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.


30 Responses to “Finding my Herb Garden”

  1. Diane says:

    There seems to be a general misconception about lady’s mantle. The only one I have ever seen for sale is Alchemilla mollis, very pretty but not medicinal. According to my Encyclopedia of Herbs by the Herb Society of America A. xanthoclora syn. A. vulgaris and A. alpina are the ones to use but I can’t find them.
    Also, I use a lot of ginger for tea so I am trying to grow it as a pot plant. It would be hard to grow it commercially in this climate but I like to have it just in case it becomes difficult to find.
    And willow bark is wonderful but can you tell me which ones, beside white willow are strong enough to bother harvesting?

  2. I would buy a seedling or some seeds of Dittany of Crete from you in heartbeat. I don’t know what it tastes like or what it’s good for, but I’ve always loved the name. Would you do mail order seeds?

    Also, regarding the essential oil content being low in certain herbs, I have heard that herbs of a given type grown near comfrey have been shown to be higher in essential oil than those not grown near comfrey. You might see if that works for you.


  3. Jean says:

    The thing that stumps me about gathering & using medicinal herbs is what parts of the plants to use. Some things are fairly obvious but others are not. Do you have any suggestions for reliable books and/or websites that would enlighten me on this?

  4. Sharon says:

    Diane, I have A. Vulgaris from richters (which is like a candy store for herb lovers, just to warn you) – I’m pretty sure that what was already there was also A. Vulgaris, though, because it looks exactly the same. Or maybe I’m wrong.

    Kate, I’ve never grown Dittany from seed – I winter over cuttings, and at this point, don’t have enough to sell. Richters also has it – I really like its taste a lot, it and zaatar, which I forgot to mention are two of my favorite “don’t really grow here, but I want them” herbs ;-) .

    Jean, a few of my favorite books on this subject _Making Plant Medicines_ by Richo Cech and The Herbal Medicine Makers Handbook, by James Green are very clear and helpful. Steven Foster’s _Herbal Renaissance_ does a great job of observing what different parts of an herb are used for different purposes, and is perhaps my first reference on any herb. Tammi Hartung’s _Growing 101 Herbs that Heal_ is very clear about what parts are used, although less about when to harvest, which I actually find to be harder to figure out for many plants.


  5. Greenpa says:

    All right- YOU ARE SO BUSTED!

    The truth folks- something we’ve long suspected-

    There IS no “Sharon Astyk” – that is a pen name for the PLURAL MARRIAGE going on here. OBVIOUSLY – Sharon has to actually be at least 3 women; and probably 4. So; is Eric lucky; or exhausted?

  6. Susan in NJ says:

    The doesn’t grow here herb I crave is fish mint (diep ca). So far my (Vietnamese) grocery store cuttings have been not taken. Sigh.
    We’re up to five kinds of basil this year (counting shiso).
    Greenpa, I was just chalking it all up to the herbs.

  7. Lisa says:,2933,519437,00.html

    “This particular virus seems to have this unique ability to pick up other genes,” said leading virologist Dr. Robert Webster, whose team discovered an ancestor of the current flu virus at a North Carolina pig farm in 1998.”

    It is hot here in NC right now. Came in for a break from the garden, and lots of thoughts about herbs.

    But I read this earlier today, and your previous post about The Gift of Industrial Agriculture was on my mind.

    It was also interesting to read about Dr. Webster, and his annual corn party and travels.

    I have a bed right now, with a beautiful rosemary, oregano, beauty berry, and an elder berry that is just making blooms. Also a sassafrass tree. There is a bare spot waiting for something. Chamomile, lots of mints……echinacea and parsley. But I want more.

    Now back to the laundry, and the garden.


  8. ctdaffodil says:

    Sharon – I actually made tabuleh today and had to purchase mint and parsley -Now I have a ton left over – what should I do with them….I hate to see them go to waste? What is the best method of preserving them -
    and my little dehydrator bit the dust last fall doing apples….

  9. Sharon says:

    CTdaffodil, the mint is great dried – you can just hang it up in bunches. Parsley doesn’t, IMHO, dry that well, although it isn’t awful – it is still fairly nutritious, just not as tasty. I would probably try and just use up the parsley – maybe make a pot of soup stock or something, but you can hang and dry it in any warmish airy place out of direct light.


