A Living Herbal Apothecary

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 land 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 greyish 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 the 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 times- 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.

water wise bend garden

Herb gardeners are not the kind of people who give up easily. A few years ago, when we nursed our garden’s through a drought with heavy water {the type carried by hand}. We learned the value of special planting techniques borrowed from the native people of the arid southwest and gained a new appreciation for the natural drought tolerance of lavender, rosemary, and other Mediterranean herbs.

Those of us who grow herbs have a big advantage when it comes to water-wise gardening because we have so many beautiful drought-tolerant choices available to us.

By combining herbs that thrive under dry conditions with several time-tested strategies for reducing moisture loss, you easily can grow a herb garden that requires little or no supplemental water.

Strategy # 1:

Create Moisture Zones

In water-strapped communities across the country, gardeners have found that placing plants that share similar moisture needs together makes watering more effective and convenient. For example, you might place St. John’s wort, lovage, marshmallow and other herbs that prefer moist soil together in a spot shaded from hot afternoon sun. Should the rain clouds disappear for weeks at a time, you can efficiently water the heavy drinkers until they are satisfied. In similar fashion, herbs that need little water, such as horehound, Santolina, and all succulents, can be grouped together in hot spots that are difficult to water.

Strategy # 2:

Water-Seeking Roots

Newly planted herbs need moist soil until they establish a functioning network of roots. But after a few weeks, you can fine-tune your watering practices to push plants to develop bigger, better root systems.

Covering the soil’s surface with any type of mulch will block weeds and slow evaporative moisture loss, but there’s a catch. In dry weather, hurried watering sessions that moisten only the mulch and top inch or so of soil encourage plants to develop roots close to the surface, where they quickly dry out. Weekly deep watering, on the other hand, encourages the growth of deeper water-seeking roots.

Using drip or soaker hoses for several hours {or overnight} is the easiest way to deeply water established herbs. Or let the water run freely from a hose laid on the ground as you do other things nearby. Avoid using sprinklers, which are inefficient and must be left on for a long time to soak roots deeply.

Strategy # 3:

Lessons from the Past

Few places are as hot and dry as the desert southwest, where Zuni gardeners developed an ingenious method called waffle gardening. As the gardeners dug the planting beds, they shaped them into squares or rectangles. Within each one, the Zuni used their hands to mound soil into a waffle pattern. Like warm syrup in a waffle, water collects in each basin when it rains. Between rains, the berms shelter roots from drying the sun and the wind.

Most gardens receive more rain than Zuni gardens do, but you can adapt the waffle garden concept for your temperate-climate herb garden.

A Bountiful, Water-Wise Herb Garden Bed.

Water conservation is built into our planting of more than a dozen herbs and other useful plants. Lavender, Santolina, and others that require excellent drainage and dry conditions occupy raised berms. The irrigated heart of the bed is filled with herbs that prefer a little more water, with front door space set aside for hand-watered culinary herbs.

Use a similar “water-zone” approach when planting your favorite herbs. A 5-by-12 footbed can be created on level ground or on a slight slope. If desired, a second soaker hose can be installed atop the berm. You also can make the garden longer to create a border along a fence.

Make the berm just a few inches high and the sunken interior area about 4 to 5 inches deep. After you plant, add a generous layer of mulch; the interior surface will be just slightly below the original surface. Do include an opening that can serve as an open floodgate should a heavy storm drench your planting of water-wise herbs.

Outer berm:

Lavender {Lavandula spp.}, 30-36 inches, Zone 4-8. All varieties adapt to dry conditions; Spanish lavender {L. stoechas} is especially heated tolerant.

Rosemary {Rosmarinus officinalis}, 24-48 inches, Zones 7-10; curling leaf tips indicate a need for supplemental water.

Hens-and-chicks {Sempervivum spp.}, 6 inches, Zones 3-8; heat- and cold-tolerant succulents form robust mounds. Can be grown in a pot.

Sedums {Sedum spp.}, 4-8 inches, Zones 3-8; these hardy succulents come in a range of sizes, colors, and forms.

Sage {Salvia officinalis}, 24 inches, Zones 4-8; choose between varieties with grey-green leaves or variegated strains, which tolerate less cold.

Ice plant {Delosperma spp.}, 12 inches, Zones 4-8; heavy-blooming succulents can be grown as annuals or perennials.

Thyme {Thymus spp.}, 12 inches, Zones 5-9; all species show the high tolerance for dry conditions after they are well rooted.

Oregano {Origanum spp.}, 16 inches, Zones 5-9; small, thick leaves hold up well under dry conditions which often enhance flavor.

Gray Santolina {Santolina chamaecyparissus}, 12 inches, Zones 6-8; stiff plants form tight mounds of foliage; require dry conditions.

