By Alena of Earth Tide Botanicals
Now more than ever is a meaningful time to break ground and grow food in your garden, no matter how small the space. Even a postage-stamp sized yard, or a few large pots clustered on a sunny porch or stoop, can grow an incredible amount of food for your household. Growing food and connecting to a whole-foods based diet is such a lovely way to honor the changing seasons and connect more deeply to self-reliance and the other-than-human world. Time spent outdoors, as well as the fresh nutrition that a veggie garden provides, are also essential elements to supporting your immune system in the midst of this pandemic.
Try to find a little space in your burgeoning food garden to grow some medicinal plants as well. Many plants have chemical constituents developed over thousands of years of environmental changes and adaptation that impart health benefits to humans. There are plants that speed the healing of cuts and bruises, plants that stimulate immune health to prevent or reduce sick time, and plants that gentle and soothe our nerves, providing relief from stress. Medicinal plants are easy to grow, reliably drought-tolerant, decorated with beautiful flowers that pollinators and other beneficial insects adore, and provide an incredible abundance of fresh plant material for health-supporting herbal teas, tinctures, and salves.
PREPARING TO GROW
The first step is to begin with healthy soil. Medicinal plants do well in challenging circumstances. In fact, many of the chemicals that provide health benefits are responses to stress in a plant’s environment. Mediocre soil and sparse watering will make your medicine garden even more potent!
As you break ground, stir in about an inch or two of rich, homemade compost or worm compost from the garden store. Compost provides a buffet to the many microorganisms alive in our garden that build rich soil. Compost is really all you need to grow medicinals. Think also of how you will water through the summer: you can water a small space with a hose, but in a slightly larger space drip irrigation is best. This is plastic tubing that releases water a drop at a time to plant roots. Try to keep your water use as minimal as possible: medicinal plants probably need to be watered only once a week, even in the hottest part of late summer. Before watering, stick a finger in the soil—if the top two inches are still moist to the touch, you can wait to water.
If you are gardening in pots, add more compost. Potted plants also benefit from a seasonal fertilizing regime. Every other month or so, water in with compost tea or kelp meal, stinky but life-giving amendments that feed the billions of microorganisms alive in each pot of healthy soil. Plants growing in pots will also need additional watering—check on them every three to four days (though still water only when the top two inches of soil have dried out).
WHAT TO GROW
My essential medicine garden includes yarrow, a graceful native plant with fragrant leaves and white flowers that pollinators love. Yarrow leaf and flower is an incredible ally for immune support, since it increases circulation and has antibiotic and antiviral properties. Yarrow is also an important first aid plant: the fresh leaf can be pressed onto cuts to stop bleeding instantly, or to reduce the size and pain of a bee sting. Yarrow does wonderfully in a pot.
Calendula (also known as pot marigold due to its vigorous life as a potted plant) is a low-growing plant with brilliant, sticky yellow and orange flowers that attract beneficial insects and honeybees. The flowers also have powerful skin-healing qualities: calendula oil is included in many skin products because of its ability to reduce scar tissue and heal cuts and scrapes.
To make your own calendula oil, simply fill a mason jar of any size half full with calendula and the rest of the way with an organic oil of your choice (such as olive or sunflower), making sure that all flowers remain submerged in oil. Allow to sit for at least two to four weeks, shaking occasionally, before straining out and composting the flowers. The finished product is an infused oil that can be thickened into a cream with beeswax and coconut oil, or used as an oil for external applications to cuts and scrapes to promote faster healing.
Two of my favorite herbs to grow in pots for tea are tulsi (holy basil) and chamomile. Tulsi leaves and flowers and chamomile flowers make a delicious tea that soothes our nervous systems.
Tulsi is a tonic adaptogen, a kind of plant that repairs and rebuilds the body and mind from chronic stress.
Chamomile flowers are soothing for digestion and nerves. Chamomile is the famous “sleepytime” herb, since it is a relaxant and sleep aid. Chamomile is a wonderful herb for kids.
Lemon balm is a brilliant green herb which provides armfuls of fresh tea from even a single plant. Lemon balm leaf and flower are deeply calming and uplifting in times of sadness or depression. Kids love the sweet, lemon-y taste and respond well to lemon balm’s calming effects, especially if kids are prone to restlessness. Lemon balm eases stress, tension, anxiety, and sadness, so it can also be a good bedtime remedy.
PREPARING YOUR HERBAL REMEDIES
Drinking tea from fresh herbs you pick daily in your garden is a simple and effective way to incorporate these plants into your life. To make a strongly medicinal tea, brew at least 1-2 tablespoons of leaves and flowers to a cup of water. Let sit for at least two hours before straining and heating up to enjoy.
Drying herbs is extremely easy, and provides tea through the winter. Simply spread plants in a thin layer (don’t pile them) on a well-ventilated surface such as a basket or screen in a warm and dark place. It is important not to expose tea herbs to direct sunlight which degrades their quality. Once plant material gently crumbles to the touch, it is dry enough to pack into glass jars and store in a cool, dark space for future use.
You can also make simple herbal tinctures and vinegars with plants from your garden. A fresh tincture is simply a jar which you fill halfway with firmly packed leaves and flowers, then fill to the top with either a high-proof alcohol or vinegar. Allow to sit in a dark space for at least two weeks but up to several months, before straining to enjoy a spoonful at a time.
WHERE TO BUY PLANTS
Some of my favorite local sources for medicinal plants are Yes Yes Nursery, which offers local delivery with a minimum order amount. You can see a list of what is available at www.yesyesnursery.com. Island Seed and Feed in Goleta also has a healthy selection of medicinal plants and offers curbside pickup. Crimson Sage Nursery is a solely medicinal plant nursery with a vast selection which ships live plants straight to your door. You can visit their online catalog at www.crimson-sage.com. Many medicinal plants are easy to grow from seed. My favorite source is Strictly Medicinal Seed, which provides detailed growing instructions on each packet: https://strictlymedicinalseeds.com/.