Why would you want to know how to plan and plant a medicinal herb garden? Well, with more and more of us opting out of the conventional this or that there’s been a rise in interest in gardening in general and growing herbs specifically over the last few years. Herbs are amazingly useful plants in the landscape, even if you’re not ready to use them medicinally. Most herbs are really not very difficult to grow, many have lovely flowers and/or interesting foliage and they can easily be integrated into your perennial beds or any traditionally landscaped area. A lot of herbs grow well in pots, either indoors or outdoors and many are very adaptable to climates and types of soil. Many, many herbs are basically pest resistant plants, ta-boot! So, come let’s chat about how to plan and plant this medicinal herb garden you need…
Just a quick note – this post is looooong, so grab a pencil and some paper to take notes if your kiddo gets a scraped knee, a package gets delivered or the pig escapes and you have to read it in installments.
How to plan and plant a medicinal herb garden
Even people who aren’t into herbs know the basics like basil, mint and garlic. Interestingly enough, all three of these are classified as culinary and medicinal herbs being both highly nutritive and flavorful as well as powerfully potent in treating various health issues. My goal here is to cover a few basic principles on how to plan and plant a medicinal herb garden – a garden planted with the goal of serving the needs of your general health maintenance and also acute issue that might arise. There’s no way I can cover everything on how to plan and especially how to plant your medicinal herb garden but we’ll cover some of the basics. If you have specific questions, feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to answer them. In the next few days I’ll be posting a list of nine of my favorite medicinal herbs that are also very manageable in the garden; the list will include some cultural requirements for each plant and some of their uses. Always double check everything you read about herbs so that you can be sure of your information; don’t take my word for anything, do your own homework.
How do I plan which medicinal herb to grow?
Most herbs are not terribly tricky to grow but they are plants and will require you to have a certain amount of gardening knowledge. Fortunately for all of us gardeners, nature is adaptable and resilient and whenever I have a garden failure I just say right out loud, “Well, that’s why God invented next year”! My first piece of advice for effectively planning your medicinal herb garden is to evaluate how much gardening experience and knowledge you realistically have. The best rule to follow for new gardeners is Aim Small, Miss Small. If you’ve never really grown much, try basil or calendula this year as both are easy to grow (easy to grow from seed even, if you’re feeling ambitious) and are very pleasing plants when they leaf and bloom – not to mention what great medicinal herbs they are!
Most quality, local nurseries will carry a selection of herbs; walk through it and see which plant speaks to you. If you’re new to growing things, I’m limiting you to two purchases this year because I don’t want you to get overwhelmed and frustrated, suffer a loss and then figure you have a black thumb. You’re going to be busy living your life AND tending your few new plants AND reading herb/plant books from the library AND looking for community gardening classes to join so that you can improve your garden Ninja skills. Two plants will be all you can handle. If you’ve grown a garden before, I challenge you to pick up an herb you’ve never heard of or, at least, one you’ve never tried growing; before you take it home, check out the label and make sure its one that will survive the conditions of your climate and yard.
There are literally thousands of wildly useful herbs you COULD grow but your climate, soil and other growing conditions will only successfully support so many of those varieties. Sit down and go through your herb closet or shelf and see which herbs you use all the time – is it Echinacea? Ginger? Garlic? What about Fennel? Mint? Licorice Root? More exotic? Are you always out of Ginseng? Myrrh? Black Walnut Hull? Now, grab one of those herb books you’ve checked out from the library and start looking for information on each of your herbs’ “Cultural Requirements” – these are the conditions that each herb will need in order to grow, thrive and, hopefully, propagate itself in some way either by reseeding itself, producing seed for you to harvest, layering, cutting, etc.. Pay special attention to how many hours of sun your medicinal herb needs a day (if it says 6-8 hours of sunlight is required, it probably means it), what water requirements it has, what kind of soil it needs and, VERY important, what kind of winter and summer temperatures it can take.
Sometimes you can work with each individual plant here and there – a little less water, only 5 1/2 hours of sun, a soil that is only borderline quality – but winter temps, especially, are not forgiving. Make sure you are zoned for the plant you want to grow; if you’re not sure, go to this site and type in your city. (The USDA recently revamped this map so not all the seed houses and nurseries might be caught up yet to the new guidelines; be sure to ask what the temperature range is for the plant you’re interested in if the tag or the website doesn’t specify.) This step alone will knock out a big chunk of your list of herbs since some of the ones we’ve become accustomed to ordering from Mountain Rose are among those that will only grow in certain conditions.
For instance, in my climate without a greenhouse, using the examples above I can only grow Echinacea, Garlic, Fennel, Mint, Licorice and possibly Walnut, depending on the variety. Did I say only?!! That’s a pretty good list, all things considered and as I grow my own, I’ll find herbs to grow at home that can serve as substitutes for those ones I can’t. God wants us to be healthy and has provided all we need to be so no matter where we live; I truly believe that and I’ve bet my life on it, literally.
