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The Herbal Harvest

The Herbal Harvest

The Herbal Harvest

Bring back the apothecary garden

If we really want to understand herbs, then we need to grow them. Only then can we witness how they flourish in mutable nature and in turn, bequeath to us the ability to flourish too, in the shifting circumstances of wherever we might find ourselves planted. In short, we care for plants that, in turn, care for us. Plants and medicine, gardening and healing have long been entwined, although the story of their entanglement is complex. For most of human history, plants have provided the basis of medicine. While chemicals isolated from plants are now synthesised artificially for pharmaceutical use, many people around the world continue to rely on herbalism. Ancient herbals that detail plants’ properties and usage survive in fragments of Egyptian papyri and Assyrian cuneiform tablets, suggesting herb gardens have been cultivated for millennia.

There was a time when humans simply gathered their herbs from the once abundant wilds for food and medicine, however as civilisation took its hold, cultivating a medicinal herb garden became an essential part of domestic and medical activity. For centuries, especially in rural areas, many people depended upon the herbal remedies of the physic garden that was supplemented with wild foraged plants by local wise women who also supplied herbs to urban apothecaries. Witchcraft trial records contain numerous references to herb lore, indicating that many of those accused were local healers or ‘cunning’ folk. Many monasteries and large estates had physic gardens where plants were grown for healing, cooking and dyeing wool and fabric.

Our little Herb garden

Early physicians had access to an apothecary garden that became known as the “Physic garden,” where medicinal flora was grown for teaching medical practitioners. Once pharmaceutical laboratories became the key source of more modern medicine, the ubiquitous herb garden was phased out much to our disservice.  The idea of creating our own modern version of the ageless physic garden is intriguing and would surely add a depth of timeless wisdom and usefulness to our space, as well as symbolic transcendent content. The physic garden represents the very origin of herbalism and pharmacy as a science. A big plus is that herbs are such easy-to-grow, low-maintenance plants that are so forgiving of most growing conditions and they keep giving again and again. We can tend to the herbs that tend to us and create an environment of dynamic reciprocity, not mere extraction. We get to witness first hand how our plant allies harvest light with Vital force from the sun earth, moon and the stars to alchemise and botanically chelate into something useable and healing for the human being. 

Living laboratory of herbal secrets

A return to the wholesome and intrinsically human practice of cultivating and using our own specialised “materia medica” or source of herbs could awaken within us an appreciative joy for nature’s herbal gifts. A comprehensive medicinal and culinary herb garden can be a compelling capsule of nature’s pharmacy available to us in our own backyard. The herb garden is foremost a sanctuary to celebrate sensuous phenomena of all kinds; a place where mystical scents, changing colours and seasonal variety can be relished and also studied. Our herb garden helps develop our knowledge about the medicinal properties in plants, a knowledge that has provided the very foundation for modern medicine a reliable foundation already established by the wise herbal women and men of antiquity. It may not be hidden behind cloistered walls, however our own little herb garden can provide a secluded living laboratory containing  herbal secrets of utmost relevance for us to investigate and from which to learn. 

How heavenly it is to wander through our herb garden and breathe in the beckoning aromas of plants exuding their fragrant charms. When we immerse amongst growing herbs with full sensory engagement we begin to intuit the signature personality of each unique herb and learn to decipher the message that it holds hidden within. How instinctive it is, to feel ourself drawn to certain specimens that signal to us their curative powers. How remarkable are these earth-bound and sensitive organisms that offer us a kaleidoscope of sensible, accessible solutions to transcend whatever malady we might be negotiating in our everyday life. Indeed, how satisfying it is to co-create with nature as we partake of her botanical offerings from their very source for genuine succour and assistance.  

Its about how we grow herbs

The wonderful thing about a herb garden is how it attracts pollinating insects; bees, moths, butterflies, wasps and beetles that buzz around foraging in flowers harvesting pollen and nectar. Indeed, the vast majority of garden visitors are either helpful or harmless and they particlarly love fragrant herbs. Many herbs deter bugs including lavender, rosemary, lemon balm, basil, mint and calendula; releasing aroma that masks the scent of people and food plants, making them less attractive to insects. Herbs are the ideal companion plants that encourage the growth of other plants in this cultivated botanic community. Our little herb garden can only exist as a high-functioning, richly-populated and self-sustaining ecosystem when we garden organically without pesticides and inorganic fertilisers. It goes without saying that our herb garden will be organic, but we might also consider the concept of the biodynamic garden that is a holistic, ecological and ethical microcosm of the Nature macrocosm.

The biodynamic garden is one living organism made up of interdependent elements, plants, soil, people and its spirit; all aspects of nature are interconnected in a continuous cycle of life. Accordingly, we plant and harvest according to the sun, moon and planetary cycles which makes a huge difference in fending off insects without the use of pesticides to picking certain plants at a specific times to preserves their potency. Plants harvested from a biodynamic garden are more effective because they have reached their peak of energy and strength; they have been planted in alignment with various growing cycles and harvested when the plants are at their most vital point.

Harvesting Herbs for Drying

As we harvest, we take time to sense and smell the plant and see how it makes us feel. Some herbs are perfect to simply pluck fresh and use straight away to make a healing tea, poultice or flavour our food, though there is always more than we can use in one season. Many herbs will serve us well if we harvest them intelligently to preserve their integrity when all their goodness  as reached its zenith. We want to capture this peak moment of efficacy by minimally processing them and protectively storing them to use at a future date to make good use all of their innate goodness. 

It is beneficial for the herbs themselves to harvest them regularly during the growing season once the plant has enough foliage to maintain continued growth. 

It is wise to harvest herbs just before they flower for the richest nutrient value. If we have been harvesting branches all season, our plants probably never get a chance to flower. However, by late summer, even the herbs that have not yet flowered will start to decline as the weather cools. This is a good time to begin harvesting and drying our herbs. We cut branches in mid-morning and let the morning dew dry from the leaves but pick before the plants are wilting in the afternoon sun.

We dont cut the entire herb, unless we plan to replace it. We should never cut back by more than two thirds or remove more than about one third of a plant's branches at one time. We can cut sprigs of herbs just above a leaf cluster or, in  some cases, at the bottom of the stem, removing dead or damaged leaves and wiping off dirt that may be present. Only if further cleaning is necessary, should we rinse with cool water and pat dry with absorbent towels. 

Bountiful bundles of drying herbs

Drying herbs allows us to enjoy them long after they are out of season, or when our harvest has ended. The oldest way to dry herbs is to take a bunch and hang it upside down in a warm, airy room and let nature do the work. Hang or lay the herb branches out where they will get plenty of air circulation so they can dry out quickly. Wet herbs will mould and rot. Bundle four to six stems together and tie them as a bunch using a string or a rubber band. If the herbs have high moisture content, make smaller bundles so they get more air flowing between the branches and do not rot. Sometimes paper bags aid in drying out the herbs more quickly and thoroughly and importantly, protect from dust and infestation. Punch or cut holes in a paper bag and place the bundled herbs inside, upside down, making sure they are not crowded inside the bag. Secure the bag by gathering the end around the bundle and tying it closed and label it with the name of the herb. 

Once well dried, strip the leaves and flowering tops from the harder stems and store in airtight containers, zippered plastic bags will also work. Herbs will retain more colour, aroma and efficacy if the leaves are stored whole; only crush or powder them when ready to use them. Place containers of dried herbs in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight; herbs will retain vitality for up to two years.

We can also try more modern means

We can employ any slow drying process that will help retain the aroma, flavour and therapeutic efficacy of the herbs. They key to successfully drying our herbs at home is the continuous circulation of warm and dry air. Nowadays many modern kitchens have an air dryer or food dehydrator, which can be an easy way to dry fresh herbs, especially with succulent leaves or high moisture content. We can even use an oven set on low heat as a convenient shortcut, but they can cook the herbs to a degree, diminishing the oil content and flavour, so use only as a last resort. For good flavour retention, we might consider freezing herbs, it's easy to do and even quicker than drying. Spread herb sprigs or leaves on a tray and place in the freezer and when frozen solid, pack into airtight containers to use in soups or stew. Herbs with thinner, more fragile leaves, like basil or coriander are less suited to freezing whole; they can be chopped and frozen in oil and packed into ice cube trays. Frankly, using herbs fresh or dried is superior.

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