Tuesday

How to Make an Herb Wreath - Putting it All Together

Okay, let's make an herb wreath.  I've included instructions here.  There is also a helpful (I hope)  slide show at the bottom of this post. If you missed part one (prep) you can visit it at: How to Make an Herb Wreath - Part 1

We're going to take a traditional approach and assume you want to make a dried herb wreath from which you will harvest herbs later. Your best bet is to use a strong base on which you can wire bunches of herbs in place. Although you can use floral tape, it's not a good idea to contaminate  your herbs with the tape adhesive, so that leaves metal pins, wire or picks (small sticks with wires attached to the end).

For our example, we're using wire cut to length. I like wire because you can buy rolls in a variety of colors and finishes, cut the wire long enough to secure the ends of your herbs, and then use the additional length of wire to attach herb bunches to the form or backing. Here's how:

Making an Herb Wreath

We'll be using a six inch grapevine wreath form and 24 gauge wire. To make the job easier, we'll be working on a large trash bag outdoors and have garden shears, wire cutters and scissors standing by.

A Simple Herb Wreath Assembly Method

One of the most efficient ways to assemble an herb wreath is to make separate bunches of herbs and then add them to the backing (form) one at a time. As each subsequent bunch is added, it covers the wired end of the bunch before it. When you get to the last section (opening) in the circle, prepare a bunch of herbs that has stems facing in both directions. Tie it in the middle instead of at the end, and work to conceal the wire with greenery. When you put the final bunch in place, you won't know where the wreath starts or ends.

Choosing Herbs for a Wreath

The overall appearance of your wreath will depend on the types of herbs you have to work with. Where herbs are concerned, more is usually better. Variety adds interest to your wreath, but you want the whole thing to look integrated too. An easy way to achieve this is to make all the smaller bunches look similar by layering herbs in the same manner. That's the way we'll do it today. (Some folks like making bunches using one herb variety per bunch in bands around the wreath. If you prefer to do it that way, the assembly instructions here will work as well. Just use one type of herb per bunch.)

For mixed herb bunches, start with a base layer made up of an herb you have in abundance. Something full with thick stems and leaves is a good choice. My favorite is rosemary because it looks like an evergreen bough, dries well and has a nice aroma. If you live in a temperate climate, you can grow rosemary year round outdoors. If not, you can plant newer winter hardy cultivars that can tolerate a freeze. Some are hardy to zone 5.

If you don't like rosemary, or don't have enough of it, the following herbs make good bases too. Remember, you want something that fills in well and isn't too lacy in appearance:
  • Lavender branches
  • Sage
  • Bay Leaf
  • Yarrow
Once you have selected an herb for the bottom layer of a bunch, add another layer, and then another. You can create bunches with each new layer slightly offset (with shorter stems) than the layer before it, or with one herb slightly to the left or right. I like to mix it up but always try to keep the base layer herb slightly longer and fuller than the rest. Bunches should look the same size and shape in this type of layout, with the possible exception of one or two herb additions that may add a nice accent or focal point.

For our example wreath I used rosemary as a base with layers of:


  • Lavender stems (and buds)
  • Common sage (smaller leaves)
  • Oregano
  • Pineapple sage
  • Lime scented geranium
  • Thyme

In each bunch I also added an accent herb tucked in here and there:

  • Hyssop
  • Marjoram
  • Lemon balm
  • Peppermint
  • Catnip

Use what you have, but make sure to use more of your woody stemmed sturdy herbs. They'll support soft stemmed herbs like the mints (catnip, peppermint and lemon balm) better. If you do have to rely on lots of soft stemmed herbs, keep the stems relatively short. For interest, try to incorporate flowering herbs too, like lavender, calendula and rosebuds. They add color and contribute appealing textures to the wreath.

Assemble the  Herb Wreath

1. Get your gear together, and work in the shade if you can.

2. Pick herbs in the morning after the dew has evaporated but before the sun gets too hot.

3. Remove yellow or damaged leaves from herb stems.

4. Assemble herb bunches by using the layering method above. Try for bunches that are around four to six inches long. Let the curve of the herb base be your guide -- shorter for tiny wreaths, longer for large wreaths.

