Archive for May 8th, 2009

Finding my Herb Garden

Sharon May 8th, 2009

When we came here, we knew we wanted to grow our own food, and we had sneaking intuitions that we might want to grow other things.  Gradually, I’ve been both excited and delighted to discover precisely how much we can and do grow – but figuring this out has required that we overcome the prejudices we were raised with, the first being “things area always and only just one thing.”  That is, when I began planting, I thought “these are my herbs, these are my vegetables, this is to eat, this to season it, this for beauty.”  Each thing was divided into its place.  It has taken me a while to overcome that habit, and herbalism has been one of the primary instruments of doing so – they were a living reminder that plants are almost never only one thing, even to we simple minded humans.

The side yard of my house is about 1/10th of an acre, with a birch tree (there used to be two, but unfortunately they are not long lived), a young pear and crabapple, grassy areas where the kids play, and a bunch of garden beds.  For us, this is the proverbial kitchen garden – just a step out the door from my kitchen, I can watch the boys playing under the birch from my window, and step out to clip some rosemary or pick basil leaves and come back to a pot on the stove. 

This area includes a stone porch, where we sometimes eat, and at this time of year holds the flats of plants waiting to be transplanted, a small courtyard garden where I grow tender plants with shelter on three sides – here’s where my Maypop runs up the wall, where my quinces, apricots and dwarf peaches are.  

On the other side of the path runs a sunny garden full of salad ingredients, some self-watering containers of tomatoes and greens, the long asparagus and rhubarb bed, and a few other odds and ends. 

Along the grass are a few other small trees and shrubs – a dwarf sour cherry, a couple of hazels, and here was where I established my official herb garden, when I first moved in. It was  a culinary herb bed, filled with the usual perennial things – sages and savories, three or four thymes, greek oregano, giant lovage, tarragon, catnip for the cats, sorrel, more chives than any sane household could actually eat.   The bed is made with old cinder blocks found around the house, and I each year I fill some of the small holes in the side with dianthus, johnny jump ups and portulaca, which look lovely all summer.  A few other of the holes hold pesky culinary herbs – various mints, chocolate, spear, pepper, grapefruit…and lemon and lime balms.  A cluster of tea herbs takes up a corner – bee balm and betony, mostly.  For a long time I also tried to cram in the annual herbs, since this was THE HERB BED, but it never worked that well – we wanted more basil than that, and the perennials disliked having their soil disturbed while I attempted to cram in the other plants.

So eventually, the annual and biennial herbs (and I grow a lot of them) moved to the salad beds, rotated around and integrated with the rest of the plantings.  Here is my basil plantation, with six kinds at present.  My caraway and cumin plants kuve there, as do shiso, parsleys and tender sages like pineapple and honeydew, which I grow from cuttings from the old plants each winter.  The cilantro and dill are mixed in everywhere, attracting pollinators and going in any free corner.  And I grow some uncommon culinary herbs, most of them perennials in other climates but since I’m short window space, I grow them as annuals - rau om, papalo and dittany of crete.  Other tender perennials live in the house in winter, looking increasingly grumpy about it, until they move out to the porch for a full dose of sun – rosemary, lemon verbena and curryplant among them.

So I’d always grown a lot of herbs. But until four or five years ago, I didn’t think much about herbs as medicinals – or rather, I did – I used them, and purchased them, but I didn’t grow most of them.  I’m embarassed to think how long it took me to notice that instead of buying red clover blossoms for tea, I could just pick them out of my pasture, or that the red raspberry leaf tea that I was taking in late pregnancy could have been made from the scores of red raspberry leaves growing under my spruce trees.  I was somehow intimidated by the whole project of figuring out when to harvest, when things were medicinally active, and how best to use them.

