Starting an Herb Garden

by Kimberly Burkard

Purple Coneflower

Gardening is a wonderfully healthy and healing thing that anyone of any age can do. Gardening is a great way to indulge in not only physical activity but fresh air and sun as well. The physical benefits of these are clear. What some don't realize is that beyond the physical benefits of gardening there are powerful and beneficial effects on the mind and soul as well. The mind revels in its exercise to recognize the "weeds" from the garden plants, the creative process of planning where to plant your newest green friend, and whether or not your plants need some water. There's lots to learn and observe in the garden but there's no stressful rush to it. The activities and learnings come at whatever pace best suits you. And the final piece of the mind-body-soul trinity, the soul, it too welcomes the act of gardening. While gardening may make physical or mental demands on us, it gives far more to us spirituall y than it takes. The garden offers us a place of calm and peace. It offers us sanctuary from the stresses of our life. It is a place of abundant and generative life. And perhaps most importantly, the garden is a place of hope. No one can put a seed into the ground without having hope for the future. Every seed and plant you tuck into your garden soil is an affirmation of your hope and belief in tomorrow.

In my way of thinking there are only three basic rules to gardening:

It is your garden.
Make it what you want it to be. Enjoy it. Experiment with it. Be creative. It is a canvas to be painted in vivid green plants and rich brown soils as you see it. If it doesn't quite meet your mental image of what it should be, change it. A garden isn't concrete - mixed up and permanently se t!
Learn from your mistakes.
We all make mistakes and while they can be painful, they are our most true teachers. In the garden, unlike life, we get an endless supply of second chances. Learn from your mistakes and make the most of t hose second chances.
Treat your garden like the sacred space it is by not poisoning it.
By poison I mean the myriad of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These venomous vipers have NO place in any garden, especially yours. If you need to amend your soil or are having trouble with inse cts, there are organic methods and products to use. The Internet has a wealth of information on organic garde ning that any search engine can point you to. Even your local garden centers are coming up to speed with orga nic gardening products and information and can be helpful. Never, ever, EVER use non-organic means if you in tend to harvest your herbs for culinary or medicinal purposes. Remember, you are what you eat!

What kind of design should you use for your garden? Remember the first rule? It is your garden. Desig n it however you want. Go with a pre-made design plan, spend hours meticulously planning it, or just start planting. You can have an intricate herbal knot garden or just a little patch next to the steps of your house. It doesn't matter. The only suggestion I would make is to start small and simple - especially if you are new to gardening. You will learn and grow with your garden. You'll know when you are ready to try something more. Look on-line, in your local library, or in magazines for ideas and inspiration on garden design.

Lemon Balm

That said, there are a few things to keep in mind when designing and getting plants for your garden - sun/shade requirements, soil needs, height, cold hardiness zone, and whether the plant is a perennial (comes back every year), annual (lasts 1 growing season), or biennial (lasts 2 growing seasons with blooms in the 2nd). Any general garden reference will give you more information on these topics and specifics for each plant. Much of this information is included on the plant care tags tucked into the plant's pot at your local nursery or garden center. Take a few minutes to read the tag over and see if the plant's needs matches the conditions of your garden. You will meet with more success if you try to match a plant's needs with your garden.

Seeds? Sure! Definitely try them. They are a wonderful way to get unusual and exciting plants that you will certainly not find at Joe's Plant Shack down the road from you. This is most especially true of herb plants. Seeds are also an inexpensive way for you to get plants for your garden. An entire pack of seeds costs less than one plant from a nursery. But it can be very difficult to get some plants to germinate from seed. Some seeds need special conditions and others have very low germination rates. Seeds can be a frustrating experience for a new gardener. With the exception of annual plants like calendula, basil, dill, and others, I strongly suggest starting your new garden with established plants. The garden will be small to start with so not that many plants are needed.

If you need suggestions for your herb garden, a short list follows. The plants listed will all do well in full-sun and in a variety of soil conditions. All are hardy and will survive the winter in zone 5. A great way to check your zone is via the National Gardening Association's Hardiness Zone Finder that will look up your hardiness zone by zip code. All plants listed are perennials except where noted. These plants are all reasonably easy to grow and care for and provide visual and sometimes aromatic garden appeal.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Height: Up to 2'
Description: This is the only true annual in this list. This plant has vivid yellow or orange daisy-like flowers. Easy to grow from seeds directly sown into the garden bed.
Traditional uses include: anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, effective for minor skin wounds, burns, and rashes.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Height: 1/2' to 3'
Description: Has tiny white flowers with deeply veined toothed leaves. The plant has an aromatic lemony scent.
Traditional uses include: Relaxing tonics for anxiety, mild depression, and irritability, anti-viral, and calming nervous stomachs. A popular herbal tea plant.

Calendula - 'Alpha'

Common Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Height: Up to 32"
Description: An evergreen with square stems and hairy grey-green leaves and blue-purple flowers.
Traditional uses include: Culinary use, astringent, antiseptic, and relaxing qualities.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Height: Up to 7'
Description: Downy heart-shaped leaves and pink flowers.
Traditional uses include: Soothing effects on mucous membranes and skin

Rose (Rosa spp.)

Height: Varies with species and cultivars
Description: A perennial having a shrub or climbing habit with thorns, leaves w/ 2 - 3 pairs of toothed leaflets, flowers (color dependent on type), and scarlet fruits (rose hips). Look for a "rugosa" rose for a trouble-free plant and good rose hip producer.
Traditional uses include: Blossoms for essential oils, hips for their vitamin contents especially vitamin C.

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Height: 1 - 3'
Description: A bulbous perennial with flat lance-shaped leaves and pale pink or green-white flowers. Garlic has long been companion planted with roses to help keep roses pest-free.
Traditional uses include: Antibiotic, lowering of blood-pressure, and culinary uses.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)

Height: 20" - 3'
Description: A North American native with purple daisy-like flowers and leaves covered in course hair. Three species are used medicinally: E. angustifolia, E. purpurea, and E. pallida. All are beautiful butterfly magnets for your garden.
Rose Hip - `Frau Dagmar Hastrup' Traditional uses include: Immune stimulant and antibiotic

Pepper (Capsicum frutescens and C. annuum)

Height: Up to 3'
Description: A perennial plant that is not winter hardy and is treated like an annual in the Northern climates. This plant is a smooth-leaved shrub with white star-shaped flowers and fruits that mature to a brilliant red.
Traditional uses include: Stimulant for blood flow, increasing sweating, antiseptic, and culinary use.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

Height: Up to 3'
Description: A downy and aromatic plant with heart-shaped grey-green leaves and whorls of white flowers with purple spots.
Traditional uses include: Sedative and sleep inducer. A popular herbal tea plant.

Lavender (Lavandula officinalis or L. angustifolia)

Height: Up to 3'
Description: An aromatic shrub with needle-like leaves and spikes of violet-blue flowers.
Traditional uses include: Essential oils, soothing and calming effects, and antiseptic properties.

The information in this article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Personal medical advice should be obtained from a medical professional. This information is made available with the understanding that it is for educational purposes only and that the authors and publishers are not providing medical services. This information has not been evaluated or approved by the US FDA.

Photos and Article copyright Kimbery Burkard, 2009.