Dreaming of the Sun: Starting 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. 

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 herbs will you actually use the most?
  • 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 it more on the damp side?

Once you have a clear idea of those factors, you can start narrowing down your plant lists and decide what seeds or 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: Lemon balm's favorite place to grow is somewhere in part shade, where it will be protected from direct midday sun. It likes medium to moist soil, and thrives in the cooler spaces of the garden.

Once you plant lemon balm, it will be with you forever. It's a perennial that's incredibly good at self-seeding, and may pop up in different spots in your garden. 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 root runners and extra plants as needed (bonus, you can pot up those extras and give them to friends!).

Starting from seed: Start lemon balm seed indoors about two months before your last frost date. The tiny seeds require light to germinate, so press them very gently into the surface of the soil. Use a mister bottle to keep the soil just barely moist, but not wet, until they germinate, which is usually in about two weeks. Transplant into the garden after the threat of frost has passed.

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 it's delicious as a tea, tincture or glycerite. It's a wonderful addition to salads (or cocktails...), too.

Growing conditions: Peppermint can grow in most conditions, but prefers rich, moist soil that drains well. It's happy in full sun to part shade. Like lemon balm, peppermint will spread, so keep an eye on it and trim/harvest root shoots as needed.

Starting from seed: Start peppermint seeds indoors two months before your last frost date. Sow them no deeper than 1/4 inch, and keep the soil moist until germination, which usually takes about two weeks. Alternatively, you can sow peppermint outdoors when the soil has warmed and the threat of frost has passed.

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 for internal use due to the presence of potentially harmful pyrrolizidine alkaloids, comfrey is renowned for its skin, tendon and even bone healing properties when used externally. The leaves make an excellent compress or can be made into a salve for sprains, burns, bites, cuts, and scrapes. In addition to these medicinal properties, comfrey is excellent for the garden - its leaves are rich in nutrients which feed the soil, and many people use them as a green fertilizer.

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

Starting from seed: Comfrey is a little trickier to start from seed, as it requires a period of cold conditions in order to germinate. But it can be done! Sow the seeds very early in the spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, burying them just under the surface of the soil. It may be mid to late spring by the time you see germination - be patient! Once comfrey takes root, it's a fast grower.

How to harvest: Harvest the leaves as you need them - comfrey grows back quickly. To harvest the roots, allow the plant to grow for about two years to establish good, strong, medicine-rich roots.

Tulsi (Ocimum africanum)

holy basil stalks with blue sky and sun in the background

Medicinal qualities: Holy basil, or Tulsi, is a delicious, aromatic plant. There are a few varieties, but my favorite is Ocimum africanum for its fruity, sweet scent and flavor. 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 grows well even in part shade, however, so don't be afraid to try!). 

Starting from seed: Start tulsi indoors about six weeks before your last frost date. Press the seeds gently into the soil surface and leave them uncovered, as they require light to germinate. Keep the soil just barely moist. Tulsi likes light and warmth, so using a heat mat under your seeds, if you have one, will help them germinate. Transplant the seedlings outdoors when the threat of frost has passed. You can also direct sow them outdoors in the spring when the soil has warmed and there is no danger of frost.

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 and beautiful native perennial. 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, while it does well with plenty of water, it will tolerate a drought.

Starting from seed: Echinacea seeds require a period of cold in order to germinate, so start them outdoors in pots or a clean, prepared garden bed as early as you can. Many people start them as early as December! Sow the seeds just below the surface of the soil and tamp them down. Be patient - it may take a few weeks of warm weather for them to finally germinate.

How to harvest: Harvest the aerial parts during the summer after flowering, and the roots closer to fall. Let the plant grow for about three years before harvesting the roots to ensure they are strong and will make good medicine.

 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...a very useful plant to have in the garden.

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

Starting from seed: To start indoors, sow in flats just before the last frost, just barely covering the seeds with soil. Transplant outdoors when the threat of frost has passed. Alternatively, plant outdoors directly into warm soil in early to late spring.

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

Note: yarrow sometimes comes in different colors when purchasing seeds or plants from some greenhouses and non-specialist nurseries. While these colored yarrow plants are beautiful, the white, wild form of yarrow will yield the most potent medicine - look for those when buying your seeds or plants!

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 soothe, clear, and nourish the skin. Internally, calendula encourages lymphatic flow, modulated inflammation, and supports the healing of damaged gut tissue.

Growing conditions: An annual, 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.

Starting from seed: The best way to grow calendula from seed is to direct sow outdoors just after the last frost. Sow seeds about 1/4 inch deep and water them in well, then wait for beautiful summer blooms.

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.

Of course, if you can find a local grower that sells environmentally friendly stuff, that's really wonderful - you're supporting a local grower and getting plants and seeds that are perfectly suited to your bioregion.

My favorite places to get quality seeds and plants online are Hudson Valley Seed Company, Strictly Medicinal Seeds, Fruition Seeds, and Seed Savers Exchange. (No sponsorship or ad deals or anything, I just really like and trust these companies and these seeds always do very well here in US zone 7.)

A Note on Soil

The wonderful things about most herbs is that they don't demand the perfectly balanced conditions that many veggies do, and the soil you have may already be completely adequate. Just be sure you're growing in an area that isn't polluted and hasn't been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides for at least three years (five is even better). If you're not too trusting of your soil, it's perfectly all right to purchase some from a garden center - just be sure it's organic (look for the OMRI certified symbol). 

When it comes to starting seeds, it can help to use a seed starting mix  - they are lighter and fluffier than standard garden or potting soil and make it a bit easier for seeds to germinate. Many seeds starting mixes and potting soils contain peat, the mining of which has been shown to be destructive to the environment, so if you purchase a seed starting mix, try to find one that is peat-free.

This year I'm experimenting with a peat-free mix I made on my own: 1 part compost, 1 part organic coco coir, and 1 part perlite. Fingers crossed!

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 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 designs. Take some time to browse and dream.

And, of course, if you're local to the Sussex county, NJ area, you can always contact me if you want a little help planning your beautiful new garden.

If you've been thinking of starting a herb garden, why not wrap yourself in a big cozy blanket, 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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