Traditional landscaping can offer a lot of benefits. Plants bring beauty, shade, food, and wildlife habitats to your home, among many other ecological services. Plants can offer medicine and healing for our bodies, minds, and spirits as well. It’s just a matter of getting to know the plants we can grow and which ones can help us most.
Since the beginning of time, humans have evolved with plants — the original medicine — as sources of nutrition and wellness. Modern pharmaceuticals are often formulated to mimic herbs or are created using herbs in conjunction with synthesized constituents. And the further these herbs are from their natural state, the harder it can be for our bodies to use them for healing. These single adaptogens are powerful medicine, so why not start learning which plants can help us, and how to grow them in a backyard garden, a homestead, or even a single sunny apartment window?
Adapt and Grow
There are some basic things to consider when choosing plants to include in any space. I think of plants as if they’re people: They have ideal growing conditions and characteristics that are genetically predetermined. All plants are native to somewhere, and finding out exactly where can provide important information about what will make the plant thrive (which is especially important for plant medicine). You’ll want to learn the following things:
How big will a plant be when it’s mature? You’ll want to provide enough space for the plant to be happy long-term.
What soil and moisture conditions will the plant thrive in? Soil can be any variation of wet, dry, rocky, dense, or clay, and you’ll want to match the type of plant to the soil you have, as well as make sure it’s not under- or overwatered.
How does the plant spread (Seed? Roots or rhizomes?) and will it be hard to contain? Knowing this will determine the maintenance it will need.
What temperature does the plant thrive in? The United States Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zones (find yours at USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map) can tell you the lowest temperature in your area, and local climate information can tell you how hot it can get.
Common 5-Plant Scenarios
When you design a landscape, whether ornamental, edible, or medicinal (or hopefully all of the above), it’s helpful to design with layers in mind — that is to say, creating your garden in terms of space, light, depth, type of growth, and seasonal timing. Start with trees or shrubs, as the tallest layer will set the tone of the garden and determine the amount of light in the space. Then, select the lower layers, from perennials to ground covers and tubers, which will fill in the space and add texture, seasonal interest, and color throughout the year. This is an ideal formula, but can be amended to your needs, interests, and available space.
In the included scenarios, the plants I selected as examples may not be best suited to your garden and the medicine you want to make. Just as you’re mindful of climate, spacing, and water needs before planting, you should research plant properties to find those that will be most useful in your life. Ask yourself, “What do I struggle with?” Your answer — insomnia, stress, anxiety, inflammation — will determine the plants that will help aid your healing. And while I chose five plants for each scenario, your home medicine garden can be adapted to fill any space, whether it takes a dozen plants or merely a few.
While growing your own medicine can be an exciting and rewarding journey, be ready to spend time researching the best plants for you and your garden, and wait patiently for them to grow strong before you harvest. In general, for outdoor perennial plants, I let a plant get established and healthy for up to three years before harvesting from it. To build a strong relationship with the plant, do what’s needed to make it thrive, but also offer gratitude when harvesting. Lovingly tending a plant and harvesting with positive intention goes a long way toward prompting a plant to give you its strongest medicine.
The Curb Appeal Garden
A home’s front walkway often gets the most traffic from visitors and therefore requires extra consideration when it comes to beauty throughout the seasons. Plus, this space is ideal for easy access to grab a cutting from an herb or leaves for tea! The curb appeal garden includes plants that have interest year-round — whether evergreen foliage or plants with various blooming times — so there’s always something on display. Foundation beds along the front of a house tend to be narrow and compact and are best for well-behaved or low-maintenance plants. My example scenario features plants that love full sun and the extra warmth from the thermal mass of a home.
Plants with fragrance and flowers placed near an entryway are more likely to be noticed and enjoyed by visitors than beds that are farther away. For added color and elegance, try adding container plants to flank the entrance.
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1. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) This herb comes in upright or trailing cultivars, and prefers dry soil and lots of sunshine. Antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant rosemary is most widely lauded for its benefits to cognition and memory and its potential action against Alzheimer’s disease.
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2. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): This woody perennial and its characteristic fragrant purple flowers prefer dry soil and sunny conditions. On top of providing color to the landscape, lavender promotes sleep, boosts mood, and treats acute and chronic pain.
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3. Sage (Salvia officinalis): Many types of sage enjoy the sun, from those with evergreen foliage to dramatic flowers. But S. officinalis is a standout — it’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and has proven cognitive and memory-enhancing effects.
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4. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens): This low-growing evergreen ground cover offers striking red edible berries in winter. Most commonly, wintergreen leaves are used for topical pain and rheumatic pain relief, or as a tea to ease headaches.
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5. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Several cultivars of this evergreen ground cover offer fine texture and sweet flowers in summer that pollinators love. T. vulgaris has proven to have antioxidant, antibacterial, and antifungal properties, but it’s especially useful as an anti-inflammatory.
The Shade Garden
Many of us have a garden area made undesirable by shade. For these spaces, or for spaces that get only partial sunlight, you’ll want to choose plants that prefer those conditions, and luckily, some plants do! If you’re unsure how much sunlight a specific space gets, watch the area for a period of time during the growing season. It qualifies as a shade garden if it gets less than six hours of direct sunlight.
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1. Tall Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium): This woody shrub can grow 5 to 10 feet tall with bright-yellow flowers and edible blue berries. The bark and roots are medicinal, traditionally helping to treat jaundice, fever, diarrhea, indigestion, and more.
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2. Violets (Viola spp.): These perennial ground covers have sweet flowers, and they’re slow-growing, but will spread. Violet varieties share similar medicinal properties, including antioxidant activity, relief for headaches and dizziness, respiratory relief, and use as diuretics.
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3. Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea): This large deciduous shrub produces small white flowers and clusters of blue berries. Prepared correctly, the leaves can be used as laxatives; the berries as diuretics; and the flowers as washes for wounds or as a tea for headaches and indigestion. The berries and flowers are also known for soothing cold, flu, and fever symptoms.
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4. Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa): This perennial can grow to be 4 feet tall and has beautiful white flowers that look like large wands. The herb is particularly useful for women’s health, as it treats menopausal symptoms and is useful against PMS and menstrual cramps.
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5. Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum): This small herbaceous ground cover has tiny white flowers and spreads quickly when in shady, wet, well-drained soil. Use it for its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties.
The Indoor Medicine Garden
Anyone with a sunny windowsill can plant a medicine garden. If you live in a colder climate or a city apartment, this is a great way to keep plants and have medicine available year-round. Most indoor plants prefer six hours of sunlight, and there are a few other rules of thumb to follow to make sure your indoor garden is successful:
- Only pot plants together that share the same needs for watering and soil conditions.
- Use deep pot saucers to keep water from spilling out and making a mess; this will also help hydrate the roots through capillary action.
- Plan on fertilization during the growing season based on what makes the plant thrive.
- Plan on bumping up pot sizes every 1 to 2 years so the plant has room for its roots to grow.
Indoor plants in containers might enjoy being moved outdoors during warmer months. If you plan to do this, get lightweight containers or put them on wheels, and slowly acclimate the plants to the new temperature.
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1. Aloe (Aloe vera): This low-maintenance succulent grows slowly but will provide endless medicine when given sun and dry soil. On top of moisturizing cosmetic properties, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antimicrobial aloe gel can be used topically to heal scrapes, burns, and other wounds.
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2. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): Easy to grow, this unassuming perennial prefers rich, well-drained soil. Keep it year-round to reap its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antihypertensive benefits.
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3. Peppermint (Mentha x piperita): Mint grows and spreads quickly, so start it in a good-sized container. Perhaps best known for its ability to relieve headaches and cooling menthol content, peppermint is also a digestive aid.
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4. Lemon (Citrus x limon): This small, heat-loving tree will appreciate going outside when the weather is warm. Lemon juice is astringent and useful for sore throats, and the fruit is antioxidant and may treat rheumatic conditions.
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5. Tulsi or Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum): This annual herb, a staple in Ayurvedic medicine, can easily grow from seed and reach 2 feet tall when mature. A potent adaptogen, tulsi calms stress, energizes without exhausting, and balances cortisol. It’s prescribed in India for a variety of respiratory, digestive, and other ailments.
The Wild Medicine Garden
Some inconvenient areas of your garden may not be irrigated or easy to maintain. This is where you can create a wild medicine garden with plants whose natural competition with each other makes them low-maintenance; you won’t have to weed or tend to the space. Whether they’re large and unruly, have thorns like roses, or sting like nettles, these plant species may not be ideal candidates for more cultivated garden spaces where they have to be worked around regularly. Instead, plant them with plenty of room to spread in your out-of-the-way garden area, and let them take over.
Using plants native to your region will be ideal, as they’ll be adapted to your local climate and soils. Non-native plants can work as well, but just make sure they won’t become noxious weeds if left unattended.
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1. Goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea): This perennial has beautiful golden blooms in fall, and it spreads by rhizome underground. Though S. virgaurea is the most well-known goldenrod species, each has similar medicinal actions: diuretic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antispasmodic.
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2. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): This lovely herb self-sows and can quickly take over space if you let it. To control its spread, cut off the flowers before they go to seed. Use the leaves to treat insomnia, or as an antimicrobial, antioxidant, and antispasmodic.
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3. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica): This perennial can be planted anywhere it can spread, but be sure it’s in an area where you won’t bump up against it. When properly prepared, nettle leaves not only promote health, but act as a diuretic, anti-inflammatory, hypotensive, and pain reliever.
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4. California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica): This cheerful little flower self-sows rapidly and creates a golden cover when in bloom in many soil types. The herb is a sedative and pain reliever, and can be used to reduce anxiety.
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5. Calendula (Calendula officinalis): This annual is a self-sowing flower with bright, cheery blossoms. A cleansing and detoxifying herb, calendula has been used as a diuretic, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal, and may help with anxiety and insomnia.
Jessi Bloom, a Certified Arborist, is an award-winning ecological landscape designer, author, and speaker. She owns N.W. Bloom EcoLogical Landscapes, where her work is nationally acclaimed. She lives near Seattle with her two sons on their permaculture homestead.