But as I looked into the uses of the herbs,  I found that I was growing a surprising number of medicinal herbs already, simply out of fascination with the plants.  For example, I wanted to make marshmallows out of marshmallow root, simply because I thought the kids would find it fun.  It was no real trouble to start them from seed, and they love our wet climate, so quickly I had more marshmallows than anyone would want to eat, and I still had the plants as gorgeous ornamentals, happily self seeding around the property.  I had cranesbill and hollyhock in my ornamental gardens, and calendulas in the window boxes.  Milk thistle grows wild in our fields and the previous owners had planted maidenhair fern, lungwort and lady’s mantle around the north side of the house.  

I wanted to make good use of the plants around me, wisely, safely, thoughtfully, but I admit, I also was fascinated by the plants as link to a past – the history of human use of botany entrances me – how did they know to use this?  What process of observation, transmission of knowledge taught us these fascinating things?  Why did someone carry these seeds across an ocean, or replant natives in their dooryards?  Is it worth trying to make nettles into fiber?  What do real marshmallows taste like?  Did my great-grandmother use the pennyroyal in her garden for fleas or to prevent pregnancy?  I will never know some of these things, and others only when I get around to it (still haven’t tried the nettle fiber), but I can’t help thinking about them, as I rub my own pennyroyal leaves on my skin to see if it makes any difference with the midges. 

Gradually, I started harvesting what I had, and reading more about how best to process the harvest.  But other than the surprisingly large number of herbs that I had lying around, I wasn’t precisely sure what should go in a medicinal herb garden, were we to grow one.  The problem has been innate good health, something that I don’t claim to be complaining about.  My boys are no more immune than anyone else to the usual sorts of colds and injuries (although we’ve had only one broken bone so far, which IMHO, is pretty good for kids who essentially live in trees like small apes ;-)), nor are Eric or I, but generally speaking, we’re a healthy bunch.  While I could see the obvious benefit of garlic and chamomile, what else? 

So that required we think about our overall health, and our overall goals and expectations from a lower energy future.  Now it is hard to know what you may need as you age, but it is possible to make some useful guesses.  Eric suffers from a mild irregular heartbeat for which he’s taken hawthorn for years, so that was easy – time for a hawthorn bush.  I get urinary tract infections now and then, and while we already had cranberries and garlic, some bearberry wouldn’t come amiss, and moist acidic soil, we’ve got.  Eli already takes flaxseed and evening primrose oil as a supplement, so growing those was no great trouble.

  Basic remedies for the kinds of things active children and farmworking adults are good too – calendula for rashes, jewelweed for poison ivy, comfrey for bone poultices.  Chamomile, catnip, dill seed and peppermint for upset stomachs.  Valerian and catnip for the occasional sleepless night.  Elderberry and rosehips for colds.  Maypop and borage for anxiety.  California poppy for pain relief.  Mullein, plantain and nettle already grew aplenty around the property, but I started encouraging them, making sure not to scythe down the mulleins that grew along the driveway, and encouraging them to go to seed.

Thinking ahead, I knew that someday I’d go through menopause, so that means plenty of sage, which is fine, since I like the stuff already – I used to avoid it in large quantities, since it can dry up breastmilk, but that’s no longer an issue.  The day will come when Eric may actually have to think about his prostate, and our nettle patch awaits.  Thinking forward to times when it might be more difficult to afford or access modern medicine, I wanted to make sure that my herb gardens included medicines to treat things that ran in our family – gotu kola and ginko for memory loss as one ages in Eric’s family, willow and cayenne for the arthritis that runs in mine, and motherwort for heart issues.

 Then there are the critters – they use herbs too.  My goats are wormed with an herbal formulation that I don’t try to duplicate, but I know its major components, and try and keep some of them – wormwood and pennyroyal – around.  We put garlic in the food of almost all the critters, and find that in improves their health.   

Well, that’s quite a list already, and the process of getting comfortable with all these herbs has been a slow one – because we’re healthy, I haven’t always had much occasion to use them, but the good thing is that alcoholic tinctures do keep.  Moreover, most of the plants I learned to like for themselves – oh, the elecampanes do try to take over, and I can’t quite convince myself that lungwort isn’t ugly, but even if I never need black cohosh for anything, who could fail to appreciate its bottle-brush beauty, or the autumnal purple waves of joe pye weed?

