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Times of the Islands Magazine

Grow Your Own Herbal Tea Garden

Apr 25, 2018 10:50AM
While gardening offers an array of ways to stay healthy—from breathing fresh air, to getting in a little exercise, to letting your mind wander from those all-consuming worries—you can add to its benefits by growing your own herbs and using them to brew hot tea.

The types of herbs you plant depend on several factors: the health benefits you desire, the type of garden you have, the presence of sun or shade and your personal taste. You might also want to consider fragrance. Lemon verbena, for example, is known to assist digestion and strengthen the nervous system, as well as have a “lemony” fragrance.

You can find some of the more popular herbs at local nurseries such as ECHO in North Fort Myers, which also offers a great selection of seeds. “One of my favorite herbs is parsley,” says Betsy Burdette, formerly an ECHO volunteer in the edible landscape garden, who now volunteers on medical mission trips to El Salvador and other locations. “Parsley has a high content of chlorophyll, so it will freshen the breath and neutralize indigestion. The leaves contain vitamins A and C, calcium, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, and can be chewed or made into a tea.”

With most herbs, it’s the leaves and/or stems that are consumed. With some herbs, however, such as ginger (Curcuma longa), it’s the root that offers the benefits. “Curcuma longa can be grown in any herb garden. It goes dormant in the winter but produces a beautiful white bloom in the spring/summer,” says Burdette, who uses the herb daily. “Curcuma longa is believed to be the true source of turmeric, which has been shown to help reduce blood lipids, improve circulation to the heart, lower blood pressure, remove gallstones, reduce inflammation and alleviate pain,” she says. Burdette advises those who use a plant for medicinal purposes to research it first using several sources, and to keep in mind that the effects aren’t necessarily the same for everyone.

An herb garden can range in size from a few potted plants on the lanai to a whole garden-full. When planting herbs in containers, it’s best to use pots that are at least eight inches deep and six to eight inches across. Mix potting soil with two parts soil and one part sand or perlite, and add crushed rocks to the bottom of the pot for better drainage. Drainage is a key factor in growing herbs, so even when growing them in your garden without pots, you might want to improve drainage by removing the soil to a depth of 15 to 18 inches, then adding a three-inch layer of crushed stone to the bottom. Before returning the soil to the excavated area, lighten the texture by mixing compost or sphagnum peat and sand.

Don’t overwater herbs, as they can drown easily, and keep in mind that they don’t like direct drafts or large fluctuations in temperatures. Some prefer the shade, or partial shade, while others love the sun. Bushy perennial herbs, such as rosemary, sage and winter savory, typically perform better indoors than herbs with soft stems, such as mint. (Mint, by the way, thrives outdoors and will take over your garden if you let it. The trick is to plant mint in a clay pot first and then sink the pot in the ground.)

Once your herbs have grown, it’s time to harvest them. Make sure you pick the leaves or flowers on a hot sunny day, not when the plants are wet or dewy. While you can brew either fresh or dried herbs for tea, make sure you wash the leaves and stems in cold water and drain them first. 

Some herbs can be bundled and dried right on the stem, while others, mostly those with larger leaves, need to be picked off the branches before they are dried. To dry herbs, hang them upside down in small bundles or spread them on drying racks or screens with plenty of circulation.

If you want to dry leaves quickly, spread them on a mesh rack and place them in a low-temperature oven ( 85-95 degrees). The herbs take just a few minutes to dry, so leave the oven door open and keep your eyes on them. When the leaves are crisp, they are ready. Store dried herbs in a dark glass container with a tight-closing lid, or in a glass container in a cool, dark place. You can also freeze your herbs, once they’re completely dry, in plastic freezer bags. Make sure you label and date them.

Once you’ve tasted the flavors of individual herbs, think about blending a few together. Generally, they are blended in equal parts, but you can change the mix to suit your own taste. For example, how about a little lemongrass blended with anise hyssop?

BREWING A PERFECT CUP OF TEA

  • Choose a nonporous teacup (ceramic, porcelain, bone china or glass) with a wide rim and a thin lip. An old-fashioned china cup is a perfect choice.
  • Start with pure, filtered water, so that the tea doesn’t pick up the taste of the tap. Make sure the teapot is used for brewing tea only, or other flavors might seep through, such as coffee.
  • Heat the water to just short of boiling. Generally, green, white and herbal teas need lower-temperature water to bring out their flavors, while black teas can handle the hottest water.
  • The perfect measurement of fresh herbs for brewing tea is two to four teaspoons per cup, while dried herbs require one to two teaspoons. Place the herbs in a tea strainer or directly in the water and strain afterwards. If using fresh herbs, press them gently against the side of the pot with a spoon to help release flavor. 
  • Leave the herbs in the water for two to five minutes to allow the tea to steep. Anything longer might produce too strong of a tea, but it all comes down to personal taste. Although black teas darken, herbal teas stay light, so it’s important to watch the clock.
  • Be sure to remove the teabag, strainer or fresh herbs before you drink.
  • To make iced tea, let the tea cool completely, then add ice.
  • Relax and enjoy your fresh cup of tea. 

POPULAR HEALING HERBS

Anise hyssop: Promotes good digestion and strengthens the heart, as well as reduces fever, lowers stress, eases anxiety and relieves cold symptoms. Plant in full sun to light shade in well-drained soil. Its oblong, deep-green leaves taste like licorice. Grows about three to four feet tall.

Chamomile: Helps calms nerves and soothes an irritated stomach. Plant in full sun with well-drained and evenly moist soil. When its pretty yellow and white flowers bloom in early to midsummer, they can be made into tea. Grows about three to 12 inches tall.

Ginger: Reduces blood lipids, improves circulation to the heart, lowers blood pressure, removes gallstones, reduces inflammation and alleviates pain. Plant in well-drained moist soil with plenty of indirect sunlight. Ginger has long, narrow, glossy green leaves, but it’s the root that’s used for tea and seasoning. Grows about two to four feet tall.

Lemon verbena: Relieves digestive-track spasms and strengthens the nervous system, as well as reduces fevers. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. The plant has narrow leaves and small white flowers, but the leaves are used in teas. Grows several feet tall.

Parsley: Helps freshen the breath and neutralize indigestion. Plant in an area with plenty of sun. Parsley leaves are dark green, and you may chew them or use them for tea. Grows 9 to eighteen inches tall and spreads about six to nine inches.

Peppermint: Has antibacterial effects and helps combat excessive stomach acid. You may also rub the oil from the plant on your forehead and temples for headache relief. Plant in an area that is partly sunny and partly shady. Pick the large, outside leaves for your tea, as it encourages more growth. Grows about two feet tall.

Pineapple sage: Aids in digestion and helps with heartburn and balancing the nervous system. Produces tubular red flowers that are edible but use the leaves for tea. Grows several feet tall.

Rosemary: A digestive aid and good decongestant. Plant in full sun or light afternoon shade. Does best outdoors in well-drained soil. Sprigs and leaves of its fragrant blue-green, needlelike foliage can be made into tea. Grows three to four feet tall.

Yarrow: Stimulates appetite and helps stomach cramps, flatulence, gastritis, gallbladder and liver problems. Plant in full sun and well-drained soil. Use the feathery leaves to make the tea. Grows three feet tall and about two feet wide.

Caution: Your current medications and physical condition should be considered before using any herb. Always check with your healthcare professional first.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

ECHO

17391 Durrance Road, North Fort Myers
239-543-3246; echonet.org

Written by Ann Marie O’Phelan, a Southwest Florida resident and regular contributor to TOTI Media.