Richo's World of Seeds, Weeds and Deeds

The Herbalscape

This blog examines ways to develop any piece of land into a medicinal herb garden, and will suggest several specific methods for creating and maintaining plant habitat.  In an ecological context, a few good herbs will be recommended.  The herbalscape is a medicinal herb garden intended to augment the landscape and increase overall biological activity.  The herbalscape is gorgeous to behold, and gives people easy access to all the gifts provided by both the local plant populations and also introduced ones.  The role of the gardener is to nurture and by this be nurtured. 

Existing plants, bushes, small and large trees must coexist harmoniously with buildings and roads. In order to accomplish this, mark out sinuous pathways—this will help integrate everything.  Around permanent features and in along the path in places less traveled, planting spots are created by digging beds.  The path is made more solid and believable by artful use of paving stones, sand or bark, rock walls, fences, rock gardens, trellises and/or hedges.  Besides pathways, another element that really helps integrate everything is water, whether supplied artificially by irrigation or naturally by rivulets, streams, rivers, lakes, or oceans.  Give thanks for the water.  In building the herbalscape, we also honor the sun.  Without this unmitigated source of energy, our efforts would be fruitless.  The main garden is usually oriented to catch the sun, and secondary areas are developed to mitigate the sun.  One of the ruling dichotomies of growing plants is—do they love the sun, or do they love the shade?  By using natural and organic gardening techniques, we honor the land and the soil.  Open places are either protected by cover-crops, are working fields, or are being converted into gardens and herbalscapes.  We appreciate gardeners who see empty land as a slate on which to write with trees and colorful flowers. 

Planning:   In order to plan a good herbalscape, it is best to first gain experience with the land as it is. This means examining (and even mapping) the access, solar positioning, topography, tree cover, power spots, existing plants and available water sources.  All of these play a significant role in determining an appropriate garden plan.  As gardeners we also pay special attention to the soil, which may range from sand, to loam, to rock, to clay or even “gumbo.”  Knowing the soil and variations in the soil substrate will eventually help determine where the garden will be and which plants will thrive there.  To really know the land, it helps to camp out overnight, observing the going to sleep of daytime entities and the prowling of nighttime visitors, awakening to the morning chorus of birdlife.  Walk often, at different times of day, through the proposed site, making note of intact resources and gaining sensitivity to the unique aspects of the land. These walks will help identify where improvements (such as gates, signage, tree trimming, trail clearing, setting in “people-bumpers,” bed making, underbrush cutting, bridge and stair making, and benches for resting) may eventually be helpful.  If space allows, some parts of the land are best left completely wild and untouched.   It is nice to remember to enjoy the land as it is, and in making any changes, take the projects one at a time and bring them to (albeit temporary) completion before going on.    

Entryways and Gates:  Functional boundaries such as the entryway to the land, the home zone, a cross-fence for containing domestic stock, or the boundary between one ecological zone and another (the ecotone) are obvious places for gateways.  Make the gateway area roomy and inviting.  “Well begun is half done.” Large boulders solidify intent, and are too big to grass over and end up under the blade of the lawnmower.  These boulders are good for defining margins to the side, creating the open arms of a wide pathway leading up to an opening vaulted over perhaps with Rosa spp. (climbing roses), Lagenaria siceraria (gourds), Humulus lupulus (hops) and/or Dioscorea batatas (Chinese wild yams). The gate itself deserves special attention, as rustic designs truly augment the flowers.  Also, gates are best made to swing open easily, yet secure tightly.  Natural materials such as weathered boards and wrought iron hinges are a nice touch.  The condition of the gate often reflects the condition of the land.  Create “farm-schwei” by not blocking the entrance with things like wheelbarrows or piles of rotting debris or empty plastic pots.  When constructing or walking through the gateway, consciously guide the energy by offering up a prayer from the heart.  Grassy entrances are best kept mowed short, thereby making it obvious where people are meant to walk.  This helps keep the entryway energy clear. A good raking is very helpful to get rid of toe-stubbers.

