INTRODUCTION

This, the third of the “Greening” discussion papers, is the outcome of a fascinating and impassioned consultation. It has resulted in a very lengthy document, rightly so as it lies at the heart of the resurgence of the living tradition of herbal medicine, and touches it at all levels. Equally, gardening is a complex subject even given a specific environment or context. For those of us confined to a scrape of barren and neglected urban soil, huge efforts will be required to create humus and fertility, correct deficiencies, reduce infections and infestations, and so on. More rural folk blessed with a deep and fertile soil are hardly bothered by any of these considerations – nothing needs to be added or changed, herbs will happily push their way in gay profusion through the weeds, and the winter die-back can be left for the wildlife to enjoy. We may experience extremes of alkaline or acid soil. We may choose to use simple organic husbandry, raised-bed systems, companion planting, permaculture, biodynamics, gardening by the moon or just our own idiopathic approach. We clearly can never be comprehensive and certainly not definitive – nevertheless gardeners are fascinated by gardening and all opinions are gratefully received and duly considered. For this reason we have included a “Hot Tips” section at the end of the document which we expect never to stop growing.


GARDENING & THE EARTH

One cause of global warming that is barely mentioned, perhaps because it’s impossible to do anything about quickly, is the loss of carbon from the soil, due to deforestation and thence agrochemical-based farming. It’s estimated that Europe has lost more than half of its carbon once locked in the soil. Organic farming may not have reached its full potential yet but it can and ultimately must become carbon positive – carbon dioxide being absorbed from the air by plants, the oxygen part of the equation being returned to the air for us to breath and the carbon going back into the soil. It’s most unlikely that we can restore a balance with nature, either biochemically or spiritually, until this is done. If we merely place it all at the feet of agroindustry we’ll be waiting a long time. We can of course demonstrate the power of the consumer by buying organic. But ordinary private gardens can also have a significant impact. We have already made an extraordinary if largely unsung contribution to conservation by maintaining biodiversity of plants and thus the habitats of all manner of creatures, saving endangered species, and safeguarding a huge gene-pool of useful plant cultivars that commerce has foolishly discarded. Colin Tudge observes that if you want to save an endangered plant species, put the seeds in a gardening catalogue. Herbalists will easily respond to this ethos, but again we cannot be complacent. It’s not just a question of working without pesticides and artificial fertilisers. It’s also about avoiding imported fertility, using machine tools as little as possible, avoiding plastics, encouraging garden nurseries and sundries suppliers to clean up their extraordinarily grubby act, and so on.

The other grubby act under consideration is our own herb trade, regulatory & commercial pressures mutating it into something that looks less environmentally acceptable by the day. There’s no choice, we’ll simply have to do the job for ourselves – just like our ancestors did – and modern experience gives powerful hints that herbalists who grow and/or gather their own herbal medicines are all the more effective as practitioners.


THE GARDEN LANDSCAPE

Throughout this discussion paper you will find allusions and assumptions that a herbalist’s garden might contain not only herbs but also vegetables, fruit, flowers, shrubs, trees and wild spaces.

Herbalists should grow their own vegetables! Eating vegetables gathered a few minutes before they’re eaten bears no resemblance to shop-bought produce in terms of the flavour and quality of energy bestowed by them. We should celebrate, as Hippocrates pointed out, that all good food is medicine and all good medicine is food. Many herbs can be grown to good effect as companion plants to vegetables. Just as with vegetables, good management of herbs demands that they should be rotated to avoid the build-up of infections and infestations experienced in monoculture, and a mixed herb/vegetable rotation will ensure that nothing arrives in the same place again for years.

Grow some flowers just for the sheer joy of them, and perhaps some aromatic shrubs which need little maintenance once established. Fresh fruit, from a few wild strawberries to a whole apple orchard, will provide sustenance beyond compare… and think of all those food miles that you’ve avoided! Finally, allow space for a wild area or two – all manner of birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects and creatures will feed or live there.

Of course, you may not have a garden – if not, consider getting an allotment. Most local councils forbid growing for profit on allotments, so don’t make too much of a song and dance about what you’re using any herbs grown for. Another opportunity is to use some or all of a neighbour’s garden – there must be many busy working people or elderly folk that would be delighted to have a well-kempt garden in return for letting you use some of it for your own needs.