5. Strip some of the foliage from the last half inch of the bunch. This will help keep the base manageable and limit shrinkage that will loosen bunches as they dry.

6. Cut a 9 to 12 inch length of wire and wrap stems four or five times. Make them snug. Trim the stem ends to keep them relatively even.

7. Assemble as many bunches as you think you'll need to go around the wreath. Remember, each subsequent bunch will cover the stem end of the one before it. I used seven bunches for this six inch sample grapevine wreath.

8. Prepare the wreath form by adding a hanging loop or hook to the back.

9. Start adding bunches to the wreath using the extra length of wire attached in each bunch. If the tops of the stems stick out at unattractive angles, bind them to the curve of the form by threading a loop of wire directly to that stem. It will be concealed in the other greenery. Leave any extra wire loose for now. You can trim and tuck it in later.

10. Add the next bunch. Make sure the top of the new bunch completely conceals the base of the previous bunch.

11. Keep going around the wreath base adding bunches until you get to the last opening. At this point you can do a couple of things. If the bunches are pretty dense, you may be able to just add a final bunch for a nice filled-in look. You can also reserve that last space for an attractive bow. I like to make the last bunch by placing stem ends on both sides of a bunch and wiring it in the middle, being careful to add a few bushy herbs that will conceal the wire. Geraniums are great for this. You can put the last bunch in place pretty effortlessly regardless of how much space you have available.

12. Once the wreath is complete, check for exposed wire and tuck in additional stems to conceal the wire and any gaps. Trim remaining wires and bury the ends into the base.

13. Stand back and review your handiwork. If some leaves look too floppy or don't fit the curve of the wreath, trim them. You may also be able to finesse them behind adjacent bits of greenery.

14. Dry your wreath in a warm, dark spot for at least 72 hours. If there are any insects present, they will evacuate as the herbs dry, so try finding a spot in a garage or attic. You can also do this outside in good (but not very hot or humid) weather. Just tuck the wreath into a fully opened brown paper bag set on its side, cut open the bottom (now the back) and make sure no sunlight is hitting the wreath directly through the open sections. Check every few hours to make sure the herbs are drying and not cooking. There should be adequate air flow to allow moisture to exit the bag.

15. As your herb wreath starts to dry, you'll notice that your beautiful design will shift a little, exposing the wires and altering the nice round (or heart shaped, oval or square) outline. Tuck fresh cut stems into bald spots to conceal wired sections. You can also hold wayward stems in place with a couple of wooden clothespins until they dry completely. Once dry, most herbs will hold their shape.

One dried herb wreath can last an entire season if you keep it out of the sun and away from moisture (like steam from your kitchen sink). Herb wreaths make wonderful gifts and attractive wall art.

Special Notes on Making Herb Wreaths

If you want an herb wreath for decorative purposes only, you have much more latitude. You can tack stems in place with hot glue instead of pins or wire, and you can use decorative mosses to make the base look more natural.

If you love the idea of making a dried herb wreath but don't have lots of herbs to use as raw material, there are some other options. Instead of completely covering the base with herb bunches, just place herbs on part of the wreath and add a bow. You'll have aromatic and attractive dried herbs, effective wall art, and it won't take a garden full of greenery. Just construct a double stemmed bunch as described above and add one or two additional bunches on either side.

Making an herb wreath is wonderfully entertaining, but it can take time, so give yourself a couple of hours for the job. Make a nice cup of tea or cocoa for yourself, while you're at it. When it comes to herb harvesting and crafting, this is about as good as it gets, so enjoy it. It only happens once or twice a year.

Sunday

Chive and Cheddar Cheese Soup

When there's a chill in the air, nothing beats an old fashioned cream soup. The herbed chive and cheddar cheese soup recipe below has the rich goodness of potatoes and cheese without all the fat. Give it a try.

