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How to design a cottage garden using forgotten medicinal and edible plants, because what could be more homestead and pioneer living than that!
Herbs are an important part of any edible garden, both for their culinary uses and medicinal properties. But herbs are also a fantastic addition to any garden landscape because of the natural beauty they provide. When you combine all three of these things together and plant herbs for their culinary, medicinal and aesthetic properties, you get what is often referred to as a “kitchen garden,” or “cottage garden.”
In times of old, most homes would have both a kitchen or cottage garden, which was right outside the kitchen door where they could easily and quickly access herbs and plants for cooking and also to use in their natural medicine cabinets. And then they would have their larger gardens where they would grow their large scale crops further away from the house on their property.
Today we’re going to be focusing on creating a kitchen cottage garden that not only feeds your family, but that also provides a place of beauty as well as plants and herbs that you can use medicinally.
Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #186 How to Design a Cottage Garden – Forgotten Medicinal & Edible Plants, of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen and life you want for your family and homestead.
The cool part though is that the plants that we’re going to be talking about today are lesser-known plants that many people don’t even know can be used as medicine. Psst, came here from listening to the podcast and need to jump straight to the resource section, click here Resource Section
One such plant is hollyhock, and it’s actually the reason that this entire episode was born in the first place because when I found out that you could use hollyhock the same way that you can use marshmallow root medicinally, I I knew I needed to share this information with y’all.
So I’m really excited for today’s guest because she’s actually one of my best friends in real life, and when we were talking about putting in some of our new spring plants and she started mentioning some of the plants she was putting in, I was like “hold up, you have to come on the podcast because I don’t know about some of these and if I don’t know about some of these, I’m sure many of my listeners don’t and they’re going to want to know just as much as I do.”
So without further ado, Carolyn from Homesteading Family, welcome back to The Pioneering Today Podcast!
Carolyn: Hey Melissa, it’s great to get to be here!
Melissa: So most people are familiar with the concept of an annual vegetable garden and maybe growing a few perennial fruits bushes and trees, but today we’re talking specifically about planting a kitchen or cottage garden. So some people may have heard the term “cottage garden” before, but just to make sure we’re all on the same page, what does a cottage garden mean to you?
Carolyn: Okay, so a bit of back story here… We moved onto a new piece of property this last fall and it has a beautiful, very large annual vegetable garden and we provide a lot of food for our family and for a lot of guests that come around. So we really needed every square foot in that vegetable garden for annual vegetables.
But as an herbalist and somebody who just loves making our own cosmetics and herbal products and loves using herbs, I’ve been dying to put in a garden with more functionality than just providing us with food, and that’s where the cottage garden ideas came in. The moment we got this place, I picked out the little front yard that’s a little bit of lawn and I said, “that’s no longer lawn. That is now going to be my cottage garden.”
This was about a 1200 square-foot space, and it now has over 600 plants of about 45 to 50 different varieties growing in it. So it’s just a wonderful place filled with all of these beautiful plants. They’re all still babies right now, so they’ll grow up and they’ll be huge. But when creating cottage garden plans, you really throw out a lot of the rules that apply in the annual garden.
For example, often times we plant in straight rows in our annual gardens, and there’s a good reason for that because if you’re growing a lot of food, it really is more functional. It’s much easier to grow and harvest things in a straight row than in curvy lines where everything’s all mixed up. But the cottage garden is a space where you can just throw out all of those rules and mix it all up.
Another thing is that the plants in a cottage garden are going to have a lot of different uses. For me, each plant in there has to kind of be a Swiss army knife in the sense that it’s going to give us some food, it’s going to give us medicine, it’s going to feed the pollinators, maybe even provide a cut flower… It really needs to serve all of these different purposes, and that’s what makes it an ideal garden to have right off our kitchen.
Our cottage garden is right outside the kitchen door, and it’s just this magical place with all of these different goodies that maybe aren’t going to be highly productive on the food side, but when you look at their uses overall on a homestead or in a household, they’re all highly productive and very useful.
Melissa: Yeah, and I love that because as you really look back to the pioneers of old, and even further back looking at English cottage gardens and that type of thing, of course you had your agricultural crops, especially if you lived on a farm or a homestead where you were producing your own food, but even in smaller homes it was typical to have a cottage garden even if they weren’t growing a lot of their own food.