Whatever the scale of your horticultural efforts, do allow as much time as possible for planning. If space is limited, work towards growing as much of each herb as you can use and no more, just as you should try to grow no more vegetables than you can eat, and so on. Everything in the right place at the right time. All well and good if nature would only behave itself – you may have to try a particular herb in a dozen different places before it announces it’s happy in the most unlikely of corners. So after planning, good observation, so that you may plan all the better in future. In the early days you may want to keep some sort of a gardening diary to compare notes from season to season and year to year.

Give some thought to growing endangered or rare native plants, even if it takes extra effort and there are no immediately obvious benefits to your own materia medica. We all need to do our bit to maintain biodiversity.


Become an expert on your bit of the planet

In other words, get to understand the environment and orientation of your patch of land and how the seasons and the weather affect it – and you. For instance, you think the sun rises in the east and sets in the west? As it happens, only at the two Equinoxes – by the Winter Solstice you’ll find it rising in the south-east and at the Summer Solstice in the north-east. Likewise the pattern of wind changes from season to season, as does humidity and rainfall, air pressure, and of course temperature. It’s all part of living in Britain that these things are predictably unpredictable – and your own micro-environment is going to stubbornly defy the Weather Forecast. So you’ll have to work it out for yourself – and a fascinating study it always proves to be.

Does your garden slope in any particular direction? Is it dry or damp, acid or alkaline, windswept or sheltered, open or shaded? Assuming you’re also going to get to understand the natural dominion of herbs, where are you going to site your plants adapted to woodland, hedgerow, meadow or wasteland? Have you anywhere both sheltered and sunny enough for Mediterranean subjects, dry enough for visitors from the prairie, boggy enough for bog-dwellers, somewhere for the climbers to scramble up? You’ll be lucky to satisfy all these demands, particularly as the nature of your soil will limit what is possible too, but the art of gardening is making the best of what you’ve got and then getting a little bit more by adaptation.

You may also choose to use lunar gardening charts as a guide to sowing, planting and harvesting. Eventually a mixture of instinct and dodging the weather is likely to take precedence, but becoming conversant with the way the moon & the cosmos affects plant development is as important as understanding the sun and the seasons. The night sky is a sadly neglected wonder, as important to gardeners as it is to sailors and astrologers.

Why bother with all this? Old Codger gardeners will tell you that success is all in the planning… and you can’t plan unless you’ve got some idea of what to expect. What’s it got to do with environmentalism? Everything! Your objective is to become one with your own little bit of the planet – if you have achieved a real understanding and acted on it wisely and well, your prize is a measure of harmony – which is of course what “saving the planet” is all about.


Soil and Fertility

There’s a lot to learn from the world of permaculture – working towards your land becoming sustainably fertile without call on external resources. Most of us are a long way off from this ideal so there is much to be done! For now we are all anyway “importing” paper, card, waste food and so on which are much better incorporated into the soil than taken away by the dustman.

Most herbs need very little fertility – and many active constituents of medicinal herbs increase as part of their survival mechanism in the face of adversity. However, there are no absolute rules in nature – the Echinaceas, for example, need as much fertility as you can manage.

Well fed or not, what virtually all plants benefit from is humus. This is a mysterious substance based on decaying plant materials and full of beneficial micro-organisms. The more humus, the less watering is needed and the more stable and bio-available the nutrients contained in it. Humus builds up in the soil the more compost and/or mulch you use. Building up humus is another way of saying returning carbon to the soil. Everybody wins!

The major plant nutrients are often quoted as NPK & the proportions of each usually quoted on commercial fertilisers. N = nitrogen (nitrates), needed for good growth of stems and leaves. P = phosphorus (phosphates), giving a strong root system. K = potassium (potash), which promotes good quality flowers and fruits. These are all available as chemicals but we won’t be using them – we’ll have to get them from natural sources. There are also the so-called trace elements – a huge range that should be present in good organic husbandry. The only ones you are likely to need to consider are iron and magnesium if you have alkaline soil, and lime if you don’t.

Consider growing sufficient comfrey & nettles to use both as medicines and for fertility. Comfrey has extraordinary amounts of nitrogen and potash. Nettles have very useful amounts of all three major nutrients and most trace elements, in particular iron so essential in chalky soils. Either can be wilted, chopped and dug in, or used as a mulch, or used in small proportion as a compost activator. Either can be turned into liquid feed by chopping up, stuffing into a bucket with a hole in the bottom through which a brown ooze will drip into a suitable collecting vessel (such as another bucket) set below it. Dilute this about 1:10 for a liquid fertiliser more effective than anything you can buy.

There are many other plant-derived organic fertilisers available but are generally too expensive to entertain – with one exception, seaweed meal. If you live near the sea, collect your own – hose it down thoroughly to remove the salt and then compost it before using. In dried form it retains water in the soil and adds humus & a full spectrum of trace elements. As an extracted liquid, it’s a great foliar spray for all the garden to stimulate healthy growth and make plants more resistant to virtually everything the weather or the beasties can throw at them.

Some other observations:-

  • If you need to buy in seed/potting compost, make sure it is an organic, peat-free version like Bower’s “New Horizon.”
  • Animal manure: All animal manure needs composting before use – applied direct it will “burn” plants. Horse manure is great if you have riding stables locally. If you can only find woodchip-based horse litter, it may take a year or more to compost down, and is best used as a surface mulch just in case. Cow dung is weaker, (and the favourite of biodynamic gardeners), sheep manure weaker still, pig manure is not an option. Pelleted chicken manure is popular but is not really “organic” as usually claimed and is calcium-rich – great for clay soils but unwanted on chalk.
  • Some of you may feel comfortable with animal by-products (though perhaps not on annual herbs?) Use Bone meal for planting perennials – high in phosphorus, enhancing root growth. Blood, fish & bone as a general NPK fertiliser for poor soils or greedy plants. Hoof & horn for a single-season nitrogen boost.
  • There’s seldom an excuse for a bonfire in the garden (other than for ritual purposes, of course!) but if you have a wood-only fire indoors, collect the ash, which is high in potash (!) and use it on fruiting plants, bearing in mind that it leaches out very quickly. Soot (never let chimney-sweepings leave the premises!) is so high in potash it will burn plants if used neat – so it’s best added to compost. Forget about either of these if you burn coal – it produces ash & soot too toxic to consider.
  • Human urine (known by the experienced as “liquid gold”) is a wonderfully nutritive, high-nitrogen, trace-element rich, fungicidal addition to fertility – watered on or as a foliar spray provided you remember to stay upwind. Contrary to popular belief it is unlikely to contain any pathogens that will not die quickly on leaving the body. Don’t water on impoverished soil – the nitrogen in urine needs carbon to work on to convert to the nitrates that plants can use – otherwise you just produce ammonia, which neither plants nor humans are keen on. Dilute 1:5 or more according to purpose, or use neat as a compost activator. Even bolder are those with a compost toilet, though composted human faeces may not be quite the thing for growing medicines. A tantalising thought is that using our excreta is inconsistent with organic gardening unless our diet is itself organic!


Composting

You may like to try worm composting – it’s quite a palaver but will turn kitchen scraps into top-quality fertility. Bear in mind that neither worms or any other approach to composting on a domestic scale will entirely destroy weed seeds.

Leaf mould: dead leaves can be incorporated into ordinary mixed composting but in bulk can simply be collected into bags or a heap and left for a year to use as mulch or two years for a seed compost – though even leaf mould will contain weed seeds. Leaf mould is slightly acidic and very rich in humus.

“Hot” composting: You can build compost boxes from old packing-case or pallet wood, or most local councils will supply recycled plastic compost bins cheap or free. Getting up a good heat relies in part on having a good mix of green material (nitrogen) and fibrous material (carbon) in the heap – and it helps enormously to have it all reduced to small particles by a garden shredder or similar. On the other hand, if you have the space, if you chuck everything as it comes into a huge heap and leave it for long enough, it will all rot down eventually. Consider making two types of compost:-

  • A “dirty” heap for food scraps and any plant material that might contain seeds. This must be stood for at least a year and can then be trenched in under perennials or runner beans.
  • A “clean” heap for seed-free plant material, prunings, spent herbs from tincture-making and the like that can be composted briefly and then used for mulching.

