Planting your own medicinal garden is the best way to provide alternatives to modern medicine in long-term austere settings. Until pharmaceuticals were produced in factories, people had to grow their own medicine. This practice was a natural part of the landscape and provided needed remedies for many medical issues. Sometimes, a community would have a person who served as an herbalist and supervised the cultivation and processing.
Growing your own medicinal garden is both rewarding and beneficial. It’s important to realize that you’ll probably have limited access to pharmaceuticals if things go south. Whatever you have in the medicine cabinet will eventually run out. The gardening learning curve can be steep, so don’t wait until the situation becomes critical to get started. Obtain some gardening supplies, including items to amend the soil in less fertile areas.
Select a well-drained, sunny area with healthy soil. Although some herbs grow well in shade, most plants need at least 6-8 hours of full sun for proper growth and development. Potting is appropriate for medicinal plants that will need to be transported inside during a cold winter. Water should be provided on a regular basis to allow the soil to stay moist, but not muddy or waterlogged.
Soil in many areas must often be amended for the best results. For a well-draining soil, mix a potting soil with some bark (fir is my favorite) and coconut coir. Coconut coir is the material between the outer shell of the coconut and the inner shell that contains the “water” and “meat”. Add compost to enrich. Drill, or punch, lots of holes all over the sides and bottom of pots. Fill the pot with soil to about 5 inches from the top.
Add a few red worms to the soil, if available. Feed the worms compost materials by adding vegetable peels, left over uncooked vegetables, etc. Dig a little hole along the edges of the pot, put the compost materials in, and then cover with soil. The worms will eat the vegetables and poop “worm castings”. Worm castings contain a mixture of bacteria, enzymes, remnants of plant matter, and other substances. They’re rich in plant nutrients and may contain more humus than surrounding soil.
Use only organic pest and disease control. Consider putting together a soapy mixture of one tablespoon of neem oil, one teaspoon of Dr. Bronner’s lavender, peppermint Castile soap, and, perhaps, a few drops of tea tree essential oil in about four to eight cups of water. The combination makes a great disease and natural pest control. Spray foliage in the late afternoon every five to seven days or after a heavy rain. Shorter intervals are acceptable if diseases or pests are being treated.
The medicinal plants you select should match the climate as best as possible. For some, that means that the herbs must survive the winter; for others, the summer heat. The Department of Agriculture publishes both “Plant Hardiness” maps for cold weather and “Heat Zone” maps to help you choose what to grow.
You may be able to grow warmer climate plants by protecting them from the cold with greenhouses or using row covers. This will expand the range of medicinal plants you may choose to grow either in pots or around your homestead.
Seeds And Cuttings
Now you can sow your seeds. Different plant seeds are placed at different depths of the soil. Usually, it’s better to plant too shallow than too deep. Some, like certain lettuces, aren’t buried at all. A good general strategy is to plant seeds at a depth which equals two to three times their width. A layer of mulch can help maintain even moisture levels in dry conditions. Make sure to read the seed packet for specifics, as every plant is different.
Stem cuttings are another option. This strategy involves putting cuttings in water or some other growing medium until they develop roots and then plant them into pots or the ground. You’ll need a sharp scissors or razor blade, a very healthy mother plant, a soilless potting mix, some rooting hormone, and small (4 inch or so) containers. Soilless mixes like perlite, vermiculite, sand, and coconut coir are used because they have less microbes that might inhibit rooting. As an alternative, water can be used instead of a mix, although planting in soil afterwards is less successful than with mixes.
Cuttings taken from new, green, non-woody stems make for easier rooting. Look for a stem with a bump somewhere near a leaf attachment. This is the area from which new roots will emerge. Use a clean scissors or razor blade dipped in alcohol and cut at a 45-degree angle just below the leaf attachment, sometimes called a “node.” The cutting should be a few inches long and contain a leaf or two plus the node. Although a leaf is necessary for photosynthesis, too many or a leaf that’s too large will take away energy from root creation. If the leaf is large, cut off a portion from the end.
Your chances of success might be higher with rooting hormone. Rooting hormone stimulates the formation of new roots. Dip the node into some water and then into the rooting hormone. Tap off excess; too much actually decreases the success rate.
Now, use a stick to make a hole slightly wider than the cutting. This will prevent rooting hormone from being knocked off the plant. Firm the soil around the cutting to stabilize it.
Place the whole thing into a plastic bag. This keeps the humidity high and holds in heat. Air is important, however, so don’t seal the bag completely. Keep in a warm area with a little light, but full sunlight isn’t necessary until new leaves form. Watch for two to three weeks, discarding any failed rootings. After this, a gentle tug on the plant should show some resistance, a sign that rooting has occurred. At this point, you have a new living plant!
It should be noted that cuttings should be taken from the mother plant in the morning, when it is most filled with moisture. For temperate climates, early Spring is the best season.
Mature herbs might best be harvested in dry weather after the dew has evaporated. The different parts of the plant may require specific times of the year or other conditions for collection:
- Leaves: Usually best when collected soon after they open in spring and summer.
- Flowers: Harvest just as they start to bloom.
- Roots: Harvest in the fall
- Bark: Collect in the spring or fall in small amounts.
- Berries, Fruits, and Seeds: As you might imagine, best harvested when ripe but before they drop.
It’s preferable to take just the amount of plant material you’re ready to process for use or storage. Otherwise, rapid deterioration could occur and degrade the medicinal benefit of the herbs. Herbs can be preserved by air- or oven-drying, and then stored in a sterile dark glass jar with airtight lids. For the longest shelf life of about 12 months, make sure conditions are cool, dry, and dark. Vacuum sealing the jar works well, also.
In a future article, we’ll tell you about our favorite herbs for the garden that would make useful additions to your medicinal storage.
Joe Alton MD and Amy Alton APRN
(Did You Know? Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy are graduates of the State of Florida Master Gardener program!)
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