In the author’s garden, mounds of Wormwood, Bee Balm, Sage and Lavender benefit from peripheral shade and dense plantings; the Pollinators have a buffet of nectars and pollens to choose from.
On Healing: A Gardener’s Perspective
A couple of years ago, I surrounded the edges of the small stone patio by our kitchen with pots of Motherwort, which do well under the partial shade of a Siberian Elm, and are at the moment sending up their pink spires of spiked flowers. I’ll tincture some soon- Leonurus cardiaca has been an invaluable ally to me. The protective quality of the plant enhances a feeling of security there on the little patio; I am sometimes prompted to nibble on the bitter leaves as I walk by.
In the corner of the yard, under a quarter-day’s shade, I’ve tucked away the plants I don’t want our dog- or friends’ children- getting into, bound by a loose ‘wattling’ fence of interwoven Cottonwood and Elm sticks: several vivid green mounds of Stinging Nettles, an arrangement of Raspberry and Blackberry canes, and further out in the direct sun, a cluster of Prickly Pears. Passionflower vines, planted along a warm Southern-facing patio wall, scramble up a homemade-trellis; by the time the vines are ready to flower they’ll have gone up and over a wall that faces an outdoor dining table, so the dazzling, intricate blooms can be enjoyed, close-up and with wonder, when we eat outside.
I’d like to plant more plants with silvery tones along the pathways, having noticed how beautifully Wormwood, Mullein, and velvety Lamb’s Ear glow at night, reflecting moonlight and guiding one walking along the borders of paths, steps, and garden beds.
This is how I daydream my healing, medicinal garden. Magic happens somewhere between the daydream and the work of a garden.
I’ve been gardening, in the professional sense, for 30 years now: 30 trips with my plant friends, circling around the sun. It’s a line of connectivity over many seasons and through many changes, a thread that holds all these different parts of my life together. These days, I say, ‘I work with plants,’ because over the years this has involved various aspects including design, cultivation, agriculture, and herbalism.
Flats of Lavender, Chamomile and Calendula seedlings emerging in March under grow lights.
It started out as a summer job at a nursery my freshman year in highschool, and ballooned into a wild Venn diagram of different- but related- experiences working with plants. I tended and propagated water lilies and other aquatic plants for a small mail-order business. In college, I did landscaping jobs for suburban homes, and one strange gig where I cared for indoor plants in corporate offices and restaurants, in the off-hours of early morning when the spaces were vacant of humans. My work brought me to compact rooftop gardens in New York City and San Francisco, and later, sprawling estate gardens, public parks, and a rural organic farm.
Many of the communities or clients I’ve worked with are very specifically seeking to create garden environments which have restful, therapeutic and healing qualities- and to me, the sheer number and variety of folks requesting these aspects indicate that people have a profoundly basic, universal need to have these feelings in a garden. It’s one of those things all humans truly share over space-time. I’ve gardened for dentists’ offices, spas, a theological seminary, urban community gardens, a museum, senior centers, and children’s learning gardens. I worked at a Buddhist monastery in Japan, in humid Kyoto, and at an organic garden at a retreat center in Colorado, high in the Rockies. Everywhere, people describe the tranquility and connection they want to experience in a garden, and how it would help them and their communities to feel better. This also remains true here in Albuquerque, where my husband and I have lived several years now, on ancestral Pueblo lands, in the Rio Grande Valley.
I completely get it- wanting this feeling. Not only have plants taught me so much, and given me a skill set that has consistently provided for me, but on several occasions now, plants have saved my ass. Through childhood and young adult traumas, through Lyme disease and autoimmune illness, through periods of formidable stress and challenge- being and working with plants and using their gifts of medicine and food has, over and over, shifted my health and my life in more positive directions. Accordingly- and not surprisingly- as a gardener, I have an overwhelming interest in Medicinal and Healing Gardens.
Through the practice of gardening, I understand myself better, and my relationship to my world: I believe I am stronger for it. And, as a result of gardening, and of feeling so deeply the ways in which we need plants, and sensing how the plants need our love, I want other people to do it too. I want other people to garden in a way that gives them this feeling, this connectedness (… that means you!).
