Let me say right off that this isn’t going to be about creating geometric designs out of your herb plots or even about complex co-planting strategies. It seems like every guide I read about starting an herb garden is obsessed with these things. I’m sure they are good for the hobbyist with plenty of time to dabble. And if you are a gardening wizard or have a lot of garden space and even more time, by all means study up on design and co-planting.
But if you’re like me and you want to grow some key herbs and make the basic medicines to keep your family’s doctor visits to a minimum, I’ll offer what I’ve learned in ten years of trial, error and holding my aching head while reading gardening books.
Let’s get another thing out of the way. I’m not a master gardener. My philosophy is simple and probably imperfect. Feed the plants. Dig compost, manure and the occasional bucket of ashes into the beds. Try not to water too much or too little. Trim and thin when it’s necessary.
I’m also not gardening in the best conditions ever. My garden is on a north slope in a cold and clammy climate. Last year we got a total of 40 hours of sunshine between January and May. Even as late in the year as February, the sun barely peeks above the tree line at noon. The ground won’t thaw until mid-March, until mid-April in some years. Mold destroys many crops by early August and the growing season is over by mid September.
Given all that, it is probably a miracle that we manage to grow anything without a greenhouse or extensive technology or chemicals. We get a pretty good pumpkin and squash crop most years. Peas, kale, chard and green beans do alright as do strawberries. But that is about it for vegetables.
The good news is that most herbs are a lot easier to grow than vegetables. They are in essence weeds and they will forgive you for poor soil, sporadic watering and lax weeding much more than vegetables will. And many herbs are perennials, which means that once you have them established you don’t actually have to replant year after year. In fact, most of my annual herbs reseed themselves as well.
What herbs you'll need most
In my climate February is the month for ordering seeds and then planting starts in recycled yogurt containers. Our growing season simply isn’t long enough for planting directly outdoors. And beyond that, many herbs take weeks to germinate and I would never find the tiny shoots of mint or thyme amid the weeds that quickly take over my beds.
So, it’s the right time of year to consider which herbs should you start growing. Keep in mind when you’re thinking about what herb seeds to buy that you may be able to collect some herbs in an empty lot or meadow near where you live. Also fellow gardeners may have starts you can use, which is often much easier than starting herbs from seed.
Keep those options in mind when considering the following priority lists of herbs. I have spent twelve years narrowing down which herbs are both easy enough for me to grow and most useful in home medicine. I’ve tried to grow a lot of different things, some with less success. Here is the list of what has worked consistently for me.
The twenty most important herbs in my home medicine chest in rough order of importance to my particular family:
- Elder flower
- Lemon balm
- Willow or feverfew
- St. John’s Wart
- Aloe vera
While I think these are among the overall best herbs for home medicine, your specific list would depend on what ailments are common in your family, your climate and if you have any allergies to these herbs. This list is based on a cool, moist, temperate climate. It will work moderately well for the northern half of the United States, Canada and most of continental Europe.
Now of those crucial plants, I prefer to gather yarrow, plantain, St. John’s wart, nettles and dandelions in the abandoned meadow next to our house. Elder, willow and linden are trees that we either have in our yard or can access easily. I like to buy aloe vera plants or get them from other herbalists. That then leaves a short-list of the most important herb seeds I would order if starting my garden again.
- Lemon balm
I do highly recommend having a source of yarrow, plantain and St. John’s wart, so you might need to order those seeds anyway, if you don’t have a good place to gather organic herbs.
Now, those are the medicinal herbs in my garden. I also grow several cooking herbs.
The key cooking herbs, including a bit of overlap:
- Wild oregano
Some of the cooking herbs that I don’t currently use for medicine can be put to medicinal use but I haven’t experimented with that in depth.
Now, you might ask what I would grow if I had very little space, such as a few pots on a window sill, or if I had very little time and just wanted to get a tiny start with herbs in the first year? Assuming that I was going to use the herbs for cooking and medicine both, these would be my priorities.
If I could only have eight herbs…
- Yarrow (Yarrow is always first on my list because I personally can’t get by without it. I have intense menstrual cramps and I used to have to take way too many pharmaceutical painkillers until I discovered yarrow, which is nature’s ibuprofen, anti-inflammatory, disinfectant and helpful in slowing bleeding.)
