Home Grown Healing
"Life begins the day you start a garden..." A Chinese Proverb
Many herbs can be easily grown and used at home, even in small spaces. Many will come back year after year, giving an ongoing supply of useful and nutritious additions to recipes and remedies. Snipping, nibbling, plucking, touching, tasting and using these plants often makes them grow more vigorously. Use them often!
Most common herbs are tolerant of less than ideal conditions, but even the toughest plants have basic needs, that are required to retain healthy plant tissues and reproduce.
Healthy soil, consistent water, and learning from mistakes will evolve into productive gardens over time. There are many herbal plants that are literally weeds and will be very happy in poor soils to a certain degree, but plants rely on the soil to provide nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and if it isn’t available, the plant will suffer. Give a little love and attention to your soil & plants and they will continue to give back indefinitely!
Why Grow Herbs?
Freshness & Flavor: Many herbs are most vital and potent when used or eaten immediately. Surely, this is the great luxury of being able to grow your own. Dried Rosemary is great, but it is nothing like the sensation of sprinkling fresh, aromatic Rosemary on your food, straight from the garden. Many of the phyto-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, essential oils, and other beneficial components we get from herbal plants), start to fade soon after harvest. By cutting only what you need or carefully preserving them for future use, the vital components of therapeutic plant properties are retained.
Saves Money: Many herbs will provide multiple harvests and once established, are easily cared for. Yes, it takes time and energy to water, harvest, & weed, but it will save money over time. A packet of seeds costs about the same as one or two bunches of parsley or cilantro, and one packet of seeds could literally last forever with attentive seed saving. Harvesting only what you need for a recipe, or preserving for later use, reduces wasted leftovers, and reduces wasted money.
Health: Having herbs readily available, will increase the possibilities of using them in a variety of ways and increase the varied health benefits that these nutritious plants provide. Even common herbs, such as basil, sage and and rosemary, provide potent medicinal benefits when used in certain ways. Using common herbs regularly in the diet can boost immunity, normalize digestion and generate over all wellness.
For vibrant plants, there must be a diverse, healthy soil system present. A vital soil relies on microbial diversity and is a living breathing ecosystem full of symbiotic life.
Don’t give up! It takes time to learn what to do and what not to do for successful gardening. Learning from mistakes is part of the process and all successful gardeners have failed along the way. Keep Learning, Keep Growing!
Mints, such as Peppermint, Spearmint, Apple Mint, Pineapple Mint, etc.
Learn the right time of the year to plant, as some herbs will love cool weather, (such as cilantro & dill) and others, (such as basil), thrive in intense heat. A few won’t mind the extremes of weather so much (such as parsley) and will be productive for much of the year. (At least in the Arizona Desert)
Mulch generously around plants to keep the water from evaporating and leaving salt residue. Leave a bit of space around stems & trunks, but adding a nice thick layer of compost/mulch seasonally (especially before the weather gets really hot or really cold) will protects the roots from heat stress and will insulate the root zone in cold weather.
Too much or too little water, quickly stresses plants, so it is important to find a balance and be consistent. When sprouting seeds, the soil surface needs to be kept moist, but when the plants are better established it is a good choice to switch to slow dripping, deep watering a few times a week or less, rather than spraying the surface every day or so. This will encourage deeper root growth, make plants more drought tolerant, & use less water.
Give your plants friends! Growing a variety of different plants creates a healthier environment and makes plants happier and more vigorous. Having a diverse assortment of plants can create a beneficial micro-climate that is more productive and protective of young, vulnerable seedlings. Flowers and herbs attract pollinators and beneficial insects that will kill troublesome aphids or other pests.
Herbal Growing Tips
Easy to Grow & Harvest
Culturing Living Soil
Again, there are many herbal plants that are literally weeds and will be very happy in poor soils to a certain degree. That being said, when growing medicine or any other plant for consumption, there must be a healthy soil system present.
A vital soil relies on diversity and is a living ecosystem, that needs food and water. Adding compost & organic matter frequently, feeds this dynamic interchange that makes nutrients bio-available to plants. What is Organic Matter? It can be compost, mulch, old dried leaves, dead plants and poop. Yes poop. Horse poop, cow poop, chicken poop, and especially worm poop. (Most manures need to be leached or composted before use) As soil matures, it turns to compost and other forms of organic matter into usable forms of food and fertilizer for the plant. Bacteria, fungi and other microbial life forms do most of the work here, and even though we can’t always see it, soil is a living breathing organism.
Here are a few tips for building healthy soil.
Constistently be adding organic matter, especially mulch, around your plants and in the garden beds. This can be done often, but at least 4 times a year when the seasons are changing. Mulch helps insulate plants when they are cold, and in hot dry weather it helps them keep cool and hold onto water. This also supports the presence and health of important micro-organisms that contribute to healthy plants.
Prepare the soil in advance. Give your soil some time to come alive. (A few weeks, months, or a growing season.) Mix in the organic matter of choice and water occasionally, to encourage the microbes to colonize and start their work. Planting a cover crop of beans, clover, etc, will fix nitrogen into the soil to benefit heavier feeding plants later. You can also inoculate the soil with beneficial microbes to get things started.