As is the case with many worthwhile pursuits and practices, building a solid foundation- with good information, resources, and strategies- ups our chances of feeling effective, enjoying the process of it, and continuing to do the thing at all.
If you’re thinking of starting, expanding, or revamping a garden space in a way that supports healing or includes medicinal herbs, you can learn more in the upcoming class, Medicinal and Healing Gardens- Design and Care. In the class, we’ll discuss soil, water, and light management; explore examples of Herbal and Medicinal Garden designs, and learn how to create garden plans that can be adjusted through the seasons and over the years.
A charming pale-yellow variety of Calendula issues its first few blooms; the resinous flowerheads will be used in the creation of several healing balms and salves.
Why Garden In the First Place?
This may seem like a simple question, but it’s one often overlooked, or only partially examined.
Gardening is an expression of care for ourselves, our families, and our communities. It expands and increases our experience of relaxation, beauty, and joy, and enhances our individual and collective health. Gardens inherently help us to feel things are ‘cared for’ and considered, and working in them increases our feelings of productivity, self-reliance, and connection to nature. The activity of gardening has been shown to be stress-lowering, mood-lifting and fundamentally regulating and supportive to several systems of the body (cardiovascular, neurological and mental health studies, for example, all cite gardening as a successful co-therapy for patients).
Gardening is, additionally, a network of care extended to the more-than-human world. When we facilitate an environment that hosts many types of plants, we help provide all kinds of creatures critical habitat: shelter, things to eat, access to water, and a place to bring offspring into the world. In a time of escalating threats of species loss, considerable natural habitat has been mown to a thin layer, sprayed with toxic biocides, paved over, or otherwise altered in a way that no longer supports biodiversity. Providing these garden environments, rich with shelter and resources, for many living beings is a real thing we can do, increasing the odds of many species’ survival.
Our yard is host to birds who nest here every year, and others who migrate and stop a bit to rest, from Hummingbirds to Woodducks, and a Roadrunner who likes to stare at us in the window. There are two large, rotund squirrels who tumble and wrestle over the woodpile, many, many Whiptail Lizards, and a Skenk. There are beloved Ladybugs and Praying Mantises, and all the Aphids on their lunch menu. And so many others, including all the amazing wiggly-igglies and microbial beings. These are all denizens of the garden; all, in my book, have a right to be here.
A young Praying Mantis explores a Mint plant; Mantises help keep damage to plants in check by eating insects like Aphids, Fruit Flies and Grasshoppers.
Gardening also extends this love and care to the plants themselves. From an herbalism perspective, the more we can cultivate our own medicinal herbs when possible, the less we ask of wild populations which may be subject to over-foraging, or experiencing other environmental stressors.
Furthermore, with each plant we grow and harvest ourselves, or purchase from a local grower, rather than buy from an online supplier, we lessen the burden of the shipping resources used to transport herbs and herbal products. A surprising amount of medicinal herbs used by Americans are cultivated and processed in Eastern Europe, China, India, and other faraway places, and shipped thousands of miles; many are plants which could be grown in multiple regions of the U.S. By cultivating some of the plants in our gardens and sourcing others more locally, we help curb unnecessary use of fossil fuels- and it truly doesn’t get more local than your garden.
Moreover, in tending to the plants, we form deeper, more meaningful relationships with them. Over time, we see different aspects of plants, in different stages of life, or in the midst of seasonal changes: moments of vulnerability and resilience and transformation. We’re also bringing different aspects of ourselves to the table each time we encounter the plant. We are ‘in relationship.’ We grow together, we experience cycles together. There is a beautiful sense of rhythm in observing and experiencing these daily and seasonal cycles. Rhythm, like song, keeps you going. You feel connected to a vital kind of force when you have access to that rhythm- because you are.
Priorities in this garden include keeping pathways to garden beds clear and accessible for ease of cultivation and harvest, clustering plants with similar soil and watering needs together, and providing features, such as a bird bath, to invite Pollinators and Wild Birds.
