How to dry herbs at home ( step by step)
There are a few methods of drying herbs but I would like to share my own personal view and journey on working with herbs and specifically on drying them. Before we opened the Secret Herb Garden and I knew we would have to harvest and dry herbs on a large scale, I was actually very nervous – my mind was filled with problems that could occur; mould, discolouration and just not drying properly.
I am, however, a great believer in that if you want to know the truth, go to the source and ten years ago there were two herbalist who I truly revered as the best at producing herbal medicine and the preparations of herbs. I was very fortunate indeed to work with them both and they helped me create the perfect large scale drying room – in fact their generosity was unbelievable, not just in advice but in also giving freely some of the kit; they were both close to retiring and both were keen to help. They gave me all the racks, muslin trays, two big fans and all I had to do was create a well insulted room, good heating source and a dehumidifier and I was off. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would create such an amazing place that dries leaves and flowers in 12 hours, roots, stems, berries (i.e. juniper and coriander specifically) and even fruits to such perfection. The scents in the drying room are incredible and we have it continually in use from early April to end of October. In the height of summer, we can have three people fulltime harvesting, sorting, and preparing the botanics which we use not just for herbal teas now but more so for the ingredients for our Secret Garden Gins.
Let me share with you though how easy it is to do this at home:
This is important for two reasons; firstly it is a great way to preserve herbs for years and to be able to use the flavours in the middle of winter when there is no fresh plant material available but secondly, and more importantly, for me, it deepens the relationship you have with the plants – you are taken on your own personal journey of becoming connected with the very life source of earth, you are working with and internalising nature into your being.
The actual process of drying the herbs is simple – you can google it and they will tell you that there is a microwave method, oven and dehydrating machines but for me there is the time old method that has been done for millennia.
The important starting point is the relationship you have, with the plant itself, getting to know the plants you are wanting to use, watch them grow, learn from them – please, please however ensure that any plants you decide to work with have had NO CHEMICALS whatsoever, even if you are foraging, this is so important.
Once you have harvested your herbs (covered below in ‘when’) bring them indoors. If you are bringing in;
(a) stems with leaves (or flowers) attached; tie in small bunches together, ensure that they are not too big a bunches as you will need the air to freely pass – tie the stems with twine and hang them upside down in a brown paper bag in a nice dry warm room – a airing cupboard is best or in the kitchen above the cooker – this should take about 10 days , you’ll know when they are dry as when you crunch a leaf it should be like a dry cornflake!
(b) whole single flowers or petals; once picked we leave our flowers on muslin cloth outside for an hour or two to allow the bugs to freely fly away and then bring them in. Place them individually, not overlapping one another, onto a cloth or brown paper on a baking tray and cover with a sheet of brown paper. Again, place in a airing cupboard or next to your cooker, turn them every now and then and you will be able to tell when they are dry.
(c) roots; these will take longer. Wash the roots and dry excess moisture off with a tea towel and cut into smaller chunks and place directly into a brown paper bag – again, hang in closet, airing cupboard or in your kitchen. Then throughout the period (it could take a month or longer) just shake the bag every now and then and continue to check – you do not want mould to form so keep them dry, shaking regularly and just keep an eye on them.
(d) seed heads; this is similar to stems - tie bundles of seed heads together i.e. coriander and hang upside down in brown paper bag, same as (a) and the dried seeds will fall into the bag over 10 days or so.
There is more to this than just going out and cutting the herbs when you want to ‘take’. You may be drying these herbs not just for herbal tea, cooking but for medicine, therefore you are internalising these beautiful plants and asking your body to work with them. To know when to harvest is very important. Firstly, you must choose a dry day with no dew or moisture on the plant material, if you harvest when wet you will only end up with mouldy material. Secondly, how you approach the plant is important too, go to the plant and communicate internally with her, say why and what you wish to use the plant for, ask her permission, don’t strip the plant of all life and, if you are minded, leave a little gift (especially important if you are harvesting for medicine). Thirdly, I have a personal rule that I harvest aerial parts (all the above ground growth) on a waxing moon i.e., on the way to the full moon and harvest roots on a wanning moon – this is only for a guidance for myself as I feel the moon cycle is so interlinked to all life force here on earth.
If you are looking to harvest the aerial parts for leaf growth then it is important to harvest before the plant flowers and is at its most active with lots of fresh, strong growth. Harvest flowers when at their brightest and freshest looking, berries when ripe and roots anytime but mostly in the autumn and a wanning moon.
Well, this is huge, we harvest well over 100 different plants, flowers and roots – just to give you an idea for this month, April, we have been harvesting an abundance of fresh nettle tips, dandelion leaf, sweet cicely, violet flowers and sweet woodruff. However here are some wonderful herbs to start with:
Mints: such an easy plant to grow and so giving, we will easily have two harvests in a season from the mints but it is important to allow them to finally grow into flower so the bees can have their fill too - we then leave the stems to over winter and cut them back in early spring to allow the new growth. There is nothing better than drinking a mint tea in the middle of winter to remind you of those heady summer days.
Lemon Verbena – this is the most delicious tea, my favourite before bed with a teaspoon of honey.
Thymes, Rosemary, Bay and Sages – just to have at hand for cooking.
If you are eager to learn more, we have a team of volunteers from April through to October that come whenever suits them to be trained in the harvesting and drying process – if you are interested in Volunteering email Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy experimenting and allow the harmony of nature to infuse herself into you – Hamish x