Creating a Healing Herb Garden
I fell in love with gardening while growing up in the small town of South Paris, Maine, home to the McLaughlin Garden and Homestead. As a young woman I would quietly enter the gate to Bernard McLaughlin’s garden, which he left open for visitors. Too shy to speak with Bernard directly, I would observe this old and wise gardener at work, carefully bent over a patch of bloodroot or primroses or hauling a wheelbarrow full of weeds. It was in Bernard’s garden that I first began touching plants and paying attention to color, texture, and fragrance. As a young gardener, touch became one of my most important gardening tools, one that with years of daily practice shaped my development as a gardener.
I didn’t come to gardening by way of reading books. Like many gardeners, I fell in love with the tasks and patience required planting seeds, waiting, watching, watering, listening, and praying. I learned and kept learning by working and being in the garden – day after day, season after season, and year after year.
My friendship with Steven Foster, the herb gardener at a Shaker Village in Maine (1975), and my time spent living in Nepal observing and interacting with traditional herbalists (1980), inspired me to found the medicinal herb farm and herbal apothecary Avena Botanicals. For thirty-two years, I have been planting and tending an apothecary garden, which contains over 100 different medicinal herbs, flowers for pollinators, hedgerows for birds, and numerous benches for visitors and students to sit upon to enjoy the beauty of the garden.
Healing herbs lend themselves to be grown in their own special garden or on the edge of a vegetable garden, away from the busyness of growing food. The old European monastic apothecary gardens tended by nuns and monks were often protected by brick walls or fences, allowing the tasks of gathering and preparing herbal medicine to be done with reverence and prayer. In the midst of today’s fast-paced world, the creation of herb gardens in backyards, community gardens and public spaces offers much needed healing sanctuaries for people, pollinators, and songbirds.
The flavors and fragrances of herbs play an important role in the healing process, as does the respect and care the gardener uses when tending, collecting and preparing the herbs into medicine. I tell my students that each plant embodies its own personality and spirit, just like a human or animal. Create quiet time on a regular basis to sit near an herb or tree. Perhaps keep a notebook with you to jot down your feelings and impressions about each herb. Let this meditative time nourish and inspire you.
There are many herbs that can be easily grown in Maine and New England and safely prepared into nutritive teas, tonics, tinctures, and oils and salves. Listed below are 7 easy to grow herbs for people who wish to start a medicinal herb garden or who wish to expand their herb garden. I have included the common and Latin name, simple growing techniques and basic herbal uses. Refer to the resources at the end of the article for seed and plant sources, books and herb classes. Have fun finding herbalists in your community to visit and learn from.
Calendula (Calendula officials), Annual Easy to direct seed in a garden bed in full sun, mid-late May. Needs deer and porcupine protection. Be sure to purchase medicinal seeds, not ornamental seeds. Thin to 8 inches apart. Once the plants start flowering be sure to keep picking the flowers with your fingers, or herb clippers, every few days, and they will continue to flower until a killing frost. The fresh flowers can be used in a sun tea or made into an alcohol-based tincture. For drying the flowers, collect into a basket once they no longer are wet with dew. Lay the blossoms on a screen and dry for 7-10 days. Enjoy in winter teas and baths. The dried flowers can be infused in organic olive oil in a warm place (80-100F) for 10-14 days and then strained and used as a healing oil or combine with beeswax for a salve.
As a topical oil or salve, calendula is revered for its abilities to heal cuts and wounds and lessen scar tissue. A safe oil and salve for nursing women to use for healing sore and cracked nipples. Used as a tea or tincture, calendula mildly stimulates the immune system, helping to reduce colds, flus, fevers and swollen glands. Added into a winter tea, the bright orange and yellow colors of the flowers will bring back joyful memories of summer.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), annual An easy herb to grow, either by transplanting seedlings 4-6 inches apart, or direct seeding into the garden in a sunny location. Once established, the plants will reseed themselves year after year. The blossoms need to be collected by hand every few days. Chamomile’s blooming time lasts only about a month, unlike calendula’s which is all summer. Children enjoy picking chamomile into special baskets. Lay the blossoms onto a non-metal screen to dry and once dry store them in a glass jar in a dark cupboard.
Chamomile helps relax the nervous and digestive system and eases pain, tension and spasm in the gut, urinary and reproductive tracts. A wonderfully soothing tea for over-active children and helps adults and children sleep.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis), Short-lived perennial Dandelions are easily found in gardens, stone pathways, edges of farmers’ fields, and meadows. This hardy and beneficial “weed” offers extraordinary nutritional and medicinal benefit to humans and animals. We dig dandelion roots in late April and early May, before they flower, and tincture the fresh roots and leaves. I chop and dry some of the roots and eat lots of the fresh greens and flower buds in salads and vegetable dishes. The nectar of dandelion flowers feeds honeybees and the ruby-throated hummingbirds as they migrate north in spring. The flowers can be made into a fresh tea cooked in a tempura batter and eaten, or infused in organic olive oil for 2 weeks and then used as a massage oil.
