Capturing the colours of summer: harvesting and drying flowers

Pot marigold, Calendula officinalis

Pot marigold, Calendula officinalis

It's prime time herb harvesting at this point in the summer, so we thought we'd share with you some tips on harvesting and drying flowers. For a lot of herbs we cut the flowers from the plants without their stems, which means you can't hang them up to dry! So instead, we lay out flowers on drying racks or well ventilated surfaces. Read on for a guide on how to do this and some of our top tips. 

Floral roses - use a clean container to collect your flowers as you harvest them

Floral roses - use a clean container to collect your flowers as you harvest them

1. Harvest on a dry day in the morning, once any dew has evaporated 

2. Select the best looking flowers. Avoid ones that are already fading or have been eaten by insects.

3. Use sharp garden scissors or secateurs to remove flowers. Remember to prune back to a leaf on plants like roses and marigolds to keep them tidy and promote more flowers. 

4. While you harvest you can also deadhead flowers that have gone over and remove tarnished leaves to keep your plants in check. Compost these bits.

5. Once harvested, spread the flowers out on your drying surface. Ensure that they are nicely spread to allow good airflow to the flowers. It's ok if they overlap a bit, just avoid them being piled up on top of each other.

Laying flowers out to dry on sheets of muslin cloth

Laying flowers out to dry on sheets of muslin cloth

6. Dry away from direct sunlight as this will deteriorate the flowers and encourage volatile oils (which hold a lot of herbal goodness) to evaporate and be lost.

7. Check on your flowers every few days and gently turn them to ensure air is reaching all parts of the leaves.

Vibrant colours of dried Rose petals; bright colours imply a good quality dried herb

Vibrant colours of dried Rose petals; bright colours imply a good quality dried herb

You know that the flowers are ready if they crumble easily. If you are drying flowers or herbs for the first time it's a good idea to experiment with different areas in your home to find where the driest and best ventilated areas are!  Once they are dry you can store them in an airtight container, in a cupboard where there is no chance of them being in contact with moisture. Brown paper bags inside airtight containers or recycled jam jars work well.

Happy harvesting!

Psst. If you need some help with growing herbs or want to get started come along to our next workshop, City Gardening: Growing your own herbs on Thursday 27th July at the Bee Garden in Dalston.  

WINNING! CSR Awards

Last week we were at the National Corporate Social Responsibility Awards and are so chuffed to have received the Special Judges' Award for Grass Roots Communities! It was a wonderful night celebrating some great achievements and meeting the folks behind some great initiatives. We gave special thanks to Hackney City Farm for giving us the space and support to grow our herbs, Tiosk for being the first cafe to stock us and the Centre for Better Health for welcoming us into their community hub to run our Herbal Craft Course. We couldn't have done it without all of you! And a final thank you to ALL our volunteers with a special mention to our wonderful 2016 trainees, Oli and Fran.

Congratulations also go to our friends at Project Dirt for winning Best Education Project for Outdoor Classroom Day in partnership with Unilever and also to Bromley-by-Bow centre for winning for Best Community Legacy Project for their Beyond Business scheme in partnership with Investec. 

You can see all the winners here or by following the #GlobalGood posts on social media.

Wild herbs: taking notice this Spring

Spring seems to have snuck up on us this year, its sudden arrival marked by pink blossoms perching delicately on the ends of tree branches, as if they landed there overnight. And with them comes the happy reminder that everything passes – sometimes, it seems, in the blink of an eye! The appearance of spring’s subtle flowery scent on the breeze, and its dashes of warming sunshine which hold the promise of summer, are a nudging reminder to take notice of what’s going on around us. We’ve often been so busy filling up our calendars with our resolutions, plans and promises for the New Year that taking notice of these subtle but definite changes might have become a bit of a back seat passenger. It’s important to make space for taking notice, as it’s often within this space that insights, wisdom, ideas and creativity can emerge. In the spirit of this, we’ve come up with the perfect way for you to create space to take notice, and enjoy the gifts that spring carries with it.

Now the weather is milder, and plants are starting to unfurl, it’s a great opportunity to take your basket and boots out for a riverside stomp and clear away the cobwebs. Grab your map and plan a route that takes you along canal and riverbanks, or through areas of rich biodiversity. On your way, see which herbs you notice emerging. Make sure you bring your guide for identifying plants, some secateurs and a hot thermos of your favourite herb blend in case it gets chilly.

