Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings National

Herb Garden: Delicious Nutritious Choices for People and Pets

May 01, 2010 03:00AM ● By Greg Tilford

In the North, spring’s balmy weather is a perfect time to plant that dream herb garden we have been thinking of all winter. In the South, it’s a good time to move container gardens inside the lanai to protect them from the intense summer sun.

If experimenting with herbs for the first time or if garden space is limited, start with these four easy-to-grow herbs. All do well anywhere in North America and can do double duty by serving pets’ health needs, too. Many of the herbs we use to liven up our foods or supplement our bodies prove to be powerful medicines for our furry and feathered friends.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Commonly known as pot marigold, calendula’s bright yellow, orange or red-orange flowers are a familiar sight in gardens and landscape designs everywhere.

Hardiness: Zone 4 (cold-hardy to -30 degrees F).

Growing tips: Sow seeds in early spring, or transplant after the danger of frost is past. Regular watering will produce blooms throughout the year.

Parts used: Harvest the flowers whenever they are in full bloom. Make into herbal preparations while fresh or air dry and store in sealed plastic bags.

Uses: Use as a tea or tincture. Fights infection and speeds healing of minor cuts, insect bites, abrasions or post-surgical incisions. When the dried flowers are boiled as a tea and cooled, it serves as a refreshing rinse for itchy skin.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, et al) 

Nine species of this “must have” member of the sunflower family are native to North America, growing to three feet. Brilliant flowers range from pink to dark purple. Echinacea purpurea is the easiest species to grow. 

Hardiness: Zone 4. Mulch the plants deeply in the fall in areas where winters are severe.

Growing tips: Sow seeds in early spring (or fall in the South) by scattering them atop the ground and covering with just a dusting of soil. Keep them damp throughout germination—or plant starts from a nursery. They need full sun.

Parts used: Harvest roots after the plant is at least three years old. The leaves, stems and flowers are useful, as well.

Uses: Echinacea is often used to boost the immune system to help ward off indicated bacterial or viral infections, notes a study in the journal Phytomedicine. It is most commonly used for upper respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold in humans or kennel cough and other forms of bronchitis in dogs and cats. It is best used at the first indication of impending illness. It can be used in various forms; strong teas or tinctures low in alcohol work especially well with animals.

Parsley (Petroselium crispum)

 The most common varieties have tightly curled leaves. All are useful and produce clusters of white flowers at the top of the stem. Most will grow to about three feet.

Hardiness: Zone 4. Mulch the plants deeply in the fall in areas where winters are severe.

Growing tips: Plant seeds or transplants in spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. Parsley requires deep, well-drained soil and daily watering when the weather is hot and dry. 

Parts used: The leaf, root and seeds are all good.

General Uses: Parsley is a nutritious supplement that may be added liberally to a companion animal’s raw or canned diet. The leaf juice is rich with the antioxidant chlorophyll and useful as a breath freshener. The oils in the leaves and seeds are thought to stimulate appetite while improving digestion. The seeds also contain trace amounts of limonene, a compound that can be effective in repelling fleas. Teas or tincture preparations of the long (hard to dig) taproot are often used by veterinary herbalists as a diuretic to help rid the body of excess waste. It is also frequently used in the holistic treatment of arthritis.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

With its lance-shaped leaves and clusters of small, white to pink blossoms, valerian is attractive to us as well as to bees and other pollinators. Roots are stringy, brown and earthily pungent. Plants can grow in excess of five feet, lending themselves as shade-bearing companions to shorter plants that need respite from afternoon sunshine.  

Hardiness: Zone 4. This hardy herb can survive even the harsh winters of southern Canada and maritime Alaska.

Growing tips: Put it in the middle of the garden, where it can stand and demand attention from pollinators. Valerian is easy to grow from transplants and needs full sun.

Parts used: Preparations primarily involve the fall root. The upper parts of the plant make weaker medicine.

Uses: Long regarded by herbalists as one of the most reliable calming agents in the herbal realm, reach for it when the dog is freaking out due to thunderstorms, a trip to the groomer or the dreaded holiday fireworks (Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology). Valerian helps calm their stomachs, as well as their moods. It is also useful for cats that manifest their anxieties in the form of digestive upset.

Dandelion Bonus (Taraxacum officinale)

Think twice before yanking dandelions, which are among Earth’s most useful herbs. The literature reports impressive nutritive, liver supportive and digestive properties that virtually every animal needs to maintain good health.

Greg Tilford, an expert in the field of Earth-conscious veterinary herbal medicine, is the author of Herbs for Pets. He serves as the formulating herbalist and president of Animal Essentials, a line of herbal remedies ( For more information, see and

RULES OF THUMB: Safe and Effective Herb Use

1. Herbs are generally best used as part of a holistic healing effort, where all aspects of an animal’s health, not just symptoms, are considered.

2. Use herbs carefully and with common sense. Although herbs tend to be gentler and safer than conventional drugs, some are strong medicine and can cause harm if misused.

3. More is not necessarily better. No two animals are alike, and some will require a larger dose than others, but always start small.

4. Avoid using a specific herbal product until you know something about the herbs that are in it. Just because an herb works well for your neighbor’s cat doesn’t mean it’s necessarily appropriate for yours.

5. Buy products from well-established, reputable manufacturers. Consult with your veterinarian.

6. Always test for allergic reactions before using any herb for the first time. Place a small dab onto your animal’s skin. If redness or swelling occurs, the animal may be allergic to it. Also watch for watery eyes, sneezing, scratching, rashes, stomach upset or anything else
out of the ordinary.

Join Our Community Newsletter