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Stinging Nettles

Stinging nettles, Urtica dioica, are native to the northern hemisphere. They are herbaceous, quick growing plants, spreading by roots to form a dense clump of ground cover. As they first pop up out of dormancy in the late winter or spring, they are less than an inch tall, very quickly growing up to eventually 3-5 feet tall when in flower and seed. One happy plant could grow eventually to a 10 foot+ wide patch in full sun to full shade. Nettles are hardy down to around negative 30° Fahrenheit, in USDA zones 4-9. They should be cut to the ground and composted in the fall.

When choosing a spot for your new plant(s), try to find a spot with rich, moist conditions. Here in Berkeley, CA, we mainly grow it under deciduous trees, where moisture is retained more easily. They are not aquatic plants, but they do appreciate lots of water if they can get it. As long as you give them decent soil and watering, they are a very easy and highly nutritious plant to grow.

Nettles are famous as medicinal plants with many uses and nutritive value. We are not going to give any herbal medicine information except to say that if you are pregnant or nursing, or have any autoimmune or medical conditions, you should consult your medical providers before consuming nettles.

Take special care in touching nettle plants as they are covered in silica-tipped hairs which cause irritation for most people. This can include itching, rashes, stinging sensations, etc that can last from minutes to days depending on skin sensitivity, exposure, etc. It is useful to wear close toed shoes, rubber gloves, long sleeves, and pants when harvesting or pruning nettles. You will want to collect the nettle leaves before the plant flowers in the spring or early summer. After it has flowered, it is considered toxic!

Russian Comfrey

Russian Comfrey is a wonderful plant in the garden, when planted in the right place (they can be hard to get rid of, so give it some thought before planting). Russian Comfrey is a great plant to grow for making fertilizer, activating compost piles or to help supplement animal feed. You can chop off the greens and mulch your tree collard plants with them, or make a fertilizer tea by filling a bucket with the leaves and covering them in water then letting it ‘brew’ for a few days. The plants can grow to about 3′ wide and 3′ tall.

Russian Comfrey is not edible for humans but it is an important part of a small homestead to help with fertility cycles. The plants’ deep and vigorous root system can help it accumulate a number of important minerals that are then stored in its leaves and can become available to other plants when used as a mulch. We know one organic farmer who has maintained the fertility of one of his fields from a large comfrey patch growing nearby (about 1/2 the size of the vegetable bed if I recall correctly). Three times a year he cuts the tops off the comfrey with a scythe and mulches the vegetable fields with the comfrey leaves. This could be done on a small scale in a home garden with just a few comfrey plants planted under a fruit tree or in a back corner to help build the soil. Also, animals such as chickens and rabbits love to eat the leaves.

The seed of this variety is sterile so this type of Russian Comfrey will not spread by seed, but they do tend to spread easily if you dig up the roots. If you want to remove a plant, they will readily regrow from any leftover roots, so it can take a few passes to remove permanently. If they are too heavily shaded out they will eventually tend to die back. We like to plant them under fruit trees such as Persimmon, Plums and Apple.

Elecampagne

Inula helenium, Elecampagne, is a wonderful ornamental, insectary plant, and medicinal herb to have on the homestead.  It is a perennial herb that boasts stunning yellow flowers on stalks 6-8 feet tall. The numerous bright yellow sun-flower-like flowers are arranged on branching side stems. The plant is best in full sun with moderate to high water (although the leaves look a bit like Mullein which is drought-tolerant) When not blooming, the short basal leaves are fuzzy, soft, and quilted and are a lighter yellowish-silverish-green. Perennial in USDA zones 3-8.

Can be grown as an ornamental perennial, but the root is also traditionally used in herbal medicine for lung ailments…including asthma, bronchitis, and whooping cough, by acting as an expectorant to help loosen phlegm. The root is used in its second year, not the year it is planted. In natural dying, roots yield a blue dye and the flowers a yellow-orange dye.

Mints

Mints are herbaceous, quick growing plants, spreading by roots to form a dense clump of ground cover. One happy plant could grow eventually to a 10 foot+ wide patch in full sun or partial shade. For this reason, many gardeners choose to plant mint permanently in pots so that they cannot become invasive in the garden. Mint leaves and stalks above ground are damaged by temperatures below 32°, but the roots are generally hardy in USDA zones 5-11. Some types of mint are hardier. To keep them robust, and healthy, they should be cut to the ground in the fall. Although mints can be grown in full sun, afternoon shade tends to keep the flavor of the leaves much sweeter, with less tendency to bitterness.

When choosing a spot for your new plant(s), try to find a spot with rich, moist conditions. Even though they are one of the easiest plants to grow, they are susceptible to pests especially while young. Here in Berkeley California, we grow mint under deciduous trees, where moisture is retained more easily. They are not aquatic plants, but they do appreciate water if they can get it. They can also be better controlled in the garden by receiving little water once established. Also, harvesting tips regularly, and pulling up running roots will be helpful to controlling your plants in the ground. Leaf flavors are best before flowering occurs in the summer, so plan accordingly for large harvests, as in harvests for tea.

