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It doesn’t take long as a new home herbalist to gather an impressive collection of dried herbs, extracts, herbal supplies, and information! Feeling overwhelmed about how to organize your herbal supplies and notes? Don’t worry – we’ve all been there!
I began collecting herbs and extracts in earnest about ten years ago, so I remember what it was like to juggle all of my new tools and herbal supplies. I finally realized that my organization needs fell under two categories: herbal supplies and herbal 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!
Organization Tips for Herbal Supplies
One of the best things about being an herbalist is having lots of materials around to work with. The herbal learning process is about experiencing herbal preparations like syrups, salves, extracts and tea blends first hand. 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. However, herbal supplies 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 near my bookshelves. A kitchen cabinet can also work well if you have the space for it. My kitchen is tiny, so my herbal cabinet lives in my bedroom. Wherever you make space, don’t use a bathroom cabinet or keep your herbs in an unfinished basement or attic. The high humidity in a bathroom will ruin your herbs. Extremes of temperature are bad for them, too!
Organizing the Cabinet
I prefer to keep extracts on the top two shelves in my cabinet. My mortar and pestle, my cutting board and knives, and beeswax also stay on those shelves. Enameled pots (dedicated for herbal concoctions) go on the top of the cabinet. I also keep bar cloths, mesh strainers, a coffee grinder and an apron handy in a basket by 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.
Labels and Labeling
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 three ring binders or small moleskine notebooks for most of my notes and records. Inventory, recipes, and study notes are the categories I use the most. My materia medica is in another notebook and functions like a personal herbal encyclopedia.
Typically, I use notebooks and index cards instead of a computer 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. There’s no need to worry about impressing an audience.
My inventory index is made up of two sections. One section for bulk herbs and another 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.
I keep track of two kinds of herbal recipes. Creative herbal food and beverage recipes, and formulas or blends for extracts and teas. When I find a recipe I really like, it gets transferred to a more permanent recipe file. My recipe box has a space for the many Traditional Chinese Medicine formulas on index cards that I use 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/results workbook. 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.
Herbal Study Notes
I take notes while I read herbal books, and this section is generally where those notes end up. It also holds a wish list of books and magazines I would like to buy or check out through the public library. 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. My own process is constantly evolving, so I can tell you from personal experience that things will shift and change as you get more familiar with your herbal supplies and record keeping!
My book, The Complete Guide to Adaptogens, is full of creative recipes for your home apothecary and wellness journey. Be sure to check out my favorite online herbalism school, the Herbal Academy, for wonderful courses that will help you grow as an herbalist. I graduated from their Advanced Herbal Course and highly recommend it! (#affiliate).
All the best,