Let’s Plant Some Herbs – Selecting Containers, Soil Mixes for Containers

Selecting Containers:

Decorative pots, barrels, and tubs are beautiful and convenient, and there are multitudes of styles. They lend instant color and provide a focal point for space, whether indoors or out. The only tricky thing is getting a sense of how large a pot you’ll need for a particular herb, so check each herb to determine its mature size. For outdoor growing, keep in mind that it’s easier to grow plants in large containers than small ones because large containers hold more soil, which stays moist longer and is less subject to temperature fluctuations. For most herbs, the ideal container provides enough room for the herb to grow in one season. {For example, place a herb purchased in a 4-inch pot into a 6- to 8-inch pot.} Check the herb’s profile to see how big it’s going to get during the season, and use that as your guide.

You should also consider the size and shape of a plant’s root system, how rapidly it grows, and whether it is a perennial, annual, or shrub. It is especially important to check your pots occasionally to make sure the root systems haven’t outgrown their lodgings. Root-bound plants, which have filled up every square inch of the soil available, dry out rapidly and do not grow well.

Of course, the sizes of the containers you use will be limited by the space you have available {especially indoors}, what structures or furniture will support the containers, and whether the containers will need to be moved.

Whichever container you choose, drainage holes are essential. Without drainage, soil can become water-logged and plants will suffer. With the exception of ceramic-type pots, you can always drill drainage holes yourself. There are also self-watering, double-walled containers and pots on the market, and these are ideal for smaller plants that need frequent watering.

When choosing pots for herbs, you also need to take into account the differences between plastic, clay {such as terra-cotta}, glazed ceramic, and wooden pots. Plastic warms up fast {not an advantage outdoors in areas where summers are hot and dry} and thus dries out quickly, but it’s lightweight and inexpensive. Terra-cotta containers can be attractive and inexpensive; they do transpire moisture through their walls, but they also dry more evenly than plastic. You’ll need to protect terra-cotta pots in colder climates because they can crack or break as they freeze and thaw. Glazed ceramic will retain moisture but can keep plants soaked with water if the drainage holes are not adequate. Wood is natural looking in an outdoor setting and can protect roots from rapid temperature extremes. Polyurethane foam pots are gaining in popularity because they resemble terra-cotta pots but are considerably lighter. However, we do not recommend growing your medicinal plants in this type of material because the toxic hydrocarbons emitted by the foam can enter your herb’s roots. There is one thing to remember, no matter which type of pot you choose: Start with small pots when the plants are young and small, allowing for at least one season of growth.

Let’s Plant Herbs:

Once you’ve made decisions about the placement and possibilities of your setting, you’re ready to select soil mixes and plants. Maybe you already know which herbs you would like to grow or you’re inspired to try a new plant.

Soil Mixes for Containers:

A soil mix needs to do two things: hold the plant’s roots in place and retain the nutrients and moisture it needs. As you learn about herbs you would like to grow, you will notice that they differing nutrient and moisture needs. Herbs that originate in four-season climates and the tropics will appreciate rich soils mixes, and desert or Mediterranean plants will respond better to lean soil mixes.

You can create your own soil mix with just a few garden components. Start with a base of whichever you have on hand, either good topsoil or purchased potting soil. Mix the ingredients in a large tub or wheelbarrow, or on a tarp, and then transfer it to your containers.

Rich Soil Mix:

You can purchase all of these ingredients {except the garden soil} at garden or farm supply stores. Coir {shredded coconut hulls} is a great substitute for non-renewable peat, but coir dries out very quickly, so make sure it is moistened before adding it to your mix.

2 parts garden soil or purchased organic potting soil

2 parts compost

2 parts coir, composted fine bark, perlite, or moistened vermiculite*

1 part horticultural sand

Optional: 1 to 2 parts aged manure, for outdoor mixes

  • Reduce by half if you’re using potting soil

Lean Soil Mix:

2 parts garden soil or purchased organic potting soil

2 parts sand, perlite, or vermiculite

Optional: 1 to 2 parts coir or another tilth-building ingredient, such as coffee grounds or peanut or rice hulls

A variety of “soilless” mixes are available. They often contain peat, which is an endangered, nonrenewable resource {although it’s a superior component of soil mixes}. Check before purchasing soil-less mixes, and always buy a certified organic mix unless you trust the source. You can also make your own soil-less mixes.