Chive and Cheddar Cheese Soup Recipe

8 cups vegetable stock (you can substitute chicken stock)
1 pound red potatoes, peeled and cubed
3/4 pound broccoli, florets
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
6 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup chives, minced
1/4 cup parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, minced
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, fresh ground
salt and white pepper to taste

Saute the onion in butter. Set aside. Combine vegetable stock and potatoes in a heavy soup pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add broccoli and continue simmering for seven minutes more or until tender. Add onion and butter mixture, parsley and tarragon. Remove from heat and blend ingredients with an immersion blender until smooth. Reheat on low (don't boil). Add cheese, chives, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir until cheese melts. Serves six.

The potatoes add thickness without resorting to using dairy cream or half-and-half. This makes Chive and Cheddar Soup a filling meal that's low in calories. Because there's a good, flavorful blend of herbs, the broccoli isn't overpowering, either, so it's a good way to incorporate this healthy veggie into your diet. For a dynamite garnish, put a dollop of sour cream on top of each serving with a sprinkling of fresh chopped chives. If you want to be truly devilish, add some bacon bits too.

Approx Nutritional Values
Per Serving - Calories: 254, Protein:  10 g, Fat: 14 g, Sodium: 320 mg, Fiber: 4 g, Carbs: 21 g

Saturday

How to Make an Herb Wreath - Part 1

Learning how to make an herb wreath is one fall weekend activity you're sure to remember fondly.  I grow lots of herbs, and over the years I've tried many herb wreath making methods. Most of them work, but like driving to Chicago, you can reach your destination via a number of different routes.

In the next few blogs, we'll be making herb wreaths with our fall herb harvest. This intro describes what you should be thinking about before you begin.

The Base

Almost all herb wreaths are constructed using a base. You can make the base yourself out of plywood, woven branches or wire. The easiest way, though, is to buy a readymade base. Wreath making is fraught with decisions and the choice of the best base is the first of many.

If you want part of the base to show in your decoration, choose a straw or a grapevine wreath. They are available through your local craft outlets in lots of different sizes. From a four inch ring that makes a nice candle base to a 16-inch behemoth that will grace your front entry, the purpose you plan for your wreath and the amount of material you have to work with will play a big role in the type of base you choose. If you plan on completely covering the base, you can use Styrofoam or wire instead of a material with an attractive, natural appearance.

I should note here that you can also use artificial pine boughs -- Christmas wreaths -- but I've never done it myself. If you do decide on this method, make sure you have good air flow because the resulting wreath will be pretty dense, and you want all the herbs to dry quickly and completely.

Hooks, Wire or Tape

To make a wreath, herbs are typically arranged in small bunches and then affixed to the base. The herbs are FRESH PICKED when they're arranged and then dry in place. Dried herbs are so fragile that they'll shatter if you try arranging them into any complex design, so using fresh herbs is important. If you've already harvested and dried your herbs this year, you can make decorative brooms or display them in an attractive basket instead -- leave the wreath for next time.

The fresh bunches of herbs (more on herb selection later) will be affixed to the base using hooks, wire or a type of floral sticky tape. The base you choose can have an impact on the method you use to affix your herbs. Although straw and Styrofoam wreath bases can use any of a number of "installation" methods, you'll have less flexibility with wire or grapevine bases. You want an anchoring method that's sturdy but easy to work with. If you plan on cooking with your dried herbs, you'll also need a food grade material -- not a wire that may rust.

A Hanger

If you plan on hanging your wreath on the wall, you'll need a hanger for the back. Again, the base will have a lot to do with the type of hanger you use, but it's always best to put one on the base before you start work. Your wreath will be less forgiving of being moved around and worked on after the herbs are in place.

Tools and Supplies

It'll be much easier to have a few tools and a work area ready before you begin. I recommend these basic items:

Newspaper - The process of making an herb wreath is the culmination of a season in your herb garden. It's really, really (really) fun, but it can get messy. Have newspaper or a tarp you can place on a flat, stable surface. Actually, you may want to do this outdoors on your deck or patio.

Wreath bases and anchors - Whatever setup you decide on, have your materials ready to go.  Floral pins work well with Styrofoam and straw bases while wire and tape are effective on grapevine and wire wreath bases.

Chop sticks - These sticks can be very useful for getting errant herb stems into the configuration you want. They're also free when you order Chinese.


