The summer months are filled with sunshine, a thriving garden and bountiful harvests. We can enjoy our freshly harvested herbs in our meals, our teas and in our handcrafted beauty and wellness products. This delightful abundance isn’t just limited to the summer months however, preserving our herbs for use throughout the winter can be an easy and satisfying chore.
When and How to Harvest Herbs
Determining the best time to harvest your herbs depends on what part of the plant you’re looking to harvest. For example, the aerial portion of plants, which are the above ground parts such as stems, leaves and flowers, should be harvested right before, or at, peak flowering. At this stage in its life cycle, the plant is putting its energy into the aerial portions and therefore, the herbs you’ll be harvesting will be at their most potent. This is typically in the summer or early fall but that can vary depending on the particular species you are working with. Conversely, the best time to harvest roots is in the very early spring or late fall, when plants are dormant and have been storing their energy within their root system throughout the winter months. Some examples of herbs that we might harvest for roots include dandelion, echinacea or burdock.
Another important consideration when harvesting herbs is the time of day. The best time to harvest herbs is in the morning, after the dew has evaporated. Its crucial that the herbs are dry, as moisture on the plants during harvest can lead to mold or mildew which will ruin the crop. I like to harvest during the peak of the day when the essential oils in the plant are at their most potent. There’s minimum equipment needed to gather herbs, just some snips or scissors and a harvest basket!
When collecting your herbs, always try to always snip the plants off at the leaf node. This will encourage branching and will lead to healthy vibrant plants and potentially another great harvest later in the season. Some herbs can be harvested multiple times throughout the season such as mint, oregano and lemon balm, while others might only be able to offer a large harvest once per year. This is particularly true for annual herbs, such as dill, or for flower harvests such as lavender or chamomile. Some harvests can be staggered throughout the season by only taking a small amount of each herb as you need it, or one large harvest at the herbs’ peak of growth will allow you to process and dry plenty of herbs to use throughout the winter season.
When harvesting roots, be sure to brush off any dirt and debris immediately after lifting the roots from the soil. Chop the roots into smaller pieces to expedite drying, which can be done in a food dehydrator or in your oven. With your food dehydrator, just “set it and forget it”, but if you use your oven to dry your herbs, turn it to its lowest setting, crack the door open and keep a good eye on the roots to avoid accidently burning your harvest!
For some herbs, you may want to consider allowing some of the plants, or a portion of a plant, to flower in order to produce seeds for next year’s garden. To do this successfully, its helpful to know how your herb’s flowers are pollinated, and also how long it will take for the plant’s seeds to mature. Some herbs may be self-pollinating while others might require multiple plants and insects to ensure pollination and seed set. As a seed saver, you’ll also need to know how to properly store your seeds for next season and if your herbs seeds require any special considerations before planting such as stratification.
Stratification is the process to simulate natural conditions that seeds would experience in the soil over winter, to help the seed break dormancy and initiate the germination process. Here’s how to easy stratify your seeds at home:
1. Add your seeds to a moist medium, such a peat moss or sand
2. Place peat moss/seed mixture into a resealable plastic bag and seal.
3. Label the variety and date clearly on the bag.
4. Place in the refrigerator for 1 month before planting
Some herbs that benefit from stratification include: Echinacea, St. John’s Wort, Stinging Nettles, Lavender, Lemon Balm.
Drying herbs for storage
Once we have our herbs gathered, then its time to dry the herbs for storage. Our techniques and required equipment will be determined by the size of our operation. The key to successful herb drying is good air flow. Ideally our herbs will dry in a cool, dark location with good air circulation. Not only will good air flow prevent mold or decay that could be caused by moisture on the plants, or even the humidity of the environment, but quickly drying the herbs will help them to retain their vibrant colors, flavors and nutritional value.
One of the easiest ways to prepare your herbs for drying, especially with a small harvest, is to simply tie the herbs into a small bundle and hang them somewhere with a gentle breeze. This can be in a garden shed, garage or even in your home. Bundles of fragrant herbs hanging to dry in your kitchen add a lovely aesthetic to the room. Be careful when tying up your herbs that the bundles are not too big. While it may be tempting to save time by making larger bundles, and therefore fewer of them, the herbs on the inside of these large bundles won’t be able to get any air and will actually begin to mold, ruining the entire bundle. Its better to take to the time and make smaller bundles, which will dry faster, without molding, and while retaining the beautiful colors and scent of the herbs.
You can tie your herbs into bundles using twine but I tend to use rubberbands for this task as I can gather and tie a number of bundles quite quickly this way. I also like to use a paperclip to then fashion a small hook that I can slip onto the rubberband, giving me an easy way to hang up my herbs for drying.