Once you have a working list of medicinal herb plants you know you’ll use AND be able to plant, order an herb catalog from a quality seed house – in fact, order from two or three. Read the descriptions of the plants and see how much you’ve learned – keep your herb book close by as a reference and to answer any questions you have about the plants that the catalog isn’t answering. What you’re doing here is finding a vendor you want to work with – what company has the criteria you’re seeking? Will they be a good educational resource for you? Is their website helpful? Is their ordering process easy and what does their customer service look like? What about ethics – are you trying to stay away from Seminis, GMO or even hybrid seed? The fact is, you may not be ready to start growing your herbs from seed (this is a step above keeping a plant alive in a pot on your deck) this year, but you will eventually get there and its good to begin with the end in mind. If you’re wanting to create a MEDICINAL herb garden then the chances are you’ll exhaust the resources of your local nursery within a few years; you’ll just be so herb savvy you’ll discover you’ve moved beyond the simple basil and sage options and are looking for a wider variety from which to choose. I have several favorite, high quality seed houses that I do business with, but if I’m looking specifically for medicinal or culinary herbs seeds, there’s only one choice for me and that’s Horizon Herbs. The seeds are always viable, the packets have great information on them, the catalog is a wealth of knowledge and the people behind the seeds are some of the nicest you’ll ever do business with. They also sell some potted plant and root cuttings, which is helpful for those times I just really don’t want to take the time to grow some of the harder plants from seed.
There are some online vendors who sell medicinal herb plants but unless you have a very small yard and a very big budget, stocking an entire herb garden with mature plants will be cost prohibitive. So, go back to the library and get a book on seed starting, take a local class (try your university extension and/or your local seed exchange group), ask your gardening nerd friend if you can come see their set up and pick their brains about what they do.
I will say that some herbs can be buggers to grow from seed but all is not lost! If you are lucky enough to have a neighbor or friend who is growing a variety you need, research the best method of propagation (making more plants) for that plant and see if you can do that. For example, Thyme can easily be propagated by a method called layering; a very easy method of taking a supple but mature stem of thyme, laying it in the dirt and covering up a section with more dirt, weighting it down with a rock or garden pin, keeping it watered and wait for the point of contact with the soil to sprout roots. Voila, cut it off and you have a new plant – no seed needed. Again, have a good book on hand. Also, were its legal and the plants are available, consider learning how to wildcraft (harvest from native plants) the herbs that you need from your local environment. Please be sure to do this responsibly.
Be realistic about the space available to you when planning and planting your medicinal herb garden. Are you in an apartment? Well, then look at what you can grow in a sunny window or a southern facing deck; what about a community or farm garden plot or a friend who has extra space in their yard? You’re into medicinal herbs, right? So, you’re used to thinking outside the box – bottom line, find a decent amount of space to grow some herbs. What’s a good size? Ahhhh…ummmm…that depends. Argh – it’s impossible to get a straight answer from a gardener! Sorry, but it really does depend on certain factors.
Here are some things to think about – how many people are you growing medicine for this year? How many different plants will be taking up space? (Fennel takes up a lot more space than Thyme, for example, both vertically and horizontally.) How much of the area in your yard or plot is a good match for the plants you want to grow? (Are you able to use your entire growing space or is there a lot of shade or unusable ground?) Let me give you an example, I grow medicine for seven people (technically nine but the last two are just barely coming around the idea of herbs and their consumption isn’t nearly what everyone else’s is). I have a spearmint patch (I inherited it with the house) that is about two feet wide and eight feet long. I harvest at least twice, sometimes three times a year, by shearing the plant about six inches from the ground and letting it regrow. We dry all of that and then we use it fresh from the plant throughout the growing season both in the house and in the barnyard. With those two or three harvests (which equals several, large fresh bundles), I have enough to last all winter for both the humans and the animals – I even have some left over most of the time.
Or, how about seed fennel? I put seed directly into the ground and grew up three patches of sweet fennel (not to be confused with bulb or Florence fennel) this year. Those three patches left me with a #10 can size harvest of fennel seed – plenty for this year and then some! Remember, some herbs are culinary, too and you’ll want to harvest from them during the growing season and then harvest some for the winter as the season ends. I have no sense of proportion and plant way more basil every year than I technically need but is that really a bad thing?!
Planning the medicinal herb garden on paper
Are you still with me? Ok, so you’ve done a good deal of thinking and studying, now get a nice sized piece of paper and a pencil with a good eraser. Draw a sketch of your growing space and start plugging in plants – this will serve as your rough design for your new herb garden. Your design can be something as simple as a Square Foot Garden bed devoted to herbs or as complicated as an entire yard full of these great plants. There’s no shame in hiring a designer if this isn’t your thing; our herb garden is where our front lawn used to be so it was important (for the sake of dealing with those few in the neighborhood who are confused when you do something that isn’t grass – really, this throws people for such a loop!) that the herb garden be designed, not just thrown together. I ended up consulting with a designer and then taking her great plans and tweaking them the way I wanted. We also included a lot of edible plantings and even some ornamentals since the space was large and I wanted it to look full and rich all year round, especially for my bees. It will take me years to get all the herbs I want in and to grow up the edibles and ornamentals to a mature size. Tasha Tudor says it takes over a decade for a garden to look like its been there a lifetime – sounds about right.
Incorporating all those other plantings also opened my eyes to how so many plants I’d never even thought of before have herbal actions that can be attributed to them. For example, we’re growing Rugosa Roses to form a living fence at the front of the garden and because they’re lovely and will survive our winters but it turns out that their hips are so incredibly nutritious and powerfully healing. We took our first harvest of those hips this season and, wow, did everyone from the children to the goats appreciate those plants!
Get to know the medicinal herbs and work with your plan
I don’t mind the time it will take to mature my medicinal herb garden as I continue to plant it since I’m using it to learn more and more about herbal preparations, properties and uses. I’m also getting to know the plants themselves, as they grow and occasionally fail. (We had a horribly hot summer and a terribly cold winter – I shudder to think what I’ll find this spring…) So, I guess my last piece of advice is, take your time and pace yourself BUT start this year and do something to plan and plant your medicinal herb garden - no matter how small the effort may seem. Just like growing a vegetable garden, the key is to
Grow what you’ll use and grow what will grow! The unspoken truth of successful gardening…
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