Homegrown herbs are healthier, but are a challenge to grow

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Vitamins are fighting for shelf space in retail displays. Herbs have “busted loose” from specialty stores. They’ve become a strong competitor in the mainstream market for health-promoting food supplements.

A similar change is under way in the bedding plant industry. In many retail displays this spring, tomato, pepper and cole crop plants are fighting for space with an array of herbs for home gardens.

Growing herbs to promote health – and make foods tasty – can be a good idea, said Rhonda Janke, Kansas State University’s agronomist for horticulture crops.

“You have no way of knowing what’s been applied to crops sold commercially if they don’t have to meet set USDA or FDA standards. This is particularly true with herbals, a lot of which start out as plants grown overseas,” she said. “So, growing your own can eliminate that concern.

You never know.

“A bottle in the store may contain herbs that are 2 years old. Plus, any exposure to air makes herbs lose efficacy. That’s why responsible companies freeze-dry herbs before grinding and putting them in a capsule and vacuum-sealed bottle – or, even better, putting herbs into an alcohol tincture, which tends to help them retain more potency.

“By growing your own, however, you never have to worry about freshness. You can just harvest and use.”

Growing to supplement, as well as season, food can be a challenge, however.

As a K-State Research and Extension specialist, Janke works full time in the lab or the field.

It’s a challenge.

“The challenges are really clear when you work with farmers interested in diversifying into the herb market,” she said.

“If nothing else, the choices can be overwhelming – not only in terms of the hundreds of herbs available, but also their hundreds of preparations and uses.”

That’s why Janke offers the same advice whether teaching home gardeners or working with test plot volunteers:

* Start small. Try no more than one to two from each of the three categories of herbs: annuals, “quick” to harvest perennials, and “slow” perennials or shrubs.

Expand only after you’ve learned what you can about these start-up choices.

* Consult every resource you can. Talk to trained herbalists. Discuss with your doctor and pharmacist about which herbs are possibilities and which you personally should avoid.

* Grow the widely used herbs. Some herbs have a centuries-long history of safe use. Others don’t. Some have the support of extended scientific research. Others don’t.

Some have no known adverse effects. Others have dosage limits or the potential for adverse reactions with certain drugs or health conditions.

Plenty of safe choices.

“There are lots of really safe choices. It just makes sense to decide among those,” Janke said. “That way your final selections can come down to particular health qualities you’re interested in or to the garden space you have available.”

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