- Thyme (I love thyme for cooking and my husband is similarly dependent on thyme for easing a chronic cough that used to plague him from October to April each year.)
- Mint (I use mint in cooking and I have seen it work wonders with eczema and other skin conditions.)
- Echinacea (Beyond the essentials, there is one herb I always hope to grow and that is Echinacea. Homegrown Echinacea flower tea and tincture is well correlated to my family’s ability to avoid many of the viral infections that run through the preschool population of our town. My experience with store-bought Echinacea supplements isn’t nearly so good.)
- Lemon balm (If you have cold sores, lemon balm is your friend. It also makes a nice calming tea and one small children can enjoy.)
- Aloe vera (You have to grow aloe vera in doors in many climates, including ours. It is so useful for burns, scrapes and cuts that I don't like to be without it.)
- St. John’s wart (It is not hard to find and identify St. John’s wart plants in the wild but it is such a useful herb that I really wouldn’t want to be without it for its anti-viral and anti-depressant properties.)
- Sage (love sage for cooking and it has important medicinal properties.)
I am having great difficulty not putting plantain on this list. Plantain is possibly the second herb I would not want to live without, right after yarrow. I am known to the local herbalist club by the slogan, “There is no such thing as too much plantain.”
This is because plantain heals whatever it comes in direct contact with. It is incredible. It is magic on cuts and scrapes. It will clear up many coughs and sore throats if you can get it to flow down your throat in the right spot. It will help with all kinds of skin and mouth problems. But I have never heard of anyone growing it in a pot and because it is sparse and low-growing I don’t think you could grow enough that way. But you might be able to in a pinch.
If I lived in the city I might get desperate enough to try to grow plantain in a pot. While you can find the ribbed blades of plantain leaves amid grass in almost any yard or meadow, you CAN NOT use plantain from any grassy area that might have been sprayed with pesticides. The types of pesticides used on lawns are not meant for food crops and can be very poisonous. This is why I would consider growing plantain in a pot if I lived in a city. Do what you can to find a source of organic plantain. (And no, this is not the plant that produces something like a banana. This is essentially a type of grass. I’ll include some recommendations for herbal books below, in case this is confusing to you.)
The same goes for things like nettles and dandelions that do grow in many cities. But be careful of where you harvest them. Keep in mind that herbs growing along roads will also often be contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals. If you gather near a major highway make sure you are at least three hundred feet (or one hundred meters) away from the highway before gathering herbs.
Now that you’ve chosen the herbs you would like to grow, you can order seeds. I’m sure there are a number of places to order seeds but I’m going to recommend two specifically. This isn’t an advertisement. This is my own personal experience and no one is paying me to promote a particular company.
The first place is Heirloom Seeds where I order almost all of my seeds both herbs and vegetables. It’s a business with a strong commitment to preserving traditional and heirloom varieties. Given that I grow crops like corn, which have often been contaminated with genetically modified pollen if the seeds are bought through ordinary sellers, I want to get my seeds from a source that makes a point of avoiding this. Heirloom seeds used to take up to five months to ship seeds, because of the small size of the business and the high demand for their seeds. I just ordered seeds from them two weeks ago and they’ve come in record time this year.
They also have one of the best selections of herb seeds I’ve ever seen and many of them are organically grown seeds, although these are a bit more expensive. I don’t have specific information on whether or not it is medicinally important to grow your herbs from organically grown seeds. I do recommend growing all your herbs organically, but this mainly has to do with avoiding chemicals that come in direct contact with the leaves and roots you are going to consume. While I like to support organic agriculture and I’ll order organic whenever I can, I don’t think you should let finances get in the way of growing herbs, if that is an issue.
If you want to find a more local source heirloom seeds, here is a great list of heirloom seed providers which may have some herb seeds available.
I can also recommend Mountain Rose Herbs. I have ordered seeds from them once and had a good experience. I have also bought several books that they are affiliated with, which I’ll discuss in the next post on teaching children about herbs. Generally, this company has a very good reputation on herbalist forums on-line.
