July Health Genie: Growing Medicinal Herbs
Note: These articles are not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.
Growing medicinal herbs in your garden is a great way to take your do-it-yourself herbal teas, salves, and extracts to another level. On top of providing great medicine, many of these herbs make great culinary ingredients, aid in the health and pest control of your vegetable garden, and bring life and color to your backyard. If growing these herbs for cooking or making medicine, it is very important that they are grown in lead-free soil (Burlington seems to have high leaded soils), with organic soil, and well prepared compost. For common organic medicinal herb seeds, High Mowing Seeds is a great source. For more obscure medicinal herb seeds, Horizon Herbs is fantastic. And for the easier, late to plant route, Red Wagon Plants in Hinesburg, VT makes beautiful, healthy organic seedlings. Here are some tips on growing some commonly used medicinal herbs that will grow well right here in Vermont:
Calendula: Calendula produces a variety of colored flowers from pale yellow to vibrant deep orange. Their petals can be single or double rowed and each plant produces many flowers. They are often planted throughout the garden as they help keep pests away from vegetable plants (and they are visually appealing). Calendula petals are widely used in salves and first aid products for their soothing, healing and regenerative properties.
Preferred Variety: Calendula officinalis. Calendula is an annual, but it will easily reseed itself. The officinalis variety is said to have the highest medicinal resin components compared to other varieties.
Planting: Calendula is pretty hardy and easy to grow. It can be directly seeded or transplanted at any stage of growth (even in bloom). It will grow well even in containers or flower pots.
Growing: Likes full sun and rich soil, but can adapt to a variety of soil conditions.
Companion Planting: Calendula is one of the best plants to ward off unwanted insects from almost any plants in your garden. In specific, calendula repels whiteflies from tomatoes and lures aphids and beetles from beans, among others. Calendula does well when planted by chard, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, thyme, and parsley.
Harvest: Harvest the flowers early in the morning just after the dew has evaporated and the petals are starting to open. Watch out for bees sleeping inside the petals! These are “cut and come again” so harvest often, dead head, and check regularly for new flowers. They can be used fresh in salads and in cooking, infused into oil for topical use, or dried by placing on a screen in a dry, shady location.
Peppermint: Mint has been grown in gardens for centuries. There are many varieties of mint out there and most wild species are a hybridization of a few varieties. Since most mint varieties can cross pollinate and produce viable seeds, it is hard to find a true peppermint plant growing in nature. The peppermint can be differentiated from other mints by its characteristically smooth rounded leaves and menthol smell. It works wonders in aiding indigestion, stomach ache, nausea, and heart burn. It makes great tea, addition to drinks and soups, and a tasty medicine.
Preferred Variety: Menthe piperita. Perennial.
Planting: From seed, transplant, or root clippings.
Growing: This plant likes partial shade and well watered loam soil. Mint can be very invasive, so to deter it from taking over your garden, plant it in pots. However, if you love peppermint tea and don’t think you can have enough, plant it directly in the garden and let it go wild! It can be grown indoors or outdoors.
Companion planting: Peppermint repels ants, flies, aphids, flea beetles, and cabbage flies and attracts pollinators. Plant near brassicas, bell peppers and eggplant. If you want to keep the integrity of the peppermint genes, keep it well away from all other mint plants.
Harvesting: Harvest the leaves before the plant flowers for the best tasting, most medicinal qualities. The buds can be pinched off to prolong the harvest.
Chamomile: Chamomile is commonly consumed as a tea on its own or in a “sleepy time” or “bed time” tea blend. It helps to soothe the nerves and calms the mind. It is easy to grow, produces many flowers, and is easy to dry and store.
Preferred Variety: Matricaria recutita. It is an annual, but can easily reseed itself. There are a few varieties of Chamomile, but the German variety produces the sweetest most pleasant tasting tea.
Planting: Can direct seed or transplant. Transplanting is usually preferred because it is easier to space out clumps of seedlings. Heavily seed a tray of loose soil and barely cover with soil. Keep moist, but not soaked.
Growing: Transplant mid-late spring in small clumps around 6 inches apart. The earlier you plant, the more you will be able to harvest. It usually takes around two months to flower. It likes full sun and well drained, slightly sandy soil.
Companion Planting: Plant near onions, cucumbers, and cabbage to improve their flavor. Chamomile attracts wasps and other pollinators to the garden.
