Starting a Therapeutic Herb Garden

Pam is preparing to start her first medicinal herb garden, and inquired about which plants were ‘must-haves’ to start from seed. Great idea! But before we get to specific herbs, a little planning and site preparation is in order.
Survey the land that you have. What are the characteristics you have to work with? Do you have full sun? Full or part shade? What hardiness zone do you live in? What type of soil do you have and how about the drainage? Is your land flat or hilly? Visit ATH’s own Judith Fox Smith in her recent discussion about frost dates, seeds vs. transplants, and other considerations.
In VERY general terms, commonly grown medicinal herbs are not fussy – they thrive in the wild and have adapted to less-than-optimal conditions. In fact, if you pamper them too much you risk reducing their medicinal value because many of the desirable phytochemicals are produced as a response to stressful conditions (e.g., if you want ‘really hot’ hot peppers, deprive them of water to get a higher capsaicin content). All that to say is that you don’t need to go overboard with fertilization once you get things going.
From Pam’s list of herbs, let’s categorize them as follows and discuss as groups:
Mint-family (Lamiaceae): holy basil/tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), sacred white sage (Salvia apiana), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), lavender (Lavendula officinalis), self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), plus all the mints (Mentha spp.), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), Mediterranean culinary herbs
Daisy-family (Asteraceae): various echinacea (Echinacea spp), calendula (Calendula officinalis), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), elecampane (Inula helenium)
‘The rest’: astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous), comfrey (Symphytum officinalis), marshmallow (Althea officinalis), stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Again in general, mint-family herbs tend to ‘grow like weeds’ (invasively, in fact), so are easy to get going. Seeds of these plants are very small, and as Judy mentions in her post, may be hard to get started that way. But if you seed heavily, you should be able to get at least a couple of plants going in no time, and then they will multiply and propagate from there. Most of these are annuals, but they will tend to self-seed and come up year after year in the right climate. Provide them full sun to partial shade and well-drained soil.
Daisy-family herbs are so-called because their flowers are the ‘standard’ button-like center with petals radiating outward like a daisy. They are great additions to the herb garden, though I have personally had trouble starting chamomile from seed. Echinacea and calendula seem to be less fussy, add beautiful color to the garden, and are more likely to reseed themselves the following year (if you don’t harvest all the flowers or roots, in the case of echinacea). Yarrow is a ‘common weed’ so I encourage you to visit any nearby field to see if there is any growing around (being mindful of any potential toxic exposure of the area before you harvest).
As for ‘the rest’, all but stinging nettles are harvested for their roots, and I would recommend you try to find a root cutting to get them started versus trying to start from seed. Nettles is another ‘common weed’ that will easily propagate via both root and seed, so you may have some luck in starting the seeds (which are plentiful at the end of the season) but try to find some transplants if you can.
For more on this topic check out ATH’s Tara Thomas’ discussionon how to easily grow three common medicinal herbs and my March 23, 2019 blog post for two medicinal herb garden plans I designed. Two books I recommend for starting a backyard medicinal herb garden include: Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, and for a slightly more advanced text, Christopher Hobbs’ and Leslie Gardner’s Grow It Heal It.
Donna Koczaja, M.S., RH(AHG) graduated from Maryland University of Integrative Health (formerly Tai Sophia Institute) with a Master of Science in Therapeutic Herbalism and a Post-Master’s Certificate in Clinical Herbalism. She earned Registered Herbalist status from the American Herbalists’ Guild in 2018. Originally educated as a mechanical engineer, she combines the rigor of her original scientific training with the traditional healing art of herbal medicine to partner with her clients to uncover the root cause of their underlying health issues. Also a Master Gardener since 2008, her primary interest is in inspiring others to improve their health and sense of wellbeing through the joys of gardening and the power of natural medicine.
Donna currently practices as the professional herbalist at the MUIH Natural Care Center (410-888-9048×6614) in Laurel, Maryland. Read more about her, what she does, and why she does it at, or contact her directly at or 240-353-8754.

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