learn. heal. grow.

NF echinaceawelcome to gardenmedicine, home to information about creating beautiful landscapes that feed your eyes, your body and your soul. on these pages i’ll discuss growing and using specific medicinal plants, shrubs that can help your garden be more productive, herbs that feed the pollinators on which we depend, and flowers and weeds that help keep you healthy.

you’ll also find extensive links to resources for herbal and gardening information, as well as herbal and gardening educational programs.


Orna is spending the late summer of 2009 as writer-in-residence at Newforest Institute in Brooks, Maine. As part of her time there, she will be doing a community presentation about natural medicine on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Community dinner starts at 6 p.m. and the talk begins at 7 p.m. The event is free, with donation requested for dinner. More details coming soon!


By Orna Izakson

There are two ways to start your first garden. The long way is to go to every garden center in walking, biking, driving distance, order and pore over every seed and plant catalog in existence, and spend a lot of time reading in the library or at the bookstore before getting a smidge of dirt on your hands.

The short way is to just get outside and get dirt on your hands.

I’m a long-time gardener and avid reader and noodler, so I took the long way. Then one day two friends dug a big oregano and some strawberries out of their garden for me and said “these need to be in the ground by tomorrow.” And that’s what got me out of my books and into the dirt.

By all means, order and read every catalog, and borrow or buy lots of books. Each contains a ton of information that will otherwise take you a long time to learn. But in the end you can’t garden from a book — you have to garden with your knees in the soil.

So here’s a step-by-step plan for getting your first garden going, the easy way.

Origanum vulgare (oregano)

Origanum vulgare (oregano)

1. Find your garden space

Access to sun: Most of what you’re likely to want to grow at first will be easy food crops that live for only one season, plants like peas, beans, tomatoes, potatoes and greens. All of those like as much sun as they can get. So look around the area you plan to plant and see where you get the most sun. Ideally you’ll have a spot with no big, tall, shady trees or buildings directly to the south, and that gets unshaded sun for most of the day.

Access to water: It should also be within reach of a hose, or you’ll spend a lot of muscle power hauling water around.

Access to soil: Your site should be dirt or grass, not gravel or pavement. If you’re worried about toxics in your soil, get it tested. Many plants will pull nasty chemicals out of the soil; that’s great for the soil, but you probably don’t want to eat them. If your spot is grassy, try piling flattened cardboard boxes or wet newspaper on it as soon as you know you want a garden; that will help kill the grass and make spring digging easier.

2. Decide what you want to grow
For your first garden, look for easy choices first. Some of the easiest plants to grow are herbs, peas, lettuce, beans, summer squashes like zucchini, tomatoes and potatoes. You might want to wait to grow foods like broccoli, melons and peppers until you’ve had more time to feed your soil and get some experience. Catalogs and garden centers will give you lots of choices — purple string beans, red speckled lettuce, black zucchini, yellow beets. The catalogs will give you basic information about when and how to plant. For instance, lettuce seeds don’t want to be buried under the soil, just sprinkled on top where they get sunlight. Peas, on the other hand, want to go an inch or two under the ground. Potatoes like to start in a trench and have soil mounded up around to support — but not cover — their growing leaves. Some beans (like peas) grow in bushes, but others need to climb strings or fences or tipi poles made of tree branches or bamboo or even 2x4s. All of that is in the catalogs.

3. Buy what you want to grow
Order the seeds or buy plants at the nursery (click here for local resources.) When you’re just getting started, you can buy seeds for things like potatoes (you’ll be buying small planting potatoes), kale, lettuce, beans and peas, but get herbs, tomatoes and squashes as plants. (You can get the lettuces and kale and beans as plants, too, if you prefer.)

Be careful not to bring home too much! You’ll need to leave more space between most plants than you think, especially when you first get them home as babies. Your plants will be happier with some space for light and air between them, and so will you.

While you’re there, buy enough compost to cover your whole new garden area two to four inches deep.

4. Prepare the garden bed
Now that you’ve got the seeds or the plants, they’ll be calling to you day and night to give them a home. Some of them may survive in pots, but many of them will die! Isn’t that incentive to get digging?

If you’ve still got grass, now’s the time to dig it up. Use a shovel or a spade to slice under the grass, through the tough, thatchy layer of roots. It sometimes comes off in pretty clean slices. Shake good soil off the roots, and put the grass (stems and roots) into a separate compost area.

Loosen up the grass-free soil about 12 inches down. Cover with a few inches of compost and mix it all together.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can buy a kit to test the acidity of your soil, or its nutrient levels, and then buy products like lime (to reduce acidity) or organic fertilizers to make up for any deficiencies. Your plants will grow better if they have all the things they need. But basically plants want to live, and will likely give you some food as long as they have some nutrients from the compost and enough water.

