Chestnut Herbal School

The Best Herb Gardening, Farming, and Permaculture Books for Herbalists

Compiled by Meghan Gemma, Juliet Blankespoor, and Sarah Sorci
Photography by Juliet Blankespoor

Best Herb Gardening, Farming, and Permaculture Books

Tending a medicine garden is an ancient part of the herbalist’s path. For thousands of years, healers have planted their most-used remedies in the soil just beyond their doorsteps. The wisdom in this is two-fold: not only do herbalists need their medicines close at hand, but the presence, aroma, and beauty of herbs brings succor to those who are sick and to those who heal.

Herb gardening is experiencing a renaissance right now, as herbalists and home medicine makers choose a steady and self-reliant way to access healing plants. While it’s admittedly easy to order cut and sifted herbs from bulk suppliers, their inventories can be unpredictable, the caliber of the plants questionable, and the bills costly. The truth is, nothing compares to the freshness, quality, and economy of homegrown medicine.

We’ve been planting our own herb gardens at the Chestnut School for decades. These lush sanctuaries are our primary source of medicine, and they fill our apothecaries to the brim year after year. More often than not, the plants are our teachers in the garden, but we also give loads of credit to a stellar selection of books on herb gardening, regenerative farming, and permaculture that we’ve turned to season after season.

Are you ready to grow your own herbs? We’ve compiled a list of brilliant books that will help you start your herb garden, medicinal farm, or permaculture paradise. Please note that we don’t receive any compensation for promoting these books—they are simply our personal favorites.

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ACCESSING BOOKS: We recommend purchasing from small and/or BIPOC-owned bookstores whenever possible. Here is one list of Black-owned bookstores, many of which offer an online store. Some books on this list may be more difficult to find and/or more expensive, since they are offered by smaller publishing houses with smaller print runs. To access these books, here are a few suggestions:

 

  • Many public libraries allow patrons to request books to be added to their catalogue. Get in touch with your local library to find out if they offer this service.

 

  • Many public libraries are members of countywide or multi-county library systems and participate in interlibrary loan services. If your local library doesn’t carry a book, check the interlibrary loan catalogue to find out if another library in your system has it available. (For many public libraries, a catalogue search automatically includes media from other libraries in their network).

 

  • To access e-books and audiobooks from your library system on your device, Libby is a popular app for Android and Apple devices (phones and tablets). OverDrive is the classic app that’s compatible with more devices, including personal computers. Both apps can be accessed here.

 

  • University libraries often allow folks who aren’t students to use their books. Community members may be able to obtain a community library card, or simply use the books while they are on the library premises.

 

  • If you wish to purchase a book that is more difficult to access, below are a few websites that specialize in rare books:

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CONSIDERATIONS ON AUTHORSHIP: Most historical works about Native/Indigenous and Black traditions and practices have been written by white authors, which brings to question the books’ relevance and authenticity. It is impossible for any author to remove oneself from their own cultural lens when writing about another culture, and there is potential for perpetuating colonial relationships when white authors and white-owned publishing companies make a profit off of the knowledge of BIPOC communities. Because women and BIPOC communities have often been excluded from literacy and publishing, it can be difficult to find historical herbal books authored by BIPOC folks and women.

Despite these facts, we’ve included historical works with possible problematic origins because they hold important knowledge, especially considering that genocide, witch hunts, and forced acculturation has limited or even destroyed many traditional herbal oral lineages. Please write support@chestnutherbs.com with book suggestions, concerns, or critiques.

On the other hand, first-hand accounts of one’s own cultural traditions and practices are optimal for authenticity, consent, attribution, and compensation. Titles by BIPOC authors or co-authors (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are written in purple.

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interplanted medicinal and culinary herbs

Juliet's garden with interplanted medicinal and culinary herbs

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The Best Herb Gardening Books

Edible Landscaping: Now You Can Have Your Gorgeous Garden and Eat It Too! by Rosalind Creasy

How to create an inviting home landscape with vegetables, fruits, nuts, and berries. Includes plant profiles with horticultural information, culinary uses, sources, and recommended varieties. Appendices cover the basics of planting and maintenance, and of controlling pests and diseases using organic and environmentally friendly practices. Get the revised edition. This is one of Juliet’s tried and true gardening references.

Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada by William Cullina

The native plant growers’ manual. Excellent photos, cultivation, and propagation details for many of our natives.

Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs: Cultivation, Conservation, and Ecology by Richo Cech

Detailed instruction on the cultivation requirements for at-risk plants such as ginseng, goldenseal, the cohoshes, bloodroot, etc. using only organic techniques.

 

The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses, Revised Edition (2001) by Deni Bown

A fantastic reference for the cultivation and usage of over 1,000 medicinal herbs. Each monograph includes cultivation, propagation, harvest, and medicinal properties. Juliet uses this book for researching cultivars and international plants.

 

Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West by Steven Foster and Yue Chongxi

Excellent all-around reference for popular Chinese herbs. Includes information on medicinal use, processing, and cultivation for each herb. The book is a collaboration between a Chinese scientist and an American author and herbalist, blending traditional wisdom from both cultures along with scientific verification of the medical effectiveness of many ancient Chinese plants. This is one of Juliet’s all-time favorite herb gardening books, as is Herbal Renaissance below, also by Steven Foster. Both books are highly affordable used.

Herbal Renaissance: Growing, Using & Understanding Herbs in the Modern World by Steven Foster

Excellent all-around reference for popular Western herbs. Includes information on medicinal use, processing, and cultivation for each herb. This is one of Juliet’s all-time favorite herb gardening books, as is Herbal Emissaries above, also by Steven Foster. Both books are highly affordable used.

The Illustrated Herb Encyclopedia: A Complete Culinary, Cosmetic, Medicinal, and Ornamental Guide to Herbs by Kathi Keville

One of Juliet’s long-time favorite herb references. Covers more cultivation info than most generalist herbals. Beautiful illustrations. Recipes, historical references, aromatherapy, etc. Very affordable used.

Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants by William Cullina

The native plant growers’ manual. Excellent photos, cultivation, and propagation details for many of our natives.

The American Horticultural Society: Plant Propagation by Ian Toogood

Illustrated manual for most basic plant propagation methods: cuttings, divisions, seed saving, and sowing.

 The Aromatherapy Garden: Growing Fragrant Plants for Happiness and Wellbeing by Kathi Keville

Focuses on cultivating aromatic culinary and medicinal herbs, with detailed guidance on cultivation, uses, and the medicinal properties of featured plants. Includes instructions for a range of aromatherapy preparations, including sachets, teas, oils, and more. The beautiful illustrations combined with interesting tidbits and cultural histories about each plant make this book a treat to read.

The Beautiful Edible Garden by Leslie Bennett and Stefani Bittner

This beautifully-photographed book shows gardeners how to artfully incorporate organic vegetables, fruits, and herbs into a stunning modern garden design. This guide is perfect for anyone who wants a gorgeous and productive garden.

The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production by Peg Schafer

Presents information for growers interested in producing high-quality efficacious herbs in all climates of the US, with the historical connectedness of ancient practitioners.

The Complete Book of Herbs & Spices: The Ultimate Sourcebook to Herbs, Spices, and Aromatic Seeds by Lesley Bremness and Jill Norman

Full of medicinal and culinary herb information—cultivation, medicinal use, crafts, and culinary use, including recipes. Beautiful photos accompanied by identification characteristics.

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A 15-year old ginseng root

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Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal, & other Woodland Medicinals, revised edition by Jeanine Davis and W. Scott Persons

The most thorough and technical guide available for growing at-risk woodland medicinals. Some non-organic info. Be sure to get the revised edition.

Herbal Harvest: Commercial Organic Production of Quality Dried Herbs by Greg Whitten

Discusses many facets of commercial production, including the state of the herb industry, site selection, climate, irrigation, weed management, propagation, trial plots, composting, pests and diseases, harvesting, drying, processing and marketing, innovative tool design, personal health, and more.

How to Move Like a Gardener: Planting and Preparing Medicines from Plants by Deb Soule

Gardening book with practical advice, imbued with Deb’s spiritual connection to the earth, along with visually beautiful photos from her medicinal herb gardens at Avena Botanicals, in Maine.

The Medicinal Herb Grower, Volume 1 by Richo Cech

Written by an herbalist, gardener, and seeds-man, this useful little tome covers Mediterranean herbs, Chinese herbs, medicinal herbs from the English tradition, and growing tropical perennials in the temperate North. Medicinal use, cultivation, and harvesting are discussed in detail. Available from Strictly Medicinal Seeds.

The Medicine Wheel Garden: Creating Sacred Space for Healing, Celebration, and Tranquility by E. Barrie Kavasch

A step-by-step guide for honoring the tradition of the Native American Medicine Wheel garden, including planting guides for every zone, an illustrated encyclopedia of 50 key healing herbs and how to grow them, and easy-to-follow herbal recipes.

Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens by Vaughn Sills, Hilton Als, and Lowry Pei

A beautiful collection of photos of African American folk gardens and gardeners in the Deep South. The design elements and spiritual meaning present in featured gardens invokes the gardeners’ African heritage, blues musical roots, and traditions from times of enslavement.

Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families by Joseph Bruchac and Michael J. Caduto

Gardening tips and practices from an Indigenous perspective, including tips for preparing a garden site, celebrating the harvest, and garden design using methods such as the “Three Sisters Garden” of corn, beans, and squash. The book also offers suggestions for using the harvest, including gourd rattles, corn husk dolls, and many recipes.

