URBANA, Ill. – Enjoy homegrown herbs all year long by harvesting and drying them for tasty teas and added flavor for many meals.
For example, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Rhonda Ferree recommends drying lemon balm. “It has a very strong lemon scent and provides a nice subtle lemon flavor. Since this is a tender perennial and will most likely not survive the Illinois winter, it’s best to harvest the full plant,” she says.
To dry lemon balm, tie the long stems together and hang the stems upside down. Ferree shares that her own plant hangs above her kitchen window like a valence. Then she adds a couple leaves to many types of tea, including black and lavender.
Another herb perfect for drying is lavender – a perennial plant in Illinois that can survive winters. “Lavender is a delightful, relaxing evening tea herb. The mild floral scent is heavenly and therapeutic. Studies have shown that just smelling lavender can reduce anxiety,” Ferree explains.
Lavender prefers well-drained soil; however, it can die out in early spring if the roots stay wet too long. Ferree recommends snipping a few longer shoots off every plant and placing them in a mesh metal basket to dry.
Mint is also a perennial plant, but it can be very invasive in a garden. “Grow them in a secluded area where it cannot escape to other parts of the yard. Containers are often a good choice,” Ferree says. The opposite of lavender, mint is considered a “pick-me-up” herb. The slightly crusted whole dry leaves add zing to water, iced tea, and mojitos. Spearmint is the traditional mint for use in mint juleps and mint tea.
Sage is a staple of many herb gardens and can be used either fresh or dried. Ferree suggests using the leaves during the summer to make sage tea - three teaspoons of fresh sage or one teaspoon of dried herbs for each cup of tea.
“Sage is also a perennial plant that overwinters here in Illinois. Cut a few leaves off the plants and dry them in a wicker basket,” she says. “You can also use sage leaves to make decorative wreaths. Once the leaves are dry, grind them in a mixer, food processor, or coffee grinder.”
Another herb found in gardens is stevia – a natural sweetener that is grown as an annual plant in Illinois. Similar to lemon balm, the entire plant can be harvested and hung upside down to dry or individual leaves can be placed on a paper towel or in a wire basket. Once the leaves are dry, they are crushed to release stevia’s sweetening power.
“Homegrown stevia lacks the potency of refined white stevia extract available in grocery stores,” Ferree says. “Still, two or three leaves sweeten my teas just fine.”
With herbs currently in their prime, cut and dry now so that they can be used all winter. Good air circulation is key to successfully drying herbs. Ferree recommends stripping the leaves from the stems and drying on screens or in food dehydrators. When dry, store the herbs in an airtight container and use regularly.
More information on harvesting, drying, and storing herbs is available on the University of Illinois Extension Herb Gardening website at https://extension.illinois.edu/herbs.