Alternatively, when dealing with larger herbs, or larger harvests, we can lay them out onto screens to dry. A screen will allow for proper airflow around the herbs, helping them to dry quickly. Premade screens can be purchased online and come in a variety of sizes, from small 6″x6″ screens perfect for drying smaller items like flower petals or seeds, to much larger, window sized screens perfect for drying plants of all sizes. In fact, old window screens can even be repurposed into drying racks! At Small House Farm we’ve built a drying rack system that holds up to ten screens at one time, maximizing our limited space by building vertically. We’ve even put the drying rack on wheels which allows us to move it around the pole barn as needed, making it easier use during peak season and to store in the off-season.
Another option for drying herbs, which is particularly useful for those of use with limited space, is a food dehydrator. This is an item that most people may already have at home and it is the perfect tool for drying your herbs! Depending on the size of the unit, you may only be able to dry your herbs in small quantities, but they will dry quickly and efficiently. Be sure to set your dehydrator at a low temperature, and keep an eye on it as the herbs dry down. Most herbs will dry within twenty-four hours and will then be ready for storage.
Storing Herbs for Winter
Be sure that your herbs are well dried before processing them for storage. Give them a quick check by rubbing some of the plant between your fingers, if they are dry enough for storage, the herbs will easily crumble. At this stage, the dried leaves and flowers should be stripped from their stems and small twigs and yellowed or decayed leaves should be removed. This process of cleaning up our herbs for storage is known to herbalists as garbling. The stems can then be discarded or composted, but in some cases, even these stems can be useful! Try adding rosemary stems to the coals of a cookfire to impart their resinous flavor into your meal. Larger stems can even be used as skewers to add an herbal touch to the vegetables and meats on a kabob.
It’s best to store your herbs in airtight containers. You can certainly purchase bottles or jars specifically for this purpose but consider reusing canning jars or similar items that you may already have at home. The most important thing is that the container has a tight-fitting lid. Label your jar with the name of the herb as well as the date. Proper labeling is key to a well-organized apothecary. Your jars of herbs should be stored in a cool, dark place away from heat or direct light, so a cupboard, closet, or something similar, will work perfectly. Dried herbs will easily keep for a year or more, but its good to take stock of your herbal needs on an annual basis. If a year has passed and you still have quite a bit of a particular herb left in your apothecary, perhaps you harvested more than you need. If you’re not using all of your herbs from one year to the next, consider saving yourself some time and effort by growing, harvesting, processing and storing a bit less.
If you find yourself with quite a bit of herbs left over in your apothecary after a year, don’t toss them out. Instead, use them to make herbal gifts for your friends and family!
Bevin Cohen is an author, herbalist, seed saver and owner of Small House Farm in Michigan. He offers workshops and lectures nationwide on the benefits of living closer to the land through seeds, herbs and locally-grown food. Bevin is a freelance writer and videographer whose work has appeared in numerous publications including Mother Earth News, Hobby Farms, Grit Magazine, and the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company catalog. He is the author of Saving Our Seeds and The Artisan Herbalist. You can learn more about Bevin’s work at www.smallhousefarm.com.
In this episode of Mother Earth News and Friends, we get to know Bevin Cohen, gardener, herbalist, seed saver, educator, author, and owner of Small House Farm. Bevin talks about his upcoming book, The Artisan Herbalist, and shares more about his work and passions.
Listen at https://www.motherearthnews.com/podcast/bevin-cohen-zepz2104ztil/
Books by Bevin
In Saving Our Seeds, seed activist Bevin Cohen takes a deep dive into the how and why of the modern seed saving movement. A great how-to guide, leading the reader step-by-step through the process of saving their seeds from 43 different crops. From adzuki beans to wheat and everything in between. Seed savers of all levels will benefit from Bevin’s easy to follow explanations on important techniques such as hand pollination, isolation, vernalization and even basic flower structure.
A book like this would not be complete without stories that honor the many gardeners, farmers and seed keepers that have dedicated their lives to stewarding these heritage varieties. Within these pages, the seed keepers themselves share their stories and help the reader to understand the importance of saving our seeds.
From urban apartments to wild countryside, The Artisan Herbalist is an easy-to-use guide that teaches you how to identify, grow, harvest, forage, and craft herbal allies into an assortment of useful health and wellness products. Through storytelling and step-by-step instruction, The Artisan Herbalist:
• The uses and benefits of 38 easy-to-find yet powerful herbs
• Harvesting from the wild, foraging in the city, and using store-bought herbs
• Growing herbs in small areas, balconies, and pots
• Principles, tips, techniques, and formulas to create teas and tinctures
• Infusing oils for the creation of salves, lotions, and balms
• Beneficial herb-based recipes
• Marketing and selling your products through a home-based business