Growing Medicinal Herbs At Home 101

In my quest to become a savvy suburban farmer, I have developed a real interest in growing herbs.  Not just culinary herbs.  My main focus has been to cultivate various medicinal herbs that are compatible with our North Texas environment.  I’ve become a big believer in the power of natural supplementation and plant-based medicine, especially in our current health care environment.  So I have been experimenting with growing a variety of common and not-so-common medicinal plants.

And it has been a challenge.

It is a relatively straightforward process to prepare a plot of ground to be used for growing vegetables.  Make sure the area gets plenty of sun and water, that temperatures are not too extreme (vegetables won’t do well in the scorching heat of desert climates or the bitter cold of the frozen tundras), and that the soil is rich in nitrogen and other key nutrients.  Adding amendments such as compost, worm castings, and expanded shale (depending on what type of soil you are starting with) can work wonders at creating a veggie friendly soil environment.

This is primarily because, over time, vegetables have been bred to grow in most any environment where basic sun, soil and watering requirements are met.  That was critical to ensure the success of the farming culture this country was founded on.  Robust strains of tomatoes, corn, and other staples that could grow in most any area of the heartland and beyond, from the clay soils of Virginia to the sandy soils of Southern California.

Herbs, especially the more exotic species that do not typically grow wild in the Western world, are far more picky in the growing environments they require.  Many of these herbs, used medicinally by Asian and Indian cultures for centuries, flourish in very specific geographic areas and conditions.

The key to successfully growing these medicinal herbs is to try and replicate the native conditions they are known to thrive in.  The good things is, no matter where you live, there are medicinal herbs that should do well.  It’s just a matter of finding what works well in your environment.  Also, there are some excellent medicinal herbs that do grow wild pretty much anywhere that you can take advantage of.

Dandelion

Grwoing medicianl dandelion herbs

Dandelions

For example, I have a plot dedicated to dandelions.  Dandelions are an excellent nutrition source and also provide circulation benefits, liver and kidney cleansing properties, and nerve tonic characteristics.  Dandelions grow in average soil and seed like crazy.  So, I know that every Spring, that plot will be brimming with new dandelion rosettes popping out of the ground.

I use the dandelion leaves in salads (they’re somewhat bitter, but mixing with other greens will minimize the taste) and in my green smoothies.  And as we head into Fall and Winter, I will be pulling up the older plants (2 years+) and making a tincture of the leaves and roots.  A tincture is a liquid extract, easily made at home, that retains all of the medicinal qualities of the herb you are extracting from.  More to come on that in a future post.

On the other end of the herb compatibility spectrum, I have found that I cannot grow California Poppies here in my North Texas environment.  I have been interested in testing out the calming effects that poppies are supposed to contain, but after two seasons of dedicating space in both a full sun and a partial sun plot, I’m convinced that the heat here in Texas is just too much for them.

I have had great success with two medicinal herbs that are not commonly found in the United States.  Gotu Kola, a staple of Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and Jiaogulan, an adaptogenic herb found in the wilds of China.  Both have a wide range of health benefits.

Growing medicinal herbs - Gotu Kola

Gotu Kola

Gotu Kola

Gotu Kola thrives in boggy areas, usually on river or lake banks, with rich soil and morning sun.  I have created an area in the Back 400, my suburban farm (and the 400 is feet, not acres), that is shielded from the brutal Texas afternoon sun and that stays relatively moist.  And the plant has done well.  Gotu Kola leaves are also great in salads or smoothies, or just to nibble on right out of the garden.  I tincture them as well.

Jiaogulan

Growing Jiaogulan has been interesting.  Jiaogulan is a twisting vine that typically grows wild in the southern reaches of China, northern Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan.  It has amazing adaptogenic and antioxidant benefits and is said to do wonders for cholesterol and blood pressure.

After experimenting with growing Jiaogulan in several spots, I found that it does not like the Texas afternoon sun, doesn’t do well in rich soil, and requires minimal watering.  I planted it in a spot underneath a window in our backyard that gets morning sun, less water than the Back 400 vegetables, and has average soil.  The Jiagulan vines have now taken over the whole area.

Jiaogulan

Jiaogulan makes great teas, fresh or dried, and can be used in green smoothies, or tinctured.

There are many resources out there that can help you find what herbs will do well in your area.  I will also be covering specific herbs that I have had success with in more detail in future posts.

Are you growing medicinal herbs?  Of course, even herbs we think of as culinary (thyme, oregano, cilantro, etc) typically have some health benefits to them.  So, the better question is, are you growing herbs?

What works for your part of the world?  I’m especially interested in hearing about the experiences of other U.S. based growers, as growing medicinal herbs is a relatively new piece of the suburban gardening landscape.

 

 

 

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Update: 11/2014

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