Drying herbs, flowers and foliage from your garden is a great way to preserve and extend the life of your harvest, long after the growing season is over. Dried herbs and dried flowers can look extremely attractive and keep your home smelling fresh. Homegrown and dried herbs add more flavor to your cooking and can be healthier than store-bought ones with chemical additives to keep them fresh. Dried herbs and flowers are also delicious when brewed with tea, or on their own as an infusion. Many common herbs also have medicinal properties and can be used to treat minor ailments at home.
In general, it’s best to trim your herbs and flowers on a dry, sunny day. Harvest after the morning dew has evaporated but before the sun is high in the sky.
Herbs generally are best harvested before the flowers begin to open to maximize flavor. You can extend the growing season of most plants by pinching off flower buds. Snip herbs with clean scissors, cutting just above a leaf and avoiding woody stems. Be sure to leave four to six inches to allow the herb to keep growing.
Some additional tips for popular herbs:
If you are maintaining an organic garden, using natural pest control solutions like Earth’s Ally Disease Control and Earth's Ally Insect Control will allow you to spray and protect your plants right up until the day of harvest. Even so, it’s always a good idea to lightly rinse your fresh cut herbs and flowers to remove any dirt before you begin the drying process.
After rinsing, pat your cuttings dry with a paper towel. Lay the herbs or flowers on absorbent paper or a rack. For dried flower arrangements, leave the flower on the stem and dry the entire plant. If you are drying flower heads for culinary or medicinal use, pluck the petals from larger flowers before drying. Small flower heads, like chamomile, can be dried whole.
Long-stemmed flowers and herbs can be gathered into small bundles and tied with twine, then hung from a peg in a cool, dry spot with good air circulation. Pick a spot out of direct sun to preserve color and flavor of your cuttings. The air-drying process will take about one week.
To speed up the drying process, you may want to use a dehydrator. Place the herbs on a sheet and dry on the lowest setting. Small pieces of plant material will take less time to dry than large, woody stems. A few heads of chamomile or a handful of parsley may only take two hours; expect to wait as much as 18 hours for larger quantities of woody herbs. The drying process is complete when the herbs crumble between your fingers. If the herb does not crumble, it’s important to dry it for longer. Improperly dried herbs that still contain moisture may grow mold when stored.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, drying in your kitchen oven is possible, although not ideal. Put your oven on the lowest setting and dry herbs on a parchment-lined baking sheet with the door cracked. Once again, look for herbs to crumble between your fingers to know that the drying process is complete.
Store your newly dried herbs in small jars, in a cool dark place. Keep the stems on, if possible, then you can pluck the leaves and sprinkle into your food when you need them for maximum freshness. Be sparing in your recipes with freshly-dried herbs; they are more flavorful and intense than store-bought herbs.
Your dried herbs and flowers will last from 9-12 months if properly dried and stored. If you do not use them within a year, you can safely add them to your compost heap to recycle. By then, a fresh new crop of plantings will have arrived in your garden, and you can begin the harvesting and drying process again to enjoy another batch of home-grown herbs.