Medicinal Herb Gardening for Beginners
Written and Photographed by Mary Plantwalker
August 2021 Safety Update: Borage contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can be harmful to the liver over time when ingested internally. Recent research shows that the PAs found in borage (and other PA-containing plants) can be taken up by other plants when grown in close proximity or when comfrey is used in the garden as mulch or fertilizer. In light of this, we are recommending that borage should not be interplanted with herbs or food plants in the garden that will be ingested or used as mulch or fertilizer to err on the side of caution. However, mature compost that includes borage does not seem to contain PAs once it has been fully composted according to this study.
I love herbal medicine but I’ve never grown herbs—how do I begin an herb garden?
Have you or someone you know been asking this question lately? Then read on for inspirational and empowering steps for growing medicinal herbs at home—we give even the brownest thumb enough fertilizer to succeed in medicinal herb gardening! We’ll help feed the roots for a DIY herb garden that will leave both you and your plants grounded. If you want more tips, see Juliet’s article on growing the herb garden of your dreams.
The Time Is Now to Start Your First Herb Garden
I’ve grown vegetables, flowers, fruit trees, berries, and ornamentals, but my favorite thing across the board is growing medicinal herbs. They are so satisfying—once you have them established they will generously give you medicine year after year after year. When you are able to fill your own apothecary, you’ll feel a sense of sovereignty that can’t be bought. Take this opportunity to get your own medicine growing now as the harvest doesn’t happen overnight! You will also be able to better apply the in-depth knowledge found in Juliet’s forthcoming book, The Healing Garden: Cultivating & Handcrafting Herbal Remedies.
In this present time of COVID-19, and the food and herb shortages we have already experienced, growing your own medicine becomes even more essential.
The Inner Garden Journey
Below are three points I highly recommend reflecting upon before beginning your herb garden. This is an exercise that takes some turning over of the soil of your mind, but the fruits are worth it—you can tread the new territory with better footing once you know that you’ve laid a solid foundation.
1) Intention. What is my intention for growing an herb garden? Why am I doing this?
Getting really clear with your intention before taking action can support you in taking the right steps for you on this gardening journey. This is true for just about everything in life, but something as earthy as gardening gives intention extra importance.
- Is this herb garden for me/my family?
- Am I aiming for a small business apothecary?
- Am I growing herbs to sell to a wholesaler?
Or maybe there’s another intention altogether. Whatever your reasons for beginning an herb garden, know them, understand them, and let them guide the way.
2) Space. What kind of space is available to me?
- Am I in a rental situation that may make it wise to use containers?
- Do I have already-established beds or will I need to make them?
- Will I have space to grow bigger if I choose?
Thinking through the actual ground you will have for growing your medicinal herbs will help determine which herbs you can grow, and if your intention is currently feasible. If you are in a tight situation and do not have land to spread out your desires, 7 Medicinal Herbs for Urban Gardeners and Growing Medicinal Herbs in Containers are two nifty articles to explore.
3) Energy. Knowing your energy level in combination with the time and resources you have can give you a realistic compass for planning your herb garden. And remember, inspiration has a way of fueling energy. Evaluating and then prioritizing my energy has made it possible for me to materialize many dreams! Starting and maintaining a medicinal herb garden takes effort, so be real with yourself.
- Am I going to be doing this alone, or do I have help?
- What kind of time commitment am I willing to make to this herb garden?
- Do I have or need a lot of money to begin or can I get resourceful with the materials around me?
You may like to pick just a handful of herbs that really fits your needs. For example: Are there particular health issues you’d like to address? Or would you like to make an immune boosting garden or perhaps an aromatic tea garden? Chestnut’s Top Ten Medicinal Herbs for the Garden can help guide the way for choosing some tried and true medicinal herbs.
Our dream seeds can only germinate and thrive when we have adequate energy to tend the seeds once they have sprouted from the ground. It may be better to start slow and grow than to begin too big for your britches. The aim is to stay inspired and find joy in this blessed opportunity!
Herb Garden Layout
Your medicinal herb garden design can be a combination of indoor and outdoor herb garden containers and planters, window boxes, and garden space, or just one of these. I love having multiple herb garden designs as they bring texture, beauty, and different settings for medicine in various places throughout my homestead. I have a spiral garden, raised beds, herb containers, medicinal houseplants, rows and squares and triangle plots, and more. Get creative!
Perhaps you are a visual person and drawing a map of what you want your medicinal herb garden to look like will help with the layout process. Or if you are a list maker, write down the things you will need to do so that you are able to best prioritize them. Flipping through pages of inspirational gardening books or surfing the internet for medicinal herb garden images may be a fun way to mine ideas. Another tip is to find an herbal medicine gardener you admire in your area and volunteer with them so you can see firsthand what resonates for you and learn straight from the source.
Once you have determined exactly where your garden will be, observe the soil. Is it already a welcoming place where plants want to grow? If not, and you are completely new to gardening, I recommend checking out The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening by the Rodale Institute to answer questions that arise—I have referred to this book many times for guidance. Herbs are not as picky as vegetables as far as soil type goes because most herbal medicines evolved wild, and in uncultivated soils, so that is encouraging!
