Medicine is one of the most substantial problems the family medic faces if a long-term disaster knocks them off the grid. Even with a decent stockpile accumulated over time, the commercially produced drugs will eventually be expended, leaving even the most skilled provider without some very important tools to help deal with injuries and illnesses. Planting your own medicinal herb garden is the best way to provide alternatives to modern medicines in austere settings. Until pharmaceuticals were produced in factories, people had to grow their own medicine. This practice was a natural part of our heritage and provided needed remedies for many medical issues. A community often had a person who served as an herbalist and supervised the cultivation and processing.

Garlic bulbs growing in a paper bag.

Above: Garlic has antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Growing your own medicinal garden is both rewarding and beneficial. The gardening learning curve can be steep, so don’t wait until the situation becomes critical to get started. Obtain some gardening supplies, assess weather and soil conditions, and figure out what medicinal plants might exist in your own backyard.


This is a general overview and not a comprehensive guide to medicinal gardening. Seek professional medical advice and study potential side-effects carefully before attempting to treat any injury or illness with natural remedies.

Choosing Medicinal Herbs for Your Garden

The medicinal plants you select should match the climate as much as possible. For some, that means that the herbs must survive the winter; for others, the summer heat or dry periods. The Department of Agriculture publishes “Plant Hardiness” maps: These are divided into 10-degee Fahrenheit zones and serve as the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants will do well at a particular location.

Cayenne peppers harvested and displayed on a marble table.

Above: Cayenne pepper can be used in cooking or as a medicine.

Part of the decision-making process is whether to plant annuals or perennials. This may confuse the beginning medicinal gardener. Given that annual is defined in the dictionary as “occurring every year or once a year,” some plant them, expecting new plants every spring. Despite the dictionary entry, when applied to plants, “annual” means completing the entire life cycle in one growing season. Perennial herbs include lavender, mint, thyme, sage, and rosemary. Examples of annuals include basil, dill, and fennel.

Ensuring Success

Once you have identified the plants with medicinal benefits that match up with your zone (and your likely needs), select a well-drained, sunny area with healthy soil. Although some herbs grow well in shade, most plants need at least six to eight hours of full sun for proper growth and development. Potting is appropriate for medicinal plants that might need to be taken inside during a cold winter. Water should be provided on a regular basis to allow the soil to stay moist, but not muddy or waterlogged.

A bag of coconut coir being dumped into a bucket.

Above: Coconut coir can absorb 10 times its weight in water.

Soil in many areas must often be amended for the best results. For a well-draining soil, mix potting soil with perlite and peat moss or coconut coir. Perlite is a white granular material that’s lightweight, sterile, and easy to handle. It’s neither alkaline nor acidic. Perlite absorbs water, but it also improves drainage. Coconut coir is the material between the outer shell of the coconut and the inner shell. You might have seen it as the liner for many hanging flower baskets. It’s inexpensive, reusable, available in compressed bales, and holds up to 10 times its weight in water. It helps provide good aeration when mixed with water and native soil. Plus, like perlite, it’s pH neutral. Coconut coir also helps resist a number of insects and diseases. On top of your mix, place some mulch or pine straw to hold in moisture and reduce weeds.


Composting is an excellent way to enrich your soil. Compost improves the soil by helping it retain more moisture and allow for more air flow. It also provides nutrients for plant growth. Gardeners make compost with grass clippings, leaves, shredded paper, kitchen waste like uncooked vegetable and fruit peels, and other organic matter.

Sweet potatoes being cleaned off after harvesting.

Above: Root crops can be harvested with hoes or trowels.

You’ll need a large container with a lid; some newer commercial composters come in “tumblers” that allow you to periodically turn the compost for more oxygen. Then, put the compost materials in and cover with soil and/or herbivore manure (be aware that dog, cat, or pig poop has a higher chance of containing parasites). Cow manure has the most nutrients. Microbes slowly degrade the container contents into nutrient-rich compost.

Adding some red worms will speed up the process. The worms will eat the plant matter and poop “worm castings.” Worm castings are organic matter that contains a mixture of bacteria, enzymes, remnants of plant matter, and other substances. They help prevent the soil from becoming too acidic or too alkaline.

