Grow an herb garden and reap the benefits proven by recent herbal research to be effective in treating a number of common ailments.
Containers are a great way to grow a herb garden indoors.
Illustration by Beverly Duncan
Herbal Remedy Gardens (Storey Books, 1999), by Master Gardener Dorie Byers, gives even beginners a chance at growing a bountiful herb garden. With more than 30 examples of garden plans for any space and the know-how to care for 25 medicinal herbs anyone can be prepared to treat and prevent specific health needs. In this excerpt from the introduction, get familiar with the many and varied benefits of growing an herb garden.
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Herbs were extremely important in the times before clinics or hospitals. Doctors were not available to everyone then, either, and medications as we know them today were nonexistent. The common people used plant parts for treating different ailments, and dried the most useful herbs to store and use during the winter months. There was little formal research other than trial and error, with the results passed on by word of mouth. Printed herbals, texts which gave information on the use of herbs, for the general population were not available until the 17th century. It is interesting to me that recent herbal research has shown that many of these plants do indeed contain substances that aid in treating some of the same ailments. Our ancestors were on the right track!
Caution: Imported Herbs
Many herbs are imported from countries with less stringent standards of purity. When you purchase imported dried herbs, then, keep in mind that they may be adulterated with any number of substances, such as pesticides, insects, and other plants.
Many grocery stores these days carry fresh herbs, and natural food stores sell bulk dried herbs. So you are probably wondering, “Why should I bother growing my own herbs?”
One reason is to be assured of the freshness of your herb supply. Those “fresh” herbs you find packaged in the produce department were picked an unknown time ago. How fresh are they really? When you go into your herb garden and cut some parsley, it doesn’t languish on a shelf, losing freshness. Also, remember that buying any quantity of fresh herbs is much less economical than growing and harvesting your own supply as you need it.
When you buy fresh herbs, it’s always possible that some have been exposed to natural and unnatural contaminants. Many purchased herbs are not available in an organic form. If you grow your own crop organically, though, you know that the pollutants affecting you have been minimized.
The same principle applies to dried herbs. Most bulk dried herbs are packaged in plastic bags, and have been exposed to air, light, and high temperatures for an unknown amount of time. All of these factors can cause them to lose their potency. But harvesting, drying, and storing your own gives you control over these processes.
I am not saying you must grow all of your herbs; that is not a practical notion. Even I can’t grow all of the herbs I use. Do investigate your herb sources. Talk to some natural-food store owners about their choices for a reliable, safe supply of herbs. I find that many of these people try to maintain some kind of standard for the herbs they carry. Also, growing your own herb garden will tell you what they smell and look like, and how they taste. This will become your “insurance policy” when you need to purchase bulk herbs: If it doesn’t smell or taste like the herb you’ve come to know, then you probably aren’t getting what you’re paying for.
Growing herb plants from seeds can result in further savings to your pocketbook. For the price of one common herb plant at the nursery, you can buy a package of seeds and start many plants to use yourself, give away, or sell. You’ll have the double bonus of saving the money and enjoying a fresh crop of herbs.
Growing your own herb garden can have another benefit: It can increase the populations of plants that are in danger of extinction because they are being destroyed and/or overharvested in the wild.
With herbs being used more often by increasing numbers of people, there are sure to be shortages in the years ahead. These can affect both the supplies of a plant you find useful, and the quality. As you become more practiced at growing herbs, you might want to try some that are being overharvested. These take a bit more patience to grow but are worth it for all who respect these plants’ potential.
Almost anyone can grow herbs. You can cultivate them in great or small numbers, depending upon what space you have available. You don’t need great amounts of acreage to grow herbs; small plots or containers can give you an adequate crop. Also, most herbs can adapt to many different climate and soil types.
Read through the descriptions of the herbs in this book and choose those that seem to suit your needs. Perhaps there are one or two in particular that will help you and your family enjoy better health.
Don’t be afraid to grow an herb that is unfamiliar to you. I have discovered some herbs that I wouldn’t do without by experimenting. Of course, some plants just won’t thrive no matter what you do. Some may be invasive; you will have to dig them out. All this is part of the process of learning to grow herbs.
If you are already tending an herb garden that is meeting your needs, and you have the space, a greenhouse, and the energy to expand, grow some herb plants to sell. You don’t need a nursery or shop for this. Farmer’s markets will rent you space to sell your plants, as will some festivals. Check with local shops and natural food stores to see if they will order some plants from you. Talk to these shopkeepers early — they are frequently looking for plant sources around the first of the year. Try growing unique varieties or plants that are in danger of disappearing, such as ginseng or goldenseal. Keep in mind that selling herb plants may require a zoning variance on your property. Check with your local authorities.
Another way to profit from herbs is as a cash crop. Many restaurants use fresh herbs and are looking for a reliable supply. There is also a large market in medicinals such as goldenseal and ginseng. These plants in particular are being lost to overharvesting in the wild; not only would you be doing yourself a favor by growing them, but you’d be protecting their very existence as well.
For ideas and information about growing herbs for profit, check with the International Herb Association or the Herb Growing and Marketing Network. United Plant Savers can provide special information about endangered herbs and how to grow them.
Ready to start your herb garden? For simple garden plans from Herbal Remedy Gardens, read Medicinal Herb Garden: Cold and Flu.
Excerpted from Herbal Remedy Gardens (c) Dorie Byers, Illustrations by Beverly Duncan, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: Herbal Remedy Gardens.
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