Nature is not something we all have a relationship with, but it is something we all experience in our own way. Our bond may be noticing how the weather feels against our skin, watching the birds or tending our gardens. In herbalism, developing a relationship with healing plants is one of the ways we develop a relationship with and align our body’s rhythm with nature. We grow, harvest and make our own medicines, and create space with plants.
Growing these things of beauty also reveals its own set of life lessons. Plants survive outside, so sometimes take a beating in rough weather. This reminds us that our body has an innate ability to be strong through difficult times and to heal. When we observe that at certain times of the year the plant’s energy is in the roots and at other times it’s up pushing out leaves and flowers, there is a message on using our energy constructively in different seasons. When plants synthesize sunlight for food and pull nourishment up from the dirt, we see how powerful the chemical process is, and thus reminds us to learn the chemical structure of these organic beings. We learn that tending the physical is just as important as tending to the emotional and spiritual.
The journey of plants as teachers has been a very long one. When we consider that these plants in our gardens and green spaces have traveled through thousands and thousands of years, carrying their unique energy and medicine through many different human civilizations and belief systems to teach us here in the present day, it brings a certain amount of awe and respect. In traditional teachings of the Incan people, they describe plant wisdom as very old – older than human teaching, older than the animal teachers – so that when we learn from plants we reset ourselves to a pre-historic and ancient place. One route to this deep wisdom is learning their history, their namesake, how they grow, what they need to flourish and when they don’t, and this inspires questions in us and we can apply these questions to our own lives.
Then again, there are very simple rewards for gardening. The enjoyment we get from getting out of our heads, into physical action and building a relationship with nature can be an important passage to a more joyful and peaceful life. As we build a richer, more fertile soil in our garden we can find ourselves with a richer, more fertile heart. (Throughout the seasons and weathers, we step out of the house and into the garden.)
Planning A Medicinal Herb Garden
If you are not experienced at herb gardening, not to worry, this is one of the easiest ways to garden. There is very little an herb garden needs.
1. Good drainage is of the utmost importance. Most medicinal herbs don’t like wet, soggy soil.
2. Pick the place that works best for your garden, and know the amount of sun the garden will get. Will it be full sun, part sun, or shade? Realize that this choice dictates some of what you are able and not able to grow.
3. Dig in compost just once. I used 2 inches of composted horse manure in New Mexico, and 2 inches of food/yard-waste compost in Kentucky. Whatever you have access to is fine. I always advise to avoid any chemical spray or growing agents.
4. Mulch around your plants. I use straw or alfalfa hay, which can seed alfalfa into your garden, but I like what they put back into the soil.
Once you have picked the site for your garden, and have figured out how much sun it gets, it is time to pick the focus of your garden, and what plants you will grow. Think of your and your family’s health needs and what will best support you all throughout the year. It is wise to pick 5-10 plants, and to base that number on the amount of space you have. You can do a lot with a little space. My first medicinal herb garden was 11 by 11 in full sun in the southeastern part of my yard. I grew lavender, motherwort, valerian, skullcap, foxglove, rosemary, thyme, Echinacea with the vine codonopsis trailing up the stems and lemon balm. There was a separate small space for Kentucky peppermint. Everything was tinctured or dried for tea, and there was a fair amount to be had. In smaller spaces it helps to harvest frequently, keep things cut back, and thin yearly, to reduce overcrowding and invasion from stronger species. This will keep your plants healthy and happy, and produces fabulous medicinal agents.
Sample Theme: Sedative and Nervine Garden
One of my favorite examples of a garden is the Sedative and Nervine Garden. Upon first glance, it looks like plants that are calming, but this garden is full of plants with multiple actions. In this version I added thyme and hyssop, which are not for the nervous system, but they create a garden with a broader spectrum of use. Adding just one or two plants off your theme into the garden can create a more multi-dimensional healing garden. With the addition of thyme and hyssop, we increase our potency around anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Stress, the immune system and digestion are closely linked. Since thyme and lavender both like dry soil, plant them together.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): strengthens nerves and depleted nervous systems due to nervous exhaustion without being sedative; when a spastic cough does not respond to an anti-spasmodic such as wild cherry bark alone, skullcap calms the tickle in the throat that can also trigger a coughing episode
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) stomachaches, headache, sedative, mild hypertension, calms anxiety related to hyperactivity or hyperthyroidism; anti-viral specific to herpes, and reduces fever; great for kids with anxiety and excess energy that needs to be channeled in a positive direction
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) digestive upsets caused by nerves; nausea, gastric upsets; calming; great for colic with fennel; fever reducer
Blue vervain (Verbena hastate) nervousness due to PMS or anything, really; anxiety, fevers, anti-inflammatory, stimulates bile production from the liver
Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) anti-viral, anti-bacterial, carminative, nervine, nausea, anxiety, mood elevator
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) anti-bacterial, effective for lung infections, damp coughs, colds, flu, digestive complications associated with viral or bacterial infections, expectorant, anti-fungal
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) anti-viral especially effective against herpes and flu, carminative, diaphoretic, colds, flu, delayed menses, intestinal viruses
When you choose the plants for your garden, be sure to get the particular species that is medicinal. Many of the hybrids are not. Also, remember that herbs don’t work like drugs and often not as fast, so learn preparation methods for each plant that you are making medicines from, and dosage requirements. Study the plants you grow. To learn more about making medicines from plants, there are two great books to reference: Making Plant Medicine by Rico Cech, and The Herbal Medicine Makers Handbook by James Green.
The next time you step out for a walk, take a look at which plants grow in abundance here, and how they support health. Burdock, catnip, yellow dock and nettles, dandelion, plantain and cleavers and mullein…those are just a few that I saw on my walk the other day. Taking the time to notice the healing power of nature through common plants can change the way you think and feel about your environment. It can change the way you think and feel about your health. We humans have evolved in this world of plants. They teach us, and ask us to refine how we think about ourselves. We just have to make the choice to look at things a little differently.