By Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Nursery and Greenhouse Crops Specialist
University of Vermont
Throughout the centuries, people have been making their own tea using herbs grown in their gardens or collected from the wild. Today, as interest in growing herbs increases, so does the desire to try this age-old tradition.
If this is "your cup of tea," you probably don't need to look any farther than your windowsill or backyard herb garden for the ingredients you'll need. Chamomile, sage, catnip, lemon verbena, comfrey, scented geranium, and any of the mints--peppermint, orange mint, and spearmint, for example--are all ideal for tea. Rose hips, while not an herb, also make an excellent brew.
If you're new to herb growing, be aware that many of the plants in your "tea garden" will produce generously the first growing season, and may spread more than you'd like by the following year. That doesn't mean you shouldn't grow them, but you will need to contain these invasive plants by planting them in old baskets or bottomless buckets sunk into the ground.
Some, like lemon verbena, are not winter hardy in northern climates and so need to be grown in containers or replanted annually. Or try lemon balm instead, which is hardier and also has a lemony flavor. It does well in sun or shade although most of the tea herbs prefer a sunny location.
Teas can be made from fresh-cut or air-dried leaves and flower heads. (Chamomile tea, for example, is made from the flowers not the foliage.) Parsley, which makes a surprisingly tasty tea, is best used fresh. Both stems and leaves can be harvested for tea.
To ensure peak freshness, harvest herbs in early morning on a sunny day after the dew on the plants has evaporated. Use a sharp knife, leaving enough foliage to keep the plants growing. In other words, don't cut back farther than the second set of leaves. Make cuts at 45-degree angles, cutting close to a fork in the plant if possible. This will encourage the plant to bush out.
Choose only healthy looking leaves and flowers, and nothing that has been treated with chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. If you do decide to collect some herbs from the wild, be 100 percent positive that you know what you are picking. And avoid roadside plants that have been contaminated with oil and fumes from cars and trucks and possibly sprayed with pesticides and other toxins.
You can harvest herbs for teas throughout the season although perennial herbs will need time to build up their reserves before winter so should not be cut any later than a month or so before the first expected fall frost. In Vermont that's generally mid-September, so you need to stop harvesting perennial herbs by mid-August as a rule. Annual herbs, or those perennials you are treating as annuals, can be harvested up until frost.
In late summer you can pot up scented geraniums, mints, and other herbs for an indoor herb garden. Just be sure you place the pots under lights or on a sunny windowsill to keep the plants producing. The perennials left in the ground need to be mulched with a thick layer of mulch after the last harvest for winter protection.
Although you can use fresh herbs for tea, most home tea growers prefer to dry the leaves and flowers to store for use throughout the year. There are several ways to do this. Bunches of cut herbs can be tied with string and hung upside down to dry. Choose a warm, dark place with good ventilation. Herbs may mildew or not dry properly if air circulation is poor.
The herbs are ready for storage when the leaves are dry and crackly. Strip the leaves off the stems, crumble in your hands or use a food processor, and store in airtight jars away from direct sunlight.
If drying stems with seed pods, tie up bunches as above, then slip a brown paper bag over the clump to catch the seeds. For ventilation, poke a few slits in the sides of the bag with a sharp knife. Or spread the seeds on a cloth towel or layer of paper towels in a dry spot for one to two weeks. When dry, store in jars with tight lids.
You also can dry herbs on a screen or in the microwave or a conventional oven. These methods work best for flowers but can be used for all parts of the plant.
If using screens for air drying, remove the flower heads or leaves from the stems (discarding the stems), and spread in a thin layer on the screen. You can stack several screens, providing you leave a few inches between each one.
If using the microwave, place herbs on a paper towel and microwave on low for 60 seconds. Dry for one-minute intervals until the herbs are almost dry. Then allow to air dry for 24 to 48 hours before storage.
In a conventional oven, spread foliage and flowers thinly on cookie sheets, and "bake" at the lowest possible oven temperature setting for several hours with the oven door open. Stir occasionally. When herbs are completely dry, let cool completely before placing in jars.
Label your jars of herbs with name and date. Store in a dark place to maintain color and taste. Most dried herbs will keep for up to a year although you should discard as soon as the product has lost its flavor.
Making herbal tea is a simple process, requiring little more than boiling water, dried or fresh herbs, and honey, sugar, and lemon depending on taste. Use one tablespoon of fresh herbs or one teaspoon of dried for each cup of water. Try different combinations of herbs to find a blend you like. Place leaves in a tea ball or in your tea pot, pour in boiling water, cover the pot, and allow it to steep. Strain and serve.
You will need to experiment with how long tea needs to steep before drinking although for most blends, three to ten minutes is sufficient. The longer the tea brews, the stronger it will be. One exception is mint, including catnip, which should be steeped for no more than eight to ten minutes as the tannins in the plants will give the tea a bitter taste if brewed for longer than that.