The climate we enjoy here in Tennessee means we can begin planting some of our gardens as soon as late February—and a slew of medicinal herbs happen to be resistant to both disease and pests. While growing vegetables is a wonderful endeavor, most need a bit more sunshine to get going outdoors. Here in plant hardiness zone 7a (with an average annual low of 32-41°F) however, late winter is a perfectly acceptable time to put frost-tolerant herbs like mint, milky oats, and chamomile into the ground. As we move through March, a fully fledged herbal garden can be completely set up. I spoke with Eileen Brantley, Herbalist and Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, about the ins and outs of starting this low maintenance, high utility garden.
Brantley currently tends to three acres at her home in a small rural town outside of Athens, Georgia. Despite the very wet land—a creek borders one side of her property—she is able to grow a decently full garden of various resilient, native plants. It was while taking part in an internship in permaculture in the city in Asheville, North Carolina, that she found her passion for herbalism and holistic medicine. “For so long it’s been my dream to make ends meet as an herbalist,” tells Brantley. She is currently working on the release of a line of energy bars that make use of her broad knowledge. When those ends do meet, she and her husband intend to move house and she will have a large garden dedicated to medicinal herbs.
GETTING A HEAD START
Milky oats can be planted as of a few weeks ago, directly into the ground outside. These are the not yet ripe seeds of the oat plants and contain high amounts of potassium and magnesium. European herbal medicine teaches that these nutrients make milky oats beneficial for the nervous system in treating epilepsy, depression, and improving cognitive function. A double-blind, placebo controlled study completed in 2020 found that memory and the ability to multitask were significantly improved after a dose of milky oats. On the end of your land, milky oats also make a fantastic ground cover to prevent the growth of unwanted weeds—a great boon for an early season plant.
Calendula and chamomile are also fairly frost resistant, but Brantley likes to start them inside. Both produce different types of beautiful and fragrant yellow flowers, making them a sure visual sign of springtime and adding a pop of color to your garden. Calendula is most prized for its uses topically: it increases collagen production in the skin, decreases inflammation, and promotes the healing of wounds. It also contains high amounts of flavonoids that, taken internally, have been proven to help with oral health and even killing cancer cells. Chamomile is not only aromatherapeutic but proven to reduce anxiety and promote better sleep through interaction with gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) receptors similar to benzodiazepines.
Brantley and I have both found that some of our favorite so-called “perennial” plants seem to be annual in the warmer southern climate. “The patch of lemon balm I planted five years ago comes back every year,” she laughs. Lemon balm works similarly to chamomile, and is a lovely, leafy, and fragrant addition to the landscape of your garden. As its name suggests, the smell is a bit like a sweeter lemon, and it makes a deeply enjoyable GABA-promoting tea. Oregano, mint, nettle, yarrow, and even the sweetener stevia will also “come back every year, and are very tasty, very useful,” says Brantley. I myself like to show off the spoils of my garden to guests by wrapping my cool air-loving sugar snap pea pods in a leaf of lemon balm or stevia for a quick, refreshing snack.
While nettle is intimidating to many due to being fast spreading and irritating to skin, this function is only a defense mechanism to protect its highly medicinal qualities. “One client of mine has rheumatoid arthritis, and she says the only thing that touches it is fresh nettle leaf,” explains Brantley. Her client is not alone—a study in 2012 analyzed its use for inflammatory conditions and found it to be highly beneficial. To contain nettle’s growth, Brantley recommends burying any old iron rods and sheets about 4 feet into the ground. If you don’t feel like digging a big hole, the cold-tolerant nettle is very happy growing in galvanized metal tubs.
YOUR OWN PERSONAL ECOSYSTEM
The best way to build any garden is to include a variety of plants. “To create a little medicinal herbal ecosystem,” says Brantley, “you want to include trees, shrubs, flowering plants, herbaceous plants, and vines.” One medicinal tree that is actually native to Tennessee is elderberry: a tasty berry high in vitamin C (with 57% of your daily value in one cup) that have been used for ages to boost the immune system and treat respiratory illness. “Elderberry is a staple, and you can plant it now through all of March,” Brantley advises. The trees will be happy and low maintenance in full sun somewhere along a stream or creek with loamy soil—just don’t grow them near sedges (tall grasslike plants).
