​Starting Your Own Woodland Medicinal Herbs

?Starting Your Own Woodland Medicinal Herbs 12/2/2014 By Ira Wallace

Year-round gardeners eager to plant wonder what they can start in December. In the mid-Atlantic and upper South, choices are limited unless you have cold frames or a greenhouse, but winter is the perfect time to jump on the hot new trend of forest gardening. Celebrate your shady yard or property, or just a shady corner, by growing your own medicinal herbs and lovely forest ephemerals.


An exciting resource for would-be forest gardeners is Jeanine Davis' newly revised book,Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals, which now includes a six-chapter section especially for home gardeners. Jeanine is a university researcher, extension specialist and farmer from North Carolina. She and her husband establish gardens full of native medicinal herbs, edible plants, and beautiful native ornamentals. You can follow her adventures at Our Tiny Farm. She and her staff at North Carolina State University conduct research at a beautiful woodland garden on a research stationin western North Carolina. At theAsheville, N.C., MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR, Jeanine and her staff will have a demonstration booth and give workshops.

Jeanine shows how even with just asmall bit of shade on your property, you can grow some shade-loving herbs. She helps you select woodland plants that are beautiful, useful, and easy to take care of. Imagine having your own little patch of black cohosh, bloodroot, goldenseal, and ginseng to enjoy and make your own medicine from. I thought about this when my friend Thomas told me about his success using her book. Thomas and his partner Kele Tassinari manage Garden Medicinals and Culinaries, a great source of seed and information. Here's his story:

"We have a couple of acres of woods that, sadly, were clear cut about ten to fifteen years ago. It's a ridge facing north-northeast and the more we walked around, the more we became excited about the possibilities for growing at-risk woodland medicinals. The trees that have come back are mostly tulip poplar with a mix of sassafras, beech, holly and oak (and some invasive aspens our resident forester, Matthew, is determined to get rid of.) The tulip poplars, especially, were cited in Jeanine's book as a positive indicator for planting ginseng, goldenseal, false unicorn, bloodroot and black cohosh. I guess the tulip poplars act like sugar maples up north as a calcium sink which is especially good for ginseng.

"The black cohosh was our first success. We planted in late September (which might have been a little early for Virginia) in about 75 percent shade on the side of a ridge. The black cohosh location was fairly steep, and well-drained. I planted it in with some naturally occurring Solomon's Seal and used a mattock to break up the rocky soil. I've since invested in a forester's axe as Jeannine suggests. It's great for clearing beds and removing tree roots. Even though the forest was clear-cut some years back there was a rich surface of moist leaf mulch. After digging and planting we covered the site with leaves again, watered them in and left them to do their thing. I expected the fall rains, the winter cold period and Spring to get them going. But in early November, I noticed they had popped through the leaf mulch and appeared to be thriving. Maybe it was the week of unseasonably cold weather we had in October. We'll check back in on them in Spring." I have always liked the earlier edition of Jeanine's book and now I have hard evidence that the new chapters for home gardeners are just as good. This book would be a great holiday gift for the home gardener on your gift list. To whet your appetite, here's a short excerpt from the first chapter in that section:

“You’ve decided you want a woodland garden, but you don’t know how to start. Don’t be intimidated at the prospect. A shade garden can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. You can plan it all out in advance or let it evolve naturally as time and money allow. What I describe in this chapter is the ideal situation, but if that doesn’t fit into your life right now, don’t worry about it. When my husband and I started our woodland gardens we had a baby and a toddler at home, we both had demanding jobs with long hours, and money and time were in short supply. In the beginning, we just cut some paths through our woods and started putting in plants as they entered our lives (we were both extension horticulturists at the time so bringing free plants home was a common occurrence). It wasn’t until the kids were in school that we were able to build retaining walls and stairs, bring in big loads of mulch, and invest in a few specimen trees. So what I’ve described below is the ideal situation, but it is certainly not the only way to do it. Take what you can from this part of the book and design your own little woodland paradise." You canordera signed copy ofGrowing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinalsfrom Jeaninejust in time for holiday giving.

Ira Wallace lives and gardens at Acorn Community Farm, home ofSouthern Exposure Seed Exchange,where she coordinates variety selection and new seed growers. Southern Exposure offers 700+ varieties of non-GMO, open pollinated, and organic seeds. Ira is also a co-organizer of theHeritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. She serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and Virginia Association for Biological Farming. She is a frequent presenter at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRSand many other eventsthroughout the Southeast.Her new bookThe Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeastis available online and at booksellers everywhere.