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Medicinal Herbs Growing Interview

Interview on Growing Medicinal Herbs in the Piedmont Region

with Sustenance Design Founder Lindsey Mann

questions by Laura Martin-Eagle, candidate for Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist, California College of Ayurveda

IMG_61201. What are the materials needed to start a small operation herb garden, both indoor and outdoor? Because Im partial to growing outside, as it fosters ecological depth (making organic growing more successful), the primary needs are climatic: do you have good soil, sunlight, air and a clean source of water?  You can’t grow without the last 3 but the answer to soil is usually ‘poor quality’ in a developed area.  Some herbs tolerate and even prefer poor soil.  Some need amendments such as compost, even sand- we use granite because it’s our natural sub-soil around here.  Kelp meal is an important addition for trace minerals and plant strength.

2. Do you have a list of recommended suppliers? Horizon herbs is probably the best supplier of herb seeds because of the diversity they offer and the founder (Rico Chech)’s dedication to holistic healing- he is considered an expert in Chinese herbal medicine.  But I believe that the best supplier is closest to the place you are growing for selected varieties that perform well in that region.  So if it’s nothing too exotic I need, I look to the local guys first, such as Sow True Seed or Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

3. What soil recommendations would you give for a small, container or raised bed garden? A mix of: peat (or coconut coir may be a good substitute for unsustainable peat), worm castings, granite sand, and perlite and vermiculite for soil texture, loft and micro-nutrients.  I like to add a little green sand or kelp into a container situation, too.

4. What region is your nursery in, and what herbs have you found thrive well in this climate? We are in the southern appalachian region, which is rich with native american Cherokee’s herbal legacy.  Because of the intensive biodiversity of this area, the Cherokee had vast herbal resources with which to work and developed some of the most extensive herbal practices of any native tribe.  Because of the diversity, wildcrafting is a popular method of sourcing herbs, in addition to propagation.  Our native American ginseng is probably the most famous from this region and widely considered a superior adaptogenic herb.  Also native here are goldenseal, yellowroot, passionflower, black cohosh, monarda (bee balm), echinacea, black walnut, vitex, gentian, solomon’s seal, bloodroot and many more.  And we also host a wide variety of non-native but naturalized herbs such as yellow dock, dandelion, violet, yarrow, valerian, mullein.  The climate, like everywhere is changing, and so we are experimenting with herbs somewhat ‘new’ to this climate a lot, such as Ashwaghanda, which may be able to overwinter here now, allowing for the preferred second-year harvest of the medicinal roots.

5. For indoor propagation have you found herbs that do better than others? It depends upon the type of herb and it’s requirements.  What we consider annual herbs that tolerate heat can do well in an indoor greenhouse-type environment with a lot of sun.  All kinds of basil, including Tulsi, fit in this category, and some of the Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary can adapt well to a greenhouse.

6. How do I know what to add to my existing soil, and what sources are best for those amendments? Again, it depends upon the type of herb.  It’s best to be familiar with an herb’s native environment, as some grow in moist, boggy spots naturally and some in sunny, dry places.  Mimicking an herb’s native environment is the best way to ensure a superior quality medicinal product.

7. What are common pests htat you have encountered? How do you deal with them? Fortunately, herbs have much fewer problems with pests and disease than do vegetables or fruit.  This is probably due to the extensive breeding and hybridization that the latter have been subjected to.  Also, many herbs contain high levels of essential oils, which are known to repel animal and insect predators and ward off disease, and many herbs simply dont have the obvious fruiting feature that bugs and animals find so tasty.  Organic gardening techniques, such as interplanting and companion planting additionally help prevent such problems.

8. What irrigation methods have you found useful, and what ones have you found challenging and why? Irrigation is an interesting issue as we are in one of the the rainiest counties in the country.  Often, our issue is too much water, especially for non-native herbs that prefer drier, sandy soils (name any Mediterranean herb).  But by in large, my preferred method of irrigation- which we do employ for drought-affected summers, is drip line, preferably from harvested rainwater.  Drip is the most water-efficient form of delivering water direct to the roots, and because we are prone to humidity, and thus fungus, it’s best to prevent watering the aerial parts of the plant.

9. What methods of mulch have you found work well? Some herbs are more tolerant of acid than vegetables, as they are native to the surrounding Piedmont forrest and the leaves that fall naturally.  For herbs and perennials we use leaf litter.  As we are in an urban area, it’s easy to find around fall time when neighbors are raking and bagging leaves.  We drive the truck around and pick up leaf bags to store and use.  The best mulch is year-old, partially decomposed leaf litter; filled with nutrients.

10. What alternatives to chemical herbicides have you found useful for controlling weed growth? Hand control or hoe cultivation works well to abate young weeds.  Mulch is the best method by far to prevent weeds from sprouting.  I’ve heard of organic farmers using torch methods, but havent tried it.  The Biodynamic ‘ashing’ techniques I hear can work well, too.

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