My Favorite Herb Books

admin September 27th, 2010

The last two years have been an intensive exploration of medicinal plants at our farm – we started out with the general sense that beyond the medicinals we were already growing, we wanted to add more herb plants that were suited to our local environment.  We were responding to two things – first, local practitioners who struggled to find good sources of local herbs, and second, the fact that our wet soil supports many native wetland medicinals without requiring unusual inputs. 

We had always used herbs at our home for culinary and medicinal reasons, but we started out with a small number of  common herbs, and bought anything unusual.  I have an insatiable curiosity about plants though, and every time I bought something from somewhere else, I wondered if I could grow it. It turns out that I can in many cases.

The list of medicinals grown at our property began to increase.  And then I had something of a revelation – a friend of mine who is a nurse practitioner was complaining that she was telling her clients to go buy elderberry syrup at Walmart that was imported from China – because she didn’t have a reliable local source.  I thought “Lord knows, I can grow elderberries.” Our wet soil is ideal for them.  So I decided to plant more elderberries.  And in that process I began to seriously research wetland medicinals and the markets for them.

I have no interest in supplying the wholesale market, however.  Our farm, which is small scale and includes no tractor is not the place, I think to plant whole acres of any plant.  What I’d like to do it two things that bring good plant medicine to people. First, I’d like to work with both local practitioners and people who take charge of their own health to provide the plants they rely on.  With that goal in mind, we’ve spent much of the last two years not only exploring what we can grow, but also working to make sure that we produce the best quality dried material.  I think the difference between my herbs and the powdered capsules one buys at a drugstore are night and day – rather the difference between eating spinach and buying spinach capsules.

The other project I’d like to do is to make sure as many people as possible have a functional medicinal garden at their homes, to help them take advantage of the things they can do to serve their own health and also as a backup (as well as an alternative) to existing allopathic medicine.  Towards that goal, I plan to see herb plants from my home and possibly by mail.  There’s not nearly as much information out there on good herb gardening as I’d like there to be, and for beginners, wondering what to put in their gardens, or even more advanced players struggling to sort out which plants they should and can grow, it can be challenging.

Many medicinal plants are overharvested or endangered in the wild, and there are compelling reasons for people who rely on them to begin growing them for themselves.  There’s also a security to providing for your own basic needs.

A lot of people offer good guidelines for basic herb gardens – Susan Wittig Albert, the author of many wonderful mysteries about herbs has a lovely essay about what a basic  medicinal garden should look like that I think is just perfect.  What I’m hoping to do is more specialized – I’d like to offer a number of gardens that are directed to specific situations, along with basic ones.  A pregnancy and nursing garden, for example, or a garden for people with heart issues.  I’d also like to help people begin to customize their own herb gardens, with an eye towards the future and times where they may need to rely on them.

That’s how we began.  Our medicinal herbs included the general herbs that one wants for ordinary things – colds, digestive upsets, children’s ailments.  And gradually we began to get more specific.  Eric has a minor heart irregularity that he treats successfully with motherwort and hawthorn, so those were added to the garden.  The goats get an herbal wormer, and I added the ingredients for that to my garden.  Everyone in my family develops osteoarthritis sooner or later, so herbs for joint ailments went into the mix.  Now that we are thinking more about marekts and less just about our own needs the variety gets even greater – to my deep happiness, since I love playing with plants.

I have to say, I have more fun working the herbs than almost any kind of gardening I do – I’m not sure what it is, but I look forward to the days I get to go out into the herb beds even more than going out to the veggie gardens.  Maybe it is the sheer, huge diversity of medicinals – I don’t know what it is, but it is so much fun.

So where do you start if you want to learn to grow your own medicinals and use them?  The using end is pretty well covered in the book department, it is the growing that can be challenging to learn about. Those books aren’t nearly so plentiful or so famous – and yet, they are a central part of the project.  Herb books that start without any thought about where you will get  your herbs, or that recommend people rely mostly on remedies from far away, do us a disservice.

So let’s focus on the grower books – in most cases, the expert growers are people who are already growing great herbs for sale, so if you live near them you should consider taking advantage of their knowledge. I’ve included links to as many home sites as I can find.

I’ve been recommending Tammi Hartung’s wonderful _How to Grow 101 Herbs that Heal_ for some years as the primary reference I have on this subject, and it is a very good book.  One of the things I like about it is that it breaks down the herbs into the kinds of natural environments they like, and helps you group them – so plants that like to be near water or have wet feet are put together, plants that like alpine or mediterranean conditions are grouped together.  This is very helpful when people want to figure out what will grow naturally in their region.  The book has good sections on using the herbs, and a nice section on incorporating medicinal plants into your food, but the meat is the guide to growing. It is a great starter book on this subject.   My only caveat is that I’d like a little more detail about growing techniques.

If you want lots of details from the person in the US who knows the most about growing the widest variety of medicinals, you’ll want Rich Cech’s _The Medicinal Herb Grower Vol. 1_.  This book is probably best for someone who has already grasped the very basics, and it isn’t a plant-by-plant guide.  Cech started Horizon Herbs, the single best source of herb seeds in the US, and my suspicion is that Cech just knows too much about too many plants to give us herb-by-herb info.  Instead, he focuses on the general knowledge you need to figure out what plants need.  The book is incredibly useful an enlightening – his observation, for example, that woodland herbs often don’t like animal manures, and require leaf duff as fertilizer is wonderful.  The book is also fun to read in the same way his wonderful _Making Plant Medicine_ is – full of stories and illustrations with a comic touch. If I have any criticism, it is that the book is just a little disorganized for my taste – again, I think it would be a tough book for a beginner to sort through.  But the very fact that Cech offers his growing knowledge is so incredibly valuable to me that it seems churlish to criticize at all.

