Growing your own herbs for food and tea builds a deeper connection with the place where you live and a more seamless partnership between you and your medicine. Like cooking or tea making, growing plants takes no formal training — just time, curiosity, and practice. Much of the work is about simply being attentive. When you get out and tend a garden you are giving yourself an opportunity to be the grand perceiving organism that you are. Fully perceiving nature helps you learn to think with your compassionate heart. You also develop a powerful sense that you can positively influence the resilience of your place.
No garden space is too small. Tiny window herb boxes are as important and valid as full backyards filled with luscious gardens. In cities, our spaces are often small and compact. Therefore, some herb gardens will be tiny and adapted to thrive with almost zero access to bare ground. I’ve grown many varieties of aromatic flowers and culinary herbs inside city apartments. For a few weeks each year, beautiful scents of jasmine and gardenia provided profound aromatherapy in my living room.
The act of gardening is imbued with health benefits that enhance the quality of the medicine you are producing. Plus, you can shake off cabin fever and invigorate your mind and body by experiencing weather directly on your skin and developing a strong feeling for how it influences what you grow. No matter the size and shape of your garden, it will provide you with fresh healing herbs, offer moments of quiet sanctuary, and teem with life.
What to Grow
An herb garden expresses beauty and allows you to create a personalized living sanctuary. You will choose plants that hold deep meaning in your life and work well in your body. When contemplating and planning an herb garden, listen to your body, grow plants that you love, and pay close attention to what you can realistically accomplish in a growing season. If you are just beginning your foray into gardening, you might want to focus on herbs that you already use often. Starting with herbs that you already have a kinship with is potent energetic medicine in itself and will ensure you create an engaging and manageable garden.
You’ll also want to grow plants that thrive naturally where you live. The best gardens tend to be those that utilize mostly perennial plants and can thrive with or without constant attention and resource input. You will be surprised at how well some plants from different bioregions will grow, especially if you do a little research and start off by knowing the basic requirements of the particular species and then finding or creating an appropriate microclimate on your property. But it is also important to remember that your time is a resource, and hundreds of wonderful medicinal plants have chosen your bioregion as their ideal growing conditions. And in terms of medicine, for most common ailments you can usually find a plant that grows in your bioregion that has a similar herbal action to a plant from another bioregion.
It can take a long time to find the right balance between adventurous gardening with exotic species and growing stable, reliable herbs. Humans and plants migrate. It is natural to take plants with you as you move from place to place, especially medicinal and food plants. Which is why we have so many cosmopolitan medicinal plants that are adapted to a huge range of ecosystems. I think it is important to both respect and work with plants that are part of your ancestry and also learn to work with plants that are specific to the current place you reside.
For each aromatic or flavorful plant you grow, you will learn which sensual aspects of a plant are responsible for their medicinal quality and figure out for yourself how to grow really valuable medicine. You’ll also learn which plant parts are used for medicine and learn to curate your growing and tending techniques to accommodate whether you are growing a plant for its flowers, fruits, leaves, seeds, roots, or shoots. The beauty of growing medicinal plants is that you get to learn so much more about the plant than if you buy dried herbs from an herb shop or wholesaler.
I often find that the medicinal plants in my gardens seem to speak to me directly. If I start to feel a cold coming on in early spring, I would usually reach for my formulated Wellness Tea blend, but if I walk past my garden and see hyssop, bee balm, and thyme looking quite spritely, I am suddenly reminded that I have incredible fresh medicine at my disposal. I start listening to each plant and harvesting specific herbs for a fresh tea. Feeling a little sick also reminds me to stop what I am doing and begin planning and preparing a whole meal with medicinal plants that will nourish me back to health.
Herbs will begin to speak to you in nuanced ways the more you experiment and learn to understand the energetic tone and subtle effects each plant has on your body. You will develop an interesting system for using the plants you are most familiar with.
As we live among our medicine we see opportunity for health and healing everywhere. We have the potential to surround ourselves with living medicine that we can include in our daily tea and meals, letting us feel like a part of a profound medicinal ecosystem.
