Spring is always full of excitement and anticipation of warm weather and the gardening season ahead! Especially after long, cold winters there is a deep gratitude felt about the coming of spring. For a few years I have started seeds indoors in anticipation of being able to put in our garden plants that we started from seed ourselves. I’ll be honest; I am no expert in this department and I am someone who learns by trial and error. So this post is meant to share some of what I have learned from trial and error. The other side of the coin of seed starting is saving our own seed. Both activities take time and knowledge. At some point (once I have successfully mastered seed starting!) I will also put more effort into seed saving. Right now, there are only a few plants whose seeds are easy to collect that I save and plant.
Growing plants from seed is a great way to involve kids in the garden. The job is messy and kids can play in the dirt, get their hands dirty and learn while making a great big mess! They love to monitor the progress of their seeds as well, often checking in daily to see if the plant is poking up yet! Its a great way for kids to learn where food actually comes from, as well. Food is grown (or hunted or raised), not simply purchased in boxes off the grocery store shelf. Some plants need to be started indoors because they require a longer growing season than our climates allow. I usually start tomatoes and peppers indoors. Typically, I have done this too early for my climate, having a hard time containing my enthusiasm for spring! I have started tomato and pepper seeds in February and end up with big, tall plants ready for transplanting at the end of March when it is way too early. Don’t make this same mistake! This year I wised up and contained myself, saving the seed starting for the last half of March. I usually try to start some corn plants indoors, too, but usually late April or early May is when I do this, transplanting the seedlings to the garden soon after they begin to poke up.
Many herbs can also be started from seed and in Canada, Richters is a good place to order seeds from. With herbs, starting from seed is not always as simple as throwing some seeds and dirt into a pot. Plants often require specific climatic and environmental circumstance to germinate and grow. I can’t go into great detail in this blog, but there are good sources of information for this. I have used the book, “Growing 101 Herbs That Heal” by Tammi Hartung. She gives detailed descriptions of how to best germinate many herb seeds. A general guide, however, is to think of how plants seeds will germinate in their natural environment and then to try and simulate that at home. For example, many healing herbs indigenous to Eastern North America- ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh, wild ginger, blood root- require a period of “cold stratification” followed by alternating periods of warm and cold to be able to germinate. This sounds complicated, but it is simply a description of winters and typical spring weather in Eastern North America; a period of extended cold (winter), followed by alternating warm and cold (spring). Other seeds in he wild may typically be eaten by birds and passed through the bird’s digestive tract before they will germinate. Tammi Hartung’s book details different way to simulate these conditions at home.
For those of you who are interested in growing and using herbs, you have many options available to you. To help you get started, here is a short list of 10 easy to grow and easy to use herbs that are great plants to start your journey with!
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) There is lots more information about Calendula here. This is an easy to grow plant whose bright, yellow and orange blooms make great medicine for all kinds of skin complaints.
Yarrow (Achillea millefoilium) The Yarrow in my garden is a transplant from plants I found growing wild. Yarrow is a very “weedy” plant which spreads easily and can take over your garden so think carefully about where you may want to plant it. The stems, leaves and blooms of Yarrow can be cut and gathered throughout the growing season. Yarrow can be brewed into a tea and used as a wash on cuts and scrapes. Yarrow is astringent meaning it tightens tissues and so is good to apply to minor cuts and scrapes to disinfect and stop bleeding. I also use Yarrow with other herbs to make an insect repellant. Its astringent action affects the surface capillaries of the skin when applied topically. The effect is to constrict the capillaries, making the blood less available to biting insects.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) Catnip is one of my favourite herbs and one I don’t need to plant. It volunteered itself in our garden and I have nurtured and encouraged its growth. Catnip is an excellent herb to have on hand for babies, it makes a great insect repellant for people and help with bug control in the garden. For more details on Catnip, click here.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) For many, a small spot of Lemon Balm will quickly spread to a huge patch. Lemon Balm certainly loves our garden and it would spread everywhere if I didn’t dig up some every spring. Lemon Balm is a relaxing herb that can be added to teas to help you sleep, and is another good herb for children. Lemon Balm is a diaphoretic- meaning a herb that makes you sweat and therefore Lemon Balm Tea can be helpful when sick with the flu and fever. Lemon Balm is also effective against some viruses and is a good herb to use in the treatment of herpes. Learn how to make a Lemon Balm glycerite here.