In your case, your cottage garden is quite large. And while there is a beauty aspect to it, it seems like it’s really for stocking that home medicine cabinet and some of it is for culinary use, but the main purpose is ease of use since it’s right outside the kitchen door.
I’m really getting more into this whole concept of the cottage garden, and I’ve actually done a few podcast episodes related to cottage gardens recently, including >> LINK <<
But for the first decade or so on our homestead I was very much focused on just the food production. It’s really only been the last five or six years where I switched gears.
Now, I was using herbs before that, but I didn’t really have them built into the landscaping and in my flower beds right outside my door. So I’ve since really ripped out a lot of plants and now I’m replacing them with herbs and pretty plants that also serve multiple purposes.
So you can start with a lawn like Carolyn did, or if you’ve got an existing flower bed you can still start to put this into your existing landscape. It really works no matter where you’re at, you can start to implement it.
Disclaimer: This is for entertainment and educational purposes and should not be taken as medical diagnosis or treatment. Neither Carolyn or I are medical professionals and always check with your medical professional of choice before using any herbs medicinally.
When it comes to the type of plants you’re going to put into a cottage garden, I think a lot of us are familiar with some of the more well-known plants like lavender, rosemary, mint, sage, echinacea, calendula and chamomile, etc… But Carolyn when you were listing out the plants you were putting in I was like “I didn’t know that you could use that for that!” So first of all I want to talk more about designing and planning out your cottage garden, and then I want to dive into some of the lesser known plants that you use for medicinal purposes.
Carolyn: Yeah, well first off, being able to actually see everything in your garden is one of the most important elements of designing a cottage garden, because as it matures, it becomes such a wild place where things are all mixed together.
So when it comes to designing and planning your cottage garden, you want to start with the low growing things closest to your walkway and taller plants further back in your bed. That just helps you to see what’s there and helps to remind you what resources are at your fingertips.
Also, many of the plants that belong in a cottage garden are perennials and a lot of them want to take over the space that they’re in, so after you get an established cottage garden, your job is really to be kind of kindergarten cop: You need to go in and make sure everybody’s playing fair, take out stuff, push stuff back, and just make sure everybody has their own space to grow.
If you just have a single little bed that might be pretty easy. If you have a larger garden with a walkway through it and you have beds on either side, that’s where you have to really start paying attention to those things.
Now, when it comes to the different uses of the plants that can go into cottage gardens, of course you have your culinary herbs that we’re all familiar with here in the US. But if you start looking to sources outside of the United States, you quickly realize that there are all these culinary herbs that are really exciting to experiment with, so creating an english cottage garden or elements with those plants is really fun.
For example, chervil is really big in French cuisine, but it’s something we don’t really have here. Savory is another one that I just love, but you just don’t see it very commonly around here.
So you have your culinary herbs and then of course you have your medicinal herbs, and honestly you could just spend your whole life experimenting with medicinal herbs.
Then of course you have food plants that just don’t really have a place in the annual garden, but should be in everybody’s food planning. Things like sorrels, Good King Henry, rocket, lovage… A lot of these things are perennial vegetables or perennial greens that we’ve just forgotten about. But often they’re the first things to come up and the first things you can eat out of your garden in the spring so they’re really valuable.
Then you also have things like cosmetic herbs, things for making skin care products, etc. Let me tell you, I have six daughters, and the amount of shampoo and face wash we can go through in this house is amazing. So having our own resources for making our own different cosmetic products is just a wonderful thing for our household and a huge money saver.
Then you’ve also got your cut flowers, don’t forget about that. Because you’ve got gotta be able to bring in beautiful bouquets of flowers that will last on your kitchen table! And then as always, we want to be feeding the pollinators and birds and bringing them into our space to make sure we’ve got that diversity in our garden.
So this cottage garden, it just does all of these things. It’s so abundant, so productive and just a lot of fun to have out there. And then on top of it all, it’s soothing to the soul.
When you go out there and you’re sitting there surrounded by your plants and the bees are busily humming, it’s such a beautiful prayer spot in the morning where God can just talk to you. It just really speaks to us in a way that you can’t when you’re just busy in front of the computer.
Melissa: Yeah, there are so many wonderful things that you said, but I have to agree: One of my favorite things to do from spring all the way through the fall is to walk through our cottage beds in the morning and evening. There’s just something about having those plants out there that’s different than the annual vegetable garden.
