Welcome to Day 38 of the 40 Day Herbalist Challenge! Continuing with the theme of herbs that are easy to grow and prolific, let’s look at 5 perennial herbs - herbs that you only have to plant once that will come back year after year!
Perennial herbs are some of the easiest to grow because they will reliably appear in the garden year after year with very little upkeep. I've picked out five of my favorites to share with you today. Besides being hardy and versatile, these plants will grow almost anywhere - all of these herbs can be grown in zones 3-9 in the United States. Yarrow will usually make it through any droughts on its own (mine hardly seemed to care last year when we had three months of complete dry after 2 months of lower-than-average rainfall). The others will need you to keep an eye on them and make sure they have enough to drink if things get too dry. Several of them like regular water, and a good mulching-in can really help them. Other than making sure basic things like water and enough light are taken care of, you won't need to do anything fancy to keep these plants happy. Here are my top five perennial herbs for the home garden!
Yarrow grows in a low clump and the flower stalks get about 2 feet tall. If you can, find the official, white yarrow and stay away from cultivars (the fancy kinds that are bred to be pretty). Although they can be beautiful, they may or may not have the same properties as the original yarrow. Yellow yarrow is a different species altogether, Achillea fillipendulina, and to my knowledge it's not used in herbal medicine. Once yarrow is established in your garden, this herb will spread into a hardy patch. You can weed out the edges to keep it contained neatly in one spot or let it grow where it pleases. Yarrow will grow in rich garden soil, but the scent (and the actions of the plant) will be stronger if you let it tough it out in dry, poor soil. Yarrow thrives on challenge! The USDA plants database has a great entry on yarrow.
You might want to consider growing lemon balm in a large container to keep it from running rampant! I’ve even seen lemon balm choke out daylilies - considering how tough and weedy daylilies are, that’s no small feat. It likes afternoon shade, but can adapt to a wide variety of growing conditions. Don’t be surprised if lemon balm doesn’t smell like much early in the growing season. My lemon balm usually has no scent when it first emerges in the spring, but by the time it is ready to bloom it develops the heady scent that is characteristic of this herb. Learn more about growing lemon balm here!
Hops is a climbing plant, although it is technically a bine and not a vine because it uses stiff bristle-like hairs to twine the whole stem around a support instead of having tendrils that grab hold. Hops flowers are actually cones, and if you look at them up close you will notice that they look like paper lanterns made in the shape of a pine cone. It is a beautiful plant to grow on an arbor or arch for summer shade, but it at least needs a post and wire or other vertical support to be at its best. The bines die back in the winter and you can cut the stems down to keep things tidy. 8 Questions and Answers All About Hops at Stark Bros has some great info on growing hops.
This plant gets rather large, up to five feet tall, but it only needs about 2 feet of space for width. It’s easy to start from seed or you can start with one plant and make more by cutting pieces of the roots and planting them to grow new plants. It doesn’t like overly dry conditions, so do make sure it gets enough water during dry spells. I love the cheerful yellow flowers and the stately presence of this plant even when it’s not in bloom. In the winter the leaves turn brown and wither, but it will come back if you leave some of the roots for next year. It’s best to harvest the roots just as the leaves are turning brown, when they will be at their best. A single plant will usually yield a handsome harvest, so adding even a few plants to your garden can give you plenty of material to work with! Elecampane is traditionally used as a lung tonic and as a digestive bitter. You can read more about growing elecampane and it’s uses at Rosewoods Herbals
Motherwort seeds need stratification (alternating warm and cool weather) to germinate, so it can be best to plant them outdoors in the fall if you want to grow them from seed. This is a beautiful perennial to grow for show as well as for all of its traditional uses - the plants have blue flowers, and the leaves bend downward in a way that I think is very demure and charming. The leaf shape is also very unusual - it actually changes as you go down the stalk, so that there are several different types of leaves present. Motherwort is a versatile bitter and nervine. You can read more about growing motherwort here.
If you could choose one annual and one perennial herb to begin growing in your garden, which would you choose? If you are thinking about making an herb garden but aren’t sure where to start, narrowing down your choices to a few herbs can seem impossible. Having a good plan and focusing on a few herbs are two ways to make sure your garden gets off to a great start. Here are some more resources to help you:
Tips for Making an Herb Garden Plan
How to Plan and Plant a Medicinal Herb Garden
Designing an Herb Garden
All the best,
Agatha is the author of the popular new herbal recipe book, Adaptogens: Your Guide to Radiant Health. With more than 75 creative and surprisingly easy to make recipes for everyday herbal health, this book will quickly become your new favorite reference for vibrant herbal living.