Most of my perennial herbs are now stretching their arms into the sky and appear to be fully awake. Each year, however, I seem to have a few casualties. This is the nature of gardening – you win some, you lose some, but there is always the chance for rebirth.
When I first began herb gardening 20 years ago, I started with the basics: parsley, rosemary, basil, sage and thyme. Each year I have tried something new, so now my herb garden is tremendously diverse and wildly interesting. Along the way, I discovered herbs I loved to cook with, some I didn’t care for and some herbs that did or didn’t tolerate our climate or perhaps my soil. My chives are prolific, but lovage does not love my garden.
I also discovered herbs add great taste, nutrition and depth to everyday cooking. Adding fresh homegrown herbs can be the act that connects the food on your plate to the earth. In a world that craves convenience, it is much more convenient to step outside your back yard to snip a few herb bunches for your veggie stir fry or pot of soup, than driving to the grocery store to buy them. If you live in an apartment, container gardening and sunny windowsills can provide you with herbs close at hand. Customizing your herb garden to include your favorites can nurture your inner botanist, give you ownership and admiring your choices can foster extreme pride.
I realize it’s not all utopia, as in, weeds. I have found, however, weeding to be very therapeutic. It’s all in how you look at it. We all have bad days and that energy has to go somewhere. Why not take it out on your weeds? I’ve been known to sit on an old boat cushion in the weediest part of my garden, local radio tuned in, cold beverage close by and just have at it. In time, I will emerge from my dirt flinging active meditation revived and ready to take on the world again. Who knew a garden could provide so much healing?
The ancients did, in the form of medicinal herbs. The oldest written evidence of medicinal plants’ usage for preparation of drugs has been found on a Sumerian clay slab from Nagpur, approximately 5,000 years old. It comprised 12 recipes for drug preparation referring to over 250 various plants. Long before Christ was born, written references to the use of medical herbs can be found in China, India and in Homer’s Illiad and The Odyssey (800 B.C.). This was followed by the works of Hippocrates about 400 years later, among others. This list is extensive and continues through the Roman Empire and into the Middle Ages where monasteries were known for cultivating medicinal herbs. Here in North America, Native Americans have practiced the use of herbal medicine for thousands of years.
Almost every culture at some point in their advancement through civilization has used plants for healing purposes and many continue to use them today. From a simple glass of camomile tea, to compounded salves, to tossing a fresh bunch of basil into your spaghetti sauce, all of these are ways to practice herbal medicine. My herbal medicine experiments rapidly advanced last summer. I was blissfully unaware that mason jar by mason jar, my cupboard was slowly becoming an apothecary. The wake up call came one evening at dinner when one of my children referred to me as a “closet hippie,” which was followed by a comment about my being a “witch doctor.” “You think?” I countered. All my children merely looked upward and pointed silently at the ceiling, where I had rigged up a string that stretched across my kitchen. Bunches of lemon balm, lemon verbena, English thyme, cat nip, mint and pineapple sage were hanging from it upside down in tight little bunches. I had tightened the string the day before because my husband had recently clotheslined himself while walking across the room. I conjectured to my children, “Well, what if I was? What do you think of that?” They quietly pondered and considered the question. The oldest finally piped up, “Well, I guess it’s okay…” Whatever my children had to say, I had planned on continuing my self education, but their response was a curiosity to me.
Why would drying herbs to be used in cooking, herbal teas and for medicinal purposes seem odd or different? Shouldn’t this simple act be a natural event in the home and kitchen rather than a foreign behavior? Then I realized that my children, along with the majority of the public, see medicine as coming in the form of a pill or liquid. Modern medicine bears no resemblance to nature, although it was born there so very many years ago. Some modern medicine is still derived from plants, but its appearance doesn’t scream out natural properties.
I’m not trading in modern medicine entirely. However, for the small stuff, herbal medicine just might have a place in my home. The aloe vera eardrops have worked splendidly. Lemon balm and chamomile tea is a miracle for intestinal troubles or an upset stomach. Raspberry leaf tea works fabulously for menstrual cramps and I can’t wait to make a salve for minor scrapes and bruises from some yarrow I planted. Along the way, I have also discovered I’m allergic to echinacea, so I won’t be drinking echinacea to ward off colds (It made me sneeze uncontrollably and generally itchy all over). Lessons learned: not all herbs work for you, just like not all modern medicine works for everybody. But I believe they can coexist.
Bee Balm and raspberry leaves are great for herbal teas.
Healing benefits abound from herb gardening. Herbs provide all kinds of vitamins, minerals, immune boosting properties, antioxidants, fiber and essential oils. Hidden benefits strengthen the mind, body and soul. According to a recent Organic Life article (“5 Surprising Ways Gardening Improves your Health”), gardening reduces stress and anxiety (weeding), decreases your risk of heart disease and diabetes, makes you happy, keeps your mind sharp and helps you sleep better.
Gardening reminds me of iconic American values; it promotes thriftiness, family involvement, helping the environment, hard work and healthy living. Grab a shovel, plant some seeds and let the healing begin.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering and Rootin’ Tootin’ No Gluten Foods. They have four children, of which all four are Gluten Intolerant. The family also lives with two severe nut allergies and a fish/shellfish allergy. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
“Nature’s Best Remedies,” National Geographic 2015
Historical Review of Medicinal Plants Usage, National Institutes of Health ncbi.nim.nih.gov
Medicinal Herbs, by Rosemary Gladstar
“Five Surprising Ways Gardening Improves your Health,” by Rebecca Straus
The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices, by Sarah Garland Francis
“Grow and Make Your Own Simple Medicines,” Mother Earth News April/May 2016