Grow Your Own Herbal Pharmacy

Chanchal Cabrera MSc, FNIMH,, RH(AHG)

Some general principles of successful herb growing

Most of the common medicinal plants are fairly sturdy and resilient. They are wild weeds in their native habitat so sometimes re-creating that environment is best – or maybe that is just an excuse for a weedy yard!

Start with good quality seeds. Some suppliers of medicinal plant seeds are:

  • Richter’s Farm, Goodwood, ON
  • SaltSpring Island Seeds
  • Horizon Herbs (in Oregon, but the best for unusual medicinals and exotics)
  • Ravenhill Herbs, Victoria

A few herbs need to be direct sown but most do better planted into seed trays or plug trays and grown up to a few inches before transplanting into the garden. That way you can control temperature, moisture etc. and there is less competition with slugs etc.

Woody herbs like lavender, sage and rosemary can be propagated by cuttings and layerings. Cuttings of the young wood, or small branches, with a root or heel, pulled off the large plants, may be inserted in sandy soil, and planted out during the following spring. The ‘cuttings’ are taken by pulling the small branches down with a quick movement, when they become detached with the desired ‘heel’ at their base. Cuttings root freely in April, but thorough watering will be required in dry weather until the cuttings are thoroughly established.

Most of the herbs will grow in almost any friable, garden soil. They usually do best on light soil – sand or gravel – in an open and sunny position with good drainage and freedom from damp in winter. Some plants may need protection in winter, or bringing inside.

Making potting mix

A ideal general potting mix should be light, airy, long-lasting (doesn’t break down or become compacted), moisture-retentive and contain some nutrient value.

In your potting mix, you need ingredients that provide:

  • Drainage – to help hold the soil structure open so water moves through and it doesn’t become anaerobic.
  • Aeration – a good mix will be light and fluffy, allowing air pockets to form in the soil structure so your plant roots and micro organisms have the oxygen they need to thrive.
  • Water retention – moisture holding capacity is essential or you will have a water repellent mix and waste money on unnecessary watering.
  • Nutrient retention – ingredients that bind or hold onto the minerals means less leaching of nutrients; improves plant health and saves you money.
  • Plant Food – vital nutrients for plant growth – the amount depends on how long you want the mix to feed your plants for.
  • Support – the soil crumbs need to be small and fine so the plant roots (especially young seedlings) can take hold and easily expand through the mix.
  • Microbes – play a vital role in plant health and growth and I include them in my mix although many mixes are devoid of soil life.


You’ll need a container for measuring, a large bucket for mixing in, access to water (kettle and hose/watering can), sieve; a small fork and trowel, a container for pre-soaking the coir peat and your ingredients.

  • 1 part pre-soaked Coir Peat – Coir peat is a cheap but long lasting renewable resource so is a more responsible environmental choice (a waste by-product from coconut-processing industry). The finer product left behind after the husk fibre is processed is called coconut coir or coir peat – not to be confused with peat moss!
  • 1 part Vermiculite (Grade 3 is a good size) – Vermiculite is the silvery grey colour you often see in potting mixes. It is natural volcanic mineral that has been expanded with  heat to increase its water holding capacity and can come from a variety of sources. The flaky particles soak up moisture and nutrients and keep them in the mix so the plants can access them. It’s lightweight; inorganic so is a permanent ingredient that will not deteriorate or lose volume in the mix; clean; odourless; non-toxic; sterile (no pathogens) and won’t become mouldy or rot.
    Some potting mix recipes suggest using perlite instead of vermiculite however I don’t recommend this due to the risk of Silicosis (overexposure to dust containing microscopic silica can cause scar tissue to form in the lungs, reducing the ability to extract oxygen from the air).
  • Coarse washed river sand (salt removed) or builder’s sand can be substituted for vermiculite as an alternative ingredient for drainage – or to minimise cost, use a combination of both. “Coarse” is the key word – the rough shape and size of the individual grains of sand allow space for water to pass though. If the grains are too fine, smooth and round (like you find on the beach), water will cling to them and they’ll compact, drowning your plants.
  • Use sand if you need to weigh your container down e.g. for a windy balcony so it is less likely to blow over. Add more sand for a faster-draining succulent mix.
  • 2 parts sieved Compost – Compost retains minerals, provides moisture and plant food, microbes and improves the structure of the growing media. It also acts as a buffer to changes in pH and suppresses disease.
  • 1/2 to 1 cup Worm Castings  or Vermicast (humus) – ideally you will have your own worm farm to add this perfect humus to your mix. Note: * this is an approximate quantity based on making 36 litres (4 x 9 litre buckets) of potting mix using a 9 litre brick of coir peat. Feel free to add more if you have it! [If you can’t access vermicast, you can buy worm castings or use some humus from the bottom of your compost pile that is most decomposed or use good quality compost]. Humus has so many benefits including the capacity to hold nutrients and supply them to your plants; incredible moisture retention capacity (holds 80-90% of its weight in water); prevents leaching; provides beneficial microbes; is a plant food source; a buffer for toxic metals and chemicals; and has the optimum soil crumb texture.