Form and Function: Good Garden Design Meets the Specific Needs and Uses of a Garden
Tidy rows of medicinal herbs for teas and tinctures, neatly labelled and carefully weeded and mulched, or wild drifts of varied plant communities, scrambling over each other, cottage-garden style? In many ways, the aesthetic forms our gardens take on mirror our intentions for our plants. Small-scale herbal farmers typically utilize more standardized agricultural crop-growing techniques, like crop rotation and tilling along rows. A person who keeps a small yard garden, and gets plant cuttings and root divisions from friends, may choose to plant a little of this and a bit of that, here and there, and just see what flourishes with a more carefree approach.
In a whole other way though, visually, we just like what we like. It might be that we want our garden space to match the style and feel of our home, and create a flow between indoor and outdoor spaces. Or maybe we want to grow grape vines on a trellis because it reminds us of our grandparents who did the same; perhaps we grow Serviceberry for the birds who return every year. Some of us may love the look of colorful, reclaimed materials in the garden, while others might be more inclined to create a clean-lined, modern look, or a naturalistic, Zen garden style. Whether it’s an acre of cultivated medicinal plants, or a small apartment balcony with a window box of our favorite herbs and veggies, our garden spaces often directly reflect our backgrounds, tastes and interests.
There really are no ‘rights and wrongs’ here, about which approach you personally embrace. What does become key, however, is to be clear with yourself and communicate clearly with others who use this garden space about the overall organization and look of the garden, so that you’re maximizing the functionality and enjoyment of it. Unfortunately I’ve seen many disagreements crop up between testy family members, previously friendly neighbors, and even work colleagues when one party makes a significant change to shared, valued outdoor space. That’s often easily avoidable when people confer with one another, agree on decisions of use and areas for particular uses, and create a basic- but shared- vision for garden design.
Remember, the more your garden is thoughtfully considered, tended, and in harmony with its community, the more the garden is operating as a system of care, a life and health-supporting organism. And that, my friends, is a win-win situation for humans, plants, and the more-than-human world.
Patches of first and second-year Mullein plants are planted and harvested for different purposes; teas and tinctures of leaves to aid in respiratory recovery and infusions of the small yellow flowers for pain management are common preparations..
Medicinal, Herb and Healing Gardens:
Though similar, and often overlapping, these terms have slightly different meanings in their historical and contemporary common uses. A garden may have one or all of these aspects- many gardens around the world are really all of these and more.
A Medicinal, or ‘Apothecary,’ Garden is typically a crop garden, focusing on crop production of medicinal plants. While a Medicinal Garden may have design features or elements that invite a visitor to enjoy being there, that isn’t necessarily required. From rather pragmatic affairs of ordered rows, to mandala-like concentric rings of plants, or even vertical walls of hanging plants, these gardens are often designed with ease of maintenance, irrigation, and harvest in mind.
An Herb Garden is similar in that respect- the focus is on the production of plants for specific use. But Herb Gardens are also much more associated with culinary and kitchen uses of herbs. Of course, as all herbalists know, many plants are both medicine and food.
By contrast, a Healing Garden is often more about the felt experience of being in a garden, and is a type of garden that’s increasingly meeting the needs of therapeutic gardening programs. There is a greater focus on sensory features of a garden as healing components, in and of themselves. The positive, calming, and restorative experience of being in the garden is enhanced- for example, by comfortable places to sit, the sounds of water flowing, and fragrant plants. Tactile features are often considered in Healing Gardens. Many find it soothing to touch, for example, soft pine bristles, textured bark, and feathery grasses. There may be a design focus point, such as a sculpture or a fountain, sited in a specific part of the garden to encourage meditation and contemplation. I recently saw a Healing Garden which incorporated neatly arranged rocks on a pathway, meant to be walked barefoot to activate acupressure points that support the body’s recovery process.
When we speak of the subtle differences between these aspects of gardens that heal, I always like to underscore that, in addition to the PRODUCTS of gardens being considered healing medicines, and the EXPERIENCE of being in a garden being clearly therapeutic, the ACT of gardening is also, on every level possible, deeply healing.
Bee Balm blooming exuberantly- in this household, it will make an effective remedy for colds and flus, as well as a flavorful addition to iced tea, jellies, stews and many other recipes.
