Grow Your Own Herbal Pharmacy

1 Oct 2021 8:10 PM | Anonymous

Article courtesy of BCHAProfessional RHT member Chanchal Cabrera – Msc., FNIMH, RH (AHG), RHT

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Start with good quality seeds. Some suppliers of medicinal plant seeds are:

  • Richter’s Farm, Goodwood, ON
  • SaltSpring Island Seeds
  • Horizon Herbs (in Oregon, but the best for unusual medicinals and exotics)
  • Ravenhill Herbs, Victoria

A few herbs need to be direct sown but most do better planted into seed trays or plug trays and grown up to a few inches before transplanting into the garden. That way you can control temperature, moisture etc. and there is less competition with slugs etc.

Woody herbs like lavender, sage and rosemary can be propagated by cuttings and layerings. Cuttings of the young wood, or small branches, with a root or heel, pulled off the large plants, may be inserted in sandy soil, and planted out during the following spring. The ‘cuttings’ are taken by pulling the small branches down with a quick movement, when they become detached with the desired ‘heel’ at their base. Cuttings root freely in April, but thorough watering will be required in dry weather until the cuttings are thoroughly established.

Most of the herbs will grow in almost any friable, garden soil. They usually do best on light soil – sand or gravel – in an open and sunny position with good drainage and freedom from damp in winter. Some plants may need protection in winter, or bringing inside.

Making potting mix

A ideal general potting mix should be light, airy, long-lasting (doesn’t break down or become compacted), moisture-retentive and contain some nutrient value.

In your potting mix, you need ingredients that provide:

  • Drainage – to help hold the soil structure open so water moves through and it doesn’t become anaerobic.
  • Aeration – a good mix will be light and fluffy, allowing air pockets to form in the soil structure so your plant roots and micro organisms have the oxygen they need to thrive.
  • Water retention – moisture holding capacity is essential or you will have a water repellent mix and waste money on unnecessary watering.
  • Nutrient retention – ingredients that bind or hold onto the minerals means less leaching of nutrients; improves plant health and saves you money.
  • Plant Food – vital nutrients for plant growth – the amount depends on how long you want the mix to feed your plants for.
  • Support – the soil crumbs need to be small and fine so the plant roots (especially young seedlings) can take hold and easily expand through the mix.
  • Microbes – play a vital role in plant health and growth and I include them in my mix although many mixes are devoid of soil life.


You’ll need a container for measuring, a large bucket for mixing in, access to water (kettle and hose/watering can), sieve; a small fork and trowel, a container for pre-soaking the coir peat and your ingredients.

  • 1 part pre-soaked Coir Peat – Coir peat is a cheap but long lasting renewable resource so is a more responsible environmental choice (a waste by-product from coconut-processing industry). The finer product left behind after the husk fibre is processed is called coconut coir or coir peat – not to be confused with peat moss!
  • 1 part Vermiculite (Grade 3 is a good size) – Vermiculite is the silvery grey colour you often see in potting mixes. It is natural volcanic mineral that has been expanded with  heat to increase its water holding capacity and can come from a variety of sources. The flaky particles soak up moisture and nutrients and keep them in the mix so the plants can access them. It’s lightweight; inorganic so is a permanent ingredient that will not deteriorate or lose volume in the mix; clean; odourless; non-toxic; sterile (no pathogens) and won’t become mouldy or rot.
    Some potting mix recipes suggest using perlite instead of vermiculite however I don’t recommend this due to the risk of Silicosis (overexposure to dust containing microscopic silica can cause scar tissue to form in the lungs, reducing the ability to extract oxygen from the air).
  • Coarse washed river sand (salt removed) or builder’s sand can be substituted for vermiculite as an alternative ingredient for drainage – or to minimise cost, use a combination of both. “Coarse” is the key word – the rough shape and size of the individual grains of sand allow space for water to pass though. If the grains are too fine, smooth and round (like you find on the beach), water will cling to them and they’ll compact, drowning your plants.
  • Use sand if you need to weigh your container down e.g. for a windy balcony so it is less likely to blow over. Add more sand for a faster-draining succulent mix.
  • 2 parts sieved Compost – Compost retains minerals, provides moisture and plant food, microbes and improves the structure of the growing media. It also acts as a buffer to changes in pH and suppresses disease.
  • 1/2 to 1 cup Worm Castings  or Vermicast (humus) – ideally you will have your own worm farm to add this perfect humus to your mix. Note: * this is an approximate quantity based on making 36 litres (4 x 9 litre buckets) of potting mix using a 9 litre brick of coir peat. Feel free to add more if you have it! [If you can’t access vermicast, you can buy worm castings or use some humus from the bottom of your compost pile that is most decomposed or use good quality compost]. Humus has so many benefits including the capacity to hold nutrients and supply them to your plants; incredible moisture retention capacity (holds 80-90% of its weight in water); prevents leaching; provides beneficial microbes; is a plant food source; a buffer for toxic metals and chemicals; and has the optimum soil crumb texture.