STEP 1: Pre-soak coir peat in warm water in a large plastic container. Tip: To rehydrate a 9L block requires 4.5L of water so you need a container bigger than a 9L bucket to work in (minimum 14L size).
When rehydrated according to the directions for the volume you are making, loosen and fluff with your trowel.

STEP 2: Mix equal quantities of pre-soaked coir peat and vermiculite (or coarse sand if using) together well in a large separate container.

STEP 3: Next, add the sieved compost and worm castings and combine thoroughly with (optional) nutrients.
You may need to moisten lightly with a watering can until you can just squeeze a few drops of moisture out of the mix or it has a nice moist but NOT wet feel.

STEP 4: Check the pH with a meter.  Most plants require a pH of between 6.0 and 7.0 but if you are growing vegies, they grow best in the range of 6.2 – 6.8 pH.
Some plants do require a more acidic mix (e.g. azaleas, gardenias, rhododendrons and blueberries) to thrive

To raise the pH of potting mix by about one unit (make it more alkaline), add 1 – 1.5 grams of dolomite (lime)/litre of mix. To lower the pH by about one unit (make it more acidic), add 0.3 grams of sulphur/litre of potting mix. Keep the mix moist and recheck the pH again a few days later.

 STEP 5: Store in a container with a lid to avoid drying out if not using it all immediately.

Add Nutrients (optional but recommended)

  • Rock Minerals – Plants need a balance of minerals for health & reproduction – just like we do.
  • Seaweed & Fish – These provide essential trace elements that boost root growth, plant health, disease resistance, transplant shock and many other benefits.
  • To maintain the soil life in your potting mix, feed microbes kelp/seaweed one week, and then molasses the alternate week.

Harvesting herbs

Plant Part When How Remedy
Leaves Fresh, undamaged, before blooming Spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Infusion
Flowers Fresh, undamaged, day of opening Spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Infusion
Seeds At maturity Clean from fruit, spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Decoction
Roots Early spring or late fall Chop in small pieces, spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Decoction
Barks Early spring or late fall Chop in small pieces, spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Decoction

Making herbal teas

Infusions (leaves & flowers)
Take 1 Tbsp. fresh herb mix or 1 tsp. dried herb mix and place in a china cup or tea pot. Pour on 1 cup freshly boiling water. Cover and steep 5 – 15 minutes.

Decoctions (roots, barks & seeds)
Take 1 Tbsp. fresh herb mix or 1 tsp. dried herb mix and place in a stainless steel pan. Cover with 1 ½ cups cold water. Cover, bring to a boil then turn down the heat and simmer on the lowest possible setting for 5 – 15 minutes.

Disclaimer: Information given here does not replace medical advice. If symptoms persists consult a health care professional

Flu Fighter

Catnip, Yarrow flower, Elderflower, Ginger

Sinus congestion
Plantain, Goldenrod, Sage, Wasabi

Chesty cough / congestion
Marshmallow, Licorice, Horehound

Sage, Oregano, Thyme, Echinacea, Garlic

Ear aches
Onion poultice

Sleepy Time

Stress / anxiety
Maral root, Rhodiola, Blue vervain

Catnip, Pasque Flower, Hops, Valerian

Lucid dreaming

Women’s Wellness with Herbs

Heavy or prolonged menses:
Ladies mantle, Yarrow, Raspberry

Hot flashes and Palpitations:
Motherwort, Sage

Hormone balancing:
Motherwort, Blue vervain, Licorice

Agitation, Anxiety, Weepiness:
Motherwort, Blue vervain

Vaginal dryness, Dry skin:

Healthy Heart

Palpitations, Arrythmia
Motherwort, Hawthorn, Rhodiola, Lily of the valley,

Yarrow flower, Hawthorn leaf & flower, Dandelion leaf,

High cholesterol
Dandelion root, Garlic

Water retention
Dandelion leaf, Lily of the valley,

Herb Part used Appearance & size Comments Uses
Betony Leaves Clumping, mounding shape

