Published in Natural Awakenings Magazine 2011
By Sara Stewart Martinelli
Making your own teas from herbs that you’ve planted, tended, and harvested is one of the most satisfying ways to enjoy your gardening efforts. Herbs are wonderful to grow in the garden because they are easy to grow, don’t need meticulous care, and yield completely usable harvests. There are countless varieties, unlimited uses, and myriad smells, textures, and habits. Here’s a list of 10 easy- to- grow herbs that can be combined in a number of different ways to make delicious and healthy brews.
Planning your Garden
Find a spot that gets a fair amount, to full sun. Once established, herbs tend to like it bright and hot and to be relatively drought tolerant. Be aware of the amount of space each plant will need, and how high it will grow. Remember when designing your garden to plan for harvesting, so leave a few stepping stones close to the plants.
Many tea herbs are also prolific spreaders. Mints, for example, will need to be carefully controlled, either by edging, or container gardening, or else they may become invasive to other areas. Decide how much time you want to spend controlling the spread of some of the plants, and plan accordingly. If you hope to harvest a year’s worth of peppermint, you may not mind if the mint spreads to a large area.
Planting and Tending
After you’ve designed your garden and determined where your herbs will go, you’ll need to either start plants from seeds or purchase starters from a local nursery. Choosing organic seedlings is highly recommended, especially with herbs that you plan to use for tea or other culinary uses. Herbs that are given commercial fertilizers do not always develop the same high levels of essential oils as their organic counterparts, and this can affect both taste and shelf life in the long run.
Herbs tend to love our rocky Colorado soil, and many of these herbs will survive over the winter with a little mulch. As your herbs grow and start to flower, be sure to pinch of the flower stems and the first few leaves before they go to seed. During the hot weeks of late July and August, this is especially important as plants that are left to go to seed will get leggy and woody, instead of focusing their energy on developing the aromatic leaves that are used for tea.
Harvesting, Drying, and Storing
Harvesting – The best time to harvest your garden herbs is on a warm summer morning, after the dew has evaporated but before the sun gets so hot that it affects the essential oils of the plant. Harvest often, using a sharp knife or harvest shears to minimize trauma to the plant. Do not yank at the leaves or stems as this can damage the roots and bruise the plants. Most leaves are best harvested before the plant comes into flower. Flowers themselves are best harvested when in full bloom, however some are best harvested just before they bloom.
Drying – After harvesting, wash the herbs thoroughly. Shake them dry, or pat them gently with a clean towel. There are a couple of easy drying methods.
Oven drying – place the herb on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven for a couple minutes at about 85 -95 degrees. Leave the door open and check the herbs often, so they don’t overcook. When chip dry, they are done.
Bundling – small leaf herbs can be tied into small bundles and hung upside down to dry in a cool, ventilated place safe from insects and moisture.
Basket drying or paper bag drying– Dry flowers or large leaves in a basket, and gently shake or turn them daily. Carefully monitor their level of dryness and watch to avoid any moist areas. Flowers seems to dry quickly so the basket method works well for them. Large leaf herbs take a little longer, and need to be shaken a couple times a day. You could use a paper bag the same way, although you don’t get the same level of air circulation as with the basket. Be sure to poke some holes in the bag to encourage air flow and moisture evaporation.
Storing – When the herbs are fully dry, try to store them in the largest form possible to preserve the essential oils in the leaves and flowers. Do not chop them up as you see in grocery style herbs. Airtight glass jars, preferably not clear, will best preserve the herbs. If you can’t find colored glass jars, then keep the jars in a cabinet or some place with minimal light. Most herbs when stored in their full form will maintain their potency and aromatic oils at least until the next harvest season. Compost herbs that have been dried for over a year.
Lemon Balm – Melissa officinalis – this perennial herb is a staple for any tea garden. It grows about 24’ high and the leaves create a great base for any herbal tea. They have a delicately citrusy flavor, which lends itself well to balancing a blend. Lemon balm is relaxing and reduces anxiety, and is safe and widely used for kids. The fresh leaves make a flavorful tea, or just place a few sprigs in your water bottle. Dry the plant in bunches and hang, and use the dried leaves throughout the colder months.
Mints – Peppermint –Mentha piperita, or Spearmint – Mentha spicata – these extremely prolific and often invasive herbs love disturbed soil. Luckily for the tea lover, these strong, vigorously spreading plants make some of the best and most useful teas. Both are very high in essential oils and are extremely beneficial for the digestive tract. Mint has many healing properties, and is especially useful in blends for colds, digestive distress, and flu. Mint is often used to improve the flavor of less palatable medicinal herbs.