While we cannot give an herbal medicine advise, we will say that mint is grown in many diverse cultures around the world to help enhance and improve digestion.

Mints are famous as culinary herbs with many uses from refreshing drinks to baking to salads. The different types of mint can impart unique flavors to your culinary creations. It is fun to experiment with their different flavors in your recipes. The mint flowers attract butterflies in summer and are a great addition to a permaculture or food forest homestead garden.  Here are some of the varieties we grow:

Pineapple Mint

Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’ is a favorite mint because it is not only delicious and eye catching in culinary dishes, but is also one of the most ornamental mints in the garden. Like most mints, it is deer resistant. When blooming in summer it attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. We love to use tender tips in salads and strawberry mint lemonade. It grows up to 2 feet tall and at least as wide. Not as invasive as some other mints. This  is a variegated selection of apple mint which is native to southwestern Europe and the Mediterranean. Occasionally, solid green stems appear. If not removed, more of this will occur and it will revert to its parent, the non-variegated version. USDA Zones 5–11.

Strawberry Mint

Strawberry mint is a delicate, smaller leaved mint with a pleasant fruity smell reminiscent of strawberries. A great garnish to dishes and desserts, or as a pleasant smelling ground cover. Though it isn’t quite as vigorous as some mints, Strawberry Mint can still spread via rhizomes, so you may wish to contain it in a pot. Like all mints, Strawberry Mint is easy to grow and hard to kill. Mint is an herb which aids in digestion.

Persian Mint

The bright green leaves of Persian mint are distinctive because they are long, thin, and oval in shape. The linear leaves are attached to long dark green stems which grow 2-3 feet high. It is extremely vigorous (invasive perhaps) in the ground, but can be controlled. Our patch is about 8-10 feet wide. Persian mint has a more delicate or subtle flavor than most mints. When cooked it possesses a slightly nutty flavor. We like to use it fresh in salad, due to its mildness and tenderness, and also as an infused flavor in water keifer or kombucha. It is also excellent in tabouleh or other Persian dishes. One of our favorite mints!

Lime Mint

Lime mint is a highly ornamental garden plant, with smooth, deep green rounded leaves with a hint of purple, and reddish purple stems. Very upright, with yummy edible purple flower spikes reaching 16 inches tall. Citrus-lime scent and flavor. Good tea mint or served with fruit punch, margarita’s or other drinks. Easy to grow perennial zones 4-9.

Orange Mint

Mentha x piperita citrata, Orange Mint is a vigorous, large growing plant, with large rounded leaves and a very strong orange/mint scent. Lovely as a culinary and tea plant. Give ample room or contain in a pot as this is a more vigorous mint plant. Prune plants back frequently to maintain flavor, fertilize lightly once a month in containers, and plant in some afternoon shade if in a hot area. Flowers are pink. Grows in USDA zones 4-9.

Berries and Cream

Berries and Cream Mint is a somewhat more compact form of mint. It has dark green leaves and a flavor profile that contains some berry overtones. It can make a great addition to creamy desserts and fruit smoothies and has a pleasant fruity aroma. Hardy to zone 5. Like most mints, Berries and Cream Mint can spread, so you may wish to contain it in a pot. It is not quite as vigorous as other mints, but given ample water and fertility it will soon start spreading. Bred by the late Jim Westerfield.

Thai Mint

Thai Mint is fast growing mint plant, with red stems and narrow spikes. It has a refreshing mint flavor with a hint of caraway. The flavor is considerably milder than peppermint or other mints such as chocolate mint that have a high menthol content. Therefore, it is a great addition to soups, salads, and stir fries when you want a minty flavor but don’t want to overpower the other flavors. Its tall red stalks are also an ornamental addition to the herb garden. Like many mints, Thai Mint can spread quickly.

Kentucky Colonel Mint

Kentucky Colonel Mint is a popular variety of mint with a classic spearmint taste (a bit milder that peppermint). It is commonly used in beverages such as mint limeade, mojitos, ginger mint tea and goes great with baked goods as well, especially chocolate. Has large leaves and a refreshing crisp taste. It is one of our favorite varieties of mint.

Mojito Mint

A real mojito can only be made with the true Mojito Mint. This culinary herb native to Cuba, was brought back to North America in 2006 by Toronto mojito enthusiast Catherine Nasmith. In addition to being central to the famous beverage, Mojito Mint also makes a great seasoning for lamb, other meats and confections.  An aromatic mint with sweet undertones, Mojito Mint tastes great with fresh squeezed lime. Grows 24 inches high and spreads around the same. Flowers are violet in the summer. Perennial in zones 5-9.

Pennyroyal

Mentha pulegium, is native to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  It is easy to grow.  It prefers full sun to part shade and moderate to low water.  (We have seen it naturalize in California and grow with no irrigation at all)  It is a low growing plant 4-6 inches tall and 18 inches wide.  Attractive lavender flowers in summer attract bees and butterflies. Good as a ground cover or trailing attractively in hanging baskets.  Looks and smells great in between stepping stones. USDA zones 6-9.