If you want to move up to the commercial scale, or are looking for an herb-by-herb guide that gets more specific than Hartung’s you might want to add Lee Sturdivant’s and Tim Blakley’s book _The Bootstrap Guide to Medicinal Herbs in the Garden, Field and Marketplace_ – Blakley wrote the grower guide, while Sturdivant covers the market.  The market information is some years out of date (published in 1998) and I think of limited utility anyway for many people, since Sturdivant didn’t go very far afield in his profiles of companies – nearly all are right near him and they represented a somewhat limited picture of growers.  But the meat is in the herb-by-herb growing information and that is valuable.  The emphasis is on high-return herbs and on farm-scale production, but there’s valuable information here for home growers as well.   

I had the opportunity to take a workshop with Dr. Jeanine Davis at the Monticello Harvest Festival (due to my speaking schedule and family obligations, this was the only workshop I got to take, but boy was it worth it) on growing woodland medicinals. Dr. Davis is an expert on medicinal herb farming, and provides support to a host of growers through Cooperative Extension.  Any of you who live close enough to N.C. state should definitely consider taking classes with her  – I learned a lot, and this is not new material for me.  She gave me excellent advice on practices for my climate as well.  Her website, linked above is a great resource, and so is her book, co-authored with Scott Persons, Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals. I’ve just finished reading it, and my immediate reaction was “where have you been all my life?”

There’s a lot of good information in Thomas DeBaggio’s _Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting and Root_ – the emphasis here is on propagation techniques, and that’s very valuable since so many herbs grow best from division or cutting.  This is not an organic book, and it isn’t necessarily the one I’d use to help people begin to grow out plants sustainably – he emphasize soilless mixes and heating mats and this is not an organic agriculture, but it is a very useful book.

Nancy and Michael Phillips’ _The Herbalist’s Way_ (formerly k nown as “The Village Herbalist, which I think is a much better title, frankly) is a great book.  Its focus isn’t on growing particularly, but on all the things one needs to do small farm herb growing and herbal practice, from recommending books to talking about credentials to many other things.  But the book contains a number of small farm profiles and a lot of information on growing, harvesting and drying herbs that is enormously valuable.  They have a section on appropriate technology for small farms and recommendations classed by region and environment that are very helpful. 

I hope this helps more people begin to get their own herb gardens up and running!

Sharon

9 Responses to “My Favorite Herb Books”

  1. Kerrick says:

    I’ve been working on an idea for a sustainable wildcrafters’ network so people who have medicinal herbs growing in profusion locally can swap or sell them directly with the people who need them. These might be weeds we’re pulling out of their organic gardens (like lemon balm here) or invasive plants we’re trying to control (like milk thistle here) or native plants we’re sustainably gathering (like usnea here). Anyone who would be interested in becoming a member and helping me test and launch the site is welcome to email me at kerrick at kerrplunk dot org. Home herb gardeners are welcome; I just want to exclude commercial growers.

  2. Brandie says:

    You say the using of herbs is well-covered territory, but I’d actually love some recommendations on that. All the books I’ve read contradict each other and list totally different plants for specific ailments, and much of it is vague and seems less than scientific. In my own experience, the effectiveness of the few herbal remedies I’ve tried hasn’t been all that convincing. I’d love to see some simple, straightforward information “for the rest of us” about using medicinal plants that require minimal processing (i.e. no expensive equipment) and are actually effective for specific medical needs.

  3. Deb Doubek says:

    Sharon,

    I love your idea of helping other people develop their own gardens that are beneficial to the health of their family. You really put some thought into this blog post. Thanks for sharing!

    Deb

  4. Cindy says:

    And l’m fascinated by your mention of herbs that don’t mind wet feet! I have a few spots that are wetter than the rest of the lawn and I’ve been wondering what to plant there (the ultimate goal being to have little or no lawn to mow!). Elderberries would be wonderful, others? I’ll have to check out “How to Grow 101 Herbs” again. Thanks.

  5. gaiasdaughter says:

    Sharon, the article by Susan Albert is only part one of what she promised would be at least a three part series. I cannot find any more of the series — am I looking in the wrong place?

  6. Susan in NJ says:

    Thank you for this Sharon.

  7. Sharon Astyk says:

    Cindy – Among the ones we’ve had good luck with: Cardinal Flower, Eclipta, Blue Vervain, Marshmallow, Guelder Rose (Crampbark), valerian, angelica, dong quai, Wood Betony, nettles, all mints, motherwort, pennyroyal (both of which are mints, of course), comfrey, potentilla, meadowsweet, yerba mansa, cranesbill. That should get you started.

    Sharon

  8. Cindy says:

    Thank you!!! I do have one lonely marshmallow that I planted several years ago and it bravely keeps coming back–unfortunately the Japanese beetles love it. I’ll start looking into those others; good thing winter is coming so I can cozy up with catalogs and start planning!

  9. Mark Andrews says:

    Thanks for this. Great information you have.

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