5. Plant!
Now it’s time to put those babies in the ground!

If you’re growing from seeds, follow the directions in the catalog or on the packets, paying attention to what you can plant when. For instance, peas want to go into the ground early in the spring – February or even late January in Portland. Potatoes like wet weather and also go in early. But beans and squash will only rot in the soil if you plant them that soon. Wait until the days are generally pretty warm before putting them in the ground.

If you’re transplanting babies from the nursery, follow these directions: Prepare a hole about the size of the pot they came in. Gently tip the pot over onto your hand to remove the plant – never pull it out by the stem! Then place the plant in the hole, filling around it with soil to a point just a little bit further up the stem than the soil was in the pot. Ideally, the final soil level around the plant will be a little bit lower than the surrounding soil surface; in other words, the plant will be in a little bit of a depression. That will help water flow toward the roots.

You can also conserve water by mulching, which means piling loose organic stuff like leaves, grass clippings or straw (not hay, which has seeds) around the base of your plant. That keeps water from evaporating as quickly in the summer. You can get very fancy with mulches, using things like filbert shells or cocoa bean hulls, but it’s not necessary. Avoid wood chips, which can be made from wood treated with arsenic, and sawdust, which uses up a lot of nutrients and oxygen as it decomposes, stealing those goodies from your plants.

6. Dont forget to water!
Obviously watering isn’t a big concern during our rainy months. But when it gets dry out, you’ll want to water pretty much every day. Your plants will get the most from your efforts if you water in the evening, leaving them the cool night to soak up the moisture. Daytime water evaporates much more quickly, giving the plants less bang for your buck. Some plants, like tomatoes, prefer not to have wet leaves overnight. The best thing you can do for all your plants is to get a drip or soaker hose, which winds among your plants and delivers water directly to the top of the soil.

How much water is a question that’s hard to answer. Peas and potatoes like a lot of water. Tomatoes may ripen faster if you give them less. Again, garden catalogs will give you some sense of what you need, but the best thing is to ask a knowledgeable friend, or to just learn from trial and error. If the plants look really wilted in the early morning (not just at the end of a hot day), they probably need more water than you’re giving them.

Staffers at most nurseries and seed companies are fonts of garden wisdom. But this guide was prepared specifically because they can get swamped when the sun starts coming out, bringing all the new gardeners with it.

Ready to learn more? Follow these links to some favorite books, and seed companies and nurseries for your further education. If you’d like more structured teaching, check out these educational resources. And browse around this site, because, like a garden, it’s always sprouting something!

August bounty from the Newforest Institute gardens

August bounty from the Newforest Institute gardens

By Orna Izakson

Permaculturists have been searching for a sound-bite definition of their practice for years, and the process hasn’t turned up much that explains the concept well to the uninitiated. Jude Hobbs, a Permaculture instructor and landscape designer in Eugene, Ore., has a list with dozens of different attempts.

The concept is fundamentally about making everything fit, reassembling the pieces of life — food, community, animals, people — that have been shattered by the modern, industrial world. It’s about recreating a world that functions sustainably, recycles everything and works for people and the environment. It’s not just about gardening, but because food is a critical component of life, it’s therefore a critical component of a sustainable life.

Lofty as that sounds, permaculture is tremendously practical, dealing as it does with the basic stuff of living. It can be as simple as growing grapes above the hot tub so you can relax in shaded luxury while enjoying the fresh fruit of the vine. It can be planting herbs just outside the kitchen door to facilitate their fresh and medicinal uses in home-cooked cuisine.

But Permaculture designs also can be as intricate as a multi-layered forest garden, with plants ranging from roots crops and herbs to fruiting shrubs and trees that provide food and habitat, all laced together with twining, edible vines. It includes how you heat your home and water your garden, and urges you to think where and from whom you buy produce or building supplies. It’s about creating a system for food, shelter and community that becomes self perpetuating with little, if any, waste.

“The whole idea is to design your system so that when everything is up and running you string your hammock between two of the trees and you sit back and admire everything and reach out and pluck fruit off the trees,” says Toby Hemenway, a Permaculture teacher and author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. “That’s the basic idea: the designer recliner,” Hemenway says.

It can be done. Many annual food plants produce seed liberally, offering spring babies that volunteer near where their parents lived the year before. Perennial plants and fruit trees get better year after year, often with little tending. The Oregon’s Willamette Valley offers plenty of winter rain to store in tanks for watering a garden through the hot, dry summer.

Permaculture is about putting things into useful relationship to each other, like placing plants that need pollinators next to the bright, fragrant flowers that will attract them. In a Permaculture garden, as in nature, everything has multiple functions; in the Food Not Lawns garden in Eugene, even bindweed, the gardener’s bane, helps by tying tomato vines to their trellis.

Ancient Polynesian taro (Colocasia esculenta) terraces. Limahuli Garden, Ha'ena, Kaua'i, Hawai'i.

Ancient Polynesian taro (Colocasia esculenta) terraces. Limahuli Garden, Ha'ena, Kaua'i, Hawai'i.

The concept isn’t new. People around the world have been practicing sustainable lifestyles for millennia. In fact, the system of Permaculture itself is based in part on the agricultural systems used by indigenous peoples — like the ancient taro terraces pictured here, originally planted by Polynesians on Hawai’i.

Permaculture is growing in the United States, and learning opportunities abound. Check out the educational resources page and garden links as a starting point. Or spend some time with a book. Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden is a terrific starting place. See also Gardening to Change the World, a Eugene Weekly story from August, 2000.

flower power

By Orna Izakson

Rosa (Rose)

Rosa (Rose)

Gardening is the world’s most popular and enduring recreational activity, feeding the spirit and the body, reducing dependence on the florist and the supermarket, and, when done organically, curtailing the use of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Gardening feeds the senses with scent and color, and feeds the body with exercise, fresh air and the freshest—and therefore more vitamin-packed—foods.

But gardens can also feed your health in other ways: By growing your own medicine, you can reduce your trips to the doctor and pharmacist. Garden plants can help with everything from infections or insomnia to healing wounds and broken hearts. Best of all, you can grow these gems in a floriferous landscape that keeps the neighbors happy and boosts your property values.

Here is a small sample of the many flowers that do double duty in a vase and in your medicine cabinet:

Calendula (Calendula officinalis): These indefatigably cheery bright orange flowers are good for both the garden and the gardener. Like their marigold cousins, the plant deters pest insects.

Calendula’s sticky resin is superlative for healing wounds. Make a flower tea and use as a skin wash, or steep flowers in olive oil for two weeks and apply topically. Used internally, calendula combines well with drying herbs for respiratory infections. The dried flowers make a bright addition to wintertime teas—you can eat the whole flower as it floats around in your cup.

Even two or three plants will give more flowers than you can keep up with, self seeding prolifically to ensure your garden will always have their blooms. This annual plant is hardy to Zone 6, but may over-winter in warmer climates. Easy-going calendula tolerates many soil and sun conditions, but thrives in full sunlight.

Lavandula spp. (lavender)

Lavandula spp. (lavender)

Lavender (Lavandula spp.): Best known for its perfume, lavender is also a remarkably versatile medicine.

The chemicals that make lavender so wonderfully aromatic also make it a potent pathogen fighter. The name comes from the French word for washing; the earliest antimicrobial soaps were made with lavender. The flowers fight bacteria, viruses and fungi, and the essential oil helps heal wounds and burns.

Lavender is also deeply cheering in cases of sadness or mild depression. A hot cup of lavender tea, brought to you by a friend, is wonderful for alleviating a broken heart.

Cultivars of this mounding, Mediterranean perennial can grow larger than four feet high and wide. These sun lovers are hardy to Zone 5.

Passiflora cerulea (passionflower)

Passiflora cerulea (passionflower)

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata, P. edulis, P. caerulea.): Fast-growing, vining passionflower is one of the best herbal medicines for promoting sleep without making you feel drugged. It also has been used for the pain of shingles.

The flowers of these prolific climbers look almost extraterrestrial. Depending on the species, passionflowers can be hardy to Zone 6, evergreen unless knocked back by a cold snap. The sprawling vines require support, growing as much as 18 feet in a year. Warm-climate gardeners may even get some of the delicious tropical fruit.

Roses (Rosa spp.): Roses raise the spirits, both for their beauty and their medicine. Possibly the world’s most famous garden flower, roses come in every imaginable form, from groundcovers less than a foot tall to ramblers that clamber up trees or power poles. So many cultivars means there’s a rose for almost every situation, whether you live in chilly Zone 2, have a fully shaded yard, or garden within spitting distance of saltwater.

The most famous rose medicine comes from the fruit, known as hips, which are high in cold-fighting and antioxidant vitamin C. Picked after they soften in the year’s first frost, fresh hips are dried for tea or used fresh in jams.

Rose leaves, flowers and buds also make excellent medicine, calming the nerves, easing indigestion, and acting as a mild astringent for skin wounds or sore throats.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.):
This native of the North American prairies is not only striking, but one of the best known medicinal plants—Echinacea. This sun-loving, hardy perennial grows from Manitoba to Texas, thriving down to Zone 3 and growing grander each year. The medicinal species (Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia and E. pallida) are covered with two-inch to three-inch flowers, each with a corona of pink or purple petals surrounding a prominent, spiky seed cone.

From root to flower, all parts of this plant are medicinal. In summer, one way to get coneflower’s medicine is by cutting the central cone in quarters and biting the soft inner part like an orange slice. Be careful at first: The medicinal constituents will zing your tongue like pins and needles.

Echinacea is thought to be an immunity booster, best taken as early as possible in the case of infection. Ideally, begin taking the tea or tincture when you think you might get sick.