Growing an Herb Garden

There is nothing like getting to know an herb by growing it in your garden.

I enjoy learning to recognize each plant in every stage of its life. From the time it is a tiny seed, through germination and into full maturity, a plant shares a lot about itself. Getting to know an herb in this manner is an intimate experience. It is like getting to know a new friend well. Which other plants does it like to be near? How much water does it like? What kinds of insects and animals are drawn to that herb? How does it smell? How long does it bloom? What does it taste like? It is a joy to me to get my hands down into the soil with all of its rich diversity, or to simply sit in my garden and watch how busy it is, in its own delicate way. In my gardens, I have sunny areas and shady places. Over the years, I have watched plants choose their own favorite spots in the garden by self seeding in different areas. It is obvious, for instance, which plants prefer more sun.

Elaine in garden copy



By growing medicinal plants, we also have our natural medicine chests right at our fingertips. Did your child get stung by a bee? There is some plantain growing right over there. For me there is something really healing about making and using herbal medicines from plants I have grown myself. Those plants grow right where my family and I grow. I feel this makes them uniquely healing for us and those in our area. It isn’t just the healing properties of the plant, it is the relationship, the whole experience which adds to my well-being. Time spent outdoors with my garden nurtures my soul and helps me reconnect to the earth. Are you inspired yet to try growing some herbs yourself? Figuring out where to put your garden and creating good soil are the first steps to having a magnificent herb garden.

Here are some important questions to ask before you plant an herb garden:

Location: Choosing a good location for your garden is essential to overall success. Here are some things to think about when deciding where to put your garden.

  • What direction is the garden facing?
  • How much space do you have to work with? Sometimes starting small is best. You can always add on as you go.
  •  Are there any problem areas or areas you want to compliment?
  •  Are there any competing plants, trees or other gardens?
  •  What is the access to water?
  •  How will your garden get watered and how often?
  •  What else is around the garden?
  •  What is its exposure to: wind, foot traffic, pets, children, wildlife, etc.?

        echinacea purpurea fl

Sun: All plants need sun, but some need more that others. In my yard, I have numerous gardens that range from full sun to deep shade. This lets me create lots of mini ecosystems for different plant species (and those that love them) to thrive.

  • Full Sun: At least 6 full hours of direct sunlight. Many sun loving plants enjoy more than 6 hours per day, but need regular water to endure the heat.
  • Partial Sun/Partial Shade: These 2 terms are often used interchangeably to mean 3-6 hours of sun each day, preferably in the morning and early afternoon.
  • Partial Sun: Greater emphasis is put on the plant receiving the minimal sun requirements.
  • Partial Shade: The plant will need some relief from the intense late afternoon sun, either from shade provided by a nearby tree or planting it on the east side of a building.
  • Dappled Sun: Is similar to partial shade. This is when the sun makes its way through the branches of a tree. Woodland plants and underplantings prefer this type of sunlight to even the limited direct exposure they would get from partial shade.
  • Full Shade: Less than 3 hours of direct sunlight each day, with filtered sunlight during the rest of the day. Full shade does not mean no sun. There aren’t any plants that can survive in the dark.

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Soil Components: Soil is the basic foundation of any garden. Once established, I prefer to try to disturb the soil as little as possible. I believe this allows the complicated ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms, as well as insects, worms, animals and plants to create their own balance. I only disturb the soil carefully when weeding or gathering plants.

  • Humus (organic material): Plays a crucial role in soil characteristics and fertility for plant life. Make sure to compost – it will vastly increase the nutrient content of your soil!
  • You may want the soil to be poor: herbs make better medicine when they struggle (low water means high essential oil content). Not true for nutritional herbs. Make sure your soil is deep as the roots of many herbs need to be able to grow quite deep.
  • Mineral composition: Made up of finely ground rock particles, these are grouped according to size as sand, silt and clay. Each size plays a significantly different role in the soil.

 Soil type is determined by the ratio of humus and mineral composition:

    1. Sandy soil has lots of air and fast drainage; it doesn’t hold many nutrients.
    2. Sandy loam mix is a blend between 1 and 3.
    3. Loam is composed of sand, silt and clay in relatively even concentration (about 40-40-20% concentration respectively). This soil type is considered ideal for gardening and agriculture.
    4. Clay loam is a mixture of types 3 and 5.
    5. Clay is the smallest of soil particles. Clay is smooth when dry and sticky when wet. Lots of clay gives you heavy soil. Clay also can hold a lot of nutrients, but doesn’t let air and water through it well. It is chemically active, binding with water and plant nutrients, but it is hard medium for roots to grow.
    6. Silty loam is a mixture of soil types 3 and 7.
    7. Silt is a soil particle whose size is between sand and clay.

          calendula fl copy

Soil pH: Some herbs prefer more acidic soil while others prefer their soil to be more alkaline. It is good to know the acidity of your soil and the preferences of the herb before you plant. You can do this yourself and get some idea of your soil pH with this home test.

  • Put some soil into a container and add a half-cup of vinegar. If the mixture fizzes, it’s alkaline. You can amend your soil with sulfur or pine needles, if it’s alkaline.
  • If there’s no reaction, put a fresh scoop of soil into another container. Add a half-cup of water and mix. Then, add a half-cup of baking soda. If the soil fizzes it is highly acidic. You can amend your soil with wood ash or lime, if it’s acidic.
  •  For more accurate testing, you can use a soil testing meter or a soil test kit.

pH ranges:

  • Acidic (Less than 7.0)
  •  Neutral (7.0)
  •  Alkaline (Over 7.0)
  •  A pH reading between 6.5 and 7.0 is generally the best for most herbs.

Compost: To me, composting is a joy. It is the best form or recycling because it doesn’t have to leave your own yard. I love taking our scraps and watching them turn into rich and nourishing soil: magic!  Adding spent herbs to the compost pile completes the full cycle of life, death and rebirth in the herb garden. Every spring, before the plants emerge, I shovel compost and sprinkle it over many parts of my garden, avoiding seedlings and those herbs that do better with nutrient poor soil such as yarrow and lavender.

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Now go plant a garden!

Even if you don’t have a lot of space, a small garden can be richly rewarding. I am always amazed at how densely my herbs grow together. Many medicinal plants are beautiful and very low maintenance. Perennial herbs will grow year after year and often reseed themselves. A few examples of easy to grow herbs include echinacea, lavender, yarrow, bee balm, peppermint (always plant it in a big pot!) and valerian. Now get out there, friends, and go plant a garden!

© 2014 Elaine Sheff, Clinical Herbalist

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Elaine Sheff has been studying medicinal plants since 1987. A Clinical Herbalist, she is a graduate of both the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies and the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine. She is passionate about the inherent healing connection between people and plants. Elaine has a longstanding clinical practice providing herbal consultations for individuals with health concerns. A best selling author, Elaine teaches herb classes throughout the United States and is the co-founder of Meadowsweet Herbs. She is a certified instructor of Natural Family Planning, a safe, effective birth control method used to avoid or achieve pregnancy.   You can often find Elaine in her garden, homeschooling her children, or cooking some delicious gluten-free meal

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