I love our vegetable garden, but having those perennials and those flowers just to walk through and watching how it changes from early spring to late spring, from summer into fall… I feel like I’m watching something being woven every season and it kinda changes. I really like that part of it.
I also love investing in perennials because even though I feel like it’s an upfront investment, but it pays off for years and years to come in a different ways than annuals.
Carolyn: Oh ya, and I feel like they’re a kind of insurance, because we all have those years where you’re just like, “I have no idea how the annual vegetable garden is going to happen,” whether it’s a family disaster that’s happened in the background or something. You may have to minimize some of the annual vegetables. When you have a solid supply of these perennials, you kind of feel like you have a little insurance.
I’m always going to have a salad available to me. I’m always going to have greens for cooked greens. And yeah, maybe I won’t have the tomatoes and the squashes and the things that I want to have, but I’m always going to be able to eat out of my garden because I have those perennials covering my back for those bad times.
And yes, having those vegetables that are up first thing in the spring… I’m eating my sorrel most years before my spinach is even out of the ground and I love that!
Melissa: I agree. I feel that way about stinging nettle. Now planting wise, it can take over and it has a tendency to be a little bit mean to bare skin! But thankfully it’s native here so I really don’t have to do anything and I can go out and forage for it in the early spring.
Let’s talk about hollyhock and about how you can use it as herbal medicine, because I had no idea that it had some of the same properties as marshmallow root.
Carolyn: Yes, hollyhocks are considered completely exchangeable medicinally for marshmallow. I love hollyhocks because they’re just so pretty. They’re so old-fashioned and they’re so pretty. I’ve grown marshmallow for years and I’ve grown hollyhocks for years and I just always reached for the hollyhocks. So I stopped growing marshmallow because the hollyhocks are so much prettier as well as being completely exchangeable medicinally.
Every part of the hollyhock plant is edible. It’s medicinal. I use it as a cut flower. You can use it for cosmetic uses. And of course the pollinators just absolutely love it.
Medicinally, hollyhocks and marshmallows are very mucilaginous, which means they’re slimey. We don’t always think that’s a good thing, but anytime you have, say, a skin rash or any sort of inflamed skin, inflamed bowels, a sore throat or a dry raspy cough… That’s where the hollyhock or the marshmallow really stand out.
For medicinal purposes you want the root of the plant. So you want to grow a good stock of hollyhocks. You want quite a few plants in there so you can pull up a whole plant and the root’s going to be really big. Then you’ll want to make a cold infusion out of that. So instead of making it hot, you just put it in a jar of cold water and let it sit overnight and it will get slimy. But boy, does it work well to soothe different things.
I’m really excited because marshmallow root is one of my go-to’s, especially for throat issues and dry coughs. I always have marshmallow root on hand, so I’m excited to try the Hollyhock that way. Do the leaves hold any medicinal properties or just the root?
Carolyn: Yeah, they do, and it’s really good to be aware of that if you’re wanting to cook with them because they do get a little slimey and they will thicken things in the same way that Okra can be used to thicken a soup or a stew, hollyhock leaves will do the same thing. So it’s good to be aware of that before you throw it in your chicken noodle soup because it’s gonna change the texture a little bit.
Melissa: Thank you for the hollyhock information because that’s the one I was dying to know more about.
Carolyn: Sunflowers are another really multifunctional plant. Most people don’t realize that their petals are used medicinally and cosmetically. They’re a mild anti-inflammatory and they’re really, really good for bringing shine to your hair.
If you’re really advanced you can grow the seed and get your own oil out of that. We grow our sunflowers so that we can harvest the seeds for sprouting during the winter because we can’t grow year-round here. So we just grow our own sunflowers so we can harvest our own sunflower seeds to sprout with.
Of course the pollinators love it, it makes beautiful cut flowers, but then you have this great cosmetic ally to make different infusions with or put into homemade conditioners. So we’re really having a lot of fun with that too.
Melissa: I love that. I just did some sunflower micro-greens actually. And they were quite delicious. Having those sprouts and micro-greens in the winter is such a delight because even though we preserve so much of our own food, there isn’t anything quite like having fresh greens.
Carolyn: Another plant that is really useful is yarrow. That’s one that I never want to be without. And even though it grows wild, I still put it in gardens because it is so useful. I want to know right where it is for quick grabbing and in our house, that is the quick go-to for stopping bleeding and let me tell you yarrow will stop bleeding almost instantly.
