Herbal & floral how-to's
Harvesting & Drying Herbs & Flowers

Most herbs have best times for gathering, depending upon part used and desired uses. 

To dry herbs for arrangements, you want to catch them at peak of perfection, generally before the flowers have fully opened, and whisk them to your drying area.  Bunch them and hang heads downward in an airy dry place, out of the light.  Wooden clothes-horses are good for this. 
I like to save the little hooks socks come bundled on, to hang the herbs by: string a twist-tie through the hole and wrap the bundle of herbs, then hang with the hook.  Infinitely re-useable.
Some flowers keep their shape better if dried flat--daisy types for example droop forward when dried upside down.  A nice piece of close-meshed hardware cloth (half by half inch is good) suspended at the top of that clothes-horse works nicely, letting the stems drop through and the petals dry at a more normal angle.


To dry herbs for edible or medicinal uses, you'll want to gather leafy tops just before fully opened, when the oils are at maximum, generally in the morning while the plant is freshest.  Leaf material only can be harvested when the leaves are at their largest, and many can be re-cut.  Either bunch and hang bundles, or if you have lots of room, lay flat on clean cloth.  (While the space under the bed might sound like a good place for this, don't put them there!  It's too easy to gather up lint as well as cat whiskers--or the cat--in the process.)

Buds are gathered before they open, obviously, but some are best gathered in the winter (poplar) while most are gathered just before opening.


Roots are gathered after plants have matured-- Valerian takes a while for the roots to be big enough to bother with washing!  Many plants this is the 2nd or third year, and if you are judicious and only take part of the roots, you needen't destroy the planting.  Often herbs at that time will benefit from division anyway (Orris root for example) and the herb bed can refurbished and new divisions re-set.  Biennials you would want to gather before they rush into setting seed, as the roots will be spent in that process.

To harvest and process Orris root as a fixative, July or early August will usually do, when the plants have subsided after flowering.  Dig, divide, re-plant what you need, and then remove the tops and feeder roots.  Scrub the rhizomes and rinse clean; peel for highest quality.  Then chop into dice or grate.  You must do this as soon as dug; once they have dried, they are hard like iron and impossible to chop up.  Lay on clean cloth to dry as above, turning or scuffling through the pieces every few days, then every week or so until thoroughly dried.  Bottle up loosely in glass jars, checking for moisture.  Open up and re-dry if you find any!  This is a minimum two-year project and you don't want to ruin it at the start.  Once you are certain the roots are completely dry, store them away with the date on the lid.  It will take at least two years for the scent to ripen (a bit faster the smaller you have chopped the roots).  Finally, one day you'll open the jar to sniff and amazingly, instead of a rather bland nothingness, the jar will smell of violets.

To harvest lavender for later use, decide what you're going to use the flowers for. 
To dry for arrangements and wreaths, in order to keep the flowers on, you'll need to pick before they are fully open, at around 30-40% open, and hang to dry immediately.
For lavender wands, cut the longest stemmed flowers and bundle in groups of uneven number, working quickly while they are still fresh. Directions for making lavender wands are below.
For culinary uses (fresh), harvest when nearly fully open and use directly (as in jellies). 
For culinary uses (dried), harvest when fully upen and hang to dry over clean paper or cloth, lots of the buds will drop directly.  When completely dry, rub the rest of the buds from the stems (you'll want good ventilation for this) and pack in glass jars; keep out of the light to preserve best color, fragrance & flavor.  Flowers harvested this way can also be used for sachets, etc.


