Permaculture Magazine North America
Fall 2017 issue
Growing a Medicinal Tool Box In Your Garden
By Kerr Jackson
On the North Shore of Kauai, there is an incredibly dynamic example of permaculture in action. The Kauai Farmacy is a medicinal herbal tea farm growing more than 70 unique medicinal plants for teas, powders, salves, hydrosols, and tinctures, creating a healthy environment for plants and people alike.
To be well, we must grow what we are passionate about – both in our gardens and in our lives. In the garden, my bliss is growing medicinal plants and trees. I believe all plants and trees are medicine for the soul, but my fascination lies in the ones that are also capable of bringing balance into our physical bodies.
I have the great fortune that my work completely aligns with my passion. I am the lead gardener at Kauai Farmacy – a medicinal herb farm in Hawai’i. Here we grow, craft, and ship our artisanal herbal products direct from the farm, while maintaining an emphasis on permaculture and herbal medicine education. Consistently listening, observing, and creating are my best tools in holding the balance between the health and well-being of our plants and the productions needs of the business. While Kauai Farmacy has over 2 acres in production gardens, you can create a diverse medicinal garden in a very small space. Here are some of my insights that can be applied to your backyard or any growing space.
In permaculture we are always trying to mimic nature. Plants and humans hold the common demoninator that our base state is health – the bodies of plant and human are always working towards abundant vibrancy. Sometimes we all need help getting back to that optimum state. The beauty of tending plant medicine is that it benefits both the gardener and the plants.
If you nick your finger with the sickle, where is your medicine cabinet? Mine is right next to where I was using the sickle. First, I would run for a handful of succulent oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) and squeeze the juice into the cut to clean it. Next, I would chew a leaf of tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) and gotu kola (Centella asiatica) into a pulp and pack it into the wound. If I need to cover and protect the wound, I would craft a comfrey leaf (Symphytum officinalis) into a bandage. This way I have disinfected the wound and given my body support for the healing process.
A creeping ground cover and incredibly prolific, it has shallow roots, so if it meanders beyond your likings, simply pull and toss into your compost pile. And oh how delicious the smell while you are doing it! Easily propagated from cuttings, plant it to suppress weeds and retain soil moisture. You can cook with it and use it on your skin, rub on clothes as a mosquito repellent, and some people even use it as a deodorant. In my opinion, the best way to learn about the possibilities of medicinal plants is to use and experiment with them.
This oregano prefers some shade and does not need much water, though it will modestly tolerate lots of rain. It grows best in the tropics and subtropics. Because it cannot withstand a frost, it can be grown in a pot and moved indoors during winter and in cooler climates.
Oh, how I love Tulsi! One of the top five plant medicines I couldn’t live without. On the human side, tulsi is excellent for making tea, cooking, and using topically. The range of health benefits can span pages. It is my go-to for just about everything…from trying to digest my husband’s loving attempt at cooking dinner to moments of “what just bit me?!?” In permaculture, we work to feed the system, rather than treating it for disease. I use this same approach in my personal health, including eating a handful of tulsi leaves a daily. Tulsi is a perennial with enormous life force. In optimal conditions, the variety of vana tulsi can grow up to 7-feet tall. Tulsi provides our garden with a great amount of extra abundance for compost, while still giving to sustain our own health. I see tulsi as the garden sentinel – spread throughout, making sure all is well.
Native to the Indian subcontinent, tulsi is considered a perennial in tropical climates and an annual in temperate climates. Tulsi loves the sun and humidity. Many people in cooler climates have had great success starting it indoors then planting as a summer crop – doing a final harvest before the cold and drying it for use over the winter. Tulsi can also be grown in a pot next to a sunny window. There are many varieties, so if one doesn’t thrive, try a different type. Mata Amritanandaamayi worked on a project distributing tulsi seeds around the world. In the book, Tulasi Devi, the Goddess of Devotion, she mentions that the variety Rama might be more suited to colder climates than variety Krishna.
One of my favorite snacking herbs. I have often been caught down on my hands and knees munching through a patch of it. Plants remind us of our carefree, child-like joy, and that in itself is probably the best medicine there is. Gotu kola loves to grow in mulch and makes nice fluffy patches when rain is abundant. It creates a perennial ground cover, always available for grazing and wound healing. This common herb, often labeled as a “weed,” is referenced in classical Ayurvedic and Taoist medical texts, as Yogis in the Himalayas have long used gotu kola to balance the hemispheres of the brain and enhance meditation.
Gotu kola is also a tropical native and is sensitive to frost. It grows by root runners, so gardeners in colder climates can overwinter a few runners in pots (indoors) and put them back into the garden when it is warm again. In the Kauai Farmacy garden, we find that wood chop mulch and lots of water are key ingredients for its abundance.
This is another one in my top medicinals and is both a powerhouse in the garden and on the body. It grows in shade or sun and creates an excellent living mulch beneath plants and trees. Make sure that you plan to keep the comfrey in the area where you plant it for the foreseeable future, as even just the tiniest slice of root left in the ground will sprout. To feed the rest of the garden, I ferment the leaves to make a compost tea teeming with microbes. The leaves are very valuable as compost – whether you are putting it into a pile or just chop and drop. It is quite effective at creating a barrier that many ground running plants find challengin to cross. In our garden , we use lines of comfrey to divide the garden space from the grass space. Comfrey also carries the nickname :knit bone”, as it contains a compound called Allantoin which is a cell proliferant and aids fractured bones in healing. Many times over the year have I used it for aches and pains from hauling too many wheelbarrows of mulch.
Comfrey will grow in just about any climate and soil, as long as it has lots of water available. While we do not have a problem with excessive seeding propagation in our Hawai’ian climate, in wet temperate climates, self-seeding varieties tend to be invasive, and varieties that spread by division, such as Bocking 14, may be more appropriate for containing in one location.
It is always good to research your plants and their growing habits. Here in Hawai’i, we have to be very careful about what we introduce into the environment. Many exotic plants find bliss in this climate and quickly create mass populations that strangle out the natives. As gardeners, it is our responsibility to plant and tend our gardens responsibly.
Here at the Kauai Farmacy garden, we are growing in a tropical climate. Find the plant medicine that loves to grow in your climate. Look around for what grows prolifically and start talking to people who use local plant medicine. A vast number of medicinal plants are perennials and “weeds”…a perfect match for us and a permaculture garden!
The plants I tend are my best friends. In any good friendship there is the balance between giving and receiving. They are taking care of me and I am taking care of them. If I’m not healthy, it affects them and vice versa. What a gift it is to grow such medicine. Being so intertwined with these plants and having them course through my veins offers a heightened state of communication between us. Because at this point, where is the separation? We share air, we share food, we share medicine, we share love. A little for me, a little for you…
Wishing you health, happiness, and abundance in and out of your garden!
Kirsten (Kerr) Jackson is the lead gardener at Kauai Farmacy. She describes herself as “the listener”, as she is responsible for the plants’ overall well being and orchestrating the team effort of gauging harvest, planting, feeding, weeding, mulching, loving, and all the other wonderful things that it takes to keep the garden happy!
Reservations for tours, product purchases, and more information on plant medicine can be found at KauaiFarmacy.com.
Mahalo to www.permacultemag.org