Pennyroyal has been used as a pest repellent and insecticide to keep fleas and mosquitos away from pets and humans. We  cannot take any responsibility for effects from the use of this plant medicinally, as there are contraindications. It should not be handled by pregnant women. Please, seek advice from a professional before using this plant medicinally.

Skullcap

Scutellaria Lateriflora,Scullcap, is an herb in the mint family. It’s a hardy perennial USDA zones 4-10. It gets one foot high and about 2 feet wide. We make no claims as to the medicinal qualities of the plant, but we will say that it is generally agreed that it works on the nervous system. Do your own research. It can have a calming effect on the mind and may be helpful for insomnia and anxiety.  Scullcap makes a profusion of small lavender flowers throughout the summer, providing an excellent food source for pollinators.  Skullcap plants in or around the vegetable garden will increase the biodiversity of insects, hence greatly aiding in natural or integrated pest management. It is one of the more beautiful medicinal herbs on the farm.

When planting, incorporate some compost into the soil. Plants don’t require much once established other than water and mulch. These plants are vigorous, and just a few of them can provide you with a supply of tea for the winter, or plenty to tincture. For tinctures it is best used fresh, not dried. We use tincture in a bedtime sleep enhancing formula. Dried Skullcap leaves are also a  potential ingredient to add to a bedtime tea for some people. As with all herb plants, consult an herbalist before consuming. This plant prefers to grow in full to part sun, and well drained soil. Once established, the plants are tolerant of deer, pests, and drought.

Lemon Balm

Melissa officinalis, Lemon Balm, is a lovely perennial herb to have around.  It is safe for children and adults alike.  We like to rub our hands on the leaves while walking past for an immediate mood boost, so it is good to plant next to a path.  The scent is uplifting and tastes great as a sun tea or as hot herbal tea.  Lemon Balm is one of the easiest plants to grow in a garden and may reseed in your garden, giving you even more stalks for tea or tincture.  It is also lovely infused in olive oil for salves. The leaves have a somewhat lemon-grass like scent that generally delights everyone who comes across it. As always, consult an herbalist to see if it is a good herb for you and do your own research.

The plants grow 1-3 feet high and 1 foot wide and are drought-tolerant once established. Grows in full sun to part shade. Flowers attract bees and butterflies. Cut stalks to the ground after flowering to get fresh new growth. Likely to self seed in your garden for the following year. Perennial in zones 5-9.

Hyssop

Hyssopus officinalis, a non-invasive member of the mint family, is an easy-to-grow ornamental herb and shrubby evergreen. It is deer resistant and perennial in zones 3-11. It gets up to 24″ high and 36″ wide and grows best in full sun. Hyssop looks lovely when accompanied by other purple perennials like Lavender, Santolina, and Berberis. It looks great in a border, amongst ornamentals, and in the vegetable garden. We love to grow Hyssop around and under tree collards (our specialty) because it helps deter the cabbage moth from laying its’ eggs.

Hyssop blooms profusely, attracting butterflies and bees. Hyssop honey is deliciously sweet if you keep bees. Hyssop is also used to flavor some alcohols and liqueurs like Absinthe. This aromatic herb produces fragrant blue flowers on spikes. Hyssop has a sweet, fruity scent in arrangements, but is quite bitter when consumed as tea. It is most commonly used as a drying cough expectorant. Often combined with Horehound and honey in tea form, Hyssop creates a natural alternative to store-bought cough syrups.

A very pungent herb, Hyssop is sometimes added to stews and salads for a strong taste or used as a garnish. Fresh leaves can be added to soft cheeses, butters, sauces and dips. Experiment with small amounts because it can be bitter. The flowers are milder flavored and can be used as a garnish.

Yarrow

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a spreading warm season perennial with upright flower stalks. It grows quickly and blooms throughout the summer months. White flowers rise 2-3 feet above the ferny green foliage below. The herbaceous fragrance is bewitching when handled. It is drought tolerant but also gets more lush with irrigation. Suggested spacing is 1′-2′ apart. DEER RESISTANT! Hardy perennial in USDA Zones 3-9.

The uses for yarrow in a garden are MANY! For starters, the flowers are beautiful in the garden and in cut flower arrangements. They also attract butterflies so they are essential in a butterfly garden. They also attract a beneficial wasp that attacks codling moth, so yarrow is a wonderful way to avoid worms in every apple when planted around apple trees.  Yarrow, and other umbelliferous plants can be a part of Integrated Pest Management, IPM, in your garden.

Yarrow is also well known as a medicinal herb and is an absolute must for an herbalists’ garden. Medicine is more potent when plants are given less water. We will not make claims on its medicinal uses, but they are easily found in every herb book and on the web. It is most frequently used as a tea, tincture, or topical salve.  It is most often noted for its’ wound healing and digestive properties.

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