A Decent Herb Garden

Someone recently asked me for  basic pointers on an herb garden that includes medicinal herbs. The thing is that many herbs are of course both culinary and medicinal. “Let thy food be thy medicine,”as Hippocrates said.So I will just mentally wander around my garden and try to organize the ones I see. But before I do that, I would just emphasize that most culinary herbs prefer well-drained soil and sun, with some sand and maybe some wood ashes added. Don’t add much nitrogen; it will make herbs grow lush and leafy but not as strong flavored.


yes, that’s Thai basil on the right

Basil– Well, there are so many cool basils, for medicinal use as well- they call them Tulsi in India, and there are a lot of African ones as well. My favorite is Besobila, the pretty Ethiopian Holy Basil. I saved some seed out of some besobila I got for Ethiopian cooking- they use the dried seedheads. Smells a bit like pineapple and has a great compact growth habit. Wonderful for headaches, colds, vitality, and spiritual funks. But of course you have to have Genovese basil for pesto, and Purple for salads. Pinch the flowering spikes off and it will grow back double, like the Hydra in the legend of Hercules.

Rosemary is a must have, and very efficient, since they grow into monster fragrant bushes, feed bees, counteract the carcinogens in roasted meat, perfume the house while cooking, and counteract depression, especially in Mediterranean types. I hear they make a rosemary hair rinse for dark hair as well. Who knew?

Tarragon is hard to grow for me- the French kind, so I don’t know much about it, but a bit in a jar of vinegar infuses wonderfully and it is so good in pickles.  It needs protection from gross physical violence and my cats are always digging it up. When we lived in France we had a giant bush. I guess it likes a cooler damper, more catless environment. The Russian kind is less delicious.

Catnip, speaking of cats, is tough as a boot, spreads readily, feeds the bees, amuses the felines, and makes a nice tea for whiny babies of all ages. It is very perennial. My husband hit it with the tiller and it made babies everywhere, like a starfish.

Parsley (Italian is tastier) has more vitamins than oranges, and should be used as a vegetable- giant handfuls chopped fresh into everything. You can’t beat it in Tabouleh. Also freshens the breath, says Nicolas Culpeper. It is biennial, so save seeds every other year and be sure to work some into the soil early, as it is not happy sprouting when it gets too hot and dry.

Sage is also great for tea, I think for the same reasons, and is of course good with meat. It is available in many different leaf colors and can grow to be quite a bush. My friend has a purple one that is three feet by five. It is definitely relaxing, good for digestion, and helps with unwanted sweating.

Thyme is sensitive about drainage, and is very pretty and delicious with lentils, chicken, salad, everything. There are a zillion kinds with different variations and flavors. Wonderful in tea if you are catching a chesty cold. It is quite antimicrobial. Plant in the front- it is short, some kinds even to the point of crawling between flagstones, and it won’t tolerate competition from other plants. English Thyme is softer and broader leafed, and Mediterranean types are more woody and resinous.

mentha nigra piperata

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Mint is a water lover and quite invasive, so plant in a sunken pot where there is a leaky faucet or something. Frankly, I ripped mine out and stomped it into a ditch, where it flourishes and smells great when mowed. Great with meats, tabouleh, juleps, easy to tincture and make home made creme de menthe. Alcohol and oil infusions are great externally as liniment for injuries. I have spearmint; very sweet and a calming tea and face lotion, and  mentha nigra, which is industrial strength. There are many types, from huge hairy Apple Mint to delicate creeping Pennyroyal, which is not for eating, especially if you could be pregnant.

Lemon Balm, also called Melissa,  is a lemon scented mint looking perennial, very vigorous and spreading. The tea of the dried or fresh plant is delicate and lemony, and works very well for headaches. The crushed or chewed leaves are apparently a great remedy for cold sores and herpes lesions, perhaps antiviral. I have been given a facial with the tea, mixed with Rose Geranium.

Rose geranium is a tender perennial but you can overwinter it as a houseplant as it grows well in pots and roots easily from cuttings.  It has small pink flowers and fuzzy hand shaped leaves that are redolent of roses. A Victorian favorite, it is a strong astringent and makes a nice face wash as well as lovely potpourri. I have heard of people laying a leaf flat in a cakepan before pouring on the dough.