It’s the perfect time to look out for young stinging nettles, which are abundant in nutrients. Infuse these in some hot water and you’ve got the perfect fuel for your spring creations to come to life! Another plant to spot is early wild garlic, perfect for salads and making wild garlic pesto. Spread it on toast or add to pasta dishes for a garlicky, immunity-boosting kick (be careful, it’s potent stuff!) We like this recipe from the Permaculture magazine website. Cleavers (also known as goose grass) are also plentiful at this time. They help to remove toxins from the body and are very easy to spot – they’ll probably stick to your clothes en route, too so no need to pick! So get those wellies and waterproofs on, take some photos of your findings and share them with us @hackneyherbal – we’d love to see what you unearth.

Happy foraging!

Here is a guide for identifying our favourite three spring time herbs and some ideas for eating, juicing, brewing and stewing these nutricious wild herbs.

1. EAT

Wild garlic (ramsons) Allium ursinum

We like picking the leaves of these and adding them to salads or sandwiches for a nice hearty garlic kick. It’s packed with allicin which is antibacterial and antimicrobial, perfect for beating off those pre-spring colds.

2. JUICE

Cleavers (sticky weed, sticky willy, goose grass) Galium aparine

Abundant at this time of year and recognisable by its sticky character cleavers are best enjoyed in their fresh state. Add them to your water bottle to cold infuse or even better wiz them up in a blender for a juice that will help your lymphatic system,  aiding your body with the removal of toxins.

3. BREW of STEW

Stinging nettle Urtica dioica

Sometimes a bit tricky to pick if you haven’t come prepared with rubber gloves but well worth the stings. Bursting with vitamins A & C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium nettle makes for an excellent brew. Try it as a herbal infusion or add it into soups and stews (which takes away the sting) for an iron rich boost.

Remember to always carefully identify wild plants before consumption using a foraging guide if you are a beginner. Also be mindful of foraging regulations in your area and never dig up a plant from its local habitat without permission. More useful tips here.

Tea making kit: Our top 5!

As herb growing enthusiasts we know that the most important aspect of making the best cup of herbal tea is the herbs themselves. However, the experience can only be improved with the right choice of equipment. To beat off the January blues we treated ourselves to a range of new tea making paraphernalia and have spent the last month testing out our new pieces. Here are our top five. So put the kettle on and get brewing!

1. STUMP TEAPOT by Forlife

A great teapot for brewing up a loose leaf blend as it comes with its own infuser. A good size for two people sharing or for those times when you need a whole pot to yourself! It comes in lots of nice colours and the design is cleverly stackable if you are buying a few. £28, available in-store and online at Whittard

2. INFUSER by Ipow

A handy infuser for brewing a loose blend straight in your mug. It has a handle that sits on your mug rim. Really easy to use and keep clean with a lid that doubles up as a stand to avoid drips and spills. We love using these for testing out new tea blends and also in our Herbal Tea Blending Workshops (hint! *next class 16th March*). £7.50, available at Tea Geeks

3. NAGIIRA TEA STRAINER from Tea in the City

Designed and made in Japan, this beautiful tea strainer is one of a kind. Its double layer mesh works perfectly to strain your tea blend and the design allows it to rest happily on your mug without toppling. The Japanese factory only made a small batch of these so get one quick before they all go. £15, available at Tea in the City

4. RE-FILLABLE TEABAGS by Spice.boutique

We've tried out a few re-fillable teabags and these are by far our favourites. Made from unbleached filter paper they are easy to fill and tie and are fully compostable after use. A good piece of kit if you want to have some teabags made up for grabbing on the go or to make gifts for friends. They come in two sizes - cup and teapot. £4.20 for 100 available online.  

5. FACETED CLIP TOP JARS by Kilner

We recently bought a set of these clip top jars for displaying our herbal blends when we do pop-up events. They are a good way to store either your loose leaf blends or teabags as their airtight seal keeps everything nice and fresh. You can find them in most kitchenware stores or online at Sainsbury's.

Essential oils: 5 ways to bring herbs into your home this winter

At this time of year it can be tricky to find our usual herbal pick-me-ups which are so plentiful in summer. We still want to gain the benefits our fresh herbs bring with them, but when there are fewer of them available in the garden, and we haven't had the chance to make balms or tinctures ahead of time, where do we turn? Essential oils can be a great alternative to using fresh herbs. These wondrous little bottles trap all the goodness of the plants and flowers which we pick in season and are super versatile.