In either case, a good balance of green leafy material & fibrous (“woody”) stuff is needed into which small proportions of kitchen scraps & other refuse can be incorporated. Bear in mind that you can include up to 50% shredded paper or card in compost – this is one of the few legitimate sources of imported fertility. You may also incorporate a little animal manure, comfrey, nettles, seaweed meal or urine to help the compost reach the levels of bacterial activity and thence heat required for a good result.


Green Manures

Green manuring is one of the most valuable modern contributions from the organic gardening movement. The idea is to broadcast or drill suitable fast-growing annuals (and sometimes perennials) on unused land, thus utilising nutrients that would otherwise be leached out, conditioning the soil and suppressing weeds. When the land is ready for use, the green manure can either be dug in or composted, adding good quantities of nutrients and humus.

There are dozens of different plants suitable for a summer ley but are only of interest if you are clearing or resting a largish area. The main use for gardeners is winter green manures. For most purposes the best are:-

  • Winter Grazing Rye. This can be sown in rows or broadcast as late as November. It grows vigorously and can be mowed two or three times to rot in or removed as valuable winter green stuff for the compost bin. Turn it in a fortnight before the ground is to be used or pull it up for composting. It develops a very dense and deep root system that captures leaching nutrients and will help both to bind light soils and break up heavy soils.
  • Winter Field Beans. These can be sown in rows by mid-October, and provide one or two cuts before digging in or pulling up for compost in the Spring. As they’re less hardy and robust, it’s useful to sow alternate rows with grazing rye which will provide support and shelter. The advantage of field beans is that they fix nitrogen from the air, giving the garden a rare “something for nothing.”


Mulching

Mulching stops water evaporating from the soil, suppresses weed seeds and is slowly taken down into the soil by worms to add humus & nutrients. It’s a valuable low-maintenance approach to rose-beds and around other shrubby perennials. Annuals and herbaceous plants can simply be planted through it. You can use paper or cardboard if you don’t mind it being unsightly, but the best idea is to use your “clean” compost this way – and it doesn’t have to be fully rotted to use as mulch. It needs to be at least 8 cms deep to stop perennial weeds growing through.

You can of course mulch with composted horse or other animal manure (and even seaweed) if you have a copious local supply, but use this on vegetables rather than herbs. Most local authorities offer a low-fertility compost, suitable for mulching, made from recycled garden and parkland waste – however, very little of the source material is likely to have been organic and may thus contain some chemical residues – best not used around medicinal herbs. You can also “import” composted bark (or composted greenwood chips from a local tree surgeon) but avoid using things like cocoa shells or coir fibre as these come from abroad and are also expensive. You may come across “organic” advice to use old carpet or horticultural plastic sheeting as a mulch – don’t do it!


Watering

Like so much in gardening the principle applied to watering is to do as little as possible but as much as necessary. It may mean you have to water your potted greenhouse tomatoes three times a day in high summer, but equally that established shrubs & trees may never need watering. Here’s some tips:-

  • Thirsty herbs are much more potent medicinally than lush, well watered ones.
  • A good principle for all plants except seedlings and tender vegetables is to hold off watering until the first sign of wilting (but look sharp – the second sign of wilting is death!)
  • Tap water keeps plants alive but rainwater feeds them!
  • Tap water from hard-water areas will quickly kill calcifuge (acid-loving) plants.
  • Catch rainwater from roofs with as many water butts as you can managed. Local water companies will often supply recycled water butts cheap (or even free in drought years) or there are all sorts of second hand barrels and drums that can be converted.
  • A good thick mulch will dramatically reduce the need to water – so, illogical though it may seem, will regular hoeing of bare soil.
  • Regular spraying with seaweed extract dramatically improves the drought tolerance of most plants as well as providing micronutrients.


Dealing with the wee beasties

The bane of every gardener’s life is the creatures, large and small that compete with you for everything you grow. If you’re cursed by rabbits or deer, for instance,you’re just going to have to do what you can to exclude them or discourage them. The damage done by moles is offset by the improvements they make in the friability of soil and the provision of instant potting compost taken from mole hills. It may be best to share at least part of your crop with the birds and squirrels. You can usually come to an understanding with domestic animals if you’re patient and accommodating.