Bergamot, or Monarda, is a spectacular plant, also mint family, prettiest I think in the scarlet variety. It has a feathery crown of flowers bursting out of a pincushion of bracts. It is the flavoring for Earl Grey tea. It is a good 3-4 feet tall, and perennial, but does clump neatly. The tea is calming on many levels, and probably antimicrobial, since there is something of oregano and marjoram in the fragrance.

I have regular Oregano and Greek Oregano. The regular has pinker flowers and very delicate stems, while the Greek has a more resinous flavor and thicker stems. It is of course great in Mediterranean food, but I also love it in tea. I find that it always makes my stomach better; probably the fragrant bitterness stimulates my liver.Oregano is about a foot tall so it can go in front of taller plants.

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel is very useful; Bronze is pretty and very tough in zone 7, but does not bulb up for finocchio the way white fennel does. They are perennial, although the most symmetrical bulbs come from the first season. We use fronds for garnish, bulbs braised and in salads, and we tincture seeds for liqueur. Also use seeds in baking and some Italian dishes. They are great for stomach ailments and as a digestive- are used as such in many countries. The pollen is the latest expensive spice I hear.

Coriander/cilantro is a threefer annual; the fresh leaves are delicious, especially in Asian and Latino food, and chelate heavy metals very well. The flowers are pretty, although the flavor becomes sweeter as soon as it bolts. The seeds are used in Indian cooking, like my yummy spicy Indian style venison curry and are great for digestion. It is very prone to bolt and then you are pretty much done with the fresh use stage, so we plant it in the fall for early spring use, outdoors and in the cold greenhouse. Keep it watered and plant it in the damper part of the garden, and not too sunny. Grow it from seed, although it takes a good 10 days to sprout.

Lavender can be used in cooking. I have had delicious lavender cookies and ice cream. I have used lavender infused almond oil to rub my feet- it was so relaxing I felt as if I’d had a nap. Just strip the flowers into the oil and let it sit on the back shelf of your car for a week during sunny weather, then pour it through a thin cloth and squeeze it out well. If there is any water on the bottom pour the oil off of it or it will spoil. Lavender is the ultimate aromatherapy for calming down when you are stressed out. It really does work. Important to grow it in sandy, well-drained soil and a sunny spot, or it will languish and die. You can grow it from seed although starts are not expensive. I have a friend who grows it all around a small stuccoed chapel they have built near their house. It is the loveliest thing.

Dill is another annual that bolts quickly. There are a few varieties that promise to bolt slowly, and a bronze kind that is beautiful. I use a lot of dill in my cucumber pickles, which are good for the intestinal flora, and the dill promotes digestion, so I make an effort to grow it, but it hates our hot summers. For me it does best in shade.

Baltimore Fish Pepper

Baltimore Fish Pepper, a historical variegated pepper!

Chilies– You might not think of hot peppers as an herb, but they are pretty, edible, used for flavor and medicine- of course they belong in an herb garden. Chilies are tender perennials, -if you just have a few you can save time keeping them in pots. I am a chili freak and have a few that require a very long season, but your basic cayenne grows well as an annual. Warms the body and thins secretions, kills germs. Some are very tall and can need support. The ornamental ones are just as hot, and I have had a lot of fun with Baltimore variegated Fish Pepper, a deep purple Peruvian chili I call Purple Bullet which is nearly black, and tiny chiltepins.

Garlic is a great thing to grow- plant in September, harvest in June/July. I have a whole big blog post on that one. We have braids all over the house, although they are withering now. It also thins and heats the blood, and kills germs. People used to tape it to the bottom of feet for the flu. When you taste it in your mouth you are good. Some French friends used to grow it in the back of the herb border. They are stately until they turn yellowish when it is time to harvest.  However I grow it in the regular garden.

Valerian is a pretty flower; tall and lacy. The root, which I gather in late winter when I am separating the clumps and preparing the beds, is great for sleep issues. We had a buddy who was sort of becoming a nuisance because he didn’t sleep, wandered around all hours, and was grumpy to people. I gave him a couple droppersfull of Valerian root tincture and he slept 16 hours. Everyone was delighted. Its sedative properties are good for the heart.

 Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, (perennial) is good for the heart and relaxation, like a nice comforting hug from your mother. I planted in a shady acid patch of ground because I dug it up on a mountain in WV. It seems to like it. The lion-paw shaped leaves make a row with little pink flowers, which are followed by spiky seed heads. It’s about two feet tall but tends to sprawl. It is a valuable medicine plant so I don’t mind that it reseeds, but yes, it does.

