Spring 1998
Toki Oshima drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

From the Farmer to Farmer Conference • November, 1997

The business of growing herbs organically has room for plenty of growth, according to West Rockport herbalist Deb Soule, who addressed a large audience at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference in November. Anyone who wants to learn about herbs can learn a lot from Steven Foster’s book, Herbal Renaissance, she said, which tells how to grow herbs from seed to harvest; from Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants of the Eastern United States, which is a “jumping off point;” and from James Duke’s new book, Green Medicine.

Deb grows her herbs in beds and begins soil preparation for a new bed a year in advance by planting a cover crop of buckwheat followed by a cover of peas, oats and vetch. In the fall, she prepares beds for spring planting of annuals by incorporating compost and then placing straw on top of the beds for the winter. Beds of perennial herbs receive a topdressing of compost, made with rotted straw, manure and garden refuse, in the spring. Deb also uses Azomite, which supplies trace minerals to the soil.

This year Deb tried some biodynamic soil preparations for the first time and “was impressed with the production we had on a new piece of land.” She said that making the preparation was a new way of thinking for her, describing the process of adding a substance to 3 gallons of water in a 5-gallon bucket, then stirring it with her arm to make a vortex, which was “bringing down the energies of the cosmos.” This preparation was sprinkled onto her beds with pine boughs. Deb likened the preparation to a potentized homeopathic remedy.

The process of drying, said Deb, is as important as or more important than the process of growing the herb to ensure that medicinal properties are retained. She recommended maintaining a temperature of 85 to 100 degrees F. to dry herbs and providing them with good air circulation and no direct sunlight. A woodstove and dehumidifier can be used. “Healing Spirits in western New York is a good place to take workshops,” said Deb. “They dry herbs in massive amounts. They dry them in hoop houses with shade cloth on top. Things move through in a couple of days. There are fans, the doors open … Even if the temperature gets up to 120 degrees, the herbs dry properly there.” (Essential oils are destroyed at temperatures above 120 degrees.)


This shrub, which grows from 5 to 12 feet tall and sprawls, said Deb, is good to grow as a hedgerow around the garden. The dried flowers, which are almost never available in stores, are useful for various respiratory conditions. They are sold through one catalog for $16.25 a pound. Dried berries go for $8.90 per pound.

Recent research in Israel showed that elderberry was effective in fighting the flu virus. Deb makes an elixir with glycerine and brandy and fresh elderberries.


This 7 to 8-foot-tall shrub flowers for two or three days at the end of May, then sets red berries, which can be dried and marketed. Although Deb said that all species of hawthorne can be used interchangeably, she was not sure whether the thornless varieties were as effective as those with thorns. She warned people to watch out for the shrub’s “nasty thorns.”


Fresh echinacea root sells for $10 to $15 per pound. Although there is some concern about saturating the market with echinacea, Deb said that she’d like to see more local production of this immune-stimulating herb rather than seeing local stores buying from big suppliers.

Echinacea seeds need to be stratified (moist-chilled) before they’ll germinate. Deb said to move them in and out of the freezer for a week; or store them in an outbuilding over the winter; or sow them in the fall. Deb starts her seeds in early March and transplants them to the garden in the spring.

Deb recommended setting echinacea transplants 1 foot apart in the garden and starting new plants every year, so that after three years, when the first roots are ready to harvest, you have a continuous supply. She added that new plantings should be put where echinacea had not been grown recently.

All parts of the plant can be harvested. The seeds are ready when the conehead is brown. (Deer love to eat echinacea seeds, Deb mentioned incidentally.) Fresh leaves and flowers can be tinctured; and the roots can be dug and tinctured in late October or early November.

While Echinacea purpurea is the most commonly grown species of this herb, other species are also medicinal. Echinacea angustifolia has a smaller root than purpurea and is harder to grow and overwinter; Echinacea paradoxa, with yellow flowers, and E. pallida also have smaller roots but are worth growing because they are becoming threatened in the wild.


“We really need to have people growing this herb,” said Deb, because of its valuable medicinal properties and because “the majority of the capsules on the market are of low quality.” Astragalus membranaceus is a member of the pea family; its medicinal root is dug when it is four or five years old.

The herb originated in China, and seeds are now sold through Johnny’s and Fedco. They need to be scarified (rubbed against sandpaper) and then germinate in three or four days. Plant them 18 inches apart in rich, compost-enriched soil, and they’ll grow to about 2 feet tall. When Deb mulched her Astragalus, the slugs ate it, so she hasn’t mulched it for the past three years.