When deciding what to plant and where, the biggest time and labor saver is starting off with a plan that considers your climate and natural landscape features. It is really quite easy to develop a landscape plan that looks naturally pretty and complements your home without spending lots of money on professional garden designers. One of the most fulfilling aspects of designing and implementing your own garden is doing a lot of physical and intellectual work. This work will enable you to better understand your property and be better equipped to fix and change parts of your garden over time. The trial and error that naturally accompanies any new project helps teach you how things work. Plus, when you garden with plants that you have chosen and planted yourself, you will be more excited to get out into the garden and spend time with your plants.
Pick Your Style
The size and shape of your garden will depend on your access to space, the amount of time you have to garden, and your personal needs. The look and feel of your garden will be unique to your sensibilities.
I recently planted an herb garden for a friend that was supposed to be highly organized with distinct linear edges where one type of herb met another. I was quite frank with my friend from the get-go that as the garden grows, a lot of work will have to be done to maintain the clean edges. Halfway through the first season, I stopped by the garden a number of times and realized it was turning into a wild garden, much different than my friend had wanted. Because of time and energy constraints, he was not able to tend his garden regularly enough to keep the plants from taking advantage of the freedom they were given. Perfectly manicured gardens take a lot of work. Allowing yourself the flexibility to keep the structure loose is often the better route if you are very busy — especially because a tightly filled-in wild garden often leaves little room for weeds to get a foothold.
Doing a little research into garden styles can help you discover what you like. Organized chaos is probably the most typical way home gardeners approach herb gardening. My seed gardens are always really dense and wild. I try to organize the different herbs so that the overall look is full and there are a few focal points throughout the season. Planting many different species together in relatively dense garden beds increases the diversity and density of the pollinators, too. On any given summer day, I can witness dozens of different insect species crawling, climbing, bumbling, and flying from flower to flower.
On the other hand, for ease of harvesting I also plant long, straight rows of slightly intermixed herbs. In a backyard herb garden, it might be fun for you to landscape with perennial herbs that make up your pollinator gardens and build raised beds where you grow more solid patches of individual herbs for tea. Let your creativity flow when it comes to your gardens and do not be afraid to screw up. Medicinal herbs are a lot easier to grow than most vegetables and require quite a bit less maintenance.
Planting groups of herbs together that all share some of the same needs, such as amount of water, nutrients, and access to sunlight, is probably the most natural way to organize your garden. Herbs like yarrow or oregano are self-sufficient and require little work on the part of the gardener to grow successfully year after year. Other herbs, like roses, have greater requirements for nutrients, water, and direct sunlight. Reading up about the ideal growing conditions for your favorite herbs and finding areas that suit their needs can go a long way to a successful gardening experience.
I recommend using mostly perennial herbs or self-seeding annuals in your garden because these tend to be more resilient over time and don’t require digging up the soil each spring. Perennial medicinal plants include herbs, shrubs, and trees — which is great, because creating layers of different kinds of plants will not only make your garden feel lush and beautiful year-round but will also produce a lot more medicine, mimicking a forest ecosystem. A sun-loving peach or linden tree can create a seasonal canopy that provides shade during the hot summer months for herbs like comfrey, mints, or English thyme. At the edge of the shade line, you can create nice hedges of berries and edible flowers, such as osmanthus, jasmine, or rose, that help create a little height and visual contour without obstructing the view across your landscape. The possibilities are truly endless.
Make a Sun and Contour Map
Late winter is the right time to start visualizing your garden plan and mapping out your space for the growing season. Take a walk around your potential garden space, and think about where the sun will be positioned for the majority of the growing season. Then create a map indicating sunny spots and shady spots. This will give you an idea of where to position your plants for summer.
