Dreaming of the Sun: How to Start a Herb Garden

The landscape where I am is still covered in snow. My daily walks have taken on a quality of stillness, quiet. Sometimes the only other creature I meet is a fox, or maybe a coyote dashing along the edge of a barren field. Everything else is asleep, deep in winter dreaming. And I'm dreaming too, imagining the time when the earth wakes up and green shoots begin to poke up through the cold ground.

Believe it or not, now, in the heart of winter, is a wonderful time to plan your summer garden. Making lists, drawing designs, and thinking about what you want to bring forth in the coming seasons is an excellent way to break free for a moment from the doldrums of winter and call in hope for the future. And during this especially dark and lonely winter, I think we all need as much hope and light as we can create for ourselves.

One the of the best things about herbs is that you don't need a big space - or even a yard - to grow them. Many of them will do just fine in pots, so even a small balcony or sunny windowsill could work. Whatever your situation, you can still get creative and put together a beautiful growing space.

So, where to start? When thinking about what herbs to grow, it's really important to consider two things:

  • What are the growing conditions where you are? What growing zone are you in? Do you have full sun or mostly shade? Do you have sandy, dry soil or is the area you want to grow in more on the damp side?
  • What herbs will you actually use the most?

Once you have a clear idea of those factors, you can start narrowing down your plant lists and decide what seeds to you want to order/plants you want to buy.

Just to give you a starting place, I'll outline a few medicinal herbs you might want to consider. I find these are all great plants to have in a well-rounded herb garden, and they're relatively easy to grow.

 Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) 

Medicinal qualities: Lemon balm is cooling, aromatic, relaxing, and uplifting - and has antiviral properties to boot. It's got a light lemony flavor and makes a delicious tea, tincture or glycerite.

Growing conditions: One of the best things about lemon balm is that can grow in most any condition - I have plants thriving in nearly full shade and in different types of soil. Once you plant lemon balm, it will be with you forever -it's incredibly good at self-seeding and can pop up hundreds of feet away from where it was initially planted. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if you ask me, given how useful and tasty it is. Just keep a close eye on it and dig up spreading roots and extra plants as needed (bonus, you can replant those extras and give them to friends!).

How to harvest: Lemon balm tastes wonderful at all stages of growth, but it's most potent for medicine making just before flowering. Just snip off the top thirds of the aerial parts - don't worry, it'll grow back!

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) 

Peppermint leaves held between fingers

Medicinal qualities: Peppermint is cooling and relaxing. It can help calm an upset stomach and relieve tension, and makes a delicious tea, tincture or glycerite. It's a wonderful addition to salads (or cocktails...), too.

Growing conditions: Peppermint is another plant that can grow well in most conditions, but prefers rich, moist soil that drains well and as much sun as it can get. Like lemon balm, peppermint will spread, so keep an eye on it and trim/harvest root shoots as needed.

How to harvest: Snip the tops thirds of the aerial parts.

(Note: Spearmint grows very similarly and has many of the same properties as peppermint, but some people prefer it for its gentler flavor. I grow both!)

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) 

Medicinal qualities: While not advisable for internal use, comfrey is renowned for its skin, tendon and even bone healing properties. The leaves make an excellent compress for sprains, burns, bites, cuts, and scrapes. In addition to these medicinal properties, comfrey is excellent food for the garden.

Growing conditions: Comfrey likes rich, moist, well-draining soil and full to part sun. 

How to harvest: Harvest the leaves as you need them. Since comfrey grows so quickly, you can even chop down the whole full-grown plant, leaving just a couple of leaves, and it will spring right back in a few weeks.

Lavender (Lavandula sp.

A bunch of lavender flowers

Medicinal qualities: Lavender is warming, strongly aromatic, and relaxing. It can also help to calm stomach upset and aid digestion. It's delicious when added to tea blends, infused in honey, and added to baked goods.

Growing conditions: If you don't have sandy soil and full sun, lavender can be hard to keep happy. That said, it can be done, but I would suggest buying a more mature plant rather than starting from seed if you want a better chance at success. Plant it in a dry area and keep an eye on how much water it gets. If you're planning to build a herb spiral, plant your lavender at the top where the soil will drain well and get the most sunlight.

How to harvest: Snip the flower stalks just before flowering.

Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)

holy basil stalks with blue sky and sun in the background

Medicinal qualities: Holy basil, or Tulsi, is a delicious, aromatic plant. A gentle, uplifting adaptogen, it can help the body adjust to stress over time and maintain a calmer baseline. It's excellent as a tea or tincture and makes a particularly fantastic glycerite or infused honey.

Growing conditions: Likes rich, well-draining soil and plenty of sun (mine does grow well even in part shade, however). 

