Growing medicinal herbs at home

By Penny Woodward on 20 September 2013. Posted by WellBeing Natural Health & Living News

Growing medicinal herbs at home

medicinal_herbs

Gardening is the world’s most popular pastime and there’s very clear evidence that gardeners are healthier than non-gardeners. I believe gardening’s contribution to feeling good can be even more powerful when you use your garden to produce remedies for a wide range of health problems.

Herbal medicine in history

Using plants to promote good health is not a new idea. The ancient Greeks used common herbs such as parsley and thyme for a range of complaints, while French peasants collected plants from the forests and hedgerows to treat common ailments and mediaeval monks cultivated huge gardens of herbs for both medicinal and culinary purposes. At the start of this new century, herbs and herb gardens are regaining popularity as many more people realise the rewards of a lifestyle that includes herbs.

About 70 per cent of the world’s population still depends on traditional herbal remedies, and even in Australia at the beginning of the 20th century, most medicines were still based on herbs. As recently as 1940, up to 50 per cent of prescriptions contained herbal ingredients.

Herbs today

Today, people have forgotten, or were never taught, the simple remedies known to their grandparents. Herbs are not the answer to every problem, but there are numerous common ailments that respond well to herbal treatments.

Herbs have a rightful place in the promotion of a healthy, natural life. If you grow and make remedies from your own herbs, you can be sure of their purity and that the active constituents will be present. Using what’s in your garden is more convenient and much cheaper then jumping into the car and driving to a chemist or healthfood shop. It makes sense to make them a part of your regular diet as well as the source of remedies. Fresh herbs eaten every day improve not only the flavour of your food but also the general health of your family.

When I started using herbal remedies I began with one of the simplest — a peppermint infusion for indigestion. Now, every morning, I begin the day with a cup of peppermint or spearmint tea. Sage tea with honey and lemon is my answer to the first signs of a cold. Rosemary tea is my salvation when I need to write late into the night and maintain concentration.

Where do you start?

Herbs can be grown anywhere in the garden, but it’s a good idea to have some growing close to the kitchen so there’s no excuse not to pick them. Try establishing some small boxed beds or pots as close as possible to the door and planting them with the herbs you use most often.

Plant the rest in the most appropriate spots in the main garden, either in their own section, scattered among other plants (in pots or in the ground) or in the vegetable garden. If they are scattered around the garden, the strongly scented herbs will protect more vulnerable plants from insect attack.

What do they need?

As a general rule, herbs prefer plenty of sun, well-drained soil and adequate water during dry weather. Sunlight provides the energy plants use to make nutrients, and most herbs like plenty of sun. Watch your garden for a few days and see which parts get sun for the whole day and which are shaded in the morning or afternoon.

Remember that in winter the sun is low in the sky and in summer it is high, so shading will be different at different times of the year. Plant those herbs that like lots of sun in the more open positions and those that like some shade in positions where full sun is broken with some shade.

Plants also need nutrients from the soil, the most important being nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Others (known as trace elements) are needed in only tiny amounts. Work on improving the soil by adding manure and compost, both of which contain nutrients and at the same time encourage worms, insects and soil bacteria to live happily in your soil, creating a balanced and sustainable environment.

Worm castings and worm juice are great for herbs, especially those in pots. Herbs don’t need to be fed as often as other plants and, in fact, over feeding can make the leaves sappy and floppy and the flavour less intense.

Most herbs are fairly tough and will put up with being dry for quite a long time. Some of the toughest, such as rosemary, lavender, thyme, oregano and sage, are from the Mediterranean. Once you get to know your herbs, you’ll be able to tell when they need water. Often, there are one or two (such as marigolds) that will begin to droop before the others and they can act as a guide to when the rest of the garden needs watering.

The amount of water and the number of times it’s needed depend on the soil, the position of your garden, the mulch used and the weather. Working out what applies in your garden is all part of the fun. My favourite mulches are pea or lucerne straw and sugar cane mulch.