Excellent plants for decking out beds around doorways may include stately Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) plants, midsize medicinals such as Ocimum sanctum (holy basil, Krishna tulsi), bedding plants such as Tropaeolum majus (nasturtiums), or mystical plants such as Trichocereus pachenoi (San-Pedro cactus) in pots.   A doorway can be a beginning or an end, or a way through into another state of consciousness.  It would be nice to make our garden doorways like this—an invitation to suspend for a spell the worries of human culture and connect more directly with the native state.  “Enter here and think no more.” 

Making beds: In the forest or under trees, clear the underbrush and low branches with shovel, hoe, loppers or saws.  The axe/grub-hoe combo tool is very useful for cutting roots, preparing beds, and digging-in small water lines.  Amend the soil with local ingredients (sand, rotted leaves, rotting wood) and mulch with more leaves. 

In open areas in the full or part sun, build soil and good planting areas by tilling, planting clover, waiting for it to grow up about knee high, mowing and eventually tilling under again.  Then, add compost, till again, apply mulch (rotted hay or coir) and plant through this mulch into the amended soil—outrageous.  Here basically you do your work first and as a result of the weed-prohibitive mulch and highly fertile soil, the plants require less ongoing upkeep.  Overall health, yield and medicinality are enhanced.   Between these beds, you can allow the grass to grow, and keep it in check by mowing.  We have recently thrown out our traditional lawnmower and now use a large, pushable weed whip to maintain between the beds. 

Organically decomposable weed barriers (such as old cardboard boxes with staples and tape removed) are very good for thwarting weeds in any location, including entryways, pathways and beds.  Try to keep the margins clear of weeds.  Put down the weed barrier, then cover with cheap, locally available sand.  Leave entryways and pathways sandy, but layer up more organic matter on the beds.  This kind of work is slow at first but will likely save many hours of work in the future.  

The layering up of materials on growing beds is really a kind of sheet mulching.  The idea is to layer down at least 4 inches thick each of sand, pumice or pea gravel, compost, rotted hay, fill dirt etc and then top with a thick layer of coco-pith or bark mulch.  This is similar to the way soils may be layered down in nature, and plants generally know what to do with it.  Basically, you build the soil according to your perceptions of what will work best for the plant community that you intend to put there.  Acidic bark-mulches can be very usefully applied around trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that need an acid loam soil.  Cocopith is very nurturing to herbaceous plants that prefer a more neutral growing medium.  For alkaline lovers such as Lavendula spp (Lavenders) or Mandragora officinalis (mandrake), dig in limestone, then put down a weed barrier, then cover the weed barrier with sand and plant the plants through a hole in the weed barrier right into the mineral soil below, swirling the sand around the crown of the plant to finish.  These different layering techniques give you and the plants lots of options. 

Garden Paths:  Wide, as creeping plants and flowers will soon narrow it.  Plan path width at the minimum of 4 feet, unless there just isn’t room (as between large trunks of trees.)  Better to plan for 6 feet wide—wider at entryways.  People will tarry longer on wider paths, and in the forest wide paths let in more sun.

Meandering so as to maximize surface area and prolong the bliss.  

Leading to the best niches, even if it doesn’t otherwise make sense to go that way (here’s where you show off the shiitake log, or the gnomehole in that old oak, or the Arisaema triphyllum (Jack-in-the-pulpit) patch. 

Clearly defined, so as to keep humans near the plants, but not on the plants.  Some of the best people bumpers are logs, lines of large stones and thorny hedges (e.g. Rosa rugosa).  A well-worn path will attract more soles. 

Good Gardening Practices:  A few well-grown plants produce more medicine than many poorly grown plants.  Nurturing just a few of each kind will almost always produce enough medicine for self, family and immediate community. 

Pile all debris to create shelter for small birds and mammals and so as not to contribute to greenhouse gasses by burning.  The piles eventually melt down into useful humus (with the help of earthworms.)

Create habitat by building diverse microniches (shelterbelts, rock walls, artfully placed fences, drainage.) Create food by opening up access to berries, nuts and other wild vines, bushes and trees.  Wherever possible, dig beds and grow food.