The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden and Yard the Earth-Friendly Way by Fern Marshall Bradley, Barbara W. Ellis, and Deborah L. Martin

Includes a wide range of methods for growing and maintaining an organic garden, with a plant-by-plant guide featuring symptoms and solutions for 200 popular plants. Get the revised edition.

The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer: The Ultimate Guide to Producing High-Quality Herbs on a Market Scale by Jeff Carpenter with Melanie Carpenter

Jeff and Melanie share their experiences at Zack Woods Herb Farm in Vermont to teach readers how to successfully grow and market organic medicinal Western herbs.

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A pond is surrounded by gardens and trees with hills in the background.

The gardens at the Wild Abundance school in North Carolina--a permaculture oasis

The Best Books on Permaculture & Regenerative Farming

Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity, and Resilience by Enrique Salmón

Salmón offers stories from Native American farmers of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, illustrating how their farming and culinary traditions are rooted in environmental stewardship. Salmón spotlights the resilience that these practices foster in the face of global climate change and other challenges of our time.

Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel

This book invites a remarkably different perspective—that a healthy forest can be maintained while growing a wide range of food, medicine, and other non-timber products.

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman

An important book offering insight into the regenerative farming practices and ritual elements of agriculture in African societies. It is the first comprehensive “how to” guide for aspiring African-heritage growers to reclaim their dignity as agriculturists. A resource for all farmers to understand the distinct, technical contributions of African-heritage people to sustainable agriculture.

Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement by Monica M. White

Started in the 1960s, a community-based rural and economic development project called Freedom Farms Cooperative provided a way for sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and domestic workers to pursue community wellbeing and self-sufficiency. Explores the work and contributions of southern Black farmers and the organizations they formed.

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition by Toby Hemenway

One of the classic books about ecological gardening, it shares the basic permaculture principles you need to build and maintain a fertile, energy-efficient, biodiverse, and edible permaculture garden.

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a cluster of ripe elderberries hanging on the branch

Ripe elderberries (Sambucus nigra var. canadensis)

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The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips

This book demystifies the inner-workings of the orchard ecosystem, as well as orchard design, soil biology, and organic health management. Detailed insights on grafting, planting, pruning, and choosing the right varieties for your climate are included. You’ll find extensive profiles of pome fruits (apples, pears, Asian pears, quinces), stone fruits (cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums), and berries.

Plants for a Future: Edible and Useful Plants for a Healthier World by Ken Fern

Exciting permaculture plant reference with many lesser known edibles, including many North American natives.

The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach by Ben Falk

Filled with gorgeous photography and detailed design drawings, this book is based on Falk’s nationally renowned permaculture-research farm in Vermont. Most applicable to cool and other temperate climates.

Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening by Will Bonsall

This friendly, almost conversational book imparts a wealth of knowledge drawn from Bonsall’s more than 40 years of veganic, or plant-based, farming experience.

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P.S. This book list is an excerpt from our 1,000-hour Online Herbal ImmersionTHE most comprehensive online program in sustainable, bioregional herbalism on the planet. The Immersion features our personal mentorship on:

  • Using herbs for health + healing
  • Growing the medicinal herb garden of your dreams
  • Foraging wild food + medicine
  • Plant identification
  • Medicine making
  • Holistic nutrition
  • Herbal careers + livelihoods
  • And more!

The program features 119+ videos, a gorgeous printable course manual that is 1,446 pages long, and over 100 scrumptious herbal and wild foods recipes. Ready to join us? You can find the course curriculum, student testimonials, and payment plan options here.

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Online Herbal Immersion Program

Meet Our Contributors:

Juliet Blankespoor

JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.

These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.

Meghan Gemma

MEGHAN GEMMA is one of the Chestnut School’s primary instructors through her written lessons, and is the principal pollinator of the school’s social media community—sharing herbal and wild foods wisdom from the flowery heart of the school to an ever-wider field of herbalists, gardeners, healers, and plant lovers.

She has been in a steady relationship with the Chestnut School since 2010—as an intern and manager at the Chestnut Herb Nursery; as a plant-smitten student “back in the day” when the school’s programs were taught in the field; and later as a part the school’s woman-powered professional team. Meghan lives in the Ivy Creek watershed, just north of Asheville, North Carolina.

SARAH SORCI grew up near the Lake Erie shores of Buffalo, New York, and is happy to be back in her home region. With a degree in Environmental Studies, sustainability fuels Sarah’s love for local, homegrown herbalism. Sarah has been part of the Chestnut team since autumn 2019, and she offers local classes through her business, Sweet Flag Herbs. Sarah loves connecting with the WNY herbal community as an Herbalists Without Borders chapter co-coordinator. She is also jazzed about her new writing project, A Nourishing Harvest, where she explores topics that support the safe, toxin-informed harvest of food and medicine.

Interested in becoming a contributor?

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