Herbal wisdom in a community garden

Recovering the Wisdom of the Herbs in a Community Garden

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 23.10.10


When we think of sustainability, we think of the environment. Yet it’s personal sustainability – of our own health and well-being, mental as well as physical – that’s increasingly challenged by the nature and pace of modern life. According to some estimates, the incidence of major depression has increased 10-fold since 1945.

Without in any way denigrating the vital role that primary health care and pharmaceutical drugs play once we are ill, preventative health care is based, above all, on a healthy and balanced diet. Herbs, like parsely, basil, coriander and sage, are an essential part of that diet. These herbs don’t just add flavour to our food; they are full of beneficial nutritional – and medicinal – properties that augment our physical and mental health.

Then there is the huge diversity of the purely medicinal herbs. At the North Bank Road Community Garden in Bellingen, local resident Penny Burrows has been working hard on creating a diverse medicinal herb garden since February 2010. In a space about 6 metres square, she – with various helpers – has planted an astonishing range of medicinal herbs, from lavenders, thymes, echinacea, evening primrose, rosella and parsley to borage, motherwort, valerian, Californian poppy, tansy, mugwort, yarrow, mullein and angelica.


Obtaining many of her seeds from a specialist supplier near Lismore and Eden seeds in Beechmont, Penny has propagated the vast majority of the herbs herself, with the help and generous donation of time and seeds of local permaculture expert Aleasa Williams. “It’s been incredibly satisfying to see [the plants] all the way through, from seeds to harvest, and now be drying the flowers, and making remedies”, says Penny.

The flowers Penny has been drying recently are chamomile and calendula, which is a popular remedy for wounds, rashes and various skin complaints. She is making a calendula salve at home, drying the flowers in a dehydrater and soaking them in almond oil, then mixing the product with beeswax.

“It’s really beautiful, and fantastic for insect bites and stings, and skin rashes for the kids – I’m always using it for that sort of thing”, says Penny. “[Also] as a tincture it’s great to put on cuts, scrapes and sores, [as] it has cleansing/ disinfectant properties.”

Nearly all the herbs are multifunctional. Take borage, for example. Borage, says Penny, “is a good adrenal tonic – the classic saying is, ‘Borage for Courage’ .” It can be taken – like most of the herbs – as an infusion, using either fresh or dried leaves.

Then there’s chamomile, which “is really good for calming and soothing, and one of the reasons for that is because it’s quite high in calcium”, says Penny. She adds, “People [also] take it for cold and flu symptoms, [and] pain relief – it’s [also] great for the digestive system.”

Recently planted in the garden is the common herb sage. This herb has a reputation for enhancing mental acuity. It is an excellent gargle for colds, and is good for breastfeeding mums who want to cut back on their supply of breastmilk. Then there are herbs which stimulate the supply of breastmilk, like thyme, fenugreek, and cumin. And those herbs have other properties: thyme is good for sore throats and coughs; fenugreek helps with respiratory complaints and is also a nitrogren-fixing legume; and cumin is both a digestive tonic and is also a remedy for colds.

A lifelong gardener since her late teens, this is the first opportunity Peny’s had to really dedicate herself to growing herbs. “One of the things I love about this garden is that I have the luxury to grow the herbs because other people grow the food.”

Penny’s motivation, she says, is to create a diverse root stock of medicinal herbs for the area, sharing the knowledge and the benefits.

““[I want to] make sure that all these herbs are growing and available to us in this area. So many of the medicinal herbs used in Australia are imported.”

“The other thing about the herb garden which I really love is just the effect it has on people. Being involved in the gardening process is a therapy of its own”, says Penny. “Even if they’re not involved in the hands-on growing, just being here and hanging out – it’s a beautiful place to be, whether you’re involved in the gardening or not.”