Growing Wellness: Plants for medicinal use in garden education programs

By Libby Weiland, Statewide Network Coordinator

This month’s Garden Spotlight features three Vermont garden leaders who have (at least) one thing in common: they all intentionally incorporate medicinal plants and their uses into their community-based gardens and educational programming. Here’s a little snapshot of each of these leaders and the garden programs they steward.

  • Joann Darling is a Food Justice educator for the Barre-based group, Good Food Good Medicine. She works with gardeners at two affordable housing sites in Barre to bring a sense of empowerment through hands-on learning. Joann is passionate about teaching real life skills such as grow one’s own food, cooking with that food and using culinary herbs as medicine. Good Food Good Medicine provides services, free of charge, through adult and children’s programing.
  • Carolina Lukac is VCGN’s Garden Education Manager. She leads groups of young children, adults, and seniors in garden-inspired activities at community-based gardens around Burlington. Carolina is also the instructor for the Community Teaching Garden, a 22-week long, hands-on organic gardening class for adults.
  • Kristen Blaker is the Director of Education at The Hiland Hall Gardens (HHG) in Bennington. She works with preschoolers through adults to create a place where cucumbers grow and community blossoms in the beautiful surroundings of the gardens. More than 200  students enjoy classes at HHG on gardening and healthy eating as part of their school day.

What can we learn from these seasoned garden leaders about the use of medicinal plants in community-based garden programs? Read below for their nuggets of wisdom and favorite resources.

What do you see as the value of using medicinal plants in your community-based garden and how do you incorporate them into your program?

Good Food Good Medicine staff demonstrates tying herb bundles for drying to resident gardeners, Green Acres Apartments, Barre.

Joann: Made clear through their program name “Good Food Good Medicine,” Joann and her fellow educators believe in food as medicine. As Joann sees it, “Medicinal plants and culinary plants go hand-in-hand.” The group cultivates commonplace kitchen herbs such as chives, garlic, basil, and mint not just for their flavor but also to teach about their medicinal value. Joann explains, “These flavorful plants surprise and inspire; especially the kids.” Residents of all ages are growing, harvesting and tasting herbs, and as a result, “they get connected with that flavor,” says Joann.

Good Food Good Medicine is also driven by the belief in putting the power of wellness into people’s own hands. For example, the program teaches how a plant as simple, abundant and available as dandelions can be woven into meals and medicine—used in salads, vinaigrettes, teas, medicinal vinegars and more. Program participants learn how dandelions can clean out a sluggish digestive system, how to harvest flowers and greens in the spring and roots in the fall, and how to make food and medicine that tastes good and feels good.

Carolina: “Broadening people’s perception of what can grow in a garden and how gardens can provide not just food, but medicine” drives Carolina’s inclusion of medicinal flowers and herbs in her adult teaching garden. “It gives people more options to see what really inspires them. I find that sometimes students who are less interested in vegetable gardening really get enamored by flowers and herbs.”

In class, Carolina uses medicinal plants for teaching about flower botany, plant propagation of perennials, and how to use plants for healing properties. “In middle of the season, when vegetables are growing on their own, it gives the class something else to do and learn about.” In the Burlington area many gardeners need to learn how to grow in small spaces. Carolina also sees growing medicinal plants, particularly perennials, as a great route for her students who have limited space for growing where they live. She says, “Many of these plants are easy to grow and you get a lot out of a single plant.”

Village School of North Bennington student gifting herb bundles made at Hiland Hall Garden, North Bennington.

Kristen: “Our emphasis with the herbs in our garden is to use them to benefit people in our community,” explains Kristen. This past year, program participants grew lavender and sage that were used to create aromatherapy wreaths and sachets. Students at the Village School of North Bennington collaboratively dried, arranged, assembled, and presented these gifts to the various organizations at a school-wide assembly, including residents of The Vermont Veteran’s Home and families working with Project Against Violent Encounters in Bennington. The students also created catnip toys to give cats at Second Chance Animal Shelter.

What are your favorite medicinal plants to use in your community-based garden program?

Joann:

  • Mint – Great all-purpose plant. Program participants make simple teas and honey infusions with mint. Kids get very excited about it! Word of caution: be careful where you put it—it’ll take over! Give mint space on the edges to go wild.
  • Chives – Known for its anti-microbial properties, chives come back every year, and the flowers are beautiful in salads and vinegars.
  • Bee Balm – Blossoms have milder flavor than stems and leaves and make tasty vinegar and tea. Or infuse with honey—everybody likes it. Also attracts hummingbirds!

*Joann really loves all perennials! “These are strong plants that are easy to share and cultivate.”

