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

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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.

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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

Spring in Portland

It rains a lot in the Pacific Northwest but, if we stayed in the house every time it was raining, our gardens would never get planted. March is the month I start to get a few plants in the ground such as; my kitchen herbs (parsley, oregano, chives, and thyme), cover crop (red clover), greens (kale, spinach, arugula), sweet peas (my favorite annual flower), and beans. I begin to cut back some of my herbaceous plants and amend the soil with compost. I transplant any shrubs or herbaceous plants and divide ground covers.

The wonderful thing about the spring rains is you can count on the garden getting watered most days until July. Today, it was pouring down rain and Gus and I put on our rain coats and planted kale.

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To protect newly planted seedlings, I save egg shells to crush and sprinkle around plants to deter slugs. They won’t crawl over any sharp surfaces, so, they will completely avoid the egg shells. When the shells break down, they supplement the soil with calcium, which plants love, particularly tomatoes.

In April, I start seeds in the house. I use empty plastic salad greens container because they are perfect for containing water, soil and the plastic keeps the soil warm enough to germinate the seed.

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The key to germinating seeds is warm soil, sunlight, and water. You cannot let seeds or newly sprouted seedlings dry out and the seed starter mixes are not meant to retain moisture. If the soil dries out, likely, your plants will not thrive. Find a sunny spot in your house to place your starts and don’t forget to water them.

Many vegetables such as tomatoes , eggplant, squash, peppers pumpkins and melons won’t appreciate the cooler spring days, so wait until May or June to plant them in the garden. The same goes for basil and some other warm weather herbs.

Some rainy day, grab some coffee and start visiting nurseries and shopping for seeds, starts, and more plants. As I alway say, you can never have enough plants.

Garden Makeover

Ever notice a small section of your yard that you either don’t use, is tucked away in a shady corner or you don’t see often enough to put your energy into? While it makes sense to focus one’s limited time and resources to work on parts of your garden that are highly visible, there are some spaces you can transform into a more useful space without much effort. 

For example, in my yard there is a small, narrow corner between our property line and porch that has an ugly chain link fence along two sides. It has a mature white lilac hedge (gasp! Yes, white, it is criminal all lilacs should all be purple). A bird feeder hangs from one lilac making this a poplar spot for birds. I have a view of the area from a picture window in the living room and I decided this spring was time to give it new life and maybe find another spot for Gus’ plastic pool.

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Lilacs are fairly invasive as they “sucker” and often preclude many other plants from growing around them. Today, my goal was to convert the area into a more inviting place for birds, snakes and insects. Snakes love to eat mice and slugs making them a lovely addition to any garden.

I cleared out the lilac suckers, a pile of old bricks and other debris I found hiding in there and relocated the plastic pool. The next step was to spread out fresh compost and add native plants such as nine bark, Oregon grape, mock orange, evergreen huckleberry and ferns (not yet planted) in between the lilacs. I placed some cherry firewood along the perimeter of the chain link fence to add character and prevent soil from eroding down the slope on both sides. I also placed piles of smaller sized logs to create texture and habitat. I moved a bird bath from the side yard over to this area so the bird’s food and water is in one convenient location.

This project took a couple of hours this afternoon. Prior to getting started, Gus said, “mama, let’s get digging” as he stood with his shovel ready to help. He was excited about the idea of creating bug and snake habitat and wanted to be part of the renovation. Gus found worms and got distracted by a little side project of washing them off in our kitchen sink before returning them to the garden. He said they were “dirty” and needed to be rinsed off.

This spring, identify a location in your yard that needs some love and could be repurposed from a place you don’t use to a place that is frequently used by other creatures. Use native plants to avoid having to water them once established and let them do what they do best, which is grow wild.photo 2photo-4

Ecoroof in the Garden

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Garden shed ecoroof

Last summer, my husband wanted to build a “garden shed” to replace the tiny dry-rotted structure we had in the driveway. I was thrilled about having a place to store garden tools and bikes, but struggled with the idea of having more impervious surface on our property. TJ agreed and decided to build an ecoroof on top of the shed to collect the storm water runoff.

The ecoroof captures rainfall and the overflow is directed down the sloped roof to a gutter, which flows into a 500-gallon water tank. There is a hose connected at the bottom of the tank so we can water the garden or use in case of emergency. The average annual rainfall in Portland, Oregon is about 40 inches. That is a lot of water that could be used on plants instead of going into the city’s storm drains.

TJ consulted the City of Portland’s Ecoroof Program web site for more information on design details. He had to construct the shed to withstand the weight of the soil and plants on the roof. TJ laid down a pervious membrane, hung the gutters and directed the flow into the water tank. Along three places on the roof, we placed some flat rocks above the gutter to slow down the rainfall and minimize erosion during heavy rains.