STEP 1: Pre-soak coir peat in warm water in a large plastic container. Tip: To rehydrate a 9L block requires 4.5L of water so you need a container bigger than a 9L bucket to work in (minimum 14L size).
When rehydrated according to the directions for the volume you are making, loosen and fluff with your trowel.

STEP 2: Mix equal quantities of pre-soaked coir peat and vermiculite (or coarse sand if using) together well in a large separate container.

STEP 3: Next, add the sieved compost and worm castings and combine thoroughly with (optional) nutrients.
You may need to moisten lightly with a watering can until you can just squeeze a few drops of moisture out of the mix or it has a nice moist but NOT wet feel.

STEP 4: Check the pH with a meter.  Most plants require a pH of between 6.0 and 7.0 but if you are growing vegies, they grow best in the range of 6.2 – 6.8 pH.
Some plants do require a more acidic mix (e.g. azaleas, gardenias, rhododendrons and blueberries) to thrive

To raise the pH of potting mix by about one unit (make it more alkaline), add 1 – 1.5 grams of dolomite (lime)/litre of mix. To lower the pH by about one unit (make it more acidic), add 0.3 grams of sulphur/litre of potting mix. Keep the mix moist and recheck the pH again a few days later.

 STEP 5: Store in a container with a lid to avoid drying out if not using it all immediately.

Add Nutrients (optional but recommended)

  • Rock Minerals – Plants need a balance of minerals for health & reproduction – just like we do.
  • Seaweed & Fish – These provide essential trace elements that boost root growth, plant health, disease resistance, transplant shock and many other benefits.
  • To maintain the soil life in your potting mix, feed microbes kelp/seaweed one week, and then molasses the alternate week.

Harvesting herbs

 Plant Part When   How Remedy 
 Leaves Fresh, undamaged, before blooming Spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Infusion
 Flowers Fresh, undamaged, day of opening Spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Infusion
 Seeds At maturity Clean from fruit, spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Decoction
 Roots Early spring or late fall Chop in small pieces, spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Decoction
 Barks Early spring or late fall Chop in small pieces, spread out on a sheet in a dark room with air flow Decoction

Making herbal teas

Infusions (leaves & flowers)
Take 1 Tbsp. fresh herb mix or 1 tsp. dried herb mix and place in a china cup or tea pot. Pour on 1 cup freshly boiling water. Cover and steep 5 – 15 minutes.

Decoctions (roots, barks & seeds)
Take 1 Tbsp. fresh herb mix or 1 tsp. dried herb mix and place in a stainless steel pan. Cover with 1 ½ cups cold water. Cover, bring to a boil then turn down the heat and simmer on the lowest possible setting for 5 – 15 minutes.


About the Author:

Photo of Chanchal Cabrera

Chanchal lives with her husband Thierry Vrain in Courtenay on Vancouver Island in BC where they cultivate vegetables and herbs on 7 acres and are building a healing garden retreat center. Visit to read more about this.

Chanchal has been a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists since 1987 and obtained her MSc in herbal medicine at the University of Wales in 2003. She has an extensive background in orthomolecular nutrition and allergy therapy as well as clinical aromatherapy.

Chanchal has held the faculty chair in Botanical Medicine at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in New Westminster since 2004 and she serves on the board of advisors of Dominion Herbal College in Burnaby. She publishes widely in professional journals and lectures internationally on medical herbalism, nutrition and health.

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