Create A Living Herbal Apothecary Outside Your Door

Whether you’re an experienced farmer or completely new to the world of gardening, medicinal herbs offer a unique growing experience. In this article, you’ll learn the steps you need to take to create a living herbal apothecary outside your door. If you have the area to cultivate and would like to grow your own herbs, start right here.

Herbs From the Ground Up:

Gardening begins with the soil; it’s the “ground of our being,” to borrow a phrase. If you take care of the soil, the soil, in turn, will nourish and feed the plants you grow for healing and health.

Soil Types:

An important first step in growing outdoors is to find what kind of soil you have. Take a handful of soil from a couple different places in your yard or on your land, make sure each one is somewhat moist, squeeze it gently in your fist, and then examine it. If the soil in your hand is somewhat sticky and holds together in a ball, it is clay soil. This type of soil is high in nutrients but can be heavy and waterlogged. If the herb you want to grow needs good drainage, you should add sand, gravel, or organic matter to the soil to lighten the texture. But if your herb needs rich soil and moisture, clay soil may be fine.

If your sample is grayish and gritty and falls right through your fingers, it is sandy soil. This soil type drains well, but it allows nutrients to wash away easily so it is considered the leanest soil. It warms up earliest in the spring so it may allow you to get a head start on the growing season. If the herb you want to grow needs rich conditions, you’ll need to add amendments {such as compost, organic fertilizers, and other sources of organic matter} to improve the texture of sandy soil and boost its nutrient content.

If your sample is a rich brown color, smells sweetly earthy, and crumbles easily, it is loam soil. This is the ideal soil type because it holds nutrients and moisture, yet it’s well aerated, so roots can easily expand and grow. Depending on the herb you are planting, you might add sand or gravel for better drainage or compost or aged manure to further enrich the soil.

Your site may have more than one type of soil or even a combination of all three types. But no matter which you have, you should pay attention to the level of organic matter your soil contains. Check to see if the sample in your hand looks like it contains bits of dark-colored humus {organic matter, such as composted plants, tiny pieces of bark, and worm castings}. If your soil is lacking humus, consider working in materials such as finely chopped leaves or compost.

pH levels:

Soil’s acidity or alkalinity is measured by its concentration of hydrogen ions or pH {the power of hydrogen}. You can test a soil sample yourself or send it away for testing to determine its pH level. Most herbs and vegetables prefer pH levels to be in the neutral range {6.5 to 7.5}, but some varieties are tolerant of more widely acid or alkaline soils. Excess acidity or alkalinity {below 5.5 or above 8} will make it difficult for a plant to take up nutrients. Sandy soils are often acidic {below 7}, and chalky or limey soils are alkaline {above 7}, but your local conditions play a role, too. You can buy fairly good, inexpensive testing kits at garden stores if you want to do it yourself, or you can ask your local Cooperative Extension Service about their testing service. They may perform several types of analysis, including measuring levels of organic matter and nutrients, and they will make recommendations for amending the soil to create ideal growing conditions for your plants. For example, if your soil is too acidic, you can add amendments to increase alkalinities, such as limestone, calcium, and wood ashes. If your soil is too alkaline, add sulfur, pine needles, leaf mold {composted leaves}, and even highly diluted urea.

Nutrients:

Plants have nutritional needs, just like we do. The three major nutrients, which are usually included in commercial fertilizers, are nitrogen {N}, phosphorus {P}, and potassium {K}. In purchased fertilizers, you’ll see them represented on the label as three numbers separated by dashes: 5-10-5 {meaning 5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, and 5 percent potassium}. Plants need smaller amounts of other micronutrients, such as boron, calcium, copper, iron, manganese, and molybdenum, and these are often included in fertilizer mixes, too.

Nitrogen is necessary for plants to develop healthy leaves, and you can provide it in several ways. Good sources of nitrogen include compost, aged manure, blood meal, grass clippings, and fish emulsion. Cover crops, also called green manures, are another.

Phosphorus is important for seed, flower, and root development in plants. Good sources are a bone meal, phosphate rock, compost, and fish emulsion.

Potassium {sometimes called “potash”} helps develop roots and fruits and helps plants take up nutrients. Good sources of potassium include wood ashes, comfrey tea {which is also high in calcium, iron, and manganese}, algae powders {such as Maxicrop}, granite dust, and fish emulsion.

How do you know if a plant needs fertilizer? Even without soil test results, you can follow these simple clues: If your herb is stunted and the stems are thin and stiff, or if the leaves are small, have yellowed, or have even begun to fall off, you may need to add nitrogen {N}. If your herb has leaves that are turning purple on the undersides or at the tips, or if the stems are thin and the plant is growing slowly, you may need to add phosphorus {P}. If your herb begins to look “scorched” at the leaf margins or has bleached spots, the stems are weak and wilting, the leaves are curling, and the growth is stunted, you may need to add potassium {K}.