But it’s the little blighters, all those aphids and caterpillars and grubs, along with the viruses and fungal infections and deficiencies that are the most perplexing. It’s a good discipline to do nothing about anything until you’ve properly identified the problem. It also works well to simply allow the enemy a proportion of the spoils before you launch a counter-attack. In particular, it’s a good insight that all life forms are trying to do the same thing – survive and reproduce – and your mission is to achieve a sustainable, balanced ecology, not a sterile production platform. Some tips:-

  • Be patient! In the insect world, the predators are more vulnerable to insecticides than the grazers. Thus it may take several years of dedicated organic husbandry until a natural balance is achieved between the two – and one where very little action is required to discourage the vegetarians further.
  • Healthy plants – in a well-considered habitat, adequately nourished – can be extraordinarily resistant to disease and can easily shake off the odd infestation.
  • Hygiene in the garden can make a big difference. This means clearing up properly at the end of the season, raking up the leaves and so on, so that infections aren’t carried forward to the next season. The main difference between amateur and professional gardening is that the pros keep working through the winter – clearing off the rubbish and keeping the weeds hoed down is as healthy for you as it is for your garden. Of course, none of this may be necessary in a high-fertility environment and the “rubbish” should be left to the wildlife.
  • You can use Elder, Nettle, Rhubarb or Wormwood leaves, Quassia, Pyrethrum (with or without a little soft soap as a wetting agent,) or all manner of commercially produced “organic” pesticides. None of them are guaranteed to entirely kill the pests in question or to entirely spare innocent bystanders. Avoid even these things as much as you possibly can, and vow to do better.
  • One simple way to remove aphids, beetles, small caterpillars and the like from plants is to spray them with a well-aimed blast of water straight from the hose.
  • We’re just being reminded the worst way that bees are both essential and endangered. Never do anything in your garden that could possibly hurt or discourage bees. On the contrary, a good organic herb garden is one of the great joys for beedom.
  • Slugs & snails: these are particularly demoralising as they are the one pest that increases the more organic you get, especially if you use a mulching, no-dig system. Of “organic” solutions, beer traps, coffee grounds, copper barriers, ferrous phosphate pellets, nematodes, and a dozen other remedies are recommended in a sudden proliferation of booklets on the subject. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Slugs appear to be highly intelligent (100% grey matter?) and soon adapt, so try something different every year to keep them guessing. Some gardeners are dedicated enough to go and pick them off by hand deep in the night when they surface in numbers. Despite a rewarding yield, it doesn’t seem to make much difference.


Infections & diseases

Infections and diseases are sometimes unavoidable – but they’re much less likely to happen to happy, healthy plants. Try not to spread diseases with your own hands. Remove infected material wherever possible, even the whole plant, and burn rather than compost it. Get used to using good garden hygiene – clearing up carefully in the winter if necessary, and making sure all your pots & stuff in the greenhouse are kept clean.

No matter what you do, the wrong sort of weather will bring fungal infections like blight, black spot and mildew in their wake – usually all you can do is remove the infected plants or parts thereof. Bear in mind that robustly healthy plants are the best defence. Alkaline soil is particularly prone to fungal attacks – increasing acid content with compost, particularly leaf mould, will help, as will the judicious use of urine. It’s worth noting that biodynamic husbandry, particularly using horsetail preparation as an anti-fungal spray, can be very effective.

Some plants are prone to developing viral infections after a few years – if this happens, there’s no remedy other than to replace them, planting somewhere else. Often apparent infections are nothing of the sort, but nutrient deficiency – most commonly of iron, magnesium or calcium. Equally it’s possible to overfeed plants to death (just the same as humans!) The same goes for waterlogging, wind and frost-burn, and all manner of unseasonable variations that take plants (and gardeners) by surprise.


Harvesting

It may be a bit picky to say there is the right hour of the right day that each herb must be harvested on, but weather permitting, get as close as possible. Flowering herbs are usually best harvested in full flower if you want to maximise energetics – watch out for the “bee day”, when bees are busiest round the plant(s) concerned. You may also want to harvest with the help of a moon calendar, at least until you develop your own instincts.

