There are a few methods of drying herbs but we would like to share our own journey on working with herbs and specifically on drying them. Before we opened the Secret Garden and we knew we would have to harvest and dry herbs on a large scale, the team was actually very nervous – meetings were filled with discussions on the problems that could occur: mould; discolouration and just not drying properly.
Two herbalists that we knew who were both close to retiring and both so keen to help were key to us getting up and running. Their generosity was unbelievable, not just in advice but in also giving freely some of the kit. They gifted us all the racks, muslin trays, two big fans and all we had to do was create a well insulted room, good heating source and a dehumidifier. Never in our wildest dreams did we 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 and nuts 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 harvesting, sorting, and preparing the botanics which we use not just for our herbal teas but more so for the ingredients for our Secret Garden Distillery Gins.
However - have you ever thought about drying your own herbs and flowers?
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 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 our earth and internalising nature into your very 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 the team here, we recommend a 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.
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. We have been harvesting our Angelica Root the last few weeks which is a key ingredient of all our gins. But we harvest well over 100 different plants, flowers and roots. From April we have harvest an abundance of fresh nettle tips, dandelion leaf, sweet cicely, violet flowers and sweet woodruff. In June we are harvesting our Apothecary rose petals and all Summer we harvest the petals from the mallows, hollyhocks and violets that impart the colours and delicate flavours to our pink gins. We harvest the lemon thymes and balms and verbenas all year round for our Lemon Verbena gins. In Autumn the drying room is full of nuts and berries. We are busy all year round with a bit of a break in the Winter to catalogue and prepare the beds for the next years planting.
However here are some wonderful herbs you can 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, a 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 let us know how you get on.
The Distillery Garden Team