August first is Lughnasadh. This Celtic festival marks the beginning of harvest season. I know with all the heat and humidity it’s hard to believe something associated with Autumn, and cooler weather is so close, but here we are.
Preserving your Plant Material
I am the absolute WORST about harvesting my plants. I spend all this time tending to, nurturing, and caring for these magical little beings. Their blooms and foliage make me so happy I hate the thought of cutting them. I also love watching all of my pollinator friends swarming around the colorful blooms. It makes me feel like I’m contributing to the circle of life. Sadly, I lost my harvest this way and all those plants did all that growing for naught.
I’ve been getting better at it. About a month ago I began truly cutting back some of my herbs to reap the benefits of harvest. Ideally I would have already cut back my comfrey, basil, mullein, and borage about three times by now. But hey, here we are. All those rose blossoms I could have dried and used later but didn't, still keeps me up at night.
Preserving more plant material by repeatedly harvesting your herbs isn’t the only benefit from practicing tidy gardening. Once I finally got over myself and cut back the large leaves on my comfrey plant, it shot straight up and bloomed. He liked his haircut and it promoted mad growth. Same goes for the bergamot, tulsi, and borage. This in turn, gave me more plant material to later harvest.
If you keep your plants in check by cutting them back it prevents them from growing too big for their britches and having unsightly accidents like drooping, echinacea I’m looking at you. Keeping the leaves close to the ground trimmed away also helps protect the plants from harmful pests. As a bonus, trimming off old growth also helps keep diseases at bay.
Now that I am taking advantage of my hard work I am reaping the benefits! My kitchen is fragrant with basil, rosemary, lavender, and mint. As much fun as growing these plants has been, I’m quickly falling in love with the process of preserving the bounty for later use. The only limit to how you use the plants is your imagination and I love nothing more than a creative challenge.
Methods of Preservation
First a note on fresh vs dried herbs. At its most basic level, the difference between fresh and dried herbs is the water content fresh herbs contain. If I’m cooking with an herb I’m going to use immediately (within 3 days or so) I prefer fresh 99 times out of 100. For most other ways to use harvested herbs 9 times out of 10 I prefer to use dried herbs. The added water content will severely cut the shelf life of whatever you’re making very short, and it’s just sad when a project gets spoiled with mildew or mold. I will note in the following which type of herb I prefer for each thing below.
Drying Herbs and Roots
Of course one of the easiest and most basic ways to preserve your blossoms and plant material is to dry them out. Here’s how I do it:
Harvest your plant material and clean out any wilted leaves, or spots that have been eaten by creepy crawlies or still have creepy crawlies on it.
If you have stems, like with lavender, rosemary, or basil, bund them all together at the bottom. I prefer a small hair rubber band, but that’s just me using what I Have on hand. Hang the bundle upside down in a place that has good airflow and is out of direct sunlight.
If you have blossoms or anything else that doesn't bind together well, you can lay them out on a screen to dry out. Once again the most important thing is good airflow, and being out of the sun.
If you have roots you need to wash them and then cut them into pretty small pieces and dry them on a screen.
**** If you live in a humid area, like I do, I often put roots in a dehydrator to make sure they dry all the way out. Even if I have leaves or blossoms and am in a hurry I Will use a food dehydrator to speed the process up.
Once the plant material is crunchy it is dried and can be stored in a sealed container out of the sun. It is very important to make sure the material is completely dried out before you store it. You don’t want to be growing mold with your herbs!
Straight up, the easiest thing you can do with your dried herbs and roots is make an infusion, or decoction. Sounds fancier than it is. This is basically just making tea. To make an infusion boil your water, and pour it over your leaves. Steep them for 20 minutes covered, and enjoy. For roots and tougher plant material you’ll need to do a decoction. This is the same as an infusion, except you simmer the plant material over the heat for 20 minutes instead of letting it steep. A good rough measurement is one tsp dried plant material to a cup of water.
The fun part is coming up with your own blends to fit your needs and wants. I love tulsi basil as a tea. That’s one reason I grow it every year. Add in some lemon balm and a little lavender. I'm in heaven!