Next, consider the contour of the space and denote any significant sloping on your sun map. Gardening on a hill is a lot different from gardening on a flat surface. And if your property slopes to the north, you will have a different microclimate than a property that slopes to the south or west. Also, soil on a slope is often more shallow than in flat areas and can easily erode if not properly terraced or planted with perennial shrubs and trees. Hillsides often require more watering. You can also mark with colored pencils any really wet, dry, or rocky areas on your map to begin to delineate different ecotypes or ecozones on your land, and research plants that might do well in such areas.
Garden Design Tips
Your garden is a complex system, and you do not always need to know all the microscopic details of what is happening in it. But considering a few basic things when designing your garden will help ensure your property is a place of biological refuge where you cultivate resilience year after year:
1. 1. Combine both native and naturalized edible perennial plants into your garden design.
2. 2. Create mixed species (polyculture) garden beds.
3. 3. Collect and save seeds.
4. 4. Learn horticultural and ethnobotanical details about each plant you grow.
5. 5. Plant species together that share the same resource needs.
6. 6. Think of your garden as a living ecosystem that has the potential to provide you with food, medicine, fuel, fodder, fiber, beauty, and fertilizer.
If you live on a rocky slope, you can utilize hardy perennial herbs and integrate them into your permanent landscaping. Rocky soil is sometimes difficult to work with because roots have to maneuver around rocks to find nutrients. But if you live in a climate with a short growing season, you can utilize areas with rocky soil to extend your growing season. Rocks can be used as heat sinks: they warm up the soil around them on a sunny day and hold that heat into the night.
If you have a relatively flat rectangular space and want to establish raised beds, you can either make linear raised bed boxes from untreated lumber, or you can use stones to create organically shaped raised beds. Ideally you will be able to use your landscape contour to your advantage and grow perennial herbs as part of your permanent landscaping and use raised beds for annual herbs and foods.
Make a Plant List
Once you have a good sun map, you can start making a list of all the plants you have and those you wish you had in your garden. You probably have a pretty good idea of what plants grow well in your region just from seeing what other people grow or visiting a local nursery. Include fruits, nuts, and berries you might want to grow. Consider including a few native edibles to honor the long ancestry of your place and provide sanctuary for native animals and insects.
I usually compile a large list of plants and pare it down based on how much space I have and how likely I am to be able to process and use the fruits or herbs when they mature. Think about which herbs you use the most and approximately how many plants you will need to provide a significant portion of your annual or seasonal needs. For example, I use a lot of thyme in my cooking and in homemade winter immune tea, so I estimate that I will harvest the majority of a single mature plant per week during the growing season and possibly get two harvests a season from each plant. When mature, one blue elderberry tree will supply me with enough elderflower and elderberry for myself and my family for the year. If you plan to grow garlic, think about how many heads you go through per week and multiply that by 52. Add 10 percent if you want to also grow your own seed garlic (which saves you a lot of money in the long run).
It is also easy to grow some herbs in plastic or clay pots, which are relatively light and easy to move around your yard. I like to grow lots of culinary herbs in pots each season and keep them close to my kitchen door for easy access. If you love tropical herbs, such as ginger and lemongrass, you can grow them in pots indoors until the weather warms up, then move them outside, then return them indoors in the fall. You can easily grow many perennial tropical plants in small quantities so long as you grow them in pots that are easy to maneuver.
Place Your Plants
Now that you have your sun map with contours and your list of plants, you can start mapping out where each plant should go. When I start new gardens on my property, I often consider the footprint of the big permanent plants first and then start to visualize the diverse collection of smaller annual and perennial herbs and flowers that will fill in the edges. This process is highly flexible, and you will likely find that your map changes as you go along. The major thing to initially map out is the placement of your long-lived edible perennial trees and shrubs.
For easy access, it is smart to plant foods and herbs that you use almost every day close to your home. As you move out toward the edges of your property, you should plant sprawling trellised berries, fruit trees, and medicinal roots.
Position plants that require more sun and heat in areas where they receive the most sun exposure on your property. Partial-sun and shade-tolerant plants will be perfectly happy in the shadow of trees, shrubs, and buildings.
