Grow an Apothecary Garden: Flowers and Herbs for Healing

Apothecary or physic gardens contain medicinal plants used to treat all kinds of infirmities. (Image taken at The Met Cloisters by Jessie Keith)

During the Medieval period in Europe, monasteries almost always contained an apothecary garden or “physic garden” that grew medicinal plants used to treat all kinds of infirmities. This age-old tradition of cultivating a garden specifically with healing in mind is easy to replicate in the home garden, whether you dedicate a bed for growing healing herbs and flowers or plant them throughout your garden space.

Designing an Apothecary Garden

The most important thing when planning your apothecary garden is practicality. Do you have a sunny garden that needs drought-tolerant plants? Do you live in a cool climate with a short growing season? The plants you choose will need to be well suited to your climate and hardiness zone.

Medicinal herbs are beautiful plants, often prolific, and they are intended to be cut back and harvested regularly. Choose space in the garden that is easy to harvest from and where the cut plants will not affect the overall look. If you’d like your apothecary garden to visually resemble the monks’ apothecary gardens of yore, choose some Medieval-style design elements such as stone or wattle borders, geometric (often rectangular) beds, and symmetrical plantings.

No matter how you include the herbs, grow enough to harvest each year to stock your home apothecary, and leave enough behind to grow them again in future years.

What to Plant

Classic monastic cloister gardens of the Medieval times often housed apothecary gardens. (Image taken at The Met Cloisters by Jessie Keith)

There are thousands of healing plants out there that you could choose for your apothecary garden, and this list is just a small sampling. I chose this collection because they are diverse in their uses, safe for most people to use, easy to grow in many climates, and sun-loving. This list is meant to give you a starting point that you can build on as you find more herbs that bring a sense of healing to you personally.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Oregano is often potted because it tends to spread in the garden.

Oregano’s antiseptic properties make it great at combating germs, which is why it was used in the Middle Ages to protect against the Black Plague. Oregano is also high in antioxidants, aids in digestion, helps to soothe a sore throat, and tastes delicious added when to savory dishes. It is especially popular in Italian cooking. Add it generously to your recipes during cold and flu season for a wellness boost. Oregano is often potted because it tends to spread in the garden. Potted herbs of all kinds grow beautifully in Black Gold® Natural & Organic Potting Soil and Flower and Vegetable Soil, which are both OMRI Listed® for organic gardening.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’ has extra-large silvery leaves that look and taste good. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Sage is a powerful anti-inflammatory that can ease upset stomachs and sore throats. It’s often used in all-natural, commercially produced lozenges. At home, you can soothe a sore throat by sipping sage and honey tea or make up a batch of homemade sage throat lozenges to suck on when a bad cold hits.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Echinacea is known to help relieve cold symptoms.

Echinacea is a well-known herbal remedy used to help prevent and relieve symptoms of the common cold. Use the roots and flowers to make an echinacea tincture that can boost immunity and help to speed up healing from cold and flu symptoms.

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Hops vine is easy to grow but requires a strong trellis and should be cut back yearly.

Hops are more than just beer ingredients! It contains a mild sedative that can work wonders for those suffering from insomnia. Add it to your bedtime herbal tea blend or sew it into sweet dream sachets to tuck into your pillowcase for a restful slumber.

Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis)

Calendula is a pretty cool-season annual that tends to gently self-sow each year.

Calendula has been used for thousands of years to speed the healing of minor cuts, bruises, and scrapes, and to reduce inflammation of all kinds. It is very gentle and can be made into a wonderful multi-purpose salve that is generally considered safe for adults, children, and pets.

English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender flowers look beautiful in the apothecary garden and are wonderfully aromatic.

Lavender is one of the most popular scents in aromatherapy because it smells divine and is purported to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and help with insomnia. Add some dried lavender buds to herbal teas to drink before bed, make a lavender eye pillow for relaxation, or add lavender to bath salts for a soothing soak.

Mint (Mentha spp.)

Like oregano, mint will spread quickly, so be sure to plant it in a large pot.

Mint is a gentle and safe painkiller to have on hand all the time. Mint tea can help to relieve sore throats and aids in digestion. It can also be used to make a bath soak for achy muscles or sore feet. Whether you are using it for tub tea or a cuppa, you can use fresh or dried mint leaves interchangeably to enjoy the herbal benefits.

Stocking Your Apothecary

Once your garden is growing and producing herbs and flowers, you will be able to harvest and store the healing plants in your very own home apothecary for use throughout the year. Devote a whole pantry or just a single shelf to this purpose, saving just enough for what you will need for the year, and replenishing the dried herbs the following growing season.