Harvesting: Harvest just after the flower has opened as the younger flowers have a better flavor. Harvest often and they will continue to produce flowers throughout the growing season. Flowers can be somewhat tedious to harvest, but it can be made easier by harvesting with the entire hand, utilizing the spaces where the fingers meet the palm to pluck multiple flowers at a time.
Echinacea: Echinacea is a popular flowering herb and can be seen in gardens all around town. It is the same herb that is found in many cold and flu remedies. The flowers or leaves are most often used on their own for making herbal tinctures, but the entire plant at different stages (see harvest section below) can be used to make a “super-immune” Echinacea complex with a full spectrum of medicinal qualities.
Preferred Variety: Echinacea purpurea: Perennial. This is the most common variety of Echinacea. It is easy to grow, produces beautiful vibrant flowers, and provides great medicine.
Planting: If planting from seed, Echinacea will have a higher germination rate if the seeds are cold stratified (mimicking Echinacea’s normal growing environment). This is done either by dampening the seeds in a medium of soil or peat moss, placing in a plastic bag or container, and storing in the fridge for at least two weeks prior to planting. Planting the seeds in cool soil in the greenhouse mid-march will also have the same effect. Plant the seeds ¼ inch deep in rich potting soil. Seeds usually germinate in 2-3 weeks.
Transplanting: Transplanting is definitely easier than planting from seed. Transplant after the first frost, but when the ground is still cool. The stems will be stronger and more likely to bear flowers if the roots experience cool ground or multiple transplants. Echinacea typically doesn’t flower until the second year. It does well in pots and containers.
Growing: Echinacea likes full sun, lime soil, and well drained soils. Water it frequently. It can tolerate some dry soil, it just won’t produce as vibrant of flowers.
Companion Planting: Attracts butterflies and pollinators. Does well when planted with lavender and yarrow.
Harvesting: Like many other flowers, dead head the post-bloom flowers to encourage new flowers to develop and to prevent self-seeding. For making medicine, harvest the leaves the first year of growth, the flowers and seeds in the second year (or first year if they produce flowers), and the roots in the third year.
Tulsi: There are many varieties of Tulsi (with some strain types named after Hindu Gods). In many religions, Tulsi is considered a sacred plant and is often used in worship and on alters. It is considered an adaptogenic herb and is found in many stress relieving and mood enhancing herbal blends. In Ayurveda, it is considered an “elixir of life” and it is used to treat a wide variety of ailments. It has a pleasant smell and taste and looks somewhat similar to lavender.
Preferred Variety: Ocimum sanctum. Most often, seed distributers will not differentiate what strain they offer. If they do, however, the Rama variety makes the most potent tea. It is most often times advertised as an annual, but if you take good care of it, it can become a big, bushy perennial.
Planting: Best to start from seed in a greenhouse in the early spring. If transplanting, put into the garden in the late spring when the weather has stabilized and the evenings do not have a drastic temperature drop.
Growing: Grows best in nutrient rich soil in the full sun. Tulsi can tolerate dry soil for a couple of days, but likes to be watered often. It can be grown outdoors and in containers. It is sensitive to heat variation and weather conditions. Make sure you plant in the garden well after frost and protect it from unusually cold evenings or adverse weather. Not the best house plant, especially in Vermont, as it requires a lot of sunlight. With insufficient sunlight, it will go to seed quickly. If it goes to seed either indoors or outdoors, clip the flowers back and it will allow for new growth.
Companion Planting: The scent repels mosquitos and flies. When Tusli is planted nearby, tomatoes may produce more fruit, and potato beetles will be deterred from potatoes.
Harvest: The leaves and flowers can be harvested throughout the growing season. You can clip back the sprouting tops to encourage branching. If planting in the garden, consider transferring to containers and moving indoors in the fall. It is best to use a grow light indoors, but it may survive the winter without one.
Learning to grow medicinal herbs can help one cultivate more awareness of the plant’s medicinal properties. The body receives cues from the colors, shapes, smells, and tastes of the plant, which normally it would not receive if the plant was ingested in capsulated form. It also helps empower the grower to take ownership of their own medicine. It takes out the risk of buying a product from an unknown producer, who buys from an unknown place, where the herb was grown by unknown people, in unknown soil quality. It puts the power to heal yourself back into your own hand and into your own backyard. And it can help ward off pests, add vibrancy to the garden, and liven up your culinary endeavors at the same time.
Enjoy the short, sweet growing season!
The Health Genie