Grouping plants from similar ecosystems together will make it a lot easier to care for your garden. Planting prairie species together, for example, will allow you to create a whole section of plants that have similar water, light, and nutrient requirements. Developing a healthy, robust garden is all about understanding the natural patterns of the ecosystem where you live and finding neat ways to mimic nature. Sometimes this means finding plants that naturally occur in your area. At other times this means creating microclimates that closely align with a particular plant’s needs or creating a community of plants that share the same water, light, nutrient, and heat requirements.
8. Skullcap & catnip
5. Culinary boxes
6. Chamomile & poppy
13. Tomatoes & peppers
A Farm Reclaimed
I finally bought my own farmland a year ago and did some major clearing to open up areas for an edible landscape and create fields to farm herbs. In the process, I had to remove much of the vegetation close to my house. When I bought the property, it was a derelict Christmas tree farm. The fir trees were planted less than 5 feet apart and had grown to more than 25 feet tall. They were severely choking each other out and encroaching on my house. But once I cleared most of the Christmas trees, my home looked completely naked and lonely perched atop a gentle sloping hill.
Now I have begun the long, slow process of replanting with edible native and naturalized species. The first few years of any relandscaping project can be a little shocking because your permanent tree layers take lots of time to grow and visually fill the space. But your shrub and herbaceous layers can quickly restore and protect your precious soil, even in the first year. Medicinal herbs are often really good at quickly filling any bare ground. They can form an early successional dense cover until shrubs and tree layers are established. Once you have your tree layer, you can plant shade-tolerant herbs under the tree canopy and sun-loving herbs at the edge of the canopy. Plants usually find ways of spreading to their ideal location, so as you begin working with medicinal plants in your garden, you will discover precisely where they want to be.
Start Small and Pace Yourself
Once you have a strong vision and a plan to achieve your vision, you get to start bringing that vision to fruition. Gardening is a big project that spans the whole length of your growing season, but it does not have to feel overwhelming. I am a strong optimist and believe that bit by bit, day by day, I can complete really large projects.
I am definitely not superwoman — I have many physical and mental limitations — so I have developed a system to keep myself from starting projects with lots of energy and quickly losing focus and quitting. One of my basic practices is that I only bite off small tasks at a time. I mean tasks that can be completed in between 2 minutes and 2 hours. On any given day I usually focus on a single project for a few hours, then stop when I start to feel my productivity lull, and work on a different project for a few hours. Stress is really damaging to the body over the long term, so I try hard to reduce how worked up I get about how much or how many things I have to do. It is more gratifying to be calm, happy, and excited about doing meaningful and important work in your life. Nothing profoundly good usually comes out of emotionally stressful situations.
Like all good things, gardening takes persistence, so as a home gardener you do not need to prep and plant your garden all in a single weekend. Plants can teach you a lot about the practice of slow transformation. The first year you garden, you might make a simple goal of building and planting a single raised bed for herbs. The following year, you might plant another or install a berry patch. If you are busy it is important to start small and work your way up. A small, well-loved and maintained garden is probably more productive than a whole yard of half-finished gardening ideas. Putting in a few hours a week consistently over the course of the season is usually enough for a small garden.
When you are considering growing your own herbs, let yourself have fun, learn with curiosity, and find ways to stay positive about the progress you are making. Every little step is imbued with meaning when working with plants. Give yourself the time to notice the details and move through a project with patience and attention.
A Story of Pacing
With a machete and a small handsaw, I recently cleared a half-mile-long, 10-foot-wide path along the perimeter of my property to install a section of fence. This particular section of the property was a dense thicket with extremely moist soil and two steep ravines — too delicate, steep, and wet for any machinery to drive through. My dad, a saint of a man, decided to help me. (As a side note, my dad is amazing: he has Parkinson’s disease and still takes pleasure in working alongside me on all my farm projects, never complaining of his limitations.)
