As the growing season winds down, many gardeners find themselves with a bounty of fresh herbs to preserve before the frost hits. While drying and freezing are always an option, there are plenty of other creative ways to capture the flavor and usefulness of those herbs until you can start growing again in the spring.
1. Herbal Vinegars
To make herbal vinegar, fill a jar half to three-quarters full with fresh herbs. Pour vinegar over the plant matter until the jar is filled. Cover and tuck inside a cabinet or pantry for about four weeks, shaking occasionally. In order to prevent the acidity of the vinegar from corroding metal lids, use a piece of plastic wrap between the lid and jar, or use a plastic cap instead. Strain and pour the finished vinegar into a clean, sterile bottle. Store in a cool, dark place for at least a year.
Salad Dressing or Marinade: Culinary vinegar can be made with apple cider or white wine vinegar infused with any of the following herbs: basil, rosemary, dill, thyme, tarragon, nasturtium, chives, pineapple sage, lemon balm or mint. Mix and match various herbs with other additives, such as lemon zest or berries, to create unique flavor profiles.
All-Purpose Cleaner: For household purposes, use regular white vinegar and make large batches at a time. Use lavender-infused vinegar in your laundry as a natural alternative to fabric softener; use lemon balm- or lemon verbena-infused vinegar as an inexpensive floor cleaner; or use rosemary-thyme vinegar to disinfect kitchen and bath surfaces.
Also try these other uses for infused vinegars:
- Dilute with equal parts water for a clarifying hair rinse.
- Add to baths along with Epsom salts for relaxation and relief from sore muscles.
- Splash into water, tea or lemonade for a flavorful nutrient boost.
2. Herbal Syrups
Create herbal syrups by combining one part strong herbal tea with two parts raw honey. To make a strong tea, fill a jar quite full with fresh herbs or about one-quarter full with dried herbs, and pour simmering hot water overtop. Cover with a saucer, and allow to steep until cool. Strain and use immediately, or for a stronger infusion, tuck the jar in the refrigerator overnight and then strain.
Measure out the tea, keeping in mind the 1:2 tea-to-honey ratio. For example, if you use one cup of tea, you’ll need two cups of honey. Heat the tea in a saucepan until hot. Remove from heat and stir in the honey. For medicinal purposes, use raw honey, which is honey that has not been heated or heavily processed. While making your syrup, keep the temperature warm, but not over 110 degrees F or many of the honey’s health benefits will be lost.
Pour the finished syrup in a clean, sterile canning jar and seal tightly. It will store well in your refrigerator for several months. Add a splash of vodka or brandy as a preservative if desired. The basic dosage of medicinal herbal syrup for adults is 1 tablespoon, up to five times per day. Raw honey should never be given to children younger than 1 year old.
Treat Cold Symptoms: Herbs that do well as syrups include elderberry (a classic treatment for cold and flu), violet leaf (for sore throat), lemon balm (calming and antiviral), and hyssop (expectorant). For serious illnesses or other concerns, be sure to check with your health-care provider for individualized advice.
Flavor Beverages or Desserts: Use culinary herbal syrups to sweeten lemonades, teas or sodas, or use them in place of sugar or simple syrup in your favorite recipe.
An oxymel is a sweet-and-sour syrup made with herbs, vinegar and honey, most often used as a home remedy for respiratory conditions. Try including herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, hyssop, bee balm, elder flowers and mint.
Fill a small jar with roughly chopped fresh herbs or about one-quarter full with dried herbs. Pour honey over the herbs until the jar is half full, and stir with a knife or chopstick to remove air bubbles.Then add vinegar almost to the top of the jar. Stir again, cover, and store in a cool, dark place for about two weeks, shaking occasionally. After this time, strain and decant into a clean, sterile canning jar. Store in a cool location or your refrigerator, for nine months to a year.
Take by the spoonful as needed to help relieve coughs, congestion and other minor cold symptoms. Some herbs should not be used by pregnant or nursing mothers or those on certain medications. For serious illness or if your condition grows worse, contact your family health-care provider for guidance.
4. Infused Oil
Infused oils can be used to create salves, lip balms and soaps. Fill a jar one-quarter to one-half full with dried herbs, then pour in sunflower or olive oil almost to the top of the jar. Cover and store in a sunny spot for about four weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain and rebottle in a clean, sterile jar. This infused oil will stay fresh for approximately nine months to a year, depending on the quality and freshness of oil used.
Salve: To make a salve, pour 1/2 cup infused oil into a heat-proof container, such as a Mason jar or recycled tin can. Add about 2 tablespoons of beeswax, and set the container down into a saucepan containing a few inches of water. Place the pan on medium-low heat until the beeswax melts, and remove from heat. Add 10 to 20 drops of essential oil if desired, then pour into tins or a small glass jar.
