Valerian Growing Conditions

Valerian is a versatile herb prized for its sedative and anti-anxiety properties. Also known as “nature’s Valium,” this tall, flowering plant has been used for centuries as a natural sleep aid and relaxant.

While valerian can be purchased in supplemental form, growing your own allows you to enjoy the fresh flowers, leaves and roots straight from the garden. Valerian is not difficult to cultivate, though it does have some specific needs when it comes to sun, soil and moisture.

This guide covers everything you need to know about successfully growing valerian.

Growing Valerian Herb

Native to Europe and parts of Asia, valerian is a perennial flowering plant that can grow up to 5 feet tall. It has fern-like leaves and clusters of small, fragrant white or pink flowers that bloom in summer. Valerian is a member of the Caprifoliaceae family along with honeysuckle and elderberry.

Almost all parts of the valerian plant have uses. The rhizomes (underground stems) and roots are commonly dried or pressed into supplements. Valerian’s fresh or dried leaves and flowers can be used to make tea and tinctures.

Valerian contains compounds like valerenic acid and valerenal that produce sedative effects. The roots have the highest concentration of active ingredients. Valerian preparations have been shown to reduce anxiety, improve sleep quality, and promote relaxation.

In addition to its medicinal value, valerian makes an attractive garden plant. Its scented blooms attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators. A patch of valerian can add visual interest and fragrance to herb gardens, perennial beds, and mixed borders.

Growing Conditions for Valerian

Valerian may be a low-maintenance herb once established, but it does require certain conditions for optimal growth and flower production during the first year. Here are the key factors for successfully growing valerian:

Sun Exposure

  • Valerian grows best in full sun, which means at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. This promotes robust, upright growth.
  • The plant can tolerate partial shade but may get leggy and flop over in too much shade. Dappled sunlight or morning sun with afternoon shade is acceptable.
  • For the sturdiest growth, choose a site with full sun to grow valerian. The more sun, the better the plant will perform.

Soil Needs

  • Valerian prefers consistently moistwell-drained soil. Poor drainage can cause root rot.
  • The best soils for valerian are loamynutrient-rich and contain ample organic matter. Valerian grows well in compost-amended beds.
  • Average garden soil is usually suitable provided the ground is not soggy or nutrient deficient.
  • Valerian tolerates most soil types but thrives in ideal loamy, fertile soil.

Watering and Moisture

  • Valerian requires even moisture in the soil. Allow the top few inches of soil to dry out between waterings.
  • Take care not to overwater, as excess moisture promotes fungal diseases.
  • Drought and uneven watering can cause stunted growth. Established plants are somewhat drought tolerant.
  • Consistent moisture is especially important when plants are first getting started. Mature valerian is better able to handle some dry periods.
  • Container-grown valerian should be watered whenever the top inch of soil is dry. Prevent drying out entirely.

USDA Hardiness Zones

  • Valerian can be grown successfully in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 through 9. This covers a wide range from cool areas to hot, humid climates.
  • Valerian is winter hardy to zone 4, handling temperatures as low as -30°F. It tolerates cold winters with snow cover.
  • In warmer zones like 8 and 9, it grows as a winter-hardy perennial but appreciates some shade in peak summer.
  • Varieties like ‘Red Valerian’ and ‘Centranthus ruber’ withstand zone 3 conditions.

Mature Size

  • Valerian can reach 4-6 feet tall at maturity, spreading 1-2 feet wide. It has an upright but spreading habit.
  • Allow at 12-18 inches between each valerian plant for good air circulation and light penetration.
  • Give valerian sufficient room to achieve its mature dimensions in the garden.

Starting from Seed

Growing valerian from seed is economical but requires patience. Here are some tips for successfully starting valerian from seed:

When to Sow

  • Direct sow valerian seeds outdoors in late fall or early spring. This mimics natural winter dormancy.
  • For spring, sow seeds as soon as the ground can be worked. The ideal soil temperature for germination is 60-70°F.
  • Fall-sown seeds will germinate the following spring. Just scatter them over prepared soil.

Seed Starting Mix

  • Use a sterile, low-nutrient seed starting mix to start seeds indoors. This prevents fungal disease.
  • Mix in vermiculite or perlite to improve drainage and aerate the soil.
  • Water sparingly to keep the starting medium evenly moist but not soggy.

Container Size

  • Start valerian seeds in small 2-3 inch pots or plug trays. This reduces transplant shock.
  • Avoid large containers, as the soil may stay too wet. Transfer seedlings to bigger pots later.

Germination Time

  • Valerian seeds take 14-21 days to germinate when sown in early spring at 60-70°F soil temperatures.
  • Maintain warm soil temperatures and even moisture for the best germination rate.
  • Expect slower germination from fall-sown seeds. This is normal.