To make lavender wands:
You'll need
  • freshly cut bundles of lavender, with the longest stems you can cut
  • decorative ribbon (silk is nice but a bit fiddly to work with until you've gotten the knack of making wands down; satin or grosgrain are nice and there are many colors and types to choose from nowdays in craft/sewing sections at the fabric stores).  A good size to start with is 1/4" width.
  1. Cut ribbon lengths of about 1 yard
  2. Bundle lavender stems in uneven numbers, a minimum count of 15 for plump wands. 
  3. Make a turn around the base of the flowers with your ribbon, snug the ribbon up tightly and tie a clove hitch (a knot without a bump). 
  4. Gently fold the stems down back over the flower heads (you'll be enclosing them in a woven basket of the stems), bring the ribbon to the front of the work and
  5. proceed to weave the ribbon over and under the stems as you wrap, snugging as well as you can without breaking the stems which will be rather brittle; this takes a light touch. 
  6. When you get to the base of the flowers and have them completely enclosed, take two turns with the ribbon, tie another knot, and either end here with a bow, or wrap the stems, part or completely to the end.
  
Infused Oils

High summer is a good time for infusing oils from the herb garden for home use.  Chamomile, lavender, calendula and such are good candidates for soothers for sore hands, stings, blisters and the like.

Be sure to rinse flowers and dry well before infusing (if you're not so lucky as to pick after a good cleansing rain).  You can even dry them before infusing; just be sure the flowers are really dry as you don't want to introduce water into your oils to spoil them.
Good choices for oils to use are Jojoba, olive and sweet almond.  Jojoba has the best keeping qualities and if you want to use olive, refrigerate it; sweet almond, plan on keeping your oil frozen. 
Some sources suggest adding vinegar to help draw out the properties of the herb, but it seems to us to add an off note and promote rather than hinder spoilage.  While you could simmer the herbs in the oil, it seems to create too much of a toasted note for some herbs,  and too much heat can destroy some of the keeping properties of the oil.  If you have a very low heat source, a controlled steep at around 100-120 degrees F. can speed the process.  To keep the oils fresh, refrigerate or add vitamin E or rosemary oil extract.

Loosely fill a jar with your herb tops, then fill again to cover with warmed oil. This you can let set in the sun to steep, it's romantic and pretty, but to get the best quality in your oil, infuse out of the direct sun.  Do check to be sure there is no moisture collecting in the jar above the oil.  After a few days to a week, color and scent will be entering the oil.  Strain out the herb materials and if you like, re=infuse for a stronger oil.

 
Medicinal Uses
Traditionally, herbs have been used medicinally for millenia.  Some of the more common herbs used in the 'medicine cabinet' way today are chamomile (soothing for tea and skin), feverfew to alleviate migraines (awfully bitter!), lavender (healing for the skin), lemon balm (used in salves and ointments), mint and ginger for indigestion, marshmallow leaves and root for their emollient qualities, comfrey for a poultice, and valerian and dill for their sleep-bringing qualities.  We also like mullein leaves as impromtu bandages when we drop the harrow and mash our thumb between it and the tractor.

To infuse St.Johnswort, snip the flowering tops and immerse in olive or jojoba oil, filling a glass jar loosely then topping off with the oil.  Cap and leave in a dark cupboard for at least a week; strain and repeat with fresh flowers.  Leave longer this time, until the oil has turned red.  Strain and bottle.  This oil can make one sun-sensitive, so do not use on skin that will be exposed to the sun for the next several hours.

Comfrey leaves are a good source of allantoin, and while comfrey is no longer felt to be safe to take internally, scrusching out the gel from the leaves (place between sheets of waxed paper and go over with a rolling pin) will give a cooling, soothing gel for a spur of the moment replacement for aloe.  As with all fresh plant materials containing water (plant sap in this case), make only what you need at the moment, this does not keep.

Peppermint tea is nice when you have an upset stomach, and ginger syrup can be used for nausea, as a tea, a warming non-alcoholic cordial on a cold winter evening, or with sparkling water as homemade ginger ale.  Fresh ginger root is best for syrup, but even the dried shredded root makes a great tea.  Do scrub the roots and remove as much of the peel as you can before chopping.  Check the recipe page for our ginger syrup recipe.

Lemon Balm Salve
Steep dried leaves in olive or jojoba oil (or gently warm fresh leaves in oil on the stove) and thicken to desired consistency with melted beeswax. 
Start with approximately 1 part beeswax to 4 parts oil.  Pour while still warm into sterile pots and leave until cool to cover.
For a very soft ointment-consistency, try 1/2 to 1 part wax to 4 parts oil.
 
 
Culinary
For Tea Plant & Edibles,

See the Recipe Page for cooking ideas.


 
  
Fragrance
While we have covered this in detail elsewhere (everywhere!), there are a few things we can include here:

Perfumery

A Violet Cologne
1/2 ounce Orris Root, dried & finely chopped
2 ounces grain spirits/vodka
Bottle tightly and shake daily for two weeks.  Decant into scent bottle.  Mind how you go; some people find Orris root irritating.



to make Hyacinth Enfleurage
1). Coat pairs of matching glass pie plates with melted/cooling shortening (such as Crisco or coconut oil)
2). Gather fresh Hyacinths in the early morning; pick the florets off onto the prepared plate in a layer up to 2" deep.  Top with 2nd plate.
3). Change florets daily as long as the flowers are available.
4). Cover the scented shortening with equal parts of grain spirits in a tightly capped jar, shaking several times a week and keeping in a dark closet.
5).  Decant perfume into a bottle or
6). Freeze solution and skim off the scented absolute.
(useful for all flowers whose scents don't survive heat: carnation, hyacinth, violet, etc.)

       
Home and Holiday Uses

Natural herb mixes for potpourri, sachets etc. will need a fixative to last longer than about 6 months, less if kept in an open bowl or a warm place.  For pillows stay away from ground botanicals as they will be dusty and sift through the casing.  Traditional fixatives include Orris, Benzoin, Citrus peels, fragrant woods & resins. 
Basically these items act as an absorbent, neutral to complementary material that takes in the scent of the botanicals in your mix, and releases them more slowly, making the scents linger.  Less romantically, one could use bland cellulosic materials (ground corn cobs come to mind) but they would lack the basic fragrance of scented materials and thus need added scent.  And look tacky.

For potpourris that will be in open bowls, you might want to add dried botanicals with brighter color and more texture than you'll find in most herb leaves.  Easy, generous plants to grow for this include strawflowers, paper daisies, delphinium and larkspur, peonies, some lilies, amaranthus and the like.  I like to add tiny alder cones, larger spruce cones, bits of bark curls, and of course, roses, lavender and citrus peels, which will also contribute scent.  Peonies dry fabulously if you cut them before fully open, then leave standing in a vase of water without replenishing until fully dried.  Peonies cut too far open will drop petals; you can leave them to dry in a glamorous cascade reminiscent of paintings from the 'Japonisme' period, then scoop them up for later use.  As with roses, stay with pinks and reds as the whited dry to a sad brown.


Herbs for a Dream Pillow
Lavender (for calming)
Catnip (for sleep)
Hops (for sleep)
Mugwort  (for dreams)
Rose petals (for those dreams to be sweet)

Winter's Day Potpourri
2 parts Lemon Balm
2 parts Rose petals
1 part fragrant rose leaves: Rosa primula (woodsy)
or Rosa glutinosa (pine scented)
1 part Cinnamon Basil
1/2 part dried carnation petals
1/2 part rose hips for color



I knew it!!--Lemon Balm
In Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor this herb was used as a kind of furniture polish.  (The first recorded use of 'Lemon Pledge'??)


   
Gardening with Wildlife

As gardens are sterile and lifeless without birds, 4-leggeds and other creatures, we can do ourselves a favor by attracting them, excluding the most voracious chompers, and enjoying the passing parade. 

Songbirds benefit from daisy-type and other flowers left standing as seed granaries (Rudbeckias and Agastaches are great ones to start with), robins will appreciate your left over strawberries--before they are left over!--chickadees will play in the sprinkler (as will fawns), and crows will take your plant tags for their collections.

Frogs and toads are great consumers of chewing insects; some extra shady damp places for them such as upturned clay pots, perched against a stone for a doorway, plus ground-level water sources, will bring these creatures out.  (We've had large wood frogs settle into small pools, only to scare the socks off us by groaning from under the water while we were cleaning out the pool!)

