spring is in the air, and herb gardeners' libidos are pounding at the chance to turn winter fantasies into reality. To turn your yard or apartment balcony into a patch of medicinal flora, it's time to start nurturing your tiny seeds indoors. You could, of course, wait for later and buy little seedlings, but you'll get more plants for fewer dollars if you take advantage of these four to six weeks before outdoor planting season begins.
To get seeds, try Kettleby Herb Farm near Aurora, which offers organic seeds by mail. Or visit the amazingly verdant Humber Nurseries in Brampton or any White Rose or Weall and Cullen.
Plant the tiny specks in flat trays and barely cover with soil, or use 3- inch pots. Keep warm. When it's time to put in the ground in late May, remember that the only soil herbs won't grow in is clay. Choose a well-drained spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight daily. Mint can tolerate shade.
Here are some of the most popular herbal plantables:
CALENDULA -- daisy-like plant with colourful orange and yellow blooms in August. Parts used: flower centre, petals. Uses: expensive European skin ointments; flowers edible; the juice is a softening agent that heals scarring. Use in tea to cleanse the body of toxins (avoid internally if pregnant). Growing tips: can be seeded directly into garden -- easy to grow.
WILD CAMOMILE -- sweet, delicately scented annual of the daisy family. Part used: flower heads. Uses: popular in tea made from either fresh or dried flowers; add flowers or oil to bath for relaxation. Growing tips: sow seedlings in dry, sandy soil. Likes sun.
DANDELION -- common perennial with yellow flowers from late spring to mid-summer, followed by seed heads. Parts used: root, leaves. Uses: leaves relieve water retention; effective against liver ailments; improves digestion; excellent blood purifier. Valuable general tonic when combined with nettles and wild leeks. Avoid in gallbladder inflammation. Growing tips: stop spraying lawn with pesticides and you'll have them, or plant French dandelion seeds. Eat the young leaves in salads and use the root in the fall as a tonic.
ECHINACEA -- (purple coneflower) perennial on thick, bristly stem growing to 45 cm with faintly aromatic, purple flowers. Native to North America, it was one of the most important herbs for First Nations. Part used: rootstock. Uses: strengthens and stimulates the immune system. Growing tips: sow seed in well-manured soil in late spring or early summer when soil is warm.
FEVERFEW -- perennial plant with hairy stems and a cluster of daisy-like flowers. Part used: leaves. Uses: indigestion, sleeplessness and headaches. Growing tips: plant in well-drained soil in a sunny, sheltered area.
STINGING NETTLE -- perennial with dark-green leaves covered with bristly, stinging hairs, clusters of greenish flowers in mid-summer to mid-autumn. Parts used: young leaves in salads; leaves, flowers dried for tea. Uses: rejuvenating tonic, high in vitamins and minerals. Effective for anemia, arthritis, hay fever; improves thyroid function and hair loss.
PEPPERMINT -- Parts used: leaves. Uses: digestive tea. Growing tips: difficult to grow from seed -- use cuttings or buy plant. Shade-tolerant.
EXPERTS"Many medicinal herb gardeners practise bio-dynamic farming, where you plant and harvest according to the moon's cycles. Plant the seeds at full moon and harvest at full moon between 11 am and 1 pm, when the plant is at its most potent medicinally."
"You need to starve your herbs. Put them in the worst part of your garden and ignore them. Never fertilize them. By stunting them you stress them and force their energy into making more oil instead of growth."
Jean Paul Lemarche
Humber Nurseries Herb House
"In the spring, add a shovelful of sheep manure or good compost around the base of the plants."
Kettleby Herb Farm