Friday, 24 August 2012

Harvesting The Herbs

The arrival of August heralds a flurry of activity at the allotment. Each day there is something to be picked or harvested, (or eaten immediately!). The fruit has ripened and branches and canes are weighed down with luscious produce bursting with goodness.

The herbs are reaching maturity and now that the rain has abated temporarily and the sun has made an appearance it is time to harvest. The best time to gather the herbs is in the early morning, when the sparkling dew drops have evaporated and before the sun is too hot. Entering through the gate into the plot from Sweet Pea Lane, the heady sweet and pungent aromas of sweet peas, roses, lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, lemon balm and mints mingle in the air tantalisingly captivating the senses.

Apple-blossom scented Chamomile

Chamomile with its delicious apple blossom scent is one of my favourite herbs. All through the summer I have been busy gathering the flowers and have pressed them so that they can be used to decorate the soaps in the Flower Garden Gift Box. The dried chamomile flowers are used along with lavender flowers and rose petals to make up my Relaxing Herbal bath soaks which are wonderful for relieving stress and tension and inducing a restful sleep. 

Relaxing Herbal Bath Soaks

As chamomile helps to soothe skin and reduce inflammation, I infuse the flowers in oil which I then add to some of the soap blends. Occasionally I will also add dried ground petals to the soap base to give texture.

Lavender Hidcote in the foreground; Yarrow, Mint and Sage with Comfrey to the back.

The Lavender has been picked continuously during the growing season and hung up in bunches to dry, the scent pervading throughout the workshop and kitchen where it is hanging up; evoking visions of sun drenched Lavender fields in Provence. Once the sprigs of the blue grey Lavender Angustafolia have dried, the buds will be used in the bath soaks or to fill handmade herbal hearts and sachets; whilst the deeper blue Lavender Angustafolia Hidcote flowers will be used to decorate the soaps. 

Vivid jewel-like Calendula

Calendula is a healing herb that can be used to heal wounds and soothe skin. I have been harvesting the Calendula flowers throughout the flowering season. Some of the flowers are infused fresh in oil and the rest are spread out on muslin covered frames to dry. The oil can then be incorporated in the base mix of herbal balms or creams. Infused in oil or water the Calendula is a natural colourant that I use in the soap (such as the Mediterranean Citrus soap) to produce a yellow shade. The dried petals look pretty added to the soap mixture.

The more that the flowers are picked, the more flowers are produced. However once the petals fall, the seeds form and when brown and dry on the stem they are ready to be collected to be stored for re-sowing the following Spring.

Marjoram with its warm leafy scent, Bee Balm and Fennel

Bee Balm

I love the Bee Balm with its gorgeous showy, spiky, shocking pink flowers. A splash of vibrant colour amongst the herb beds, it is also known as Bergamot or Scarlet Monarda. The profusion of flowers looks so beautiful that I have to force myself to harvest it, but thankfully as a member of the mint family Bee Balm is quite rampant which means there is plenty of it - so I can gather sufficient whilst still leaving enough for the bees to enjoy.

Bee Balm infusing in Olive Oil

The freshly harvested leaves and flowers are placed into a jar and infused completely with Olive Oil. I will be using some of the oil to make a nourishing Bee Balm cream.

Gorgeous fragile star-shaped blue petals of the Borage flowers

Borage is a magical companion plant; bees and butterflies love it, as do strawberries and runner beans. The fresh herb is rich in sap and when pulped or squeezed yields juice that is excellent for skin cleansing and removing impurities from clogged pores.

My handmade woven willow trug overflows with armfuls of Borage, Bee Balm, Marjoram and Calendula

Bunches of voracious but invigoratingly fragrant Mint, citrusy Lemon Balm and herbaceous woody smelling Sage and Rosemary are gathered by the armful to hang up and dry. The herbs are divided into small bunches, fastened together with a rubber band and hung upside down until they are dry. These will be added with other dried herbs to herbal sachets; ideal for hanging up in wardrobes to keep moths at bay.

The herbs are brought home to prepare for drying and infusing

Bee Balm, Lavender, Chamomile and Heartsease flowers collected to dry or press which will be used to decorate the soaps and handmade boxes.

Herbal Oil mix infusing for my Sea Garden Soap

Herbs grown intentionally at the allotment are not the only ones that I harvest for the soap. Horsetail grows prolifically through the plot and has been a constant battle for me since the beginning.

Horsetail pushing cheekily through the Nasturtiums

However much and however hard that I dig, it refuses to be eradicated. I scoured the internet looking for advice but to no real avail. Nonetheless I did make an interesting discovery; horsetail is actually valued for its health benefits!

Horsetail contains minerals including Silica which it absorbs from the earth and helps to rejuvenate hair, nails and skin; healing wounds, rashes, burns and acne. Silica helps to form collagen which strengthens the skin and helps restore skin elasticity, thus helping with the battle against anti-aging.

Equipped with this new found knowledge, I have been eagerly harvesting the sterile green shoots, drying them and making infusions both in oil and water some of which shall be turned into salves and hair rinses and some added to various soap mixes. 


Chickweed grows happily in abundance at the lower end of the plot and if not curtailed will enthusiastically drape and entwine itself around my beetroot, onions and leeks. However weeding can be carried out in conjunction with harvesting as Chickweed has properties which help to heal and soothe irritated skin, also relieving the itching caused by eczema and psoriasis; making it another useful plant to infuse for soap making purposes.

Nettles jostling with Nasturtiums and Horsetail along the boundary fence

Nettles too are very much at home at the bottom of the plot below the Hawthorn hedge, (with an odd sneaky one peeping through the nasturtiums along the fence bordering the plots). I don't hold them in the same aversion now that I did when I was a child and was forever experiencing the prickly, burning sensation  of getting stung. The tips of the young nettles make a delectable soup, full of nutritional value. (I do make sure however that I am wearing gloves when gathering them!) When used externally, nettles have anti-inflammatory properties that can be most helpful for irritated skin or skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

With all that these plants have to offer in the way of beneficial properties, and so that their unexpected appearance on the plot can be justified, it is my view that they should not just be discarded as nuisance weeds, but are instead put to good use. I think it is therefore most appropriate that I combine all these uninvited herbs - horsetail, chickweed and nettle to add to my Gardeners Herbal soap mix, which will help to soothe and repair the work worn hands of us gardeners.

Gardeners Herbal Soap

Growing and harvesting the herbs is an extremely pleasurable task - stimulating the senses and drawing me back to Nature. Including herbs and flowers that I have grown and gathered from the allotment, garden and hedgerow in the soap making process enriches the whole experience and results in a beautiful handmade herbal soap with therapeutic properties which for me is a delight to both display and to use.

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