A bag of chamomile flowers with some of the flowers displayed on a bench.

Above: Chamomile flowers are used in teas as a sleep aid and to relieve muscle tension.

For organic pest and disease control, consider putting together a soapy mixture of one tablespoon of neem oil, one teaspoon of Dr. Bronner’s lavender, peppermint Castile soap, and perhaps a few drops of tea tree essential oil in about four to eight cups of water. The combination makes a great natural disease and pest control. As a preventative, spray foliage in the late afternoon every five to seven days or after a heavy rain. Shorter intervals are acceptable if current diseases or pests are being treated.

You may be able to grow warmer climate plants by protecting them from the cold with greenhouses or using row covers. This will expand the range of medicinal plants you may choose to grow either in pots or around your homestead.

Seeds and Cuttings

Now you can sow your seeds. Different plant seeds are placed at different depths of the soil. Usually, it’s better to plant too shallow than too deep. Some, like certain lettuces, aren’t buried at all. A good general strategy is to plant seeds at a depth which equals two to three times their width. A layer of mulch can help maintain even moisture levels in dry conditions. Make sure to read the seed packet for specifics.

Photo of a woman planting herbs in a flower pot.

Above: Herbs like rosemary are simple to plant and grow.

Some herbs like mint and comfrey rarely produce viable seed, so “cuttings” are another option. A cutting is a section of plant originating from stem, leaf, or root that’s capable of developing into a new plant. This strategy involves placing the section in water or some other growing medium until roots develop. You’ll need sharp scissors or a razor blade, a healthy mother plant, a soilless potting mix, some rooting hormone, and small (4 inch or so) containers. Soilless mixes like perlite, vermiculite, sand, and coconut coir are used because they have less microbes that inhibit root growth. Water can be used instead of a mix, although planting afterward seems less successful than with mixes.

Cuttings taken from new, green, non-woody stems make for easier rooting. Look for a stem with a bump somewhere near a leaf attachment. This is the area from which new roots will emerge. Use clean scissors or a razor blade dipped in alcohol and cut at a 45-degree angle just below the leaf attachment, sometimes called a “node.” The cutting should be a few inches long and contain a leaf or two plus the node. Although a leaf is necessary for photosynthesis, too many or a leaf that’s too large will take away energy from root creation. If the leaf is large, cut off a portion from the end.

Photo of a patio garden.

Above: Herbs do just fine in pots and containers.

Your chances of success might be higher with rooting hormone. Rooting hormone stimulates the formation of new roots. Dip the node into some water and then into the rooting hormone. Tap off excess; too much actually decreases the success rate. Use a stick to make a hole slightly wider than the cutting. This will prevent rooting hormone from being knocked off the plant. Firm the soil around the cutting to stabilize it.

Place the whole thing into a plastic bag. This keeps the humidity high and holds in heat. Air is important, however, so don’t seal the bag completely. Keep in a warm area with a little light, but full sunlight isn’t necessary until new leaves form. Watch for two to three weeks, discarding any failed rootings. After this, a gentle tug on the plant should show some resistance, a sign that rooting has occurred. At this point, you have a new living plant.

Photo of soil mix and flower pots.

Above: The right soil mix and tools lead to a successful herb garden.

Useful Herbs for the Garden

Here’s a list of medicinal plants you may consider growing, as well as their benefits and the most commonly used part of the plant:

  • Aloe Vera: The gel from the leaf is used to heal and soothe rashes, burns, and cuts.
  • Arnica: Flowers and rhizomes (underground stems) are utilized in very dilute concentrations in ointments or salves for joint and muscle pain.
  • Calendula: The flowers are used fresh or dried and made into teas, creams, and salves. Calendula may relieve intestinal cramps, minor burns, rashes, eye infections, and decrease the severity of some viral infections.
  • Cayenne Pepper: The pepper itself is used dried and powdered, infused in oil, or mixed in a salve or cream. Good externally for arthritic pain as a salve. Applying cayenne powder directly on a wound may help stop mild bleeding.