Echinacea – Echinacea purpurea – Well known for its immune enhancing properties, Echinacea is also a beautiful plant in the garden. The large, purple petaled flowers are also known as purple coneflower, and prefer full sun to partial shade. All the parts of the plant are medicinally beneficial, but in order to keep the plant returning year after year, use only the aerial parts (leaves and flowers) for teas. Snip the flowers and leaves and dry in a basket or bag. Echinacea is useful in blends for colds or flus, and to support the immune system. It has an earthy, aromatic flavor. Avoid excessive use, and it’s not reccommended for people with compromised immune systems.
Calendula – Calendula officinalis – This common garden flower is one of the most useful plants you can have. The cheerful sunny flowers make a wonderful addition to the garden and gladly reseed themselves each year. Use the petals of the flower to add color to teas, with a delicate floral flavor. Harvest the flowers before they begin to seed, and remove any spent blossoms to encourage the plant to continue blooming. Calendula is often used in blends to soothe the stomach. Topically, calendula is recommended for a number of skin irritations.
Anise Hyssop – Agastache foeniculum– Anise Hyssop combines the flavors of anise and mint, and has a pungent root beer – like aroma. All of the aerial parts can be used for teas, so ideally harvest when the flower is in full bloom and has not yet begun to fade. This beautiful perennial herb grows to about 2 -3 feet and attracts butterflies, hummingbirds, and honeybees and readily reseeds its surrounding area. Anise Hyssop supports digestion, soothes respiratory tract symptoms, and helps to lower fevers.
Chamomile – Matricaria recutita – Chamomile has been used as a relaxing, soothing blend for centuries, and truly makes a delicious tea. This annual herb grows about a foot in height and produces small, daisy – like flowers. Harvest the flowers using a “chamomile rake” or just pinch them into a small basket. The tea is soothing to both the nervous system and the digestive system.
Roses –Rosa spp. – The world of roses is large, but even a single rose bush can provide you with enough rose petals and hips for a year’s worth of tea. Look for a variety of rose that has a strong scent, which indicated higher levels of essential oils in the petals. The size of the hips can vary greatly as well, so look for ones that are nice and large. Dry the petals gently in a fine basket. The hips are collected in late fall, after the cold weather has had a chance to increase the sugars in these tiny fruits. Slice the hips in half, remove seeds and fibers, and string on a thread to decorate your holiday tree. Once dried, the hips can be stored. Rose hips are extremely high in Vitamin C, and taste like tiny citrus fruits. They add a wonderful flavor to tea.
Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare – this member of the carrot family produces some of the most flavorful and beneficial seeds. The licorice flavored seeds can bring sweetness to a tea blend, and enhance digestion and the body’s assimilation of food. It can also support milk production in nursing mothers. Unlike the other herbs in the list, it’s important to allow the yellow, umbrella-like flowers to develop into seeds. Dry the seeds for about a week in a paper bag before storing to ensure there is no moisture. The leaves can also be used for teas.
Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis – This evergreen style, aromatic herb is well known for its rejuvenative properties and ability to improve memory. This is due to its affect on digestion and circulation. It’s also a strong anti-bacterial herb. What isn’t as commonly known about rosemary is that it makes a delicious, slightly piney, but sweet tea. It can be used either fresh or dried, but definitely dry your own, storing the dried stalks intact before using. Rosemary is grown in Colorado as an annual herb since it doesn’t fare well through our harsh winters. However, it’s a great container plant and may make it through the winter if brought inside during the coldest months.
Thyme – Thymus vulgaris – The strong flavor and aroma of thyme tea clearly indicates how useful it is in relieving congestion, colds, and coughs. It’s one of the most antibiotic of the herbs and it helps to cleanse infection and treat all types of mouth sores. Thyme tea supports the immune system, digestive system, and respiratory system. This powerful plant comes in a small package, with plants featuring tiny leaves and growing only about 12 inches high.
2 parts peppermint
1 part Echinacea
1 part lemon balm
1 part rosemary
1 part thyme
2 parts chamomile
2 parts lemon balm
½ part rose
½ part anise hyssop
Kids Cold and Flu Tea
2 part peppermint
1 part Echinacea
1 part rosemary
1 part rose hips
Digestive Distress Tea
2 parts fennel
1 part peppermint
1 part chamomile
1 part calendula
2 part Thyme
2 part Rosemary
1 part Anise Hyssop
1 part Rose Hips
Clarkson, Rosetta E., Herbs- Their Culture and Uses, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1942.
Hartung, Tammi, Growing 101 Herbs that Heal, Storey Publishing, Vermont, 2000.
Mars, Brigitte, Healing Herbal Teas, Basic Health Publications, CA, 2996.