0.5 m round x 1 m tall

Beautiful cutting flower Headaches; anxiety; stress; restlessness;
California Poppy Flowers, & tops Bright orange; long season; self seeds freely Insomnia; anxiety; stress; restlessness

Unproductive cough

Celandine Leaves Gets up to over 1 m high and 1 m round; Self seeds liberally Orange latex stains gloves & hands Bitter liver and gall bladder stimulant
Dandelion Leaves & root Low growing, bright yellow, can cover a lawn. Self seeds liberally Eat young leaves in salads; harvest fall roots for roasting as a beverage Bitter liver stimulant; alterative; blood cleanser. Leaf supports kidneys. Root stimulates bowel
Echinacea Leaves & root Tall, elegant flowering stalks in clumps.

0.5 m round x 1 m tall

Lovely cut flower; harvest roots after 3 years then replant crown Immune stimulant; increases macrophage and neutrophil activity and longevity
Elecampane Root Can get 2 m tall and almost as wide across Loosens thick or sticky mucus in lungs; expectorant; lung tonic
Fennel Leaves and seeds Very persistent once planted

0.5 m round x 2 m tall

Tasty in a tea or on a salad Cooling digestive aide; indigestion; gas & bloating
Feverfew Flowers & leaves Delicate white flowerswith yellow centre

50 cm high x 25 cm round

Avoid handling a lot with bare hands Cooling & drying; reduces joint stiffness and soreness; reduces headaches
Lavender Flowers Clumping, mounding shape,.

0.5 m round x 1 m tall

Insomnia; anxiety; stress; restlessness

Headaches from tension

Lemon Balm Leaves Very aromatic

0.5 m round x 1 m tall

Insomnia; anxiety; stress; restlessness

Headaches from tension; indigestion; gas & bloating

Lemon Verbena Leaves Very aromatic

Shrub reaches 1.5 m high if allowed

Needs to be indoors for the winter Cooling & refreshing; digestive aid
Luzea Root Sturdy thistle like plant

0.5 m round x 1 m tall

Harvest roots after 3 years then replant crown Adaptogen; adrenal tonic and rebuilding herb; for energy & stamina
Marigold Flowers Will bloom all season if you keep picking flower heads. Low growing, bright orange. Self seeds liberally Bitter digestive aid; anti fungal; anti viral; anti-inflammatory; heals wounds;
Marshmallow Leaves & root Tall, pale green leaves, fuzzy texture No need to dig roots when leaves work just fine Loosens thick or sticky mucus in lungs; expectorant; lung tonic; soothes inflamed kidney or bladder
Motherwort Leaves Tall stems, tiny flowers, good bee food, spreads easily Cooling bitter digestive aid; women’s hormone balancer; uterine relaxant; cardiac relaxant
Milk Thistle Seeds Takes a lot of room if allowed to seed freely; birds love the seeds Very prickly! Liver cell anti-oxidant
Mullein Flower & leaf Biennial – harvest leaves in first year and flowers in 2nd year Attractive, tall plant for the back of a bed Fresh flowers made into ear oil for pain;

Leaf is used to soothe dry coughs

Oregano Leaves Clumping, mounding shape,.

0.5 m round x 1 m tall

Spreads readily once established Anti-bacterial; anti fungal; anti viral
Peppermint Leaves Spreads by runners Spreads readily once established Cooling & refreshing; for indigestion; gas & bloating


Ribwort Leaves A wild weed, flourishes anywhere Can be wild harvested from unpolluted sites Anti-inflammatory; heals wounds; lung & kidney tonic
Rose Petals All types are effective but old fashioned scented roses are best Pick petals as soon as flowers open, not browning Cooling & drying; for assisting with change and transition, loss and letting go
Sage Leaves Silvery leaf is attractive year round Good for cooking or medicine Cooling & drying; estrogen balancing;
Skullcap Flowering tops Bright blue flowers ion short stems Insomnia; anxiety; stress; restlessness

Headaches from tension;

St John’s Wort Flowering tops A wild weed with bright yellow flower and red juice Flowers in oil for burns and for neuralgia é nerve pain. Whole flowering tops for depression. Anti-depressant; nerve regenerator; skin healing; anti viral
Wormwood Leaves Attractive silvery foliage

Clumping, mounding shape,.

0.5 m round x 1 m tall

Bitter digestive aide; anti-parasitic

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