When you do harvest your precious medicinal herbs, make sure that everything else you need to prepare your medicines is ready and waiting – energy is lost from plants and their biochemistry may change if they are left wilting for hours or days before processing. You can afford to be a little more leisurely with roots and barks, usually lifted in Autumn or Spring and tolerant of a short wait.

If you’re harvesting herbaceous herbs, you can often get two or even three “cuts” in the course of a year. If so, do spare a thought for the plant concerned – cut back any diseased or yellowed-off growth you’ve left behind and give the plant a little liquid feed as a reward for its efforts.

Preparing herbal medicines is a real craft – albeit one easy to learn – get some help from a herbalist experienced in these matters, and/or access the files also provided in “The Herbarium on medicine-making.


TOOLS & MATERIALS

Plastics

It’s extraordinary how much plastic is recommended and even supplied by the leading organic gardening organisations. Think twice if it’s really necessary. Most garden plastics can’t as yet be recycled & have to go in the dustbin & thence to landfill. Examples are:-

  • Landscape fabric is designed to suppress weeds, e.g., on paths or to plant through in easy-maintenance beds. The same can be achieved by cardboard or newspaper, ideally covered with a layer of composted bark or greenwood chips.
  • Plastic cloches, mini-tunnels, environmesh, fleeces etc. may help to keep pests & diseases at bay but are mostly used to extend the growing season. Try to avoid completely or use glass instead. If you do use them, handle carefully and get the maximum use before discarding.
  • Polytunnels & plastic-glazed greenhouses. Those who own such things swear by them – at least use the best and most durable quality, fit with care and look after it.
  • Pots & trays. At least these are mostly made from recycled plastics anyway. Try to avoid buying flimsy one-use pots & trays. Try to get discarded ones from local nurseries (they’ll just throw them away otherwise) or look on “Freecycle” – hobby gardeners always have an accumulation to get rid of. Handle pots & trays carefully and get the maximum usage out of them. You can also use the cardboard cores from toilet & kitchen rolls as pots, or buy a mould for making pots from newspaper. Either can then be planted out whole without disturbing the roots. Seed trays can be fashioned by piercing a few drainage holes in food trays, egg cartons… the possibilities are endless.
  • Plant markers. If you must use plastic ones, write on them in pencil which can be scrubbed off for reuse. Use both sides anyway. Buying wood or metal markers is too expensive – but you can use tongue depressors – much cheaper, especially if you cut them into two or even four. Used lolly sticks also suggest themselves. Better still, mark seed rows with sticks and make a map of these and all established plants you’d like to keep tabs on.


Wood & Stone

Timber in one form or another for raised beds, staging, shelter etc., is often chosen as a renewable and aesthetically sympathetic material. Try to use recycled timber as much as possible and be aware that preservatives, however necessary to extend the working life of wooden structures, can also be highly toxic. There are a growing number of environmentally friendly preservatives available, based on waxes and/or borax, for instance, that you should seek out if you want to apply anything yourself.

Bricks, paving stones, concrete, asphalt etc., may be needed as a long-term solution for structures, walls, paths and areas to work and play on. As ever, try to track down second hand materials wherever possible. Always pause to consider that paving over large areas of garden (e.g., hard-standing for cars in front gardens) is making a growing and dangerous contribution to localised flooding as rainwater cannot run off safely.


Hand tools & Machinery

Apart from energy use, having machine tools constantly buzzing away is neither good for the ambience of the living earth or of the gardeners concerned – you and your neighbours. Doing things with hand tools is good for your health!