Keep their feet dry

Good drainage is essential to healthy garden soil and strong plants because most herbs don’t like to have their roots actually sitting in water. You can improve drainage and provide nutrients by adding humus to soil. In heavy soils, humus opens up the structure and increases drainage, while in sandy conditions it will help to slow drainage.

Drainage is also improved by raising the height of the garden bed above the surrounding ground. You can do this by using bricks or timber for the outside of the bed and filling with compost and soil. Where this can’t be done, grow your herbs in pots or other containers. More herbs are killed by bad drainage and wet roots than not enough water.

Organic protection

Once your herbs are growing happily, caring for them organically is the same as for other plants. There are lots of simple ways to protect them from pests. Get to know your plants so you notice as soon as something starts to eat them. Pick off anything that eats the leaves, such as caterpillars, and either squash them or drop them into a bucket of soapy water.

A ring of sawdust or wood ash sprinkled around young herbs protects them from snails and slugs or you can protect very young herbs by placing a jar over them at night and removing it in the morning.

Cutworms are small grubs that often bite through the stems of young herbs, but if you cutting the base out of small yoghurt containers and place one around each small plant it will protect them. Push them into the soil for a couple of centimetres.

Birds, especially blackbirds, will dig up young herbs while scratching for insects or worms in the soil. Cut the bottoms out of plastic plant pots and put them around plants until they are well-established.

Potting

Herbs do particularly well in pots. Quality potting mix is essential for good growth. You can make your own by combining sandy loam soil, coarse river sand and finely cut coir in equal amounts. Then, before planting, mix in fertiliser in the form of compost, well-rotted manures, blood-and-bone or fish emulsion. Then top dress with these every couple of months during the growing season.

Plants also benefit from an occasional watering with liquid seaweed fertiliser and top dressing with worm castings. If you don’t want to make your own mix, buy a good potting mix that has no added fertilisers and add your own to ensure your mix is organic.

Mulching

Reduce the need for watering during hot, dry weather by mulching the top of the soil. I like to use organic mulches that will break down and add to the nutrients in the mix. If these are applied in spring, by the following autumn they will have mostly broken down and more can then be added again as the weather warms up next spring. In tropical regions, add mulch in autumn to help during the dry winter months. Things like pea or lucerne straw are great for bigger pots, and lucerne pellets or coir work well for smaller pots.

Best backyard herbs

The following are some popular, easy-to-grow herbs. There is a great feeling of satisfaction when you get relief from a cold, a burn or a rash from plants you have grown yourself and turned into a remedy. Experiment and see what works for you.

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)
A tough easy herb, best grown from seed planted in spring. Drink leaves and flowers made into a tea as a gentle remedy for diarrhoea and to stem heavy bleeding during periods. Gargle to soothe a sore throat.

Aloe vera (Aloe vera)
A compact, succulent herb with fleshy, spotted leaves. Use the sap from inside the leaves to treat burns, bites, stings, rashes and other skin complaints.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

An easy-to-grow annual with lovely blue/purple star-shaped flowers that can be used in salads, soups teas and desserts. Leaves are also edible when young. Borage tea may have a mild laxative effect, calms the nerves and boosts the adrenals.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Easy to grow, though it likes plenty of water, catnip is part of the mint family, said to have a sedative effect on both cats and humans. The tea may be taken as a cold remedy, fever reducer and remedy for headache and tummy trouble. A gentle herb that can be used for teething pain and as a general tonic. In the garden, it attracts bees and butterflies but repels other insects.

Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
A perennial, creeping herb with apple-scented foliage and white and yellow daisy flowers. It grows easily from divided clumps in spring. A tea made from the flowers is used for a wide range of ailments, but in particular it eases stress and irritability caused by pain, as well as headaches and stomach-aches caused by tension. The flowers of annual chamomile (Matricaria recutita) can be used in the same way.

Elder (Sambucus nigra)
These trees grow so easily that they are problem weeds in some regions. Grow new plants from seed or by taking cuttings. Make the fresh or dried flowers into a tea to aid chronic ear infections and help reduce hayfever attacks.