Butters, oils, and Vinegars. Oh my!
Ever go into a fancy pants restaurant and been given chive or rosemary butter? They do this for a reason. This little ingredient adds so much to your final culinary creations. The bonus is this is stupid easy and also adds the health benefits privided by the herbs to your diet.
Start with a stick of butter and let it cool to room temperature. Next cut up your herbs. For this you can use either fresh or dried. If you’re using fresh herbs just make sure they are thoroughly dry after being rinsed off. Next add the herbs and mix it all up. You can then either keep it in a bowl or dish or form it back into a log and place it in the refrigerator to harden. Herbal, or compound butters are easy and limitless.
Some favorite herbs of mine to use in butters are chives, and garlic which is divine on a potato. Rosemary, basil, oregano, thyme, and sage are also wonderful on their own or when used in a blend. This mix would be great on chicken, or even just on pasta. A good mint infused butter would be a wonderful choice on lamb. You could even make a sweeter butter with cardamom and cinnamon on toast. Like I said, the possibilities are limitless.
Infused oils feel so decadent when served to you at a fancy restaurant, and that’s silly considering how easy they are to make! For both oils I prefer to use dried plant material. The quick and dirty method to do this is add some dried plant material to a clean mason jar. Add in your oil of choice, making sure to cover all of the plant material. Seal it up and let it sit in a cool, dark place for 4-6 weeks. Just shake up the jar occasionally.
Some of my favorite herbs to infuse in oils for the kitchen are basil, rosemary, or oregano. I typically use these in olive oil, and when put on pasta or a wonderful bread, it is hard to beat. You can use any kind of vegetable oil really, I just try to focus on whether I want a flavor from the carrier oil or not. Grapeseed, safflower, and avocado are all wonderful choices that don’t have a strong flavor.
Herbal infused oils are also useful outside of the kitchen as well. Our Tattoo Juju is a prime example of this. Herbs like yarrow, plantain, and comfrey all promote healing to the skin and make powerfully healing infused oils. Comfrey is so strong, infact, that if you have a deep cut you should let it heal up a bit before using herbal oils on it. The comfrey can heal the surface of the wound before the deeper wound heals. When this happens you risk trapping infection under the skin.
As a carrier for oils infused for the body I always look for vitamin and mineral content. Since taste isn’t a factor, the only concern is consistency and content. Coconut, olive, and avocado oils are all wonderful choices for bothe content, and are a heavier consistency. Grapeseed and safflower oils are good for vitamin content as well, but have a lighter consistency than the others. Carriers such as hazelnut and rosehip can also provide your creation with a slight astringency component.
Why vinegars? Vinegar is very good at extracting minerals. Herbs that contain a high mineral content, such as nettle, dandelion, and horsetail are wonderful choices for infusing in vinegars. My latest experiment was a nettle infused balsamic vinegar. The obvious choice to use vinegar is on a salad. You can also use herbally infused vinegars to make marinades. Use a ginger, garlic, lime combination for dishes with an Asian flair. Tarragon, bee balm, and lemon balm give a delicate twist to milder vinegars like champagne vinegar. Pickling is another great way to use herbally infused vinegars. I have some dear friends that live in North Carolina. The pickles they make are to die for!! Not only are the herbs totally customizable, what you pickle is also up to you. Often carrots, onions, peppers, beets, and cauliflower are often overlooked as great veggies to pickle, nothing against cucumbers or anything.
Yes, yes you can preserve your herbs in the freezer. Not necessarily in their native state, but you can certainly prepare food items now and store them in the freezer. This way you can benefit from your plant friends throughout the fall and winter.
First off, the herbal butters mentioned above store beautifully in the freezer. You know what else does too? Pesto. Yup it is going to be my mission to harvest the abundance of basil we’ve grown and make a metric ton of pesto. Then I’ll get some ice cube trays, divide it up, and store it in the freezer to enjoy all winter. Basil is king when it comes to pesto, but if I had any I would also harvest cilantro, lemon balm, or chickweed to make pesto with.