  • Get good-quality hand tools that are built to last and look after them. Be warned that despite the many apparent benefits, cheap stainless steel garden tools are weak and will bend easily – anything good and strong will be more expensive.
  • Think twice about whether you can trim the hedge with hand shears rather than a hedge-trimmer, whether you might be using a strimmer on space that could be put to better use anyway, and so on. Shame on you if you have a garden vacuum/blower or heaven forbid, a patio heater!
  • If you have too much lawn for a hand-mower, electric rotary mowers are the most environmentally friendly choice for most grass-cutting applications – and they can also be used to run over piles of weeds or light prunings to prepare them for composting.
  • Garden shredders: There are three types: the cheapest have high speed cutting discs that make an unearthly din, clog frequently and are impossible to clean. Avoid them. Next is the worm drive, more expensive, quieter but results are still disappointing and they can’t cope with anything green and squishy. So think twice. Most expensive is the cog drive, seldom clogging, quiet in use, coping with really tough stuff and lasting for years. It’s essential that, like all outdoor electrical equipment, these should be protected by an RCD (‘circuit-breaker’) adaptor, particularly if used in damp weather, or you are tempted to hose out the shredder compartment.
  • Shredders and other machine tools are expensive! Consider sharing them with neighbours. They can also be hired.


Propagation

What you bring into the garden by way of plants and seeds is the start of an organic, environmentally sound garden. You must be able to trust that the supplier is selling what it says on the packet or plant label, and after that it’s up to you to provide a viable environment at each stage of growth. Propagation can be be incredibly simple or the highest accomplishment of the gardener’s art – either way, it’s the most satisfying and will tell you small truths about the nature of each plant. Here’s some tips:-

  • Try to acquire organic seeds of course, UK-grown if possible. Avoid F1 or F2 seeds in favour of “open-pollinated” varieties. F1/2 are expensive, use more energy to produce and, most importantly, will not breed true if you save seeds from them. Leave them to the commercial growers for whom they’re intended.
  • Save your own seeds wherever possible. This may mean keeping a plant (preferably the best plant of the lot) specially to “run to seed,” which might seem a waste of space until you discover that collecting and drying the seeds is easy, you’ll get enough to keep you and your friends going for years, and they’ll germinate better than anything you can buy.
  • Cuttings of “woody” herbs, etc., that don’t readily set seed are easily planted out in the open in the autumn, whence a fair proportion will have rooted by the spring. More reticent subjects may need nurturing in the greenhouse or coldframe. Either way, do read up about it first. Propagation by cuttings is surprisingly simple and effective provided you have learnt what is needed and you go about it methodically.
  • Use a greenhouse (or polytunnel) to propagate in, to grow tender subjects and to extend the growing season of annual vegetables, etc. However, don’t heat the greenhouse! Most annual seeds will germinate in plenty of time if left until the weather warms up, and perhaps we should get more used to things happening in their natural season anyway. If some heat is essential for propagation in the spring, do it indoors or use a small electric propagator (or soil-warming cables) that will use a fraction of the energy required for a greenhouse heater.
  • Propagation can seem like very hard work if you don’t get “tooled up” for it. Get or build yourself a potting bench of good ergonomic dimensions, get all your seed trays, pots, compost etc., prepared in advance and develop a systematic, “production-line” approach to the task.
  • Some seeds can be sown direct in the garden, but the experienced seldom do this as propagation rates are often between disappointing and zero. Bear in mind that many plants, especially herbs, will self-seed if allowed to do so.
  • Sharing: It’s a crime to have any spare seeds quietly going out of life when a gardening neighbour (or another herbalist!) could have used them. The same goes for spare cuttings, self-propagated plants, etc., – think about who could use them before throwing them on the compost. By the same token, don’t be frightened to ask other gardeners (or herbalists!) for things you need. Gardeners are a friendly and helpful bunch and usually delighted to oblige if they can.


FORAGING

Unless you have acres of mixed habitats, foraging in the wild is going to provide some (or all!) of your herb needs. It’s a very good idea to familiarise yourself as much as possible with plants growing in the wild anyway. Seeing which herbs grow in hedgerows, meadows, or deep in the woods – and how they develop – will give you a much better idea of where to site and how to manage herbs in your own patch if you have one. Encounters with herbs in the wild will also add to your understanding of their therapeutic potential.

