There is little that’s more satisfying than relaxing on a cold winter morning with a cup of steaming herbal tea you grew and processed yourself. While the undertaking might at first seem intimidating or complicated, there are in fact many herbs that work quite well in tea and are simple to grow in most climates. And once you get used to growing your own tea, there’s no turning back!
The very basics of making your own herbal tea involve several steps: growing the herbs, harvesting the herbs, drying the herbs, and mixing your tea blends. These steps can be more or less involved, depending on the type of herbs you’re working with.
Whether you’re starting your plants from seed or buying a start at your favorite nursery, you’ll want to do a little research about growing and harvesting your particular plant before jumping in. Is the plant perennial (comes back every year) or annual (needs to be replanted each year)? Some perennials will need between one and three years to establish themselves before you start harvesting, while some annuals you can start harvesting within months.
You’ll also want to consider what parts of the plant you’ll harvest to make your favorite tea blends, as it varies between plants—do you harvest the flowers, leaves, roots, or fruit? With some plants, almost every part is beneficial. With others, it’s more common just to use one or two components of the whole.
One of the simplest harvest methods for herbal tea plants is harvesting flowers. Flowers are easy to harvest, straightforward to dry and add beautiful color, texture, and flavor to your tea blends. Some popular examples include chamomile, lavender, calendula, tulsi basil, rose, hibiscus, echinacea, bachelor buttons, and more.
When harvesting flowers for tea, you’ll typically wait for the buds to fully open but not yet go to seed. This looks different for each plant, but generally early in its flowering cycle is a good time to harvest. With flowers like calendula and chamomile, it is best to wait until the flower is fully open. With other plants, like lavender, harvest when the flower is still in the bud stage. No matter when you harvest, be mindful of picking the flower as close to the top as possible, avoiding stems, which can add bitterness to your tea. It’s usually best to harvest in the morning, just after the morning dew has dried. With prolific flowerers such as calendula, chamomile, and bachelor buttons, be sure to keep up with the harvest and you’ll have blossoms all season long.
While you can absolutely brew tea with fresh herbs, if you’re harvesting in bulk and want a supply of tea for the rest of the year, the next step is dehydration. There are several easy methods for drying herbs and flowers. If you have a dehydrator, lay the flowers out on the screens face down in a single layer and set your temperature between 95º and 115º, depending on the plant and humidity in your area. Start checking after two hours—some herbs dry quickly. Depending on the plant, you might dry the entire flower or just the petals.
Once the moisture is gone, let the flowers cool, then store them in an airtight, labeled container. Most herbs and flowers will last well if stored in a cool, dark place between one and two years. Glass jars keep herbs freshest. Keep in mind it’s important your flowers are fully dried before sealing them up—incompletely dried flowers have a tendency to mold if closed in an airtight container, which will ruin your whole batch.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can also dry flowers by laying them out in a single layer on screens or in a wide, shallow basket. Shake the container occasionally and leave it in a cool, well-ventilated place, avoiding direct sunlight. This technique can take anywhere from several days to several weeks, depending on the flowers and your climate. Keep checking them and again, be sure they’re fully dry before you seal them up.
Finally, you can dry some flowers on their stems such as lavender, roses, and echinacea by tying them into bunches and hanging them in a cool, dry place, again away from direct sunlight. Hang drying is effective, low effort, and can double as gorgeous decorations.
Another common method for harvesting herbs for tea is harvesting the leaves. Some popular and easy-to-grow plants include mint, lemon balm, nettles, thyme, bee balm, stevia, rosemary, raspberry, and hyssop. Some plants, such as tulsi or holy basil, and echinacea, can be harvested for flowers and leaves at the same time. The list goes on.
When harvesting your herbs for leaves, it’s again best to harvest in the morning, once the plant is dried from dew. Using sharp snippers, move through your plants and cut whole stems with new growth. With newly established or delicate herbs, be sparing with how much you harvest from each plant. Other herbs such as basil, lemon balm, and mint, can handle a full third of their growth removed and still recover once they’re well established.
Once you’ve harvested all your leaves, proceed to drying. If you prefer to dry with stems on, hang-drying in bunches works great. The dehydrator, following the steps above, also works well. Once your plants are sufficiently dried, you’ll want to garble your herbs before storing them. Garbling refers to the process of separating the bits you want from the leftover parts of the plant. Gloves can be useful to protect your hands if you’re working with a big batch or several batches of dried herbs.