The roots of this herb have a 3,000-year history of use in China. It’s a very deep immune building herb that is safe to use long-term and is good for people who are chronically tired, run down, have cancer, are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, and for people who get infections easily. It is traditionally cooked in soup for eight to 12 hours, then is kept on the back of the wood stove and consumed as a tea. Deb cooked her “soup” for 24 hours, then added alcohol to preserve it.


Instead of the smaller calendula, Calendula officinalis ‘resina,’ Deb grew a German cultivar that she got from Johnny’s last year and was “really impressed. We were picking baskets full of flowers every few days.” A pound of dried flowers sells for $20 to $24. Last year Deb ran out of calendula in May and had a hard time finding the certified organic product on the market.

Deb started her seedlings in plugs this year and found it superior to direct seeding. She transplanted them to stand 8 to 12 inches apart, which enables the plants to flourish. The flowers are harvested when they first begin to open, when the resin content is highest. “Keep picking and they’ll keep coming,” said Deb. The fresh herb is not as potent as the dried, since drying concentrates the medicinal resin.

St. Johnswort

Seventy percent of German doctors prescribe St. Johnswort over Prozac for mild depression, said Deb, and the herb is becoming so popular here that Johnny’s was sold out of seed this year. “There is a need for dried St. Johnswort” on the market, she continued. For mild depression, St. Johnswort can be combined with calendula and made into a tea, or it can be taken as a tincture. For chronic, long-term depression, a health care practitioner may add capsules of St. Johnswort, too.

Deb scatters the small seed of Hypericum purpureum – the European species that has naturalized all around here – on top of soil in wooden flats, tamps it down, then puts the flat outside of her greenhouse for four or five days in early spring. After the seed has been exposed to a freeze, it’s brought back into the greenhouse, where it germinates quickly.

Deb transplants small clumps of the herb from this flat. “It doesn’t need good soil,” she says. Some of hers flowered last summer, in its first year.

Stinging Nettle

Deb uses about 50 pounds of dried nettles each year and can get it only from a woman living in the Rockies.

The plant needs a rich soil that has been well amended with compost. It grows in sun or partial shade, and it spreads. “Don’t put it in your garden,” Deb warned. Don’t put it in a weedy spot, either, because it doesn’t compete well.

Herbalists use the stem and leaves, gathered from the top 2 to 3 inches of the plant in early to mid-May. The seed is edible, too, and is very nutritious.


Oats are easy to grow, said Deb, and, although most of the oats sold consist of the straw, the seed is much more medicinal. It should be harvested when the seed is green and plump and when a white “milk” comes out when the seed is squeezed with the fingers. At that time, cut the seedhead off with clippers. Dried, the seed sells for $10 a pound.

This herb is good for the nervous system, easing stress and tension. “Everyone in the country should take it,” said Deb. “They would feel much more even. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of oats in the wind. That’s what it’s doing in your body.” A tincture of oat seeds is good for people who are coming off of addictive substances, she added.

Red Clover

These flower heads are “a lot of work to harvest,” and that work is reflected in the price of $40 per pound, dried. Deb suggested going out in the morning when a little dew is still on the flowers and harvesting them then, so that they hold their purple color better when dried. If you tie a basket around your waist, you can harvest right into the basket. Genistein, a compound in red clover blossoms, may stop the blood supply to tumors.

Other Herbs

Among the other herbs that Deb mentioned as being valuable and in demand were borage leaves, which should be harvested before the plant flowers and which are useful for nursing mothers; white yarrow; and lemon balm, which should be treated as an annual here (Deb lost all of hers last year after having them for four years) and which is relaxing to the nervous system. Deb recommended selling fresh lemon balm to restaurants that want to serve herb teas, because it’s so tasty.

Annual chamomile produces flowers that are used for their relaxing, sleep promoting properties. Deb transplanted hers this year instead of direct seeding it. She tried harvesting the flowers with a special rake sold for the purpose by Johnny’s but found that the rake pulled up the plants as well as the flowers.

Mullein transplants well from the wild and grows larger in fertile soil, but can grow in poor soil. The dried leaves are used to make a tea to help treat coughs, and the flowers can be used to make drops to treat earaches. Deb had trouble finding enough mullein for her needs last year.

Marsh mallow (Althea officinalis) is “an easy perennial to cultivate, and the roots get a good price,” said Deb. They are dug after the third year.

Valerian works as a muscle relaxant and sleep aid and is in demand.

Regarding hops, Deb said not to take this herb if you’re depressed, because this is a nerve depressant.

– Jean English

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