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Growing your own herb garden has benefits aplenty, from relieving stress to improving mood. One experiment by NASA found working with plants improved psychological well-being for astronauts in the harsh environment of outer space. The simple act of gardening, which requires focus, critical thinking, and planning, enhances cognitive function, especially for seniors. Ready to get digging? Start with these five easy-to-grow selections.
A staple in Mediterranean, Caribbean, Central American, and other cuisines—not to mention herb gardens—this member of the mint family grows in a variety of regions, and thrives in sunny, less-humid conditions. It’s rich in thymol and other essential oils and compounds that support immune health and may protect against viral infections. The essential oils in thyme also help relieve coughs and ease congestion.
How to use it: Steep a few sprigs of fresh thyme in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, then strain. Or cut long sprigs, tie the stems together with twine, and hang to dry, leaves pointing down, in a cool, dark location. When they’re completely dry, store in a sealed glass jar. For tea, steep 1 tsp. of dried thyme in a cup of boiling water. Or add a handful of dried leaves to a pot of boiling water, remove from heat, and use as a steam to relieve congestion and ease coughs.
Native to Europe, this fragrant member of the mint family grows well in a wide variety of climates, making it a perfect addition to any DIY herb garden. Carvacrol, limonene, and other antioxidant compounds that give oregano its distinctive flavor and scent also protect against viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Studies show these compounds reduce inflammation, support immune health, and may fight antibiotic- resistant pathogens.
How to use it: For tea, steep a few sprigs of fresh oregano in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, then strain. Or make oregano oil: gather about two cups of oregano leaves, loosely packed. Gently crush leaves, half a cup at a time, with a mortar and pestle (you can also use a muddler). Pour one cup of warm olive oil over crushed leaves, mixing well. Transfer mixture to a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and infuse for two weeks in a cool, dark location, swirling every day or two. Strain through a cheesecloth, discard leaves, and store oil in a tightly sealed glass jar.
Also known as Melissa officinalis, lemon balm is another European native that’s easy to grow in American herb gardens. Lemon balm is traditionally used to treat stress and insomnia, and studies show that it may benefit immune health as well. It’s rich in a variety of phytochemicals that have antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory effects. Studies suggest lemon balm essential oil can inhibit influenza virus replication, and water extracts enhance immune system activity.
How to use it: Coarsely chop fresh leaves, steep 2 tsp. in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, and strain. The fresh leaves have a bright, citrusy flavor that can be used in cooking; mince them and add to salad dressings, lemon scones, fruit salads, or citrus sorbets. To dry lemon balm, cut stems about three inches from the ground, tie the stems together with twine, then hang with leaves pointing downward in a cool, dark location. When they’re completely dry, strip leaves from stems and store in a sealed glass jar. For tea, steep 2 tsp. of dried leaves in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, then strain.
One of the most potent additions to any herb garden, this aromatic evergreen shrub has been used for thousands of years in both culinary and medicinal applications. It’s native to the Mediterranean, but is relatively hardy in cooler climates and grows well in a variety of regions. Rosemary is rich in rosmarinic acid, carnosol, carnosic acid, and other antioxidant compounds that reduce inflammation, support immune health, and protect against viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens.
How to use it: Steep one large sprig of fresh rosemary in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, then discard sprig; or strip needles from fresh rosemary sprigs, loosely pack 1 tsp. into a tea ball, and steep in boiling water. For a simple tincture, pack rosemary sprigs in a pint-sized glass jar, cover with vodka, and seal jar; let stand in a cool, dark location for 4–6 weeks, shaking jar every day or two. Discard rosemary sprigs, and strain tincture into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid.