The warmer, longer days of spring are a call to gardeners everywhere. Now is the time to stay outside until darkness drives you in, tending your garden with care. For those with limited outdoor space, growing in pots is a simple way to bring plants into your life and home. Even a tiny patio garden with just a few pots can grow a surprising abundance of fresh salad or culinary herbs to season every meal. Pot culture requires richer soil, since plants are restricted and thus less able to find their own nutrition. Combine equal parts topsoil or fill dirt with organic compost to build soil. Potted plants also benefit from a seasonal fertilizing regime. Every other month or so, water in with compost tea or kelp meal or fish emulsion—stinky but life-giving amendments that feed the billions of microorganisms alive in each pot of healthy soil. Plants growing in pots will also need additional watering, so check on them every three to four days, taking care to water only when the top two inches of soil have dried out.      

Just a few pots can go a long way in growing plants with health-supporting, medicinal qualities. Many plants have chemical constituents developed over thousands of years of environmental changes and adaptation that impart health benefits to humans. There are plants that can speed the healing of cuts and bruises, plants that can stimulate immune health to prevent or reduce sick time and plants that soothe our nerves, providing relief from the stresses of our busy lives.   

Calendula is a low-growing plant with brilliant, sticky yellow and orange flowers that attract beneficial insects and honeybees. The flowers also have powerful skin-healing qualities: calendula oil is included in many skin products because of its ability to reduce scar tissue and heal cuts and scrapes. To make your own calendula oil, simply fill a mason jar of any size half full of calendula and the rest of the way with an organic oil of your choice, making sure that all flowers remain submerged in oil. Allow to sit for at least two to four weeks, shaking occasionally, before straining out and composting the flowers. The finished product is an infused oil that can be thickened into a cream with beeswax and coconut oil or used as an oil for external applications to cuts and scrapes to promote faster healing.

Two of my favorite herbs to grow in pots for tea are tulsi (holy basil) and chamomile.  Tulsi and chamomile make a delicious tea that is soothing to our nervous systems and especially delicious just before bed time. To make a strong, active tea, brew at least 1-2 tablespoons of leaves and flowers to a cup of water. Let sit for at least two hours before straining and heating up to enjoy.  Drying herbs is extremely easy and provides tea through the winter. Simply spread plants in a thin layer (don’t pile them) on a well-ventilated surface such as a basket or screen in a warm and dark place.  It is important not to expose tea herbs to direct sunlight which degrades their quality. Once plant material gently crumbles to the touch, it is dry enough to pack into glass jars and store in a cool, dark space for future use.     

For more tips on growing and harvesting herbs for use in teas, salves and creams, and herbal vinegars, join us for a class featuring herbal recipes at the Carpinteria Garden Park on Sunday, May 12, from 10 a.m. to noon.

Alena Steen is coordinator of the Carpinteria Garden Park, an organic community garden located at 4855 Fifth St., developed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Community members rent a plot to grow their own fresh produce. The garden is also a center for public education, with classes on organic gardening, nutrition and sustainability. For a complete schedule or more information, visit carp-garden.com or follow the garden on Instagram @carp_garden.

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