Starting a Medicinal Herb Garden – Keep it Simple
Maybe you are thinking of growing some medicinal herbs, but you aren’t sure which herbs, or how to grow them. It can be a little overwhelming, especially with all the different choices to make. But there is nothing like the experience of harvesting and making remedies with the plants you grow yourself. Starting a medicinal herb garden is a wonderful way to enjoy the beauty and health of medicinal herbs.
When I first started bringing herbal remedies into my life, I was definitely overwhelmed, but the advice of my earliest teacher and mentor helped guide me. She said when we are starting with herbal remedies, it is best to focus on a handful of plants and to know and use those plants well.
I have kept her advice in mind, and I choose to focus on the medicinal plants growing wild around me, or the ones I can easily grow.
Creating a medicinal herb garden doesn’t have to be complicated or overwhelming. Start with these 5 herbs – they are all easy to grow, offer you a variety of benefits, and have a long history of documented use for health and healing.
First, let me tell you a little about each of the plants and how they are traditionally used for health and healing. Then I will share some tips on how to grow them, including in containers. Followed by additional resources for finding seeds, plants, and where to find more information so you can slowly begin adding to your herbal apothecary.
This is a long post, so grab yourself a cup of tea, a pen, and some paper. You can also receive a pdf summary file here:
Disclaimer – Please Note: the information provided here is not intended to replace professional medical advice and care. It is simply my perspective for you to consider as you make good choices for you and your family’s health.
The use of herbs is a time- honored approach to strengthening the body and promoting health. Herbs,
however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. Seek the support and care of a physician and/or complementary care practitioner you trust, and above all, listen to and trust in yourself. Be well!
Starting a Medicinal Herb Garden – 5 Best Herbs
You might notice that two of the five herbs on this list are culinary herbs. Many culinary herbs offer some of the best health benefits, have long histories of use as both medicine and food, and are safe to use for almost everyone. In Simple Foods for Cold and Flu, I share some of the research on how powerfully effective common culinary herbs are for colds and flu, and how easy it is to use these flavorful herbs to support our health.
The other three herbs – yarrow, comfrey, and echinacea all offer a great variety of benefits, and are used both externally and internally. They are particularly great additions in a DIY herbal first aid kit.
Okay, so let’s meet the plants!
Yarrow – Achillea millefolium
Yarrow is such a versatile plant, I truly believe every home should include yarrow as part of their herbal apothecary and first aid kit.
Traditional Uses for Yarrow:
- Fresh, dried, or powdered, yarrow is excellent for cuts and scrapes to stop bleeding, prevent infection, and relieve pain – read more about using yarrow in herbal first aid
- Fresh or dried leaves and flowers can be used in tea for fevers
- Yarrow is a bitter plant and can be included in a homemade bitter tincture
- Can be used to make an oil-based skin salve (often combined with other herbs)
- Astringent quality of yarrow makes it useful in homemade skin toner recipes
How to Grow Yarrow:
Yarrow is a flowering perennial that prefers full sun and well-drained soil. But yarrow is quite a hardy plant, and like most weeds, can thrive under a variety of conditions. If you don’t want yarrow spreading, plant in pots.
Yarrow grows low to the ground with feather-like leaves, and produces stalks with compound umbel flowers. Yarrow doesn’t require much care as it is tolerant of poor soils and drought. If growing in a pot, make sure to allow for good drainage and avoid over-watering.
There are a variety of yarrow cultivars in a multitude of colors including orange, red, pink, and yellow. Medicinally, it is the white-flowered Achillea millefolium species that offers the strongest benefits.
In addition, yarrow attracts beneficial insects, and I have a wild patch that has been allowed to grow in a corner of our garden.
Comfrey – Symphytum officinale
Comfrey is a great addition to your home apothecary. Traditionally used topically to help with cuts and scrapes, as well as treating injuries to bones, ligaments, and tendons, comfrey makes an excellent addition to your herbal first aid kit. You can see an example of comfrey’s rapid healing in the post Healing With Comfrey.
Leaves can be used fresh or dried to make a poultice or compress. Dried comfrey leaves can be used to make a comfrey oil, and in a healing salve.
Comfrey is frequently referred to as “knit bone” because of its ability to speed the recovery of bone breaks and as reported in Grieve’s A Modern Herbal,
Comfrey leaf and especially the roots conatin pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which have been suspected of causing liver injury when consumed in large quantities – comfrey should only be used externally and not for extended periods of time.
How to Grow Comfrey:
Comfrey is a beautiful perennial with large, broad leaves and delicate bell-shaped flowers. The two types of comfrey most frequently grown and sold are the common comfrey, (Symphytum officinale) and Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum). Russian comfrey is also called the Bocking 14 cultivar, and because it is a hybrid, has sterile seeds and can only be grown from root cuttings.
Comfrey grows best in USDA hardiness zones 3-9, but can be grown outside those zones. Comfrey typically grows two feet in height and can be just as wide, so plan for adequate space. Comfrey can be grown in full sun or partial shade, and because it has deep roots, can tolerate a wide variety of soil types including clay, sand, wet, and dry conditions.
Common comfrey spreads quickly and can be difficult to remove from your garden, which is why I recommend obtaining the Russian, or Bocking 14 variety, as it has sterile seeds. Comfrey can be successfully grown in pots, but will need a seasonal addition of a nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
Comfrey leaves grow quickly and can be harvested multiple times over a single season. Cut the plant back to two inches in height, and allow to regrow. Leave the comfrey uncut through the fall to allow the plant to re-build reserves for the winter season.
In addition to comfrey’s medicinal qualities, it is often included in permaculture designs for its ability to contribute to soil fertility, provide nutrient-rich mulch, and attract beneficial insects. Amy at Tenth Acre Farm has a great resource for using comfrey in your garden.
Thyme – Thymus Vulgaris
Thyme is an herb with culinary, medicinal, and ornamental uses. Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) are both popular culinary varieties and offer many health benefits. Traditional uses and current research is looking at the following benefits of thyme:
- Antimicrobial properties – great for fighting cold and flu viruses and bacteria
- Relief for fevers
- Sore throats
- Expectorant qualities for relieving coughs
Thyme has a long history of treating coughs. Dioscorides, an ancient Greek physician and pharmacologist, wrote of the healing benefits of thyme in his Materia Medica, a text that was widely read for nearly 1,500 years. Clinical studies are indicating the benefits of thyme (dried or extract) in treating bronchitis.
I use thyme medicinally as a simple tea or in my honey-vinegar oxymel.
How to Grow Thyme
Thyme is a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 5-9. Thyme does best in full sun and well-drained soil. It can be hard to grow from seeds because they have such uneven germination. If you do grow from seeds, start them indoors 6-10 weeks before the last spring frost date.
Thyme is a low-growing plant, and makes a nice border to gardens, walkways, or as a ground cover. Potted thyme can be enjoyed for its aroma. Attractive to pollinators and an evergreen plant, I believe thyme is underappreciated for its beauty and function in gardens, borders, and pots.
Once established, thyme requires little care except for seasonal pruning.
Sage – Salvia officinalis
Sage is another culinary herb with a long history of use as both food and medicine. Current research shows an impressive range of possible medical applications.
Sage tea has traditionally been use in the treatment of colds and flu, and research suggests sage has significant antibacterial properties. (See resources for more information.)
Sage is often recommended to relieve cough and sore throats, and because sage has astringent properties, it’s excellent for treating drippy sinus. Sage can be used as a tea, or as a gargle to sooth a sore throat.
Historic uses and current research on Sage (Salvia officinalis) suggests the following benefits:
- antibacterial properties
- improvements in cholesterol and lipid profiles
- improvements in memory
- relief for menopausal hot flashes
Sage remedies can be used in a variety of ways, including:
- Sage gargle for sore throat
- Sage tea
- Sage-Infused honey
- Herbal hair rinse
- Sage as part of anti-bacterial herbal mouthwash
Sage is an important plant in our home apothecary, and is one of the first plants I use at the beginning of a cold. See my article – Simple Foods for Cold and Flu on how to use sage effectively for quick recovery from a cold or flu.
Avoid medicinal amounts if you are breast-feeding (slows lactation).
How to Grow Sage:
Sage is another easy-to-grow plant for home gardeners, and does well in pots. If you live in zones 4-8, your sage will grow well as a hardy perennial. In other areas, you can take cuttings to continue indoors.
Sage prefers dry conditions, full sun, and well-drained soil. It often grows wider than its height, so for perennial sage, plan for at least 24 inches in width.
Sage needs to be pruned to promote new growth, but even with regular pruning, can become woody over time. After 2-3 years, I typically remove the old plant and start again.
Harvest sage only after the plant has become established. Sage dries quickly and stores well in an air-tight container.
Echinacea – Echinacea augustifolia
Echinacea is the “rock star” of herbal medicine, enjoying a reputation for helping to prevent and shorten the common cold.
Evidence supports echinacea’s ability to stimulate the immune system, and research suggests echinacea has substances that:
- Boost the immune system and shorten the common cold
- Relieve pain
- Reduce inflammation
- Provide Antiviral effects
- Provide Antibacterial effects
In addition, there is research supporting the use of echinacea for:
- Urinary tract infections
- Cold sores from the Herpes Simplex Virus
- Slow healing wounds
- Inhibition of colon tumors
- Snake bites
- Spider and insect bites
- Eczema and inflammatory skin conditions
I include a tincture of echinacea in our first aid kit.
*Contraindications: Like most remedies, natural or man-made, echinacea is not right for everyone.
Echinacea can interact with some medications, and should not be taken if you are on an immunosuppresant or if you are preparing for surgery.
For people with autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s, celiac disease, and rheumatoid arthritis, using echinacea may be harmful to their health. If you have or suspect you have an autoimmune condition, echinacea is probably not for you.
How to Grow Echinacea:
Echinacea, commonly known as the purple coneflower, is a perennial herb, native to the midwestern region of North America, and does well in zones 3-8. Echinacea is easy to grow from seeds, cuttings, and because it is so hardy, requires little to maintain it.
There are a number of echinacea varieties, but generally the Echinacea augustifolia and Echinacea purpurea are considered the medicinal types, so check which you are purchasing.
Echinacea thrives in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. Its deep roots help maintain it during dry periods, although periodic watering will help it to thrive.
The bright flowers will bloom all season, attracting butterflys and pollinators. The seed heads attract birds, particularly finches in the autumn. Echinacea is self-seeding, so as the original perennials begin to die after several years, they will be replaced by the new plants.
These are the five herbs I recommend everyone grow at home. Each one offers unique health benefits, they are all easy to grow, they add beauty to our lives, and they provide additional benefits to our gardens.
Start slowly, choose one or two that appeal to you and begin working with the plants.
Growing our medicine brings us closer to nature and the traditional path to health and healing. I hope you find joy and health in learning how to grow medicinal herbs.
Where to purchase seeds and plants
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a seed cooperative that offers high-quality seeds and plants.
I was fortunate and purchased my comfrey root plants from a local herb grower, but Comfrey root cuttings can be purchased online – There are a number of Etsy sellers, but I cannot vouch for them. Amazon is another source for Russian comfrey root cuttings.
A Few References:
- Grieve’s: A Modern Herbal – Comfrey
- Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Medicinal Properties of Sage
- Antibacterial Effect of Sage
- University of Maryland Medical Center Overview of Echinacea
- Information on herbs – drug interactions and contraindications