We spent several days leading up to the clearing debating how long it would take. I had it in my head that we could easily clear the land using hand tools in about 12 to 15 hours total. Dad balked, thinking there was no way we could work through the muck and seemingly endless thorny bushes and trees in such a short time. I kept reassuring him that we most definitely could, and I had three mornings one week and two mornings the following week to complete the project.
The first day, the first thing we both did was sink almost up to our knees in the mud. I had to drag myself out and then help my father up. I reassured him that this was not an omen, and we got straight to work. We cleared about a hundred feet that first day. After three hours we were both tired. “Okay, that’s enough for today,” I said.
“What? We are done for today?!”
“Yes, Dad. We’ll come back out tomorrow morning and start again.”
He is the kind of person who likes to start a project and focus on it single-mindedly until completion. But I knew that if we kept working our frustration and fatigue would build, and we would make slow progress as the day and week progressed.
The next morning, refreshed and motivated, we cleared twice the distance we had the day before. After three hours, as we were again starting to feel tired and fatigued, I expressed excitement for how much progress we had made and demanded I treat him to a hot lunch back at the house. We would resume clearing the next day.
Each day we worked on the clearing we outpaced the previous days until the project was completed (in just under 15 hours). Each day we quit with physical and mental energy to spare for other farm projects that were less physically demanding. In the end, we finished the project quickly without major aches and pains or feeling burnt out.
Starting from Seed
Starting plants from seed is a rewarding way to learn a lot about plants. Each plant seed has a personality, physical characteristics, and a legacy to share with you, and they will give you a much deeper understanding of how plants grow. I like to start plants from seed whenever possible, but I also see the value in buying tree and shrub seedlings. Many fruit-bearing plants, such as grapes, apples, and mulberries, are often grafted onto pest-resistant rootstock, which is a good reason to buy seedlings or learn the amazing skill of grafting. Grafting, a form of horticultural cloning, also ensures you are getting a seedling that is true to the parent plant.
Sourcing medicinal plant seeds is tricky only if you are looking for a plant that is not commonly grown. Buying culinary herb seed is easy. Finding a small regional seed company that sells what you need is ideal, but you can always source from large commercial organic seed companies, too.
You will save a lot of money over the long run if you collect your own seed. Seed collecting also requires that you let some of your medicinal plants go all the way through their life cycles without harvesting from them, a practice that supports beneficial insects. I have visited and worked on medicinal plant farms that have not been able to sustain healthy bee colonies — most of the plants they are farming are harvested before or just at the flower stage, the same moment the beneficial insects, such as bees, are trying to collect nectar. Having lots of plants grown specifically for seed helps an herb garden support a much richer biodiversity. Bees love seed gardens!
It is quite easy to avoid genetically modified herb seeds if you buy organic seed from a responsible grower. Most medicinal herb seeds, as far as my experience goes, are not genetically modified. Seed growers often select seeds from their most vigorous plants, and over many generations this creates seeds that are incredibly well suited to the conditions where the seed was grown. Because I believe that genetic diversity is important, I always grow and source seeds from open-pollinated fields.
Once you have your seeds in hand, you will need basic information about how to germinate each kind of seed. Medicinal plant seeds can sometimes be a little tricky to start, depending on the natural cycles the plant undergoes in its wild habitat. But don’t be discouraged: there are lots of tricks to give even your most challenging seeds a good chance at germination. To help you along the way, there is plenty of detailed information available in books dedicated to growing medicinal plants.
As the Garden Grows: Love and Witness
Once plants are securely in the ground, aside from remembering to water them, I suggest spending a lot of time with them. Each year it’s fun to get reacquainted with each species you grow and watch them do their thing. Plants sense what is happening all around them and respond to their situation in fascinating ways. With the nourishment in the soil and the energy of the sun, they swiftly transform at a surprising pace and begin to rise, reach, and sprawl.