English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Likes full sun and well-drained soil. It is easily grown from cuttings taken in spring. Make the fresh or dried flowers into a tea and drink to lessen bad breath, ease mild depression, calm irritability and suppress a cough.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium; syn. Chrysanthemum parthenium)
A perennial that’s easy to grow and will tolerate dryness, it has golden feathery foliage and white daisy flowers. Make tea with the leaves or eat fresh with other food to relieve headaches and coughs, but don’t take when pregnant or breastfeeding.

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica syn. Hydrocotyle asiatica)

Also known as pennywort or arthritis plant, gotu kola is a perennial groundcover that grows profusely and tolerates partial shade well. Its leaves have a good flavour and can be used in salads and curries to help relieve arthritis and is one of the most important rejuvenating herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. I’t recommended to chew a couple of leaves daily.

Heartsease (Viola tricolor)
An annual that grows easily from seed planted in early spring or autumn. It likes an open sunny position or partial shade and prefers well-drained sandy-loam soils that have been enriched with compost to help retain moisture. The leaves and flowers are made into a tea and drunk for a feverish cold, as a blood purifier and to tone blood vessels, especially the small vessels close to the surface of the skin.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
A delightful, lemon-scented shrub that grows happily in most positions. Eat fresh leaves or drink them as a tea to calm nerves and settle the stomach as well as soothe period pains.

Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
A cheerful annual with brightly coloured flowers that grows easily from seed sown in autumn. The fresh or dried petals made into a tea soothe an inflamed digestive tract, reduce hot flushes during menopause and used as a mouthwash will help heal ulcers. Make oils and creams from the petals to help heal bunions, fungal infections and a range of skin irritations.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
A vigorous grower with happy, brightly coloured flowers, which are a lovely addition to salads, as are the peppery-tasting leaves, it’s valued for its antibiotic, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. In the garden, they are a pest deterrent and an infusion of the leaves can be used to get rid of aphids. Plant between vegetable crops to discourage pests.

Peppermint (Mentha spp.)
Will grow easily in any slightly damp position. It likes a composty soil and does well in sun or shade. Make fresh leaves into a tea to relieve colic and flatulence, reduce headaches and lessen nausea associated with travel.

Red clover (Trifolim pratense)
A short-lived, sprawling perennial herb that grows best in high-rainfall areas. Grow it from seed or by dividing clumps in spring or summer. A tea made from the leaves and flowers reduces menopausal symptoms, calms a persistent cough, loosens phlegm and reduces appetite.

Teas, infusions, decoctions

You make an infusion just as you would make normal tea, using either fresh or dried leaves, stems and flowers. Steep in boiling water for several minutes, strain then drink hot or allow to cool.
Roots, bark and seeds or other hard parts of a plant, such as dried berries, are better made into a decoction. Add water and bring to a boil in a pot (ceramic is best — don’t use aluminium). Stir and allow to simmer, covered, for 10–15 minutes. Strain and drink.

Penny Woodward has written seven books on herbs and other useful plants, all of which are still in print. They include Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies, Herbs for Australian Gardens and Growing Easy Herbs for Beauty, Fragrance and Flavour. All are published by Hyland House.

Best backyard herbs

The following are some popular, easy-to-grow herbs. There is a great feeling of satisfaction when you get relief from a cold, a burn or a rash from plants you have grown yourself and turned into a remedy. Experiment and see what works for you.