Maybe you need to buy soil for containers. See if there are any organic compost suppliers in your area or buy organic potting mix from a local nursery. It is just as important for your medicine to begin in pesticide/herbicide-free soil as your vegetables!
Light and Height
How much light will your window herb garden or patch of land receive? Lots of sun? A little? Is it mostly shade? Observe how many hours of sun each day your area gets and learn which plants will do well with that amount of light. There are many plants that will grow in shade or sun, but if a sun-loving plant is put in the shade (or vice versa), it won’t be able to reach its potential or yield its most potent medicine.
If the land or windows available to you are north-facing or surrounded by trees, you can find dozens of medicinal plants that grow in shade. Fortunately, some of our most potent medicines come from the woods, so you could focus on growing forest botanicals.
Research how tall (or small) each herb will be when grown, and if it spreads, before you plant it in your garden. This will prevent overcrowding or having big gaps in your garden beds. It is also important to think ahead to how they’ll grow next to one another. For instance, you wouldn’t want to sandwich spilanthes (Acmella oleracea) in between valerian (Valerianella officinalis) and motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) because the spilanthes would not get enough sun, as the other two herbs mentioned grow much taller and would cast too much shade. On the flip side, you can use tall herbs to shade low-growing ones if needed.
A real compassionate herb gardener will consider giving their plant babies some friends. The definition of companion planting is the close planting of different plants that enhance each other’s growth and/or protect them from pests. There is a whole fascinating study of companion planting, and I encourage you to experiment on your own, but I will share about a few herbal friends (and foes).
Many vegetables grow well with herbs, but as far as herbs loving herbs are concerned—coriander (Coriandrum sativum), aka cilantro, and anise (Pimpinella animus) are good buddies.1 Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) planted with roses (Rosa spp.) help repel Japanese beetles and reduce black spot. Basil (Ocimum basilica) is scared of rue (Ruta graveolens), but roses appreciate hanging out with rue! And fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is allelopathic (a germination or growth inhibitor) so be mindful where you decide to plant that!2
Harvesting Herbal Medicine
Some of your herbal medicines will need harvesting once a season; others can be harvested all season long, while still other herbs may take a few years until you can harvest their medicine. Remember to take this into consideration when designing your garden layout. For example, place regularly harvested herbs like calendula (Calendula officinalis) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) closer to the path of your home, and plants like echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) and astragalus (Astragalus propinquus) in a less frequented or disturbed area as they will only need harvesting every couple years.
Echinacea, astragalus, elecampane (Inula helenium), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) are some popular herbs whose roots carry the most medicine rather than their above-ground parts. When planting them, make sure to give plenty of space to be able to dig those roots out in the future without disturbing other plants in the process. I learned this the hard way. The first time I planted echinacea, I had yarrow growing all around it, hugging it close. I couldn’t get to the roots of the echinacea without sacrificing some of my yarrow plants! In the end it turned out OK, as I just dug up the yarrow too and shared it with friends. Hindsight is 20/20 and so I’m sharing mine with you so (hopefully) you don’t have to make the same mistakes!
Digging In: Planting Your Medicinal Herb Garden
In general, medicinal herbs can do well in a wide range of soils, and rarely need much fertilizer. In fact, some people say that the rockier and less fertile the soil is, the more potent and resilient a medicine you will harvest. That doesn’t apply to every herb, but I have found it to be true with yarrow (Achillea millefolium), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), rosemary (Rosmarinus officianalis), and St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) as well as some others. The best way to start your first medicinal herb garden is to dig right in without too much hemming or hawing, and just grow!
In the Zone
Know your growing zone (which is based upon the average annual minimum wintertime temperature in your area), so you don’t make the mistake of trying to grow medicinal plants or trees that just aren’t hardy in your region. In the mountains of western North Carolina, we are in Zone 6, so I can’t grow the life-giving Moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) outside for the life of me.
Herb Seeds or Transplants?
I would encourage a first-time gardener to begin with mostly transplants instead of trying to start herbs from seed. You can dig right into the soil this way instead of getting discouraged since your seeds didn’t germinate. Starting from seed can be tricky with a lot of medicinal herbs, and Juliet’s Guidelines to Growing Medicinal Herbs from Seed is a great resource if you are determined to use seeds. When transplanting medicinal herbs, whether ones you bought at a nursery or market or received from divisions from a friend’s garden, you can feel the satisfaction from seeing the plant immediately in your new garden, which will give you the confidence to keep on growing.
There are exceptions to everything, of course, and in this case some medicinal herbs are fairly easy to start from seed, including calendula, holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), fennel, California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), and borage* (Borago officinalis). Once you have a garden bed or container prepped, direct sow the seeds after the last frost date. Poppies will germinate even better if you sow them in fall, as they like to go through the cold of winter.