Planting: Plant in sets of at least three individuals—preferably more like a dozen.  This makes the plants happier, more noticeable, gives the patch critical mass to support itself, and provides some insurance against losing the population to the likely challenges of insect damage, false footsteps, wind, herbivory, etc.  This practice also assists in cross-pollination and eventual production of healthy, robust seeds. 

Each plant species has specific requirements for sun, space, drainage and fertility, which to a large extent will dictate where they will best grow.  For instance, rocky spots in the full sun or rocky margins may be planted with succulents such as Sempervivum spp (stonecrops) or Lewisia rediviva (bitterroot).  Mountain species also thrive in the rock garden.  These might include Pycnanthemum virginianum (mountain mint), Arnica spp (arnicas), Calluna vulgaris (heather) or Achillea millefolium (yarrow). A sodden, low spot with adequate sun and good fertility may speak of Gentiana lutea (yellow gentian), Valeriana officinalis (valerian) or Spirea ulmaria (meadowsweet).  Under the trees, one would naturally plant forest-dependent species, which will vary according to the type of trees (especially coniferous vs. hardwood) and the extent of the shading.   Here in the West, people often ask what kinds of medicinals will thrive in the acid soils around redwoods, cedars or other intensely acidic conifers.  In this case, you can try Mahonia nervosa (Oregon grape), almost any member of the family Ericaceae  (e.g. Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) or the family Pirolaceae (e.g. Chimaphila umbellata).  A distinct favorite of mine for this moist, acidic econiche is Coptis chinensis (Huang-lian, Chinese goldthread) or new world goldthreads.   The shade of buildings and other human-made features may also serve.   Places where logs rot into the native soil are excellent prospects for direct-seeding.  Disseminate seeds from your favorite plants  immediately when they ripen—this is a hugely labor saving practice, promotes naturalization and is often quite successful with species that are otherwise recalcitrant germinators, such as Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot).   A forest margin with small trees and bushes for climbing would be good habitat for Chinese wild yam, Codonopsis pilosula (Dang-shen), Campsis radicans (trumpet vine creeper), Clematis virginiana (virgin’s bower), or Gynostemma pentaphyllum (Jiao-gu-lan).  A sandy exposure in the sun would make a good spot for Origanum spp. (oreganos), Thymus vulgaris (English broadleaf thyme), rosemary or other Mediterranean herbs.  In open fields plant Papaver spp (poppies), Calendula spp (calendulas), Echinacea spp (coneflowers), Silphium laciniatum (compass plant), Asclepias tuberosa (pleurisy root), and other prairie species.  Waterways will benefit from adding medicinals that grow well in muck, such as Nasturtium officinale (watercress), Petasites spp (western butterbur), Acorus calamus (calamus) and Iris versicolor (blue flag).  Those who live by the ocean will likely find great pleasure in working with the many species of halophytic Plantago spp (sea plantains), Eryngium, and various Boraginaceae, such as Echium vulgare (viper’s bugloss) and E. wildpretii (tower-of-jewels) that thrive in maritime climates. 

Labeling: There is great room for creativity, function and quite frankly total dysfunction around plant labels.  On one hand, you want to help people out by telling them what the plant or tree is, while on the other hand you really want people to experience more than the name of the plant, and relate to the plant, not the label.  Also, plastic labels soon fade and become unsightly or unreadable, while larger ceramic or metallic labels can be quite costly and may be difficult to keep current.  We use small metallic tags that can be engraved with pencil or stylus and attach with a wire to tree twigs or to a stake in front of smaller plants.  These we find to be indelible, long-lasting, and quite helpful for recording data such as plant species, lot number, and time of planting or other details.  However, they may easily be missed when the trees or plants leaf-out. Labels may also be coordinated with the brochure or garden map, and this can be a very nifty way to create self-guided tours.  Good labeling equates to accurate identity, which in this world is good cheap insurance.

