Grow Your Own Simple Backyard Pharmacy … Just Like Grandma’s!

Several years ago, I got interested in trying to be more self-sufficient when it came to both staying healthy when possible and treating sickness when necessary. One thing that working in the health profession has taught me in the last few decades is that your best health insurance is to stay healthy! So I looked to herbs and natural, traditional, “grandma” medicine approaches that were not only useful and effective, but also inexpensive, easy to use, and great to keep on hand!

We all realize that our sleepy society can, at any time, be on the brink of disaster, whether it be natural or human-caused. History proves it, and Americans are not immune, no matter how much they wish to deny it. We may not be able to run into the corner drugstore or grocery store to keep supplies on hand, so it’s best to have things immediately available to us, or at least to have the ability to “drum something up” to help our health challenges or use in a first-aid situation until other medical approaches can be used.

I will say here, it is of UTMOST IMPORTANCE that you research the herb and its properties, and consult with your own physician or primary caregiver to see if it in any way contraindicates something with your own health. I am not a physician and am not in charge of your health care. That is something between you and your own physician, at least as long as the government can keep their big noses out of it!

So what did I do? Here are some of the things I did not only to prepare, but also to learn about and use. I use these things on a regular basis; some are seasonal, some are used year-round. But what I do have, I can also grow in my backyard (with the exception of the vodka I use for medicinal tinctures . . . that takes some advance planning and storage.) I believe the best part about preparing your own medicine is that YOU know what it contains, and it’s not some artificially added item that can be harmful to your health.

  1. Read up. Get your hands on as much reading material as is out there. There are some excellent herbalists and gardeners/farmers out there (nod to Marjory) who offer easy, affordable, and practical advice. Learn about soil; research how and what to grow that you know you WILL use; keep it simple (start with a few different herbs and work your way up depending on your needs); and have a blast learning!
  2. Pick your practical plot. Depending on the herb/food you’re growing, it won’t take a lot of space, and a little will go a long way. When I relandscaped my desert backyard a couple of years ago, everything I planted could be used in a medicinal or edible way, and nothing was for strictly ornamental purposes. Hence the “read-up” suggestion: Plant in areas that are conducive to what you are growing (sun vs. shade). You don’t have to get discouraged if certain medicinal herbs won’t grow outdoors because of your local climate. The nice thing is, you can grow them indoors, too! That’s the cool thing; you can literally manipulate microclimates indoors to meet your desired plant’s needs.
  3. Pick your pharmacy. This includes herbs that you can grow, but since not all herbs grow together or are found in all places, have a source where you can obtain dried herbs for later preparation into salves, tinctures, and other uses. (Herbal medicines can be unbelievably easy to make!) I chose to grow garlic, onion, yarrow, echinacea, and St. John’s Wort. I also planted some desert shrubs that are used for medicine (creosote, turpentine, and jojoba), but I’ll keep it simple for this article.
  4. Now what? So now that you have some of your favorite herbs at your disposal, here are some useful things you can do with them in order to keep your own medicine cabinet stocked.

Join The Grow Network’s FREE 4-part Making Herbal Medicine Training here!

Garlic: The Herb That Scares Every Germ Away

Garlic is the best antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-fungal and anti-GERM plant we have at our disposal. This is the ultimate “grandma’s remedy” when you feel that cold or sore throat coming on. There’s a reason vampires don’t like garlic! 😉

What do I do?

  1. Chop up one clove of garlic into fine pieces. Place the pieces into a 1 oz. shot glass.
  2. Cover the garlic pieces with olive oil; fill to the top.
  3. Leave on the counter for at least 4-6 hours. You can place the glass on a “warmer” (not too hot) to decrease the amount of time the garlic needs to continue soaking in the oil. The longer the better, as you want as much garlic fused into the oil as possible.
  4. Now take that oil, rub enough on BOTH feet, put your socks on, and go to bed. The garlic will absorb through your feet, and through your bloodstream, fighting off those nasty cooties you contracted. Do this for the next several nights until your symptoms are gone. IT. WORKS. Grandma says so. And yes, I do it, too!

(By the way, your feet won’t smell like a pizza later. I promise.)

Onion: The Quicker Germ Picker-Upper and Catcher

I have to thank Rosemary Gladstar for this totally simple but effective remedy! Onions are great for when you feel a cold or flu coming on, and they will help boost your immune system. This recipe is for Honey-Onion Syrup, which you can take to soothe a sore throat or cough. All you need is 1 large onion and about 2 cups of raw local honey.

What do I do?