Harvest the herbs at their peak of freshness. Grow them in your garden organically and be sure to pick leaves, stems, and flowers that are unaffected by disease or pest problems. Dry the herbs in a cool, dry location and store them in airtight glass jars. With these simple actions, your personal apothecary will be there for you and your family when viruses and minor ailments pop up.

How to Grow Lavender from Seed

Harvest and tie lavender bundles for drying. They dry best if hung in a cool, dry place.

Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is a wonderful addition to any garden because it can be used as a culinary herb, a fragrant cut flower, a crafting material, or a natural-beauty ingredient. It even feeds bees! With lavender, the possibilities are endless. There are so many interesting species and varieties to try that it’s worth starting some of your lavenders by seed to get a large number of unique cultivars for the price of the seed packets, planting mix, pots, and a little time.

Lavenders are short-lived shrubby perennials, so be sure to propagate a selection of plants to replace those that have become too woody or that have succumbed to winter freeze. Then tuck the newer plants in between the older ones so they can eventually fill in space. Lavenders are such attractive, low maintenance landscaping plants when planted in swaths or hedges, and growing them from seeds makes this a much more economical endeavor.

For many years I was told that lavender was better propagated from cuttings, so I avoided seeding my own plants. When they started seeding themselves around my garden, I called hogwash on that theory and picked up some different seed varieties to try. As with all perennials, they can take a bit longer to germinate and be ready for transplant. Start them in late winter, under lights, and on heat, and you should get fair-sized transplants by the beginning of the summer. And in my experience, a neat and tidy lavender plant from seed is a great way to start. I love the way lavender plants grow delicate new stems from seed that set the tone and shape for the plant.

Another common complaint is that lavender seed doesn’t grow true-to-variety from collected seed and some purchased seed, resulting in plants with varying heights, sizes, and colors. Certainly, if you are looking for exact replicas of varieties this could be frustrating, but in most cases, it would be more of a landscape feature to have slight variations in a planting. In any case, seed companies work tirelessly to ensure that their seeds will grow uniformly, so when in doubt, be sure to check your seed source for any warnings about a variety.

Is Cold Stratification Necessary?

Lavender seeds can be purchased or collected in the garden.

Cold stratification is a process required for some seeds. After sowing, a cold period and then a warm period is required to break dormancy and allow germination. Some gardeners suggest cold-stratifying lavender seeds by placing them in moist soil in a cold greenhouse or refrigerator for two to seven weeks before moving them onto heat. If you are having difficulties in germination, you could consider this option, but I have had great success with germination by simply planting the seeds in trays and placing them on heat mats. The key seems to be to use the freshest seeds possible from a trusted seed supplier.

Now that is all out of the way, let’s start some lavender from seed, shall we?

Sowing Lavender Seeds Indoors

Always choose a sterile soil mix intended for seed starting. Black Gold®Seedling Mix is OMRI Listed® for organic gardening and is fine and easy to wet. Moisten the soil with a little water, and then fill a seed-starting tray with the damp soil mix. Sow lavender seeds on top of the soil and do not cover them. Add a clear dome greenhouse lid to the seed-starting tray to prevent drying out. Be sure that the lid has ventilation holes, and lift it once or twice a day to refresh the air.


If grown with good light, lavender plantlets will be full and robust.

Keep the soil lightly damp. Use a mister bottle to water as opposed to pouring water over the seeds. You can also bottom water pots and allow the soil to wick the moisture to the seeds. Mist often and check the soil regularly. Once your seeds have begun to sprout, continue bottom watering to keep the soil moderately damp, never wet.

Give Them Light

In order to germinate properly, lavender seeds will need a bit more than just natural light. There is much debate on whether or not expensive grow lights, with a high light spectrum, are needed for indoor seed starting, but I have always found that it’s not the cost of the bulbs that make the difference, but the distance away from the seedlings. Use adjustable chains to hang the grow light and position it as close to the seedlings as possible. As the seedlings grow, raise the light to be an inch above the tops of the seedlings. Light that is too far away doesn’t have the intensity to signal healthy growth and causes seedlings to become leggy.

Transplant the Seedlings

Upgrade lavender plants into larger pots as they grow, so they will be fair-sized at planting time.

After six to eight weeks of growth, transplant the seedlings into indoor pots and let them continue growing until they are ready to move out to the greenhouse or garden.

