Armchair Gardening: An Herbal Tea Garden

Armchair Gardening: An Herbal Tea Garden

jackie-johnson

the author

By Jackie Johnson ND, Planhigion Herbal Learning Center

In these dark, cold days we look longingly at our snow-covered frozen gardens and pour over seed catalogs. We think about new plants, or replacing plants, all those annuals and maybe a new garden.

Turn those daydreams into a plan for an herbal tea garden. It’s relatively easy to create and quite rewarding. The following plants will get you started:

20170118_063826-1CHAMOMILE  (Matricaria recuitita) …German Chamomile is an annual easily grown from seed and will self-sow. It prefers full sun or light shade.

Chamomile makes a lovely tea that many – the non-allergic —  use to relax before bedtime. Only the flowers are used, either fresh or dried.

Save leftover tea as a rinse on blonde hair; or for a facial mask, add enough honey to make a paste.

MONARDA or BEE BALM (Monarda didyma (red) or fistulosa (lavender))

Many hybrids of Monarda (often called Bergamot) exist. Perennial to Zone 4, this grows up to three feet, so it should be positioned at the rear of the garden. It prefers full sun, but can live in some shade.

The heirloom varieties offer pollen to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, so it can serve double duty in your garden.

20170118_070339Use the fresh or dried leaves for tea. You can sprinkle the petals in salads, and use both flowers and leaves in marinades for wild game.

I prefer the flavor of M. didyma, however, Native Americans use the M. fistulosa in medicine making.

GINGER (Zingiber officinalis)

Ginger is a tropical plant, but can be grown in containers on your patio. Take a piece of root (like a potato it will have eyes), plant it one to two inches deep, water and wait. A grass like stem will grow and if you’re lucky, flower. When it dies back (in about a year) you can dig up the new root that should be quite a bit larger than what you planted. Each successive planting of the same root will be less spicy than its predecessor.

Don’t let your ginger plant freeze; bring it in at the first signs of frost or it will die.

The root can be used in teas either fresh or dried. I slice my fresh ginger roots to quarter size and freeze them for later use. Some people prefer to dry and grind them into a powder. (Powder them just prior to using to retain more flavor).

Ginger goes well with lemon (which I also slice and freeze). This is my go to combination when I need a boost of energy and it is a common go-to for nausea.

LEMON BALM  (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon balm is a favorite of herbies!  It is easy to grow (in the mint family), and has a refreshing taste.  It is good either hot or as an iced tea. It blends well with monarda, tulsi, or chamomile.

Lemon balm likes full sun, but will tolerate some shade, and it will return with no effort. It may spread nearly as aggressively as mint.

The leaves should be harvested prior to flowering, and can be used fresh and dried. You can also make ice cubes from the tea and save for winter.

MINT (Mentha)

Mint exists in many varieties; you just have to find your favorites. I prefer apple mint, chocolate mint and spearmint.

Plant where it can either grow crazy, or cut the excess with the lawn mower. It prefers the sun, but I’ve found it will thrive in most places.

Mint makes a wonderful tea by itself but just a pinch enhances the flavor of other teas.

HOLY BASIL or TULSI (Ocimum sanctum)

Tulsi is one of my favorites. It should be considered an annual and grown from seed each year. It is gaining in popularity and availability, but collect the seed if you find a variety you really enjoy.  It prefers full sun, and shouldn’t be allowed to freeze.

Use both the leaves and the flowers, fresh or dried.  It’s spicy and some of the varieties smell a bit clove-like.

Try something new this year – maybe an herbal tea garden!

Test Seed Viability

By Tina Marie Wilcox, HSA Ozark Unit and 2017 Nancy Putnam Howard Award for Excellence in Horticulture

seed-catalogs-2017Get a jump on the growing season, save money and expand your selection of summer annuals by starting seeds early inside. First, research online and in catalogs for the time, temperature and light that your seeds need for germination. Find out if the plants are best planted directly into the garden and the days to harvest.

Reputable seed companies test their products for viability. If your seeds have not been tested, you can do this yourself to save time, potting medium and growing space.

Use thin, plastic sandwich bags that fold down (zip-lock varieties are not as good), white paper towels and a permanent marker. Label each bag with the seed variety and the date. Count out a specific number of seeds to test for viability. I usually test ten seeds.