Whilst we might not want to ingest essential oils (many aren't safe for consumption) or apply neat to our skin, they can be used in several ways to give you a mid-winter boost, soothe your sniffles or to anoint yourself with the scented hues of summer!

We've chosen our top five ways to use essential oils over the winter and given you some ideas on which oils to choose. We hope you enjoy experimenting!

1. Banish your bunged-up nose with a DIY steam inhaler

Put a few drops of Eucalyptus and/or Peppermint oil into a pyrex bowl of recently boiled water. Put a towel over your head so it covers the bowl too, and breathe. Ten mintues of this (with regular breaks!) should decongest event the snottiest, sneeziest nose.

2. Freshen up your home over the winter months 

Make your own air freshener or room spray with anti-fungal, anti-bacterial oils. Use in a diffuser or in a spray bottle with water. Try a fresh, cleansing blend of Sage, Lavender and Thyme to get rid of germs and add freshness to your home.

3.  Get rid of moths from your winter woolies

They can be a massive problem in your wardrobe, especially if you prefer to wear natural textiles, as these are a moth's favourite munchie. Try putting a few drops of cedar essential oil onto some cotton wool, and placing in a breathable bag or tying inside a scrap of cloth such as muslin. Moths are deterred because the strong scent of cedar masks the smell of wool, and therefore they won't lay their eggs there. No more holey jumpers!

4.Treat chapped winter skin

...With a rich winter cream. Myrrh and Frankincense are known for their skin-healing properties (caution- always dilute as some oils can be toxic or irritant to skin if applied neat). When used topically in a cream or carrier oil, they can reduce the appearance of scars, boost cell regeneration and can be used to treat dry skin, amongst a whole host of other benefits. They are ideal for use in a rich scented skin cream or salve. Blend 10-12 drops of each with a mixture of 1/8 cup almond oil, 1 tbsp beeswax, and 1/4 cup shea butter melted in a bain-marie and leave to set in a container for a really nourishing hand treatment.

5. Finally, spray yourself with a dose of positive perfumery!

Blending citrus-rich top notes such as Bergamot, Sweet Orange, or Grapefruit with a base note like Frankincense and a middle note such as Rosemary could be the perfect way to give you a boost of summer sunshine - even in the depths of winter. These particular oils are known for their uplifting properties, and the best part is that you can carry your own little bottle of positive vibes with you wherever you go! To make a 25ml eau de toilette, you should start with 25ml perfumer's alcohol and add 35 drops of essential oil in total. Your top notes should make up 10-30% of your blend, the mid notes 30-60% and the base notes 15-30%. Happy blending!

We hope that these ideas see you through until the garden's blooming again.

Soothing ourself with Marshmallow

Autumn is the time of year where we shift our focus to what is growing below the ground and for herb harvesters, this means digging up some roots. It’s also the time of year when the shift in seasons can bring us all down with irritating colds. Thankfully, there are a number of herbs at their prime right now and we can rely upon these to provide an antidote to the sorest of throats.

Common marshmallow – Althaea officinalis – is one of these herbs and is the key ingredient in our herbal cough syrup. The root contains high quantities of mucilage, a gelatinous substance that helps to sooth inflammation – and also the substance that they first made marshmallow sweets out of. To extract this we make a decoction from the freshly harvested roots by boiling and simmering them in water for about 30 minutes.

Herbal Cough Syrup Recipe

  • 25g of sage herb leaves (fresh or dry)
  • 25g of  marshmallow root
  • 1 tbsp of ground ginger
  • 1 litre of water
  • about a 1kg sugar
  1. Place the herb roots into a saucepan and cover with water and bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes – this is a decoction
  2. Turn off the heat and add the herb leaves and ginger powder to the pan and infuse for 15 minutes
  3. Strain the mixture into a measuring jug
  4. Add the same amount of sugar as their is liquid (tip: if you have 850ml of water, add 850 g of sugar)
  5. Heat the mixture continually until the sugar has dissolved
  6. Allow to cool and then pour into sterilised bottles

Dosage: 1 tablespoon up to 6 times a day. Take on its own or dissolve a spoonful in a cup of hot water.