Herbal oils that make great salves include:
- lavender (soothes skin and relaxes before bedtime)
- mint (rub on temples and neck for headache and muscle tension)
- calendula (all-purpose skin softener, useful for scrapes and bug bites; can be used on a dog’s hot spots and chafed nose)
- cayenne (for sore muscles, arthritis and nerve pain)
Lip Balm: Lip balm is made similarly to a salve, but only use 3 tablespoons oil to 1 tablespoon beeswax. For flavor, add eight to 10 drops of an essential oil, such as peppermint or spearmint.
Herbal oils that work well in lip balm include:
- lemon balm (which helps fight cold sores)
- violet leaves (smooth chapped, dry lips)
Soap: You can replace the olive oil in any soap recipe with your favorite infused oil. Calendula, plantain, lavender, lemon balm, chamomile, and violet leaf infused oils make lovely additions to soap.
5. Herbal Salts
Pulse one part fresh herb leaves to three or four parts coarse sea salt in a small food processor until blended to your preferred texture. If you have 1/4 cup of fresh herbs, start with around 3/4 to 1 cup salt; however, this is only a rough guideline. There’s a lot of freedom for experimentation and personal taste preference.
Spread the salt mixture out on a sheet of wax paper and allow to air-dry overnight. Once completely dry, process once more to break up any lumps. Store in a dark place in an air-tight container for up to one year.
Keep herbal salts on hand to add bursts of flavor to whatever meal you’re cooking. Use any of your favorite culinary herb combinations, including rosemary, sage, thyme, garlic, basil, parsley, chives, oregano and dill. Herbal salts are easy to create and make wonderful gifts, as well.
Tinctures are an easy and effective way to preserve the health benefits of common garden herbs. To make, lightly pack a jar with chopped fresh herbs and then cover with a high-proof alcohol, such as vodka or brandy, until the jar is filled. Cap the jar and tuck it in a cabinet for four to six weeks. Strain, rebottle the tincture in a sterile jar and store in a cool, dark place for one year or longer.
Tincture doses vary depending on the herb used and reason for taking it. I usually use a few drops to 1/4 teaspoon at a time, mixed with a spoonful of raw honey. I highly recommend buying a copy of Making Plant Medicine, by Richo Cech, which details a large variety of herbs and their treatment recommendations.
The most used tinctures in my family include:
- lemon balm (calming, sleep inducing, antiviral)
- spilanthes/toothache plant (antimicrobial, can be diluted in water and used as a mouthwash or applied directly for toothache, calms indigestion)
- mint (stomach soother)
- Echinacea (general immune support)
Similar to tinctures, glycerites are gentle herbal treatments, suitable for children and those who wish to avoid alcohol. They are a good way to use up excess catnip (helpful for tummy aches, indigestion, fever), lemon balm (soothes anxiety, promotes sleepiness, fights viruses) and chamomile (calms stomach and nerves.)
A general formula for making a glycerite is to use one part herb to two parts vegetable glycerin. (A good source for pure vegetable glycerin is MountainRoseHerbs.com.) It’s important to thoroughly wash and dry your herbs first since glycerin doesn’t have the germ-killing properties of alcohol, vinegar and raw honey.
Place freshly washed, chopped herbs in the bowl of a small food processor. Cover with twice as much glycerine, then process until thoroughly blended. Pour the slurry into a jar, cap, shake well, and store in a cool, dark place for about two weeks. Due to its thick nature, glycerine isn’t always easy to strain. I line a wire mesh strainer with cheesecloth and press the mixture through. When finished, gather up the cheesecloth and squeeze the last few drops out, if possible. Pour into a clean, sterile jar, cover, and store in a cool, dark place or your refrigerator for 6 to 12 months.
Add a small amount to teas and beverages for a bit of natural sweetness and herbal goodness.
Just because winter is right around the corner, you don’t have to stop utilizing your garden herbs. Use one or all of these ideas and enjoy your harvest for months to come!
Get more help growing and using herbs from HobbyFarms.com:
- 5 Soil Amendments to Grow Better Herbs
- 8 Healing Uses for Farm-Grown Herbs
- 5 Herbs Your Chickens Will Love
- Everything You Need to Know About Harvesting Herbs
- 4 Herbs Not at the Farmers’ Market (And You Should Sell)
About the Author: Jan Berry lives on a small hobby farm in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia with her husband, two children and assorted collection of goats, ducks, chickens, bunnies, dogs and one cat—aptly named Rascal. You can find her online at www.thenerdyfarmwife.com.