|Growing Herbs (General)||Healing with Herbs||Glossary|
Best of all, herbs are easy to grow, even if you have a proverbial brown thumb. Basically, herbs are wild plants that are used to growing well without mans interference. Even varieties that have been "improved" maintain many of their free growing qualities. We have grown herbs in flower beds, gardens, and small containers, with rarely a failure. After the first season of growth, most herbs will come back year after year from root stock or self seeding. In fact, our biggest problem to date has been keeping the mint plants from spreading out and taking over everything!
When planning your "garden", be it large or small, I have found it helpful to address two basic questions. Why and Where?
Why? Is your garden medicinal, magickal, culinary, or all three? Many harbs have multiple uses, so this isn't as much of a problem as it might seem. I enjoy the flavor of Sage, it's flowers are beautiful, it is an excellent antiseptic, and it's smoke is cleansing when used as a magickal incense. Therefore Sage is a "must have" plant in my herb garden. You may pefer a different plant, or plants, to fill those particular niches. Some resources that I have found helpful when selecting and using herbs are:
The Complete Book of Herbs
Clevely and Richmond
Henriette's Herbal Homepage An incredible online resource listing information on many, many culinary and medicinal herbs. Includes information on growing methods and harvesting. Check out the Herbal and Culinary "HerbFAQ's".
Where? As I said before, herbs can be grown almost anywhere, from an acre sized lot to a small pot on a window sill. Small three inch potted plants of many herb varieties are available at your local nursery, as are seeds. For more exotic plants you may need to use mail order from one of the big seed houses, like Burpee. Be careful when buying plants or seeds through the mail. Plants that thrive in Michigan, may not hold up to well under the scorching August Texas sun, and vice versa. Your local nursery can be invaluable in choosing types and varieties of plants. Ask them questions-- they are the professionals. They can tell you the types of herbs that will flourish in your given situation, be it a small potted plant or a large raised garden bed.
The possibilities for your herb garden are limited only by your imagination. If you are limited to a few flower pots, or a window box, select small, compact growing herbs. Or try one of the "trailing" varieties and grow it in a hanging basket. Herbs in pots and containers can be arranged to suit your mood, or fit your space. Use natural stones and moss to make the "garden" as interesting as possible and impart a "magickal" atmosphere. We are currently planning the addition of a small water garden and water fall to our outdoor herb garden. With the addition of some seats, a few interesting boulders, and a stone statue (or two!), it will make a wonderful outdoor meditation spot. (Sounds like a candidate for the Image Gallery, when I get it up!)
So, once you have your garden, what next?
Fresh herbs are great in rituals, potpourri, and cooking, but you can only use so much at one time. We try to extend the "fresh use" stage of our plants by harvesting small amounts over time. I won't attempt here to prescribe the method of cutting herbs for magickal uses. Each tradition has its own "do's and don'ts" in regards to this. A common element in most of them, though, is not allowing the herbs to touch the ground, once cut. This grounds the plant's energy, and allows it to drain away. Plants intended for the medicine cabinet or the kitchen can be cut with any sharp knife or scissors.
Once most herbs flower, its pretty much over. The plant's one goal is to survive long enough to reproduce. Once the plant flowers and seeds form, the plant puts all of its energy into the seeds. The plant soon withers and dies. By taking small cuttings before the plant flowers, you can delay the inevitable somewhat.
When you decide it is time to do some serious harvesting (toward the end of Summer here in Texas), you will need to dry your herbs for storage. If you are harvesting for the leaves, cut the plant before it flowers. If you grow the herb for the flowers, try to cut it immediately after the blooms open. If seed production is your goal, be sure to cut the plant after the seeds form, but before the seeds come loose and fall freely from the plant.
Drying herbs is a less than scientific process. The main considerations being air circulation and protection from dust. Herbs can be tied in small bunches and hung up by string. A closet, or any other room in your house or apartment, is fine. Drying herb bunches are even attractive hung in a kitchen area. If you are drying plants for the seeds, try placing the bunch of herbs in a paper lunch sack before hanging. As long as you cut little flaps in the sides of the bag for air circulation, the plants dry fine and the bag catches the seeds as they dry and fall from the plant. The warmer the environment, the quicker the herbs will dry. If you aren't in a hurry, though, they will do just fine in an air conditioned room.
How long you dry your herbs depends on the plant, the temperature, and the humidity. We test our herbs by touch. The leaves should feel dry and come easily off of the stems. You should be able to crumble the leaf between your finger and thumb. If it folds, instead of breaking, it is not ready. If is begins to crumble and feels extremely brittle as you pull it from the stem, it has dried too long, but you can still use it. The goal is dried herbs, not powder.
After stripping the dried leaves off the stems, you can store the leaves, uncrushed, in any airtight container. Glass jars, ziplock bags, and the like all work well. Just make sure it is dark where you store your herbs. Light tends to degrade the quality of herbs over time. The dried leaves have lost much of their water, but the essential oils are still inside. Thats the "good stuff" that gives herbs their flavor, aroma, and many of their medicinal qualities. The oils are very volitile, and will disapate rapidly upon exposure to the air. That is why you never crush herb leaves until just before you use them.
There are other interesting methods of herbal storage, including herbal vinegars and oils. As we experiment with them, I will try to include relevant sections on this page.
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