Scissors, clippers and wire cutters - You'll need to cut stems and may need to cut or bend wire. Review your bases and anchors to see what types of implements might be useful, and get them together before you start your project. I speak from experience. It's never fun having to go on a tool hunt in the middle of a project.

Rubber bands - As the herb bunches dry, the stems will shrink, becoming looser whatever anchor you choose. To help combat this, especially with herbs that have soft, moist stems, you can assemble bunches using rubber bands first. As the stems shrink, the bands will tighten up, requiring a little less post-completion fussing. This isn't strictly necessary, but it can be a helpful step. For the best results, use green colored rubber bands.

Ribbon and decorative elements - If you plan on making an herb wreath part of your home d├ęcor, you may want to apply a few finishing touches to it. Raffia ribbon or something more formal is always a nice touch. You can even add decorative picks in the form of birds, bees or butterflies.

If the wreath is planned for the kitchen and will be used throughout the winter (my favorite), consider affixing a small pair of decorative scissors to your wreath with an attractive ribbon. It's a dainty touch that's helpful when you want to snip some thyme in a hurry.

Check out the available options and have the geegaws ready.

I usually make about five wreaths at a time and like four to six inchers. I like straw and grapevine base materials too. Once the herbs are in place, the wreath will usually increase in diameter by three to six inches depending on how densely you pack the herbs. If you plan a wreath for a particular spot, keep this in mind.

I outline how to assemble an herb wreath in my post: How to Make an Herb Wreath - Putting it All Together

Sunday

How to Dry Roses

The nice pink rose in the picture is one of my favorite wreath roses. I've tucked a bud or two into raffia, cloth and fabric wreath bows for years because these pinks aren't fussy and I can wait to cut them back in fall until the first part of November -- usually, which makes them perfect for wreath making.

Drying Roses in a Dehydrator

You'll read a lot about hanging roses upside down in an attic or covering them with silica gel (or another desiccant) to promote fast trying, but I usually rely on a dehydrator. I have a couple that I keep for fall harvesting -- one for food items and the other for craft plants and flowers. They work very well for me, and I recommend them wholeheartedly. You can spend hundreds of dollars for a dehydrator with shelves, a fan and a thermostat, but I usually use a basic setup (purchased years ago for around $30) with dishwasher safe nesting racks and a simple heating element.

It typically takes a day or less at between 105 and 115 degrees F (a common temperature range for dehydrators) to dry rose buds, and even less time to dry rose petals. I just make sure to turn the individual blooms a couple of times (and rotate the racks a quarter turn) to keep the petals from drying with the crosshatch imprint of the racks on them.

Tips for Rose Potpourri

From pink roses that turn mauve, to sweetheart red roses that turn almost black, what you see isn't always what you get in the world of herb drying in general and rose drying in particular.

                                          
The photo at the left shows the rose above after a few hours drying time. You'll see that it has darkened quite a bit -- yes, it is the same bud. Darkening is typical.

Once a rose dries, it can be sturdier and more resilient than you might expect too. The dried rose at the bottom of this blog is three years old and comes from the same bush as the pink example rose. Dried roses become brittle, but with regular dusting (I blow them clean with a hair dryer) you can use them for more than one season.

My secret to refreshing potpourri is to change out most of the other loose materials but keep the rose buds, wood flowers, pine cones and acorns. I add a couple of drops of rose essential oil (or another essential oil blend) and use them all over again. I think of it as a nice way to preserve the beauty of a season -- or two -- or three.

Air Drying Roses


If you do decide to dry roses the old fashioned way -- upside down in a dark, warm, dry location, remember to use a rubber band instead of twine to bind bunches of blooms. As the stems dry out and lose volume the band will cinch up, keeping them from falling out of the bundle and shattering on the floor. These tips will help too:

Choose buds that are just opening. They'll have the most natural look once dried and stay together better.

Strip the leaves from the stems before you dry roses. Moisture in tightly packed leaves can lead to mold growth.

Keep bunches small to enhance air circulation.

Hang blossoms and leave them alone for ten days to two weeks. When they're brittle to the touch, they're done.