When harvesting from the wild, please note:-

  • Needless to say, you must restrict yourself to places that have not had pesticides, herbicides etc. applied and are a fair distance from conventionally managed farmland and traffic or industrial pollution.
  • Harvest ethically! It’s not good enough to simply say you’ll take, say, one in five of a particular species (“ethical” wildcrafting in the USA used this sort of approach, and still managed to harvest many species to near-extinction!) Instead, cull very conservatively until you can be reassured over the years that you have not impacted any local populations. Be sensible! Cowslips are endangered anyway, so leave them alone. On the other hand, pick as many Hawthorn berries as you like, it’ll make no discernible difference.
  • Establish your range and become an expert on it! Find out what’s available in walking distance, or failing this within a short drive. Visit them often – otherwise you won’t be there at the optimum moment to harvest. When you do, get organised, particularly with everything you need ready back at home so you can keep the time between harvest and preparation down to a minimum. Bear in mind the gardens of neighbours and patients are also a potential resource.
  • Be aware that generally speaking, taking anything away from public land is likely to be illegal. Nevertheless people do it, but wardens are much more likely to turn a blind eye to gathering blackberries and rosehips than if you try hacking branches off a prized oak tree. Some public land is managed by local councils who may give you permission to forage, particularly if you can convince the wardens that your work is serving the community and that in your use of herbs you are, environmentally speaking, as aware and as effective as they. Point out also that picking, e.g., the flowering tops of St John’s Wort will help the plant to bush out and it will usually manage to flower again and set seed later in the season. Most public amenity land these days is anyway all about “restoration.” Whatever common land might have been like say, 400 years ago, medicinal herbs would certainly have been harvested from it!


DON’T WORK IN A VACUUM!

Although there is nothing nicer than working alone and losing yourself in the soil or a nice bit of woodland, working with herbs should not be an entirely solitary affair. Consider:-

  • Sharing land, work, ideas, resources and produce with other herbalists is such a good idea it needs no further justification. There’s also an opportunity to start your own cottage industry production to offer for sale to others, if only we can find a way through the restrictive legislation.
  • Get to know other local gardeners – they may have had decades of experience regarding growing techniques, local soil & weather and so on. Gardeners are amongst the friendliest people in the world, particularly on allotments, and are delighted to share knowledge unstintingly, or just to chat.
  • Take the opportunity to introduce neighbours, patients, or the local community at large to herbs. Invite them individually or en masse to look round your herb garden – maybe even run classes. Take groups on herb walks.
  • Consider giving effort (or being the motive force behind) herb gardens for the local community, local school, housing estate, etc.
  • Get other herbalists to spend time in your herb patch (or you in theirs) – you’ll learn more chatting together than at any seminar.

Finally, there’s a huge amount of work to do in establishing what range of medicinal herbs can be successfully grown in the British Isles, to revive forgotten indigenous herbs, to adapt to climate change and, of course, to gain experience in organic, environmentally impeccable herb gardening. Get involved!


“HOT TIPS” SECTION

Here’s one small but fun way to get involved – contribute some of your own discoveries, tricks & wrinkles. Let us know & we’ll add them to this section:-

  • Raise seedlings, particularly those that are said to dislike transplanting, in a open-ended section of old guttering, when ready sliding the whole intact into a waiting (gutter-shaped!) mini-trench.
  • Mole hills can be scraped up and used as a superb ready-made seed & potting compost, high in potassium & other nutrients.
  • Slugs & snails: Build a pond to encourage frogs. Leave stones around for thrushes to crack snail shells with. Keep chickens or ducks (but note, they like small plants as well) Adopt a hedgehog! Staple stripped copper flex around raised beds.
  • If you need to supplement iron, leave old nails to rust in a bucket of water for several weeks to water on later, or bury some under perennials when planting. Other trace elements (copper, zinc, etc.,) could be supplemented in like fashion.
  • Used clear plastic bottles with the bottom cut out make good single-plant propagators, or with the top removed as well to serve as tree protectors.
  • Leaves for leaf mould may be available from road sweepers/local council, neighbours (they’ll love you to go & clear up their leaves!) and via Freecycle.


Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Canal 12 group of independent herbalists for their collective work in originating this document, members of the Independent Herbalists chatroom for feedback, and gardeners everywhere, particularly those that have been gardening organically for decades and have had their own informal networks and small autonomous groups long before anybody else thought of it.

Like most of the Herbarium articles, this will be maintained as a live document, revised from time to time as new information and ideas present themselves. It was last updated in December 2008.

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