Are your herbs growing like crazy in the garden? What do you do with them all? Here are some tips to help you successfully dry them for use all year round.
Why Bother to Dry Herbs?
Even if you just have a small patch of calendula, chamomile or mint, you will be impressed how much can be preserved if you pick them thoughtfully all season long. In just a few hours over the last two months, my daughter and I harvested and dried four liter jars of nettle and mint, and three quart jars of elder flowers, lemonbalm and oatstraw! This will last us months in the winter season. We also harvest rose and calendula every week out the garden, but they seem to get used in footbaths, tea, or spontaneous celebrations faster than we can get them in the jar!
Aside from cost savings of putting up your own herbs, and the sheer joy of getting out and picking the plants yourself (a great activity for both kids and adults!), drying your own is a great way to get high quality medicinals for your teas, tinctures, oils, creams and more. Most herbs you buy commercially are from the global marketplace, grown and harvested in far away countries where land labor is less inexpensive. By the time the herbs are picked, harvested, dried, packaged, sent overseas, repackaged and distributed to local stores, they just not going to have the same vitality as something you grow and harvest right in your own backyard.
Here’s are some photos of organic chamomile and calendula from a reputable commercial source, next to freshly dried plants from my garden. There is no comparison! Which would you rather use for medicine?
Methods for Drying Herbs
To dry herbs properly, you need three key ingredients: air flow, shade, and time. Its also important to keep the plants out of the sun, and keep them protected from getting sprinkled with dust, pollen, or other particulates that may fall on them. Here are three ways to do it that work well:
Basket/Screens: spread out your fresh plant material on woven baskets or screen, in a single layer. Put the baskets in a room in your house, or outside under an awning where they are protected from light and dust.
Bundling: if you’re drying tall stalks with leaves or flowers (like those in the mint family) bundle them up by the stems and hang them under a protective roof. Don’t bundle too much at once, and allow for airflow between the leaves, as in the photo on the right.
Brown Bag: spread out fresh plant material in a brown paper grocery bag, laid on its side, in a single layer. The bag will protect it from dust and allow air flow, too.
Whatever method you use, let the plants dry completely, until you can’t detect any moisture in any part of the plant with your fingers. Then wait another day or two to make sure they are really dry. From there, you can de-stem the leaves/flowers if you haven’t already, and store the plant material in glass jars, protected from sunlight. You know you’ve done a good job if the dried plants hold the color and scent of the fresh plants! To the left is an example of a well dried mint, robust in color, very much like the fresh plant on the right.
A note on roots: if you are drying roots of various sizes, its a good idea to cut them into small, like-sized pieces when they are fresh, so they can dry evenly. Also, many roots become very hard when dried, and cutting them into smaller pieces at that point can be very difficult, so cut them while they are fresh.
How Long Will They Last?
Your dried plant should look and smell like the fresh plant! Take note of how your plant material looks and smells freshly dried, and watch it over time. Some plants, like lemonbalm and chamomile, will degrade more quickly, while others, especially barks and roots, will hold sturdy for much longer. If the plant starts losing its color and scent while in storage, its starting to degrade, which means its losing its vitality and its medicinal potency. If you store your dried plants in glass jars, and keep them in a cool and dark place, they will typically stay in nice condition for at least a year. But there are many variables – follow your senses to be the best judge of their vitality!
Trouble Shooting & Avoiding Mistakes
Avoid these common mistakes while drying herbs:
- Using the “bundle” method when the bundles are too thick, or there is not enough air circulation. If you’re cinching together bundles of plant stalks where there are leaves on the stems, that’s an easy place for moisture to get trapped and for mold to grow. All the plant material (flowers/leaves) needs to be exposed to the air, or they can get moldy. Here’s a photo of some dried lemonbalm leaves. The leaves on the left are blackish and have white spots of mold, where it was bundled and too crowded with other leaves, and didn’t get good air circulation. The leaves on the right side got enough air and dried beautifully, holding their color and fresh scent, and are ready for medicine making.
- Using an electric dehydrator and making plants “crispy”. Its easy to overpower the herbs with heat and air, even on a low setting. Unless you live somewhere very humid which makes air drying difficult, I would avoid using a dehydrator for drying plants. While it can be done successfully, you need to keep they dehydrator on a very low setting and watch it carefully. If the herbs lose their color and get toasty crispy, they have lost too much of their vitality.
- Drying herbs where they get sunshine. Avoid this temptation to dry your herbs in the sun! They will dry quickly, but the sunlight will also degrade the vitality of the plant and you’ll end up with a plant in poor quality.
When to Use Fresh & When to Use Dry
There is a lot of flexibility here, and room to exercise your personal preferences. Typically, you can can use either fresh or dried plants for most applications – tea, tinctures, oils, poultices, etc. If you are using fresh herbs, remember that you’ll have to use more than you typically do with dry herbs, because of the water content. If you are using fresh herbs for making oil infusions, be mindful to shake your oils daily to help avoid any bacterial/fungal growth, and when you strain your plant material out, look for any water bubbles sinking at the the bottom of your oil, and leave them out of your final product. If you are using fresh plants to make tinctures in alcohol, remember to use a higher percentage of alcohol to account to for the water content in the plant (75% alcohol or more typically does the trick).
The above guidelines should help you successfully dry your herbs this season! Enjoy the plant, share your gratitude with them, and let me know if you have any questions!