Rich Soilless Mix:

2 parts coir, moistened

2 parts compost

1 part sand

1 part aged manure or a combination of blood meal, fish meal, bone meal, or seaweed meal

Optional: 1 part perlite or vermiculite

Lean Soilless Mix:

4 parts coir, moistened

2 parts sand

Optional: 1 part perlite or vermiculite

Moisten with fish emulsion, algae, or seaweed liquid {such as Maxicrop}.

Potting Up Herbs:

If you have purchased plants, fill your empty container half full of your soil mix and gently lift a plant out of its nursery pot by cradling the base of the plant stem between two fingers, turning the pot upside down or sideways, then tapping, squeezing, and easing out the plant. Set it in place in the container. Fill the pot with soil mix, making sure that the soil level is at least an inch or two below the rim of the container and the soil is even with, or slightly higher than, the original soil level of the plant. Firm the soil around the plant.

If you’re starting herbs from seed, fill seedling trays, nursery or paper pots, or clean, recycled containers with seed-starting mix, and directly sow seeds into the mix, following the directions for each herb profile.

Caring for Container Plants:

Once you’ve invested time in planting containers, you will want the herbs to grow well and look their best. Follow these tips for great results.

  • Do not place a layer of gravel or broken pottery at the bottom of your container, as many sources recommend. That practice actually worsens bad drainage, instead of improving it.
  • Water container plants thoroughly, but do not over-water! It is sometimes tricky to determine whether more is needed, but you should keep in mind that most herbs in containers should nearly dry out between watering. You can’t always tell by feeling the soil surface whether the soil throughout the container is dry, but you will want to let the plant get {almost} to the point of wilting before you douse it.
  • Container plants need regular feeding. If the herb likes rich soil, water it with a liquid fertilizer every week or two, just until the fertilizer begins to drain out of the bottom. If it thrives in poorer soil, feed it once a month.
  • Remove dead leaves and spent blossoms, and prune back plants that get leggy or stop blooming. Do not be afraid to dig out or remove plants that do not grow well or that succumb to diseases or pests.
  • If the roots of a plant start to emerge from the drainage holes at the bottom of its container, it’s time to repot! Use a pot that is the next size up, fill it halfway with your soil mix, place your plant in the pot, and continue filling until the soil level is a little bit higher than the original soil level of the herb. Firm the soil around the plant. Sprinkle a little bit of compost on the soil surface, then drench it with a diluted fish emulsion, seaweed, or algae fertilizer; you can also apply compost or comfrey tea.
  • Plan to repot your perennial herbs every year. Each spring, remove the entire plant and its soil from the pot and shake off any soil that comes away easily. If no soil comes off easily {or if you see the plant’s roots coiled tightly around the edge of the root-ball}, it’s time for a bigger pot. Trim away any old, dead plant material and gently loosen any visible coiled roots. Put some new soil in the bottom of the pot [or, if you are transplanting into a larger pot, half fill the new container}, set the plant on the soil, and add more soil around the sides of the plant. Then water the new transplant with liquid fertilizer.
  • If your plant is too big to repot, tend and feed it yearly. Using a trowel, break up the surface of the soil and water it with comfrey tea, compost tea, fish emulsion, or other liquid fertilizer. Then apply a fresh layer of compost – as much as possible, while making sure that your soil level remains at least an inch or so below the rim of the container.
  • In autumn, cut back perennial herbs and reduce your watering schedule. Remove the top layer of compost from your pots and replace it. Bring your tender plants inside before the first frost date. You can leave hardy perennials outside, but group them together against a sheltered wall and mulch them. If severe weather is predicted, cover the entire group of pots with a thick layer of straw or leaves, string with non-LED Christmas lights, or use blankets or other protection.
  • Hanging baskets make great herb containers, but be sure to place them in an easy-to-reach spot so they do not suffer from neglect. They are best located where they will not get full sun all day and won’t experience high winds. Creeping herbs, such as Gotu kola and oregano, are the best choices for hanging baskets. Check them every morning and evening to see if they need water.

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}

Let’s Create Some Herbal Medicine – Compresses.

compressesCompresses are pads or cloths saturated with herbal teas that are applied externally to heal skin traumas {wounds, rashes, skin infections, burns, scrapes, bites, and stings}, contusions, sprains, strains, muscle aches, and even organ congestion {a lack of proper blood flow that can lead to the functioning of an organ}. A warm compress is helpful for aches and infections, while a cool compress soothes itching or burning pain. You can keep a warm compress heated with a hot water bottle and a cool compress chilled with an ice pack wrapped in a towel.

Warm compresses have a wide variety of healing uses: Calendula tea in a warm compress helps heal wounds and varicose ulcers, rosemary tea in a warm compress helps relieve the pain of arthritis or sore muscles, and thyme tea in a warm compress will prevent or relieve surface infections. Cool compresses reduce heat and soothe: Chamomile tea in a cool compress eases the pain of sunburn or rashes, and lemon balm tea can be used as an antiviral compress and applied to chicken pox and other herpes outbreaks. You can make a compress from any absorbent material – muslin, flannel, towels, and even old T-shirts. We use washcloths because they are absorbent by nature and are often a convenient size to use.

Apply a compress for healing and restoring the skin and relieving inflammation in the joints and muscles.

Basic Compress:

Fold a soft cloth, saturate with a strong herb tea, and apply it to an area of the body in need of healing care – such as a bruise, strain, sprain, or inflammatory condition like an arthritic joint.

  1. Cut a piece of muslin, flannel, toweling, or a washcloth and fold it, if necessary, until it’s slightly larger than the affected area.
  2. Make a strong, dark tea by steeping 1 cup fresh or 1/2 cup dried herbs in 4 cups of purified water for about 20 minutes. If you’re preparing a warm compress, the tea is ready to apply to the affected area. If you’re preparing a cool compress, let the liquid cool.
  3. Soak the compress cloth in the tea. Remove the cloth from the liquid, letting it drip and squeezing lightly until it is thoroughly wet but not dripping.
  4. Apply the compress to the affected area. When a warm compress cools, reheat the liquid and renew the compress by dipping it into the liquid again. When a cool compress begins to feel dry or stiff, renew it by dipping it into the liquid again. You can also use a hot water bottle or ice pack.
  5. You can use the same liquid for 2 days or you can make a fresh batch for each application. When reusing the same liquid, you may wish to bring the liquid to a boil first, to kill any bacteria, and then turn off the heat and let it cool to the desired temperature.

Rash Compress:

The herbs in this formula are astringent, soothing, and healing. Use it for poison ivy and oak, hives, blackheads, and acne that does not come to a head for draining.

  • 1/2 cup fresh or 1/4 cup dried calendula flowers
  • 1/2 cup fresh or 1/4 cup dried yarrow leaf
  • 1/2 cup fresh or 1/4 cup dried gotu kola leaf
  • 1/2 cup fresh or 1/4 cup dried self-heal or peppermint herb
  • 4 cups purified water
  • 2 or 3 drops peppermint essential oil {optional; use for hot, itchy rashes like poison ivy and poison oak}
  • Washcloth, muslin, or other absorbent cloth

Combine the calendula, yarrow, gotu kola, self-heal or peppermint, and water in a covered saucepan. Stir thoroughly to combine. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat, and gently simmer for about 20 minutes. Let it cool and strain out the herbs, but do not discard them. Add the optional peppermint essential oil, and stir to mix well. Lay your washcloth or other compress cloth in a bowl and ladle about 1/4 cup or more of the wet herbs, plus some of the tea, into the cloth. Gather the edges of the cloth around the herbs and secure with a tie, or hold the bundle closed.

Apply the herb compress to the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes. Return the bundle of herbs to the tea to soak for a few minutes, and apply the compress to the affected area again. Repeat one more time, for a total of three applications. Repeat this process two or three times daily, or as needed. You can also strain out the herbs, compost them, and just use the tea to soak your cloth.

