Harvesting Your Garden for Craft and Medicine
by Tom Webster
With the warming summer sun, the lushness of our gardens begins to call us like kin. In the garden we are caretaker and guardian, there is a constant change ever taking place, new plants are introduced, and often old plants die. I always try to grow common wild plants in the garden to reduce my wild harvesting, watering, and provide a similar ecosystem to our animal species.
When harvesting our gardens, most species of plants have a prime moment of being cut and gathered. Rule of (green) thumb, in the morning on a calm and clement day. In the night, nutrients contained in the plant will recede to the root, making early in the morning before sunrise or even night ideal for root harvesting. Early in spring or late in fall are also ideal for root harvesting, as most nutrients are kept dormant. As the sun rises and hits the aerial parts of the plant, its nutrients will rise and extend to the flowers and leaves, making morning and noon the ideal time to harvest the stalks, leaves, and flowers. Most plants are best picked when just before or on the verge of flowering, unless you are harvesting the flowers. By following this simple rule, you will even notice the aroma and flavour of the plant will be stronger, in turn making it an ideal practice for any crafter. Harvesting on a rainy and wet day is usually a bad idea, as oils will be weakened and drying the plants will prove very difficult.
Depending on what you are harvesting, the ideal time will vary. Learn and observe the plant in question. When does it bloom? When does it go to seed? How does it look in day or at night? When plants look strong and sturdy on their feet, not limp or emaciated, this usually denotes their virility. Even colour can guide you; by looking at two of the same plant, let’s say rosemary, one plant has leaves darker and greener in colour than the other, denoting rich and healthy chloroplasts. This reveals that this rosemary plant will contain more nitrogen along with a generous plethora of vitamins, terpenes, ketones, and acids. Now I am led to inspecting the plant further. Do the leaves look healthy? Are there signs of disease? Timing and observation are key, and research is the most important practice before harvesting.
Every plant is harvested differently, from collecting leaves, flowers, seeds, and/or all the above, plants like yarrow and nettle are entirely medicinal. When it’s time to harvest a plant in your garden, never take more than half at a time. If cutting stalks, the tips of the plant with fresh new leaves and flowers are the most potent in potential, absorbing much energy from the roots and stem to produce new growth. The cut can be made between a few inches to a whole foot and a half depending on the height and size of the plant. If the cut is made just above a node, which is a groove on the stem nestled in between the stem and petiole (leaf stem) of a true leaf, it will grow back more successfully, providing further harvest. Do not take too long in bundling your stalks with a string to hang them. Heat from the sun and wilting will decrease the quality of the finished product. Plants collected in this manner should be hung freely in a dark and dry space. Sun will damage the plant and cause them to decay faster. Harvesting leaves and flowers is done somewhat differently. Raspberry, for example, simply needs to be clipped, leaving most of the petiole intact with the leaf. This ensures reduced wilting, integrity of colour, and stronger potency. Large flower heads such as calendula can be cut right under the receptacle (where the stem meets the flower head).
This now leads me to table drying, with multiple methods. The first is quite simple: using fresh or recycled packing paper, lay out the flowers and/or leaves flat, without being stacked upon, again in a dark and dry environment. You may wish to use a fan on a low setting to move the air. This method usually takes up to a couple of weeks and works great for smaller leaves and flowers. The next method is mesh drying: leaves and flowers can be placed upon a mesh screen laid horizontally, again not stacking the plants, the bottom of the mesh open and exposed. If you are industrious, these mesh screens can be attached to frames and even stacked but only if there is still room for air to circulate. Hence, a fan will aid with this method and less room will be required in your home or shed. I find mesh drying works great for larger leaves such as comfrey and tobacco. Do not attempt to “clean your plants” with hosing them down or rinsing them. Roots, however, can be washed gently before drying either by being hung or chopped and laid out much like the flower heads. Dirt and sometimes bugs come with the task, but as the plants dry, the insects will escape to fresher horizons. Once the plants are dried, most of the dirt can be sifted or will fall off the plant before storing.
After a couple weeks of checking your drying plants, they are most likely ready. Do not store plants prematurely if they aren’t fully dried, but do not wait too long either. One could simply gather the dried plants as is and store them intact, which takes up more room, but increases the longevity and potency. Or one could do what’s known as garbling. This will require you to break down the dried material gently, and store. This method takes up less room and will be easily ready for your crafting needs. Dried plants should be stored in dark, dry, and cool places. Pantries, basements, cupboards all make great places for keeping your home apothecary. Furthermore, clean paper bags or glass jars labelled correctly with name and date should prove useful. Most plants lose their potency over time, so keep that in mind. Six months to two years if well stored is normally the expectancy of most dried herbs. Anything that goes beyond that date will be ineffective, both physically and energetically, so try to use or share your herbs and craft with others before that date approaches. And never forget to thank your plants for all the hard work they do!
Tom Webster: herbalist, avid gardener, crafter, and Co-operator of Nocturnus Art & Metaphysical in Saskatoon. For more information see the display ad on page 25 of the 28.2 July/August issue of the WHOLifE Journal.