Another thing that freezes beautifully is broth. There are many bone broth, and veggie broth recipes online. You can follow these and then add your herbs of choice to boost the immune boosting and nutrient content. Then during cold and flu season you’ll have added benefits from your plant friends. While not technically an herb, a wonderful thing to add to your broths are mushrooms. Reishi, maitake, and shitake are all immune boosting powerhouses. Astragalus is another immune boosting herb that adds a lot of value to broth. Once again, you can add your broth to ice cube trays and freeze it.
This is so overlooked and so fun to do when you have kids, but may be even more fun without them! All you really need is a popsicle mold and a blender. You can harvest any of your berries or fruits, grind them up, add some water or juice and pour them in the molds to freeze. Have you ever thought about addin hibiscus, lavender, or chamomile to these recipes? The results are divine. I promise. Green tea and jasmine, or lavender and honey combine to make a highly refreshing popsicle. Hibiscus, rose, and cherry also make a lovely combination. I have a dear friend that just gifted me some zombie popsicle molds that would be perfect.
Food and body preparations are not the only way to preserve and enjoy your plant friends overwinter. Plants are beautiful and the aesthetic benefits they provide us can be just as acute as the medicinal benefits. Colorful blooms, lush leaves, and earthy bark add beauty and value to our surroundings.
One of the most beautiful, and almost lost, ways of preserving blooms is to press them. Put your blooms of leaves in between some newspaper or parchment paper, put that in a heavy book, close it up and leave it there for a few weeks. You can also stack books or other heavy things on top to help it flatten out. Once again, the possibilities are only limited to your imagination on what to do with them. You can attach them to glass and make a window hanging. Use them in paintings, decorate vases, candle holders, whatever you wish, decorate items all over your home with pressed flowers to increase visual beauty and bring on a sense of peace and prosperity.
One no-brainer for me is to use dried herbs to decorate soaps and add to aromatic oils. I think a full infusion and strain is what gives these items the medicinal benefits of the plant material, but blooms can also add aesthetic appeal to these items as well. Going beyond soaps I’ve seen some stunning candles decorated with plant material.
Saving Your Seeds
One of the most important harvests to get out of your garden are the seeds. That way if someone didn’t self sow, or doesn’t make it through the winter your plant friends can renew next spring. We’re right at the time to be harvesting seeds now. You want to gather them as the plants begin to wilt and turn brown. If you tap your plant and the seeds fall out, she’s telling you it’s time. Also when you get the seeds they should be hard, not soft. This tells you they are ripe and ready to be gathered. There are two main different ways to save seeds that depend on the kind of plant you have. The seeds we get from herbs and flowers can be collected by the dry out and shake method. I’ve seen people with larger harvests hang their plant cutting upside down to dry. Below the plants they line the floor with butcher paper to catch the seeds. Before taking down the hanging plants they shake them up, releasing the seeds onto the paper for collection. You can also put blooms and seed pods in a paper bag and shake it up. Once you get your seeds you may need to sift them again with a screen to weed out the extra plant material. The seeds from fruits need a little more labor and cleaning. When fruits start to drop on their own accord, it’s time to harvest the seeds. Processing these seeds is known as wet processing. The key to remember when wet processing is the word wet. These seeds like to be wet and either need to be planted right after they are harvested or kept moist. If the seeds have a pulp around them you will have to soak them in a warm, dark place until the pulp floats to the top. Technically you are tricking the pulp and the seeds into thinking they were eaten by an animal and you are using bacteria to clean away the pulp instead of the animals digestive juices. To do this, put the seeds in a jar and cover with water. Shake the jar a few times a day and rinse them once the pulp floats to the top. This is how you harvest and clean tomato seeds.
Harvesting Know How
Hopefully this has given you some inspiration, ideas, and confidence on what to do with the plants you have cultivated this year. Gardening is currently one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world. It’s no wonder in our current environment. Knowing what to do with all of that plant material takes gardening to the next level and truly introduces you to an environment of abundance. Bringing nature in from the yard and putting it to work for you is one of the most rewarding things you can do. Celebrate Lugnasadh and Lammas by taking a minute to brainstorm on how best to put your plants to work for you.