Note: You can also apply St. John’s wort infused oil, calendula oil or cream, or aloe vera gel to your skin between compress sessions; add a few drops of peppermint oil to these oils as well to cool hot, itchy rashes

Ginger Compress:

This compress will help to relieve muscular or joint aches and pains, as well as speed healing and reduces the pain of injuries like strains or sprains. Ginger has a natural anti-inflammatory effect that reduces pain and swelling while increasing your circulation and the distribution of healing immune cells. Apply a ginger compress several times daily after you have used an ice-cold compress for 12 to 24 hours, as is usually medically recommended.

  • 1 ounce fresh or 1/2 ounce dried ginger root
  • 4 cups purified water
  • Washcloth, muslin,or other absorbent cloth

Combine the ginger and water in a saucepan, and stir to thoroughly combine. Bring to a boil, and gently simmer for 30 minutes. Sip 1/2 teaspoon of the ginger tea before you let it cool down; it should taste very spicy. If it doesn’t, add another ounce of fresh ginger {or 1/2 ounce dried} to the tea and let it simmer for an additional 10 minutes before cooling. {Ginger can vary in its spiciness.}

Let the mixture cool to a temperature that is hot, but tolerable. Fold a washcloth or other compress cloth until it’s slightly larger than the affected area, and dip it into the hot tea. Remove and squeeze gently, until the cloth is thoroughly wet but not dripping, and apply it to the injured area. Cover with a small plastic bag or plastic wrap {to prevent water loss} and then a small towel to keep in the heat; leave in place for 20 to 30 minutes.

You will feel the ginger compress cool down, but after about 20 minutes, you should feel it warming up again. This secondary feeling of warmth is due to the stimulating effect of the ginger itself. Leave the compress in place for 5 to 10 minutes after you feel this effect. Repeat the compress two to three times a day or as needed.

Let’s Plant Some Herbs – Harvesting, Drying, Preserving and Storing Your Herbs.

Now for the heart of the medicinal herbs! Knowing how to properly harvest your medicinal herbs will increase the potency and efficacy of the preparations you create.

Let’s understand the terminology used to describe the parts of herbs {plant parts} when harvesting.

  • Berries and Seeds: These are the fruits of the plant, harvested when they are fully ripe {usually when they have turned a rich, deep color and have softened and matured}. Rub or brush away old flower parts and the remains of calyxes {plant material between the berry and the stem}, and halve larger seeds and berries to speed up their drying time.
  • Buds: This means just the flower in its unopened state. Harvest it without any stem.
  • Flower: Harvest flowers by removing the whole flowering head, with little or no stem attached. The ideal time to harvest is just as the flowers are opening, but you can collect fully open flowers, as well. When they have aged to the point where their petals are drooping, however, their medicine is not as strong. Do not wash flowers unless they are visibly dirty.
  • Flowering Tops: This term denotes the entire flowering portion of the herb, still attached to a few inches of plant stem and leaves. The tops are best for medicine when in early to full flower, and even in late flower, in a few cases {such as St. John’s wort}.
  • Herb: This refers to the aerial parts of the plant: leaves, stems, flowers, and buds {if present} and includes only the flexible portion of the stem {which usually means the top 6 to 9 inches of the plant}. The herb is at its most potent when it’s in early flower through the full flowering stage. Once it has started going to seed, the plant’s potency has already started to decline. Do not wash herbs unless they are quite dirty. These aerial parts are usually chopped or ground for medicine making, and the thickest part of the stem is often discarded after drying.
  • Leaf: Take the leaf and petiole {the tender stem holding the leaf}, and in some cases a very minimal amount of plant stem, if it’s fleshy. Leaves that have some insect damage are fine to use, but discard those that are browning or yellowing. Dust off the leaves and lightly rinse them if they’re dirty, blotting them dry before you make your medicine. Leave them whole for drying.
  • Root or rhizome: This refers to any below-soil roots, rhizomes {underground stems that have a root-like appearance}, and rootlet parts. You will mainly be harvesting roots of perennial, not annual, herbs. Dig them in the fall, winter, or early spring, when the plant has completely died back and all its energy has returned to the root for the winter months. If the plant is a biennial {such as angelica, burdock, and mullein}, harvest from the fall after the first year of growth through the spring of the second year, before the flowering stalk shoots up. If the plant is a perennial, the best year to harvest varies with each herb. Wash and clean roots after you dig them, cut off the crown {the point where the stem joins the roots}, and either make your medicinal preparation or chop the roots into small, uniform pieces for drying.
  • Strobile: In the case of hops, these are the cone-shaped flowering portions of the plant. Harvest them when they are maturing from green to yellowish brown.
  • Whole Plant: When you harvest the whole plant, you take the roots or rhizomes and rootlets {still attached to the crown}, the stems, leaves, flowers, and buds – everything. The best time to harvest a whole plant is usually when the plant is in early flower. Wash the root and remove any brown or decaying above-ground portion of the plant. Then separate the above-ground and root portions for drying, since roots take much longer to fully dehydrate.

