Gardening can be intimidating and, for those of us who do not have our own patch of dirt to tend, it can seem nearly impossible. But growing and using your own herbs is quite satisfying and can only improve our magical relationship with them. And if you don’t have your own patch of dirt, many herbs grow quite satisfactorily in pots on a windowsill or a porch step. Here, I hope to list some of the easiest and most useful herbs for a start toward your magical herb garden. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list- just a little something to get you started.
Tips for growing herbs
Begin slowly by selecting herbs you already use on a regular basis. Grow them, get to know them and explore their potential. Next year, select a few more herbs to broaden your repertoire. As your garden grows, so will your magick.
Most herbs like a lot of sun. Choose a sunny spot in your yard or a South-facing window, but remember that this position also dries out quickly. If you don’t have the ideal spot, you can increase your plants’ light exposure by mulching with reflective or white stones or backing your garden up against a white wall, indoors, you may wish to invest in a small grow light. (If you don’t have a sunny spot, I’ll be writing about gardening in the shade soon.)
Harvest herbs before they go into bloom. Don’t just pluck off leaves, but think more on pruning it. Cut the main stem with a sharp blade, just beneath a leaf node, making sure to leave several leaves on the stem to keep it growing.
Some herbs are annuals and will complete their life cycle in one year. These you can harvest liberally the first year but perennials should be given a year to gain their strength before you prune them too heavily.
Some Magical Herbs to Choose from for Your First Garden
You should, of course, choose herbs you already use often to start with, but here are some suggestions of very common and useful herbs to grow just to give you some inspiration. These are readily found in garden centers and seed catalogs, with the possible exception of lemon balm which doesn’t tend to make an appearance in the big box stores, but can often be found in the mom and pop operations. All of these can be grown in a pot. The trickiest among them is probably garlic, which isn’t all that tricky. Some of them are tricky to grow from seed, but they are commonly available as young plants as well.
Lemon balm is an easy-to-grow perennial with lemon scent and flavor. It gets nice and bushy (give it about 2 feet) and quite tall (up to 3 feet if you let it go) and can be invasive so take care where you plant it or put it in a pot. Lemon balm looks nice in a pot, especially if you keep it trimmed up and it will scent your home, especially if you touch it often. It does fine in normal soil in full sun. It is best harvested just before it goes into flower. Just cut it down short, but not all the way to the ground (leave a few leaves) and hang to dry or use the fresh leaves right way. Don’t worry, your lemon balm will grow back and spread and be with you for many years.
Lemon balm makes a pleasant lemony-scented-and-flavored addition to teas and is known for its soothing, restful properties. It is a favorite of mine to add to soothing anti-anxiety teas to promote rest (I am prone to anxiety-induced insomnia), especially when the anxiety is accompanied by a “nervous stomach”. Unlike other sleep aids and relaxants, it actually improves your mental clarity rather than leaving you groggy in the morning. In fact, some research has been done with Alzheimer’s patients, with promising results.
Lemon balm is also known to have anti-viral action, especially for herpes-related outbreaks (including close relatives like chicken pox and shingles). It is gentle enough and pleasant-tasting enough (especially with a bit of honey) for children and makes a great addition to medicines to help fight all sorts of childhood viruses.
Lemon balm is one of many plants with a reputation for as an insect repellent. I can’t speak to this. I do know that insect pests are not a problem with this plant, but when it’s in flower, the bees and butterflies are all over it. In fact, this plant is closely associated with the honeybee (Melissa is from the Greek for “honeybee”) and it is said that if you plant it near your hives, your bees are less likely to swarm.
Lemon balm makes a great addition to any tisane (or herbal tea) or you can use a tincture if you prefer. It can also be added to salves and lip balm recipes for topical application and it makes a great addition to a bath tea. Lemon balm can also be used to make potpourri and added to herbal pillows to promote restful sleep. The scent can be worn or carried to ward off nervous tension and to help keep a clear head.
Lemon balm can be used magically in various ways including Magical Floor Washes to encourage family members to keep close to home, and to return home after travels and the herb can be used in spells or added to family meals to help overcome household and family challenges, especially those that cause restlessness and anxiety.