Snakes are also a good addition, balancing off the fecundity of mice and voles.  They will also appreciate the cool damp floor of a shady greenhouse, in mid-summer.  Here we have no poisonous snakes to deal with, it's just fun to meet them in the garden (and apologize for watering them . . .)


 

Deer Proofing
Living in the north Idaho woods, deer are a constant part of gardening whether one wants them to be or not.  As they were here long before people, and as when they are hungry they will eat nearly anything, there are really only a few things you can do to garden with deer successfully.  Those are
  1.  plant only plants that the deer won't eat.  This is not a huge list, but one still can have an ornamental garden (though not vegetables!).  Number one on the list is Lavender, even the elk won't eat lavender.  Following that, Oreganos, Mints, Agastache, Artemisias, Hyssop, Irises, Linaria, Sages (though they will take the flowers on some varieties), Penstemons, bristly things like poppies and eryngiums, toxic plants like foxglove and aconitum.
  2. plant a few things the deer will eat but can be kept off of with a deterrent spray.  This is not cast iron and there will be occasional misses on your part and snacks on their part.  We're not wild about putrescent egg solids (sounds attractive, doesn't it?) and won't use dried blood, being vegetarians and also avoiding things that could spread mad cow disease, so we prefer the repellant spray containing ammonium salts of fatty acids.  It's listed for vegetables & fruits, does not smell hideous to humans, and---it works better than the other sprays anyway.  It will also keep the neighbors' cows from eating the trees in the fence line, if you catch them in time.
  3. Use a fence.  This is really very easy, and while it does not fit with the romantic idea of living free in the woods, it is the only practical way to have roses, fruit trees and tomatoes.  We use field fence or sheep wire, with two strands of barbed wire above.  For little raised beds  (6-12'x10-20'), often just wrapping the bed with sheep wire is enough to keep the deer out--the spring left in the fence is enough to keep it coiled on itself and you might not even need posts.  One huge note here: survey where the deer traffic goes, and make sure that you are not cutting them off from water or escape from predators when you fence, or they will (must!) jump into your fenced area.  We left broad areas open here for them to circulate through on their way to the ponds--they were here first, after all.  I'm in their garden.
 
    


Rodent Proofing
Gardening in a rural area means dealing with rodents.  Some we have brought with us (house mice can't live without us, for example, having hitched their evolutionary wagon to ours centuries ago), some are locals who know a free meal when they see it.  House mice aren't that big a problem outside, but their woodsy cousins the voles and deer mice have extrordinary appetites and boundless energy.  They can reduce a rose to a pile of sticks in a winter weekend, and thoroughly till and decimate a garden bed of all your treasures sleeping under the snow.  Our strategies for outwitting them center on prevention, as the woods and fields bring an endless supply our way, and we want our gardens to be about life, not death. 

First and foremost, prevention.  For trees and shrubs, we plant in "gopher baskets" which keep the dirt-swimmers out and away from the roots until the plants are big enough to fend for themselves.  Leaving the upper 5-6" proud of the ground keeps surface running rodents out of the baskets as well.  The woody stems and trunks get tree-guards in the winter and the same repellant spray mentioned above in deer-proofing. 

For larger areas, we make beds lined with hardware cloth with half-by-half mesh (1/2" x 1/2"), which is too small an opening for critters to go through.  Hardware cloth is also much longer lasting in the ground than chickenwire.  This can be combined with boards or blocks for raised beds.  To attach to boards, roofing screws with big washers, or drywall screws with fender washers work well. 

Whatever you do, these lined beds also need a victorian-type collar of the wire standing proud of the ground as well to keep out interlopers.  This really should be about 8" high if the bed is flush to the ground. As we have only found this hardware cloth in 4' width rolls, we devised a few ways to join lengths for beds to be wide enough to bother with.  The simplest method we've found to date, and the cheapest, is to make flat-felled seams, tromp them flat, and clinch them with hog-rings about every foot to two feet (if the run is very smooth) and closer when making bends.  A good pair of dikes or a sheet-metal snip will work to cut the mesh of the hardware cloth.  You will cut yourself on the cloth, but a good pair of rubber coated gloves will minimize this while still allowing you to grip the wire and screws.

