Learn how to simply and easily plan a medicinal herb garden for all your plant-based wellness needs. This detailed article will provide you with brainstorming and design steps, answers to herbal FAQs, learning resources, and so much more. Be sure to look for the free, downloadable herbal notetaking sheets, too! You can grow wellness, or medicinal, herbs wherever you live, in whatever space you have.
Just a quick note – this post is looooong, so grab a pencil and some paper to take notes just in case your kiddo gets a scraped knee, a package gets delivered or the pig escapes and you have to read it in installments.
How Do I Start a Medicinal Herb Garden?
The process of planting a medicinal herb garden is one that takes time. Be prepared to spend a lot of that time educating yourself on the nature of herbs and their growing requirements.
This article will cover:
- The best way to begin any endeavor is with education and observation. So, the first part of this article will include instructions and challenges on those topics.
- Next, we’ll cover some FAQs about herb gardens.
- The last part of the article will be about herb selection, growing information, and basic design.
How Do You Layout an Herb Garden?
You have several choices when it comes to what kind of herb garden you would like to create.
Herbs are amazingly useful plants in the landscape and pair well with other plants. 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 areas. As an added bonus, many herbs are pest resistant!
Because of this, you have two options after reading this post:
- You can use the information in this article to simply help you decide which herbs to plant in and around your other gardens.
- Or you can create a garden that is particularly dedicated to medicinal herbs.
You don’t have to know which option you’d like to go with right now. In fact, you may not decide that for quite some time, and that’s ok!
Herb Garden Design Options Exercise:
If you’d like to start weighing your options for design, GET A PEN AND PAPER, and do the following:
- Write the pros and cons of integrating your medicinal herbs into your existing gardens on one side of your paper.
- Flip the paper and write down the pros and cons of having a dedicated wellness herb space.
You may not know everything you will eventually know about herbs and design, but you know more than you think you do. You also may discover that you already have a preference for one design option over another as you brainstorm. (Keep reading for a downloadable worksheet to make this brainstorming easier.)
If you’re a new gardener and/or new to growing herbs, take your time and don’t rush yourself.
Stacking Functions – a Permaculture Perspective on Herb Placement
Permaculture is a particular kind of design that involves using perennial plants to create permanent agriculture (the origin of the word permaculture), or more simply put, sustainable gardens. Annual plants are also used in appropriate ways to create garden systems that can essentially take care of themselves.
One way to achieve sustainability in garden design is to group plants in a way that enables each plant to help the others. This relationship between plants (and even plants and people) is called “stacking functions”.
For example, the apple trees in my yard are all planted with groups of perennial and annual herbs (along with other plants). Each herb performs multiple functions, and all the plants together create a growing area that is sustainable.
Here are some examples of those herbal functions with the annual herb, borage:
- Borage is a reseeding annual that produces large amounts of nitrogen-rich leaves. During the growing season, these leaves are cut from the plant and laid on the ground to act as a “green” mulch.
- Borage also produces an abundance of flowers that attract pollinators to the area, which includes my apple tree.
- Both the young leaves and flowers of the borage plant are edible and nutritious.
- Borage seed is traditionally used as a mild sedative and calming herb.
- This plant will also produce enough seed each year for me to collect and use for next year’s plantings, free of charge.
Here are some examples of herbal functions with the perennial herb, thyme:
- Thyme of any variety is a low-growing herb that acts as a ground cover which suppresses weeds and keeps the soil cool and moist.
- Thyme also produces an abundance of flowers that attract pollinators to the area, which includes my apple tree.
- The leaves of the thyme plant are edible and nutritious.
- Thyme is commonly used in culinary dishes, as well as teas for sore throats.
- Thyme easily reproduces by cutting or layering, which enables me to produce many plants each season for free.
- Thyme is an aromatic herb which naturally deters pests, which will benefit my apple tree.
Think of how you might group herbs together and/or with other plants in your garden so that they can all benefit each other.
How Often Will You Access Your Herbs
One last thing to consider as you make initial notes about the placement of your medicinal herb garden is to consider how often you intend to access these herbs through the growing season. Here are some things to consider:
- If you plan to harvest the herbs often, they should be somewhere easy to access – like right outside a front or back door.
- If you want to enjoy the fragrance or sight of your herbs, they should likewise be somewhere you frequent in the yard.