Watering:  Watering requirements vary hugely depending on location, but in dryland situations, the ability to water is one of our best tools for bringing in plants which would not otherwise thrive. For instance, we grow Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal) and Eleutherococcus in our woods here inSouthern Oregon, but without an occasional summer watering these plants would soon suffer or disappear.   Along the path, simple drip lines are very effective for watering—they meander with the path.  The drip line is also indispensable for watering shelterbelts that tend to be on dry margins.  Drip systems conserve water, deliver directly where the water is needed, and are inexpensive and easy to use and relatively foolproof—as long as you make sure to install a filter. 

 “La tortugais a specific bed-making technique that we have developed here at Horizon Herbs. The name of the technique was born when the first beds we made in this way resembled giant turtles (tortuga is Spanish for turtle).  The tortuga may actually be shaped any way you like—it doesn’t have to look like a turtle.  Making the beds correspond to the contours of the land or other natural shapes (such as leaves, clouds or sinuous lines) blends them with the landscape.  To make a tortuga, first lay down a water-permeable weed barrier, then line the outer margin with large rocks and fill the bed with thick layers of (from bottom to top) sand, pumice (or pea gravel), compost and coir.  Make each layer at least 4 inches deep—deeper if possible.  We combine micronutrients (rock powders and kelp) with the compost layer.  The layers are not mixed, but rather left in strata, since this is the way that soils occur in nature.  According to our observations, different plants will develop root, tuber and rhizome structures in the preferred strata (sand or organic).  Plants that have deep taproots (e.g. pleurisy root) can be planted through the weed barrier into the mineral soil below.  La tortuga is somewhat protected and permanent in that it cannot easily be walked on or overcome by weeds (the small amount of weeding needed in such a feature is more fun than work.)  The hydrophilic organic ingredients (compost and coir) maintain moisture between waterings and through drought.  The sand and pumice promote perfect drainage, which is appreciated by most plants.  The stones store heat during the day and release it to the plants at night, resulting in early crops and exceedingly large and healthy individuals.  What one loses in terms of plant numbers one gains in terms of plant yield. The weed barrier and the rockwork can be made impermeable to gophers—the best protection we have devised for our root crops, which otherwise are likely to be consumed by very healthy gophers. 

Impermanence:  Compost and mulch will eventually disappear—dried up by the sun, tracked away on the underside of shoes, literally consumed by the plant or tree they are nurturing.  Plants now in full flowering array will eventually become dried up sticks that blow away in the winter wind.  Every human contribution, be it mowing the lawn, or weeding the corn, or picking the Matricaria chamomilla (German chamomile) will have its heyday and its decline.  Only the list of things to do is never-ending.  So please indulge yourself and stop to smell the fleeting blossom of the rose.  May it fill your heart with joy.

A nice plant of Bocking 14 Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum)

A nice plant of Bocking 14 Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum)

I am, although generally tough and robust, a pansy about my feet. The other day I was attracted by a large pot of Gotu Kola growing in the back of our greenhouse, wanting to grab it up and transplant it outdoors–they do so well in the summer garden–and in my haste stepped wonky on a concrete block. It toppled over beneath my weight and as I fell my foot (upper arch) came down full force on the corner of the block. The wound was deep, ragged, triangular, bloody, and ghoulishly garlanded by gouts of meat extruding from the corners (if that was a bit graphic at least I spared you a photo–my feet are not even photogenic on a GOOD day…). Limping out of the greenhouse with my Gotu Kola in hand, I knew that a comfrey poultice was in my future. We cleaned and bound the wound and I put on some heavy boots and finished out the rest of my day in pain, which is one way to stay in awareness… That night we unbound the foot and I sat on the rim of the bathtub, plunging it first into a basin of hot Epsom salts, and then into cold running water. This “osmotic pump” is a necessary prerequisite to comfrey poultice therapy as the comfrey will speed healing of the outer skin, and if there is a foreign object or infected matter deep inside the wound, well, it can spell trouble. Please take it from me, before applying the comfrey poultice to such a wound, clean it out with the hot Epsom salts and cold plunges. Its part of the process. One of my tasks that day had been to dig comfrey for all the fine folks who buy “live roots” from us, and as I dug, I saved aside 10 or 12 of the long,
Symphytum x uplandicum (Russian Comfrey) from Horizonherbs.com

