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A practical guide for nutritional and traditional health care.

Drying Herbs

Provided they are dried appropriately, herbs are able to preserve a significant quantity of their unique hue, aroma as well as healing properties. In fact, it is not at all difficult to dry herbs properly. Nevertheless, it requires you to be cautious while drying them as well as be aware of the particular attributes of each plant.

Initially, you need to remove the plants away from direct sunlight immediately after you have completed collecting or harvesting them. You always need to follow a common rule of thumb while drying herbs. As per this rule, you should always dry up all warming herbs in sunlight, while the cooling herbs should always be desiccated in the shade.

You should ensure that you remove all the soil from the leafy herbs you have cultivated soon after harvesting the plants. A stratum of mulching (protection of plants using organic matter) will help in keeping the plants clean as well as free from soil splashed by rain. You should wash the herbs only if they require so, because washing them for an extended period of time will have an adverse effect on their value or features. Provided you require washing the herbs, it is advisable that you rinse them very fast as well as effectively by placing them under running water that is cold. Once you have washed the herbs, hang them or place them on a rack to allow them time to dry up. Pat the herbs gently to facilitate drying and subsequently, place the herbs in a cool and well ventilated place with a view to remove all moisture prior to starting the drying process. In case you cannot allow the herbs to dry naturally in the air outdoors or inside a warm attic, you can use a heater to maintain a uniform and stable temperature ranging from 95°F to 100°F.

It may be noted that the leaves of nearly all herbs containing volatile oils, for instance lavender, lemon balm, mint, dill, anise and fennel, dry up excellently when they are kept in a place where the temperature ranges between 95°F and 100°F. People who process herb commercially generally place the herbs at a more elevated temperature, but a home gardener who is patient can easily dry his herbs in the manner they ought to be dried up - slowly as well as steadily. It is important to maintain a steady and appropriate air flow over as well as around the herbs during their drying process. In fact, the air circulation is of more importance compared to the heat applied to them. When the air flow is more, you need a lower temperature to dry the herbs. It is important to note that herbs that enclose volatile oils ought to be always dried in shade and not under the sun. In case they are dried in sunlight, the volatile oil contained by these herbs will either vaporize or decompose.

Compared to any other part of a plant, the flowers are more fragile and particularly susceptible to being spoilt when they are exposed to water. Therefore, it is essential to shield the flowers from water after collection. In addition, they should be dried in a dryer or drying room where the temperature is roughly 90°F. In case the temperature inside the drying room is excessively hot or very cold or there is insufficient air flow, the flowers will not only become discolored, but also completely lose their delicate attributes.

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While washing the barks and roots of herbs you need to be cautious. In addition, you may also use a brush to remove the dust from these plant parts. Prior to drying them, cut the barks and roots into small pieces, each piece measuring about 1 inch or even less in width using a knife, cleaver or hatchet, subject to the toughness of the roots. On the other hand, the barks may be cut after they are dried up using a chipper or compost shredder. However, generally a small-scale gardener will find it easier if he cuts the barks into small pieces prior to drying them up. While you can dry nearly all types of roots in sunlight, there are some roots which should not be dried in the sun. This depends on the properties of the herbs. For instance, if you collect a root in the month of October, you will not get sufficient sunlight to dry up the roots properly. In such situations, you may have to undertake the drying process indoors in a dryer or an appropriate drying room. You can also use a food dehydrator to dry up the roots. Doing so will dry the roots more quickly, saving you much time. In some cases, a food dehydrator accelerates the drying process by no less than 3 to 4 times.

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When you are drying seeds of different herbs like caraway, anise or fennel, you should put the entire branch of the herb or the stems in big paper bags. Hang the branches or stems upturned in such a manner that their umbels are near the bottom of the paper bags. When you do this, the seeds of the herbs will drop neatly into the bottom of the bags. Alternately, you may also dry up the herbs inside paper bags by making a hole at the bottom of the bags and allowing the stems of the herbs through these holes. Prior to putting the lot of herb inside the paper bags, you need to make some holes for passage of air through the bags. Subsequently, hang the bag full of herbs from a roof beam making a well ventilated arrangement, which will help in keeping your herbs clean while they dry up.

Drying racks

It is essential for gardeners planning to dry up large quantities of herbs for therapeutic purposes to have a good quality drying rack. In fact, you can yourself make a simple, but effective drying rack having many levels to dry herbs. Additionally, you may make use of window screening with a view to get the maximum air circulation as well as to sustain the herbs that have been kept on the racks for drying. Although screens made of fiberglass are appropriate for this purpose, it is advisable that you keep away from metal screens. Moreover, you may also use broad netted cloth like burlap or muslin to make effective window screens.

You can also use benches to dry herbs. Ideally, you should use benches like the ones utilized in saunas, but constructed from hardwood strips, measuring anything between 0.5 inch and 1.0 inch in width. These are excellent for use as drying platforms, especially when you need to dry whole branches or larger herbs. While making the benches with the hardwood strip you should leave some space (about 0.5 inch to 1.0 inch) between every slat. Remember, after you have made the benches, never polish them or try to finish the wood using any oil, varnish or stain. Irrespective of the fact that you are using drying racks, window screens or benches to dry herbs, you need to ensure that you lay out the herbs in lean layers with a view to facilitate speedy and even drying.