Echinacea {Echinacea spp.}, 36 inches, Zones 3-9; enjoy flowers in summer, and make healthful tea from the roots in the fall.

Inner Bed, rear tier:

Horehound  {Marrubium vulgare}, 28 inches, Zones 4-9; most drought-tolerant member of the mint family. Leaves used for cough medicine, candy or tea.

Fern-leaf yarrow {Achillea filipendulina}, 36-48 inches, Zones 3-8; produces long-lasting yellow flower clusters in summer; finely cut foliage good for arrangements or crafts.

Russian Sage {Perovskia atriplicifolia}, 3-5 feet, Zones 6-9; arching branches clothed with luminous gray foliage all season, with lavender flowers in summer.

Borage {Borago officinalis}, 36 inches, annual, all zones; fast-growing plants produce flushes of starry blue flowers; cut back to prolong blooming time.

Inner Bed, rear tier:

Anise hyssop {Agastache spp.}, 2-3 feet, Zones 4-9; fragrant foliage topped by spikes of bee-friendly flowers from mid-summer onward.

Basil {Ocimum basilicum}, annual, all zones; 12-18 inches tall.

Cilantro {Coriandrum sativum}, grow as annual; about 6 inches tall.

Parsley {Petroselinum crispum}, a biennial in Zone 6 or grow as annual; about 3-4 inches tall.

A mulched herb garden requires only half as much water as the same space kept in a bluegrass lawn.

Use X-rated Plants:

The word xeriscape always has been a mouthful, so it’s no surprise that the practice of gardening with little or no supplemental water {xeriscaping} has picked up a bit of verbal shorthand. in short, a good xeriscape plant is rated x. Depending on where you live, X-rated plants might include cacti or yucca, or perhaps native grasses or vines. Among herbs, gray Santolina, horehound, and rosemary are rated X. For more information, visit Colorado Water Wise Council at http://Xeriscape.org or Eartheasy at http://www.Eartheasy.com

Native Plants for Your Area.

NORTHEAST {ZONES 2A-7B}

Pink Turtlehead {Chelone Iyonii}: wildflower perennial.

Butterfly Milkweed {Asclepias tuberosa}: wildflower perennial.

Creeping Wintergreen or “Checkerberry” {Gaultheria procumbens}: evergreen perennial/groundcover.

Blue False Indigo {Baptisia australis}: herbaceous perennial.

Sweet Pepperbush {Clethra alnifolia}: deciduous shrub.

NORTHWEST {ZONES 3A-9B}

Showy Fleabane {Erigeron speciosus}: wildflower perennial.

Common Camas {Camassia quamash}: wildflower perennial/groundcover.

Spiraea or “Hardhack” {Spiraea douglasii}: shrub perennial.

Hooker’s Onion {Allium acuminatum}: perennial groundcover.

Trailing Blackberry {Rubus ursinus}: vine/shrub/deciduous perennial.

SOUTHEAST {ZONES 5B-10B}

Rose Verbena {Verbena canadensis}: perennial groundcover.

American Elderberry {Sambucus nigra}: deciduous perennial shrub.

Trumpet Honeysuckle/Coral Honeysuckle {Lonicera sempervirens}; vine perennial.

Swamp Milkweed {Asclepias incarnata}: wildflower perennial.

Blazing Star {Liatris spicata}: wildflower perennial.

SOUTHWEST {ZONES 5B-10B}

Skunkbush Sumac {Rhus trilobata}: perennial deciduous shrub.

Desert Sand Verbena {Abronia villosa}: wildflower annual.

Silver Buffaloberry {Shepherdia argentea}: perennial shrub.

Rocky Mountain Columbine {Aguilegia caerulea}: wildflower perennial.

Western Wallflower {Erysimum asperum}: wildflower biennial.

NORTHERN MIDWEST {ZONES 2B-6A}

Purple Prairie Clover {Dalea purpurea}: wildflower perennial.

Greek Valerian {Polemonium reptans}: wildflower perennial.

Sneezeweed {Helenium autumnale}: wildflower perennial.

Bunchberry {Cornus canadensis}: groundcover perennial.

Cattails {Typha latifolia} grass perennial.

SOUTHERN MIDWEST {ZONES 4B-9B}

Blue Larkspur {Delphinium carolinianum}: wildflower perennial.

Spicebush {Lindera benzoin}: shrub.

Coreopsis {Coreopsis grandiflora}: wildflower perennial.

Wild Hyacinth {Camassia scilloides}: wildflower perennial.

Inkberry {Ilex glabra}: shrub.

Not sure what zone you’re in? Go to http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone to find out.

Creating A Native Plant Garden.