If you’ve studied permaculture before, you will recognize this concept as determining your zone 1 or 2 plants (not to be confused with the USDA growing zones). We won’t go into this any further to avoid confusion, but tuck this idea away in your mind as you make plans about herb placement.
Should you plant your herbs in the garden spaces you frequent the most?
For Small Space Herb Gardeners
As a third option, you may decide to grow medicinal herbs in pots. Many varieties of herbs grow well in pots, either indoors or outdoors, and many are very adaptable to climates and types of soil.
If you’re new to herbs, get started with our short e-book, The Potted Herb. This book will get you growing herbs in pots this year regardless of where you live or how much space you have. It outlines a collection of well known herbs for culinary and wellness uses. We’ll teach you how to grow and use these wonderful plants – anyone can grow an herb garden this year!
Wellness Herb Challenge
If it’s the growing season and you can visit a local nursery, do the following exercise – a little herbal homework:
- Most quality local nurseries will carry a selection of herbs. Walk through the herbs and see which plant speaks to you.
- If you’re new to growing herbs, choose two plants to grow this year, either in pots or in the ground.
- If you’ve grown a garden before, I challenge you to grow an herb you’ve never grown before.
- Before you take home the herb, check out the label and make sure it’s one that will survive the conditions of your climate and yard. If you have questions, ask your nurseryman.
Remember to only take on two new-to-you plants this year. 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.
A few plants will be all you can handle.
FAQs About Planting Wellness or Medicinal Herbs:
Here are a few more common questions about growing herbs.
Should I Grow Medicinal Herbs from Seed?
Yes and no, is the answer to that question.
Here are some reasons to grow your own herbs from seed:
- Medicinal herbs can be tricky to find in local nurseries and even online. The basic herbs like sage and peppermint are easy enough to locate, but others like valerian and St. John’s wort are more difficult.
- Starting plants from seed is always going to be cheaper than purchasing seedling plants from nurseries, locally or online. Online nurseries have built in shipping costs that should be considered.
- If you are starting your own plants from seed, you can control what kind of soil, compost, and chemicals (if any) are used on your plants.
There are a few herbs, however, that do better when grown from cuttings or from layering. For example:
- Some seeds like lavender have extremely spotty germination rates – it’s just plain easier to grow it from cuttings or by layering.
- Oregano (and a few others) can loose flavor over generations of seed saving. If you’re buying new seed every year, this isn’t such a big deal. If you’re saving your own seed from the same plants each year, this can become a problem.
- Some herbs like mint and comfrey rarely produce viable seed, so your only option for reliable propagation is cutting or layering.
How to Layer Herbs for Propagation
Using thyme as an example, here’s a quick tutorial on how to propagate it by layering.
- Take a supple but mature stem of thyme, laying it in the dirt, and covering up a section of it with more dirt.
- Weighing that down with a rock or garden pin, keep it damp, and wait for the point of contact with the soil to sprout roots.
- Cut it off from the mother plant, gently dig up the new plant, and plant it elsewhere in your yard – no seed needed.
Also, where it’s 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.
Additionally, I encourage you to read this post on Get Free Plants for Your Garden by Healthy Green Savvy – there are probably some ideas here you have yet to try!
Buying Medicinal Herb Seed
Once you have a working list of medicinal herb plants you know you’ll use AND be able to plant, it’s time to order seed stock from a quality seed house.
Go to their websites and read the descriptions of the plants – see how much you can learn. Keep your herb books close by as a reference and to answer any questions you have about the plants that the catalog isn’t answering.
Here are some questions to consider when choosing a seed house:
- Which companies have 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 year (this is a step above keeping a plant alive in a pot on your deck), but you will eventually get there. And its good to begin with the end in mind.
Here’s a list of 20 Medicinal Herbs You Can Grow From Seed from Learning and Yearning.
Where I Buy My Medicinal Herb Seeds and Plants
When I’m looking for medicinal or culinary herbs seeds, there’s only one choice for me and that’s Strictly Medicinal Seeds. They answer all my important seed house questions:
- the seeds are always viable
- the packets have great information
- the catalog is a wealth of knowledge
- the people behind the seeds are some of the nicest you’ll ever do business with
- they also sell some potted plants 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
Other quality seed houses include:
What If You Don’t Want to Grow From Seed?
