I was fortunate enough to be largely raised by my grandmother, who was a Great Depression-era bride. Even before Victory Gardens came along, her generation knew you had to take care of your family’s food needs and be self-sustaining. She was a strong farm and ranch wife, with the tenderness to let my little hands help her from as far back as I can remember. It would have been much easier for her to do it herself, but she knew it was important information to pass on. Those early lessons were largely centered around gardening and canning the fruits of our (her) labor. But there was a special area not far from the vegetable garden, and that was her herb bed. It wasn’t until I got much older, that I realized the importance of that bed. Back then, I simply saw it as growing dill for pickles, and herbs for a tasty cup of tea.
Fast forward to today. Food prices are skyrocketing, there have been warnings of shortages, and those that look at the world around them understand that many of our pharmaceutical components have been outsourced to China. That is where herbs come into play. As many people rush to plant modern-day “victory gardens”, herbs are often overlooked. For a variety of reasons, you need to tuck herbs among your vegetables, plant them with your flowers, or dedicate a bed to nothing but herbs and more herbs.
Herbs make a lot of the foods we grow taste even better. A few sprigs can make dried beans taste even better when cooked. But herbs go far beyond seasoning the evening meal. Herbs have been used for hundreds of years for medicinal purposes. Many attract bees to the garden. Given that bees, which are responsible for pollinating one-third of the world’s food supply, are declining in numbers, adding even more plants to attract them is never a bad idea.
Healing herbs can be used fresh, dried and steeped as tea, or soaked in vodka to make a tincture. The easiest way to have healing herbs on hand is to dry the herbs for tea. You can air dry or use a food dehydrator on a lower setting (95-110 degrees Fahrenheit). Simply store your dried herbs in a glass jar, or an airtight bag, along with a desiccant packet, and enjoy tea when needed, or when the mood strikes. A food dehydrator is almost a must for humid environments. It also can be used for other harvests from the garden, so is a practical item to have. I purchased an American Harvest Snackmaster dehydrator almost 20 years ago, and it is still going strong. A food dehydrator is a great investment for your prepping supplies!
Tinctures are more time-consuming to make, but if storage is a concern, a tincture packs a lot of punch in a small bottle. To make a tincture, pack a clean jar with your selected fresh herb, and cover with vodka. Make sure to pour slowly, tapping the jar as you go along to remove air bubbles, and fully submerge the herbs in vodka. Cover the jar with a secure-fitting lid and let steep in a warm place for 4 to 6 weeks, gently shaking the herbal mixture daily. After 4 to 6 weeks, or more, strain the herbal-infused vodka into a clean jar. I like to then pour the tincture into small (4-ounce) bottles, with a dropper. The tincture will be quite strong and should be used in small amounts of only a dropper full at a time, adding to water or juice to consume. This method is good for long-term storage and to save space, however, it needs to be used in very modest amounts. Because of the strength of tinctures, and the alcohol, I recommend that you stick with tea for young children. Teas also have a better flavor, and no herbal remedy will work for a child if you cannot get them to drink it.
Many herbs have a myriad of uses. I find that it is best to focus on herbs that I can get the most use from when planning my garden space. Think about the herbs that will give you the most bang for your gardening buck and take it from there. I suggest that in addition to internet searches on herbs, you add a book dedicated solely to herbs to your library. When the lights go out, you don’t want to be left wondering how to use a particular herb you planted. My favorite resource is the book “Growing and Using Healing Herbs”, by Gaea and Shandor Weiss. It is a wealth of information and laid out in a very practical way.
My herb beds include a lot of the culinary herbs, many of which have medicinal uses. Rosemary helps relieve gas. It is considered a stimulant and is a good herb for treating cluster headaches. Thyme has antispasmodic qualities that make it useful for stomach cramps, or the treatment of coughs.
I also have beds dedicated to a few useful healing herbs. The predominant herbs being lavender, chamomile, and peppermint (shown, at left.) Lavender is my everything herb. It is wonderful for attracting bees, and is scattered around my garden, as well as the healing teas bed. My favorite evening tea for stress is lavender. Headache? Lavender. Can’t sleep? Lavender. Even my dog likes lavender. When I put lavender essential oil in a diffuser at night, she will lay with her head under the mist.
Chamomile is another versatile herb that I use much the same way as I use lavender. It is a mild-flavored herb, and one that children will often drink in a tea, when others are considered too harsh. Peppermint is a stronger herb for gas and indigestion, or an upset stomach. It also contains menthol, good for helping treat upper respiratory symptoms of a cold or flu.
Herbs do not have to be relegated to herb beds and vegetable gardens. Many can be tucked in a front yard flower bed for color and interest. It is a great way to use space for more practical reasons, and to not draw the attention of neighborhood busybodies. The purple coneflower is a beautiful perennial flower. You might have bought it in capsule form, under its botanical name of echinacea. Yes, that echinacea, which is used as a remedy for colds and flu. Rose hips are a great source of vitamin C. Brew them as a tea for a tangy boost to the immune system. Both roses and purple coneflower are great at attracting bees. Just make sure you do not use pesticides on your flowers. They are not good for the bees, or you.
Basic gardening principles apply to herbs. Rich well-drained soil, and adequate water, will give you the best harvest. I prefer raised bed gardening for vegetables and herbs. Raised beds are more expensive in terms of initial costs, but are space-saving, back-saving, and time-saving, in the long run. They are much easier to keep free from weeds, and you will not compact the soil around the roots when working in your garden. Gardening for self-sufficiency is a long-term investment. It is much easier to start your project properly, than fight your garden down the road. If you are like me, and live in an area with poor soil, it will make the difference in getting one or two meals from a garden, or a full season of harvests.
The quality of soil you plant in will determine how well a garden will grow. The same principles apply to herbs. For my small herb beds, I used raised bed kits that can easily be found online, or in some big box stores. I have tried multiple brands, but I keep coming back to Best Choice products, because of attention to detail. If your space is extremely small, an herb garden in pots will produce an abundant supply of herbs. You do not have to run out and buy expensive pots for your plants. Old buckets and galvanized tubs make great planters. Look for alternative, and cheap, containers, at thrift stores or farm auctions. Not only will you save money, but your potted herb garden will also display a bit of personality and be uniquely your own. No one said survival gardening must be boring to look at. By getting creative, you can have an herb garden that is as pretty, as it is practical!
I am not a medical professional, I am simply an avid gardener, who feels that we need to find ways of being self-sustaining, and ready for hard times. After identifying your herb garden needs, read all you can on each herb’s use, benefits, and possible side effects. This will also help you decide which herbs to focus on, so you have enough to truly get you through possible tough times. Better to have enough for the most important uses, than a little bit of many that will not bring as much benefit.
Enjoy your herbal adventures, and happy gardening!