When to Harvest Your Herbs:

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Follow the guidelines above for the correct time of year to harvest each plant part. In general, the best time of day to gather any of the above-ground portions of herbs is mid-morning or early evening. Start your harvest after the dew has dried but while the herbs are still cool, since excess moisture can lead to mold and blackened leaves. Herbs harvested in very hot weather or under the midday sun can bruise or wilt, causing them to lose their medicinal constituents {particularly their essential oil content}. Keep them in the shade while you are collecting, and do not pile them too thickly. Roots can be harvested at ant time of day that the ground can be worked, but not when there’s soggy soil: You’ll compact the soil and destroy all the aeration those under-ground critters have worked so hard to tunnel in. remember that the soil is home to beneficial earthworms and a host of other allies.

Plan ahead: Harvest just before you make your medicinal preparations, or prepare and dry them immediately. Herbs will begin to lose potency a soon as they are harvested. Keep them in the shade while you’re working, and if you need to hold them for a time, be sure to refrigerate them right away. The faster they cool, the fresher they will stay.

After harvesting, wash them as little as possible. Do not drench your herbs unless they are caked with mud or extremely dusty. You can fill a sink or bucket with water and, holding a bunch firmly, swish the tops quickly. Gently shake off the excess water and blot them dry, or lay them out on paper or cloth towels to dry.

The Right Tools for Harvesting Your Herbs:

It’s important to use the right tool for the job. Use scissors that you have dedicated to your herbs to harvest very fragile flowers, stems, and leaves. Invest in a good-quality pair of clippers for sturdier plant parts; this will be your most frequently used tool, so buy the best. A hand trowel is versatile, especially if it has a thinner profile for maneuvering in smaller spots. If you’re gardening outside, use a digging fork rather than a shovel for most root-digging harvests. A fork is gentler on the roots, lifts them out more efficiently, and disturbs the surrounding area the least.

Always use clean tools when you’re digging and clipping plants. It’s often recommended that clippers be dipped in a weak bleach solution and rinsed periodically to disinfect them, especially before taking stem cuttings or after pruning a diseased plant.

Drying, Preserving and Storing Your Herbs:

Since you can’t have fresh herbs year-round, and because you do not always use everything you harvest, a drying area at home is the key to preserving your bounty and building your home medicine chest. There are three elements necessary to dry herbs effectively and safeguard their medicinal potency.