 Honestly, though, there are so many fun herbs to try, and so many medicinal herbs to grow. These are just a few of my favorites that are easy to grow. A wonderful resource for herb information and seeds is Richo Cech’s Horizon Farm. His website, his catalog, and his books are really easy to read and full of good information.

Todo es Medicina: Herbs, Tinctures and Liqueurs

december 2013 blog 012 When I was maybe seven, my wonderful grandmother gave me a book called The Herbalist, by Joseph Meyer. Her friend Margaret Freedman may have done the dustcover, which is a wonderful medieval woodcut of an apothecary’s garden, but I think it was a very shrewd gift on her part. Many is the afternoon nap I spent studying the discolored entries, the Latin names, the medicinal parts, the medicinal virtues, the dosages.  Many is the afternoon I spent wandering in the woods, looking for a cathartic or emetic plant to slip into the sandwich of a classroom bully. It is not difficult to imagine me as a nerdy little girl with glasses; a budding herb granny.

Yesterday I saw a sign at Walmart which reminded me why I don’t go there much. Over a bottle of pills was a sign that said “Take Medicine Not Myth.” Ok, excuse me, but that is nothing but pharmaceutical propaganda. Who thought up thalidomide? When I burned my face with an explosion of boiling hot glue, the ER nurses fed me percocet and recommended that I not apply my traditional Chinese herbal burn cream. I looked like Freddy Kruger. I threw up the percocet and used the burn cream, and the burn clinic specialist at John Hopkins the next morning was amazed at how much the inflammation had gone down. I was married a month later and the burns were completely faded and smooth.


Passionflower vine, center, and ground ivy, small artichoke plant  upper right.


Many of my women friends who are experiencing sleep difficulties because of approaching menopause come to me for my Valerian root tincture. I make it from the plants in my flower bed. It helps them to sleep. Ashwaghanda tincture gives me energy and positive attitude to blast through my chores; they call it Indian ginseng. It is tricky to grow in our climate but I usually have enough for the year. Pokeweed eases any little twinges I get in my right foot where I had a postoperative bone infection years ago. Chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm, catnip, bergamot, and passionflower leaf tea are soothing to my husband when he gets in from a long drive all full of caffeine.



Oregano or thyme tea eases a tricky stomach and is delicious. Mugwort saves the day when you have overindulged in fried chicken. I will say that Immodium/Loperamide is hard to beat when you have Montezuma’s Revenge or Dehli Belly, but that’s just because I’m not taking the time to search out the right herb, boil it up, and wait for it to work.

herbalism books

three books from my shelf

OK, so yes, you must know how to identify these plants. Learning to identify medicinal plants is is a passion not unlike bird watching. I have been interested in this all my life and I am still learning. I like A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides)-James Duke rocks, but there are many wonderful field guides. It takes time to acquire the descriptive vocabulary and be able to know what you have found at what time of the year. Until you do, buy them. It is possible to make a very bad mistake. Carrot, Angelica, Osha, Parsley, and the deadly Water Hemlock are all in the same Apiaceae family. You could easily mistake Hemlock for Angelica and die horribly. Some boy scouts mistook Hemlock for some kind of wild carrot. They were saved, but it was touch and go. Penn Herbs has a large selection and is cheap. Generally you want “tea cut” herbs; not powder.

Tea is the simplest way to take an herb. Most herbs just want boiling water poured over them, like black tea. Some plants should be infused in cold water, and some need to be decocted, which means “cooked down.” Roots and barks need this. Some plants need to be concentrated, like the very bitter Boneset, after straining off the plant material.

Tinctures are a very convenient way to take herbs. Most tinctures are done with alcohol, and while there are complex formulas for tincturing dry or fresh herbs, etc., it is also easy to make a simple folk tincture which is good for home use. I came across tincturing by way of liqueurs: one day when I was making mint juleps I noticed that an hour later the remaining drips of bourbon had turned green in the glass with the sugar and crushed mint. I tasted it. Yum! A light bulb went on in my head. I immediately threw various herbs into white rum, the most successful of which were lemon verbena and peppermint. The peppermint mixed with honey or simple syrup makes a delicious creme de menthe except that it eventually goes from green to brown. I then realized that orange peels in alcohol soon became orangey, fennel seeds became anise flavored, barks and roots gave off their flavors- anything resinous works very well. The oils and resins are soluble in alcohol, and then the alcohol preserves anything watery.

december 2013 blog 015

eau de vie means “water of life.”

The French eau de vies that are so delicious are just this sort of tincture. Eau de vie, by the way, means water of life, as does uisce beatha, in gaelic, pronounced whiskey be-ata (almost seems like it could mean happy water, since beata means happy).  Aquavit comes from the Latin aqua vitae, same meaning. You take my point.

So, to make a fennel aperitif, I stuffed a pickle jar full of almost mature seed heads (fully mature ones would be losing their oils to the rain) and topped it off with vodka, waited two weeks, poured it off into another jar full of fennel seed heads, and waited another 2 weeks. This is actually called double tincturing and is also used in medicinal herbalism. The result was smooth and dark amber, with a strong licorice flavor and faint celery undertones. A shot of this with coffee is excellent after dinner, as fennel has been used for thousands of years to ease the stomach. My mother and sister, who are German, always gave the babies Fencheltee for gas and other tummy troubles. After WWII it saved many a dehydrated sick baby. But to return to happier times, most of my friends prefer it sweetened with honey and kept in the freezer next to the peppermint liqueur and the homemade triple sec.

Now, medicine. Tinctures are convenient because you can carry around 1 ounce bottles of medicine, and the dose is generally between 15 and 30 drops- half to a full dropper full. You can drink it straight, in a glass of water, or in tea. The alcohol will keep it for about 3 years. There are glycerin tinctures, but I have not gotten into that because I am not concerned about alcohol and most herbs tincture best in alcohol. Such a small amount mixed in water or tea would certainly not be a problem for a child, and if allowed to sit for a bit, perhaps the alcohol would evaporate so that an alcoholic wouldn’t taste it? But again, there is glycerin if that is an issue.

For me, Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine was the best introduction to tincturing. I have corresponded occasionally with Richo for years. He is a really fun and interesting person with immense energy and a gift for story-telling. His plant knowledge is vast, particularly in cultivation, which makes the catalog for Horizon Herbs, the medicinal plant seed company he and his wife and children have in Oregon, a very fine read. All of his books and catalogs are wonderfully illustrated by his daughters. Making Plant Medicine is very easy to read and full of stories, but also contains precise and clear information on how to tincture medicinal herbs. If you get heavily into it, you may want to buy a press from him.

Press what? Plant material. OK, here is a basic tincturing example. Go out to the garden and dig up some echinacea plants. I am presuming you have Echinacea purpurea, your basic purple Coneflower. If you have E. angustifolia too, the thin, droopy Coneflowers that grow better in the West, I’m impressed. Use them 60/40 as they have a synergistic effect.  The whole plant has medicine, but the roots are the strongest. I am just making it for me so I just use the roots. Those roots are tough so I’m glad I have a Vitamix. Wash and scrub them really well, and snip off what you will use with clippers. Throw them in the blender with enough vodka to make them move- generally to cover. (This is a folk tincture; Richo will tell you how to weigh them. He even has software for that.) Whizz it to a slurry and carefully get it all into a mason jar. Brown glass is best but if you keep it in the dark that is ok. Label with the ingredients and the date and let sit for 10  days, shaking when you remember. I have some small muslin bags with seams I have reinforced which fit neatly over the mouth of a mason jar. Pour the contents of the jar into the bag over a big measuring cup or something. Squeeze the bag as hard and long as you can to get out all the medicine. I have a small press but you could also weight it down with a clean rock in a colander. Richo’s press will turn your herbs into a dry cake without a drop of medicine wasted. Clean out your jar and return the medicine to it, since it is already labeled. Let it sit a day or two and then pour it off the sediment which will accumulate. The sediment can spoil the medicine. You can buy 1 ounce brown glass bottles with droppers for a little over a dollar apiece, and also ask your friends to save such bottles for you to clean and reuse. Always label and date. It will keep about three years in the dark, although eventually the rubber bulbs on the droppers begin to add a bitter taste. Herbal tinctures generally run about $10 an ounce. If you make good medicine, that is quite a savings.

Scripture says that God has given us the herbs of the field. He had His reasons. It seems to me in my travels that indigenous people knew the remedy for each disease with which they were familiar. We in the US has been pretty efficient in killing off the native people who knew the plant lore of this continent by introducing diseases with which they were not familiar. However we also brought new plants with us which have helped to reestablish some balance between man and disease, although many of those plants threw off the balance of the plant world. In South America I have studied with people who knew medicine for anything that could happen to you-diabetes, AIDS, cancer, schizophrenia,- and if they didn’t, they would ask the plants, who knew.