Fold the towel in half three times to form a rectangle. Moisten the towel. Unfold it once and sprinkle the seed inside.  Refold and slip the towel into the labeled bag.  Loosely fold the bag to retard evaporation while allowing air exchange.

odd-nigerian-seeds-1323855_640If the seeds require light to germinate, sprinkle them on the outside surface of the folded towel and slip it into the bag. Do not put bags in direct sunlight, as this will overheat the seeds. To regulate periods of light and darkness, place the bag, seed-side-up, under 40-watt florescent lights at a distance of 8-inches below the lights. Plug the lights into a timer to provide cycles of day and night.

Most importantly, place them in a warm place where you will remember to check for germination on a daily basis. As soon as the seeds split and taproots immerge, you know the seeds are viable.

A word of caution, do not plant too early. Housing summer annuals undercover for an extended time does not necessarily yield early production. Here in Zone 7a, our last average frost date is mid- April. We usually wait until after April 20th to set tender seedlings in the garden. Check out http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/ to find your zone.

Assemble pasteurized growing medium, sterile containers and labels. In the Heritage Herb Garden greenhouse, we use deep, 3-inch plastic pots. These fit tightly into flats (trays). We use two flats under the pots for added strength and security during transport.seedling

Fill the pots evenly with pre-moistened medium. Seeds that require light to germinate should be sprinkled on the surface of the medium. If they require darkness, the rule is to plant two-and-one-half times the thickness of the seed deep. Gently press the medium down into the pot, sow one to three seeds into each pot. Then cover with the proper amount of growing medium. Sprinkle water on the surface to settle the medium and seed. Finally, cover the pot(s) with a plastic dome or slip them into a clear plastic bag. You can also stretch plastic wrap over the top. Covering the medium keeps it evenly moist and is a temporary barrier against fungus gnats. Remove the covering as soon as the majority of seeds have germinated.

The growing medium temperature will be equal to the ambient temperature. Some growers use heat mats to maintain a constant temperature. This does speed germination time for summer annuals.

Plants kept in captivity will require strong light, fertilizer, and room for their roots as they grow. Leggy growth is a sign that the plants need more light. If growth slows and the bottom leaves get yellow, the plants are root-bound.  Provide adequate light and transplant as needed or the plants will be irreparably damaged. Before the plants can be planted out to the garden they must be hardened-off. Move them to a protected porch or cold frame for several days before subjecting them to the elements.

May your seeds germinate and thrive.

Four Items Needed for Vertical Garden

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

vertical-garden-imageType “vertical garden” into a Pinterest search and you’ll be overwhelmed with charming displays of botanical beauty. Flowers, herbs and vegetables are elevated in collections of repurposed pallets and gutters, draped fabric pockets and ready-to-install displays and frames.  The window box or hanging basket has morphed into a full wall.

Vertical gardens are gaining ground because they’re visually pleasing and add real estate to a small footprint. They may be used as a fence to hide blight. They’re also more accessible for folks with physical handicaps that may limit bending or stooping.

Make vertical garden plans part of your armchair garden-planning sessions. If you live in colder climates visualize summer, then start building.

While there’s no technical definition of vertical garden, according to Karen Kennedy, educator for The Herb Society of America in Kirtland, Ohio, “A vertical garden is any garden that’s not horizontal. It could be chicken wire around a pillar or a living wall. A vertical garden brings your eye up from a design standpoint and creates green where you may not be able to have a shrub.”

Start making your shopping list …

  1. THE PLANTS … Vertical gardens look best with a variety of colors and textures. Color can be as simple as different color foliage or variegation. “Herbs do well,” says Deborah Oesterling, vice president – sales, Pride Garden Products. “Anything that’s low growing. You wouldn’t put chives in them.  The objective is the look. If the plant gets overgrown, you won’t see the frame.” She recommends low-growing herbs that are regularly harvested such as thyme, oregano, bush basil, sprawling rosemary.
  2. vertical-garden-palatteTHE CONTAINER … Pinterest can be overwhelming. Choose a container that fits your vision and source the building materials … from mason jars and clamps to fabric pouches. Several companies make shadowboxes that look like picture frames and likewise, hang on any wall or fence.  Pride Garden Products, for example, in Ridley Park, Pa., makes frames with finishes of copper, black zinc, wood and grey wash.  Other popular looks include chalkboard paint. Many come with a fiber or fabric liner designed to retain dirt. For others you will need to add landscaping material.
  3. THE SOIL … Choose a soil mix that holds water. “Any time you raise soil off the ground, you have to consider soil type and volume,” says Kennedy. “Some people use soil with moisture-absorbing additives that stay moist. Even with all of that the vertical garden will need more watering than something in the ground. The smaller the pocket of soil more often the plant will need watered.”
  4. THE FERTILIZER … Containers – vertical and otherwise – drain quickly, taking nutrients with them. And so, these plants require more frequent fertilization. Again, choosing a soil that has fertilizer in the mix, could simplify this recurring task.

