Getting Started with Herbs.

Herbs compromise annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees, and are grown and cared for like other members of their respective groups. You can buy plants from a nursery, or you can start many annual and perennial herbs from seed. Nursery-bought plants are your only option for true French tarragon, particular mints, and oregano, which need to be grown from cuttings or divisions to produce the desired characteristics. Depending on the herb, you can increase your supply of plants by dividing clumps in your garden or root cuttings. Planted in moderately fertile, well-drained soil, many herbs require little routine care after they’ve become established. Poor drainage is the bane of many herbs because soggy soil readily rots their roots {especially over winter} or harbors fungal disease. If your soil doesn’t drain well, consider growing herbs in raised beds or containers.

What is a Herb?

Herbs are a fascinating group of plants with a history of cultivation stretching back to the dawn of civilization. Once the herb garden was a practical project, necessary for supplying flavorings for the kitchen and medicines for the family. Today, gardeners are growing herbs for medicinal purposes and for their attractive looks, pleasing fragrances, and tasty flavors. Whether your interest is kindled by taste, aroma, beauty, or history, you’ll find herbs a satisfying addition to your garden.
What is a Herb?
Traditionally, herbs have been defined as plants that are useful to people. The oregano and thyme on your pizza are herbs just as the ornamental foxglove, from which we once extracted the medicine digitalis, is a herb. The insecticide pyrethrin is derived from the painted daisy, making it a herb as well. The list goes on and on; we use herbs and herb products every day.
Choosing Herbs:
In addition to a herb’s taste, aroma, and appearance, consider its preferred growing conditions when choosing what to grow. Herbs are such a diverse group of plants that broad generalizations are often misleading. Most herbs thrive in moderately fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny location; some do well in poor soil or partial shade, and a few tolerate soggy soil. Despite summer heat in your climate. If you live in a cold-winter climate and want to grow a herb that’s tender to your winters-rosemary, for instance, you can grow it in a pot and overwinter it indoors. Plants adapted to the conditions of your area {soil, temperature, rainfall, and so on} are more likely to succeed for you and to require less care.
Herbs in the Home Landscape:
With such a wide variety of flowers, foliage, and forms to choose from, you can consider a herb for a spot in a flower bed or border just as you would any other annual, perennial, or shrub. Take advantage of aromatic herbs such as lavender, clary sage, and dianthus, which have scents that waft through the air, by placing them near seating or upwind of open windows. Place herbs with leaves or flowers that must be crushed to release their fragrance, such as mints and sage, within easy reach. If herbs can withstand light foot traffic, as do chamomile, pennyroyal, and oregano, plant them between flagstones on a path or patio. Plant herbs such as creeping thyme in soil that fills the spaces between stones in a wall or rocky outcrop. Use Santolina or creeping thyme as a sunny groundcover. The small stature, leaves, and flowers of a number of herbs fit nicely with the diminutive alpine plants traditional in rock gardens.
Many herbs make excellent container plants. If your gardening is restricted to a patio or balcony, you can easily grow mints, chives, basil, parsley, and many other herbs in pots. Container planting also allows gardeners in cold-winter climates to move tender herbs such as sweet bay and rosemary inside for the winter. You can have fun combining plants in single pots, arranging groups of containers for best effect, and placing potted herbs in garden settings to provide interest. As long as they have the same sun and moisture requirements, you can combine different herbs {as well as other plants} in the same container. Try creeping thyme or chamomile as a ground cover for a sweet bay tree. Edge a pot of geraniums with curly-leaved parsley. Combine chives, parsley, and thyme in a window box or deck railing box.
Annual and tender perennial herbs are grown the same way as other container plants. Remember

that containers must have drainage holes, the soil must drain well, the plants will need periodic fertilizing, and the containers may need watering as often as twice a day.

Perennial herbs and those that are shrubs or trees can be grown in pots, too. These plants need special care to keep them healthy from year to year. Overwintering herbs indoors in pots or growing them indoors year-round is problematic because light levels, even in south-facing windows, are seldom sufficient. Plants may survive, but growth and flavor will be weak and shoots and stems will be “leggy” {elongated with leaves spaced too far apart}.
To ensure robust health in overwintered herbs, grow them under fluorescent lights. Place them so that their top leaves are a few inches below the tubes, and keep the lights on for 16 to 18 hours a day. Make sure the soil doesn’t dry out. Fertilize plants that continue growing every month, but don’t fertilize plants that normally go dormant during the winter. As the plants grow, they’ll need to be pruned and repotted in the same or larger pots.

Selecting the Best Containers.

