Your garden. What fun - and frustration - await you there!
The best mentor you can choose, as far as I'm concerned, is Nature herself.
Nature likes life everywhere. Have an open field and plants magically
appear! This is the way plants grow when left to themselves. We don't
have to struggle so much.
It is wisest to let Nature have Her way. Nature has her
own agenda, and your life as a gardener will be easier if you bow to
Her desires. Better to dance with the fairies than struggle with eliminating
"weeds". What herbs already grow around you that you can use as teas
and seasonings? Most areas are rich in such plants, both native and
introduced. Many of them will be happy to grace your garden with very
little effort on your part. Some will appear; others may want to be
transplanted. Still others are simply there, waiting for you to notice.
For instance, pine trees. Pine needle vinegar is an exquisite
treat that is easy to make. I call it homemade "balsamic" vinegar. Fill
a jar with pine needles. (I prefer white pine, and pinyon pine is even
better, but the needles of any pine are fine.) Cover needles completely
with apple cider vinegar, filling the jar to the top and capping with
a plastic lid or a piece of plastic wrap held in place with a rubber
band. This vinegar, like most that I make, is ready to use in six weeks.
Pine vinegar is rich in flavonoids, vitamins, and minerals. It helps
keep the immune system strong, and strengthens the lungs as well. I
love it on salads.
Your home, like mine in the Catskills, offers rose hips
and sumac berries for vitamin-C rich teas; spice bush leaves and berries
to suggest the flavors of bay and allspice; and the roots of sweet clover
to use as a vanilla substitute.
Grab a local field guide and go looking for all the plants
that are native to your area. For example, if you live in the northern
states like Minnesota, a great book is "How Indians Use Wild Plants
for Food, Medicine, and Crafts", written in 1926 by Frances Densmore
who collected information from the Minnesota Chippewa. There are many
similar guides available.
Why use native plants? They are often hardy survivors
and naturally adapted to the area, sometimes requiring less watering
and care. Whether in the wilds or in your garden, Nature is ever-ready
to provide you with all you need with little or no input from you. An
abundance of edible and medicinal plants covers every inch of my garden
- and I didn't plant any of them. With only a little help from me (I
spread compost several inches deep on my gardens spring and fall, and
keep them fenced against my goats and the marauding deer), my gardens
grow: garlic mustard, chickweed, violets, dandelion, curly dock, nettles,
burdock, wild madder, crone(mug)wort, wild chives, poke, catnip, malva,
wild mint, bergamot, cleavers, motherwort, chicory, raspberry, goldenrod,
creeping jenny, barbara's cress, evening primrose, milk weed.
The next best thing to letting Nature plant your herb
garden for you is to put in perennials and let Nature take care of them.
You will find the best plants for your area at a plant swap at a local
church or school. Nurseries, especially the mail order ones, offer lots
of different kinds of plants, but only a few of them will be both productive
The most dependable perennial herbs are Echinacea, comfrey,
elecampane, wormwood, and thyme, on the hardiest members of the aromatic
Cuttings of various mints are easy to come by and easier
yet to establish. Chocolate mint and red bergamot are two of my favorites,
but don't be choosy - accept any and all mint cuttings you are given.
Perennial aromatic mints - including lemon balm, lavender, rosemary,
thyme, sage, oregano, pennyroyal, and catnip, as well as spearmint and
peppermint - form the "backbone" of most herb gardens. Just grow them
in full sun in poor soil and don't overwater.
Anyone who has a comfrey plant will be glad to give you
a "start" (a piece of the root). And, once put in, comfrey is a friend
for life. Ditto rhubarb, whose root is a formidable herbal medicine.
Magazines offer gardening knowledge in small doses, and
at appropriate times, instead of all at once, and this is usually more
helpful than a book that tries to cover all seasons and all reasons.
These are my current (spring 2002) favorites:
The American Gardener, a publication of the American
Horticultural Society. Perhaps it is a bit more formal than I am, but
it nonetheless has a down-home charm. Check out www.ahs.org
or call 1-800-777-7931. When you join, you get the magazine plus the
right to join in their annual seed give-away.
The Garden Gate is very practical and covers a
wide range of topics in excellent detail: from plants to planters, to
planting your feet so your back stays strong. Every page counts, as
there is no advertising. You can subscribe at www.gardengatemagazine.com
or call 1-800-341-4769.
The Gardener is another non-advertising production.
It is unique in not using photographs. It is illustrated throughout
in a variety of stunning styles. They offered me a credit worth $20
for plants or seeds with my subscription. Go to www.thegardenermagazine.com
or call them at 1-877-257-5268.
Herbals that include cultural instructions are good additions
to your library.
Opening Your Wild Heart to the Healing Herbs by
Gail /Faith Edwards is one of my favorites. I love Gail's voice. When
I read the book I feel like a wise teacher is sitting next to me telling
me how to use and how to grow herbs and trees, medicines and teas. Available
Steven Foster's Herbal Bounty is a classic on "The
Gentle Art of Herb Culture." Unfortunately, it is now out of print,
but you may be able to find one used. (C1984, Peregrine Smith Books).
He gives detailed information on the culture, and medicinal uses, of
over 100 popular herbs.
Park's Success with Herbs is also out of print
but a book that I use constantly. Gertrude Foster and Rosemary Louden
fill just under 200 pages with an incredible amount of information on
growing and using (lots of recipes) an amazing variety of herbs.
Wild Women's Garden is one of a series of books
that tell you how to grow and use herbs. This one focuses on herbs for
women. Another, Serenity Garden focuses on herbs that are relaxing.
A third, En Garden, is more general. Each book contains a postcard
that you send in for free seeds so you can grow the plants in the book.
Great info and great fun. The cost of the seeds alone is worth more
than the price of the book. Jillian VanNostrand and Christie Sarles
are the authors; published by Radical Weeds.
When you try too hard, it doesn’t work. We learn to work
with the slow interplay of Yin and Yang. We learn to be in harmony with
nature's laws. Forcing things to fit or going against the grain is an
unskillful way. We learn to be flexible like water. We use our intuition.
We hold, energetically, a magical spot of ground and watch what grows.
In Taoism they call it "Wu Wei". We walk in the "effortless", we dance
with the fairies, moving in joyful flow with the undulating, magical
greenery blowing in the breeze.
Wow! You have a garden! With patience, good weather, and
the grace of the Goddess, you and Nature will create a thing of beauty.
PO Box 64
Woodstock, NY 12498