Take pleasure in your garden design and enjoy how your best-laid plans begin to get redesigned by nature with each passing sun-filled day. As your plants adapt to their surroundings, they will begin to show off and speak clearly to the world. Your garden is a sensual retreat. I spend a lot of hours curiously watching plants transform from delicate seedlings into strong, robust plants with dramatic visual displays and truly magnificent scents. I slow down and attune my senses to how plants are communicating to the world. I begin to feel myself as part of the living world in a closely interconnected system. My self-consciousness subsides, and I feel so lucky to be a plant tender.
I feel like my body is made up of a diverse fleet of organisms that work together to inform and maintain the health of my flesh and skin. Herbs and medicinal foods keep the fleet afloat over the long course of our lives. The crust of the earth is a flesh of sorts, too, and the organisms that make up the soil, animals, and plants make up its skin. We are part of the earth’s body, and we owe it to ourselves and the earth to give back by living kindly and regeneratively.
Starting Plants from Cuttings
A great number of medicinal plant species grow perfectly well from cuttings, including mints, lemonbalm, thyme, rosemary, elderberry, mulberry, willow, cottonwood, and nettle.
Many herbaceous plants (such as mint, scented geranium, and lemonbalm) are especially easy to start from cuttings because the plant itself produces plenty of growth hormone to send out roots at the base of the cut stem. You simply take a small section of stem with about two sets of leaves and soak the stem in water until roots begin to sprout from stem nodes. Stable temperatures around 70°F (21°C) help establish a good set of roots. When the young roots are about an inch long, transplant the herbs into flats or pots, or plant directly into the garden, making sure to provide enough light, warmth, and water to help the roots get established in the soil.
I usually root tree or shrub species (elderberry, sea buckthorn, hawthorn, jasmine, and mulberry are some of the easier ones) in fast-draining soil mix or plain sand. Once the plant has gone dormant, diagonally cut a 6-inch section with a few live leaf buds. Using younger sections often yields better results. Dip the bottom 1 ⁄2 inch of stem into liquid or powdered rooting hormone (purchase a nonsynthetic version if possible) and stick the cutting in a container of potting medium. Water the cutting regularly, every day if necessary, to keep the potting medium moist. It sometimes takes a month or more to start seeing signs of root development. Once the roots have developed, it is best to keep the shrub or tree in a decent-sized container with well-draining soil for a full growing season, continuing to water regularly, before transplanting into your garden.
Herbs are quite hardy and will often surprise you with their strength and adaptability. Once the plant is established and rapidly growing, you can start to harvest its edible shoots and leaves. However, giving general advice about harvesting is a little tricky because some plants are stimulated by small amounts of regular pruning, while others are better suited for one large harvest per season. Harvesting any portion of a plant while it is growing is a form of stress on the plant; how much depends a great deal on how adaptive a plant is and on soil fertility. I try to express deep gratitude for the herbs before I harvest them and take a lot of care to honor their freshness and potency. I try not to waste plant material or mismanage my drying process.
If you are just growing the plants to harvest them, then your practices will be a little different than if you are using herbs as landscaping plants in addition to harvesting them for food and tea. If you are growing herbs as part of perennial edible landscaping, then I encourage you to plant more plants than you anticipate needing in a single season so you can harvest less from each plant. If I am growing plants for their ecological landscape functions and for food, I tend to harvest between 10 and 25 percent of the plant per season.
Experiment with the perennials in your garden and read about how to harvest from specific plants. For example, plants in the mint family, such as mint, skullcap, catnip, sage, marjoram, thyme, and lemonbalm, sometimes have a weedy growth habit. Harvesting them from their edges to contain them from spreading is a great way to keep them as a beautiful part of your landscaping and have enough for your personal needs.
Harvesting Tips for Different Plant Parts
For medicine, you will use leaves, flowers, shoots, tubers, roots, bark, seeds, and fruits. Here are some techniques for harvesting different plant parts:
Leaves: For herbs, clip the upper 50 to 75 percent of the aboveground portion from the stem. For shrubs or trees, handpick leaves from branches.
Flowers: Handpick flowers from bushy tree, shrub, or herb species, such as calendula, rose, or hawthorn bushes. For most herbs, you can clip flower heads from their stalks.
