t want them to get dusty - you worked too hard to let that happen! Be sure everything is DRY and ready to be stored. For leaves and flowers, rub them between your fingers. When properly dried, leaves will often crumble and crunch when rubbed. For roots and barks, look for brown, shriveled, and dry. Cut several pieces to make sure they are dry all the way through. If so, they are ready to be stored!

Plan to store your dried herbs in well-sealed glass jars in a dark cool area. A closet, a cabinet, the basement, or even in boxes under the bed. 

Leaves, Flowers, and Chopped Roots and Barks: These can go into a jar as-is. If you'd like, you can break them down a little before storing if necessary to make them fit, but they'll stay fresher longer if you leave them whole. The exception to this is if you are making a batch of a culinary herb. In this case you can break up the plant material into finer pieces and pick out stems and other hard bits so they're ready to be used in your culinary creations.

Flowers and Herbs with Stems: It's best to strip the leaves, flowers, berries, needles, etc. from the stems. You don’t have to be as gentle here as you did when the herbs were fresh. Remove any discolored leaves, twigs, etc. Store herbs whole or broken down - it's up to you!

Hooray, You did it! Properly dried and stored, leaves and flowers are shelf stable for 1-2 years and roots and barks can last 2-3 years.

Tell us what you're drying and storing this Summer below!



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