For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in small spaces–a third-floor studio apartment with a mountain view and two rooms in the basement of a nineteenth-century house were a couple of my favorites. Despite three flights of stairs up, one narrow climb down, and other obstacles, I’ve always hauled potting mix, terra-cotta pots, and trays of herb seedlings to my tiny havens. Watching the herbs grow and using them to make simple herbal remedies has provided me with hours of pleasure, peace, and self-satisfaction.
Now I have a house and a yard–as well as an energetic, dirt-digging puppy and a lack of time. So, come spring, I still purchase potting mix and pots and revel in weekends spent wandering through the local nursery selecting herbs and, as the season passes, admiring my potted garden.
For me, the appeal of growing herbs is the idea that they provide me with medicines straight from Mother Nature, as she intended. And I know from experience that growing and making mild medicines is as easy as choosing a few of my favorite herbs and finding pretty pots for planting. Add a little water and sunlight, and soon I have a supply of herbs to make a salve, compress, or tea.
Why Not Pots?
For the busy or novice gardeners among us, container gardening offers convenience and satisfaction. Pots can be moved to meet the sun, find the shade, or decorate a windowsill. And herbs that are vigorous growers in the garden will stay smaller and more manageable in containers, which confine their roots.
In their book, Herbal Remedies in Pots (Dorling Kindersley, 1996), Effie Romain and Sue Hawkey encourage the idea of combining, in one pot, different herbs that can be used to treat the same malady. These authors also remind us of the advantages of container gardening: “Some of the most therapeutic herbs, such as docks and nettles that bring health-promoting minerals from deep down in the soil, are thought of today only as rampant weeds . . . . Growing such plants in containers helps restrain their invasive properties, while at the same time allowing herbs that treat a particular ailment to be grouped for ease of gathering and to be grown by those with limited space.”
Late April to early May is a good time to plan your medicinal potted garden. The tiny seedlings that you select and plant now will soon fill out their containers, and many will flower. Even if you don’t care to use your herbs to make remedies, you can benefit from the joy of watching the plants grow and from learning about the medicinal value found within their leaves, stems, roots, and flowers. The chart on page 49 presents some possibilities, including such common herbs as chamomile, feverfew, and yarrow that can be found at almost any nursery. You’ll also find recipes for some simple medicines to make from your herbal harvests.
Choose the biggest pots you can fit in the space you have; larger pots (14 inches or more) are more forgiving and don’t need quite so much attention, and you’ll be able to put more plants in each. You can find a selection of sturdy, attractive containers at nurseries, discount stores, and houseware stores. Or look around your house or garage–you may find a suitable pot not originally designed to hold plants. Choose any container that suits you–clay pots, wooden planters, hanging baskets, even an old Radio Flyer wagon, as long as you add drainage holes.
Use a good, porous commercial potting soil or soilless mix, or create your own with compost, peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite. Don’t use soil from your garden, which is generally too heavy and compacts too readily. Plants need a potting medium that drains freely. Containers must have adequate drainage holes in the bottom to prevent roots from rotting. If your chosen container doesn’t have drainage holes, you should add some.
Planting is easy: Moisten the mix to ensure that it doesn’t fall out of the holes. Position the plants where you want them, tamp potting mix firmly around them, fill the pot to within an inch of the top, and water well.
Remember that you must supply all the growing needs of container plants; they can’t pull moisture and nutrients from the earth as they do when they’re growing outside. Check your potted plants daily to learn their watering requirements. Water thoroughly whenever the top inch or so of potting mix is dry. Plants positioned in full sun will dry out especially fast, and daily watering is a must.
Fertilize your herbs as needed. You can use a timed-release fertilizer at potting time or a weak solution of all-purpose liquid fertilizer or fish emulsion every two weeks.
Herbs for Burns or Bruises
Herbs to use:
• Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
• St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum)
• Plant a seedling of each herb together in a pot measuring 14 inches across. Use more seedlings in larger pots.
• Water daily during warm weather.
• Place pot in full sun to part shade.
Pick fresh lemon balm leaves as your plant grows; harvest St.-John’s-wort flowers just after they appear.
Lemon balm juice:
Crush several clean leaves and rub their juice on the burn.
Place a handful flowers in a jar. Add just enough olive oil to cover the petals. With a spoon, stir the oil and flowers to create a creamy mixture. Cover the jar tightly and set in a dark place for 2 weeks. Then strain the oil into a dark glass jar and store in a cool, dark place until needed. Apply this oil to bruises to help them heal.
Herbs for Headaches, Migraines
Herbs to use:
• Peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita)
• Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
• Plant one seedling of each herb together in a pot measuring 14 inches across. Use more seedlings in larger pots.
• Water daily in warm weather.
• Place in full sun to part shade.
Leaves of both herbs may be picked throughout the spring and summer. Peppermint leaves will need to be dried for use in the recipe below; after picking the leaves, place them in a paper bag for several days, shaking the bag several times a day (to prevent molding) until the herbs are crispy and dry. Store your dried leaves in a jar, away from sunlight until ready to use.
Feverfew for migraines:
Chew 1 to 4 clean feverfew leaves or drink 1 cup of tea daily. Make a tea by steeping 2 to 8 fresh leaves in 8 ounces of boiling water.
Peppermint salve for headaches:
Use 4 ounces of vegetable oil and 1/2 cup of dried peppermint leaves. Put the herbs and the oil into a glass bowl and set the bowl in a pan of simmering water. Heat gently for 2 or 3 hours, then strain the infusion into a dark, sterile bottle and let cool, away from sunlight.
Pour the infused oil into a glass bowl and place over a pan of boiling water. Add a 1-inch square of beeswax to the oil. Stir until the wax melts completely. Pour the thick liquid into small, dark jars, and let them set in a cool, dark place. When you have a headache, gently rub a bit of the peppermint salve on your temples.
Herbs for Upset Stomach
Herbs to use:
• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
• Plant a seedling of each herb in the same pot.
• Water every two or three days.
• Place in full sun to part shade.
Pick the leaves of both herbs throughout the season to dry for later use. To dry the leaves, place them in a paper bag for several days, shaking the bag several times daily, until the herbs are crispy and dry. Store the leaves in a jar (preferably a dark one), away from sunlight, until ready to use.
Place 1 heaping teaspoon of dried peppermint leaves or 2 teaspoons of dried chamomile leaves in a cup and add boiling water. Steep, covered, for 10 minutes. Drink as often as needed.
Duke, James A. The Green Pharmacy. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale, 1997.
Foster, Steven. Herbs for Your Health. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave, 1996.
Hoffmann, David. The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal. Rockport, Massachusetts: Element, 1996.
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale, 1987.
Romain, Effie, and Sue Hawkey. Herbal Remedies in Pots. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1996.
Jan Knight, Herbs for Health editor, puts her potted herbs on the sunny front porch of her home in Fort Collins, Colorado. Kathleen Halloran, the editor of The Herb Companion, also contributed to this story.