So many choices your head is spinning?
Garden centers, home improvement stores, and nurseries offer a cornucopia of ready-made containers and planters in a variety of styles, colors, sizes, and materials. Common materials include plastic, wood, metal, cement, stone, and glazed pottery or clay. Light-weight faux planters that resemble more expensive materials are typically made of polyethylene, polyurethane foam or fiberglass resin.
All types of pots have good and bad points. Plastic pots are inexpensive and lightweight, but they deteriorate in outdoor conditions after several seasons of use. Wood containers can be relatively lightweight and portable {depending on their size}. Just be sure to steer clear of wood treated with creosote, penta or other phenolic compounds. Redwood or cedar, which are naturally rot-resistant, are good choices for containers.
Clay pots are porous and, therefore, dry out quickly, making them well-suited for rosemary, oregano, and other drought-tolerant herbs. They do break easily, so take care when moving them indoors for the winter. Natural materials like stone or cement containers last a lifetime but are more difficult to maneuver.
You also might want to think beyond the confines of a ready-made container.
For example, recycle a leaky birdbath into a stylish container for growing lady’s mantle, nasturtiums or a sprawling rosemary. Turn an old pair of leather boots into a unique pot for growing trailing herbs and flowers. Even a vintage washbasin, rusty wheelbarrow or unused enamel pot can be turned into a container for herbs as long as the item is large enough to accommodate your plants.
Whatever object catches your fancy, be sure it has drainage holes at the bottom. You can always poke or drill several holes in the bottom of any object lacking sufficient drainage. A masonry bit works great for drilling holes in old crocks, earthenware pitchers, stoneware or other ceramic items. If a recycled item leaks, so much the better. Think leaky watering cans, or a punctured enamel pot. Elevating containers on pottery feet, bricks, stones or even a pot turned upside-down also helps improve drainage.
In addition to a variety of materials, containers also come in various styles, colors, and sizes. You can narrow down your choices by picking pots suited for your garden style, as well as for your climate, growing conditions and the type of herbs they will contain. Pots as small as 10-inches in diameter are fine for single plantings of small herbs. For larger herbs, herb displays or groups of culinary herbs, choose a container that’s 18-inches or larger in diameter.

Container Soil Specifics.

The type of soil you put in your container can make the difference between a plant that thrives or fails. Soil straight from the garden is usually too heavy and dense to provide adequate aeration and drainage. It lacks the porosity needed to grow a healthy plant. As the soil compacts, plant roots are deprived of oxygen, leading to a plant’s demise.
For lush, healthy container plantings, you need the quality potting mix. Commercial potting mixes incorporate organic ingredients for a porous medium that drains well, yet retains adequate moisture and nutrients for plant growth. A good potting mix usually contains peat moss and perlite or pumice, and sometimes other ingredients, such as vermiculite {similar to mica in appearance}, compost or finely shredded bark. Packages labeled “potting soil” usually contain some garden loam or topsoil, as well as shredded or composted bark, manure, and other ingredients. You can use a quality commercial potting mix or potting soil straight from the bag.
To give your potted plants an even better environment, you can fortify a commercial mix with compost and other ingredients. Compost provides additional nutrients and improves drainage while releasing moisture gradually, as plants require it. Perlite helps prevent compaction, allowing air to reach the roots. All of these materials are available at your local garden center.
Mix Up an Easy Potting Blend
3 parts commercial potting mix
1 part compost
1 part perlite
Mix Up an Easy Potting Soil
4 parts commercial potting soil
2 parts peat moss
2 parts compost
2 parts perlite

Kitchen Herb Garden.

If your interests are culinary, grow herbs used for food and flavoring where they’ll be handy near the kitchen door. Such gardens are often small and laid out geometrically, but they can also be planted as a border along the back walk or around a patio. Divide the plantings into beds with narrow paths of wood chips or brick to emphasize the geometry and provide easy access.
Suggested Plants:
You’ll undoubtedly have favorite herbs you’ll want to plant, but consider including oregano, sage, chives, thyme, and tarragon. These perennials can form the foundation of the garden. Plan spaces for them first because they will remain in the garden for years and will spread considerably while they’re there. When they’re young, fill in spaces between them with annuals. {Place tall annuals where they won’t shade or crowd the young perennials.} Chives and oregano will self-sow everywhere if you let the flowers go to seed; instead, cut the flower stems when blooms are half-open, and hang them upside down to dry for use in indoor bouquets.
Must-have annuals for any herb garden are green- or purple-leaved basil, fern-like parsley, tall and airy dill, and leafy coriander, which is known as cilantro when grown for its leaves. Plant the annuals where you can clean them up in the fall without disturbing your perennials.
Several indispensable herbs are woody. Rosemary and lemon verbena are shrubs though they’re usually referred to as tender perennials. Sweet bay grows slowly into a tree. With the exception of a hardy rosemary named ‘Arp’, which survives in sheltered sites in Zones 7 or 6, none of the three overwinter in areas colder than Zone 8. If you live in a cold-winter region, plant these tender herbs in containers, or pot them up at the end of the season. Bring them indoors for the winter months. You’ll need to repot both rosemary and sweet bay every two to three years because they get quite large as they mature.
Herb leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season. Depending on the plant and your needs, you may gather just a few leaves or cut away half or more of its foliage. For some herbs, picking stimulates new growth and provides a long season of harvest. Harvest in the morning, when the dew has dried off the leaves but before the heat of the day has driven off some of the plant’s flavorful oils.
Herbs that you wish to use fresh will keep for a short time in a vase of water. Leaves can also be dried and stored for long periods. Bind small bundles of stems together with rubber bands, and place the bundles in a dry, well-ventilated place, out of direct sun. You can hang the bundles or place them on screens {for air movement}. Turn the bundles regularly to ensure uniform drying {and to check for mildew and mold}. When the leaves are brittle, strip them off the stems, and put them in lidded jars. Don’t crush the leaves until you use them; crushing releases their oils.
To collect herb seeds, harvest when the seeds begin to turn brown. Band seed stalks together in small bundles and put the bundles inside a paper bag tied around the stem. As they dry, the seeds will drop into the bag.
For other methods of preserving herbs, include oven drying, microwave drying, and freezing, contact your cooperative Extension Service or consult one of the many books devoted to herbs.

