Guess what? We’ve already passed the halfway point between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. And that means – hooray! – Spring is really on it’s way.
You may be looking out your window now at piles of snow, but it’s not too soon to think about getting your hands in the dirt. AKA getting cozy with some plants.
If you’re into creating crunchy goodies – whether it’s a home remedy, a facial scrub, or some a natural cleanser –there’s nothing more satisfying than stepping outside and snipping some of the ingredients off your very own plants.
No garden? No problem! You can grow an entire herbal cornucopia in little pots near your window. Those plants may not get super big, but look at it this way: you don’t have as far to walk with your shears.
What Herbs Should I Grow?
Now most people think of culinary herbs when they think herb garden. You know – parsley, chives, basil, majoram. And these are most certainly worthy herbs to cultivate. They’re particularly awesome for that kitchen window garden.
But maybe you want to get a little more creative, and do more with your herbal harvest than season your dinner. There are literally hundreds of aromatic and healing plants to choose from. Think about the things you want to make come summer. Herbal vinegars? (Great for holiday gifts later, by the way.) Cough syrups? Salves? Tinctures? Creams and lotions? Maybe you just want to dry a bunch of herbs to make your own teas.
Your future plans for your herbal harvest will help you decide what to plant now.
So – are you getting excited about rubbing your fingers through all those aromatic leaves in a few months? Get thee to a nursery! Or, for a better selection, start browsing the mail order houses. Herbs can be tricky to grow from seed so I prefer to use root cuttings or those baby herb plants called starts.
The easiest path to a lush herbal kingdom in your backyard is to plant some starts as soon as your soil thaws out enough to dig. Some of these plants will start kicking it pretty good this summer – others might take a full year to blossom into their adult selves.
A decent nursery will carry several herbs beyond the culinary variety, and a Google search will bring you hours worth of online medicinal herb plant browsing.
One of my favorites, run by small family farmers, is Crimson Sage Nursery.
For beauty, craft potential, medicinal action and ease of growing – I’ve put together a list of plants for beautiful beginning to your fragrant and useful bower of herbs.
If you can get some alkanet growing, you are so golden. Or should I say ruby red? Alkanet root is the ingredient that tints many a natural lip balm. These roots are a natural dye, I’ve used it many times to turn my lip balm creations a deep red.
My sister made an absolutely luscious rose cream a couple of months ago and gave it to all of us for Christmas gifts. She tinted in a delicate rose petal pink using alkanet root.
Alkanet is a hardy perennial, with pretty blue flowers and it’ll grow to about a foot a half high. Of course you can’t use it for coloring until fall or when the green parts have died back and you can dig up and dry the roots. A little bit of dried, ground up root will go a long way. Just store it in a jar until you’re ready to use some more.
This is one “herb” (or is it a flower) that is actually super easy to grow from seed. In my neck of the woods it blooms in late winter and all through spring/summer. I classify the bright orange flowers as ‘herbs’ because of the multiple medicinal and beautification gifts they offer.
Calendula is the great skin soother. Infuse the flowers in olive oil, or another carrier oil to create a base oil for salves, ointments, lip balms and lotions. An eyewash of fresh calendula flowers soothes irritated eyes and it’s even nice when you have that dry ‘computer eye’ feeling.
The flowers are so bright and sunny, you just can’t help smiling when you see them, and they keep coming and coming. (Although it is one of those plants that performs best when you “deadhead” them every couple of days. That means cutting or pinching off the spent flower heads so calendula can put its energy into making new flowers.)
When choosing calendula seeds or plants, be sure to get Calendula officinalis, the basic single flowered variety. There are lots of ornamental varieties and – while pretty – they don’t retain a many medicinal benefits.
Okay, I know, I know. Lavender probably is in your Grandma’s herb garden. But it deserves a spot in yours too because it is used in so many recipes for herbal body care treats. Add lavender flowers to an herbal oil infusion with some rose petals and calendula, and you can use this as a base oil to create any number of luscious lotions, creams, bath oils and more.
And it smells good (at least most people think so.) Just sniffing lavender flowers can simultaneously calm you down and uplift your spirits. You can pick the long stemmed buds of most varieties and make sweet lavender wands – a really fun activity to enjoy with your favorite little person.
When you get to the nursery, you will likely see half a dozen different types of lavender. Honestly, they’re all fragrant and will work for making stuff. But Lavendula angustifolia (sometimes called L. officinalis or L. vera) is the ‘true’ English lavender. This variety produces upright stalks and long spiky, deep blue flowers that are perfect for those wands mentioned above.
