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Community gardens aren’t just allotments — they’re urban farms, great places to share gardening skills and crops.
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And rehydrating with steeped, steaming garden-fresh herbal blends invokes memories of summery garden days when herbs were abuzz with pollinators and the days weren’t nearly as short, dreary and cold as they are mid-winter.
So which plants offer easy-to-grow herbs that work well for homemade teas? As Sue Goetz, horticulturist and lifelong student, teacher and writer about herbs, puts it it: “Tea herbs – you can't just pick one! It's the blending that is the fun part.” Sue went on to suggest, “…I make sure that I grow a tender Stevia each year as a tea sweetener. It doesn't grow in winter in our (Pacific Northwest) area, so I grow and harvest like crazy to have a nice jar of dried leaves until the next season harvest.”
To grow Stevia, look for small starts at your local nursery early in spring. Pot it into a larger container to grow throughout spring and summer. To harvest, pinch out tips to dry. Pinching will also encourage the plant to continue to grow and branch out, giving you loads of super-sweet leaves to put aside. If you’re not familiar with Stevia, know that a very little bit goes a very long way!
If you’re looking for something bright, awakening and refreshing for your winter cuppa, try growing peppermint or spearmint. Both are voracious growers that will easily become invasive. But, kept in a pot, they should remain much more tame. As with Stevia, tip these plants regularly – just before blooming – to encourage bushiness and maximize your harvest fast.
Love lemony brews? Lemon balm is a mint-family option; treat it the same as your other mints, and your harvest will be bountiful. Prefer lemon verbena? According to Jennifer Rotermund, whose background includes botanical medicine, horticulture and urban farming, the root of this plant is the best option for tea. If you don’t want to dig up and forfeit your entire plant once it matures, consider harvesting leaves, blending them fresh with sugar and freezing the paste (or a simple syrup) for future citrusy-sweet drinks. It will keep for several weeks in the freezer, but don’t expect it to last through an entire winter.
Perennial herbs like thyme, sage and even lavender can make for delicious, anti-oxidant-rich and healing teas. Plus, even after harvest and cold weather, these drought-tolerant plants will replenish themselves year after year in the garden.
Love the vitamin-C rich flavor of tangy hibiscus teas? In warm climates, these plants can become perennial favorites. In locations that freeze, they make for beautiful annuals that are easy to grow from seed. After blooms are finished, harvest each calyx (the red part that grows just below the flower) and dry it for your teas. Other flowers like rose, borage and calendula can infuse your teas with flavor and make for beautiful gift blends.
Chamomile is a great herb for taking the edge off at the end of a tiring day in the garden. Fortunately, it’s simple to grow too. While Roman Chamomile is an option, German is arguably the tastier choice and showier garden flower. Seed German chamomile by mid-spring to grace garden beds with cheerful pops of fragrant yellow and white flowers well into early fall. Harvest flower heads during the peak-growing season. Clipping just above a leaf will encourage more growth.
Many herbs can be bundled and hung upside down in a cool, dark location to dry their aerial (top) parts for storage. Chamomile, lavender and sage work well via this method. Once they are thoroughly dry, trim to retain only the leaves and flower parts ideal for tea. Or, if you have a food dehydrator, trim your harvest first and then dry it on the herb setting and duration recommended for your machine. Be careful when drying not to mix more pungent herbs with less aromatic herbs or you may miss out on the subtle greatness of the later. Too, pungent herbs can infuse your dehydrator with their aroma – so much so that later batches of other foods may take on their taste.
Once your herbs are completely dry, store them in dry, sealed containers like canning jars for the season. (Clear jars should be kept in light-free pantries.) Leafy herbs may be crushed and stored in bags, but pretty flowers look best stored in something that won’t crush them. Even the smallest bit of moisture can ruin your entire batch of herbs. If you find any mold, compost the lot rather than brew it.
There are any number of other fantastic plants to grow and preserve for teas and other medicinal purposes. From tree barks to leaves to roots to flowers and shoots, plants provide us with an astonishing array of tasty surprises and healing concoctions. Be sure you familiarize yourself with the proper use and any interactions a particular plant may have for you, and take care not to imbibe anything you aren’t certain about. Visiting an herbalist before you begin may be a good plan. Then have fun with brews from your garden. As Jennifer reminded me, “…the magic is in the blending…(there are) so many possibilities.”
A simple cup of flowers
1 tablespoon dried chamomile
¼ teaspoon dried peppermint
1-3 dried borage flowers (optional)
1 dried Calendula flower (optional)
Local honey (optional)
Combine the first two ingredients in a steeper or infuser placed in tea mug. Pour over 6-8 oz hot water – not quite boiling. Allow brew to steep for 5-10 minutes to desired flavor. Remove steeper. Stir in a bit of honey, if you like it sweet. Float borage & calendula on top. Relax, meditate on the swirling flowers & steam. Sip when cooled to palatable temperature.