  1. Cut onion in half, then cut into very thin discs (should look like thin moons). You may also add a few cloves of garlic (roughly chopped) or some freshly grated ginger to enhance the taste, if you like—but plain ol’ onion works just fine.
  2. Put in a medium saucepan (or cast iron skillet), and add enough honey to lightly cover up the cut onions.
  3. Cover on low heat for 30 minutes, until the onions get soft and juicy.
  4. Place in a glass jar, cover with lid, and label. (There is no need to strain). This will store in the refrigerator for several weeks.
  5. Take by teaspoons when you feel a cold or flu coming on. Soothes coughs and boosts the immune system. You may also eat the onions in the syrup. They should be very soft.

Yarrow: Nature’s Wound Care

The cool thing about yarrow is not only that it grows in so many places in the northern hemisphere, but also that it’s a nontoxic plant. It’s one of the best disinfecting herbs/antibiotics you can easily grow in your backyard. By that, I mean anti-fungal, anti-protozoa, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral. In addition, it is a “cousin” to chamomile, so it also has some mild anti-inflammatory properties to it. So, if you have a minor wound, scrape, or cut, you can apply the plant (usually the young leaves) directly on you. The plant will get right to work.

You May Also Like: “3 Herbs That Stop Bleeding”

What do I do?

There are several easy ways to prepare yarrow to clean up a wound, scrape, or cut.

  1. Prepare a “wash.” The simplest preparation is to boil water in a clean coffee can (1/2 to 1 gallon or so); take several handfuls of yarrow; and let it soak. Essentially, you are making a tea. Let it simmer and soak for about an hour. If the injury is on an area of your body that you can soak in the coffee can, then place the injured area directly into the hot wash for about 20 minutes and clean the wound. If the wound is on an area that can’t really be soaked in the coffee can, you can make a warm compress and clean the wound with that.
  2. Another option is to make a poultice. Chop or break up some young leaves into tiny bits; mix them with a little hot water; and place the mixture directly onto the wound. Leave it on for at least 20 minutes, then clean it off. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have water, you can actually make a “spit poultice” . . . yes, you can chew up some leaves and place the mixture directly on the wound. Sounds gross, but it’s very effective.
  3. Third, you can create a liniment. Take yarrow leaves and place them in a small jar (fill it up loosely with the leaves if you can). Then, pour rubbing alcohol over the leaves and let them soak for 4-6 weeks. You may use this as a topical liniment for scrapes, cuts, and wounds for disinfection.

Echinacea: Nature’s Cold Medicine

I usually will prepare tinctures (made with 80 proof vodka) for the cold season using echinacea, and start taking it daily in late September or early October to boost my immunity during the cold and flu season. All it takes is “just a few squirts” in your tea, coffee, or beverage of choice, and you’re good to go.

What do I do?

  1. Fill a jar about 2/3 full with dried echinacea leaves. (Because of our dry desert climate here in the Southwest, it’s easy for us to dry leaves in the sun; if you don’t have that nice “amenity,” you can dry them in other ways, such as on the dashboard of your car or in a dehydrator. Alternately, you can stock up on dried echinacea leaves from your local herb shop.)
  2. Fill the jar with 80 proof (or better) vodka, covering all of the leaves, and seal the jar.
  3. Place the jar on a cool shelf, and let it sit for 6 weeks. Once a week, shake the jar and check to be sure all the leaves are covered. After the first week, you might need to “top off” the jar, since the leaves will soak up the vodka.
  4. After 6 weeks, strain the leaves from the mixture, and voila! You have instant medicinal tincture that will help fight off colds and the flu by helping your immune system.

Elderberry: Europe’s Favorite Cold Fighter

Elderberry is another cold-season favorite that has been used for centuries in Europe, and it is one of the most well-documented herbal remedies for colds and the flu. I will use dried elderberries in a tincture (prepared the same way as the echinacea was, above), or even better, in a syrup. Now to be honest, I haven’t tried to grow this in my yard yet, but I am making an attempt to grow it indoors. Still, I decided to include elderberries in this article because using them to make a simple tincture is an easy and effective way to boost your immune system.

You May Also Like: 

“Elderberry: Natural Remedy for Colds, the Flu, Inflammation … Even Cancer!”

“Elderberry Syrup, the Magic Elixir (With Recipe!)”

What do I do?

This is a quick and easy way to make the syrup:

  1. Take 1 cup of elderberries (or 1/2 cup of dried berries), and place the berries in a saucepan. Cover them with 3 cups of water. Then, bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a half hour.
  2. Smash up the berries. Then, strain the mixture through a mesh strainer.
  3. Add 1 cup of raw, organic honey.
  4. If you’d like, you can also add cloves, a cinnamon stick, and/or ginger to taste, for extra medicine. Grandma says: IT’S ALL GOOD FOR YOU.