We’ve had nosebleeds, we have a daughter who has a tendency towards nosebleeds, and she went through a period of about a year where she was just getting them all the time. She couldn’t get them to stop and as soon as we started putting a little bit of yarrow powder on a tissue and she put that in her nose, those nosebleeds would stop instantly.
It’s also a wonderful internal medicine, and will stop bleeding internally also, and for helping with things like fevers, bringing down fevers, but it’s so beautiful on top of it. I just love that.
It’s also really good cosmetically. I’ve used yarrow on acne as all my daughters have gone through hormonal changes. They get these acne breakouts on their chin areas from hormonal changes. But a tincture of yarrow sprayed right onto that can really fix that problem.
You can infuse yarrow into alcohol to make a tincture and use that directly on the spot you want to treat by spraying it on or even using a rollerbottle. It’s very drying and it’s very cooling so it can take down any inflammation, especially with a breakout of some sort. Just be careful not to get it anywhere you don’t want it because it will dry your skin out.
Yarrow is another really multifunctional, very powerful herb that the pollinators just love it and it’s beautiful as a cut flower.
Melissa: I’m excited for yarrow because I purchased seeds that have all of the different fun colors. I plan on scattering them this fall so that they’ll come up next spring.
My son actually does suffer from nosebleeds sporadically. So are you just taking the blossom and the leaves and drying them and then grinding that into a powder and then putting it on the tissue?
Carolyn: All of the aerial parts are useable, but your best bet for getting the highest quality medicine is going to be to pick the leaves before the flowers are open, and then I just dry them and usually I leave them in whole form until I’m ready to use them because that will help it retain it’s medicinal properties.
So I tend to just powder a little bit at a time. When we’re going through nosebleeds, I just make a little tiny cosmetic jar of the powdered yarrow and just have it sitting right at hand and she would just dampen the end of a tissue and dip it in there and put it right up her nose where it was bleeding. It would stop it very quickly.
Melissa: A lot of your medicinal herbs, when you’re harvesting them for medicinal purposes, it’s best to harvest them before the plant flowers or those blossoms begin to open.
Carolyn: Yeah, and of course many of these plants do have things you need to be aware of before using them. So make sure that you’re researching the plant itself before you just go use it because you’ll want to make sure that it is safe for you and your particular condition.
Melissa: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. Because, for example, I’m very interested in using yarrow, but I’m going to have to do research because my daughter has a blood clotting disorder called von Willebrand’s disease. So I can’t actually use certain herbs with her because they do affect blood clotting.
So let’s talk about one other really useful perennial that’s known for its culinary qualities, and that is lovage. Now, lovage was very popular in medieval times in Europe. It was a very popular food plant, and even a medicinal plant at that point. I really like this plant because it can take the place of celery. Flavor-wise it’s kind of a cross between celery and parsley. I want to say it’s more like parsley with a celery flavor.
So there are times where I don’t have celery available and I would like that flavor in a food and I’ll just put some lovage leaves in because maybe the stocks have gotten too big and too tough. So I really like that.
And again, the pollinators absolutely love it, which is always a great thing because I want as many native pollinators in my garden as possible because that has the benefit of helping out the annual vegetable garden too. Plus it’s just a really fun herb with a lot of history, and it’s one of those things that’s up early in the spring and it has a great, great flavor.
Melissa: I’m glad you said how big it gets, because one of the mistakes I made in the beginning with perennials was that I would look at them in their infancy as a one-year-old plant, but I wouldn’t necessarily think about how much they were going to spread and grow year after year. So making sure you have plenty of space between plants when you’re putting them in when they’re young and immature is really key.
So, medicinally wise, how is lovage used for medicinal purposes?
Carolyn: I actually don’t know. I was just reading the other day that in medieval times it was used as medicinal plant.
I know its root was used medicinally and the root is also used as a food. We don’t tend to use it that way now, but it apparently is very good. So I’m waiting for this lovage to get big enough that I can pull some root out. That’s one of the things I’m going to be playing with in the next year or two as this patch of lovage gets large because I just found that out.
