Herbs can be used for a variety of purposes: as culinary flavoring, adding spice and depth to meals, or as medicine to treat or prevent common ailments. Having a home medicine chest of medicinal plants is extremely useful and growing ones own herbs and preserving them for later use past their normal expiration time are two big advantages of being able to dry your own herbs. But preserving them in such a way as to maintain flavor or, for medicinal plants, in such a way as to keep their medicinal properties intact are two main concerns when doing this. Thankfully, this isn’t a difficult process, so if you’ve been thinking that this would something for you, you should go for it!
For a rustic feel, go with a simple string, a wall and some sunlight for drying herbs. Image: Caitlinator/flickr
Drying herbs at home involves simple techniques, and there are several to choose from. The most labor-intensive process is processing the herbs to start with, but this is more time-consuming than anything. The work involved is repetitive and can almost be meditative. This involves harvesting large quantities of herbs and, depending on the herb you’re harvesting, either tying the stems into bundles and hanging them to dry, or stripping the leaves (or flowers, or whatever part you’re after), from the plant and placing the desired parts on a screen to dry. There is a large margin for error, however, as herbs you’ve worked on can dry too fast or too slowly, or are bunched too close together, any number of factors that could turn your harvest into a clump of decaying plant matter that smells like a wet dog, or brittle, brown straw.
This doesn’t have to be you, however. Through close attention to what you’re drying and simple trial and error, you’ll be an herb master with scads of dried herbs that can be used in teas, potpourris or tinctures.
When To Harvest Your Herbs
Success starts in the garden, or inside the home for people growing herbs indoors. Many herbs, such as mint or lemon balm can grow wild and abundantly, leaving the gardener to pay less attention to it, or only deal with these herbs when they start to overtake other areas. Or maybe the rationale is to let a stand of mint grow to its full height and volume and then harvest it. That should yield the largest “amount” right?
Well, in this assumption, you would be incorrect.
All plants have a peak time when they can be harvested. In the case of leafy plants, this generally tends to be before the plant reaches sexual maturity and flowers. The reason being is that once a plant starts to devote energy to flower or seed production, it pulls energy away from leaf production. New leaf growth tends to be smaller, less fragrant or flavorful. Think of basil, as an example. When you have a basil plant established, you harvest it quick, because as summer goes on, there is almost no way to stay ahead of flower production. The leaves are tougher and smaller from thereon out.
So keep a close eye on your plants and harvest when what it is you’re going for is at its peak of vitality. For lavender, you harvest the flowers. With Valerian, it’s the root mass. Herbs like oregano and basil are all about leaves.
How Dry Herbs Grown Indoors or from Your Garden
This is simple. For herbs that have leaves that are not too large or fleshy (like the aforementioned mint), you simply wait until the plants are at their peak. Wait for dew to dry in the morning, grab a basket and some shears and go harvest. Cut at the stem, below the bottom-most set of clean leaves and put the herbs into your basket, with the stems all facing the same way. Look for brown leaves, dirt and insects. Remove them at this time. Take a rubber band and wrap it around ten to fifteen stems. Now find a cool, dry place indoors that doesn’t get a lot of direct sunlight (bright light will dry your herbs too much and destory essential oils), and hang the bunches. When your herbs are dry, take them down and strip the stems, so that the leaves fall into a large bowl with some newspaper under it. Store your herbs in paper bags, filled to about a quarter-full.
Herbs that have large, fleshy parts need to be processed on screens. You can get screen material from a hardware store and build frames yourself, or use old window screens. Having a rack for the screens to sit on is great, too.
Let’s say you’re harvesting basil. You would strip the leaves after harvesting, chop them up and lay them out on a screen, so that they’re not touching, or layered (you don’t have to be precise with this however, as they will shrink as they dry). They have to dry quickly. Place them in a cool, dry place with no direct sunlight and stir them every day until they are dry. Crush the dried leaves with your hands through a colander or sieve into a larger bowl. Store them in a paper bag, filled to a quarter-full. -MIKE KLEPFER