By July you should be ready to post your successes on Pinterest.

‘Silver Drop’ Eucalyptus 2016’s Most Popular for The Grower’s Exchange

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

eucalyptus-silver-dropIf everyone else is doing it, I often run the other way. Or so I’d like to think. I consider myself my own woman making my own decisions without an external script. (WestWorld anyone?)

Unless everyone else is growing an herb. Then, I want to be part of the club.

I was surprised when The Grower’s Exchange announced that its bestseller for 2016 was Eucalyptus, Silver Drop. I would have expected something better known.

“Always in the top 5, but never a winner, this year, eucalyptus pushed out lemongrass and would have done even better had we not run out near the end of the spring,” says grower/owner Brisco White.

eucalyptus-silver-drop-2The reasons, he says, are a mystery. “What makes for a winner? Who knows? Why Beanie Babies one year, and Cabbage Patch another?  Could it have been effective marketing? A trend in medicinal treatments? An article in a major publication that ramped up demand? What we do know is that we are growing a lot more for 2017.”

While a number of eucalyptus cultivars exist, ‘Silver Drop’ is popular for its deep, silvery green scalloped leaves and a growing habit that can be shaped into a wide shrub with ease. It’s prolific and can grow up to 40 feet, but is best kept to four to five feet.

“It smells incredible, can handle a drought, resists deer and insects and actually provides nectar in the summer to bees, hummingbirds and butterflies,” notes White. “It’s also easy to grow and we cut tons of it to add to both fresh and dried arrangements. We even have it for holiday decorating.”

Silver drop can be grown during hot summers in most regions, and lacking a long and harsh frost, it is hardy to Zone 7. With plenty of light, it might even over-winter indoors.

Those reasons explain its popularity well to me. I plan to order it for my summer garden in Northeast Ohio and keep it in the kitchen window with my bay tree next winter. I want to be part of this club.

#GivingTuesday Raises $3,000 for Childhood Herb Education

lambs-ear-herbs-16-niagara-parks-botanical-garden-41By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

The first #GivingTuesday for The Herb Society of America raised $3,000 for the Donald Samull Classroom Herb Garden Grants.  Members and non-members contributed $1,400 and a matching donation rounded the number to $3,000.

The grant encourages schools to teach the use and pleasures of herbs to children from third to sixth grade. Donald Samull, was an elementary school teacher who used herbs in his classroom to teach math, science, English, and social studies.  Through a gift from his estate, The Herb Society of America established The Samull Classroom Herb Garden Grant. Annually, ten schools receive $200 in “seed” money to start gardens at their school.

The funds may be used for supplies such as soil, plant trays, containers, child or youth sized tools, etc. A school may  seek additional funding and support from other sources.

In 2016, more than 200 applications arrived from school in almost every state. Grants were awarded to 10 schools. Application deadline for 2017-18 academic year is October 1, 2017 with awards announced December 1, 2017.

If you’d like to donate before 2016 ends, contribute here.

Packaging the 2016 Herbal Tea Harvest

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

rose-hipsI’ve been preparing mint, pineapple sage, rose petals, rose hips and more so I can blend my own herbal tisanes. I’m not looking to be exotic. In fact, I’ll have more fun with the packaging than the tea blend.

The question now is how do I package? Do I put mix loose herbs into a mason jar with a fancy lid? Or do I make teabags? If I use tea bags, what kind?

To answer this question, I turned to expert, Raji Singh, brand ambassador for Newby, a line of luxury tea that is relatively new to the United States.

Question: Which is better loose leaf or tea bags?

aaeaaqaaaaaaaaloaaaajdzinzvlmtzhltnimdctndc3os05yzbhltrhotdmotfhnmu0oaRaji: Packaging is critical to preserve the character of tea and tisanes. Because of tea’s delicate and porous nature, the three enemies are heat, humidity, and odor. So before selecting the proper bagging method, the outer seal should be selected to ensure freshness. In this case, instead of a mason jar that allows light to penetrate through and dull the character and freshness of the tea, I would opt for a metal tin that can seal herbs’ freshness.

