Anyone who is health savvy knows that gardening is good exercise. But when I recommend this activity for my patients, I encourage them to get even greater benefits by growing medicinal plants. As a naturopathic physician and an avid gardener myself, I’m convinced that gardening is especially well suited for people suffering from depression or anxiety or a condition such as stroke that can lead to mobility difficulties or chronic lung problems that may interfere with biking, hiking or doing other outdoor activities. And if you’re going to do some gardening, it makes perfect sense to cultivate plants that can be used to treat everyday health problems.

You might assume that you need a yard to plant a garden, but that’s not true. Pots and window boxes work just fine. In most areas of the US, spring is the preferred time to get started. It’s best to purchase small plants early in the growing season in order to ensure abundant leaves for harvest all summer. To dry your plants for use in tea (see below), cut the plant at the base of the stem, then hang your harvest to dry indoors or under cover outdoors for two to three weeks. Strip the leaves or flowers from the stem, and store in an airtight container. My favorite plants to include in a medicinal garden… 

• Lemon balm. This remedy calms the nervous system (to help fight sleeplessness and stress) and reduces discomfort from indigestion. What to do: For tea, use two teaspoons of dried lemon balm leaves or five fresh leaves per cup of boiling water. Steep, covered, for 10 minutes. Discard herbs. Lemon balm is stronger than other sedative herbs such as chamomile, so limit your intake to 16 ounces of tea in a 24-hour period. Note: Since lemon balm may slow thyroid function, people with hypothyroidism (low thyroid) should avoid it. Do not use lemon balm if you take a sedative—it may interact with the drug.

• Calendula. This herb acts as a skin antiseptic to help heal cuts, burns, boils and insect bites. What to do: Use one-quarter cup of dried calendula flowers per 20 ounces of boiling water to make a strong tea. Let steep for 10 minutes. Use the tea topically on cuts, burns or insect bites. Add fresh calendula flowers, a rich source of beta-carotene, to summer salads. People who are allergic to ragweed may also have an allergic reaction to calendula.

• Catnip. You might think of catnip only as that potent little plant that cats love so much. Well, the flowering tops of this plant also act as medicine for humans with stress headaches or indigestion. What to do: Use two teaspoons of crumbled, dried catnip leaves per eight ounces of boiling water. Steep for 10 minutes. Discard herbs. Drink one to four cups per 24 hours as needed. Caution: Avoid catnip if you take lithium or a sedative—it may interact with these medications.

• Thyme. This herb can be used as an antimicrobial. What to do: Grow thyme from seeds or small seedlings. For a cold or flu, use dried thyme leaves to make tea (one teaspoon dried leaves per 10 ounces of boiling water). Add other herbs—such as echinacea or ginger—if you like. Discard herbs before drinking. To reduce congestion, put two teaspoons of dried thyme leaves in 16 ounces of simmering water and carefully breathe the steam for up to 10 minutes twice daily as long as congestion lasts.