Safety When You Use Herbs.

Plants have the power to heal…but first know these basics for safe and effective results.

Humans, like most mammals, have turned to plants for food and medicine since our earliest times. No doubt some of our ancestors suffered the consequences of unfortunate choices along the way.

Most of the herbs sold in the United States are safe when taken in recommended dosage. More than 38 million Americans use herbs each year, yet the majority of calls to Poison Control Centers about plant ingestion have to do with people {usually children} and pets eating the potentially poisonous house and garden plants, not medicinal herbs.

To ensure your experiences with medicinal herbs remain positive without inadvertent mishaps-follow these basic guidelines.


Start with Food Herbs.

You can bet on safety when you use herbs as foods-think garlic, ginger, nettles, dandelion greens, shitake mushrooms, burdock root {also called gobo} and rose hips. Culinary herbs-thyme, oregano, turmeric, cayenne are also low-risk. Externally applied herbs {compresses, poultices, salves} provide another good testing ground.

The next step is to begin experimenting with infusions {commonly known as “teas”}. Many of the food herbs mentioned above can be dried, chopped, and steeped as tea. Extracts of herbs in alcohol {tinctures} or glycerin {glycerites} generally are more potent. Solid extracts, in which all the solvent has been removed, and carbon dioxide extract herbs are stronger still. Standardized extracts are designed to have a consistent level of suspected active ingredients from batch to batch. This process allows for more precise dosing and easier use in research, but also makes the product closer to a drug.

Allergy-Prone? Proceed with Caution.

Simon Mills, an internationally known herbal authority and coauthor of The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety {Elsevier, 2005}, says, “Allergic reactions are the most common type of herbal side effects although still infrequent.” Sensitive people who handle plants or apply them to their skin could develop contact dermatitis {an itchy skin rash}, and inhaling the herbs could aggravate hay fever or asthma. Allergic responses to ingested herbs include skin rash, stomach upset and, at the extreme, life-threatening anaphylaxis.

If you’re allergic to ragweed, you might react to other members of the aster family, such as chamomile, echinacea, and feverfew. More rarely, people can have allergic reactions to cayenne, kava {a member of the pepper family}, garlic, and mints.

“If you are prone to allergic reactions, be careful with your herbal attempts,” Mill says. Try one new herb at a time. Start with half the recommended dose, then gradually increase to the full recommended amount. If you develop a rash, upset stomach, itchy eyes or sneezing, stop taking the herb. If your lips or throat begin to swell, seek emergency care.

Investigate Herb-Drug Interactions.

If you are taking both herbs and pharmaceutical drugs, you’ll want to avoid two possible scenarios: 1 interfering with the drug’s effects, and 2} amplifying the drug’s effects.

A herb can interfere with a drug’s effects it acts in the opposite way, for instance, drinking three cups of stimulating black tea or coffee after taking a sedative Valium. A herb also might lower blood levels of a medication, thus thwarting its intended action. St. John’s wort is famous for doing just that. By speeding liver enzyme systems that break down drugs, it reduces blood levels of a long list of medications, including some antihistamines, chemotherapeutic and anti-HIV drugs, warfarin, and oral contraceptives.

Furthermore, St. John’s wort, which has a good track record as an antidepressant, shouldn’t be combined with pharmaceutical antidepressants because it can raise blood levels of the chemical serotonin to dangerously high levels.