Agrimony(Agrimonia eupatoria) A tough easy herb, best grown from seed planted in spring. Drink leaves and flowers made into a tea as a gentle remedy for diarrhoea and to stem heavy bleeding during periods. Gargle to soothe a sore throat.
Aloe veraAloe vera A compact, succulent herb with fleshy, spotted leaves. Use the sap from inside the leaves to treat burns, bites, stings, rashes and other skin complaints.
Borage Borago officinalis   An easy-to-grow annual with lovely blue/purple star-shaped flowers that can be used in salads, soups teas and desserts. Leaves are also edible when young. Borage tea may have a mild laxative effect, calms the nerves and boosts the adrenals.
CatnipNepeta cataria Easy to grow, though it likes plenty of water, catnip is part of the mint family, said to have a sedative effect on both cats and humans. The tea may be taken as a cold remedy, fever reducer and remedy for headache and tummy trouble. A gentle herb that can be used for teething pain and as a general tonic. In the garden, it attracts bees and butterflies but repels other insects.
ChamomileChamaemelum nobile A perennial, creeping herb with apple-scented foliage and white and yellow daisy flowers. It grows easily from divided clumps in spring. A tea made from the flowers is used for a wide range of ailments, but in particular it eases stress and irritability caused by pain, as well as headaches and stomach-aches caused by tension. The flowers of annual chamomile (Matricaria recutita) can be used in the same way.
ElderSambucus nigra These trees grow so easily that they are problem weeds in some regions. Grow new plants from seed or by taking cuttings. Make the fresh or dried flowers into a tea to aid chronic ear infections and help reduce hayfever attacks.
English lavenderLavandula angustifolia Likes full sun and well-drained soil. It is easily grown from cuttings taken in spring.  Make the fresh or dried flowers into a tea and drink to lessen bad breath, ease mild depression, calm irritability and suppress a cough.
FeverfewTanacetum parthenium; syn. Chrysanthemum parthenium A perennial that’s easy to grow and will tolerate dryness, it has golden feathery foliage and white daisy flowers. Make tea with the leaves or eat fresh with other food to relieve headaches and coughs, but don’t take when pregnant or breastfeeding.
Gotu kolaCentella asiatica syn. Hydrocotyle asiatica  Also known as pennywort or arthritis plant, gotu kola is a perennial groundcover that grows profusely and tolerates partial shade well. Its leaves have a good flavour and can be used in salads and curries to help relieve arthritis and is one of the most important rejuvenating herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. I’t recommended to chew a couple of leaves daily.
HeartseaseViola tricolor An annual that grows easily from seed planted in early spring or autumn. It likes an open sunny position or partial shade and prefers well-drained sandy-loam soils that have been enriched with compost to help retain moisture. The leaves and flowers are made into a tea and drunk for a feverish cold, as a blood purifier and to tone blood vessels, especially the small vessels close to the surface of the skin.
Lemon balmMelissa officinalis A delightful, lemon-scented shrub that grows happily in most positions. Eat fresh leaves or drink them as a tea to calm nerves and settle the stomach as well as soothe period pains.
MarigoldCalendula officinalis A cheerful annual with brightly coloured flowers that grows easily from seed sown in autumn. The fresh or dried petals made into a tea soothe an inflamed digestive tract, reduce hot flushes during menopause and used as a mouthwash will help heal ulcers. Make oils and creams from the petals to help heal bunions, fungal infections and a range of skin irritations.
NasturtiumTropaeolum majus A vigorous grower with happy, brightly coloured flowers, which are a lovely addition to salads, as are the peppery-tasting leaves, it’s valued for its antibiotic, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. In the garden, they are a pest deterrent and an infusion of the leaves can be used to get rid of aphids. Plant between vegetable crops to discourage pests.
PeppermintMentha spp. Will grow easily in any slightly damp position. It likes a composty soil and does well in sun or shade. Make fresh leaves into a tea to relieve colic and flatulence, reduce headaches and lessen nausea associated with travel.
Red cloverTrifolim pratense A short-lived, sprawling perennial herb that grows best in high-rainfall areas. Grow it from seed or by dividing clumps in spring or summer. A tea made from the leaves and flowers reduces menopausal symptoms, calms a persistent cough, loosens phlegm and reduces appetite.

Teas, infusions, decoctions

  • You make an infusion just as you would make normal tea, using either fresh or dried leaves, stems and flowers. Steep in boiling water for several minutes, strain then drink hot or allow to cool.
  • Roots, bark and seeds or other hard parts of a plant, such as dried berries, are better made into a decoction. Add water and bring to a boil in a pot (ceramic is best — don’t use aluminium). Stir and allow to simmer, covered, for 10–15 minutes. Strain and drink.

Penny Woodward has written seven books on herbs and other useful plants, all of which are still in print. They include Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies, Herbs for Australian Gardens and Growing Easy Herbs for Beauty, Fragrance and Flavour. All are published by Hyland House.

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