We Care for The Garden, We Are Cared For By The Garden
Some years are abundant. There are years the garden and the gardener are graced with the kind of magic that supports great proliferation and bounty. Seeds of plants we’d forgotten we introduced to a garden bed years ago suddenly awake and volunteer themselves. The Mint and Hyssop are so productive we have to give bundles away, along with way too many Squash from the veggie patch. We divide clumps of perennials and suddenly have eight times as many of everything. Enough tincture of Valerian Root is made to last three years. Some years just have that quality.
It is not such a year for me, and for our garden. It’s been a difficult year, with the loss of one beloved family member during the pandemic, and illnesses of other family members that we now face together as a family. My priority this year is being a caregiver.
I did not start many new seedlings this Spring, or lay out the new beds I was considering. Fruit trees and Roses remained unpruned. I haven’t had time to do the regular compost teas and Comfrey/Nettle emulsions I like to do to encourage the plants to be productive.
But my garden doesn’t want me to feel badly about this, the plants bear absolutely no grudge. And stubbornly, they bloom profusely and send up tender new growth, and they pull me in to experience all the small miracles. The Bee Balm says, ‘Sit with us, be near us. Four years ago you raised us from tiny black seeds, and now we are established here, we barely need your help at all. Relax, sit, crush a leaf between your fingers and take in the spicy fragrance.’
The Elders, two stout saplings I’d received as a gift and planted last year, offer up frothy cream-white flowers this year. ‘We’re here for you, if you need us,’ they whisper in my direction. ‘You know us and we know you.’ Catmint expands wildly in a bank by the house. ‘Look what we can do. We’ve so got this,’ Catmint assures me. ‘Be comforted, and comfortable.’
This year, my garden is nudging me along, it’s the garden that is keeping me going in our relationship. My garden, like a family of colleagues and partners, gives me helpful prompts when I need them. The garden reminds me to send love and gratitude to the version of me in the recent past that planted the Bee Balm, Elders, and Catmint. It urges me to send love and support to a near-future me, who will harvest just what is needed this year, and start some hopeful seedlings next year. ‘It’s important to have that relationship with self, to be your own friend,’ the Garden explains. ‘It’s easier to heal that way, and easier to grow.’
Additional Recommended Reading for Healing Gardens
For those interested, I am providing below a selection of useful books addressing Medicinal and Healing Gardens and concerning medicinal plant cultivation and small-scale organic gardening; many have been invaluable references to me, and may be useful resources to you.
-Carpenter, Jeff, and Melanie. The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.
-Cech, Richo. The Medicinal Herb Grower, A Guide for Cultivating Plants that Heal, Vol 1. Williams, Oregon: Horizon Herbs, 2009.
Coleman, Elliot. The New Organic Grower, A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Grower. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 1995.
-Phillips, Michael. The Holistic Orchard, Tree Fruits and Berries the Holistic Way. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011.
-Rodale, J. I. The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Books, 1999.
-Salmon, Enrique. Iwigara, The Kinship of Plants and People, American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2020.
-Schafer, Peg. The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm, A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production. White River Junction, Vermont: ChelseaGreen Publishing, 2011.
-Squire, David. The Healing Garden, Natural Healing for Mind, Body and Soul. Chicago, Illinois: Contemporary Books, 1998.
-Weiss, Gaea and Shandor. Growing & Using the Healing Herbs. Avenel, New Jersey: Wings Books, 1985.
More Resources Local to the Southwest Region/ Albuquerque:
-Albuquerque Area Extension Master Gardeners. Down To Earth, A Gardener’s Guide to the Albuquerque Area. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Albuquerque Area Extension Master Gardeners, 2002.
Also see : www.abqmastergardeners.org
-Bernalillo County Co-Operative Extension, www.bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu
-Nabhan, Gary Paul. Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.
-Owens, David. Extreme Gardening, How To Grow Organic In The Hostile Deserts. Tempe, Arizona: Poco Verde, 2000.
-Rayner, Lisa. Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains, A guide to high altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens. Flagstaff, Arizona: Lifeweaver, 2013.
–SeedBroadcast, a New Mexico based arts and agri-Culture collective, and their quarterly print and online publication, agri-Culture Journal: www.seedbroadcast.org