How to Plan a Medicinal Herb Garden

herb gardening
Would you love to step out into the garden and gather medicine for your family? Do you dream of a pretty garden full of useful herbs? Many of you have told me you do...but you don't know where to start. "Which herbs should I grow?" is a common question. Today, I'm going to walk you through the decision-making process - and suggest a few specific herbs, too.

The Best Way to Begin a Medicinal Herb Garden

The best place to begin planning a medicinal herb garden is not by sketching out designs or browsing through herb books or magazines. Instead, sit down with a notebook and pencil and make a few lists.

1. Start by writing down every herb you currently use for health and wellness. These are things you currently buy (or would buy if you felt you could afford to), and might include everything from cold and flu treatments to everyday supplements to treat specific ailments.

2. Next, make a list of every ailment you hope to treat via medicinal herbs. For example, you might write: immune function, colds/flu, minor wounds, insomnia, high blood pressure.

3. Now take your first list (the one of herbs you buy) and research each plant. At this point, you really only need to know if the herb will grow in your area, so I suggest a simple Google search: "USDA gardening zone" and the plant name. (For example: "USDA gardening zone echinacea.") Cross out any plants that don't grow in your zone. (To learn what your zone is, visit Truly, unless you have a greenhouse or the plant lends itself to indoor growing, there's little point in trying to grow herbs that don't love your region; they simply won't thrive where you live.

4. Finally, look at your second list (the one that notes ailments). Research which herbs are best for each ailment and whether or not they grow in your region. To help you get started, see my recommendations below.

Great Immune System, Cold, and Flu Herbs

Almost everybody who is interested in herbal medicine wants to grow plants that boost the immune system and stave off colds and the flu - so let's start there. If you have some experience with natural medicine, you may already have some go-to plants for these purposes. If that's the case, you can simply Google the name of the plant and "USDA gardening zone," as recommended in step 3.
Herbal Antibiotics by Stephen Buhner.
If you aren't familiar with herbs in the cold/flu category, here are a few that grow throughout most of the U.S. (For a much more thorough look at this class of herbs, I highly recommend Stephen Harrod Buhner's Herbal Antibiotics and Herbal Antivirals. Everyone who is serious about using herbs for medicine should own and read these books.)

Elderberry (S. nigra and S. canadensis; USDA gardening zones 3 - 8) is powerful medicine for treating the flu and boosting the immune system. Elderberry is a bush, but it grows as large as a small tree, so you'll want to grow this plant away from most of your herbs, since it will cast shade on your garden. Hop over to The Spruce to learn how to grow elderberry.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra; USDA gardening zones 9 - 11) is another well known antiviral and immune booster, and is also good for adrenal function, certain ulcers, and works as a demulcent. Licorice likes moist, well-draining, and fertile soil. Learn more about growing it at Mother Earth News.

Sweet wormwood (Artemesia annua; USDA gardening zones 3 - 8) stimulates the immune system. It also protects the liver and builds blood, including after chemo or radiation treatment. Sweet wormwood isn't picky about soil as long as it is well-draining; it is also drought tolerant. Learn more about growing it at The Spruce.

Elderberry flowers.

Juniper (Juniperus communis; USDA gardening zones 2 - 8) is a common ornamental plant, but it also is a strong antiviral. It's particularly useful for urinary tract and bladder infections, as well as kidney issues. It has culinary uses, too. Learn how to grow juniper over at Mother Earth News.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale; USDA gardening zones 7 or higher) is a great antiviral, and easy to use in cooking, as well as medicine. If it doesn't grow in your zone, you may be able to grow it indoors.
Herbal Antivirals by Stephen Buhner.
See Gardener's Path for tips on growing ginger outdoors.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous; USDA gardening zones 5 - 9) is an immune booster. Other uses for this herb include liver protection and blood building. It's native to China, but is easy to grow in many parts of the U.S. Like many herbs, it can handle shade or full sun, and likes well-drained soil. Learn more about growing it at Heirloom Organics.

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum; USDA gardening zones 3 and up) is an antiviral and is also used to heal acne, improve the lymphatic system, and reduce swollen glands. It's an easy herb to grow as long as you give it rich, moist soil. Learn more about growing boneset at Heirloom Organics.

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.; USDA gardening zones 3 - 8 ) is well-known as a cold treatment, but it is also good for infections. Other uses include treating infected wounds and immunity-boosting. Learn how to grow it at American Meadows.

Garlic (Allium sativum; all USDA gardening zones). Most people think of this as a vegetable, but raw garlic is antibacterial. Almost anyone in the U.S. can grow garlic, and it is easy to tend. Learn more about growing it at Grey Duck Garlic.

Great Wound Care Herbs

Another category of herbs almost everyone is interested in is wound care. Here are some good herbs to explore and consider for your garden:

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium L.; USDA gardening zones 3 - 9) stops bleeding and is used to treat bug bites and minor scrapes and cuts. It loves full sun and well-draining soil. Learn how to grow yarrow over at Old Farmer's Almanac.

Plantain  (Plantago lanceolata, major; USDA gardening zones 5 - 9) is an excellent "draw," as well as antiseptic and astringent. It even helps pull the flesh together for faster healing. It is a common weed in the U.S., but some herbal supply sources carry the seeds, too. See Heirloom Organics for more information on growing plantain.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale; USDA gardening zones 4 - 8) encourages the growth of healthy new tissue and is an excellent treatment for bruises, broken bones, sprains, and pulled muscles, too. Comfrey tolerates most soils, but all varieties except Blocking 14 spread like mad. See Grow Veg for more growing tips.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis; USDA gardening zones 2 - 11) is also used to promote healthy new tissue, particularly if scarring could be detrimental. Additionally, it is an antiseptic. Calendula isn't too picky about soil and if left to go to seed, replants itself each year. See Planet Natural for tips on growing Calendula.

Drying calendula.

Willow (Salix spp.; most zones) is useful as a natural pain reliever and anti-inflammatory agent, much like aspirin. It also speeds the healing of wounds (when used as a wash). Willow, being a tree, should be planted where it won't shade the rest of your herb garden. See Cornell's website for more growing info.

Finishing Your List
Making Plant Medicine by Cech.
Next, move on to special conditions you or your family have. For example, if someone in your family has a tendency toward high blood pressure, you'll want to consider growing dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) and hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.) If someone has gout, dandelion and bugleweed (Lycopus americanus L.) may prove useful. If someone else tends toward gas, catnip (Nepeta cataria) will be handy. And so on.

If you're not sure what herbs treat the conditions you are likely to bump into, I recommend the book Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech. It includes excellent information on various conditions and what herbs are best for treating them. (Cech also sells a nice variety of medicinal seeds that can be hard to find elsewhere.)
The Ultimate Dandelion Medicine Book by yours truly.

Other Tips:

* I can't stress this enough: Just because an herb that is a great treatment doesn't mean it will grow in your area. Always Google what gardening zone is assigned to each plant. Otherwise, your garden is doomed to fail.

* Start small. It's tempting to plant every herb you think you'll ever need, but you'll experience much more success if you start small, adding a few plants each year. This way, you can ensure your gardening spot is appropriate, that you have time to tend to the garden, that you'll use what you plant, and so on.

*  All your medicinals don't need to be planted in one specially designated herb garden. In fact, since different plants have different soil, sun, and nutrient requirements, it's sometimes better to scatter them across appropriate places in your yard.

* Bear in mind that many herbs have ornamental varieties. For example, there are lots of pretty shades of yarrow designed to look nice in gardens, but only the original, white variety is highly medicinal. Always look at the Latin names of plants. (Again, Cech's medicinal seeds are a great resource, since he does not include any non-medicinal plants.)

Catnip. (Courtesy of
Claudia Daggett.)
* Pay attention to how big each plant will grow. A common error is to plant herbs too close together or to put tall herbs where they will put shorter ones in shade.

* Some herbs will take over the world if you let them. For example, mints will spread everywhere unless you contain them in a pot...and even then, you might want that pot to sit on concrete so the mint doesn't root in nearby soil! Lemon balm, comfrey, chives, parsley, and bee balm are also common offenders.

* Even if you don't have a lot of room, you can enjoy medicinal herbs. Herbs do well potted on your porch, and many will thrive on your windowsill.

Cover image courtesy Waleed Anwar.

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