Gardening for Good Health
The founder of Avena Botanicals shares her secrets for medicinal herb gardening.
By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photographed by Hannah Welling
Author, teacher, and gardener Deb Soule has spent four decades studying the medicinal uses of plants. She is also the creator of Avena Botanicals, where she and a dozen employees handcraft salves, tinctures, teas, and other herbal remedies from more than 150 varieties of plants organically grown in her three-acre Rockport garden. In June, Soule self-published her second book, How to Move Like a Gardener: Planting and Preparing Medicines from Plants. Her weekly video blog on plants and health has had more than seventeen thousand views. But most days, Soule can be found leading community herb walks, harvesting roots, flowers, and leaves in a large wooden basket, or lending a hand in Avena’s new apothecary.
You’ve been growing medicinal herbs since you were sixteen. What got you started?
I was really fortunate to grow up in a rural town in Maine with my grandmother, who had a very strong relationship with the natural world. Then when I was fifteen, someone gave me Diet for a Small Planet, and that inspired me to start growing vegetables. An old man down the road gave me a little plot to use. Someone gave me Juliette de Bairacli’s book, Common Herbs for Natural Health. So, after reading her book, I started to notice the wild plants around me that had uses, and I started to add medicinal and culinary plants into my garden.
What a gift.
It was a gift. Herbal medicine is the oldest form of medicine on our planet.
What were you growing?
Carrots and beets and tomatoes, and then simple things like chamomile and thyme, which we typically use for cooking, but they are fantastic for sore throats and respiratory infections. I also grew lemon balm, which is such a lovely tea to drink, but it has tremendous medicinal properties to cool a fever or to help someone who is experiencing anxiety, and catnip.
Catnip? It’s not just to help cats do tricks?
Catnip is actually a nervine, so it helps relax the nervous system.
So, what were you doing with these herbs?
I was making tea and learning how to grow them. After college, I worked on a couple of different farms, and I really, really wanted to be growing medicinal plants and helping people in my community. That was really the inspiration behind Avena. I wanted to contribute to the well-being of people and the planet.
Is this something any home gardener can get into?
Absolutely. If you are completely new to gardening, you are going to want to learn basic gardening skills, how to build up the soil, and get compost, and work with the seasons and the weather. Then just start with a few plants. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Think about growing a few perennials and annuals and shrubs, like elderberry. You can collect both the elder flower and the elderberries. Another great little tree is a linden tree, which gives beautiful flowers and eventually you can collect and dry them for use as tea. It is very wonderful to relax and ease stress and for cardiovascular health. And bees love them, so your tree will be covered with the wonderful sound of buzzing.
Lemon balm and echinacea are wonderful perennials. Another is lavender. People think about drying it for little sachets, but lavender tea is very, very helpful for digestion and also for respiratory infections. For annuals that people should consider growing, one is calendula. There are different varieties. Buy a calendula seed that is specific for medicinal use. They are lovely for winter teas.
At your garden, you have temperature-controlled drying rooms, blenders, roasters, and a twelve-ton hydraulic press. What’s necessary for someone growing medicinal herbs at home?
Very simple. Create a space for drying herbs on a simple wooden frame. Go to the hardware store and buy non-metal wire mesh. Lay it outside, hose it down, and then staple it down to a wooden frame. Keep it out of direct sunlight and create a little rack system in your house. Turn on a fan or open a window. You want to create a little air circulation and a little bit of warmth. The ideal way to store dried herbs is in a glass jar in a dark cupboard.
Are there herbal remedies a beginner might make?
So many of the culinary herbs we enjoy have medicinal benefits. Basil, thyme, oregano, sage, dill, parsley — all of those give some benefit to the digestive system. And they give minerals and vitamins and wonderful flavor. Thyme tea is fantastic in the winter for sore throats and respiratory infections. With a little bit of honey, it is great. The same for sage. We use sage for flavoring our foods, but it is a very potent antiseptic. You can make a strong tea to wash a wound or use for a mouth rinse. Gargling with it is wonderful.
Another one is Rosa rugosa. They are beautiful roses that grow all over Maine. We all love the smell, and, of course, they bring pollinators, but the petals are lovely for winter tea. After the first frost, collect the rose hips, cut them in half, and dry them. I love rose hip tea all through the winter. They have a lot of flavonoids and give strength to the body. I cut up a little fresh ginger root and add in a handful of dried rose hips, and I simmer that for a few minutes. With a little bit of honey, it is just delicious.
What about gardening tips?
Medicinal plants do better in basic soil with a little compost added in. I am really a fan of mulching, and I tend to mulch with straw to keep the weeds down. A lot of gardeners give up when it gets weedy. It’s also good to know what part of the plant you are harvesting and what part of the life cycle is best to harvest.
Any other special techniques?
Harvest plants in the morning once the dew has dried but before it is too hot. Don’t compact your soil by stepping on it. Keep a relaxed mind and just have fun. Plants are there to be good friends and allies and to be enjoyed. Let your herb garden be a place of great joy, not an “Oh, I have one more thing to do” place. Let it be a healing place you enjoy being.
Meadow Rue Merrill is an award-winning Maine journalist and frequent contributor to Down East.