How to harvest: Harvest the top thirds of the flowering aerial parts - it will be most potent just before and during flowering.

Echinacea (Echinacea Purpurea)

An echinacea flower against a background of sage and thyme

Medicinal qualities: Echinacea is a cooling, stimulant herb. Essentially, it stimulates the immune system and lymphatic flow to help clear the body of infection and foreign substances (this is why you'll often see people promoting it for colds and flu). The leaves, stems, flowers and roots of E. purpurea are all used to make medicine (E. Angustifolia is used for medicine as well, but it is a bit harder to grow and only the roots are used).

Growing conditions: Echinacea likes full sun to part shade and will tolerate a drought. Quick note: I learned the hard way that deer LOVE echinacea and will completely devour it, so make sure you plant it somewhere protected if you plan to harvest it for yourself.

How to harvest: Harvest the aerial parts during the summer after flowering, and the roots closer to fall. Some herbalists suggest waiting until the plant is three years old to use the root in medicine.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

red clover in a meadow

Medicinal qualities: Red clover is a cooling, sweet plant that encourages lymphatic flow and can help to balance hormones. It has a light, almost vanilla-like flavor and makes a delicious, nourishing infusion. It also makes a great cover crop for the garden (or grass replacement) and adds nutrients to the soil.

Growing conditions: Red clover prefers meadows, and therefore does well in full sun and well-watered areas, but will tolerate some shade.

How to harvest: Snip off the flowers as needed.

Yarrow (Achillea millifolium)

Yarrow flowers with a garden fence in the background

Medicinal qualities: Yarrow might be the single most important herb in my apothecary. I use it so much I'm not sure what I'd do without it. It's so versatile that it's hard to talk about it in just a few lines. It's just...well...very close to magic.

Yarrow can help to both stop bleeding and encourage the flow of stuck blood as needed. It encourages the rapid healing of wounds while preventing infection. It eases pain and muscle cramps. It encourages healthy circulation and helps rid the body of infection and toxins. It can help the body handle fever naturally. It's a slightly bitter aromatic that can help aid in digestion. I'll stop here, but I encourage you to dive deeper into this complex plant to learn everything it's capable of.

It's wonderful as a tea or tincture, or topically as a liniment or styptic powder.

Growing conditions: Yarrow loves meadows and sunlight and does well in most types of soil, especially those that are a bit dry and disturbed. That said, I have a shady, rocky backyard and yarrow still manages to grow and flower every year.

How to harvest: Harvest the flowering tops just after blooming.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

A bright orange calendula flower with a tiny bug near the center

Medicinal qualities: Calendula is a wound-healing herb that's renowned for its ability to sooth, clear, and nourish the skin. Internally, calendula encourages lymphatic flow, reduces inflammation, and may help heal ulcers.

Growing conditions: Calendula does best in sunny spots, but tolerates some shade as well. It grows prolifically all through summer and well into the fall if protected from frost.

How to harvest: To harvest, just snip off the flower heads. This encourages more blooms and growth.

 A Note on Purchasing Seeds and Plants

It's important to make sure what you're growing in your lovely new garden is healthy for the the animals and insects that live there, too (and not to mention you, since you'll presumably be consuming these herbs). Try to stick to organic, non-GMO or heirloom seeds to ensure that you're getting quality plants that won't introduce pesticides into the beautiful little ecosystem you're trying to create.

My favorite places to get quality seeds and plants online are Hudson Valley Seed Company, Strictly Medicinal Seeds, and Seed Savers Exchange. (No sponsorship or ad deals or anything, I just really like and trust these companies.)

And of course, if you can find a local grower that sells environmentally friendly stuff, that's really great!

Resources for Designing your Garden

One of the most fun things about starting a new garden is choosing a design. It's a chance to create a little space for yourself that you can visit every day and really enjoy.

Pinterest is actually a great place to start, as you can put together a board of ideas you like and build from that. Even a quick google search for "herb garden" yields lots of really beautiful design ideas. Take some time to browse and dream.

 a spiral shaped herb garden

I also recommend The Garden Awakening by Mary Reynolds. So much of this book resonates with the way I see the landscape and is a wonderful guide on how to work with nature in a way that honors the earth and draws out the magic and personality of a place. It's filled with inspiration and real, practical advice for creating a beautiful space.

If you've been thinking of starting a herb garden, why not wrap yourself in a cozy sweater, sit down with a hot mug of tea, and start dreaming up plans for the brighter days ahead?

 

 Be well,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All information shared herein in strictly for educational purposes and is not intended to treat, cure, or prevent disease. Always consult a doctor before starting an herbal regimen, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have underlying health conditions.


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