St. John’s Wort (Used With Dried Arnica): For Muscle Soreness and Inflammation

This is one of those nice, easy massage oils to use after all that digging and gardening you do while growing your pharmacy. As a physical therapist, I have done some personal research into effective, nontoxic pain remedies for some of my patients who simply can’t reach for the NSAID bottle without blowing out their intestines. There are many natural pain remedies out there that you can try, but here is a nice, quick way to use two wonderful herbs—St. John’s Wort and arnica—in an easy-to-make muscle rub. St. John’s Wort is a natural nervine, meaning that it will help calm down nerves that might be setting off a pain response. Arnica helps to increase blood flow and circulation to an area, which makes it great for bruises and muscle soreness. (It also is wonderful for scars—see below for more on that.)

What do I do?

Making this oil is just like making a tincture, although you use olive oil instead of vodka for the “6-week soak.” It’s a bit messier, but the end result is well worth it.

  1. Add equal parts of dried arnica and St. John’s Wort to a jar until it is about 3/4 full.
  2. Fill the jar completely with olive oil, covering all of the leaves. Close securely using an air-tight lid. (Note: Make sure your seal is good and tight, or else the oil will go rancid.)
  3. Store in a cool, dry place for 6 weeks.
  4. Strain after 6 weeks. Place in dark glass bottle (I use brown glass), and use as a topical rub for muscle soreness as needed.

I mentioned using arnica on scars. It works wonderfully not only for helping them soften, but also for fading them. I recommend using arnica GEL, not the cream (there are several types at your local health food store) over scars—especially post-operative scars. It’s very important not to get this stuff in an open wound, so make sure your scar is completely healed first. Also, *a very few* of you might be sensitive to it, so test it out on a small part of your skin before committing to it, in case those little red spots on your previous boo boo appear because the arnica gel made your skin break out!

So there you have it—simple, backyard medicine. (Well, I might have cheated on some suggestions, but you get the idea.) The main point is that it is easy to create and use, even if you only grow a few of the herbs I suggested here. The possibilities are endless, and there are many, many ways of preparing herbal medicines for your personal health that go beyond the scope of this article.

I will leave you with a quote from one of my patients, and it pretty much applies to everything I have learned (including making my own herbal medicines):

“An inch is a pinch, but a mile is a trial.”

Take small steps, and grow from there. You just might surprise yourself with what you concoct. I know I did. And you know, if it was good enough for grandma, it’s good enough for you!

What Do You Think?

What’s your favorite way to use the herbs mentioned in this article? What are your favorite go-to herbal medicines? Let us know in the comments below!



(This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on August 19, 2014. The author may not currently be available to respond to comments, however we encourage our Community members to chime in to share their experiences and answer questions!) 


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Psst! Our Lawyer Wants You to Read This Big, Bad Medical Disclaimer –> The contents of this article, made available via The Grow Network (TGN), are for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice; the content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may be suffering from any medical condition, you should seek immediate medical attention. You should never delay seeking medical advice, disregard medical advice, or discontinue medical treatment because of information provided by TGN. Reliance on any information provided by this article is solely at your own risk. And, of course, never eat a wild plant without first checking with a local expert.

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  • radarphos says:

    Everybody keeps rattling off the same old stuff, and without suggesting where you are supposed to find this stuff.

    A lot of people reading this stuff, are reading it because their health is dwindling. Do you know why your health is dwindling? Are you concerned about protecting your children as much as possible from their future health dwindling?

    Go online to Prestige Publishing. Pick a title from Dr. Sherri Rogers, M.D. (now about age 70) and either buy the book, or try to find it at your library or through your library’s “inter-library loan service” (where libraries send copies to other libraries that you have requested).

    She will tell you what vitamins and nutrients are needed to overcome (i.e., “think cure”) diabetes, weight gain that won’t drop, all heart complications, all cancers, alzheimer’s, etc. She reports (and even in her early career as an MD that she had 20 named difficulties that medicine could not fix, though she was an MD). That is what prompted her to study how the body works (not anatomy, but biochemistry and how nutrients are received by cells). All of her books speak about why Pharm Drugs, while they may reduce a laboratory number (which is not exactly a picture of “health”, do not cure anything; and how vitamins, minerals and nutrients heal disease and have brought people back from two days until death. You will be amazed. With the knowlege she shares for laypeople and M.D’s alike, you will be able to apply “healthy eating” (she wrote three books on that; and so far the books of hers that I have read are 400 or more pages and hard to put down) to your choices of garden vegetables or herbs that contain vitamin/minerals that are essential for healthy living, if not critical if you have a predisposition to certain diseases.

    Dr. Sherri Rogers, M.D. is the only friend that I have found who painstakingly spells out why you must ingest certain vitamins and minerals to ward off diseases, and to enjoy optimal health.