Thyme is another wonderful, hardy garden perennial. It also looks great in a pot and it’s tiny leaves are adorable in a fairy garden. There are many varieties, some more adorable and some more fragrant, (and one is woolly, one is elfin, one is lemony) so you definitely want to explore your options here, though common thyme is best for medicinal and culinary use. Thyme is a low-growing plant and makes a nice groundcover for a sunny spot. Late in the summer, it will give you really nice purple flowers and its tiny leaves can be harvested all year, even well into the winter in most places. Unlike some herbs, thyme retains its flavor quite nicely when dried.
Thyme has traditionally been used as a fumigant (burned to purify an area), especially in sick rooms. It makes a nice smudge to banish all sorts of negativity, but especially disease and sprigs can be hung around the house to ward off disease as well.
A tisane made of thyme leaves is great respiratory tract infections. I find it much more pleasant to serve it as a savory broth, rather than trying to make a tea out of it. Add lots of it to your chicken broth to sip throughout the day when fighting a cold, whooping cough, bronchitis, pneumonia etc. (This can also help stimulate the appetite to keep your strength up.) If you have a sore throat, you can steep thyme in hot water, strain, add some salt and use this warm to gargle. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions as well!
You can also add thyme oil to a chest rub to help break up congestion or add it to a bath tea for the same purpose.
Thyme oil has strong antibacterial properties and I like to add it to my wash water for scrubbing floors and my All Purpose Cleaning Spray. This also serves the magical purpose of helping keep positive energy and optimism flowing through my house. It does have a bit of an antiseptic smell to it, so I do like to add other herbs to brighten up the fragrance. You can also add it to first aid salves to apply to minor cuts to prevent infection.
Wear or carry a sprig of thyme to protect yourself from the negative vibrations of others and to help maintain a positive attitude and confidence while you’re out and about.
Rosemary is woody and bushy and can get quite large under the right conditions. It prefers sandy, well-drained soil and lots of sun. Unfortunately, where I live, rosemary does not survive our winters. It does well in a pot indoors provided it gets plenty of sunlight and gets a bit of a mist throughout the winter when the artificial heat dries out the air. I am told that in places where rosemary is happy, it is a very easy-to-grow plant. I have never lived in such a place and killed many before I figured out the secret to keeping it alive indoors in the winter – LOTS of sun and don’t let it dried out.
Prune rosemary every few months during the growing season. If you live in a place where it’s happy, you will get blooms and you can prune it right before it blooms. It is tempting to pick leaves off as you need them, but it is much better for the plant if you give it a good pruning two or three times a year and dry or freeze the leaves from that for future use. If you are picking off fresh leaves, don’t just pick the leaves but cut a branch and strip the leaves off after.
Rosemary is essential in my house for poultry and stock, potatoes and tomato-based sauces. I am told it is also a nice addition to Shortbread Cookies.
Rosemary is another plant that is used for fumigation. Smudge with rosemary to banish negativity and negative people; get rid of squatters, for example, and hang rosemary over the door (or add it to an herbal wreath) to prevent such people from entering. You can also burn rosemary to help break hexes.
For healing, rosemary can be used to stuff a poppet meant for a healing spell. It is also a good herb to smudge or wash the sick room to prevent the illness of the occupant from spreading to others.
Rosemary’s most famous use is in enhancing memory. The fragrance of rosemary worn about your person will help your memory throughout the day and ensure that anyone you meet remembers you. (Great for a job interview.)
Rosemary can be added to massage oil to treat muscle and joint pain and a chest rub for coughs.
Rosemary tea can be drunk to soothe migraines with accompanying nausea and it’s said to also be good for the heart. Take care though if you are pregnant as large amounts of rosemary is reported to increase menstrual flow and cause miscarriage.
Personally, I add rosemary to the apple cider vinegar and water combo that I rinse my hair with. It is said to strengthen hair, encourage hair growth and prevent dandruff. I don’t know if it’s the rosemary, but my hair is pretty shiny and strong. It doesn’t stay where it’s put ever, but I am not sure there’s an herb powerful enough to fix that.