  • Darkness: The most crucial factor is to avoid drying your herbs in direct sunlight. Generally speaking, the darker your drying area, the better {although there are a few exceptions, such as some roots}. You can use a closet, a cupboard, an old oven, an attic, or even a barn loft for drying. If you use an area in an open room, be sure to store herbs immediately after they dry, or their color {and their medicinal components} will fade before too long.
  • Air circulation: Choose a breezy area or keep air moving throughout the drying arae so your herbs will dry evenly and quickly, before mold can grow. Even in foggy or damp weather, you can set up a fan to counteract moisture buildup. The percentage of moisture in the air should be 25 percent or less. {You can gauge it with a hydrometer.} If humidity is an ongoing problem, you may want to invest in a small, potable dehumidifier.
  • Heat: A steady heat source really makes a difference in the time it takes to fully dry herbs. You can set up your drying system near a wood-stove or radiator or in a hot water heater closet. You can also make use of the heat rising up to your attic or into your uninsulated summer garage. Forced air dryers, such as food dehydrators, are great for small quantities of herbs, and for larger batches, you can find plans and sample designs for electric and solar dryers online. The ideal temperature for drying most leafy plant material is 90 degrees to 110 degrees F; for thicker, woodier parts, the temperature can go up to 120 degrees F. But you can dry herbs effectively at a typical range of indoor home temperatures if you have good airflow.

Drying Racks:

To dry herbs quickly and evenly, set up screens or racks and lay individual leaves, flowers, berries, and root slices on them.

You’ll get excellent airflow on all sides, and you can move the racks around easily. Window screens or screen doors can be set on blocks, boxes, or any kind of support. You can stretch shade cloth, netting, or fabric over wooden frames, racks, poles, or sawhorses to use as a drying surface {but do not use synthetic sheets because air doesn’t pass through the fibers well}. In a pinch, you can lay herbs on butcher paper or art stock spread over tables, taking care to turn and fluff the material frequently. Be sure to brush off the drying racks or other surface before each use to remove dust and particles from previously dried batches.

Spread your plant material thinly, without clumping or piling it. If you’re planning to dry roots or other parts that need to be cleaned, wash them immediately after harvesting, pat them dry, and spread them out on your drying racks. Try to keep all of the above-ground portions of herbs as whole as possible {you can sort them after they have dried}, but slice your roots to speed the drying time. Chop them into uniform-size pieces either horizontally {like carrot rounds} or vertically {like tongue depressors} if they’re large enough, so they dry evenly.

Turn over the herbs daily until they’re completely dry. This avoids uneven drying where plant parts overlap and pockets of moisture hide. Some very delicate flowers shouldn’t be turned because they’ll bruise and break, but most other leafy plants will need to be turned at least twice before they are crispy and dry.


A food dehydrator is handy for drying small batches of herbs, especially leaves that are separated from their stems. It’s a bit of a financial investment, but a fast and efficient food dehydrator can become the home herbalist’s favorite tool.

Hanging Your Herbs:

drying-herbs-1You can bunch long-stemmed herbs with elastics and hang them to dry. Take care not to create bunches that are too big or too dense, as this prevents air circulation in the center of the bunch, where molding can easily occur. The ideal bunch size at the elastic is the same as if you put your forefinger and thumb together in the shape of a circle. Thread a long length of twine or other sturdy line material through several bunches, like they’re hanging on a clothesline, and suspend the line somewhere warm, dry, out of direct sunlight, and convenient – like your kitchen, attic, or spare room. You can suspend bunches on hooks, clothes hangers, or even on a line hung along a wall. Just be sure to store them before they fade. This method is not ideal for leafy herbs that lose their color and potency rapidly {such as spearmint, lemon balm, and oregano}; be sure to store these herbs immediately after they have completely dried.

You can also place your loose herbs in paper bags and hang them in a warm or sunny place. The paper protects the herbs from light and allows air circulation. You can even punch tiny holes in the bag to increase airflow. Shake the bag every day or two so the herbs don’t clump, and check them for dryness after a week. This is a great way to dry flowers and save seeds: Remove the entire flower-head or seed-head with a nice, long stem; carefully lower it, flower pointed down, into a bag; and cinch the top of the bag loosely so debris and dust do not enter.

Oven Drying:

Oven drying is a fast and slightly unpredictable method of drying herbs, yet it’s a good choice if you need to dry herbs quickly or if you don’t have ideal conditions to dry dense roots or big berries that might mold over time. Herbs dry very quickly in the oven, so you will need to pay attention. Place the plant material on a cookie sheet, and turn the oven to the pilot light or lowest possible setting, taking care to leave the oven door open during the whole process. This is a touchy method, and it’s easy to over-dry delicate herbs because the temperature level is unpredictable.

