Sunday, September 14, 2008

Harvest Time

Now is the time of year when my house is overrun with the sights, sounds, and smells of the harvest! Besides all the work that goes into a harvest, it is also one of my favorite times of year. Hay rides, pumpkin patches, crisp Autumn evenings, and favorite holidays Mabon/Autumn Equinox/Fall Harvest, Samhain/Halloween. It is the time when all my blood, sweat, and tears pay off; and when all my painstaking hard work of nurturing my herbs can be carefully handpicked, dried and put away to someday help make someone's life a little better.

First things first, I gather together everything I need to make this Harvest happen: tools such as latex doctors gloves (several pairs as I change gloves with each different herb I harvest, so I don't contaminate the herbs or mix the herb oils together). I guess I'm a little picky that way but actually it could cause problems if the oils are mixed between a medicinal and a non medicinal herb, or an herb that is for culinary purposes. I need dark glass jars and other containers and I gather these early before the herbs are dried, to get them all washed, dried and clean to store the herbs in once they are dried. These keep out the light - which is a bad thing for herbs, as it kills the medicinal qualities and dries out the herbs even more. Heat and cold fluctuations also kill any medicinal qualities of the herbs, so they should be stored where there is a constant temperature, like in a closet or cupboard away from light and drafts.

All herbs have different shelf lives, whether it be seeds, seed pods, barks, leaves, buds, flowers, etc. Most last between 6 months to a year; some a few months longer. Tinctures made with alcohol can last indefinitely, and tinctures made with vegetable glycerin and other natural preservatives last up to 6 months. You should NEVER take or use expired herbs as this can be dangerous since the dosage can fluctuate and or not work as well anymore. Throw away expired herbs - either bury them in the ground, or compost them so they are recycled back into the earth. Do not flush them down your toilet, as some people do with medicines, as they can end up in your drinking water supply since sometimes there are no chemicals to dissipate the medicines at water treatment plants (this has been proven in environmental studies).

When I harvest herbs, I ensure that I label the containers - whether I am dry storing them or freezing them (yes, some herbs can be frozen), or making them into tinctures, salves, creams, etc. I label and date everything religiously! Other tools I gather and use are four old fashioned wooden clothes dryers - I use these to hang the bundled herbs and paper bags of drying herbs from with twine. I also twine wrap and hang bundles of herbs up to dry, if my dryer shelves are full. I use small paper bags - like the ones used for school lunches; these are used after I gather and bunch some herbs together, tie them with twine, and put the bunch upside down in the paper bag, so that when the herbs dry, the seeds fall into the bag, making seed gathering a whole lot easier! Plastic zip lock bags in different sizes to gather seeds that have already dried on the vine, or on/in the plants. A couple of permanent marker pens to labels the bags with and to remark on the plant stakes/wooden popcicle sticks that I use to mark the plants with. I hate to find a plant that the marker has faded so badly from the sun and watering that I cant read the name on it and so am constantly re-doing them so that I don't have to try and hunt for the plant again online, or in one of my hundreds of gardening and herbs books :)

I use several different sizes of scissors and pruning shears for harvesting the herbs and for pruning the plants as I am going along. A roll of wet paper towels with rubbing alcohol on them to wipe down the scissors and pruning shears to prevent mixing the herbs oils. I also do this throughout the growing season to prevent the spreading of diseases from plant to plant. Several baskets of different sizes and shapes to gather the herbs in. My harvest binder and ink pen so I can write about and list the herbs I'm harvesting on that particular day and time - and in which month - as herbs can be harvested year round, depending on what they are. My camera, to take photographs to post online; I also save a record on cd/dvd files.

I also need my shovel, spade and a hand trowel in case some that are planted in pots need to be transplanted to bigger posts or moved and planted in the ground. Things that didn't grow so well this year might get moved elsewhere to see if they do better next year. Other plants may need to be uprooted and put in pots to be brought into the house for the Winter. Sometimes I just plant them in the ground in a pot in the Spring and leave there until the Fall, then dig up the pot and all and bring them indoors. I use an assortment of pot sizes for transplanting if needed, and fertilizer, as some herbs will continue to grow till the first freeze and give me another harvest.

I use mulch to cover those plants that can handle being out all Winter; I give them a heavy layer of mulch to protect their roots from getting frozen, which would kill the plant. I also use shredded paper - shredded in my own shredder! and mix that with the mulch for added protection to the bigger plants, and shrubs.

To be continued......

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