Harden Off

When you have passed the last day of frost in your gardening zone, it’s time to move the seedlings outdoors. To reduce shock and acclimate them to a sunny, outdoor environment, bring the lavender plants outside in their pots for a few hours a day, starting with one hour and increasing to a full day over the course of a week. This gradual introduction to the outdoor climate is called “hardening off.” After a week of hardening off, your lavender plants are ready to be transplanted into the garden. Choose an area that gets full sun and has porous, well-drained soil. Lavender can grow in poorer soils but appreciate organic matter. Amending the planting soil with OMRI Listed® Black Gold® Garden Compost Blend will increase organic matter and drainage.

Harvesting Lavender

Plant lavender when the starts are well-developed. Then let the harvest begin!

Once your plants have established themselves in the garden and start blooming, you will probably want to harvest some lavender to use in crafts, natural beauty recipes, and more.

I personally like to harvest some lavender for myself and leave some for the bees to enjoy. The best time to harvest your lavender is when the buds have formed but have not yet opened. Buds harvested at this stage will retain their color and fragrance much better than open flowers, and once you have dried the lavender, buds will fall off the stem easily so that you can collect and store them.  Using sharp bypass pruners, cut your lavender stems leaving at least two sets of leaves on the green stem of the plant. If you cut past the green growth into the woody stem, it will not regrow.

Collect your lavender stems into a bundle and tie it together with twine. Hang the bundles in a warm spot away from direct sunlight and let them dry out completely.

Grow a Natural Beauty Garden: Botanicals that Soothe Your Skin

We grow gardens for food, for medicine, for cut flowers, and for pollinators. But, a new trend is arising: growing the ingredients to make DIY plant-based skincare products. If you value the ingredients that make up your meals, then it may also be time to take a look at the products that go on your skin. Soaps, lotions, and balms are easy to make at home, and there are a number of plants you can grow in your own natural beauty garden that can soothe and revitalize your skin.

Many years ago I suddenly became seriously ill and was forced to take a hard look at how I cared for myself. As part of my recovery, I grew a garden to feed my body with the healthful foods it needed and toiled in the soil to strengthen my muscles. Throughout the process of healing through garden therapy, I realized that what I was putting on my skin also needed a makeover. I learned how to make skincare products and started growing skin-healing botanicals in my garden. It has been a wonderful journey, and I could never go back to drugstore cosmetics after feeling the difference natural beauty makes.

Rose infused oil is one of many easy recipes to try. (Image care of Garden Therapy)

If you don’t already make your own beauty products, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to customize your own lotion bars (click here for the recipes), bath salts (click here for the recipes), toner (click here for the recipes), and more! You’re likely already growing a few things that can be added to your natural beauty garden. Once you get started, you’ll fall in love with these plants all over again.

Plants for a Natural Beauty Garden

Aloe Vera (Aloe vera)

Slice open a spear of aloe and apply the gel directly to a sunburn. (Photo by Black Gold)

Aloe grows very well as a house plant in colder climates, and it can thrive outdoors in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11. The gel extracted from the leaves has been historically used to treat skin disorders, burns, and rashes. It is a common ingredient in first-aid creams because it contains salicylic acid and magnesium to help relieve pain.  Slice open a spear of aloe and apply the gel directly to a sunburn or skin disorder, or add it to a homemade healing salve (click here for the recipe) to help calm skin after sun exposure.

Lavender (Lavandula spp.)

Freshly harvested lavender bundles ready to dry. (Image care of Garden Therapy)

Lavender is a fragrant shrubby perennial with candles of lavender-purple flowers.  There are many varieties and species that exhibit different sizes, habits, hardiness levels, and flower shades. This popular garden and pollinator plant is most famous for being the relaxing herb. Lavender tops the charts in aromatherapy because its scent is said to relieve stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness. In addition, lavender has antibacterial qualities that are helpful for disinfecting skin while cooling pain and aiding healing.

Add lavender to skincare products by harvesting and drying unopened flower buds and young leaves. The buds will retain the coveted purple color for decorative applications, but the leaves also have the beneficial properties and can be used to add to dream pillows (click here for the recipe) or infuse oils.

Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis)

Calendula flower heads are dried for use in making infused oils and balms. (Image care of Garden Therapy)

Pot marigold is an annual in the daisy family (Asteraceae) that prolifically blooms from spring through fall, assuming it is regularly harvested and weather doesn’t become too hot. The flower heads are dried for use in making infused oils, balms, and herbal tea, and the ray florets (outer petals) are used decoratively because they hold their yellow or orange color well.  Don’t underestimate this pretty flower; it is lauded for its skin benefits. It has long been used as a wound healer because of its antibiotic and anti-inflammatory benefits. It is wonderful for minor skin irritations and rashes as well as small cuts, scrapes, and bruises. It is also very gentle and therefore safe for use on children or those with particularly sensitive skin. (Click here to learn how to grow calendula.)