Photo of pre-grown herbs displayed on a store shelf.

Above: Different herbs fail or succeed depending on plant hardiness.

  • Chamomile: The flowers are used in teas, salves, and creams. The tea is known to be relaxing and is used to relieve muscle tension and cramps. It also helps with insomnia, calms an upset stomach, and may also reduce joint inflammation.
  • Echinacea: The flowers and roots are used to produce teas or incorporated into capsules. It is known to have immune stimulating effects and may help reduce allergies such as hay fever.
  • Elder: Tea or syrup made of the flowering tops are good for coughs, colds, flu, and reducing allergies.
  • Feverfew: The fresh or dried leaves and flowers are used to help treat or prevent migraine headaches and also reduce fevers. This herb may also help with arthritic conditions.
  • Garlic: The fresh cloves are used (crushed) to make a tea, tincture, syrup, or capsules. Garlic may help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, thin the blood to help protect against blood clots, and lower blood sugar levels. It has antibacterial and antiviral properties, which makes it useful for treating both digestive and respiratory infections.
  • Ginger: The rhizomes are used to make a tea, essential oil, capsule, or tincture. Ginger is excellent for use in digestive disorders. It can help relieve both morning sickness and motion sickness.
  • Ginseng: The roots are used to make a tea, tincture, or incorporated into capsules. It is used to reduce the effects of physical and mental stress. It stimulates the immune system to help the body fight viruses and bacterial infections.

Photo of a variety of seed packets.

Above: Pick the herbs most likely to thrive in your area.

  • Goldenseal: The rhizomes are used to produce an eye wash for infections, as a mouthwash for swollen or infected gums, or as an external treatment for psoriasis.
  • Lavender: The fresh or dried flowers are used to produce a tea, tincture, infusion, or essential oil. It calms nervous conditions, relieves muscle or intestinal cramps, and loosens tight airways. Applied externally, it is an antiseptic for open wounds and mild burns. It relieves itching and inflammation, and can be used to relieve bug bites and rashes.
  • Lemon Balm: The fresh or dried aerial parts are used to produce a juice, tea, or salve. It can alleviate nervous conditions, abdominal cramps, and muscle aches.
  • Peppermint: The fresh or dried aerial parts are used to make a tea, capsules, and essential oil. The tea is helpful for intestinal spasms and may reduce gas, cramps, and diarrhea. As a diluted essential oil, it helps relieve headaches and migraines when a small amount is gently massaged into the temples.
  • Rosemary: The fresh or dried leaves are used to produce a tea, tincture, or essential oil. The tea or tincture can help reduce stress and relieve headaches. Applied as a diluted oil, it may relieve muscle or joint pain.
  • Sage: The fresh or dried leaves are used to make a tea or tincture. Fresh leaves are sometimes crushed and applied directly to the skin for the relief of stings and bug bites. The tea is good to relieve a sore throat, canker sores, or sore gums when used as a gargle.

Photo of aloe vera growing in a container.

Above: Burn remedy aloe vera is most easily propagated by separating out its “pups.”

  • Senna: The fresh or dried pods are used commonly in a tea to treat constipation.
  • St. John’s Wort: The fresh or dried flowering tops are used to make a tea, tincture, cream, or infused oil. Most commonly said to be a relaxant and helpful for depression, premenstrual syndrome, and menopausal symptoms.
  • Thyme: The fresh or dried aerial parts are used to produce a tea, tincture, syrup, and essential oil. The tea or syrup may be helpful for use in treating colds and flu.
  • Turmeric: The fresh or dried rhizome is used in a tea, tincture, poultice, or powder. It is said to have a strong anti-inflammatory action, and may help with asthma, arthritis, stomach cramps, and eczema. Externally, it is useful in treating fungal infections, psoriasis, and other itchy rashes.
  • Valerian: The roots and rhizomes are used to produce a tea, tincture, or powder. It has a sedative effect and is commonly used to reduce stress, induce relaxation, and help with insomnia.
  • Witch Hazel: An alcohol infusion of the bark is used as an astringent to reduce hemorrhoids. It can also stop itching from insect stings.
  • Yarrow: Fresh or dried aerial parts are used to make a tea, tincture, essential oil, or a poultice to heal wounds. Some claim that it reduces bleeding from wounds.


