The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production
By Peg Schafer
The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm is the first cultivation guide of its kind and presents information for growers interested in producing high-quality efficacious herb in all climates, with the historical connectedness of ancient practitioners. It is becoming increasingly important that we transition to local and domestic medicinal cultivation and author Peg Schafer, a longtime grower and teacher has put together this manual of valuable information about the propagation, cultivation and harvesting of 79 Chinese medicinal herbs. Peg Schafer is recognized as one of the pioneers and leaders in the field of the cultivation of Asian herbs. Now eating your medicine is more accessible than ever.
Cultivating “Wild-Quality” Herbs
It’s an intern day at the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm, and Peg Schafer is sitting down just long enough to share a short lunch with her interns and explain the process of growing herbs. She repeats the terms “cultivating wild quality” and “farming with the wild” like mantras. The terms, she says describe the method of re-creating natural, semiwild conditions for cultivated plants. Primarily, this means growing herbs that are not “pushed,” or grown with a lot of fertilizer. This yields smaller plants but, according to Schafer, higher concentrations and diversity of active medicinal components.
The technique also means not growing herbs too lushly or deflowering plants in order to artificially increase root size. The grower allows natural pressures, even if those pressures mean insect pests and hungry herbivores. “I let deer browse on some herbs, as long as they don’t take all of it!” Schafer laughs. All of this helps create herbs that are closer to what is found in the wild.
Learning how to reliably grow medicinal herbs naturally and organically has been the biggest challenge of Schafer’s endeavor: there are few experts and fewer books, even from sources in China. “I do a lot of thinking outside the box,” she says. “For example, there’s nothing written about harvest methods and processing for many of these herbs. So I experiment, run trials, grow something out, then I talk with my connections, researchers, botanists, herbalists from China. Finally, I look closely at the finished product.” After a decade of farming, experimenting, networking, researching, and educating, Peg says, “I’m still very much a beginner — it is a more-you-know the less-you-know kind of thing.”
Excerpts from the book …
Good quality composting can be achieved in a space as small as four cubic feet. That is the smallest a compost pile should be to allow for enough volume to generate enough heat to pasteurize the compost. On-site nonwoody green waste, kitchen scraps, and coffee grounds are high in nitrogen; these ingredients, along with a larger portion of dry material and frequent turning, will help keep the compost pile at the desired temperature of at least 150 degrees. If the compost pile smells bad it may be either too wet or have too much nitrogenous material. A less active process that still yields quality compost is a cold technique where the aforementioned ingredients are simply layered and not turned; make sure to bury kitchen waste into the pile to avoid attracting rodents. This method takes longer to obtain usable material but will speed up — with added nutrients as well — with the addition of red composting worms. These red wrigglers are often available at home and garden stores, garden centers, or by mail order. I do not recommend putting weeds with maturing seed heads into a cold compost pile as they oftentimes do not rot and may return to the garden along with finished compost. It is helpful to have two bins, both protected from precipitation — one for active composting and the other ready to use. Simple wire hardware mesh with half-inch holes wire in a circle or shipping pallets wired together are, in my opinion, better then the expensive, plastic, hand-turned unites commercially available.
Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm’s Basic Bark-based Media Mix
Some nurseries use separate germinating and transplant medias but we use this recipe for both applications. This time-tested nursery potting media recipe can be mixed in a large wheelbarrow using a shovel, or you can increase the whole recipe and mix the materials in a pit or on a tarp. Some people use an old small cement mixer to mix media.
You’ll find the ingredients available bagged in small amounts in garden centers and farm supply businesses. If you need large quantities, arrange to pick up materials or have them delivered from landscape supply companies.
5 gallons compost (homegrown and screened to a ½ inch)
5 gallons coir, thoroughly leached of salt and fluffed.
5 gallons perlite (premoistened)
5 gallons sifted fir bark (screened to a ¼ or ½ inch)
½ cup granite dust/rock powder
½ cup balanced slow release organic fertilizer
¼ cup oyster shell
¼ cup kelp meal
Dash of mycorrhizal fungal powder
Tips for Seed-Saving Success
• The best quality seed is collected from as large a population of plants as is feasible, contributing a wide spectrum of genetics. I have found that of the crops we grow, 200 plants will produce better quality seed than 20 plants (though sometimes this may be all that one has to work with). Larger plantings bestow the best opportunities not only for healthy vigor but species survival.
• If you notice a drop in vitality in a population of seed that you’ve been saving for a while, especially from a small population, you may need to reinvigorate it with fresh genetics. Intentional crosses, which increase gene flow, keep stock strong. Be certain to keep track of these crosses.
• Grow open pollinated seed, as hybrid offspring will have unknown genetics — not a good idea when growing medicine.
• When growing plants for seed, rogue out any weak-looking, diseased, or pest-affected plants before they have a chance to contribute their genetics during pollination.
Peg Schafer is a longtime grower and teacher. She is recognized as one of the pioneers and leaders in the field of the cultivation of Asian herbs. After more than 15 years of commercial herb cultivation and research at the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm in Petaluma, California, Peg Schafer has distilled her findings into a guide for growers and practitioners of Chinese medicine.
The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm
By Peg Schafer
Chelsea Green Publishing
Softcover, 336 pages, $34.95