Co-owner of Bossy Acres, an organic farm in Minnesota, and author of Backyard Pharmacy, which details how to grow and use dozens of herbs.
Even if you’ve never put a tulip bulb in the ground, it’s easy to create your very own home-remedy garden with herbs, flowers and more. In fact, it’s much easier to grow herbs than vegetables, regardless of your current green thumb status.
People have a tendency to think “exotic” when it comes to healing herbs, but many of the culinary ones that you already reach for have medicinal properties, so they’re a great place to start. You can find out about other medicinal herbs at the National Library of Medicine’s website, NLM.nih.gov/about/herbgarden/index.html, or consult my book, Backyard Pharmacy. Here are some of the most popular and easiest-to-grow medicinal plants…
Basil. Chewing on basil leaves can freshen breath and even ease cold symptoms. There are dozens of varieties of basil, but holy basil is the variety most often used for medicinal purposes including reducing inflammation and fighting aging caused by free radicals. It is widely available in garden centers and supermarkets in small starter plants that grow very well when planted in your garden. Pluck larger leaves at the bottom, and leave tiny ones at the top to help the plant regenerate. Snip off flowers as they appear in order to prolong growth. Ideal conditions: Six to eight hours of sun daily and well-drained, loosened soil.
Cayenne peppers are rich in capsaicin and have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. They are easy to dry and grind for year-round use. They’re a great anti-cold remedy all winter long, particularly when mixed with warm water, honey and crushed garlic. Buy small plants at garden centers in mid-spring. Ideal conditions: Eight to 10 hours of full sun daily and well-drained, loosened soil.
Chamomile’s dried flowers make a great infusion for easing anxiety and helping you get to sleep. I recommend German chamomile over the more common Roman. It tends to have more flowers, and that’s what you will be using for remedies. Ideal conditions: Eight to 10 hours of sun daily and well-drained soil.
Echinacea’s dried flowers support the immune system and can ease cold symptoms. The flowers of both echinacea and its cousin chamomile will add beauty and attract birds and butterflies to your garden. Ideal conditions: Six to eight hours of sun daily and loamy soil.
Garlic, important for boosting heart health and relief from colds and flu, is surprisingly easy to grow. In a shallow trench and spacing them about eight inches apart, plant the largest individual cloves from one or more heads (buy those grown specifically for propagation)—root-side down, pointy end up. If you love garlic, set aside an eight-foot-by-three-foot patch for your trenches to be able to harvest at least a three-month supply.
Garlic should be planted in fall, left to develop root structure over the winter, and harvested in summer. Stored in a cool dark cabinet, the heads will last for months. Ideal conditions: Six to eight hours of sun daily and well-drained, loosened soil.
Lemon balm has been used for centuries as a calming agent, including to ease a queasy tummy, and it also can help manage seasonal allergies. It thrives in cool weather so you can get a head start on it in early spring. It also makes a great addition to hot and iced teas or other beverages and even can be used as a flavoring for desserts. Ideal conditions: Six to eight hours of sun daily and well-drained, loosened soil.
Mint provides an energy boost and can soothe stomach issues. Chew on the leaves, or brew them into a tea. Mints of all varieties are hardy and easy to grow from seed. It can be invasive so you might want to keep it in pots or place it in the garden where it has plenty of room to grow. Ideal conditions: Full sun or partial shade and well-drained, loosened soil.
Oregano’s dried leaves make a wonderful tea that is high in antioxidants and is used to treat digestive complaints. Fresh leaves can be turned into a poultice to soothe itchy skin. It is best to plant oregano at the margins of your garden because its low-lying branches spread easily between vegetables. It gets bushy, so you’ll need to thin it every few years. Ideal conditions: Full sun and well-drained, loosened soil.
Plants that you start from seed may take hold better outdoors because they develop in the local environment, but there are no guarantees! Seeds usually are less expensive than starter plants, even when you buy organic, which I recommend. How many starter plants to buy depends on your needs and uses and the space you have. But two or three of each should be a good start. Avoid buying large transplants, such as those in six-inch or larger containers. Small ones are less likely to experience shock when you replant them. Look for two- or four-inch starters.
If you’re buying seeds: Good seed sellers include Johnny’s Selected Seeds…Seeds of Change…Strictly Medicinal Seeds…and Hudson Valley Seed Company.
Hint: Once you have started growing your seeds and transplanted them outside, make your own planting notes right on the packets and store the packets in a dedicated bin as you would recipe cards.
If you’re buying starter plants: Small transplants from a local nursery, state fair or farmers’ market are a great option if you’re getting a late start…are less experienced…or you want to try an herb you’ve never grown before. Ask the seller for tips about what grows best in your local area and soil and how much space it will need.
There’s nothing quite like plucking fresh herbs for a relaxing afternoon tea or to enhance home cooking. But if you don’t use them frequently, regularly trim the plants back to encourage new growth, and dry the cuttings for future use.
At the end of your growing season, harvest your herbs. You can cut fresh herbs, chop them and put them in ice cube trays with a little olive oil and water, then freeze and transfer to freezer bags for storage. You also can dry them on a mesh screen or in bundles by tying the stems together and hanging them, stem end up, to dry. Or freeze the fresh or dried herb in a plastic bag in the freezer.
Store dried herbs in airtight glass jars, and keep them out of the light. Enjoy them as teas…or as tinctures, made by putting the herb in a container of two-thirds alcohol such as vodka and one-third water for at least two weeks. Or make balms or salves by placing your herbs in a jar of olive oil for a period of weeks to create an essential oil, then heating the oil with beeswax or coconut oil (once cool, it solidifies). Always do your research before using herbs to be sure they’re safe for you.