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

Peppermint has the unique ability to cool and calm skin and reduce inflammation. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Peppermint is a fragrant, spreading plant with a cool, fresh, minty flavor and scent. This enthusiastic grower can scare off many gardeners, but it’s easily controlled in containers and absolutely worth growing in a natural beauty garden. Peppermint has the unique ability to cool and calm skin while reducing inflammation, controlling pain, and clarifying. As most of the vitamins and minerals in peppermint are water soluble, replacing water in skincare recipes with mint tea is a wonderful way to enjoy its benefits. Dried leaves can also be soaked in a warm bath as part of tub teas and bath salts.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon balm tends to spread and self-sow, so it is best grown in containers. (Image by Black Gold)

Lemon balm is another hardy perennial from mint family, and as anyone who grows mints know, these vigorous plants are often found growing as escapees in the wild or garden places where they are not wanted. Before pulling up a lovely natural patch of lemon balm, stop to rub a leaf between your hands and breathe in its strong lemony aroma to uplift your spirits. In skincare, lemon balm infused into oil makes for relaxing massage oil that calms and relieves stress. The antiseptic properties and light citrusy fragrance makes it a great addition to bath salts, soaps, and lotion bars.

Rose (Rosa spp.)

Fragrant, brightly colored roses make the best infused oils and waters. (Image by Jessie Keith)

These well-known garden flowers are symbols of beauty, and not just because of their spectacular blooms; roses bring life and beauty to the skin as well. They are especially good for facial recipes and work to reduce wrinkles and redness and even skin tone. Rose also increases the skin’s permeability, which means skin will absorb the other ingredients in a recipe more readily if it includes rose. Be sure to only grow organic, unsprayed roses in a natural beauty garden as they are very commonly heavily treated as ornamental plants (click here to learn how to grow roses organically). Harvest the petals and use them to make an infused oil, floral water (click to watch this DIY video or click here for the recipe), hydrosol, and face cream (click here for the recipes).

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Strong trellises are recommended for supporting hops bines. (Image care of Garden Therapy)

Hops can reach staggering heights in a short growing season. They grow on climbing bines (not vines) where the stems wrap around support structures (like pole beans) rather than attaching like a vine by tendrils (like peas) or suckers (like ivy). Build a tall trellis or arbor, and they will fill it up quickly. Let the hops ripen on the vine, and pick them when they are aromatic and springy when you pinch them between your finger and thumb. When dried, use hops to make infused oils for soap, lotions, and healing salves. Hops’ calming effect works on the skin to reduce inflammation and help with wrinkles and acne.

Annual Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Choose double varieties, like ‘Goldy Double’, for the most petals per flower. (Image care of Garden Therapy)

Sunflowers are easy-to-grow annuals that add cheer to the natural beauty garden. The golden petals act as a plant-based colorant, imparting a sunny hue to infusions and cheery petals to bath salts, lotion bars, and bath bombs. When growing sunflowers for petals, look for double varieties, like ‘Goldy Double’ and ‘Teddy Bear’, for the most petals per flower. Harvest the flower heads when they are fully in bloom and dry the petals on a mesh drying rack.

Cornflower (Centaurea spp.)

Annual cornflower is fast growing and colorful. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Annual cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and perennial cornflower (Centaurea montana) are prolific plants that produce fantastic blue, pink, and purple petals for natural beauty recipes. The bright colors hold well when dried, providing decorative elements in bath bombs, natural perfumes (click here to see the recipe), mixing them into a jar of bath salts, or anything else that could use some brightening up!

Stephanie Rose is the author of several natural beauty and gardening books. (Image care of Stephanie Rose)

With these common plants in your garden, you will have much of what you need to start making your own natural beauty products. I have many beginner recipes on my Garden Therapy blog; I have published two natural beauty recipe books: Make & Give Home Apothecary – Easy Ideas for Making & Packaging Bath Bombs, Salts, Scrubs & More , and The Natural Beauty Recipe Book  – 45 easy-to-make, homemade herbal recipes for the whole family; and even a natural beauty seed collection available exclusively at GardenTrends. Please visit me at Garden Therapy to see more ways you can live better through plants.