Oregano is another herb that grows well in a pot. Indeed, many gardeners wish they’d grown it in a pot instead of inflicting it on their garden as it can take over and smother out all your other plants. In a pot, it can spill over and looks nice hanging from the ceiling. Oregano is hardy and can take some abuse. It likes full sun and well-drained soil, but once it’s full grown you can walk on it, forget to water it for a while, whatever, it’ll be fine (assuming you water it eventually). I recently found oregano growing in the forgotten waste alongside my deck. I didn’t plant it there, but I’m not complaining. There are a few different varieties, some look cuter in a pot than others. You can pick oregano as you need it (even, I have found, in the dead of winter) but it’s better for the plant to do a few large cuttings a year. Oregano dries well and retains its flavor for six months or so if you store it away from light and heat.
I find oregano necessary in all things made with ground meat (meatballs, meatloaf, etc.) and many tomato-based dishes. But for all of its Italian reputation, I find it more necessary for all of my Cajun-inspired creations.
Oregano is a traditional remedy for congestion. A strong decoction of oregano (Steep 1 cup of fresh oregano in 3 cups boiling water for 15 minutes, take 1/2 cup 2-3x a day) is said to act as an expectorant and to fight all sorts of infections. This is also said to be helpful against candida. Do not give this to children under 12 or pregnant women.
Oregano oil is strongly antiseptic and antifungal and can be used in disinfectant cleaners or added to first aid and anti-fungal salves.
A massage oil made with oregano or a bath tea with oregano can help ease body aches, such as those associated with arthritis, the flu, menstrual issues or fibromyalgia.
For general protection in your home, steep oregano in water and strain, then use the water to wash your floors, walls and windows. You can hang oregano over doors and windows, or add it to an herbal wreath to protect against spells and general misfortune. Growing oregano in the house, or adding some stems to a floral arrangement, will banish negativity and encourage joy.
Peppermint is another weedy plant that is best kept in a pot. A close relative, its care is similar to that of oregano.
Peppermint is a wonderful addition to sweet, creamy desserts (like mint chocolate chip ice cream) and teas. My favorite combination for iced tea is green tea and peppermint. I could drink that all day. There are other mints, but this one is my favorite. Peppermint is reputed to soothe all sorts of gastrointestinal complaints, including irritable bowel syndrome and nausea. Personally, peppermint tea has never helped me with nausea as drinking it triggers acid reflux for me, but I do find the fragrance soothing.
I use peppermint to clean my toilet. This may sound strange, but I have a condition and throw up a lot (and there have also been pregnancies) and so have spent some time analyzing how the scent of my toilet bowl affects how I feel when I’m nauseated. I decided peppermint is the most soothing in that situation. Other scents popular in the cleaning industry, like lemon and pine for example, made me feel worse. Peppermint makes me feel better. So I use Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint castille soap, well-diluted, as a toilet bowl cleaner, because at any moment, I might get nauseated and have to stick my face in there.
Another household use for peppermint is as a pesticide. You can add it to your cleaning spray and mop water in the spring when the ants start to come inside as a deterrent. I am told it works well for mice too, but I have never had that problem (knock-on-wood) thanks to my cat. As far as repelling pests on your person, it is a common ingredient in natural mosquito repellents and head lice treatments.
Peppermint is also wonderful for migraines, provided you catch them on the way in. At the first twinge, rub some on your temples to stop a migraine in its tracks. I find sticking your face in the plant works well too. A scented pillow on your bed can help you sleep off a migraine.
Peppermint can (and should) be added to a salve that can do double duty as a chest rub for congestion and a rub for muscle aches (like a certain very popular commercially available salve). I also use this to dab on itchy bits. Unlike other herbs that are good for breaking up congestion (like rosemary), peppermint tends to chill and that is not pleasant when it’s your whole body, but it is good in a foot bath after a long, hot workday.
Magically, peppermint tea is said to aid in divination and to induce prophetic dreams if taken before bed.
Peppermint leaves can be used in money spells. It can be burned in money drawing incense or used in a wash to attract prosperity to your house or keep a sprig in your pocket to attract more money there.
Of all the plants in my garden, the chives are my kindergartener’s favorite. They always have been. They grow in grassy-looking bunches that send up cute purple pom-poms. Chives love the sun, but aren’t picky. They’re true set-it-and-forget-it plants. What’s not to love? Chive seeds can be really slow to germinate, but once they do, you’re golden, forever.
