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Pharmacy Today: Medicinal herb go-to man reveals green finger

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Republished with the permission of Pharmacy Today. www.pharmacytoday.co.nz

Phytomed Medicinal Herbs technical director and former pharmacist Phil Rasmussen shares his love of gardening with Pharmacy Today reporter Nerine Zoio

Pharmacy Today (2018)

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How did you get into gardening?

I was brought up in Gisborne with parents who liked to grow things.

So from a young age I was exposed to horticulture.

But it was only when I went to the UK to study herbal medicine at the School of Phytotherapy in Sussex that I decided to teach myself how to grow things.

This led me in Bristol to take out one allotment and then three as I immersed myself in the allotment culture.

I grew a lot of vegetables and herbs at that time.

What did you grow?

So much, from evening primrose and calendula to hyssop, marshmallow and horseradish, which grows like a weed there.

I taught myself out of textbooks because, even though I watched my mum and dad grow vegetables asa kid, we didn’t grow herbs – and growing some of these can be a tricky business.

I can say with confidence that it was in the UK where I developed green fingers.

After commencing my herbal study programme, I developed a little business called Healthy Herbs where I sold ointments and a few tonics, and many of the herbs I used came from my three allotments.

How should herbs be grown?

I have always been a great protagonist of organic cultivation methods, use of natural pesticides and companion planting, rather than synthetic agrichemicals.

In my own garden, I also orientate my cultivation of foodproducing and medicine-producing plants around permaculture and species diversity because it’s more natural and makes things more interesting.

It’s all about trying to let plants grow where they want to grow, mixing them around, and allowing them to self-seed from one season to the next, unless of course they overdo this.

This makes for a much more balanced ecosystem, in my experience, and fewer pests.

Commercial herb growing, however, is somewhat different. It comprises larger fields full of the same species but with nearby companion plants, use of crop rotation, and plant spacing to enable efficient weeding and harvesting methods, which are important.

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There are many books on herbs, but hands-onexperience is invaluable as evident in the vast amount I’ve learnt about commercial herb growing via Phytomed’s pilot farm in Gisborne where we successfully cultivated withania and echinacea.

If I were to recommend a book, it’s Tasmanian herb farmer Greg Whitten’s Herbal Harvest – a truly comprehensive book on all facets of small-scale but commercial organic herb growing.

How much time do you give to your gardening?

I spend much of my weekends in my garden in Te Atatu in west Auckland when I can.

Describe your garden

I have a half-acre (2023sqm) property and a decent-sized vegetable garden that comprises mainly vegetables but with a wide range of herbs scattered throughout, including valerian, marshmallow, meadowsweet, thyme, sage, nasturtium, rocket, parsley, basil, echinacea, tansy, fennel and horehound.

Horehound alone can be used for digestion problems, including loss of appetite, indigestion, bloating, gas, diarrohea, constipation, and liver and gall bladder complaints.

It is also used for lung and breathing problems, including cough, whooping cough, asthma, tuberculosis, bronchitis and swollen breathing passages.

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I really like to make salads filled with raw grated beetroot, carrot and fresh rocket. I add lots of basil to my toogood-to-be-true salad dressing of New Zealand olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar, oregano and mustard.

This fare makes me feel lucky to be a Kiwi living in a growing country with access to a wide range of fresh vegetables and herbs.

We have access to this great food, we can really taste it – it’s not tired or anaemic tasting – and we can incorporate it into all our dishes.

I might sound like a bit of a veggie nationalist, but I think New Zealand’s growing reputation as a gastronomic paradise is partly due to its production of top-quality fruit, vegetables and herbs.

Beyond physical wellbeing, what else does your hobby contribute to your life?

I think gardening is one of the most balancing hobbies a human can have.

I would say most humans should pursue it – even for a little while – because it makes for so many benefits.

While being productive, it’s also relaxing and takes me away from screens, which we all tend to overuse.

And I don’t really need to enumerate the benefits of being exposed to the elements and living things, such as plants, insects, butterflies, bees and birds.

Does your family share your passion?

I try with my 11-year-old but it’s a challenge.

Fortunately, we have the Garden to Table programme at schools. It teaches children about growing food and then cooking it.

My son is probably better than most kids, but I do worry about future generations when it comes to growing things.

I was lucky to be brought up in rural New Zealand, which taught me a lot about nature.

Do you bring business home?

Yes, of course. About 20 per cent of my pantry is full of Kiwiherb products and I’m often making herbal concoctions for use by family, friends and neighbours