Natural medicinal gardens can be cultivated in four stages and it is possible to undertake these all at the same time – following their gradual development over a period of several years. The first stage involves growing herbs in beds laid in rows, circles, geometric or in a haphazard pattern – almost in the manner in which we cultivate vegetables. This aspect was discussed in some detail as the garden bed has a specific role in several landscapes. In fact, it is very simple to develop and look after a medicinal garden. It is also easy to protect the herbs by erecting fences around the garden and so is the harvesting process.
These types of properly laid-out medicinal gardens are also eye-catching and may be located near your house, as this will not only be convenient for you, but also offer you a pleasing visual. In fact, plan and arrangement of any herb garden can be of various types – as much as the herbs in the garden itself and also the types of people who are cultivating such gardens.
The backyard as a landscape of herbs
The integrated landscape forms the second stage of developing a natural herb garden. The different elements of design, for instance, the ground covers and the lawn, borders, hedges, walls, flower beds, trees, orchards, streams, pools and screens – everything is viewed as possible sites for cultivating herbs. In other words, the plan is to set your herbs free from the traditional herb garden bed and disperse them all over the garden. In this way, a hedge is converted into a bed of hyssop or lavender; a mixed group of herbs like calendula, borage, parsley or yarrow form the borders. Alternately, they may comprise any single species like mints, comfrey or aromatic plants. Similarly, the lawn may be substituted by herbs, such as thyme, bearberry, German chamomile or pennyroyal. You may plant larger trees like the slippery elm, poplar, and elderberry or birch the length of the edge of your property to form the screen of your untamed herb garden.
Your natural herb garden will look more attractive if you have a small pool with wild ginger, licorice, chickweed and horsetail around its periphery, while you may plant watercress in a small stream that drains the water into the pool. In addition, you may also plant Mediterranean herbs, such as marjoram, sage, rosemary and/ or thyme on the frontage as well as the top of a wall built with stone in one part of your property. The flower beds may have herbs like yarrow, Echinacea, peony, and elecampane together with a number of traditional ornamental plants. You may also include a petite orchard which will have medicinal fruit trees or trees producing nuts, such as butternut and apple. In addition, the orchard may also include other herbs like alfalfa, garlic and clover. If you have a grand basswood tree in your yard, it will help to draw bees to your untamed herb garden and, at the same time, offer relaxed shade as well as a refreshing floral tea. You may also plant a number of other trees that provide shade, such as oak, bay and beech.
Developing a landscape as described above is obviously resourceful for it provides several ‘edges’. Talking in terms of ecology, an ‘edge’ is a location where one specific kind of plants or geological aspects convenes with another type. The main edges can be generally found in places where a grassland or field meets a forest the length of the river banks or periphery of lakes; on any seashore; at a place where a meadow develops into a marsh; or at any mountain woodland.
The semi-wild herb garden
The second stage of a natural medicinal garden only comprises the integrated and well-designed landscape. The next stage includes the partially natural or semi-wild area of the garden. This stage could obviously include an orchard having herbs growing at random. Alternately, it may also be an unoccupied field, a bog; any abandoned privately owned woodland; any marshland; or any place that is rather off the beaten path. In fact, the size of the area is not all that important in the case of a semi-wild garden, but it is definitely important to allow nature to follow its own course. When you are developing a semi-wild garden, it is important that while you let the domestic herbs to return to their original and primeval patterns, the native plants too should be permitted to grow and thrive with equal importance. In the event of the semi-wild garden being a field, you need to plant a wide assortment of herbs like yarrow, mugwort, dock, catnip, chicory, alfalfa, anise, mullein, horseradish, nettles and mustard in a very haphazard manner and leave it up to the plants to grow naturally. On the other hand, if the semi-wild garden happens to be woodland, the ideal partially wild plants for it would be goldenseal and ginseng. If it is a marshland, you would be doing better by planting herbs like pennyroyal, licorice, wild ginger, horsetail or spearmint in a scattered way and leave them on their own.
When allowed to grow and flourish in their natural manner, you will find that majority of the herbs will follow specific succession patterns. A number of herbs, such as yarrow, mullein, plantain, chamomile, and dock are significant in establishing these types of distinctive successive patterns in the new neighborhoods. These herbs facilitate others in becoming stable, enriching them and also enter open areas that are actually extremely peripheral for other plants. On the other hand, you will notice that herbs like gravelroot, dandelion, catnip, blackberry, mugwort and wild sage will tend to follow their original pioneers in forming colonies in the new grounds. After some time, you are able to grow herbs like clover, alfalfa, and burdock as well as the aromatic varieties when the soil becomes more enriched. In addition, a number of herbs, such as mustard, nettle and holy thistle would only grow on soils that are comparatively more enriched.
Generally, most semi-wild gardens begin with a wide variety of herbs growing independently. In fact, the sort of native or indigenous plants present in the garden may help to provide clues regarding the possibilities of the success of other species which are yet to be introduced. For instance, if there are only pioneer plants in any field, when you introduce new herbs in the subsequent stage, they are very likely to be successful. However, it will perhaps be a waste of time, effort and plants if you introduce plants that need to be brought in at a later state and then let them grow on their own in an untamed medicinal garden. Hence, it is always advisable that you first enrich the soil in your semi-wild herb garden and only then start planting the later-stage herbs. Then again, if a field is packed with plants like thistles, nettles, and wild alfalfa, they are likely to be mature enough for the subsequent succession stage – i.e. bushes and trees.