We do not recommend drying medicinal herbs in the microwave.

Assessing Dryness:

No one who’s worked hard to plant and grow herbs wants to go to the cupboard to find a gray, fuzzy mass of moldy chamomile flowers a year after putting them in storage. To avoid this scenario, you need to carefully judge the dryness of your herbs. A completely dried herb will be brittle and breakable in your hand. If stems are still bending and leaves are still pliable, they are not dry. The woody stems and denser parts of the plants will take the longest to dry, so test them first. Flower-heads {such as calendula} might seem dry on the surface, but the interior could still be damp. Press your finger all the way into the center of the flower-head and feel for brittleness in the core of the head to be sure it’s dry all the way through. It’s a common mistake to bag up calendula flowers that are not fully dry and then find the entire crop lost. Be vigilant. You’ll find that atmospheric moisture will dramatically affect the final stages of drying: Herbs can reabsorb moisture overnight and be slightly damp in the morning, so wait until late afternoon to take your herbs off the drying racks so they have the heat of the day to get “crispy” dry.

Don’t leave your herbs on the drying racks or hanging in bunches for too long; remove them as soon as they feel completely crispy. If they keep drying beyond that point, they will soon brown and lose their medicinal and nutritional qualities. The end product of your efforts should resemble the living plant, both in color and texture. A good indicator of success is how recognizable your herb is as it sits in its storage container.

Fast-drying, delicate herbs generally take 3 to 5 days under ideal conditions and as long as 2 weeks in damp conditions. Roots and barks are denser and can take 2 weeks longer. Check your plants regularly, and make no assumptions about drying times.

Storing and Preserving Your Herbs:

Once your herbs are dry, put them in storage immediately. The best storage is clean, dry, dark, and cool. Glass jars, paper bags sealed tightly shut, stainless steel {non-aluminum}, and natural fiber containers work perfectly as long as they are airtight and protect from light and heat. If you need to use plastic bags temporarily, be sure the plastic is food-grade. {Avoid stiff white, gray, or black grocery bags.} Label your container with the name of the herb and the date.

Most flowers, leaves, and other above-ground portions of plants will retain their medicinal potency for a year {and in many cases, even longer} if stored correctly. Roots and barks can retain their potency for up to 2 years.

If your herbs are not carefully stored, you may find yourself with a pest problem: Mice just love dried elderberrries, astragalus roots, and rose hips. Moths may get into your containers and lay eggs on drying seeds, flowers, or berries. If you find a layer of minute brown particles at the bottom of a container, with webbing or disintegrating material among the pieces, you will have to discard your medicine. When this happens, set several insect traps in your storage area and monitor them daily. If the infestation hasn’t progressed too far or you’d like to make sure a batch is protected, put the herbs in a plastic bag in the freezer for 14 to 21 days. Make sure to let the bags return to room temperature before opening them.

Keep your herb-drying and storage areas sealed off from rodents, insects, and cats looking for a comfortable place to nap. Wash your hands before handling, turning, and bagging your herbs.

Freezing is an excellent way to preserve certain herbs, if you have the space for it. They will emerge from their frozen state somewhat discolored and mushy, but they will smell and taste potent.

Generally speaking, this applies to leaves and fleshy roots only {such as comfrey and burdock}, because flowers tend to lose their color and roots lose their texture.

You can freeze herbs two ways. With the first method, brush off or lightly wash the leaves or roots, chop them finely, and place them in closed plastic freezer bags that are labeled with the name of the herb and the date. Use them within a year. For the second method, brush off or lightly wash the leaves or roots, chop them coarsely, pop them into a food processor or blender with enough water to barely cover them, and process them until they are finely chopped or pureed but not paste. Pour this puree into ice cube trays and freeze. When the cubes are frozen solid, break them out and put them in freezer bags. Label and date the bags, put the herb cubes back into the freezer quickly, and use them before the year is out.

Now, after months of planting, growing, harvesting, and storing, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy knowing that you have created a home medicine chest that will give back for years to come!