Feed your soil sea weed and fish emulsion. Sea weed is available in powdered or liquid forms. Sea weed will feed the necessary bacteria and other microbes that make nutrients available to the plants. Fish emulsion is a fermented fish juice that is an organic source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which plants need for growth. It is available as a liquid and can be found at most garden nurseries. Both of these can be added to a rinsed out milk jug, full of water, following the directions on the bottle, and can be poured around plants, every 2-4 weeks or so. This is also a great addition when preparing garden beds as it feeds the Soil Food Web and supports a living soil system.
Bring worms to your garden. Worms are some of the most beneficial allies you can keep in your garden. As new soil matures, worms will often appear as if out of nowhere. To speed it up you can catch or buy worms and then transfer them gently to their new home. (Red wigglers are a great garden and composting variety of worms)
Watering is all about finding a balance. Some plants need more than others and this amount can change throughout the growing cycle. Usually more in the summer, less in the winter for example.
Slow dripping, deep watering has many benefits over spraying the surface of the soil. Deep watering is usually more sustainable, and ends up using less water to produce healthier plants. When sprouting seeds, of course, the soil surface needs to be kept moist, but when the plants are better established it is a good choice to switch to drip irrigation or letting the hose flow low and slow to soak the area around the plant. This will encourage deeper root growth, make plants more drought tolerant, reduce evaporation and reduce salt buildup of the surface of soil.
Other sustainable watering tips include…
Water early in the morning or in the evening. This minimizes water lost evaporation, and reduces the risk of salt burn on leaves of plants. Avoid spraying water directly on the leaves of the plants, especially in the hottest hours of the day.
Use drip irrigation wherever possible. This helps to minimize salt buildup and provides deep and surface water. This will also ease the burden of keeping plants watered through the hottest months, when it is best to simplify garden activities.
Mulch deeply around plants to keep the water from evaporating and leaving salt residue. This protects the roots from heat stress as well. Be sure to keep the mulch a few inches away from the stem of plants and trees.
Harvesting is the reward of gardening efforts. Medicinal plants are harvested at different times throughout the year, depending on the part of the plant used. Learning about the growing cycle of individual plant families will potentially give insight to when to harvest the medicinal portions of plants. Some may be harvested over and over, or some it is once a season when the plant is at a particular phase in the growing cycle.
Flowers- Harvesting medicinal and edible flowers takes care and patience, especially when gathering them to preserve for future use. They are often delicate and can bruise or wilt easily. Often, flowers are not all ready to harvest at the same time, but in succession. A few may bloom each day for a part of the season, a constant cycle of opening and closing. Many edible flowers are delicious and wonderful to use fresh! They have an inherent sweetness that doesn’t always last through the drying process. That being said, dried flowers are a delicious addition to homemade herbal tea blends, not to mention adding alluring beauty to recipes. Fresh or dried, it is possible to grow edible flowers that aren’t even available at any market, have limited supply, or tend to be lavishly priced.
Great, usable flowers to grow at home are…
Leaves- Get to know your herbal leaves by taking a bite whenever you are in the garden! Of course when plants are very young they need the opportunity to grow, but many herbal plants respond well to being plucked here and there regularly. Many will even get out of hand and take over an entire area…Why not put the extra to use? Although there are many recipes & medicinal preparations possible out of fresh or dried leafy herbs there is much to be said about simply eating them, on a regular basis. Even one bite of the leaves, whenever you are watering, weeding, or walking by, can benefit wellbeing. This practice cultivates good health over time, and is a way to get to know these plants and their medicinal qualities.
These leafy plants are very resilient and easy to grow…
Seeds- For many plants, it is the seeds that contain potent healing properties. Spices that have been traded for centuries and are still used all over the world come from seeds that have aromatic and flavorful components. Often they benefit digestion and have nutritive qualities of their own. Some are grown for the seeds only, but others like fennel, dill, and cilantro can be harvested for the leaves several times before the plant begins to bolt (when the plant begins to set seed). They are typically easy to grow, but can be susceptible to aphids and other problems toward the end of the growing season (especially if the spring is especially hot) The whole seed head can be clipped and dried for later use, or paper bags can be situated over the seed head to catch the seeds as they ripen and fall. Most will need additional drying before storage, so double check there is no moisture content left before putting in an enclosed container!
Seeds that have medicinal properties include…
Roots- Most roots are dug up at specific times in the growing cycle. Usually early spring or late fall, depending on the climate, sometimes after 2 full seasons, some even up to 4 or 5 years. To grow good roots, you must have excellent soil that provides adaquate available nutrients. Roots are the storage of energy and nutrients for the plant. They pull vitamins and minerals from the soil to store it for later. If the soil is not adequate or to get through a drought or harsh winter, the root gives back its energy back to the plant. This is why timing is so important. Weedy plants such as Burdock or Dandelion will tolerate poor soils and some neglect, so can be easier plants to grow for their roots than others. Roots are usually washed, cut and dried and even sometimes roasted for use, but there are many ways to prepare them fresh. Even common root vegetables such as beets and carrots have healing properties, and are good practice for growing healthy roots.
Roots to grow at home for harvesting include…
Learning to grow and harvest herbs is an art. Often, growing the herbs turns out to be the easier part. Many growers aren’t sure how to use their medicine and it takes time to cultivate the knowledge of when and how to use them to bring about health and wellness.
For more writings about growing and using herbal botanicals, and ongoing in depth exploration of specific medicinal qualities of plants used in botanical therapies check out my blog...
Harvest & Use