When the garden is ready for growing bushes and trees, it is considered to be the third stage of any untamed medicinal garden. However, it is not essential that the third stage of the garden would have to begin in an area that is wild from before. This phase of the garden can be developed without any difficulty from an environment that is already tamed. In effect, when landscaped yards are just left to themselves, most of them easily turn out to be semi-wild. But then, everything needs to be done in a systematic manner and you also need to follow certain guideline for developing a semi-wild garden – it cannot just be allowed to happen. For instance, when you are developing a wild or deserted area into a semi-wild herb garden, you may even augment the pace of its ecological succession. In effect, this is actually one of the objectives of natural farming. You begin to work on a site that is comparatively simple and has a very fragile ecology, and subsequently develop the land to maturity by means of several stages of succession. This type of natural farming, which is also referred to as primitive agriculture is also an extremely complicated method to cultivate natural therapeutic herbs.
Herbs from the wild
The fourth and final stage of developing a natural medicinal garden comprises of all the locations where the herbs grow on their own. Although it may be quite exciting to describe this as ‘wilderness’, in reality, this is not correct. Actually, the unique feature is wildness and not wilderness. Well, how does one describe the wild herbs? Precisely speaking, they are fresh herbs devoid of the manipulations of cultivation. You may find such herbs in several locations, including forests and fields; the length of the banks of streams, rivers and ponds; pastures and on mountains; in marshlands, swamps or bogs; in out-of-the-way places; and also on the peripheries of urban areas.
If you wish to harvest wild herbs, you ought to be acquainted with a few things which are not very important for the domestic gardeners. First and foremost, you will have to identify exactly where you can find them. And the simplest way to find this is to simply start exploring. While this method may appear to be too naive to many, it is actually the starting point for harvesting wild herbs. Practically, the wild herbs exist everywhere, but we are not aware of this or unable to recognize them because we have never tried to find them. Henceforth, whenever you go for a walk, ride, hike or drive, keep a vigilant eye for the herbs or the herb environments. In case the herb itself is not visible to you, search for a place where the herbs may possibly be growing in the wild. When you pass by a breezy, shaded stream in the midst of open woodland and you have a gut feeling that some wild ginger or horsetail may be growing there, just stop and see if your hunch is correct.
There is one more technique to collect wild herbs and that is to memorize the picture of the herb. This will make it very much easy for you to recognize the herbs and gather them. As you discover the first specimen of the herb in any field, take some time to observe it carefully. Observe the plant from various angles and try to perceive the manner in which it conforms or shows up to the foliage in its environment. Next, take some time to mull over the appearance of the plant. Employing this technique will be of great help if it is one herb that is very difficult to identify. In fact, if you apply this technique, you will find that it is much easy to find as well as identify several other herbs too. When your eyes have become accustomed to perceive the attributes of the plants and identify them, you will be surprised to know that there are so many additional herbs of the same species just at the place around you.
It is very important to correctly identify an herb after you discover it and only then you should go in for harvesting it. This is all the more important, in fact, very vital, especially when you are collecting herbs for therapeutic uses – irrespective of the fact that they would be used internally or applied topically. It is definitely useful when you have a common idea regarding the appearance of the herb prior to leaving home to collect it. The simplest method to achieve this is when some other reliable person talks to you about the appearance and other features of the herb. In case you are personally not certain about the identity of the herb you are looking for, it is extremely essential that you should get the herb identified by someone who is familiar with it when you discover it growing somewhere. Alternately, provided you have some basic knowledge about botany, you may also utilize the keys in any botanical text or field guide to identify the herb in question.
In addition, you will also benefit by keeping a journal of all the wild herbs found in your locality. It is advisable that whenever you go through the journal, you prepare small notes regarding the appearance, life-cycle, environs as well as the locations of the herb mentioned in it. If you wish, you make take out a map of your locality and plot the areas where any precise herb is found. When you maintain such records carefully, gradually you will be able to develop a deep knowledge regarding the curative herbs that are found in your area. Accumulation of such information will bear fruit when you plan to harvest the bounty of the medicinal plants growing in the wild.
Before concluding, it may be mentioned that the whole subject about harvesting herbs from public land is a very indistinct and uncertain one. Technically speaking, without a valid permit it is not legal to get anything from places like the national forests. Despite this, expert wild crafters harvest several thousand pounds of wild herbs from the public land and sell them to pharmaceutical companies and others every year. For instance, several tons of the bark of cascara sagrada is gathered from public property in the Pacific Northwest each year. This bark is marketed to the pharmaceutical companies and herb distributors for use in manufacturing laxative formulations. Frankly speaking, this is a very peculiar situation that lies somewhere between the legal and regulatory intermediate state. It may be noted that the Federal agencies do not have any category for providing permits to harvest medicinal herbs from public lands and, usually, they also do not impose any regulations against doing so.