Drying & Storing Garden Herbs
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.
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.
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.