To garble, make a pile of your dried herbs and one at a time, pull off all the dried leaves which you’ll use to make tea. In the case of plants like tulsi, this might also include dried flowers. It can be helpful to work over a screen with a bowl or tray underneath, the bowl catching all your usable parts and the screen holding the stems.
If you’re harvesting quickly or working with an especially large batch of herbs, it might be useful to garble before drying as well as after. During the pre-drying garbling stage, you’ll want to move through your stalks and pull off all yellow, brown, or other unhealthy-looking bits of the plant. You can also gather up any small bugs that might have been making a home in your herbs.
Once you’re finished garbling, store your herbs as mentioned above, labeled and in an airtight container. Leaves have a shelf life similar to flowers if stored correctly in a cool dark place, generally one to two years.
What’s better than a reminder of summer in your cup in the winter? Harvesting and drying fruit for tea can be a great way to incorporate some summer sweetness into your tea blends year-round. Some examples of fruit that work well in tea blends are rosehips, lemons, strawberries, and blueberries. When harvesting fruit for tea, use only the highest quality fruits in their prime ripeness. Note that it might be easier to cut fruits into tea-appropriate pieces prior to dehydration.
To dry your fruit, you can use a dehydrator or an oven. If you’re using a dehydrator, set it between 120º and 130ºF and run it for 8 to 15 hours. You can also use an oven set as low as you can get it, load up a few cookie trays, and check your fruit every few hours. Err on the side of over-dry for fruit you plan to store long term or mix with tea blends—it will get rehydrated in your tea anyway and can mold and ruin a whole batch if you store it with too much moisture. Dried fruits generally last about a year when stored well.
The previous three methods all included harvesting the aerial components or above-ground parts of a plant. But for some plants, the strongest medicine lies in their roots. Harvesting roots from your herbs can be a more involved harvest process but well worth the effort. Again, be sure to do your research about harvest methods on your specific plants. Many plants such as echinacea need at least three to four years of growth before they can be harvested. Other plants with roots commonly used in teas and tinctures include valerian, ashwagandha, licorice, ginger, dandelion, chicory, and more.
When harvesting the roots of plants, you’ll either harvest the entire plant or cut away portions of the root ball carefully, making sure there’s enough remaining to keep the plant alive. With most plants, it’s best to harvest their roots in the fall, once the flowers and fruits are past mature. Harvest methods vary from plant to plant so do your research. Regardless of the harvest method, rinse the roots well once harvested, cut them into ¼- to ½-inch pieces, then dry according to the same instructions above, either with a dehydrator or on screens in a shady, well-ventilated location.
Once the roots are dry, again follow the same directions as above. Label and store. Roots are generally denser and a bit harder than their more delicate plant tops, which means they tend to maintain quality for longer when stored. Now roots, stored well in a cool, dry, dark place, may last as long as three years.
Building Your Own Tea Blends
Now that you have grown, harvested, and stored your tea components, it’s time to mix your teas. One of the best ways to build your own tea blends is to have a good sense of each ingredient you’re adding, both in quality and taste. It’s important to understand the potency of each herb you grow—some mentioned above have powerful medicinal qualities. While each has the potential to be incredibly beneficial, it’s critical to understand herbs individually before consuming. Some may have interactions with medications you take or health circumstances, so again, be sure to do your research. If you love growing and blending your own herbal teas, there are a lot of great resources out there to dive deeper into the world of medicinal herbs, from books to educational courses.
Beyond researching the qualities of a plant when I grow it, I also like to infuse each herb by itself to get a better feel for its taste. This helps both with determining how flavors will mesh and allows you to check for bitterness or other off-tastes on each herb you grow before throwing them all together.
Once you have a good grasp of both the medicinal and flavor qualities of your plants, you’ll be better prepared to build your own tea blends. Maybe you’d enjoy a calm evening tea, an immune booster, or a warming winter elixir. Perhaps you want something with a little caffeine and opt to mix your homegrown herbs with some plain green or black tea for a morning boost. Be sure to sample as you try different mixes and enjoy drinking your own homegrown, hand-harvested herbal tea!