Planting Your First Herb Garden
The beautiful thing about herbs is that they don't take up much space. Well, except that pesky mint family. Whenever I teach herbal medicine classes or work with clients, I always encourage folks to get to know the medicinal plants they are working with by growing them in their own backyard. In our East TN climate, there are so many medicinal plants that we can grow well here and most of them require very little attention. For many of us, the journey into herbal medicine can start by buying a tincture or tea from an herbalist or the health foods store and using it to work with a specific health issue, such as insomnia or digestive problems. When we only get to know a plant in this finished form, we miss out on a deeper relationship. It can be such a beautiful process to learn about this same plant by watching it develop from a seed to an adult, smelling it, touching its leaves and flowers, sitting with it, harvesting it as its peak for use as medicine, processing the herb, and then finally, taking it into our bodies in the form of a tea or extract. Not only do we grow to understand herbal medicine in a deeper way, we can also save so much money when we grow and make our own medicine!
Starting an herb garden, just like starting a veggie garden can certainly be an overwhelming process. I recommend sitting down first and making a list of herbs you currently use in your medicine cabinet and/or common ailments you and your family typically deal with throughout the year. For example, if digestive issues are a problem, you may want to grow Peppermint, Fennel, or Chamomile. If insomnia is an issue, you could plant Valerian, Passionflower, Skullcap, or Chamomile. Once you have your list, you can do some research about these plants. Here are some good questions to ask: Do they need to be direct-seeded or started indoors? Are they annuals or perennials? How much space do they need to grow? What are their sun requirements? Can you purchase seeds or starts locally or do you need to order seeds online? When and how do I harvest them?
Below I have listed a few of my favorite easy-to-grow herbs to get you started, as well as medicinal profiles and growing habits. Happy Gardening!
Peppermint Mentha piperita
Parts used: Leaves and flowers
Medicinal Uses: Peppermint is a gentle stimulant for the nervous system. Just smelling it can give the brain and body a boost of energy and leave you feeling rejuvenated. Unlike caffeine and sugar, using peppermint as a stimulant is nourishing for the nervous system, not depleting. As it stimulates the mind, peppermint simultaneously calms the body, helping to ease anxiety and tension. It’s most common medicinal use is as a digestive aid. Peppermint, like sage and rosemary, also has carminative and anti-spasmodic properties, meaning that it has an overall relaxing effect on the digestive system. It can help treat gas, indigestion, stomach cramps, and nausea, while also stimulating the secretion of bile and other digestive juices to increase the digestive process. Peppermint is also a traditional treatment for fevers, colds, and flus, helping to clear up lung and sinus congestion, break a fever, and fight infections, due to its antimicrobial properties. It also has additional pain-alleviating properties and can be beneficial for some headaches. And, on top of all that, it will insure fresh breath!
Dosage: For most of the above remedies, peppermint tea is the best way to ingest this herb. To make an infusion, pour 8 oz boiling water over a heaping teaspoon of dried herb and let steep, covered for at least 10 minutes. You can also use peppermint in tincture form, 30-40 drops, up to 3x/day. A few drops of the essential oil can be aided to boiling water and used as a steam inhalation to temporarily relieve sinus/lung congestion.
Growing habits: Peppermint is a perennial. It’s best started by transplanting either a rooted cutting from a friend’s plant or purchasing from your greenhouse. Peppermint spreads like wildfire so container planting is best unless you are wanting to use it as a general groundcover. Mints prefer full-sun.