Dandelion root improves poor fat metabolism and sluggish digestion, increases the flow of digestive juices, enhances assimilation and elimination, cleanses the liver, eases indigestion and gas and can help eliminate constipation. It is a valuable spring tonic to use daily for 4-6 weeks to improve liver function.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), Perennial Echinacea is native to the prairie of North America. This beautiful magenta colored flower is found growing in full sun in many perennial gardens in New England. The flower is beloved by native and honeybees, monarch butterflies and on occasion, if you are lucky, you will see a ruby-throated hummingbird sipping the flowers’ nectar. I encourage people to plant at least 5 echinacea plants together as they prefer to grow in groups.
At Avena, the staff and I gather the flowers and leaves from the second and third year-old plants and tincture them fresh in our certified kitchen. For your homemade tincture, you can use organic vodka or a good quality brandy to make your tincture. Echinacea roots can be dug in the fall of their third year, after the seeds have formed, and chopped and made into a fresh tincture or dried for tea. Echinacea seeds can be scattered directly into a prepared seedbed, or you can save the seeds and start your seedlings indoors the following April.
Lavender (Lavendula officinalis), Perennial This woody perennial needs full sun, a warm and protected place to grow, and appreciates growing along a path or garden border with other lavender plants. Lavender prefers sandy and well-drained soil. Many nurseries offer lavender plants and they can also be started from seed, though they are slow to germinate. If buying lavender, look for organic, field-dug plants as they will be hardier and of better quality, or purchase seedlings from a smaller neighborhood greenhouse.
The fragrance of lavender blossoms soothes a person who feels tired and frustrated, uplifts a person’s spirit, shifts inner disharmony, and brings comfort to the heart. Taken internally as a tea or as a vegetable-based glycerite, lavender eases stress, anxiety, insomnia, and low self-esteem. It relaxes and calms the mind, reduces mental and emotional agitation, and lessens feelings of unrest and depletion. I like to use lavender and lemon balm glycerites in winter to chase away winter blues. They taste lovely together.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Perennial This lovely herb is easy to start indoors in early April from seed. The seeds need light to germinate so be sure to not cover them with soil and keep both the soil and seeds misted until they germinate. Organic seedlings can also be purchased from small neighborhood gardens or greenhouses. Lemon balm prefers to grow in a partially sunny location with soil that is well drained and amended with good quality compost. Gardeners working in zones colder than zone 5 often need to cover their lemon balm (and lavender) plants with straw or balsam boughs once the ground has frozen for extra protection.
Fresh lemon balm tea is one of my favorite teas to drink throughout the warm summer months, both as a sun tea and infused in hot water as an end-of-the-day tea. In the morning I place several fresh leaves in my quart water bottle so the water will taste lemony and refreshing. The leafy tops and flowers can be dried for winter tea or chopped when fresh and macerated in organic vegetable glycerin to make a delicious tasting lemon balm glycerite. Lemon balm offers many medicinal uses including easing stress, anxiety, insomnia, premenstrual and menopausal stress and mild depression. European herbalists have long used lemon balm for enhancing memory and circulation to the brain.
Rose (Rosa rugosa), Perennial This hardy perennial, originally from China, prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Roses make a wonderful hedgerow along a walking path or in a garden. The easiest way to establish Rosa rugosa plants is to purchase them from a reputable organic rose grower or nursery. Every April, I prune Avena’s rose bushes back by half. This encourages the shrubs to produce an abundance of flowers in summer. Once pruned, I mulch them with straw or organic buckwheat hulls (available through FEDCO). I topdress my rose hedge with compost every 3-4 years.
In the mid-coast region of Maine where I live, the roses in begin blooming in mid-June. Collecting rose petals early in the morning is one of my favorite garden tasks. The ruby-throated hummingbirds are always darting about the rose garden at dawn, offering their joyful presence as company. Our roses bloom continuously for almost four weeks. With a basket in hand, I am out in the rose garden every sunny morning, collecting the petals for making rose petal elixir and for drying for winter teas.
Rosa rugosa petals have many healing properties. They gently open the heart and mind and inspire a feeling of love and compassion for oneself and others. They help relax the nervous system, reduce hyperacidity and heartburn and clear toxins from the gut. Roses are a lovely addition into herbal skin care remedies as they cleanse and astringe the face and impart a soothing and uplifting fragrance to one’s heart and spirit.
Resources FEDCO seeds - www.fedcoseeds.com Horizon Medicinal Seeds and Plants - www.horizonherbs.com Johnny’s Selected Seeds - www.Johnnyseeds.com Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seeds - www.turtletreeseed.org Zack Woods Herb Farm (organic plants and dried herbs) - www.zackwoodsherbs.com
Books How To Move Like a Gardener: Planting and Preparing Medicines from Plants by Deb Soule www.movelikeagardener.com/book-excerpt/
Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide: 33 Herbs to Know, Grow and Use by Rosemary Gladstar
Public Gardens Avena Botanicals Medicinal Gardens and Apothecary are open to the public, year-round, Monday-Friday, 12-5pm. See calendar of events for herb walks and classes - www.avenabotanicals.com.
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens - www.mainegardens.org
McLaughlin Garden and Homestead - www.mclaughlingarden.org