Plantain (Plantago spp) Another plant that you most likely won’t need to plant! Plantain readily pops up in gardens and lawns everywhere. You do have to be careful where you pick plantain, however, as some lawns and parks may be sprayed with chemicals. If you have lots of pets roaming around your yard, you are best to set aside a spot where the pets don’t go to harvest Plantain from. There are many species of Plantain (Plantago) which occur around the world and which are eaten as food or used for medicine. In lawns and gardens in North American, you are most likely to encounter any one of- or all three of- these common species: Plantago lanceolata, P. major, P. rugelii. P. Laceolata (Ribwort Plantain) and P. major (Broadleaf Plantain) are both European species. The Ribwort having narrow leaves and the Broadleaf Plantain having more rounded leaves. P. Rugelii is a Plantain native to North America. It looks very similar to Plantago major and is often mistaken for the Broadleaf Plantain. Plantain has many medicinal uses. I use Plantain most often in a first aid salve which is particularly good for soothing mosquito bites and stings.
Skullcap (Scutellaria laterfolia) Skullcap was one of the first herbs I ever used and one of the first to put in my garden. It is a plant native to North America and grows well in moist locations, especially with running water. Skullcap is harvested when in flower in late summer, usually August. I dry some of my Skullcap harvest for teas and use the rest to make a fresh plant tincture. Skullcap is an excellent herb for nervous tension, to help you relax, rest and sleep well. Skullcap helps to ease tense muscles and can help with back pain when due to nervous tension. Combined with other herbs, Skullcap can also help to relieve pain in other parts of the body. I have used Skullcap in combination with Horsetail for relieving knee pain and swelling.
Cilantro/Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) We always grow a lot of tomatoes in the garden and I love to make both red and green tomato salsa, so Cilantro is a must for our garden. Cilantro is one of the signature flavours in salsas. I grow it simply as an culinary herb, using fresh harvested cilantro in our homemade salsas. I also harvest cilantro and freeze it for use in the winter in chilis and other dishes.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) Another great culinary herbs, which also finds use in our home as a medicine. Dill is a delicate plant with fine, feathery leaves and tiny yellow flowers on top. Dill readily reseeds itself all over the garden, but not excessively. I planted it once and have since been content to let it grow wherever it sows itself. Myself and the kids harvest dill throughout the growing season, regularly trimming the leaves and drying them. We love to add dill to plain yogurt with garlic to make a dip. This is an excellent dip to promote healthy digestion. Dill tea can also be given to babies by spoon or dropper to help with minor digestive upsets.
Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) If you have this plant in your garden, you will enjoy an abundance of pretty pink blooms early in the spring. Wild Geranium is another plant native to Eastern North America and can often be seen growing wild along the edges of the bush and along roadways. The entire plant of Wild Geranium is astringent- meaning that it tightens and dries tissues- with the roots having the strongest astringent action. The astringency makes Wild Geranium useful in the treatment of some digestive troubles such as diarrhea. Blended with Goldenseal and Raspberry Leaves, Wild Geranium is a good plant to help heal gastric ulcers.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perfoliatum) St. John’s Wort is a well known herb. It is easy to grow and has become popular as a treatment for depression. You should consult with a qualified practitioner, however, before using St. John’s Wort in this manner as it can interact with some medications. St. John’s Wort has small leaves which, when held up to the sun reveal tiny holes in the leaf which the sun shines through. This is how it received the latin name “perfoliatum”. St. John’s Wort boasts beautiful bright yellow blooms which will keep blooming for some time if the blooms are harvested regularly. Both the flowers and the seeds are used medicinally. I gather what I can each year and make both and infused oil of St. John’s Wort as well as a glycerin tincture, both of which turn a beautiful, deep shade of red. Both the oil and the tincture can be used for pain relief, particularly nerve related pain.