  10. heathenmom says:

    The title of this post made me laugh! When I got home from work today, I found my herb garden, too! My dear, dear husband – for my Mothers Day/Anniversary gift – dug up the overgrown mess where I kept “meaning” to plant herbs, built up the sides, and brought in topsoil, organic fertilizer, and store-bought starts. He even rescued my little rosemary bush from the middle of the weed jungle! My parents helped a lot too. I have a wonderful, wonderful family. :D

  11. Devin Quince says:

    Great post as usual. We are currently reading your book and finding it a wonderful and inspiring read.

  12. heather says:

    Sharon, what about medicinal fungi in your woodland? I had a library book a few months back about mushrooms etc, and it was mind boggling. I always kinda thought a mushroom was a mushroom, just like a carrot is a carrot, just many varieties of the same thing, but fungi are amazingly complex, and simple at the same time. Anyway I was reading about wood fungi like the maitake and shiitake mushrooms, and a couple of others and thinking of the community value of figuring out how to grow them, as i figure our capacity to treat illnesses like cancer will decline faster than the possible dietary/environmental triggers for it. I dont have any family history or expectation regarding cancer, but i would hate watching anyone i knew suffer without treatment, and these fungi just need a shady undisturbed log or two.
    The book was “growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms” by Paul Stamets

  13. linda says:

    Regarding when to harvest, there are some pretty good guides on Micheal Moores website, all in PDF.
    Scroll down to the section that says “herbology and herb growing-classic texts”. The first one, American Medicinal Leaves and Herbs is a good start. Actually, his entire site is pretty useful, as he was one of the best known American herbalists and was very generous with information. Hope this helps.

  14. Robyn M. says:

    Oh, I would buy so many seedlings–or heck, grown herbs–from you in a heartbeat, too! Just let us know where the ordering form is….

  15. The remedy for too much parsley post-tabbouleh: make more tabbouleh.

    Barring that, use it as a salad green with the mint. I eat salads of parsley and maybe another veg, like carrots. Parsley has so many health benefits.

    I got into trouble a dozen years ago online for being too vociferous and snotty about tabbouleh. The thing is (trying to put it nicely) American tabbouleh recipes generally don’t call for enough parsley. USE MORE PARSLEY.

    Actually I like bulghur wheat as the predominant note – gives a different character to the salad. And eight years ago I learned from Claudia Roden, who was also caught in the middle of the great tabbouleh wars, that the recipe has evolved in Lebanon over the decades. A hundred years ago they used much less parsley – couldn’t afford it. Immigrants to America in the early 20th century therefore gave American cuisine the low-parsley tabbouleh recipe. In Lebanon however as the century wore on, parsley proportion increased. I know that the tabbouleh my dad made in the 70s did have more wheat than the same salad he made for me in the 90s. He had returned to Lebanon to live by then and was influenced by latest Lebanese style.

    So your mileage may vary. But try making more tabbouleh, and use more parsley in proportion.

  16. Ståle says:

    Learning about medicinal uses of herbs is on my long list of things to do next year when I’ll (like Sharon said in another post, pretend to) be finishing a thesis.

    One thing I worry a bit about for the future is my son’s asthma. Right now, he needs daily use of inhalers, and I don’t have a plan B if pharmacies can no longer offer just-in-time access to his medicine. Does anyone know of herbal remedies for asthma?


  17. Michelle says:

    A great herbal resource is Isabell Shippard’s “How can I use herbs in my daily life?”

    Great post, thanks.

  18. Sharon says:

    Greenpa, Eric reports “There’s only one of her, thank G-d. And as to your questions, yes and yes.”
    ;-) .

  19. dewey says:

    There are European studies showing butterbur root extract to reduce asthma symptoms. BUT, the plant contains chemicals that could cause liver damage if they were not removed by the special commercial process.

    Native American remedies for asthma were often smoked – not PC these days, but probably does deliver the compounds where they’re wanted – but medicinal teas were also common. I’d plant herbs that were used by multiple groups and that don’t have known or claimed problems with side effects (like lobelia). Maybe spikenard, mullein, elecampane, and/or Labrador tea (a common beverage too so you know it is safe). But I would not want to rely on any of those instead of medication for a severe case. Also, a couple cups of strong coffee can help relieve an acute asthma attack. I’ve seen this work. Some say chocolate will do the same but I don’t know if it is strong enough.

  20. dewey says:

    I could have commented also that my garden is going nuts this year – valerian already flowering, SJW and mint running all over the place, radishes the size of golf balls – and my DH is now happy to countenance a nettle patch, whereas two years ago he had conniptions at the very thought. Baby steps! :)

  21. Lynn says:

    On your website, Susan Wittig Albert did a guest column on Growing Herbs for your Medicine Cabinet Part 1 in Sept 2008.

