If you have a vegetable garden, you know that nothing compares to the taste of a homegrown tomato or a strawberry plucked right from the vine. It’s just so satisfying to harvest your own lettuce for your salad and excitedly wait for that watermelon to ripen.
Have you thought much about growing your own medicines, though? Food is medicine and I’m all about growing your own food and buying local but I just concentrate on growing medicine. By “medicine,” I mean herbs and plants that have been used traditionally to help restore balance in the body, such as peppermint, elderberry, yarrow and burdock.
Many of the herbs that we purchase in stores, in tea or tincture form, as bulk dried herbs or the herbs in our skin and beauty products, come from massive farm operations in far away places. “Numen the Healing Power of Plants,” a documentary following the supply chain of herbs from around the world, leaves us with a profound sense of the importance of community herbalism, ecological medicine and local plants.
Before I started growing herbs, I didn’t consider myself a gardener, a farmer, a person with a green thumb, or any of those words that would indicate I’d have any success starting an herb farm. It’s still hard for me to label myself with those words because I just feel like my main work is an observer and a tender of these plants, sometimes giving a gentle nudge and sometimes changing the plan altogether. So I’m outlining some herb gardening tips that I’ve sussed out over the past six years of herb farming to help folks tend their own medicinals at home. These plants are generally easy to grow (I mean, did you see me mention burdock before? I also grow dandelion, chickweed, elecampane, nettle and comfrey- these plants won’t need anything from you once established), they look beautiful and often they are perennials that stick around for at least a few seasons so you’ll have a beautiful garden without constant bed building.
First, identify what you want to grow. What are the herbs that you like to use in your skin care routine? Calendula, comfrey and plantain come to my mind. What kinds of teas do you like? Maybe peppermint, lemon balm and holy basil? Are there medicines you want to make for yourself and your community that you’ll need later this year, like an immune tea for the wintertime or a tincture to help ease stress? If you’re not sure, visit the bulk herb section at the co-op and try some Cutting Root herbs for inspiration; you’ll taste the difference when you use these fresh, local herbs.
Then, spend a little time thinking about or observing the habitats and how these plants like to grow. Do they like full sun or shade? Are they thirsty every day or can they make do with what they’ve got? How large will they get? That’s an important one–most plants will get WAY bigger than that little seed you put in the ground, so you’ve got to plan your space for this eventual growth. There’s some Cutting Root seedlings in the live plants right outside the co-op so check ‘em out if you want something already semi-established.
After you have a few plants in mind, go for it! Don’t be scared or worried! Try something new! These plants are resilient, they’ve been growing in all sorts of conditions for a long time (just think about that dandelion you saw in the sidewalk crack or the teasel growing basically out of the building down the street). Growing your own medicine can be a beautiful part of healing. I think every time I touch the herbs we grow on the farm, I absorb a little bit of their power, I give them some of my own in the form of care and love, and then I pass them along to the next person who needs it.
Michelle is an herbalist, educator, gardener, dog lover, and community organizer. Michelle cooperatively manages Healcrest Urban Farm in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, cultivates Cutting Root Farm and Apothecary in Butler, PA, and practices and teaches with the Stonefruit Community Herbalists in Pittsburgh, PA and the Stone Cabin Collective in Black Mesa, AZ. Learn more about Cutting Root Apothecary at www.cuttingroot.com.