Drying rooms

Depending on the amount of herbs as well as the harvesting time cycle of every herb, it is sensible that you chalk out the approximate space you will require for drying them. For instance, if you want to dry herbs grown on a quarter of an acre, you will require a drying room measuring approximately 200 square feet. This is the actual drying space needed for this quantity of fresh herbs. In fact, if you have an attic that is clean, it will be an ideal place for placing drying racks to desiccate herbs. Moreover, you may also put the drying rack inside a sauna, provided no one is using it in the form of a sauna. In addition, you can also construct drying racks on the walls of a shed and use the complete wall as a place to dry your herbs. Although sheds and barns are excellent places to dry herbs, but there are a few possible downsides of drying herbs in such places. As these places are constructed quite loosely, there is lots of air flow allowing insects as well as dirt to enter these places. The situation may become worse in case the weather becomes damp. In such situations it will virtually be impossible to keep the moisture out of the drying room.

If you wish to have a more refined drying complex you will have to have a good construction that can be used in the form of a forced-air room for drying herbs. Alternately, you can also convert a shed into a similar setup. You may also use screens, rafters or racks inside the drying shed or scatter the herbs in an orderly manner on an elevated floor or platform - a structure made with beams that are covered with sisal cloth that is permeable. You can then force the amount of air that is needed to dry the herbs by installing a centrifugal fan on any of the outside walls of the building, close to the level of the floor. It is advisable that you also place a filter and screen on top of the centrifugal fan with a view to prevent the entrance of even the slightest dust and or any insect into the drying chamber. In addition, the room will also require an exhaust vent that is 'open-and-close' close to the ceiling. You can employ a circulating vent, a hatch or a window screen for this purpose.

How long to dry

Many gardeners often ask how much time it takes to dry herbs effectively. The answer is - the time differs depending on the specific herb and also the part of the herb that you want to dry. If you take the instance of flowers, it is essential that they are dried lightly and properly, but never dried so much that they disintegrate into powdered form while handling them. Generally speaking, the leaves ought to be sufficiently fragile so that they break when you place them between your fingers, but never dried to such extent that they fall to pieces. Even the stalks and stems of the plants should be dried such that they break and not bend when placed between fingers and pressed lightly. The bark as well as the roots ought to be dried sufficiently so that they snap when they are slender and break off simply when they are thick and put under a hammer's blow.

It only takes a little experience to know exactly when the herbs have dried up completely and properly. In fact, the dried herb should retain much of the aroma, flavour as well as the appearance of the fresh plant, but still be completely dried up. For instance, if an herb is green and aromatic when it is fresh, it should retain these qualities (color and aroma) even after being dried properly. Here is an important advice: you ought to be careful to never evaluate the herbs dried by you depending on the color or appearance of the dried herbs available in the stores. Usually, the dried herbs sold at the stores are many shades less pale, yellow or brown compared to those that have been dried appropriately. In other words, the dried herbs bought from the stores are generally dried in the proper manner or they are not completely dried.

Storing home-dried herbs

If you are growing herbs and intend to dry them up for storage you ought to be aware of the fact that air, light, heat as well as action of bacteria all have the potential to fitter away the healing qualities of the herbs. Even metals and plastics can have the same effect. Therefore, it is essential that you take measures to look after the dried herbs and keep them away from the above mentioned factors to ensure appropriate storage. You can store the dried up herbs in paper bags that are waxed for brief periods lasting many weeks. These wax paper bags containing the herbs should then be placed in large brown paper bags. In order to store the herbs for an extended period, you should put them in airtight glass jars, if possible put them in dark colored glass jars with a view to shield the herbs from decomposing due to light. In fact, the dark colored glass jars are more suitable for this purpose. Ideally, you should use canning jars with glass lids and those that are closed using metal clamps making an airtight seal. In case you are using metal lids, put a small wax paper on top of the jar prior to tightening the lid.

Never store medicinal herbs in soft plastic bags or plastic jars, as not all types of plastics are suitable for preserving foods and medicines. In addition, the plastic containers you may chose to store the dried herbs may contain some residue, which may possibly contaminate the herbs. Provided the plastic containers you chose to use have been approved for storing food, they may promote condensation within the container resulting in the decomposition of the herbs. It is worth mentioning here that Plexiglas containers are appropriate for storing herbs. You may also store the dried herbs in drum barrels made from fiber, for instance the type that is used by stores selling natural foods to accommodate large amounts of dehydrated goods. In addition, air-tight wooden bins or boxes as well as wooden barrels may be utilized for this purpose.

It will help you if you try to estimate the quantity of herbs you will be drying for storage even before you start harvesting them for the first time. This will help you to make out the volume of storage space you will be requiring for accommodating the dried up herbs. If you don't do this and in case you dry a large amount of herbs, you will soon find that they will occupy almost your entire cabinet space. You should also make a plan to store the small jars containing the dried up herbs for regular use in your medicine chest or the kitchen cabinet. At the same time, you need to find a suitable and larger space for storing containers or jars that will be used to accommodate your whole harvest. Undertaking these measures from before will help to save a lot of space in your kitchen cabinet and, at the same time, will ensure that the stored herbs remain fresh. If you store all your dried herbs in large containers and open and close them very often, it will only lead to quick decomposition of the herbs.

If you intend to store the dried up herbs for a long time, you should ideally keep them in containers and place those in a place that is free from moisture and light and always cool. For instance, the cupboards and pantries in your house may be free from moisture and light, but they are not cool all the times. Cabinets as well as garages in your house situated close to the ground floor are usually cool, but you should ensure that they also remain dry if you plan to store the herbs in these places. In addition, you should ensure that the shelves have doors that close tightly and do not allow light to enter.

Careful labelling the herbs with the plant's name as well as the harvesting date is very important and helpful too. If you wish, you may also incorporate additional details regarding the harvest or cultivation, for instance the weather conditions and moon phases during the harvesting period, the source of the seeds or stock, cultivation procedures used by you, the kind of fertilizers used to cultivate the herbs, the place where the herbs were grown and even the drying process in the label for easy reference of the dried herbs.

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