    Any chance of further posts?

    Cheers, Lynn

  22. Sarah says:

    It’s the caffeine in both coffee and chocolate that’s a bronchodilator. Tea (camellia sinensis) works well, too…I find a hot caffeinated beverage to be the best choice for me, as the hot liquid also helps to relax and open things up.

    I’d be very leery of using a smoked remedy for asthma, as smoke of any sort is going to be a lung irritant itself. But if you bruise leaves or put essential oil in hot water, the steam will be medicated and delicious. Just be sure not to make it too hot, or you risk scalding yourself.

    If his asthma is triggered by any kind of environmental factor, reducing that factor as much as reasonably possible is going to be your first line of defense. Pollen is of course harder to reduce your exposure to than, say, pandas.

  23. Claire says:

    I love herbs and grow a number of culinary, medicinal, and just-plain-pretty ones. I second the recommendation of Richo Cech’s wonderful book Making Plant Medicine for info on how to make medicinal preparations. Another book I like, Herbal Antibiotics by Stephen Harrod Buhner, deals with what I think is one of the most important potential uses for herbs.

    When we moved to the current house, I started a small (about 25 square feet) herb bed. For a number of reasons, many herbs didn’t do well in that bed, except for chaste tree. Next I tried an herb spiral like in the permaculture books. It was pretty good the first couple years, but then the musk strawberries and lawn grasses began to take over, and the rosemary, sage, and lavender died. I tend to grow most of the annual herbs I use in the veggie garden (basil, shiso, dill, cilantro, parsley, cutting celery, Florence fennel) as well as the garlic, and I have a large bed of spearmint on the shady and moist east side of the garage, but I wanted a place for the Mediterranean perennial herbs that I keep wanting to grow but that seem not to like my silt loam soil and the severity of Midwestern summers and winters. This year I began a new herb bed, about 200 square feet, next to the patio. I’ve promised myself to weed it, and it’s in a sunny location. If lavender won’t grow in this bed, I’m giving up on it. (Yeah, right …) It has or will soon have oregano, thyme, sage, basil, dill, shiso, cutting celery, parsley, valerian, lavender, bronze fennel, and sweet marjoram in it, and 2 blueberry bushes just for fun. Most of these herbs I use mostly as culinaries, although thyme makes a good tea for upper respiratory conditions.

    Other herbs I grow are chosen because I have upper respiratory and sinus infection issues (echinacea, goldenseal, beebalm, anise hyssop), for digestive problems (peppermint), and to help with hormonal issues (chaste tree). Because I have had good luck with goldenseal and ginseng likes similar conditions, I’m going to give ginseng a try this fall. Diabetes runs in my DH’s family, so I need to research herbs that can help with that. Anyone have any info on that?

  24. Christy O says:

    Do you put fresh garlic in the animals food or garlic powder? Which herbal dewormer do you use? I’m interested in using more herbs with my animals.

  25. Florifulgurator says:

    Wet soil in cool? Flu danger? Angelica Archangelica plus Inula Helenium. First these, then else. And they are beauty full.
    Stinging Nettle is said to enhance essential oil.
    Angelica can grow flat beneath 1m of snow. Angelica loves waters, but there it is discernibly less aromatic.

  26. gardenerQ says:

    Excellent post!

    About garlic for pets, just wanted to mention that I know many people that have used it successfully for dogs, and it seemed to be OK for one of mine. However, I had an elderly dog with old dog lung who I tried to give a clove of garlic with dinner one night, intending to start a regime to prevent pests. The garlic made his breathing extremely labored immediately after ingesting, so would not recommend in this type of case. Of course this is probably like with humans, everyone has different tolerances and needs.

  27. dewey says:

    Too much garlic (or onions) can be toxic to all companion animals, so use it with care. (My LOLcat likes garlic mashed potatoes, though. Go figure.)

  28. Ståle says:

    A belated thank you for all the replies with suggestions re: herbal medicine for asthma relief!

    @Sarah – yes, environmental factors are definitely an issue at the moment, as we’re living in a south-east asian mega-city, but we’re moving in a month or so to a place with a population several orders of magnitude smaller and much stricter regulations for car emissions, so air quality should improve drastically. Not sure what the effects of changing climatic zone will be though (temperature and humidity).

    Will definitely experiment with various teas and steam baths for inhaling. Am personally also a big fan of having chocolate and coffee in the house, just in case :)

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