German Chamomile Matricaria recutita
Parts used: Flower head
Medicinal uses: The list of uses for this herb can be endless and often sound too good to be true! Chamomile is a very versatile herb. A general nervine tonic and mild sedative, chamomile can be beneficial for safely treating all types of anxiety and stress-related disorders. It relaxes and tones the entire nervous system, especially when tension and anxiety are inducing digestive symptoms, such as gas, IBS, diarrhea, acid reflux, ulcers, etc. This is due to its various other actions as an antispasmodic, carminative, anti-inflammatory, and bitter. As an antispasmodic, chamomile acts on the peripheral nerves and muscles as a sedative, indirectly relaxing the entire body, especially digestive cramping. Chamomile is a mild digestive bitter, stimulating the entire digestive process and its anti-inflammatory properties have a soothing effect on the stomach and intestinal walls. Because it is both gentle and tasty, it’s a particularly useful herb for children, combining well with lemon balm. David Winston recommends mixing it 50/50 with apple juice for children with ADHD, growing pains, teething pain, and nightmares. Chamomile is also antimicrobial and an anticattarrhal, meaning that it assists in the elimination of excess mucus in the sinuses, making it useful for treating seasonal allergies, colds, and flus. In addition to making a delightful tea or tincture, chamomile tea can be used as an eyewash to treat conjunctivitis or in the bath, imparting both its anti-inflammatory properties externally and relaxing the body as a whole. Phew!
Dosage: Tincture; 60-90 drops, up to 4x/day, Tea: 1-3 tsp dried flowers per 8 oz water, infused, up to 3 cups daily.
Contraindications: Chamomile is in the Asteraceae family (feverfew, calendula, yarrow, boneset) and can cause allergic reactions in some folks, particularly if you have severe ragweed pollen allergies.
Growing habits: German chamomile is a self-seeding annual and can be either started early in the greenhouse and transplanted or direct seeded after the last frost date. Roman chamomile is a perennial and can be started either of the above ways. In general, chamomile prefers full-sun to light shade.
Calendula Calendula officinalis
Parts used: whole flowers, including the sticky, green calyx that petals are attached to
Medicinal properties: Calendula flowers are beautiful to behold and make a lovely addition to the garden. As well as being a pest deterrent, their petals are also edible and make a bright addition to any salad. Medicinally, calendula is a powerful anti-inflammatory and can be used externally or internally for inflammation, specifically of the skin or digestive system. Externally, calendula has vulnerary, or wound-healing, properties and is also astringent and antimicrobial. It may be applied for any external bleeding or wound, bruising, strains, skin ulcers, rashes, eczema, diaper rash, or minor burns. It’s especially beneficial for slow-healing wounds and for treating fungal infections. For external use, calendula can be applied as a poultice or as an infused oil/salve. Internally, taken as a tincture or tea, calendula can help with inflammation of the digestive tract and microbial infections, specifically those of a fungal nature, such as Candida yeast. Its vulnerary properties can also help internally to repair the intestinal lining, for those who are recovering from gluten and other food intolerances/allergies.
Dosage: For internal use, tincture dosage is 1-4 ml (dropperfuls) 3x/day. As a tea, infuse 1-2 tsp of flowers per 8 oz water for 10-15 min., 3x/day
Contraindications: Calendula is a very gentle, safe herb. It is in the aster family, however, so those with ragweed allergies may be sensitive.
Growing habits: Calendula is a very easy annual to grow and typically reseeds itself. You can get a head start by starting it indoors in late winter or just direct seeding it after the last frost date. It is also very easy to save seed from, so I highly recommend doing so. Just allow a few flower heads to dry out on the plant and then harvest the large curly seeds. Calendula can be grown in full-sun to light shade.
Borage Borago officinalis
Parts used: Flowers and leaves
Medicinal uses: Borage is a beautiful annual, known for its ability to attract pollinators to any garden. It also has some lovely medicinal properties too! The flowers and leaves of this plant are edible and have a light cucumber taste. Traditionally, borage was used to lift the spirits. It can be a lovely plant to use for gently relieving anxiety and depression. Borage loses most of its medicinal qualities when dried, so it is best to use fresh.
Dosage: Simply eating its purple flowers is a wonderful way to take advantage of borage’s medicine. I like to throw them into to salads for color. You can also make tea with the fresh flowers or leaves by infusing them in hot water for 10-15 minutes and drinking 1 or 2 cups/day.
Growing habits: Borage is an easy to grow, self-seeding annual. It can be started indoors or direct seeded after the last frost date. Borage can grow very tall- up to a few feet, so I recommend staking once it is over 1ft tall. Otherwise, it will end up falling over and crushing other surrounding plants.