Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Growing Medicinal Herbs

It starts with Intention: The most important thing that you have control of is your intention. This is at the very essence of what you are doing. Everything around you picks up your intention be it beneficial or malevolent and this effects your environment. Plants will pick up your intentions and react to them.

Most herbs are easy to grow. If you want them to thrive, you do need to be sure they have the appropriate soil, light, temperature, water and amendments such as compost and  minerals.

The soil, the air, the weather, other plants around it, will affect the vitality, the flavor, and the strength of your herbs.

Soil: A well-drained loamy soil is the type of soil we want for the majority of our herbs. If you don’t have such a soil, you can modify it with amendments. Nature is a process of recycling. Nutrients continually get recycled. In our gardens we take nutrients out in the form of food and medicine. If we do not replenish them with amendments our soil gets depleted. We need to feed our soil which in turn feeds the plants.

The best thing we can do to nurture our soil is to amend it with compost.

Compost: Your compost is best made with things from your own farm or yard. I will use mine as an example. The main part of my compost is bedding from my goats. This bedding has their urine and manure in it. I also use chicken manure from my chickens that is mixed with sawdust from the bottom of their coop. I don’t get a lot of it as they are free range and only in their coop at night. Other additions are leaves from the many trees in my yard, garden and yard debris from weeding, kitchen food debris, entrails or other body parts from animals that have died or have been butchered. I layer these items. I do not dump huge amounts of leaves on the pile. I collect them over a period of months and layer them between weeds and animal bedding. I also make sure the compost stays moist enough but not so wet that the nitrogen is running out of the pile. This means I may need to use overhead watering or a cover on the pile depending on the weather.

If you do not have enough compost, you can spray compost tea around to try and help your plants. Spray it directly on the plants as well as on the ground around the plants. The tea needs to be made aerobically. I suggest going to Elaine Ingham’s site for information on compost tea. http://www.sweet-soil.com/work-we-do/courses/elaine-ingham/

Fertilizer: My compost is largely my fertilizer. If more is needed, you can use such things as watered down urine (Yes, you can use urine, but be careful what you use it on, how often and when. Also make sure it is used fresh and watered down.), fish meal or other sources of natural nitrogen.


Find out if any minerals are missing in your soil. The best thing to do is test your soil for mineral content.

Kelp is a general all purpose source of minerals, especially microminerals. Be careful not to overuse it as there is a bit of sodium in it. It is too expensive for most folks to overuse.
Calcium is often added to soil in the Willamette valley here as we have a lot of rain. The rain leaches the soil of calcium. Although as your soil is nurtured and if you do not till, you will have less minerals leached out. 

Different types of calcium:
Lime: Calcium carbonate  - will raise pH of soil making    it more basic
Gypsum: Calcium and sulfur – will not alter pH of soil
Dolomite: Calcium and magnesium -  will raise pH of soil
Oyster shell: A slow acting source of lime/calcium

Rock phosphate – Source of phosphorus. Leaves often get purplish coloration if there is not enough phosphorus.

Potassium -  Wood ash from your wood stove is a cheap source. Alfalfa is another source. Growing plants need adequate supplies of potassium to enable enzyme activity, photosynthesis and water movement. Potassium helps to build plants with solid stems and stalks and good bud formation. It also promotes disease resistance and protects growing plants from effects of the cold.

Know the Type of Plant You Are Growing

Annual: 1 season. Usually propagated by seed. They tend to do better in rich soil. Examples would be calendula, oats, shepherd’s purse, blessed thistle, lobelia, chamomile, opium poppy, milk thistle, spilanthes, fenugreek, viola, dill, basil, chervil, cilantro, summer savory, borage, nasturtium

Biennial: 2 seasons to set seed then, usually, they die. Usually propagated by seed. Has a tap root to store energy for the 2nd season, sometimes roots are used at the end of the first season. Sometimes aeial parts are used the first year (sometimes second). Sometimes seed is used second year. Examples would be burdock, parsley, celery, angelica, caraway, cumin, mullein, garlic

Perennial:  Plant lives many seasons, propagation by seed, root division, and cuttings. Plants die to ground in winter if it is cold enough and emerge again in spring. Examples would be yarrow, marshmallow, ladies mantle, yerba mansa,  lovage, aralia, chives, Greek oregano, lemon balm, uva ursi,  absinthe, astragalus, mints, wild yam, echinacea tarragon, California poppy…

Small woody shrubs: Long lived perennials. Wood helps the plants survival. Propagate by cuttings, layering, seed. Examples would be rosemary, sage, lavender, roses , hyssop, winter savory, thyme, chaste tree.