Roots: You have to dig up the whole plant to harvest roots. With a shovel, hori hori (Japanese gardening knife), or pitchfork, loosen the soil around the root as deep as it goes and slowly dislodge the root from the ground.
Seeds and fruits: Hand harvest fruits, berries, and seeds without disturbing the parent plant.
Shoots, bark, and tubers: Often you will harvest these parts from healthy perennial plants. To minimize negative impacts on the health of the host plant, take the time to learn the harvesting techniques particular to each species.
How Much Do You Need?
This is an important question to ask yourself when you envision your garden, but also later when you get ready to harvest. If you are planning on drying and saving herbs, avoid harvesting more herbs than you and your community can realistically use in a given year. The energy and work it takes to grow a plant should not be taken for granted. Depending on your drying system, you might only be able to harvest part of your crop at a time. Think ahead and make sure you have the drying capacity before you head out and harvest. Keeping good records of how much you planted, when and how much you harvested, your drying schedule, and the dry weight of your harvest can help you keep track of what you are doing from year to year.
Most aerial portions of herbs are about 80 percent water. This means that they will lose about 80 percent of their weight in water during the drying process. So, for example, if you harvest 100 pounds of fresh nettles, you will end up with approximately 20 pounds of dried nettle.
An herb farm will typically harvest 75 to 100 percent of an annual plant each year. For perennial herbs, harvesting 50 to 75 percent of the aerial portion is normal. For leaves from perennial trees and shrubs, it is more common to harvest less than 20 percent. When I am harvesting hawthorn leaf or flower, for instance, I often only harvest a tiny portion of a single tree, but I harvest from many different mature trees to meet my harvest needs. I spread out my impact as much as possible to avoid placing a lot of stress on each plant.
Harvesting season is a bittersweet time. I love to appreciate plants and let them live peacefully, taking only a small portion of a plant if I can. But it takes a lot of space and abundance to treat your yard as you would wild spaces. My heart is aligned with wild tending rather than production farming, so I try hard to find a balance so that I can maintain the same patches of herbs for many years, slowly increasing abundance through growing and tending techniques.
After harvesting herbs, you should dry them as soon as possible without letting them get too hot because heat and light break down phytochemicals once the plant is harvested. Herbs will dry quickly at a temperature around 95 to 105°F (35 to 40°C) with lots of airflow from fans or wind.
If you live in a drier climate, you will likely be able to dry small amounts of herbs by hanging them in bunches in a shady space with lots of airflow. Because I live in the Puget Sound where the climate can be cool and moist, this method doesn’t work as well as I would like. So when I am drying a small amount of herbs I use a dehydrator on a low setting. I have an Excalibur dehydrator with nine shelves that works really well for most of my small-scale drying needs. For drying larger batches of herbs on my farm, I built a hoop house covered with shade cloth with wooden shelves that the drying screens slide into. Big fans circulate air, and we keep the doors open to ensure the evaporating moisture escapes easily.
I have a friend who dries herbs and mushrooms in his basement using hand-built screens he slides into used commercial kitchen speed racks and big commercial fans to circulate air. I have set up strange drying systems in tents and cabins to quickly dry seaweed during spring seaweed harvest when the weather is not cooperating for an outdoor drying system. That’s all to say that there are lots of easy ways to dry plants so long as you have a warm environment with plenty of airflow and vents for moisture to escape as plants are drying.
Once your plants are dried, you usually have to remove any stem parts from the leaf or flower parts. This process is called garbling. The simplest way is to slide your fingers down a stem to separate the leaves from the stem. For larger quantities, it is helpful to set up a 1 ⁄2 -inch mesh screen with a tarp underneath. Roll a handful of plant material back and forth across the screen; the leaf and flower bits will fall through the screen onto the tarp, and the long stems remain on the screen to be discarded. This also helps break up the leaves to a perfect size for loose-leaf tea.