Planning the layout
Once you have ordered your seeds, look again at the space you have available. Can you plant herbs around the borders of your yard? Can you convert a flowerbed to a kitchen herb garden? Do you have a sunny window sill or two? Or do you have a large open plot? This will determine how many plants you will want to start.
You will also start to get an idea for how you want to organize your garden. While I love the idea of a beautiful, geometric herb garden, I have never found it practical to grow one. There are too many practical factors to take into consideration and many of the herbs that provide the best medicine are not all that ornamental.
Soil is important with any sort of gardening. Most herbs like well-drained soil and will do better in somewhat sandier soil than vegetables. They like nutrients of course but they would rather have course soil than moist clumps of damp compost. There are exceptions though. Marshmallow likes mud and lots of water. Hence the name. Mint likes significantly more water than you might imagine.
So, while I think co-planting herbs for pollination benefits would be wonderful, the limitations of my garden and climate force me to consider three factors most when planning herb placement. Those factors are soil, water and sun. The soil can be changed somewhat of course, but I need to group plants according to their soil needs. Those few herbs that do better with rich soil, have to be clumped together.
Water is another factor that necessitates clumping. As I said plants like marshmallow and mint like lots of water. While things like rosemary, sage and mugwort rarely need to be watered after they are established and will suffer root rot if over-watered. Other herbs such as Echinacea and calendula can be positioned between the wet and dry groups. In some very wet climates you may find that putting dry herbs like sage under a roof overhang where they’ll get all the sun but not all the rain water might help. Greenhouses also help to regulate water.
The most important factor to consider when positioning herbs is sunlight. Many herbs - but not all - need as much direct sunlight as possible. You may have a couple of sensitive herbs that you want to plant in a shady spot but for the most part you will want to position your plants so that the tallest herbs are on the north side of your garden and the shorter herbs are on the south side. Many herbs that aren’t even actually trees are very tall and marshmallow, mugwort, elecampane and even Echinacea can shade lower growing plants and severely stunt them.
So, before you plant look carefully at the height expectations on the package and then try to devise a layout that puts taller herbs at the back, herbs that like richer soil and more water on once side and herbs that like drier, sandier soil on the other side. Here are some helpful quick lists.
Medium height herbs:
- Lemon balm
- Some types of sage and mint
- St. John’s Wart
- Red clover
- Most mint
- Most sage
Conclusion and gardening books
Once you’ve got your seeds and your garden space you are ready for the real work. Again, I recommend planting starts in small plastic or peat containers and giving them a head-start in a sunny window for a few weeks.
You will have to look carefully at the estimated germination time and recommendations for when to plant outdoors that come with your seeds. If you gather your own seeds, look these guidelines up on the internet. Many herbs are slow germinaters and will take up to two months to grow into a healthy start that can be transplanted in the garden. Other herbs such as chives and basil will sprout quickly and need to be timed carefully so that they can be transplanted after all danger of frost is past.
Some seeds, such as those for Valerian and Echinacea require a moderately complicated stratification process to make them viable. The easiest way to stratify seeds is to mix them with a small amount of sand in zip-lock bag, dampen the sand slightly and put the bag into your freezer for a week. Take it out and leave it in the refrigerator for a week. Then repeat the freezing once more. The only challenge in this is remembering to move the seeds at the right time. When I do it correctly it works but I often have trouble remembering and end up with seeds that don’t germinate.
This is far from a comprehensive guide to gardening and growing herbs. Most of my future posts will be concerned with how to use specific herbs, how to process herbs into medicine and how to treat certain ailments. If you would like more detailed information on the gardening side of this project I would recommend getting one or more of the following books:
Note 1: I’m not an Amazon affiliate or advertiser. These are just the books I would recommend and the easiest links for them.
Note 2: Please also note that nothing in this post is medical advice. I’m not a doctor and you should consult a doctor about illnesses before trying to self-medicate, whether with herbs or other medicines.
I love to hear from you. If you have favorite herbs you think are essential to the basic herb garden, please leave a note below so we can all learn more.
My next post in the Home Medicine Cycle will discuss teaching children about herbs and involving your family in growing, harvesting and preparing herbs.