    Its fine and dandy to talk about eating healthy herbs. But don’t you want to know why their nutritional value is essential? Dr. Rogers doesn’t share that aspect of it (that I am aware of, yet), but she is very clear about what Vitamins and minerals contribute to people who know they are getting weak with some sort of health issue, as well as people who know what their health issue is; and beyond that.

    If you have never heard about Sherri Rogers, MD. You are never going to hear about her, because she is not in a practice of selling you something that she or her company makes. She is a pure doctor. Board Certified Family Practice and Environmental Medicine; along with a Fellow of Nutrition and other medical capacities. Because she explains which toxins are found in our environment that affect everyone (because they already affect polar bears at the North Pole in that puristic environment), she is singularly the most important read for anyone interested in health, nutritional cures for health, and for anyone who really wants/needs to know WHY Pharm meds don’t work (e.g., cancer is not cured by medicine), but many have outlived Medicine’s projections of lifespan once having a disease, merely because of nutrients.

    1. Lydia says:

      Certainly the article above was written within the scope of the contest rules, not to lecture on “why” certain foods, vitamins and key minerals are critical to maintain health . The article was intentionally written to be simple and concise, with practical tips on “how to do”, for the beginner.

      There is a plethora of information out there, and a small degree can be had for all of the nutrition material that is critical to our health (and lack thereof); as well as why disease is on the rampage with today’s deficient nutritional diets. For further reading and information on the elements you describe above, I would also suggest reading up on the research Dr Joel Wallach, and Dr Ma Lan, on their studies on key minerals and essential nutrients that are not in the average diet (or soil), and their importance to how they affect the body and health.

    2. Hi Radarphos,

      Oh Sheri has quite a few books that I see. In my understanding of the world, there are two physical causes of disease; malnutrition and toxicity. Dr. Sheris work looks to cover both of those well! Thanks for pointing this out.

  • barb Lee says:

    What a beautiful and thorough explanation of these items to be grown…this certainly took a lot of time and thought to prepare such details…beautifully written!!

  • Jerry says:

    A wonderful article! Very informative, practical and applicable. I printed it out to have on hand in preparation for the next time I, or a family member is ill.

  • Terre says:

    Thorough, well written & easy to understand. Thank-you!

  • Dr. Allen S. Hoaglund says:

    My only concern is with the use of Echinacea leaves. The roots contain the active ingredients to be removed by alcohol as opposed to the leaves. A simple method to test the strength of any Echinacea is to place the tincture in the mouth. If you experience numbness and tingling inside the mouth, you likely have some active ingredients in the tincture. I have found leaves and stem to be bland and unactive in the mouth.

    1. Karen says:

      Thank you for that useful tip Dr Hoaglund!

    2. Hi Dr. Allen,

      I was wondering the same thing. I always dug up two year old roots to make tinctures. Never tried the leaves…

      1. Karen says:

        I should’ve clarified in the article that the stems ARE included with the leaves when I’ve made tinctures, I do not strip the leaves separately. However I have not made tinctures (yet) while including the roots, but will in the future. Again thank you Dr Hoagland for bringing this up!

        1. Hi Karen,

          Interesting. I didn’t realize the stems had the medical properties either… As I’ve posted before, I’ve always used the roots.

          1. Karen says:

            Marjorie, I picked up the leave/stem technique from “Herbmentor.com” and it seemed to have worked the last few cold seasons!

          2. Oh Karen, yes I am a member of HerMentor too (good resource there). Hmm, I’ll have to take a look at that.

            Are your tincture ‘tingly’ when made with stems and leaves?

  • Karen says:

    Yes somewhat!

  • cre8tiv369 says:

    Im a little skeptical about boiling anything in a can (coffee or otherwise). Cans have a thin plastic linings that usually includes BPA or just as bad, BPS or any other Bisphenols (which should all be banned from children items and all food packaging, and anything else humans touch or consume). Also one of the reasons I do not drink any beverages from aluminum cans as they to have a BPA lining (but beer tastes better from a glass bottle, as do most things). I miss the old unlined multitasking coffee cans of my youth, the ones that used to rust so easily but were also easily repurposed into useful containers.

    How about a stainless pot/pan that doesn’t have a toxic non stick coating (non stick is worse than BPA but that is kinda like saying mercury poisoning is worse than lead poisoning).

    But I appreciate the rest of the article and the nudge to get people thinking of a medicinal herb garden to help us deal with our soon approaching apocalypse of antibiotic resistant super bugs, bacteria, fungi, etc. Some of those medicinal plants have nice flowers to attract beneficial insects and pollinators and some are really pretty and add beauty and function to our landscapes. And a medicinal garden (along with the knowledge of how to use it) may be the difference between life and death in the not too distant future.

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