What’s Natural in Your Yard or Garden?
By Susun Weed
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.
Ideas from your yard
For instance, take 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 go native?
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 and care-free.
The most dependable perennial herbs are echinacea, comfrey, elecampane, wormwood and thyme, or the hardiest members of the aromatic mint family. 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.
Find out more
Magazines offer gardening knowledge in small doses 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 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 http://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 http://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 http://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 from www.ashtreepublishing.com.
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. (1984, 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 Woman'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.
Don’t work too hard
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.
© Susun Weed
Susun Weed has been living the simple life for more than 30 years as an herbalist, goat keeper, author, homesteader and feminist. See Susun's complete Wise Women Herbal Series books. Visit www.susunweed.com and www.ashtreepublishing.com.