Each plant is different, and when to harvest even depends on the part of the plant involved. Flowers are harvested when they open but before they are pollinated. In general, flowers should be harvested on dry days before the intense heat of the sun removes the fragrance from the petals, but after the morning dew has dried.

Photo of a handful of perlite.

Above: Perlite improves soil aeration and drainage.

It’s preferable to take just the amount of plant material you’re ready to process for use or storage. Otherwise, rapid deterioration could occur and degrade the medicinal benefit of the herbs. Herbs can be preserved by air- or oven-drying, and then stored in a sterile dark glass jar with airtight lids. For the longest shelf life of about 12 months, make sure conditions are cool, dry, and dark. Vacuum sealing the jar helps.

Gardening Tools

Just like any off-grid activity, the right tools make life easier and increase your chances of success. Consider these items:

  • Shovels: Shovels have a long shaft and a concave, angled tip for scooping up material and breaking up soil.
  • Spades: Spades look similar to shovels but tend to have a shorter shaft and a flat, rectangular blade to slice through roots and into dirt.
  • Shears: Garden shears cut small branches, stems, and other plant growth.
  • Rakes: Rakes are tined instruments that clear leaves, weeds, and other garden waste, and help with sowing.
  • Hoes: Either long-handled or handheld, hoes help turn and clear soil, remove weeds, and harvest root crops.
  • Pitchforks: Two- to five-tined pitchforks help you lift and pitch garden materials like manure and hay.

Home gardening tools: overhead view of green gardening equipment isolated on white background. A pot with ivy plant complete the composition.

  • Trowels: Trowels look like tiny shovels and are handheld tools to help plant, transplant or dig.
  • Wheelbarrows: A cart with sloped sides and a single front wheel, wheelbarrows allow you to haul around significant amounts of soil, compost, and other garden materials. Other garden carts may have two or more wheels.
  • Hoses, nozzles, and hose reels: Hoses deliver water where it’s needed; reels allow you to neatly wind up and store your hose. Nozzles let you change pressure and shape of the spray.
  • Watering cans: Portable containers with a long spout that move small amounts of water.
  • Gardening gloves: Gloves are important to keep your hands protected and clean while working in the garden.

Multipurpose Plants

Many herbs bestow multiple benefits to the gardener. Take the herb known as thyme, a low-growing herb often used in cooking. In addition, it:

  • Acts as a ground cover to suppress weeds and keep the soil moist.
  • Produces flowers that attract pollinators.
  • Has edible leaves.
  • Is useful in teas for sore throats, colds, and flus.
  • Serves to naturally deter pests due to its aroma.bundle of raw fresh organic thyme on sackcloth

Of course, the strength of a medicinal herb depends on climate, soil conditions, and other factors. Like vintages of wine, each year may yield higher or lower quality of effect. In addition, many have risks if used in pregnancy or in those with certain medical conditions, especially those requiring blood-thinners.

There’s a lot more to putting together an effective medicinal garden when the medications run out. Diligently research the data on each herb and decide which will do well in your area and meet your medical needs. Don’t delay: The last thing you want is to go through the gardening learning curve after you’re thrown off the grid.

About the Author

Joe Alton, MD, is a physician, medical preparedness advocate, and New York Times bestselling author of The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Help Is Not On The Way, now in its 700-page 4th edition. He is also an outdoor enthusiast and member of The Wilderness Medical Society. His website at has over 1,300 articles, podcasts, and videos on medical preparedness as well as an entire line of quality medical kits designed by the author and packed in the United States.

Read More

STAY SAFE: Download a Free copy of the OFFGRID Outbreak Issue

In issue 12, Offgrid Magazine took a hard look at what you should be aware of in the event of a viral outbreak. We're now offering a free digital copy of the OffGrid Outbreak issue when you subscribe to the OffGrid email newsletter. Sign up and get your free digital copy

No Comments