Herbs to Plant in Spring
TEXT Alice Spenser-Higgs
The mantra of organic gardeners is that ‘healthy soil makes healthy vegetables makes healthy people’. Our health is the product of all the choices we make, and to play on another well-known truism (you are what you eat), one could also say you are what you grow!
Herbs can play an important role in every stage of this cycle of health, starting with the soil as compost makers or soil improvers, and ending with health-building teas and tonics that support the different systems in our bodies.
With spring fully in action, it’s time to plan and prepare a herb and vegetable garden that you can use to build your family’s health naturally…
Start with the soil: four must-have compost herbs
While herbs don’t make up the substance of a compost heap, adding one or more of these four herbs helps the decomposition process and adds extra nutrients.
- Comfrey is the most effective of all ‘compost’ herbs. Its leaves are rich in potassium, calcium and nitrogen, which get released when it breaks down. Once cut, the leaves and stems break down fast, which has an activating effect on the heap. Its high carbon to nitrogen ratio adds to its effectiveness as a compost additive.
To grow: Plant in full sun and allow space for its 1m spread. It dies down in winter but grows out again in spring.
- Yarrow has other soil and plant health benefits besides acting as a compost activator. It attracts beneficial insects (ladybirds, bumble bees, hoverflies, butterflies and wasps) and helps nearby plants resist disease by stimulating their production of essential oils. An infusion of the leaves produces the trace element of copper as a fertiliser for other plants.
To grow: It needs full sun and fertile soil that should be kept consistently moist. It produces heads of pink or white flowers in summer.
- German chamomile contains significant levels of calcium, which helps the cell walls of plants develop well and helps them absorb nitrogen. It is also a good provider of sulphur, one of the macronutrients that stimulates enzyme activity, improves root and seed production, helps plants develop proteins and increase their ability to resist the cold. It is also known as the plant ‘doctor’ because it revives ailing plants when grown next to them.
To grow: Chamomile does well in full sun to semi-shade in well-drained, composted soil. Plant close to cabbage, cauliflower, onions and cucumber to attract hoverfly, wasps, lacewing and ladybirds that prey on aphids and other pests.
- Fennel is not a compost activator but its leaves are rich in potassium and are a good source of copper. This trace element helps plants reproduce, so getting some into your compost will help increase the productivity of your garden.
To grow: Plant in full sun, in fertile soil that drains well. It needs space, growing 1.5m high and 80cm wide. It acts as a trap crop for aphids and attracts beneficial hoverflies and wasps.
5 Companion Herbs for Healthy Summer Crops
Companion planting is the mainstay of organic gardening because of its commitment to combatting pests and disease naturally without having to resort to poisons. A poison-free garden is not only good for us but for the environment, and particularly for pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies.
- Sweet basil should be planted lavishly, because it is a culinary herb that we can’t get enough of, and it is a general insect repellent for all plants. It is especially beneficial for tomatoes and carrots, improving their flavour and just helping them to grow better.
- Southernwood has medicinal rather than culinary properties, which is why it may be overlooked, but it is an attractive small bush with pungent, grey-green leaves. The whole plant deters insects and can therefore be used as general insect repellent. Cut it back in winter. Branches laid between rows of onions and carrots will deter onion and carrot fly, and if grown near fruit trees it deters fruit tree moth. Medicinally, southernwood improves liver function, digestion and poor appetite.
- Chives and garlic chives are unassuming culinary herbs that pack a powerful punch and can be extensively used in the food garden because they take up very little space. Most insects, as well as slugs, are repelled by the garlic or onion smell of chives. Planted alongside squashes, cucumbers and marrows, they help to clear powdery mildew and repel bugs that sting squashes. Other plants that benefit from being near chives are brassicas, carrots, brinjals, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries.
- Coriander is an acquired taste because of its pungent aroma and flavour, but insects, fortunately, never acquire the taste for it. It is a great aphid repellent and sends potato beetles and spider mites packing. Coriander grows easily and prolifically. After picking the first leaves (which are tastiest and most tender) let the plant flower and play its role as the pest police.
- Oregano contains high levels of aromatic thymol, which has strong insect-repelling abilities. This also makes it useful as a pesticide in natural control remedies. Its flowers attract bees and butterflies. The groundcover varieties can be used as an insect-repellent groundcover, especially prostrate varieties like golden oregano and ‘Country Cream’ (a variegated variety).
Herbs for healthy people
It is common practice to talk about the healing power of herbs, which implies that herbs are only useful to ‘cure’ a condition. But the real power of herbs is that they support and strengthen our systems so that the body can heal itself, and that is how we build health.
The good news is that there are common herbs that can be used proactively to support the major systems in our bodies.
While a good diet is essential, yarrow and rue tone the digestive system while fennel, chamomile, and peppermint help to relax the gut and sooth the digestive process. Our pick: Yarrow, because it is also beneficial in the garden.
Dosage: Make a tea using a fresh sprig or two teaspoons of dried leaves, infuse and drink hot three times a day, but not for longer than two consecutive weeks. An overdose may produce headaches and vertigo.
Chillies… for good circulation
Self-help and self-diagnosis is not advised when dealing with heart disease but circulatory stimulants can play a role in improving bad circulation, and the one of the most effective natural stimulators is chilli pepper (cayenne), which is our pick, also for its culinary value and use in home-made insecticides with rue, southernwood and tansy.
Dosage: Use chilli (cayenne) in cooking or sip a cup of tea once a day; it also relieves stomach cramps or a cold. The strength depends on individual preference. Chillies need full sun, rich fertile soil and consistently moist but well-drained soil.
Thyme… for the respiratory system
Our lungs are susceptible to infection in winter as well as from pollution. Thyme is both a tonic and a healer, having antiseptic and anti-microbial actions. Garlic is as effective, and Viola odorata can be used as a cough remedy and for treating bronchitis while yarrow and peppermint will help to combat flu. Our pick is thyme, because it is an excellent culinary herb and pest repellent.
Dosage: Make a tea using 1 sprig or 1-2g dried herb and drink 3-4 times a day.
Parsley… for the urinary system
The kidneys are responsible for the inner hygiene of the body, and the herbs that help the most are the detoxing herbs like parsley, which has a cleansing and calmative action. Drinking several cups of yarrow tea can clear cystitis. Our pick is parsley, because it is also rich in vitamin C and is a good companion plant for tomatoes and onions.
Dosage: Drink a cup of tea made from fresh leaves three times a day.
Stress, with related anxiety and depression, is common to most of us. Herbs that are safe daily easers of anxiety and stress are lavender, chamomile, rosemary and lemon balm. Our pick is lemon balm, because it also attracts bees to the garden.
Dosage: Make a tea using 2-3 teaspoons of dried herb or 4-6 fresh leaves per cup of boiling water, infuse for 10-15 min and drink up to three times a day.
Calendula… for the skin
Surprisingly, the skin is our biggest organ, and it cools and cleanses. Skin diseases, like eczema, are often linked to our emotions and stress. Thyme, calendula, lemon balm, tea tree and comfrey have antimicrobial properties, which include antifungal and antibacterial actions, and can be taken internally as tonics or used externally to soothe. Our pick is calendula, as petals can be used in creams and ointments for most skin problems, as well as fungal conditions like ringworm, thrush, athlete’s foot and nappy rash.
Dosage: Taken internally as a tea, it is a cleansing herb that helps treat the toxicity underlying many infections and systemic skin disorders. It also helps to balance the digestive system.
Please note: herbal teas or tinctures should not be taken by pregnant women at any stage.
Thank you to The Gardener and Grow to Eat for sharing this luscious content with us!
The Herbal Handbook (A users guide to Medical Herbalism) by David Hoffmann (Healing Arts Press)