Hand-made sign for bee balm, Highgate Apartments, Barre

Carolina:

  • Calendula – Easy to grow, self-seeding annual. Students eat the petals or use them to make oil and hand salve for sore garden hands. Kid-friendly!
  • Lemon Balm – Easy to grow and abundant —“One plant will give you tea for the season!” Leaves provide a lemony, refreshing flavor for summer time.
  • Echinacea – Easy to grow and beautiful! In addition to its immune boosting properties, you can also teach about pollinators and native varieties.

*Additionally, the wild plants that surround the borders of the teaching garden—nettles, motherwort, St. John’s Wort, and clover—are all great medicinal teaching tools!

Kristen:

  • Calendula – An amazing plant for its skin healing properties. Program participants have used the oil in the flowers to create soothing skin creams and salves.
  • Lavender & Sage – Great for creating a calming and cleansing environment. Students dry cuttings of the plants upside down and use them to create aromatherapy sachets and wreathes, adding a few drops of lavender and sage essential oils to strengthen the healing effects.

Any favorite recipes or uses for medicinal plants?

Joann: Beyond the food their group enjoys through shared meals, they focus on making products that participants can take home or give as gifts—fun to share and inexpensive to make. Favorites include lip balm made with calendula or lavender, vinegar infused with purple basil with chives (beautiful!), and herbal blends (teas or culinary mixes) to make from dried herbs around Christmas time.

Community Teaching Garden students making salve, Burlington

Carolina: Carolina focuses on recipes that are simple to make and useful to students, such as teas—a good introduction for getting familiar with herbs; products to put on summer skin—skin or hand cream, massage oils; and tinctures—easy to make with dried or fresh plant material.

Kristen: For Kristen’s favorite recipes for infusing calendula oil and making a healing skin salve, go to Mountain Rose Herbs: https://blog.mountainroseherbs.com/healing-calendula.

What advice would you give to gardeners or educators who want to incorporate medicinal plants into their garden/ garden program, but know nothing or very little about medicinal plants and their uses?

Joann: “You’ve got to make it palatable—it’s got to be fun! Also, take the time to get to know your plants—what conditions it likes. And for safety-sake, put plants in that are known culinary-medicinal cross-overs—parsley, cilantro, basil, etc. Don’t include anything that could have adverse effects for people.” Joann also encourages seed saving with plants like parsley—“Let one plant go to seed and collect your own seeds to plant next year.”

Carolina: “Start with a few plants and really get to know them through the season; then explore their medicinal properties. You will benefit from spending a little more time with each plant.” Carolina explains that this builds trust in the powerful healing properties of these plants and trust in oneself to make your own products out of medicinal herbs. One fun idea: “Consider starting with a tea garden – growing herbs that are easy and tasty in tea.”

Kristen: “I would begin with focusing on aromatherapy. There are many herbs that can be dried for their healing scent and adding a few drops of essential oils are a great way to accentuate it. I love using lavender specifically, but if you would like more ideas check out this webpage: http://www.dreamingearth.com/blog/plant-your-own-aromatherapy-garden/.”

What are your favorite resources for planting, growing, and/or using medicinal plants in the community-based garden setting?

Favorite books:

Carrying the harvest, Highgate Apartments, Barre

  • Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, by Rosemary Gladstar—all program participants get a copy (Joann)
  • The Green Pharmacy Guide, by James A. Duke – for more on healing foods (Joann)
  • A Kid’s Herb Book: For Children of All Ages, by Lesley Tierra – fun and easy to read, for all ages (Carolina)
  • Herbal Remedies for Children, by Sarah Kent – has tons of great ideas to incorporate into easy herbal projects for any age (Kristen)

Favorite tools:

  • Pair of small tipped clippers (Joann)
  • Tightly woven baskets for collecting, that can be rinsed out and also used for drying (Joann)
  • Foldable wooden drying rack; can hang bundled herbs or lay old screens across for loose herbs (Joann)
  • Screens used as drying racks (Carolina)

Favorite online resources:

What can people do now (in early to mid-June) to get started on incorporating medicinal plants into their community-based gardens?

Joann: Seed and keep seeding herbs like basil, dill, and cilantro now and throughout the season. As the weather warms up start tender seeds under towering plants, like kale for a cool, protective environment.

Students processing fresh and dried calendula flowers, Community Teaching Garden, Burlington.

Carolina: “Just as much attention as you’re putting into what to get started in June, keep your eyes on what you are going to do with the harvest, and how are you going to process it. When gardeners are collecting mason jars for pickling, you need to be thinking about, ‘How am I going to dry all these herbs?’ or ‘What am I going to make with them?’” Harvesting and processing herbs takes time—leave time and plan well!

Kristen: “It is still early enough to put in an herb garden if you purchase seedlings from your local garden center.  I would recommend starting with easy to grow herbs with big benefits, such as calendula, basil, oregano, lavender, and sage. You can also simplify it a bit by growing your herbs in pots, as they do tend to spread and can take over other areas of your garden.”