It is a common misconception that teabags are bad quality. This is not true. While tea bags can easily mask the quality inside and allow for dust, veins, and stalk to go unnoticed, a tea bag consisting of fannings – small broken pieces — from fine quality tea leaves is still a quality tea.

The problem with teabags is limited space for leaf and herb expansion. That inhibits full flavor results. While teabags are not bad, loose is better. Whole loose leaf provides more flavor and aroma because leaves properly unfurl. The ideal places leaves directly on top of the water to be strained out after steeping, or in a infuser basket that is spacious with enough holes to allow for enough water flow. Tea balls are quite restrictive.

Newby offers both loose and bagged but our Silken Pyramid bag is the most popular. Silken Pyramids “bags” allow for the quality of whole loose leaf with the convenience of teabags. The larger leaves have room to expand due to the flexible pyramid shape of the sachets, which also allows for optimal water flow.

Q: What are the best tea bags?

newby-tea-bagRaji: Two factors determine the best bagging method. First, the bag must be large enough to hold the tea and herbs, and spacious enough to hold the unfurled leaves. Second, the holes must be large enough to allow water to flow through the entire bag and all of the leaves to infuse, but small enough to hold smaller-sized leaf pieces. Too many leaves in the cup after steeping will result in continued brewing. That may lead to a very strong cup by the last sip.

Newby’s teabags hold in fannings – the very fine broken pieces of the leaf — so the bags are flatter and the holes are smaller. In contrast, the silken pyramid bags are much larger with wide holes since the leaves are larger and require more room to infuse.

Q: How quickly should we use a homemade herbal tea blend?

Raji: A well-sealed tea blend should not go stale as long as it is protected against the enemies of heat, humidity and odor. While Newby is required to provide a shelf life of three years, we have tea in our factory — for internal consumption — that was purchased more than 10 years ago and still holds its character and freshness.


After talking to Raji, I’ve decided that sourcing the perfect bag is too much work and expense. I’m going to paint the outside of my glass mason jars and fill them with loose herbal blends for tisanes. Unlike real tea leaves, herbal blends are less stable. So I’m going to present them in small amounts with suggested “use by” dates on my labels.

Consider Chamomile for Holiday Anxiety

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

chamomile-1

Photos from Mountain Rose Herbs, provider of all things chamomile.

Need a hand with stress? A steamy mug of chamomile tea can take the edge off holiday anxiety and promote sleep.

While herbalists have been promoting it as an
insomnia treatment for years, science lies behind it, according to research from the Integrative Medicine Department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

“Chamomile may benefit those with anxiety disorder and insomnia,” reports the health institution. In fact, they caution that chamomile shouldn’t be taken with a sedative because it may intensify the effects.

That explains a lot to me. Ten years ago I drank a blend of relaxation tea purchased from a home vendor. I needed the relaxation because my young sons and I were packing for vacation and the ex-husband was uber-cranky during these times.

Next thing you know I was so stuffy I could barely breathe. Nothing would touch the congestion but Benadryl. Usually it makes me a little sleepy. Let’s just say I slept through the entire weekend. Talk about enhanced sleeping effects. Not a good idea.

chamomile-2Despite its natural ingredients, I was allergic to the chamomile in the tea. It seems, if you’re allergic to ragweed, you’ll likely suffer these results from chamomile.

If you’re not … Sloan Kettering reports:

“Several studies have used chamomile extracts in animals to test their effects. They show that substances in chamomile can kill bacteria, reduce inflammation, calm muscle spasms, inhibit the growth of polio and herpes viruses and cancer cells, and prevent the growth of ulcers. Several chemicals found in chamomile leaves are known to inhibit substances in the body that cause an inflammatory response. Apigenin, a compound isolated from chamomile, binds to brain cells in the same areas as well-known depressant drugs, which could explain chamomile’s sedative effects. 

Small clinical trials show that chamomile may have a modest effect on generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, and in healing skin lesions after colostomy, a surgical procedure that brings one end of the large intestine out through the abdominal wall.”

Looking for the science behind herbal medicine and a trusted source for integrative medical information, check out the hospital’s About Herbs information.


It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment.