Maybe you've just started learning about herbs, but you've already managed to gather an impressive collection of dried herbs, extracts, supplies, and information. Feeling overwhelmed about how to organize your herbal accouterments and notes? I began collecting herbs and extracts in earnest about seven years ago, so I have been there! I finally realized that my organization needs fell under two categories: materials and record keeping. Organization is a very personal thing, and some of the best systems evolve over time - so don't worry if it takes a little while to find a system that works for you. Here are some hints and tips I worked out for myself that may help you get started!
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Organization Tips for Herbal Materials
One of the best things about being an herbalist is having lots of materials around to play with. Part of herbalism is about creativity, and being able to explore all of the various preparations like syrups, salves, extracts and tea blends. Plus it's much easier, for me at least, to remember what herbs go into a traditional formula if I have made that formula at least once. And it's really nice to be able to customized blend for a client or friend. But herbal materials can take up a lot of space and get disorganized very quickly.
A Designated Location
Designating a specific location for my herbs was one of the best things I did to get organized. I bought a freestanding cabinet for my herbs and tools, and set it up convenient to my bookshelves. Designating a kitchen cabinet can also work well if you have the space for it. I did not- my kitchen is tiny, so my herbal cabinet lives in my bedroom. Although, my mason jars of extracts-in-the making do have a shelf in the kitchen, because I am more likely to remember to shake them up daily if they are there. Wherever you make space, just don't use a bathroom cabinet or an un-insulated attic space. The high humidity in a bathroom isn't ideal for keeping your herbs in good condition, and extremes of temperature are bad for them, too.
Organizing the Cabinet
I prefer to keep extracts on the top two shelves, along with my mortar and pestle, my cutting board and knives, and a big chunk of beeswax. Enameled pots (dedicated for herbal concoctions) go on the top of the cabinet, and I also keep bar cloths, mesh strainers, a coffee grinder and an apron handy in and around the cabinet. Dried herbs are organized along the remaining shelves, and are stored in wide mouth, screw top containers (easier to handle than lots of bags). I tried keeping my herbs in alphabetical order for a while, but soon realized that organizing by leaves/barks and roots/flowers works better for me.
Labeling options for bulk herbs include computer printed (my favorite, they look fabulous), taped-on labels from the bags the herbs came in (second favorite) and hand labeled. I like to keep track of date purchased, company, and lot number (or location and date of harvest). Labeling with both the common name and the botanical name is a good way to help gradually learn the botanical name by association. Extracts I make myself are usually hand labeled with a press date, common name and whether the extract was made from dried or fresh plant material.
Organization Tips for Herbal Record Keeping
I use either three ring binders or small moleskine notebooks for most of my notes and records, and have found that inventory, recipes, and study notes are the categories I use the most. I also keep a notebook that functions like a personal, herbal encyclopedia.
I prefer using notebooks and index cards over a computer document because I like having access to all of my information even if the power goes out. I also prefer spiral notebooks over a really beautiful, expensive journal.
With cheap notebooks I am more likely to be thorough and spontaneous, and less likely to be concerned about 'messing up'. Don't be afraid to let your record keeping books get a little messy! They are your personal tools, after all. No need to worry about impressing an audience.
My inventory index is made up of three sections. One section for bulk herbs, another for ready made products, and the third for home made extracts. Each section takes up about four pages and is listed with five or six letters evenly spaced down the left hand margin. I organize alphabetically by first letter but don't bother to alphabetize past that. When I acquire a new herb for the inventory I simply add it to the correct letter section. It can be really useful to see at a glance whether I have a given herb and in what form.
Recipes includes herb-related food and beverage recipes, as well as what most herbalist like to refer to as formulas (I tend to use "blend" instead of formula, since it is less medical sounding). When I find a recipe I really like, it gets transferred to a more permanent recipe file, along with the many traditional formulas on index cards that I organized as a study aid. The recipe section in my notebook functions more as a history of times I have used the recipe and what my results were, as well as ways I have altered the recipe at different times to accommodate herbs that I did or did not have on hand. Think of it as an experiments and results scratch pad. A page in the recipe section also helps me keep track of when I started an extract, and when I want to strain and bottle it.
I like to take notes while I read, and this section is generally where those notes end up. It also holds a wish list of books and magazines I would like to add to my personal library or check out through the public library's inter-library loan system. A back up list of interesting websites also goes here (in case something were to happen to my bookmarks folder on the computer), and I keep a list for interesting herbal gatherings and symposiums as I hear about them. Most of these lists started as mental notes, but transitioned into the study notes sections as they got longer. If there is a particular herb I am interested in, I will create a study page for that, or concepts related to herbal theory. Sketches, drawings or photos could be added to the study notes section, although mine is predominately word based right now.
These are just a handful of ideas on staying organized as an herbalist, and you may find that some of them work really well for you. But if they don't, experiment and find a way to organize that makes more sense to you. If you would like to share your favorite ways to keep your herbs organized, please feel free to leave a note! Good luck!
All the best,
P.S.- You can read my post The Functional Home Apothecary: A Tour to see pictures of how I organize my herbs and supplies!
Agatha is the author of the popular new herbal recipe book, Adaptogens: Your Guide to Radiant Health. With more than 75 creative and surprisingly easy to make recipes for everyday herbal health, this book will quickly become your new favorite reference for vibrant, herbal living.