We garden organically and always have. Over the years, we’ve experimented with various soil amendments, but we always come back to the tried and true, slow acting, self-generating superstar – compost. We apply a few inches of it each year. When you feed the soil according to the needs of the herb in question, the plants will be stronger and better able to stave off disease and pest issues.

If plants show signs of nutrient deficiency, that’s the time to top-dress with a few inches of compost or to water with liquid fertilizers, such as comfrey tea, algae liquid made from commercial powders, or fish emulsion and seaweed fertilizers. Start with a watering can full of liquid, follow the directions on the commercial product {if applicable}, and slowly water the soil around the plant until it begins to run off or the soil appears to be saturated.

If you’ve performed a soil test and you know that you have nutrient deficiencies, you can work in any of the dry nutrients at the rate recommended on the label, depending on the needs of the individual herbs. Or you can simply sprinkle the powder on the soil surface, cultivate the soil to work the fertilizer deeper into the ground, and water well.

Mulch:

Mulch is simply organic material that you lay on top of the soil around your plants. It can be wood or bark chips, dry leaves, straw, crushed rock, or grass clippings. Mulch provides a barrier between the soil and the air, which helps to keep moisture in the soil, and it gradually breaks down to provide organic matter to the soil. Keep in mind that different materials may have varying levels of acidity or alkalinity, and most should not come in contact with the stems or trunks of your plants. If your summers are humid {which means that fungal problems are an issue}, be judicious about adding mulch, because some organic materials can introduce pathogens. Sand, gravel, and stone may be better options for you. You can also use agricultural or landscape fabric; just fasten it down with stakes and cut holes for your plants. These fabric {and black plastic or polyethylene, which we do not recommend} are used as weed barriers and water conservation aids. They have their place, particularly if you live in a dry climate or need to discourage a massive preexisting population of an intractable weed or undesirable plant, such as Bermuda grass, but natural mulches usually do the job just as well.

Light:

Most herbs and vegetables need 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to thrive, but this is a general guideline only. Some plants will tolerate a wide range of light exposure, and their sunlight requirements may vary in your local climate, as well. Each herb has its own individual needs.

Water:

drip irrigationHerbs require water to grow, but how much is enough? Growing powerful medicinal herbs is a playful dance between simulating wild conditions {giving plants the same environmental situations that they would encounter in their homeland} and providing cultivated amenities that might improve their potency and health.

Let’s look at essential oil content. Many of the herbs we grow for medicine {and food} are valued for that constituent, and we might want to pay attention to what increases it. Many members of the Lamiaceae, or mint family {basil, catnip, oregano, peppermint, and thyme} come from Mediterranean climates, where summers are hot and dry and winters are mild. They have adapted to dry conditions for much of the year. It stands to reason that, at some point, their essential oils can be diluted if they are over-watered. Yet research has shown that some supplemental water given to these plants increases their foliage yield and essential oil levels.

Where you, the grower, come in is in determining when you’ve given your plant enough water, but not too much. You’ll want to remember that clay soils hold water longer, sandy soils drain faster, and gardens on sloping hillsides lose moisture {which mulch can help retain}. You’ll have to assess water needs based on your conditions and the season, as well as the needs of the individual plants.

If you plan to garden on a larger scale or have limited garden maintenance time, you may want to consider an automatic watering system that consists of overhead sprinklers, drip irrigation, or a combination of the two. These systems are both time- and work-savers, relatively inexpensive, and often sold in easy-to-use kit forms. Overhead watering mimics nature, of course, and we’ve noticed that plants in a hot, dry environment appreciate the humidity it provides. But overhead watering in the later part of the day can set up ideal conditions for fungal diseases to develop, and it also tends to waste water. Drip irrigation can deliver water where it is needed – at the roots of the plants – through a series of tubes and emitters, but the equipment can be easily damaged and requires a fair amount of maintenance. Talk with a garden center about your needs and read product reviews online to be sure that the system you’re considering is a good match for your needs.

Temperature:

This element comes into play in several different ways. How do you know when to sow seeds or set plants into the ground?

First, of course, there’s the temperature of the soil. Some herbs germinate best in cold soil, some in warm. Then there’s timing: You’ll want to learn the last frost date for your local areas so you’ll know when you can safely plant those tender spring seedlings. You can ask your local Cooperative Extension Service or, of course, do an online search. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to choose herbs from our recommendations wisely.

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