By sticking with species indigenous to your area, you can help save the environment and yourself some back-breaking labor!

In the face of an often bleak midwinter, we do have one joyous event to look forward to the steady arrival of garden catalogs. Those glossy pages tempt us with a dazzling array of flowers, herbs, and vegetables, offering yet another chance to dream and plan for the perfect garden. With fancy foliage, pristine blooms, catchy names, and a color palette that rivals a Monet painting, these myriad choices call out to us, saying “buy me!” And often, in a cabin-fever-induced frenzy, we succumb, putting our hard-earned money toward a host of exotic species.

But later, sometimes years after we’ve planted our seeds, we find that those Asian, bittersweet, multiflora roses and that Japanese honeysuckle have taken over the entire garden, choking out any plants in their path. Where did we go wrong? These wondrous species that looked too good to be true are the culprits. By choosing plants unsuited to the region in which we live, we invite, quite literally, an alien invasion of the plant world.

You don’t have to look far to create a garden filled with gorgeous, carefree blooms and healthy herbs and vegetables. Native plants, those species that have grown in your region for eons, are not only aesthetically pleasing, they support the local ecosystem. A healthier ecosystem means a heartier garden and a happier gardener.

Native Know-How:

One of the main benefits of native plants is that they’ve acclimated to your region. With no need for special pruning, or fertilizing, these species require less maintenance. Native ground covers allow the gardener to cut back on weeding time, and the more plants you grow, the less lawn upkeep you have to stay on top of. {They also prevent soil erosion.} Native plants are also the perfect candidates for companion planting. Growing two or more different kinds of native plants close together can help repel pests, attract beneficial insects, provide shelter for smaller plants, and add important nutrients to the soil. This all translates to less work for the gardener.

Of course, these perks also benefit the environment. Essentially recreating the natural landscape {as it was before humans arrived on the scene with their exotic tastes and penchant for wide expanses of green grass}, a native plant garden provides shelter and food for birds, insects, bats, and other organisms. And, unlike foreign plants, which can be extremely susceptible to your region’s various diseases and pests, native species prove much more resilient because they’ve acclimated over the centuries. You don’t have to resort to harmful pesticides and herbicides to thwart these plant killers.

Plants native to a particular region are also accustomed to the climate and seasonal weather conditions. They require less watering and are often drought resistant. In areas where water use is sometimes restricted during the summer months, native species fare much better than exotic plants.

Native plants {and trees} increase biodiversity by providing wildlife with food in the form of leaves, berries, fruit, and insects. Biodiversity is essential to the stability and existence of most ecosystems. Microorganisms break down decaying matter in the soil, providing energy for plants to grow. Plants provide food and shelter to larger insects {and even some animals}, and these larger insects are often food for animals. It’s a continuous, finely-tuned cycle. Because exotic plants can be toxic to insects {even beneficial ones} and often kill off native plants, they reduce biodiversity, damaging the ecosystem as a result.

Butterfly populations, in particular, are dwindling because native plants serve as their main source of food. For a garden to attract butterflies, two types of plants are necessary: those that provide nectar for adults and those that serve as host plants for larvae. Many exotic species only provide nectar, offering no place for these adults to lay their eggs. Birds, spiders, predatory insects, and even rodents rely on larvae for food, while plants look to these future butterflies to help pollinate.

Yet another benefit, many of these native species are used in herbal medicine. Planting a garden full of local flora gives you easy access to remedies for all kinds of medical conditions and symptoms.

Worried that your native plants will attract deer? These four-legged creatures actually find native plants less appealing, because they grow prolifically in the woods. Like humans, deer find exotic rarities much more desirable!

Top-Ten-Medicinal-Herbs-for-the-Garden-Echinacea-purpurea-growing-with-wild-bergamot1

 

Getting Started:

Rather than transform your garden all at once, start slowly and incorporate a few native plants into your existing plot to complement your annuals and exotic perennials. If you do decide to start fresh with natives, try a small bed no larger than 3 x 8 feet.

Native plants attract and restore wildlife habitats and also attract beneficial insects. Remember to design your garden around the three pillars of a sustainable habitat: food, water, and shelter. Don’t forget to include some trees and shrubs, which also provide shelter and food.

Many nurseries now carry native plants. Make sure that the plants you intend to purchase were cultivated in your area, preferably from seeds or cuttings. Avoid purchasing cloned cultivars or horticulturally enhanced plants.

Sticking with native plants doesn’t mean giving up your neat and tidy garden beds for a wild field of weeds, nor does it mean resigning yourself to unappealing blooms. A native plants garden virtually cares for itself, while offering a safe haven for wildlife and insects. Help sustain your region’s biodiversity and enjoy the unending beauty these species have to offer.

Advertisements

One comment