I am told that Japanese beetles don’t like chives and so they make a good companion plant to plants that are susceptible to them, more so even than the much-lauded garlic for this purpose because harvesting garlic can interfere with the roots of its companions and you don’t have that issue with chives.
Chives can be cut just about any time. Just clip them with some scissors- but do let some of the pop-pom flowers happen. They are delightful scattered over a chowder or a salad. You can dry both the leaves and the flowers. Slice the leaves (this is easiest done with scissors rather than a knife) and then lay them out on a screen or a sheet of paper to dry, giving them a shake now and again to make sure they dry evenly. The flowers you just remove from their pop-pom (Yes, I know it’s called an inflorescence.) and spread out to dry likewise. Store these in a glass jar away from heat and light.
Magically, chives are protective (most fire and mars things are) and you can use them in binding spells that involve tying knots. I don’t know of any specific spells, but I am told that chives are good for weight loss spells. If I was going to use chives in such a spell, I would use knots to bind my appetite along the length of the long leaf. On the other hand, chives can be used for spells related to eating disorders. I’d do it the same way.
If you are using other foods to create a magical meal, you can tie them in bundles using chives as your string.
Traditionally, chives were used much like garlic to ward off evil spirits. You can make shapes, like crosses or knots, with the leaves and hang them near doors and windows for this purpose.
Chives are rich in nutrients and are a great addition to savory broths. Chives are said to stimulate the appetite and aid in digestion, especially of fats.
The first thing you need to know about growing garlic is that there are two main types- hard necked (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) and soft necked (Allium sativum var. sativum) . If you want to make nifty garlic braid, you will want to grow a soft necked variety, but if you like scapes, you will need to grow the hard-necked variety. Hard-necked varieties are hardier and recommended for people with rough winters, but soft-necked varieties store better. You should be able to find out what sort you’re getting by reading the label at the nursery. If there is no such label, you should ask why. You can grow the garlic bulbs you’ve got in your kitchen, but then you won’t know what variety you’ve got, though it is probably a soft-necked variety, as they tend to store and ship better.
Garlic likes a period of cold to grow well. In many areas, you can plant garlic in the fall and it’ll start to grow up in the spring. I get scapes in June and harvest my garlic bulbs in early August here in Michigan. You can also force them by putting them in the fridge before planting them in a pot indoors- I have done this with varying degrees of success. Garlic seems to grow well enough in a pot outdoors but can be cantankerous indoors.
Garlic likes a nice, rich, crumbly soil in sunny spot. If you have a bulb, break it up into cloves and tuck the cloves into the soil with the root end down and the point up about 6 inches apart. Keep the bulbs moist, but don’t drown them. A mulch of straw or wood shavings will help keep them moist.
When the grassy-looking leaves start to dry out, starting at the tips, it’s time to harvest your garlic bulbs. This usually happens in autumn, but in very warm summers it can happen sooner. If you’ve planted hard-necked garlic, you will have scapes- curlicue shoots that form flower buds that turn into bulbils (which you can plant for more garlic) at the top, in spring or early summer. It is best to cut these to encourage your plant to focus on growing a nice fat bulb. They are delicious. I like them in pickles and stir-fries.
Cure your garlic by letting it dry a few days in a dry spot with good ventilation. You can slice up the bulbs, dry them and send them through the blender to make your own garlic powder or keep the bulbs whole and store them in a cool dry place, or separate and peel your cloves and pickle them. Be sure to save some cloves to plant right back in the ground for next year.
Garlic has traditionally been used to ward off evil spirits, curses and, of course, vampires. I stick pins in garlic and stick it under my doorstep to keep specific unwanted “suitors” (i.e. harassers) from sniffing around. It is also a well-known tonic herb, best consumed chopped and raw, I like it in dips and spreads, like hummus and fresh homemade garlic mayonnaise.
Gender: Masculine Planet: Mercury Element: Air
Dill is a lovely, feathery plant with a delicate aroma. It creates a pretty umbrella-shaped flower cluster. Dill can be grown in a pot and its frost-tenderness would seem to lend itself well to life indoors, but dill can be top-heavy so it will need a broad-based pot and possibly a stake to keep it from flopping over. The seeds should be planted directly in the soil, because dill does not like to be transplanted, but don’t plant too early in the season. If you are growing outdoors, wait until the nights are reliably warm. Keep the seeds moist and allow them 10 days to germinate. You’ll want to plant more than you think you’ll need because the swallowtail butterfly larvae may want to share.