For extra bees in your garden, anise hyssop is an herbaceous perennial ready to be planted at the same time. Bees will flock to the long, purple flowers. Also a native plant, anise hyssop has long been used by the Native Americans for calming nerves and treating pain. A review study in 2016 found that it was also effective in reducing the spread of Herpes Simplex Virus in mice by 50%. Not only is it an effective medicine, but as a member of the mint family, it’s very fragrant and tasty. Enjoy some in a tea or bath.
For those who find their time availability and soil quality to be particularly low, Brantley recommends blue vervain. “It’s great to grow if you have dry, shitty soil,” she explains. A tall growing herb with small blue flowers, the roots of blue vervain have been long-used to improve mood and aid in the treatment of pain and respiratory illness. A study on rats in 2020 backed the notion that it can be used to treat depression, so you can help that lack of motivation to water with a plant that will accept it. It’s also been proven to have antimicrobial properties, explaining its effectiveness against infectious diseases and pain.
For a helpful vine, passionflower is a perfect option. A native climbing vine with big, blueish-purple flowers, passionflower is an excellent anti-anxiety treatment that will also beautify your space. A study in 2001 compared the anti-anxiety effects of passionflower to the drug Oxazepam, finding that it was helpful in promoting a sense of calm and well-being without the unwanted side effect of impairing the ability to work. Translation? You can feel better without getting high and paying a ton of money.
Brantley noted that many medicinal herbs are “impossible to kill,” and she loves to grow them for that reason. Asking herself, “How can I do the least amount and get the most reward?” she has found over time that some medicinal plants are extremely forgiving. Hawthorn is one perennial shrub in the rose family which produces adorable light pink flowers and falls into this group. The leaves, flowers, and berries of hawthorn are all useful by way of their flavonoids to treat heart conditions. A study in 2002 deemed it “promising” in lowering the blood pressure of patients with hypertension.
Echinacea is another flower that can persist. Widely popular for immune system development, it is a tall purple perennial that bees love. Unlike vitamin C, which can buff the immune system to prevent illness when taken consistently, echinacea has been proven to reduce the length of illness already taking place.
Brantley also insists that “no medicinal garden is complete without comfrey,” a native shrub that grows small purple, blue, or white flowers. Comfrey has traditionally been used for muscle sprains, burns, and bruises. A research review of the plant stands behind this idea and found that external uses of comfrey for sprained ankles, back pain, abrasions, and even osteoarthritis.
AS THE WEATHER WARMS
Past the danger of frost, some of the stars of herbal medicine are ready for planting. My personal favorite, ashwagandha, is a nightshade that will happily grow alongside tomatoes and peppers. Ashwagandha is a traditional Ayurvedic medicine that does it all—it helps with focus, energy, memory, blood sugar reduction, anti-anxiety, and even testosterone production. These uses are all completely proven and broadly accepted. Many dietary supplements include ashwagandha to improve all-around health.
Much like ashwagandha, holy basil is a long-used Ayurvedic and Taoist health tonic. As a bonus, it produces long purple flowers that smell wonderful. I like to grow it indoors year-round, but it will be happy outdoors in Tennessee by as soon as late March. It is another famously useful herb, known for a long list of uses like reducing stress and depression, protect against a variety of toxins, lower blood sugar and cholesterol, and protect against ulcers. It’s a super plant that only asks for a bit of warm air and water.
Originating from Asia and Europe, elecampane produces large yellow flowers and is also ready for planting in late March. The root has been traditionally used to treat respiratory and stomach problems, and the science stands with it. High in prebiotic fiber, elecampane root will promote the growth of healthy gut microorganisms when taken as a supplement. It’s also been proven to have strong enough antibacterial properties to fight infections like MRSA.
MAINTAINING THE LAND TO MAINTAIN YOUR BODY
Brantley and I both are in agreement that taking care of your garden doesn’t have to be intensive labor. Most of the above plants don’t even require fertilizer, and watering is “a balancing act.” “The more you water, the more you encourage shallow root growth,” she explains. “It’s like giving a kid too much candy.” For strong and healthy plants that show their glory above ground, you only need to water once or twice a week—they will adapt to the conditions you set.
With such a small investment in time and labor, there is nothing to stop you from picking up your first seeds and getting started on your own medicinal garden today. Not only will you upgrade plain dirt and grass visually, but contribute to a more lush landscape generally. And for those more concerned with themselves, all of these plants will grow large, be unappealing to garden pests, and supply you with a massive stock of supplements and medicine your local health food store would gladly use to clean out your bank account. As many herbal medicinal plants are first resistant, you’ll have useful plants in production long into the colder months. There are only benefits to growing this kind of garden. Don’t be scared!