A good pre-winter shearing of any lush foliage will also make the beds less hospitable to rodents who love the cover and do their own haying of juicy stems to store in their burrows.
  

Butterfly Gardening
Butterflies, besides being pollinators, are lovely flitting creatures enlivening the garden.  We try each year to have more plants for them, both food for the larvae and nectar for the adult stage.   Favorite butterfly plants include buddleia, calliopsis, rudbeckias, echinaceas, gaillardias, (daisies of any kind, as long as they have a center eye), asiatic lilies, scabiosas & stachys.  For the larvae, there's caraway, dill, milkweed, violets, delphiniums & more.  All of these plants need to be planted in large clumps or drifts for them to get a good meal, so don't stint; a naturalized garden of lots of kinds of daisies will bring them in to stay much better than one little clump.
Don't neglect to have some mud for them, they need to puddle to get dietary minerals.

Some detailed lists of butterfly attracting plants, both for caterpillars and mature butterflies, can be found here:
http://www.floridata.com/lists/butterfly_plants.cfm
http://www.northerngardening.com/butterflyplants.htm
http://www.thegardenhelper.com/butterflies.htm


 
Hummingbird Gardening
Blessed with several kinds of hummingbirds here, we're constantly on the lookout for plants to bring them up close for a look, and to sustain them.  Native plants here that they seek when they first arrive in mid April include shooting stars (Dodecatheon), Tritelia/Brodeia & Columbines, followed by Castilleja (Paintbrush), Fireweed, Delphiniums, Honeysuckle, Penstemon wilcoxii, P. barbatus, Monarda menthifolia, Linaria and Cleome.  Introduced ornamentals they cherish include Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans), other honeysuckles,  Sages in saturated colors (red, violet or bright blue), Stachys, Morning glories (but they have no nectar so don't be a stingy host, plant Scarlet runner beans in with them and the hummers will adore you) and nasturtiums. 

Hummers need water when it's hot, and if you are a kind soul, when you are watering one might come and take a flying bath in the hose in your hand, or perch in a fence that a sprinkler is going over and bathe and sparkle there.  (Chickadees remember where you water and will come back, perch there, and call for you to bring the water back.  How can you not oblige?)

Be sure that your plantings don't afford cover for the cat to pounce upon them from, nor posts with feeders that make nice perches for hawks, ravens or other predatory birds.  If you use nectar feeders, also put in-line interruptors with water in them (NOT PESTICIDES! what were they thinking? Hummers eat tiny insects) to keep ants from swarming the feeder.  And police to make sure wasps aren't nesting nearby and threatening the hummers (or yourself).

Hummingbirds need tree cover to nest and forage in, so if you can provide some nice oldgrowth cedar and fir woods, that would be best.  Second growth will do in a pinch.  And don't be knocking the trees all down, leave some nature for nature.

Lists of plants useful for attracting birds to the garden can be found here:
http://chestofbooks.com/gardening-horticulture/The-Complete-Garden/N-Perennials-for-Attracting-Humming-Birds.html
http://chestofbooks.com/gardening-horticulture/The-Complete-Garden/Plants-Used-For-Attracting-Birds.html

http://www.floridata.com/lists/bird_plants.cfm
http://www.thegardenhelper.com/birdplants.html   ---very detailed! including notes on plants for songbirds, etc.
http://www.wildbirds.com/AttractBirds/PlantsthatAttractBirds/tabid/687/Default.aspx
Table of Contents:
Harvesting & Drying Herbs & Flowers
Processing Orris root
Drying & using Lavender
Making Lavender Wands
Uses:
Medicinal
Culinary
Fragrance
Home & Holiday Uses
Making Infused Oils
Gardening with Wildlife
Deerproofing 
Rodent Proofing
Butterfly Gardening
Hummingbird Gardening
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