If your medicinal herb garden will only consist of 5-10 herbs, you’ll do well budgeting to purchase herb starts in the spring. You can keep these in pots on your deck or plant them in your garden.
However, if you have a large herb garden in mind, you’ll need to rethink your position on seed starting. 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 for most people.
If you don’t want to grow herbs from seed, I gently suggest you get over it and learn. You’re smart, you can do it. Here’s how:
- Go back to the library and get a book on seed starting.
- Take a local seed-starting class (try your university extension and/or your local seed exchange group).
- Ask your gardening nerd friend if you can come see their seed starting set up and pick their brains about what they do.
- Be sure to get a good herb notebook like the one below to keep track of all you’re learning.
How Much Space Do I Need for a Medicinal Herb Garden?
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 like:
- How many people are you growing for – how much volume of each herb will you need for teas, tinctures, and salves?
- Do you have livestock that will receive any of these herbs? If so, how much?
- Do you need to grow herbs for reasons other than culinary or medicinal? Perhaps as a green mulch or ground cover?
- How many different plants will be taking up space? For example, fennel takes up a lot more space than thyme, 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? Try to group plants so they can stack functions.
- Are you able to use your entire growing space, or is there a lot of shade or unusable ground?
How Many Herbal Plants Example
Let me give you an example from my yard:
- I grow medicinal herbs for eight people.
- I have a spearmint patch that 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 then letting it regrow. We hang-dry all of that.
- We also 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.
I really don’t need to plant any more mint in my garden to serve the needs of the people and animals.
I still grow mint in various places because it works as an amazing ground cover in particularly weedy areas of my yard that I’m trying to cultivate. It also continues to attract pollinators when in bloom and repels bad bugs with its high essential oil content. (Want to know what to do with mint? Please visit this post.)
Another Wellness Herb Example:
Here’s another example using seed fennel.
- I plant fennel seed directly into the ground and usually grow around three patches of it.
- These three patches give me a #10 can size harvest of fennel seed – plenty for this year and then some!
- These few plants produce enough for my culinary, wellness, and seed saving endeavors.
Remember, some wellness herbs are culinary, too, and you’ll need to plan amounts to use in the kitchen. From each herb, harvest during the growing season to use fresh, and then harvest some for storage through the winter.
I have no sense of proportion, and plant way more basil every year than I technically need, but is that really a bad thing?!
The key is to practice with these plants so that you get familiar with how they perform, and how much you typically need each year.
Planning the Medicinal Herb Garden on Paper
Are you still with me? Here’s a final exercise for this article to help you begin actually designing your wellness herb garden:
- Get a nice sized piece of paper and a pencil with a good eraser. You may also want ink pens and colored pencils.
- Draw a sketch of the growing space that is available for your medicinal herb garden. Make an outline and note any elements that are already there like trees, shrubs, water spigots, etc.
- Around these permanent elements and always considering sun and shade, start plugging plant ideas into your sketch. For these initial design ideas, don’t stress too much over the details. Simply start imagining where your herb plants will look and perform best, all while performing multiple functions in the garden. These first ideas will serve as a rough design for your new herb garden.
Consider this Circle Garden Design from Tenth Acre Farm, adapted for your herbs. It’s a great use of space!
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.
We’ll include some helpful articles at the end of this post that can further assist you with completing your design.
Need A Little More Help With Planning Your Medicinal Herb Garden?
There’s no shame in hiring a designer if this isn’t your thing.
I ended up consulting with a designer for our medicinal herb garden because it was in the front yard in a neighborhood with manicured growing spaces. I took her great plans and tweaked them the way I wanted.
We also included a lot of edible plantings, and even some ornamentals since the space was large. I wanted the garden to be 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 it’s been there a lifetime. Sounds about right to me and I’m on track.
Incorporating all those other plantings also opened my eyes to how so many plants I’d never even thought of before have herbal actions.
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. It turns out that their hips are so incredibly nutritious and powerfully healing that they are a medicinal plant.
See, stacking functions all the while!
Need More Wellness Herb Information?
If you need further education on using all the medicinal herbs you’ll be growing, please visit The Herbal Academy. There are several different courses to pick from, at varying levels of experience from novice to master.
Take Time to Get to Know Medicinal Herbs & Your Plan
I don’t mind the time it will take to mature my medicinal herb garden as I continue to plant it. I’m using the time 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!