Annual Herbs vs. Perennial Herbs
Another question I hear is: “Do I focus on annuals or perennials?” Annuals die back every year and perennials return year after year. Some annuals self-sow, meaning the plant will die but it will first make seeds that germinate the following year to return the medicine to your garden. And some perennials are longer lived than others—like thyme (Thymus vulgaris), who is a short-lived perennial, while peppermint (Mentha x piperita), on the other hand, can live forever. The peppermint that’s in my garden is from a patch that I found way up in an old clearing of our cove where a homestead stood in the 1800s!
Depending on where you live on the globe, some herbs may be perennials to you but annuals to another. If you live in a temperate zone, I recommend choosing three-fourths perennials (or self-sowing annuals) to one-fourths annuals, so that your garden comes back year after year and you’re not always starting from scratch with your plantings. Culinary medicinals like cilantro and fennel are annuals/biennials, yet I’ve not had to plant them in years as they keep self-sowing and making their continual patch. Some other medicinal annuals that self-sow are anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), holy basil, chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), and sweet Annie (Artemisia annua).
Best Medicinal Herbs to Grow for Beginners
From my experience in gardening over three decades, eight easy medicinal herbs to grow and use in both the Northwest and the Southeast of North America are anise hyssop, borage*, calendula, catnip (Nepeta cataria), chamomile, holy basil, lemon balm, and oregano (Origanum vulgare). They are foundational plants that cover a lot of medicinal territory without the prerequisite of prior experience. These dear eight allies empower you to branch out further in time, as they are easy to master growing.
Here’s a little snapshot of what they need and can offer:
Easy to germinate from seed. Plant out after last frost date. Loves sun. Gets kids excited about herbs and herbal tea. Ally for your digestion. Pretty purple flowers. Annual that self-sows. See this article for a feature on how to grow anise hyssop in containers.
Direct sow after last frost date. Loves sun. Flowers edible, gorgeous, and taste like cucumber. Ally for purifying the blood. Annual that self-sows.
*See August 2021 Safety Update at the top of the article for more safety information on the ingestion and cultivation of borage.
Easy to germinate from seed. Plant out after last frost date. Loves sun! Adds orange cheer. Ally for your skin and lymph. One seed packet can give you dozens of plants. Annual that self-sows a bit, but save the seed. Read more about growing and using calendula here.
Ask your gardener friend for a volunteer plant start. Likes morning sun better than afternoon, and well-fertilized beds. Great edging herb with musky scent. Ally for reducing fevers. Friend of babies, adults, and cats. Perennial.
Start seeds a month before last frost date or buy starts. Plant in full sun. Baby daisy flowers soothe upset tummies. Ally for a good night’s sleep. Feathery green foliage. Annual that self-sows a bit, but save the seed.
Holy Basil, aka Tulsi
Direct sow seed after last frost date. Loves sun and can take a little shade. Ally for restoring balance, sacred Ayurvedic herb. The temperate variety is the easy one to grow. Annual that self-sows. You can read up on growing holy basil in this article.
Ask your catnip gardener friend for a division. Prefers morning sun more than afternoon. Refreshing lemon taste. Ally for a healthy heart and a happy mind. Perennial that makes hearty patches.
Get a start from a plant whose leaves you’ve tasted and are full of flavor! Dry, sun lover. Culinary herb extraordinaire. Ally for viral and fungal protection. Can live for generations.
A Word to the Wise
I can’t let this article end without mentioning that the mints—although beloved medicinal herbs—can easily take over your garden, so plant them in containers before you regret having given them free range. Same goes for stinging nettles (Urtica dioca), who can get out of control. In one year, one plant spread in our garden to roughly a 70 square foot area, as well as jumped the creek.
Your Healing Herb Garden
Now you know how to make your first medicinal herb garden! The process of doing it is a healing journey in itself. In a world that is crying out for more sustainable practices, growing your own medicine is a revolutionary act. May you be empowered to grow an herb garden as an offering to the change we seek on this dear planet. Green Blessings!
- Boechmann C. “Companion Planting with Herbs,” The Old Farmer’s Almanac. https://www.almanac.com/content/companion-planting-herbs, accessed November 17, 2019.
- Farm Homestead, “Companion Planting Chart for Herbs.” https://farmhomestead.com/gardening-methods/companion-planting-chart-herbs/.
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MARY PLANTWALKER (Mary Morgaine Squire) is a devotee of the plants and healing path. Steeping herself in the plant world for almost 30 years, she has also woven in yoga, meditation and prayer as acts of daily life. She is a mother, writer, avid gardener, ceremonialist and plant ambassador. In the 1990s, she earned her BA in Journalism and Sustainable Living from Fairhaven College, and has since traveled the world meeting and learning from as many plants and indigenous healers as possible. As an active earth steward, Mary is called to protect and care for Herb Mountain Farm, the incredible land she stewards in western North Carolina, while encouraging others to create sanctuary wherever they are on the planet. Mary is gifted in facilitating ceremony and enticing mindfulness into the everyday, and is passionate about welcoming people into the walk of embracing plants as allies while living in harmony with all beings. You can follow Mary's plant escapades on Instagram.
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