That’s the one thing I just love about these plants: the deeper you go into their history, the more you learn about them. They just have all of these uses. I was just reading that one of the Queens of England used to take lovage seeds, have them candied and she would carry them around in a pocket in her dress because she had a sweet tooth and she loved to eat these little lovage seeds.
So you just get to know these plants in a way that’s like, oh wow. People have been using them for thousands of years for all different purposes and you just get to know them a little bit more.
Melissa: I’m like you, I love learning a lot of things that just aren’t common knowledge anymore in modern society. It’s just so interesting. It has so much more of a story than, you know, just a bottle of whatever off the store shelf.
Carolyn: Yeah, absolutely. Here’s, here’s one little tidbit for you that I pulled from a very old historical book that I was reading that I had never heard of. And so I went and checked it out and that’s that peony seeds used to be used as a culinary spice. So now my peonies are just about to bloom here and I’m just waiting for them to set seeds so I can see what they taste like!
Here’s another historical one which used to be considered one of the primary herbs in the monastery herb gardens in medieval Europe, and that’s Wood Betony.
Historically it was used to treat anything to do with the head, so migraines, tooth aches, all these things. But modern day it’s known to help with lowering blood pressure. There are studies out there from Germany that are showing that it’s very efficient at helping with blood pressure. It’s known to help with mouth and throat ailments, kind of like sage would be also, and skin problems because it’s very astringent. And it’s also a pollinator-friendly plant and makes for a very beautiful little cut flower.
Melissa: You mentioned the Germany study… In Germany they use herbs in their regular healthcare practice. So like, your regular medical doctor, your hospitals, your pharmacies over there actually use herbs as part of their modern medicine. I know this from when I used to work in a pharmacy.
Here in the US we don’t have a ton of studies being done on medicinal herbs. So Germany actually has a lot more data and research and clinical studies on herbs than you can find in a US source, which makes it a great place to start when you’re doing research on different herbs, so look and see if you can find studies from Germany.
Carolyn: Yeah, absolutely. I love checking out some of those other sources because there are a lot of places where their systems are much more geared towards incorporating some of these natural things, so just like you’re saying, they’ve got a lot more studies and a lot more clinical trials of some of these herbs, and that just becomes a wonderful resource.
Because of course there’s a lot of folklore about herbs that just isn’t founded in science unfortunately, so when we’re trying to differentiate the folklore from solidly scientific studies, these studies are a really good resource for that.
I’ve also got a great list of all of these plants I’ve got in my cottage garden and all of their uses. It’s got about 45 plants on it, so if you’re looking for a resource to start off with if you’re thinking of putting in your own cottage garden, you can >> GRAB THAT HERE <<
Melissa: Thank you so much for offering that to us Carolyn! I definitely plan on grabbing a copy and I know that a lot of people will be really happy to have that, so thank you!
Is there anything that you want to leave us with as we talk about cottage gardens and all of these wonderful plants?
Carolyn: I think what I would say is, you mentioned earlier having some plants that maybe aren’t as useful, but they just make you happy. Make sure you put a few of those in. For me that’s Morning Glory.
I have no use for Morning Glory, I just like them. So make sure that it’s a place where the plants aren’t only healing, but the space itself is soothing and it takes away from the feeling of to do, to do, to do that those straight rows in the vegetable garden give you, and takes you back to that place where you just kind of feel soothed. So make sure you put the pretty things in too.
Melissa: Oh Amen. I totally agree. Thank you for that tip and thank you so much for coming on. I’m sure I will have you on in again the future. So if you guys are listening and there’s anything that you want more info on or you’re like, “oh man, I wish you guys had talked about such and such more,” let us know.
Leave a comment on the blog post that accompanies this episode or if you’re leaving a review wherever you’re listening to this podcast, let us know there so that we can be sure and get that info to you in a future episode.
Carolyn: Yeah, it’s been great to visit with you guys and thanks for having me on Melissa!
Melissa: That was so much good information that I cannot wait to put into use, and some of these plants I already have in my garden and I didn’t even know that I could use them, such as the hollyhock. But I’m going to be adding in a lot more of these this coming fall and spring.
See a full-on tour of both my herbal medicine garden and then our regular vegetable and fruit production garden, be sure to check out the full videos on Youtube where I have two tours showing you both of these things.
> Head over to Youtube and Watch My Full Herb Garden Tour
For Carolyn’s list of cottage garden plants just click and >> GRAB THAT HERE <<
Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.