The leaves of dill are a nice flavoring for fish, cheese, potatoes, and other vegetables and the dill seeds are used in pickling spice.
Dill leaves are used for uncrossing powders and spells and dill seeds are carried for luck in legal, romantic and financial matters.
White sage gets a lot of attention, but garden sage is a star in the herb garden. White sage requires a bit more specialized care and isn’t recommended for beginners. Besides, we’re kitchen witches and garden sage is as delicious as it is magical. There is some argument about whether it’s “safe” to smudge with this, but honestly, the smoke of every plant is toxic, it’s only a matter of degree. I use it to smudge, but I do not believe it’s ever safe to smudge enclosed spaces. A safe alternative, still cleansing and protective, is to infuse some water with sage and put it in a spray bottle or use sage in the water you use to wash your floors.
Garden sage can be grown in a pot, but you must keep in mind that it’s a shrub. It will get bushy and its stems will get woody, it likes space. Wherever you put it, give it well-drained soil and lots of sunlight. Sage needs to be watered regularly while it is small, but after its first year, it will prove quite drought hardy for you- just don’t let it go too long.
Sage can be grown near or in the home or its leaves can be carried on the person or placed within a shop to ensure success in business endeavors. It is also useful for general protection and cleansing.
In the garden, German Chamomile Matricaria chamomilla is tall-ish and elegant while Roman chamomile, Chammaemelum nobile is quite short and, if you can get it to grow en masse, makes a lovely and fragrant lawn, assuming you don’t walk on it too much. Both produce small, daisy-like flowers and smell faintly of apples. The flowers are used to make a delightful, soothing tea for the restless but it is sometimes not well-tolerated by people who suffer from hay fever. Both types of chamomile likes light, well-drained soil and plenty of sunlight. They both do well indoors in pots too. I think Roman chamomile looks best in a pot, German chamomile tends to get too tall and flop over.
Chamomile can be used in spells for luck, to win games of chance and for luck in financial investments. Washing your hair with chamomile tea will give you its delightful fragrance and help you attract a lover. Chamomile is also a good addition to dream teas and dream pillows.
Basil is a frost-tender annual that grows quite well in pots. It requires good drainage and lots of sun and that’s about it. The leaves are delicious in salads, on pizza and in sandwiches with some cheese and fresh tomatoes. When you pick it, clip the topmost leaves off with a blade across the stem. The stem will branch and more leaves will grow.
Basil is a wonderful herb for promoting harmony and protection from strife. I use it liberally in my floor wash when preparing for family gatherings, to help prevent drama. It can also be used for general house protection or carried on your person or stored in your car to protect you from unpleasant incidents while traveling.
More than just a garnish, parsley is very nutrient dense and has a pleasant crunch when fresh. Dried, it tastes a bit like hay, so I prefer to freeze it. There are flat leafed varieties, which I find more pleasant to chew, and curled varieties which I think look very pretty. Chopped small, parsley can be used as a vegetable and added in quantities to soups, salads, and sauces. Its flavor is best raw or only very lightly cooked, so it should be added at the very end of cooking.
Parsley is an exception among the Mediterranean herbs as it doesn’t mind some cool weather and a bit of shade. The seeds do like some warmth to get started though. Be patient with them, they can take a month to germinate. You can improve the germination of parsley seeds by soaking them for a few days and discarding the water before planting.
Parsley is sacred to Persephone and supports transitions and communication with the dead and is a suitable addition to funerary flower arrangements or, dried, it can be burned during necromantic divination sessions or rituals in honor of the ancestors or the Underworld Gods. Parsley is also associated with female power and strength.
These few herbs are easy to grow and can provide tasty flavor in the kitchen while spicing up your magick as well. Once you’ve spent a few seasons with these herbs, your confidence in your “green thumb” will increase and you can begin adding more challenging and specialized herbs to your garden. But if you don’t, that’s okay too. These few herbs can make a huge difference in your cooking and your magick and are really enough to be getting on with.