I like my chamomile stressed

This poor, abused little seedling is flowering like crazy.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I made a mistake–I predicted a while ago that this would happen, and here it is. When we remodeled the yard and I set aside space for The Phan of Pharmacy ™ my goal was to maximize the production of herbs and flowers.  I prepped the ground in the fan like a fine flower or veg bed: double dug and richly amended. It was only after I planted my chamomile starts in it that I realized the soil was way too rich for chamomile. Not that it wouldn’t grow, but it wouldn’t grow the way I wanted it to grow.

See, chamomile is a tough, scrappy plant. In our dry climate, it pops up with the winter rains, and lives a fast, hard life, like a beautiful young self-destructive celebrity. It shoots up overnight and throws off blossoms like crazy, its one goal being to spread seed before it dies.

In the past, I’ve harvested chamomile from volunteer plants in my yard. I never planted or tended them, but one or two would get about knee high, and from those one or two plants I’d gather all the flowers I needed by remembering to pick a handful every time I went in the back yard. The thing about chamomile is the more you pick, the more it produces.

But I was greedy–and somewhat lazy, as usual. I thought, why be out there every day milking some scrappy chamomile plant, when you could plant a chamomile crop and harvest a ton of flowers in just a couple of days? So I planted I don’t know how many plants–20, maybe? More? The chamomile thrived in the rich, fertile soil, putting all it’s energy into making lots of feathery green foliage–not flowers. My entire chamomile crop is presently netting me less flowers than one or two abused volunteers would. That sad little plant in the top picture may have to become my harvest plant.

Uh, very pretty. But where are the flowers?

The lesson here is to know your plant, and to pay attention when you’re prepping your garden. I amended that soil on auto-pilot, when I could have left one fan wedge un-turned and un-amended and the chamomile would have flowered all the better for it. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily the case for other herbs and flowers. The calendula I planted in the fan is doing very well, producing huge, hearty blooms. All I’m saying is that you can’t generalize.

My next step is to withhold water from the chamomile and try to stress it into flower production. Of course, we’re heading into another rainy period, so it will be a while before that chamomile is feeling any stress at all.

Our ladies are also well practiced in stressing chamomile

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24 Comments

  1. Interesting! I assume you mean that the leaves containing the sedative qualities as well as the flowers? I love the scent of the flowers, and so use those mostly to make oil which becomes salves, etc. I’ll look into this leaf business. Thanks!

  2. Ha!
    I have the same problem with yarrow. Plant it in rich soil and it explodes in green leafy growth and tonsss of rhizomatic offshoots but plant it in poor soil and it stays nice and compact and flowers normally

  3. I’ve been a reader for years, and now I have my first question! I’ve been reading your book, and the blog, and thanks to you and others, we’re about to get our first urban chickens (hooray)! We’re fencing our yard at the moment and wondered, how do y’all keep the free ranging chickens out of the veggie garden? I see you have a wood-slat fence above that the ladies are poking their heads through, but can’t they just fly over that? Thanks for all you do… Love your work!

  4. @Velokitty: Congrats on the chickens!

    To keep your veggies safe you either have to coop up the hens or coop up the veggies. What you see in that picture is their run. We’ve chosen to keep them locked up, so we can have unprotected plantings everywhere. If we had a big place we might make a walled vegetable garden and let the chickens run free–sounds like that’s what you’re doing?

    Adult hens, especially the classic fat bottomed laying breeds, are not particularly aerodynamic, so can’t fly high–a waist high enclosure can contain them. Pullets and bantams and light breeds fly pretty well and are harder to contain. So to some extent the fence will be dictated by your birds. Oh, also, chickens are good at squeezing through things and digging under things so you have to watch that.

    To answer you question, the hens don’t escape that low fencing because we’ve got twine stretched across the top, running from post to post like a loom. This loose web of string lets leaves and stuff fall through (and lets squirrels escape!) but intimidates the hens enough that they don’t try to escape and– very important– it works the same way to keep hawks out.

    We used to use aviary netting but this works so much better, because no one can accidentally get trapped in it.

  5. The twine is a brilliant idea! We’re actually having our whole yard fenced in preparation for our girls, but we’d planned to put netting or wire on the hoops of our raised beds rather than creating an enclosed veggie garden, because several people told us that chickens would fly I’ve even tall fences. I’m glad to hear that the heavier laying breeds are less inclined to go AWOL, as there are a lot of lovely veggie gardens on our street! Thanks so much for the advice!

  6. Ah! Along with netting and wire, you should also check out floating row cover fabric as an alternative for covering for some of your hoops. We use a product called Agrabon-6 to cover some of our beds. It keeps many bugs out–very handy, especially for the cole crops that get hit hard by those little green caterpillars. And of course if you live somewhere cold, heavier weights of fabric can be used to extend the growing season. Don’t know if you saw this post?”

    http://www.rootsimple.com/2009/11/row-covers-in-warm-climate.html

  7. We live in Austin, Texas, so heat is more of a concern than cold!

    I’ll definitely give that post a re-read. We have some concerns about the plants that need pollinators, but maybe we can just keep the chickens in their run during those seasons? It’s like learning to garden all over again! Experiment, test, evaluate, repeat!

  8. The Agribon isn’t for every bed, for sure. Only for crops that need protection against flying bugs. It’s very, very light, but still could overheat plants on hot days. We only use it for cool season crops, and that works well because that’s when we grow cole family plants.

    Also, I misspoke above–it’s Agribon 16, not 6.

    And yes, we’re always testing and reavaluating and starting all over again. Who said gardening was relaxing???

  9. I miss your old name frankly. But everything changes. Keep up the good work! I love your Urban Homesteading book! One of the best ones on my bookshelf and Ive got thousands of books! (good insulation)

    Dave @ 1916home

  10. well it just means that i cannot use the term for anything i do especially if for some reason i earn something out of it… I’ve copyrighted and trademarked a few things, but that was so that no one else could do the same and try to make people pay to use the term.

  11. YAY! Thank you! As a person fairly new to gardening, and even more so to growing tea herbs, when I saw this huge green bush where my chamomile should be I was very confused and thinking maybe I got a non-flowering variety. Stumbled on your blog, took your advice (boy did I STRESS that plant out!) and I now have my first chamomile flowers. Excitement!

  12. Hi, I’m growing german chamomile in my fertile organic garden. The plants are lush and bushy with lots of flowers but baddy eaten by bugs (sweatbees,ants and small beetles). 2 questions:
    Are the flowers still potent without the petals?
    How can I keep the bugs away naturally?

    • Hi Beewitch,

      Sorry about your problem. You should be able to use the hearts of the flowers just fine. As far as getting rid of the pests, I’m not sure. Ants and sweat bees don’t eat leaves, so if you see beetles, it’s probably them. Your task would be identifying the beetle, and then looking up what natural controls exist for it. I always turn to UC Davis for that information–this page is a place to start: http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/menu.homegarden.html Good luck!

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