Storing Your Herbs
The best way to store dried herbs is in a cool, dark room or cabinet in an airtight container.
I usually use thick, clear plastic bags and squeeze out all the air before securing the top. Make sure you label each batch with the herb’s name and the harvest or dry date. I cannot tell you how easy it is to mix up herbs if they do not have their name clearly written on the container. This is also important so you will remember to use the oldest batch of an herb first. I don’t like selling products with herbs that are more than a year old because I want to be absolutely sure the tea is fresh and potent — my company’s reputation depends on it. For your own use, however, you can probably get away with keeping homegrown herbs for more than a year if you store them properly. Use your senses: Does the color, scent, texture, and taste of the herb still seem fresh? If so, continue to use it.
I recommend you store your herbs in separate containers and mix your tea blends in small, 1 ⁄2 -pound batches that you then store in your kitchen in opaque containers. This ensures freshness, and you’ll be less likely to make more than you need.
Seed saving is an important ritual done at the end of a plant’s seasonal life cycle to ensure diversity for future generations of the species. The act of collecting seeds from your garden completes the cycle from seed to seed. Each summer and fall I collect seeds for the following year’s seedlings. Some seeds are enclosed in sweet fruits; some are protected by a large, hard exterior fruit, such as nuts; others fall loose from their pods to the ground as the seed head on which they have been maturing is shaken by wind or rain.
Each plant produces seeds that are suited to their ideal germination and ecological niche. Most seeds contain growth-inhibiting hormone in their seed coat that must get broken down or removed before the seed will germinate. Time, weathering, and cold stratification eventually promote germination for many plants. But some seeds that are surrounded by a fruit need to undergo a fermentation process, either by passing through an animal (or human) digestive system or by being tossed in a pile where the fruit can ferment. This is why seedlings are often found sprouting up from the compost in the spring. Bears, birds, humans, and deer have been spreading seeds for millennia across the landscape. A creature eats the berries, takes time to digest them, and by the time the animal has a bowel movement, the seeds are in a totally different location, excreted into a perfect wet pile of compost with suitable nutrients for a seedling’s early life.
Some plants produce a huge amount of readily viable seed per plant. Weedy species often produce a lot of seeds, which partly accounts for their role as quick colonizers of disturbed or bare ground. St. John’s wort, yarrow, calendula, and chamomile come to mind as plants that produce an excessive volume of viable seed each year; as soon as their seed is mature, it often germinates quickly unless harvested and stored until spring. With these heavy seed producers, you won’t need to collect from too many plants in order to get all the seeds you need for the following year.
Seed collecting preserves the genetics of the plants on your property over generations, enabling you to cultivate plants that are highly adaptable to your growing conditions. You can do this simply by harvesting seeds from your most successful and healthy plants, or from plants that capture a strongly desired trait.
Harvesting your own seed also saves money because good seeds are pricey. It really doesn’t take much space to grow a seed garden or keep a few plants to harvest for their seeds. I usually do not harvest seeds from plants that were previously harvested for medicine. It takes a lot of energy for a plant to produce healthy viable seed. Harvesting a significant portion of a plant’s leaves or flowers, even once in a season, can cause stress in a plant, which can affect the health of the seeds.
You’ll need a few basic tools for seed collecting from your home garden:
· Garden shears for clipping seed heads
· Screens for garbling, sorting, and sifting seeds
· Paper bags for hanging seed heads in while seeds are released from their flower head
· Paper seed envelopes or plastic Ziploc bags for storing seeds
Study up on how to collect seed from each plant you grow. Some plants need zero processing, while others are more complicated. Don’t forget to label your seeds!
What Is a Seed?
A seed is a matured embryo, a little embryonic plant surrounded by a seed coat. Because it needs to wait for the perfect growing conditions, all the necessities it needs to sprout (except sunlight and water) are housed in a cozy shell or skin that protects the potential seedling inside while it waits for its opportunity to come alive. Simple and elegant in design, a seed is a little package filled with all of life’s possibility.