The habit my herb gardens had of overflowing into things not officially labelled “herb garden” was what led me to think about the possibility of growing herbs on a larger scale.  I have been wondering with what to replace the CSA – I don’t think I’m going to run one again, at least during the summer.  I loved doing it, but the time requirements are too intense while writing as well. And while I love animal agriculture, love working with the animals, I don’t ever want to be just one kind of farm, and if I have to test my heart, at the root of things, my greatest passion is the growing of green stuff.

So were herbs a possible answer?  Was there any market for the things that do very well in my climate?  I realize that we’re to cool and moist to get the highest levels of capsacin in my cayenne peppers (although we do ok), or the best essential oil levels of thyme, oregano and lavender, things that like it hot and dry and evolved in mediterranean climates.  I can make the conditions on a small scale, using my cold frames in the summer, or adding sand to make my lavender at least moderately happy, but not on a large one. 

But what about things that find our cool, moist soil useful? Obviously, that includes marshmallow, but also meadowsweet, boneset, joe pye weed, wild bergamot, valerian, liatris, blue vervain, mint, angelica, black eyed susan, burdock, cardinal flower, catnip, comfrey, elecampene, elderberry, goldenrod, mullein, nettles, potentilla, self-heal, cranesbill and viburnum?  For a long while, I’ve been mulling over how much work to invest in adapting our property, a part of which “lays wet” – should we drain it?  The cost has been somewhat prohibitive, but moreover, it has troubled my basic sense that my relationship with the land ought to be about getting the most out of what it does well, rather than forcing it into something else.

And thus came the generation of a new business idea for me – that perhaps, just perhaps, it would be possible for me to make some money sourcing plants that in many cases, either already grow here are grow easily in our conditions.  Instead of trying to grow vegetable row crops in places that lay wet, perhaps I could grow medicinal crops that thrived in those conditions.  So I asked around a little, and to my surprise several people expressed enthusiasm for a local source for some of the herbs listed above. 

We are still in the experimental stage, exploring what grows well, and what there’s a market for.  I want to make absolutely sure that I know how to produce herbs that lose as little as possible in processing.  And it isn’t clear to me on what scale we will do this – this year is all about exploring markets.  We’re also exploring whether we can grow some of the more useful woodland herbs in our woods, with minimal disturbance of the current denizens.

Around the herb beds, as I imagine them will be wet-soil tolerant food plants – we’re not interested in monoculture here. I’ve already planted swamp white oaks along the borders of the property, and have cranberry bush viburnum everywhere.  I want my property to grow food at least as much as it grows medicines.  I’m also starting to sell herb and vegetable starts – mostly as a way to compensate for my absurd overplanting habit. 

My herb garden started out as a 4×6 cinder block bed, and it has somehow expanded to include the rest of my side yard.  That might not be so remarkable, but it also now includes the meadows where I harvest my clover and the creekside from which I take the raspberry leaves.  It includes the fields that once grew my CSA vegetables and the pastures where I compete with the sheep for the chicory.  It ranges under my children’s playset, where the jewelweed insists on growing, and in that weird soggy spot near the old burn pile where there’s a ton of yarrow, which isn’t supposed to like wet places. 

When I moved here, I imagined that farms are made up of discrete lines – here the pasture, there the field, there the garden.  And they can be.  For me, I think blurred ones work better – the goats help clean up the garden in the autumn, and keep down the grass before we can get it all in.  We grow grains in the garden, and our field crops may turn out to be herbs.  We wildcraft very carefully, on our own property, but also try to increase populations steadily, blurring the lines between wild and tame.  And we are trying to tame our own impulses to subdue and reshape more than strictly necessary, to balance the need for lines, fences, will and limits with the desire to do what the land can do willingly, and within its own bounds.

Sharon