Herb Gardens

Herbs, taken by Tricia Weber

Herbs, photo taken by Tricia Weber

I recently taught a herb gardening class and emphasized how easy herbs are to grow. Friends always ask, “what should I plant?” The best way to get started is to make a list of herbs you want to cook or make medicine with.

Herbs can be used to make teas, tinctures, honey, or salves, all of which are easy to make. If you are not familiar with a particular herb, make sure to do some research so you know which plant parts to use as not all parts are edible. Also, know which species to use, for example black and blue elderberries are edible but, not the red. There are certain plants such as nettles that need to be harvested at specific times in the plant’s life cycle. Some herbs are best when harvested in year two of its life (typically true when harvesting roots).

See the lists below suggesting ways to use specific herbs. All the plants listed can be grown in the NW and in more gardens in the US. Many of them are perennials and will return the following spring. I recommend purchasing herbs in 4-inch pots to get your garden started. Some herbs are easy to grow from seed such as: calendula, borage, oats, nasturtium, sunflowers, and basil.

You don’t have to grow all the herbs you want to use as many are available at farmer’s markets, co-ops, herb stores or can be harvested from the wild. I have placed an asterisk next to the herbs that tend to be invasive and are best purchased at the store or vigilantly contained in your yard.

Herbs for an every day tea
nettles, chamomile, lemon verbena, peppermint*, spearmint*, oats, red raspberry (leaves), thyme, basil

Sleepy time herbs
catnip, chamomile, hops, skullcap, motherwort*, valerian

Herbs to promote relaxation and calming
valerian, skullcap, chamomile, catnip, wood betony, hops, oats, St. John’s wort*, lemon balm* , lavender, holy basil

Respiratory system herbs
elecampane, blue or black elderberry (not red),echinacea, garlic, cayenne pepper, marshmallow, sage, yarrow, hyssop, lobelia, eucalyptus, Oregon grape, mullein, fenugreek

Digestive system herbs
mint*, parsley, catnip, thyme, oregano, coriander, dill, chamomile, fennel*, rosemary, marjoram

Herbs for making skin salves
St. John’s wort*, calendula*, chamomile, peppermint*, arnica, plantain

Edible flowers
nasturtium, violet, borage*, calendula*, pansy, sunflower, hibiscus, chive blossoms

Herb vines
hops, passion flower, grapes

Wild foods to cook
dandelion*, nettles, horseradish, watercress, nettles, chickweed, amaranth*, burdock*

Edible berries
blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, huckleberries, kiwi, figs, gomi,aronia, Chinese wolfberry, akebia vine, blue or black elderberry, cherries, choke cherry

Herbal bath salts
lemon verbena, rose geranium, lavender, wild roses, rosemary, peppermint*

Herbal honey
roses, elecampane,cayenne pepper, blue or black elderberry

Pollinator attracting herbs
echinacea, bee balm, basil, yarrow, wild roses, calendula*, chamomile, mints*, borage*, motherwort*

Some of my favorite herb gardening books
The Family Herbal, Rosemary Gladstar
Growing 101 Herbs that Heal, Tammi Hartung
Herbal Tea Gardens 22 Plans for Your Enjoyment & Well Being, Marietta Marshall Marcin
Easy Growing, 
Gayla Trail
Designing the New Kitchen Garden, An American Potager Handbook,
Jennifer R. Bartley

Where to Buy Herb Starts in Portland, OR
Farmer’s Markets
Garden Fever
Portland Nursery
Livingscape Nursery
Dekum Street Doorway
New Seasons
Whole Foods
Blue Heron Herbary

Sharing the Garden

Since my son was one, I have been telling him “you need to share!” This message seems flawed because most of us don’t really want to share. Since gaining a husband, a dog and having a child, I am now forced to share the garden with three other creatures. I have learned that tolerance and compromises are a must.

Creature #1 – My toddler Gus

Children can be very destructive, so I have made a few attempts to child proof the garden. I have dedicated a small section to Gus and his outdoor construction toys. This area has exposed soil for him to dig in and the only down side is having to frequently weed it as nature abhors bare ground. This spring, I am going to plant an ecolawn mixture and if it gets dug up, no big deal. I am not sure I will have the luxury of actually letting the ecolawn get established without anyone trampling it.


Planting herbs, edibles and flowers in tall raised beds has been successful in deterring toddler predation. This has generally worked, although there have been times when Gus has climbed into the beds with his metal backhoe and destroyed an entire winter cover crop. I have gotten more savvy and now recruit him to plant the cover crop seeds so he remembers there is something in there.

Another way to child proof is not to plant anything that is toxic or stings. I have a small patch of stinging nettles in the front yard and while they are not easily accessible, it is a valuable teaching opportunity for him to learn this plant so he can avoid it in the wild. We talk about nettles so he understands they will sting if he touches them.

My days of planting members of the Datura genus such as Angel’s trumpet and moon flower are basically on hold. While many of its members are toxic if ingested, most parts of these plants contain toxic hallucinogens, so if you happen to touch them and rub your eye, your pupils will dilate potentially resulting in a trip to the ER where your toddler looks like they just took a hit of LSD. Best to avoid this scenario.

Other common toxic plants include; hellebores, foxgloves, rue, bleeding heart, lily, iris, daphne, and deadly nightshade, a very common invasive garden weed. English ivy, which can be found in many gardens, is very toxic to cats and one seed from the castor bean plant can kill a dog if ingested. Giant hogweed looks very similar to the NW native cow parsnip. It grows as tall as 7 feet and can cause a nasty rash.

We take our kids berry picking and we harvest plants from our gardens, which sends the message that (all) plants are safe to eat. As a child gets older, it is helpful to explain they cannot pick any old berry and eat it unless they can correctly identify them or ask an adult.

Just when I thought my indoor plants were safe, last weekend Gus used his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sword  to hack a few of my houseplants. There is not much left of my Christmas cactus and it is safe to say it will not be blooming this December or ever again.

Creature #2 – Buddy Collie (the border collie)

Buddy Collie

Buddy Collie

Buddy Collie is a good guy and generally behaves himself in the garden for two reasons. One, there are raised beds so he cannot trample the herbs, edibles, and flowers. Two, I have left a 3-foot perimeter between my shrub and berry border and the fence line. A vet friend once told me dogs like to wander the perimeter of their yard. If there is a fence, that is where they will likely patrol to do their business. This has been true of all three of our dogs. Buddy still chases squirrels in the yard, but there is not much I can do about that. Herding is in his canine genes.

Creature #3 –  My husband

One year, my husband wanted to plant corn. He is from Iowa, so of course he wants to grow corn. I was not really on board because corn requires lots of water and the cooler nights of the NW are not conducive to its preferred grow conditions. We (I) agreed to take up precious raised bed space for TJ’s corn and while it did not taste very good, we ate it. The unexpected surprise was for me was how tall the corn grew and formed a natural wall physically separating our garden from the driveway. I thought this looked great. Also, Gus loved watching the corn grow and repeatedly referred to it as “daddy’s corn.” It was well worth the extra water that summer.

Ever once in a while, my husband comments about how “overgrown” the native plants in the front yard look and how he wishes they were more tame. Sorry, but no compromise there because they are native, wild and will remain as nature intended.

Wild native shrubs in front yard

Wild front yard