Herbs are a part of my everyday routine. Peppermint, nettle, and Earl Grey tea in the morning, garlic and spices in my lunch and dinner, hops in my beer, and more peppermint, nettles, and chamomile tea before bed. I can look in my kitchen and I see a big, potted rosemary bush still growing on February first, jars of coriander seed, dandelion root, basil, and rose hips from our gardens, strings of chilies and heads of garlic. Some of these I use everyday, others not so much. I look outside onto our snow covered garden and can remember and picture all the hops and the bush of lemon balm, not far from that is wormwood, and in another part of the garden is spearmint and peppermint and yarrow and Echinacea, all of these intentionally planted, but not all of them used. A perfect example – wormwood, the herb that made absinthe famous and bitter beer prior to the use of hops. We received a transplant of wormwood from our farmer friend Jeff and found a spot for it. Maybe someday we will do something with it, maybe not, but either way it will always have a home in our garden.
With the onslaught of seed catalogs this year, I noticed a few of them have very good selections of both culinary and medicinal herbs; combine that fact with a few books that have been hanging around our house, my wife and I decided to experiment with more herbs in this upcoming season’s gardens. The short list includes borage, feverfew, soapwort, St. John’s wort, horehound, winter savory, and wild marjoram. Most of the herbs purchased are either perennials or self seeding annuals – the less work we have to do in the long run, the better. These herbs including ones I did not list were purchased for a few different reasons. Winter savory and wild marjoram have culinary uses; borage, feverfew and horehound all have their own medicinal properties that can be used in teas, oils, ointments, and tinctures, and all of them hold a place within the idea of permaculture, specifically permaculture guilds. Some attract bees and other beneficial insects, others deter unwanted pests, some build soil by drawing up nutrients, and others can be used as a living mulch. The idea of a plant guild is actually pretty simple, by mimicking nature in our gardens by growing many varying types of plants, we produce more and varied foods, have healthier plants, and use all available space. Another way of describing this concept is an edible food forest. Your upper story may be fruits or nut trees, your middle(s) layer may consist of shrubs or bushy vegetables, and a third layer may be a ground cover of culinary herbs or berries. The beautiful thing behind permaculture guilds is that they manifest themselves differently in all kinds of climates, soils, and gardens. I don’t want to say there is one right way to design these guilds, because there are things that work and some things that don’t, but there is a lot of room for experimenting in each unique environment. For a much more in depth look at permaculture, plant guilds, and edible food forests, check out Toby Hemenway’s book, Gaia’s Garden.
Continuing on herbs and the motivations to grow and collect more of them really stems from two other books we have been reading. Edible and Medicinal Wild Plants of Minnesota and Wisconsin by Matthew Alfs and Home Herbal by Penelope Ody. Home Herbal is by far the best visual guide I have seen concerning common herbs; it contains recipes for infusions, oils, teas, tinctures, ointments, lotions, and proper use and applications for all of them. Edible and Medicinal Wild Plants of Minnesota and Wisconsin is one of my favorites to take with on hikes through our extensive trail system here in the Twin Cities. It has colored photos of all the plants listed and has tons of information on all of them. I have a few other books on herbal healing, but these are my favorites right now. Regardless of if you grow permaculture plant guilds or just have an herb garden for kitchen use, herbs are a valuable addition to any garden. But in a world of depleting resources and an uncertain climate, having a hand in the production of your own medicine is a truly priceless skill. I don’t think conventional medicine is going to disappear overnight, but we all know it is getting more expensive and in some instances harder to trust. Education on topics such as medicinal herbs is highly important, and never trust just one source. Read as many books as you can concerning medicinal herbs, take classes and ask questions. Don’t just grow them in your garden, learn to identify local wild herbs, and learn how to properly store them and use them safely. Finding useful plants out in nature is a lot of fun. They can add a new flavor to a salad and getting out for walks through the woods never hurt no one. If herbs are your thing, have fun and be safe and healthy! Cheers!