Combining herbs with drugs that have similar actions can increase the drug’s desired effects or its unpleasant side effects, and the net effect could be good or bad. For instance, some Chinese studies have found astragalus {Astragalus membranaceus} augments some anti-cancer drugs and decreases the drug’s side effects. {Note: Researchers used injectable forms of the herb.}

In other cases, too much of a good thing can be bad. Taking anticoagulant {“blood-thinner”} drugs {aspirin, warfarin, heparin} with therapeutic doses of anticoagulant herbs {garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, and others}, for example, can result in bleeding. It’s also wise to discontinue the use of such herbs seven to 10 days before surgery.

As a general rule, avoid mixing herbs and drugs with the same actions so you do not become overly stimulated, sedated, anticoagulated, etc.

Know When to See Your Health-Care Provider.

Sick infants should be seen immediately by a practitioner with pediatric training. Also, seek the help of your health-care provider if you know, or suspect, you or another adult has a serious condition. Self-medication with herbs runs the risk of delaying or interfering with medical treatment, potentially with  disastrous consequences. Even if you have a mundane illness, make a doctor’s appointment if three days of home care haven’t alleviated your symptoms. Please work in partnership with your physician.

Also, be sure to tell your physician about any herbs you are taking prior to scheduling surgery. Some herbs, especially those with anticoagulant action, should be discontinued seven to 10 days before surgery, or as your doctor advises.

Use Extra Caution When Giving Herbs to Children.

Babies younger than 6 months {or around the time a child begins eating solid food} should not take herbs internally. Small amounts of gentle herbs can be applied to an infant’s skin via salves, oils, baths and compresses {a cloth dipped in herb tea}.

For older children, dosages usually are calculated by weight. Take the child’s weight in pounds, divide it by 150 {an average adult weight} and multiply that number by the adult dose. For instance, if an adult dose is 100 mg and the child weighs 50 pounds, the child’s dose would be 30 mg {50/150 x 100 = 0.3 x 100 = 30 mg}.

Children aren’t simply small adults, however. Some herbs generally regarded safe for adults should not be given to children. To find out more, ask an herbal expert or get a book, such as Naturally Healthy Babies & Children by Aviva Romm {Storey Publishing, 2000}.

Use Gentle Herbs when Pregnant or Nursing.

Many plant constituents pass from the intestinal tract into the blood, across the placenta to the fetus’ blood and, later, into breast milk.

If you’re pregnant, you generally should avoid putting anything medicinal into your body, Avoid consuming herbs with laxative effects {senna, cascara sagrada, aloe}; hormonal properties {licorice, black cohosh, dong Quai, chaste tree, sage, red clover}; or stimulant effects {guarana, kola, yerba mate, tea, coffee}.

Food herbs usually are safe bets, particularly when used in quantities suitable for flavoring. While no obstetrician will tell you to cease cooking with garlic and oregano, some culinary herbs, such as sage and parsley, might not be recommended in higher therapeutic doses. Most experts agree pregnant woman can take these herbs safely: ginger {no more than 1 gram a day to reduce nausea}, raspberry leaf, echinacea, chamomile, bilberry {fruit, not leaf}, cranberry, hawthorn, hibiscus flowers, rose hips, mullein, spearmint, and nettles.

Be Wary of Imported Herbs.

Some herbal products from Asia, India, and the Middle East reportedly have been adulterated with undesirable plants and/or contaminated with heavy metals, sulfates, pesticides and other toxins. In Chinese herbal formulas, herbs can be blended with pharmaceutical drugs not mentioned on the label. Also, Aristolochia fang chi, which has been substituted for other herbs, has been linked to severe kidney damage. Rather than give up on Asian herbs, “I personally would stick to whole herbs I can see, then make my own formulation,” says Mills.

Use Essential Oils Wisely.

Essential oils are extremely concentrated. Herbalist and aromatherapist Diana Jones gives the following rules for using them safely:

1} Don’t apply essential oils to any mucous membrane: mouth, ears, nose, eyes, vagina or rectum.

2} Don’t take essential oils by mouth and keep the bottles out of the reach of small children.

3} Don’t apply undiluted essential oils to the skin. The standard dilution is 10 to 12 drops of essential oil per one ounce of carrier oil {such as almond or jojoba}. Use half that amount or less for people who are debilitated; those with sensitive skin; and for children 5 to 12 years old. Don’t use essential oils for children younger than 5.

4} Be cautious when inhaling or applying essential oils to the chest if you are prone to asthma.

Educate Yourself.

Anyone interested in herbal medicine should have a good reference book on herb safety.


The Essential Guide to Herb Safety by Simon Mills and Kerry Bone {Elsevier, 2005}

Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions by Francis Brinker, N.D. {Eclectic, 2001}

Botanical Safety Handbook by Michael McGuffin, et al {CRC, 1997}

The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs by Mark Blumenthal, et al {Thieme, 2003}