Transplanting

  • Transplant valerian seedlings into the garden after hardening off for 7-10 days.
  • Harden off in spring after the last frost date, when plants have 2-4 true leaves.
  • Take care not to disturb the roots when transplanting into the garden.

Planting Transplants

For faster growing, consider planting valerian starts instead of seeds. Here’s how:

When to Plant

  • Spring is the ideal time to introduce valerian transplants into the garden.
  • Plant out starts after the last spring frost, when soil is warm and outdoor temperatures reach 65-75°F.
  • Fall planting is also an option. Plant at least 6-8 weeks before the first fall frost.

Where to Purchase

  • Purchase potted valerian plants from nurseries, garden centers or online herb retailers.
  • Choose young but robust plants in 4-6 inch pots with established root systems. Avoid root-bound or wilting plants.
  • Mail order nurseries offer a wide selection of valerian varieties suitable for your climate.

Transplanting Process

  • Before planting, harden off valerian starts for 7-10 days by slowly introducing them to outdoor conditions.
  • Dig holes twice as wide as the pot and to the same soil depth. Space holes 12-18 inches apart.
  • Carefully remove plants from pots, handling by the leaves to avoid stem damage. Tease out circling roots.
  • Place each plant in its hole, backfilling with native soil. Water thoroughly after planting.

Soil Preparation

Proper soil prep helps valerian establish quickly after transplanting. Follow these tips:

Bed Layout

  • Plan your valerian bed to allow for the mature spread of the plants, spacing approximately 1-2 feet apart.
  • For in-ground growing, beds can be raised or at ground level. Just ensure good drainage.
  • Beds that are 3-4 feet wide are easy to tend. Increase bed width for larger plantings.

Improving Soil

  • Test your native soil and amend as needed to create fertile loam. Valerian likes compost-rich beds.
  • To improve drainage in clay soils, mix in aged compost and horticultural sand or perlite.
  • For excessively sandy soils, amend with compost or peat moss to increase moisture retention.
  • Add organic slow-release granular fertilizer when preparing beds. Valerian is not a heavy feeder but benefits from nutrients.

Digging

  • Loosen and turn over the top 8-12 inches of native soil using a shovel or garden fork. Break up large clumps.
  • Mix amendments evenly through the prepared soil and rake beds smooth before planting.
  • For in-ground beds, consider edging beds with lumber or stones to maintain a tidy outline.

Growing in Containers

Don’t have space for in-ground beds? You can easily grow valerian in containers:

Pot Size

  • Select a container at least 12-16 inches wide and deep for each valerian plant. This allows adequate root room.
  • For multi-plantings, use larger containers or whiskey barrels. Allow 12-18 inches between plants.

Potting Mix

  • Use a quality commercial organic potting soil, or make your own mix by combining compost, peat and perlite.
  • Good drainage is essential to prevent root rot. Ensure the potting mix is not heavy or dense.

Drainage

  • Always plant valerian in containers with drainage holes at the base. Elevate pots to improve drainage.
  • Place a 2-3 inch layer of gravel in the bottom of pots to enhance drainage and discourage roots from escaping.

Watering

  • Check container plants daily and water thoroughly whenever the top inch of soil is dry to the touch.
  • More frequent watering is needed in hot weather or windy sites where pots dry out quickly.
  • Take care not to overwater container plants, as they are prone to root diseases in soggy soil.

Growing Indoors

With bright light and humidity, it’s possible to grow valerian indoors:

Light Requirements

  • When growing valerian inside, situate plants right next to a south or west facing window.
  • Valerian needs at least 6 hours of very bright, direct sunlight daily. Supplement with grow lights.
  • Without enough light, indoor valerian can become elongated and weak with poor flowering.

Temperature

  • Ideal indoor growing temperatures for valerian range from 65-75°F during the day and 55-65°F at night.
  • Avoid drafty locations as valerian dislikes cold breezes. Move plants away from cold windows in winter.

Humidity

  • Valerian appreciates 40-60% relative humidity. mist plants regularly or use a humidifier during dry winter months.
  • Avoid wet foliage, which can encourage leaf spot diseases. Provide good air circulation.

Soil Mix

  • Use a loose, organic potting mix with extra perlite or vermiculite added to improve drainage.
  • Water carefully to keep soil consistently moist but not constantly soggy.

Caring for Valerian

Once established, valerian requires minimal care. Here are some tips for keeping your plants healthy and productive:

Watering

  • Mature valerian can tolerate short dry spells once established. Resume deep watering when the top several inches of soil become dry.
  • New transplants need consistently moist soil for the first year. Water transplants daily until rooted in.
  • Drought-stressed plants may stop flowering. Ensure adequate moisture for prolific blooming.