Following construction in October 2013, I climbed onto the roof with my shovel and a cup of coffee. It was time to plant!  Although I had never designed an ecoroof, I knew I wanted a mix of grasses, sedums, and spring bulbs. Below is the plant list I came up with:

Sedum Silver Moon, Red Ice SedumSisyrinchium Quaint and Queer, Armeria juniperifolia, October plant Sedum siebodii, Sedum “button”, Cape blanco – Sedum spathulifolium, black mondo grass, Echeveria secunda, Hens & chicks Sempervivum rojin, Double alpine geranium Erodium reichardii “Flore pleno”), Sedum reflexum “blue spruce,” blue oat grass, Mexican feather grass, Iris bulbs

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Michele laying out the plants on the ecoroof

Another feature on the roof is a metal bowl filled with stones and water which serves as a “bug bath” for bees and other insects. Last year, the bug bath was in the garden and was visited by tons of bees. I also put a small piece of driftwood on the roof for insects to use as habitat.

This summer, I plan to track all the critters I observe using the ecoroof to evaluate its habitat value. While our house sits on a busy city street, I see my urban lot as an important corridor for bees, insects and wildlife. The ecoroof serves as another spot in the yard for creatures to use.

TJ sold me on the idea of a garden shed and he built it using old cedar and vintage windows he salvaged from one of his construction projects. It was well on its way to being a beautiful, eco-friendly structure until he left the lawnmower in the yard, hung up our bikes and shoved my garden tools onto a small shelf so high I can barely reach them and moved in his tools and two motorcycles. As evidence in the photo below, our “eco-friendly”garden shed is really a motorcycle repair shop.  Sometimes in marriage, you just have to compromise, but I still have my planted roof and I love it.

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Why Use Native Plants?

For many years, I worked as a wetland biologist at an ecological firm and spent a lot of time in the field observing native plants and the wildlife that rely on these ecosystems. I saw the devastating effects of invasive plants, some of which had escaped from residential gardens. It is important to understand that not all plants support wildlife equally.

Native plants support native birds, insects and wildlife. When invasive plants take over our gardens, natural areas, and parks, they decrease biodiversity and threaten habitats. Invasive vines twist themselves around trees and overtake the canopy ultimately killing trees that provide storm water benefits, shade, habitat and minimize erosion.

When I was home in the city, I saw urban gardens full of non-native and invasive plants. I wondered, why aren’t more people growing native plants and edibles in their gardens? I saw a lot of potential for these urban garden spaces to be filled with native plants, pollinators, and wildlife. That is what compelled me to put my plant knowledge to good use and start Purple Garden, a garden design business.

Native plants are also adapted to the climate they evolved in, which makes them less likely to require irrigation. Some of my favorite easy to grow Northwest natives include: Douglas hawthorn, blue blossom, vine maple, mock orange, highbush cranberry, Indian plum, salal, vine maple, evergreen huckleberry, red flowering current, black twinberry, snowberry, evergreen huckleberry, Oregon grape, alumroot, Cardwell’s penstemmon, piggy-back plant, wild ginger, white yarrow, deer fern, checker mallow, sword fern, and trillium.

To learn more about native plants, check local web sites for information on native plant sales in your area. You can typically buy plants for much less than retail prices. In the Portland Metro area, contact the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, Backyard Habitat Program for information on their spring/fall native plant sales.

Stinging Nettles

FH050005March is Stinging Nettle Harvest Time

So why isn’t everyone growing stinging nettles? Maybe because they deliver an unpleasant sting when they come into contact with your skin. These plants have tiny little hairs on them that contain formic acid. This is the same chemical those pesky red fire ants that roam around the sands of the southeastern United States contain.

Nettles do not sting when they are cooked, steeped in teas, or dried. Nettles are rich in iron, calcium, Vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, chromium, flavonoids, histamine, and serotonin. These plants help to alleviate the symptoms of seasonal allergies. Since I have been drinking nettle tea for the past 9 years, I have been able to eliminate the need for allergy medication. The only side effect of consuming nettles is a mild diuretic effect, so don’t drink right before bed.

You can make nettle tea, nettle spinach pie, or saute them in a little olive oil and tamari sauce. This plant is not only beautiful in the garden, but the birds love to eat the seeds they produce in the late spring.

If you decide to harvest stinging nettles, you must do so before they begin to flower, which is typically in late spring. Once the plants flower, their chemistry changes and they form calcium concretions, which can be harmful to the urinary tract. Don’t forget to take a pair of gloves.

Painting by Amy Ponteri

Painting by Amy Ponteri