Remember lavender is native to the Mediterranean and so it likes its soil to be well drained and light. Harvest lavender just as the flower buds are about to open, and dry them on the stalk away from direct sunlight. And no – its unlikely you can make lavender essential oil at home. But you’ve got lots of other options for using the fresh and dried flowers!
Like lavender, this is a Mediterranean herb that falls on the traditional side of things – but it gives you so much it deserves a spot in your garden. Rosemary – sometimes called the herb of remembrance – grows quickly, stays green and vibrant well into the cold months, and its distinctive fragrance can wake up your brain cells.
Use rosemary in hair oils and hair rinses, oily skin formulations, and natural bug repellants. And of course it’s a staple in any spice cupboard. In my family we like to strip the leaves from rosemary stems and use them as skewers for barbecuing when we make shishkabobs. The branches can be bent and used to make wreaths.
Want to know more about what you can do with rosemary? Read my post about it here.
Where I live in Northern California, rosemary thrives in the garden year round, but in harsher climates the plants need to be brought indoors during the coldest months, or at least into a green house
Like lavender, rosemary prefers Mediterranean conditions and there are dozens of different varieties – both upright and creeping. I think the tall upright plants (like the basic Rosemarinus officinalus) are better for harvesting and using. Save the creeping ones for ornamental planter boxes.
It’s another staple and a bit of a commoner – but what herb garden would be complete without some peppermint or spearmint? For the tea possibilities alone, you’ve got to include some mint plants – not to mention the potential with mojitos!
Mint tea – besides being tasty – is of course one of the most recommended remedies for stomach upset. Peppermint also helps headaches, colds, nausea, and lots of other ailments. Spearmint is milder tasting, and maybe a bit mellower in its action, but it still delivers similar benefits as its peppy cousin.
If plain old peppermint and spearmint are a little too boring, there are zillions of more exotic cultivars you could plant in addition to your basic peppermint patch. Chocolate mint is one of my favorites (it has a tantalizing aroma that combines cocoa and mint – kind of like my favorite chocolate bars.) Other nice ones include orange mint (also called bergamot mint) and apple mint.
Beware though when planting any type of mint in your garden. These babies are kind of aggressive and when left to their own devices they will take over. Either contain the plants in a large pot, or place some sort of barrier around the area you want it to grow (like some rocks or bricks or something.) You will need to be vigilant and ruthlessly pull out the runners that try to pop up in other areas.
The most medicinal variety of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is the white flowered type – the same one you’ll find growing wild in many temperate regions. It’s an attractive plant with feathery leaves and a white “umbel” type flower that is made of lots of tiny blossoms.
Those flowers are the part that you use for medicine, and when dried they make a bitter tea that has many medicinal uses. One of the most well known uses of yarrow tea is for sweating out a fever, but it’s also an infection fighter when combined with other herbs. Don’t consume yarrow if you are pregnant as it can stimulate uterine contractions.
One of my favorite uses for yarrow is to stop bleeding. If you get a cut while out weeding the garden, just grab some yarrow leaves or flowers, crush them up and apply to the wound. It’s amazing! The bleeding stops almost instantly and you have applied a natural infection-fighting antiseptic. You can use yarrow tincture the same way.
Yellow yarrow is an ornamental version with thicker leaves and broader flowers. It is quite attractive and a nice addition to your garden.Those big yellow flowers look so good in wreaths and dried flower arrangements. It does not have the powerful medicinal qualities as its less showy relative though.
Yarrow likes full sun, but otherwise does not require a whole lot of care. It is fairly drought resistant, but like any plant will grow taller and lusher when it gets enough water.
Bee Balm or Bergamot
This is one gorgeous flower – and I’m so bummed it won’t thrive in my cool coastal garden. The most well-known bee balm (Monarda didyma) puts out hundreds of scarlet flowers all summer long. Other varieties produce variegated flower heads in colors ranging from purple to white.
It’s a little confusing that this plant is also known as “Bergamot,” because essential oil of bergamot is what they use to create the distinctive flavor of Earl Grey tea. However, that is a completely different bergamot – the essential oil is made from the rind of a citrus fruit, not this plant.
Bee balm leaves make a tasty tea – either brewed fresh or dried. It has a mild minty flavor, although the leaves will get a bit more pungent after the flowers have completed their bloom cycle. In addition to making a pleasant beverage, bee balm tea can settle an troubled tummy and relieve symptoms of a common cold.
The pretty flowers can be added to salads to give them colorful and slightly spicy twist.
All this talking about plants has me yearning to get outside into our own garden. Gotta run!
Did I miss an herb that should be in every self-respecting herb garden? Let me know!