Fertilizing

  • Fertilize valerian in early spring and again mid-summer using organic balanced fertilizer diluted to half strength.
  • Excess nitrogen can cause floppy growth. Use lower nitrogen formulas like 5-5-5 or 4-4-4.
  • In rich garden soil, valerian may not need any supplemental feeding. Avoid over-fertilization.

Pruning

  • Prune off any damaged, diseased or dead stems in early spring. Remove spent flowers to tidy appearance.
  • Cutting plants back by one-third after flowering improves plant shape and health. It also encourages reblooming.
  • Pull out unwanted self-sown seedlings to control spread. They transplant easily or can be given away.

Supporting

  • Use pea stakes, trellising or small cages to support floppy stems and heavy flower heads.
  • Keep plants pinched back to encourage bushy growth. Pinch off stem tips frequently through summer.
  • Shelter plants from wind, which can cause breakage. Site valerian in a protected area.

Dividing & Transplanting

  • Divide congested valerian clumps in spring or fall. Replant divisions 18 inches apart.
  • Established plants can be transplanted to redesign beds or share with other gardeners. Keep soil intact when moving.
  • Transplant in cool weather and water thoroughly after replanting. Stake up any floppy stems.

Troubleshooting Problems

When provided with its favored conditions, valerian is relatively problem-free. Here are some potential issues and solutions:

Poor Flowering

Causes: Insufficient sunlight, overcrowding, over-fertilization, drought stress, heavy pruning

Solution: Provide full sun, space plants adequately, reduce fertilizer, improve watering, avoid pruning in summer

Leggy Growth

Causes: Inadequate sunlight, excessive shade, nitrogen over-fertilization

Solution: Increase sunlight with minimal afternoon shade, reduce nitrogen fertilizer, pinch back tips to encourage bushiness

Wilting Plants

Causes: Under or over-watering, transplant shock, pests like root nematodes or aphids

Solution: Evaluate and adjust watering practices, allow transplants time to establish, identify and control pests

Leaf Spots

Causes: Damp conditions, poor air circulation, foliar diseases

Solution: Improve drainage, space plants appropriately, remove affected foliage promptly, avoid overhead watering

Failure to Spread

Causes: Root disturbance, aggressive weeding of seedlings, dry soil

Solution: Avoid digging around plants, allow some seedlings to grow, ensure adequate and even moisture

Harvesting Valerian

One of the joys of growing your own valerian is harvesting parts of the plant for various uses:

When to Harvest

  • Valerian roots are typically harvested in the fall after the plants die back. The alkaloid content peaks in late summer.
  • You can harvest leaves and flowers throughout the growing season as needed. Pick leaves before plants flower.
  • The best time to collect seeds is when the flower heads have dried out completely on the stems.

What to Harvest

  • Dig up the underground rhizomes and root clusters for drying. Carefully wash off soil.
  • Snip off leafy stems just above ground level. Choose healthy leaves without spots or yellowing.
  • Collect dried flower heads once the tiny blooms turn brown and seeds form inside.

Drying Techniques

  • Dry leaves, flowers and roots completely before use to preserve active compounds. Air drying works well.
  • Spread plant parts in a single layer on screens or paper in a warm, dry spot out of direct sun.
  • For roots, allow 1-2 weeks drying time. Leaves and flowers may dry faster.
  • Store thoroughly dried valerian in labeled, sealed glass jars kept in a cool, dark place.

Enjoying Fresh Valerian

In addition to drying valerian for later use, you can also enjoy fresh plants in various ways:

  • Add young leaves to salads, soups and other dishes for a mild flavor. Use sparingly.
  • Brew chilled or hot teas from fresh leaves and flowers. Mix with other herbs like lemon balm.
  • Make tinctures using fresh roots and high-proof alcohol like vodka. Shake daily for 6 weeks.
  • Blend fresh roots and leaves into smoothies. Start with small amounts to gauge potency.
  • Prepare valerian-infused oils by soaking chopped roots in a carrier oil for 4-6 weeks. Strain and bottle the oil.
  • Craft a relaxing bedtime bath tea by steeping a muslin bag with dried roots and flowers in hot bath water.

Conclusion

With its attractive flowers and varied medicinal uses, valerian is a worthwhile herb for any gardener to cultivate. While valerian has specific requirements for optimal growth, it’s relatively easy to succeed with this hardy perennial plant. Give valerian full sun, nutrient-rich soil, consistent moisture and adequate spacing. Harvest the powerful roots and calming leaves and flowers for natural anxiety relief and sleep promotion. With proper care, you’ll enjoy growing and using your own valerian for years to come.