Large woody shrubs: Long lived perennials. Wood helps the plants survival. Propagate by cuttings, layering, seed, usually not by division. Examples would be siberian ginseng, cramp bark, elderberry…

Trees: Long lived perennials. Propagate by seed or cuttings usually. Examples would be hawthorn, linden, cascara…

Herbs that do well in shade/partial shade: Most herbs need sun or partial sun. Herbs that will be okay in shade as long as it is not continual are peppermint, lemon balms, angelica, lovage, valerian, sweet cicely, siberian ginseng. Look to understory shrubs and trees to see which will like shade. For instance goldenseal. ginseng and black cohosh grow beneath deciduous trees and need about 80% shade to do their best. Other plants that like shade are devil’s club, Spikenard, blue cohosh…

Herbs that like wet feet: Most herbs like their feet to dry out. Continual moisture usually produces rusts and rots. So be careful if you have a wet area. Only put bog and marsh loving plants in these areas. Drosera, pitcher plant, skunk cabbage are plants that like wetness. Devil’s club does well in partial wetness such as the base of a moist ravine or along a creek.

Top Pick List - These herbs are fairly easy to grow in the Willamette Valley & herbs I use a lot.

My pick of medicinal herbs for you to grow in the Willamette Valley. I picked these for their ease of growing here as well as for how useful they are as a medicinal herb.

Calendula: Annual, 12" apart, 24" high, rich soil, well drained, full sun/partial shade, sow seeds direct in the soil as soon as ground can be worked, in greenhouse 23 days from seed to transplant. Flowers are collected for medicine.

Echinacea: Perrenial, 12” on center, about three-four feet high, sow seed in fall, winter or very early spring , likes lime, likes full sun, voles like to eat the roots. The roots, flowers and seed are collected for medicine. Some folks use the leaves, but I only find them useful fresh for wasp stings.

Marshmallow: Perennial, 15" space on center, deep fertile sandy loam is best, full sun, good drainage/dry, 400#/acre, harvest in fall or winter when mucilage is high, higher in dry soil. The flowers, roots and leaves are collected for medicine. Especially the flowers and roots.

Comfrey: Perennial, start from piece of root, get Siberian if you don’t want it to seed,  will grow anywhere in any kind of condition. But best in loamy well fed soil. The roots and aerial parts are used as medicine – mostly externally.

Garlic: loamy well fed soil, need soil to be loose enough to grow good bulbs, need to add compost,  needs steady water but not water logged. Stop watering before harvest to dry it out. Bulbs are used as medicine.

Yarrow: Perrenial,  5# seed/acre - 6-12" spacing, any soil but better medicine in poor soil, pH 4.5-7, full sun. Aerial parts – flowers and leaves used as medicine.

Nettle: Perennial, rhizomes, so start from digging up a clump or seed,  will grow in a matt as has rhizomes, likes to be near running water, likes nitrogen and moisture, best dappled shade but okay with full sun. Aerial parts prior to flowering and the seed as well as the root are used as medicine.

Saint John’s Wort: Perennial, only grow in groups of other plants,  start from seed, likes slightly acid soil, full sun, sow seed on sand/soil mix douse w H2O occasionally. Top 4-6 inches of flower buds and flowers used as medicine.

Valerian: Perennial, start from seed, 4’ tall, 6 “ apart or more, moist, rich loam soil, ph of 6-7.  Full sun to partial shade, 1 ton per acre. Roots used as medicine

Blueberry or Huckleberry: start from seed or cutting, likes acidic soil, shallow roots so needs plenty of water and use compost and mulch of sawdust each year, full sun to partial shade. Some huckleberries prefer shade. Leaves and fruit used as medicine.

Oregon grape: woody perennial, sow seed in clay and keep moist – geminates in 2nd or third year. Better to dig up small plants that are growing off a mother plant. Will grow in full sun or partial shade. Root bark and stem bark used as medicine.

A passion for organics