A medicinal herb garden is easy to grow using plants that are suited to your growing conditions and plant hardiness zone. But choosing the right plants for your growing conditions is the key to creating a successful medicinal herb garden that is easy to maintain without undue toil. After all who wants to work when they play in the dirt.
Characteristics of an easy maintenance medicinal herb garden
- The medicinal herbs grown are suited to your USDA plant hardiness zone
- It is organic
- Soil microbes are encouraged with the use of biochar and mulch
- It is sustainable to use compost and plant waste to add back nutrients to the soil
- It utilizes the abundance of the herb garden to provide nutrients to other plants
- It has a consistent supply of nectar and pollen throughout the season for native pollinators and honeybees
- The plants are predominantly perennial medicinal herbs
- It takes advantage of companion planting
- Native medicinal plants are used where it makes sense to preserve wild populations from harvest
- It has areas of shade, part shade and full sun with appropriate plants in each
- Water is used sparingly making use of drip irrigation when appropriate
- Herbs are situated based on the needs of the plant for light and water
- Mulch is used judiciously to inhibit weeds and mimic the natural growing conditions of herbs in their native soils
- It has clearly defined traffic paths to protect the garden from impaction
- There is a bench for the gardener to sit and rest and enjoy the garden
- Frequently used garden tools are close at hand in a garden shed, protected from elements
- The garden uses raised beds as appropriate to ease the strain on the gardener, allow for frost drainage,
Full sun – part sun – part shade – shade
What do these terms mean?
- Full sun means at least 6 hours a day of sunlight a day, but some fruits and vegetables need 8 to 10 hours.
- “Part sun” or “part shade” are often used interchangeably and denote 3 to 6 hours of direct sunlight.
- “Shade” means indirect sunlight or filtered sun.
Light can be increased with the addition of reflective mulch or mirrors placed strategically around plants in low light areas, but this doesn’t replace direct sunlight. If a plant needs full sun to thrive planting it in a pot on a north-facing balcony is going to require supplemental lighting.
Watering needs of medicinal herb garden plants
Different herbs like different growing conditions as we’ve seen in the discussion about the sunlight needs of plants. But the same is true for water. While few herbs can handle sitting in standing water for weeks on end, some medicinal herbs, like mint, enjoy a good soaking regularly.
However, the herbs that originated around the Mediterranean prefer less water. You don’t want to plant them right next to mint. They like their soil to dry out between waterings. In nature, they grow in rocky soil, with little fertility so mimicking their native environment will help these heat-lovers thrive. If you’ve struggled to get rosemary or lavender to thrive in your garden this could be the reason.
If you live where the humidity is high and the rain is reliable, plant rosemary, lavender, thyme, oregano, and other Mediterranean herbs in rocky areas, with good drainage and without supplemental water or water sparingly. But plant mint in the path of the garden sprinkler so it gets regular showers to thrive.
Those Mediterranean herbs also thrive with a little warmth in the medicinal herb garden. If you live in the Mountains, even if your USDA hardiness zone is in the range that Rosemary, lavender, and oregano will thrive, these plants may not have the soil warmth necessary to thrive. In the mountains, the ground temperatures may not warm up completely even in the depth of summer if nighttime temperatures are below 50F.
Sometimes planting these warm-loving herbs near a rock wall or placing other heat-sinks near the plants can compensate for the lack of soil warmth, but if you are looking for an easy to maintain herb garden you’ll need to take this into account when choosing your herbs.
On the other hand, if you live in the desert with soil temperatures that radiate heat all night, you might do well to avoid those medicinal herbs that thrive in cooler regions with lots of water. A huge part of planning an easy care medicinal herb garden is choosing the right plants for your growing conditions. You can stretch the season by adding supplemental lighting or heat-sinks into the hardscape, and using soaker hoses to conserve water, but if you need heroics to keep a plant alive that isn’t easy maintenance.
Mulch serves several purposes in the garden. It mimics nature by adding organic material to the soil surface to break down and increase soil microbes and improve soil texture. Mulch also inhibits weed growth. It mediates the surface temperature of the soil. It can keep roots cool and overcome the tendency to premature flowering in hot, dry weather. It holds in moisture so that water is trapped in the soil and doesn’t evaporate easily.
In early spring as soils are warming up to prepare for lush spring growth, mulch should be pulled back from heat-loving medicinal herbs and other garden plants, to allow the darker soil to warm up with the spring sunshine. When the summer heat becomes intense mulch can be refreshed to hold in moisture in the drier summer days.
Garden mulch reduces garden maintenance. There are many different types of mulch from alfalfa hay, to dry straw, wood chips, or even rocks. The mulch you choose should be based on the natural growing conditions of the plants you choose to grow in your medicinal herb garden. And believe it or not, Mediterranean herbs thrive in rocky soil and so do very well when mulched with fine gravel, which acts as a heat sink.
A word of caution though, with glyphosate resistant alfalfa and grass hay available for livestock fodder, speak to the farm you buy your hay from before you use it as mulch. Get the assurance that no herbicides have been sprayed in the hayfield. Herbicide residues can damage your garden soils irreparably causing crop failure and destroying soil micro-organisms. The same wisdom applies to grass clippings and other large scale mulch you plan to use in your garden. Always look for untreated or organic mulch for your garden.
Herbs that love full sun and drier soils include:
- Anise Hyssop
- Basil or Holy Basil (Tulsi)
- Dittany of Crete
- Horehound, white
- Lemon Balm
- Rue, Common
- Salad Burnet
- Savory, Winter
Herbs that do well in containers
Easy perennial herbs for the medicinal herb garden
These herbs thrive in cooler climates with partial sun to full sun. All are hardy to zone 4 and zone 3 with reliable snow cover. These are easy to grow herbs for your medicinal herb garden or to tuck into a corner of your perennial bed. You might even consider reserving an area of your vegetable garden for perennial vegetables.
- Anise Hyssop
- Bee Balm (Bergamot or Monarda)
- Black Eyed Susan
- Bloody Dock
- Garden Sage
- Garlic chives
- Lemon Balm
- Mint, chocolate mint, spearmint, peppermint
- Profusion® Oregano
- Sheep Sorrel
- Stinging Nettles
- Sweet Cicely
- Yellow Dock
As you are planning your medicinal herb garden remember to choose herbs that you enjoy using for herbal tea, cooking, natural dyes, skincare, or making herbal medicine out of. Just because an herb is a perfect herb for your growing conditions doesn’t mean you should plant it. Pick the herbs that you love to look at, smell, and use first. If you love an herb you will pay attention to its growth and it will become a long term herbal ally.
The eyes of the gardener make the garden grow best.
Learn more about using herbs for health and wellness from my Book
Homegrown Healing From Seed to Apothecary
My book Homegrown Healing From Seed to Apothecary will help you grow healing herbs in your own garden. Focusing on the easiest plants for beginners to grow, Homegrown Healing From Seed to Apothecary covers 30 plants, recommended by professional herbalists, that can be grown in the temperate zone. Initial garden preparation, garden design and harvesting tips lead the novice herbalist into early success. Choose which herbs to grow, learn how to use these herbs for your family’s health and wellness using the guidance in my book . You can find out more about this useful guide to growing more herbs and using them strategically here.