Symphytum x uplandicum (Russian Comfrey) from Horizonherbs.com

lateral roots for the purpose of making the poultice. Back at home I washed them well (no, I didn’t scrape off the black skin of the root, give me a break!), and cut them in 1 inch pieces, put them in the blender, and added just enough water to encourage the whole to vortex. The blender whirred, gurgled, and almost stopped upon encountering the excessive resistance of the gooey mass. But I exhorted it to go on for some time more, and the comfrey swelled into a flubbery mass, dome shaped, glistening with mucilage. I poured this onto a fine white T-shirt and, limping pathetically, carried it to the bed. When poulticing, you want a lot of mass. This is because the thicker it is, the less likely it is to dry out, and the more effective it will be at drawing out toxins, the more medicine there will be there to work the magic. You have no idea how difficult it is for a worker like me to take a break. I sighed and laid back, the goo completely covering my foot with a cool and comforting emollience, the t-shirt tucked in around the corners, foot elevated slightly on a towel, bedclothes protected from slime. Unable to rest my mind, I called for my guitar, and made music and sang “Hare Krishna” while the comfrey did its work. Hours later, I put away my guitar, wiped off the poultice with a towel, went pee, had corn chowder for dinner, laid back again in my spot on the bed, rested the foot on another towel, and had a nice dose of full strength goldenseal tincture doused right into the wound. Then, stinging, I went to sleep. In the morning, the wound was pain free, closed up, unswollen, half healed. There was a little comfrey root adhered to the skin, but nothing much. That’s one reason to make the poultice so big–if it doesn’t dry out, you have less remainders to work with. It wipes off pretty easily. I bandaged up my foot, pulled on a pair of socks, put on my boots, and went to work, a limper but not a whimper. Remember the Comfrey poultice, people, it will save you in the end.

Where is my power?

Bryonia_alba_2_500

Where is my power, I want to know.
It feels so good, to know the flow
to keep to the center
that’s where I want to go
(to help people out, don’t you know–
I’m not much good, unless I’m whole).

Anger is power so forceful
like lightning at night,
slaying demons, splitting bricks, high and mighty.
If my cause is so right,
 why am I left remorseful?

Mantra is power strung from third eye.
Sanskrit offerings  to the hungry,
 the cardboard sign with words that lie,
red-rimmed stare, vacant sky.
God only knows, am I low, or am I high?

Big brother knows that consuming is power,
The power of the hour is the power of the dollar.
Judging what’s fair, demanding my stuff.
Where is it now?  Was it ever enough?
Don’t fall in that pit–can’t get any lower.

Sex is power of union
Slowly undress, fondle, caress.
I mount you, you mount me,
Happy.  Temporarily.
The ocean pulls back, then the tsunami.

As a people our power is in our passion
However that may play
Follow it like a root goes after water
The deeper the better the stronger.

Rama_tulsi_littlest_750

You know how it is around here, we have a policy of selling our biggest plant first.  So it was that at the end of the plant selling season  we had only one Rama Tulsi (the main type of Holy Basil grown in India) remaining, and this one, de facto, was the smallest of the lot.  We were preparing to drop everything and make a road trip to San Ramon to see Amma.  She is, as many of you know, the “hugging saint” who gives her holy darshan to millions of people while simultaneously running the largest and most effective humanitarian organization on the globe.  Visiting Amma once or twice a year, singing with her, receiving her teachings and her darshan, is one of the ways that our little family maintains a positive attitude and provides effective service in the face of all the negativity and suffering that plague the modern world.  We all have our shortcomings, and somehow Amma helps us rise above them, absorb the beauty of nature and turn our efforts toward unselfish service to humankind. 
In this vein I would be donating and delivering a package of seeds to Leela (name changed), the woman who was in charge of rebuilding the Ayurvedic herb gardens in India at Amritapuri, which had been devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. It seemed strange to be delivering American-grown Ayurvedic herb seeds to India (coals to Newcastle?!), but I was assured that, strangely enough, they were scarce, needed, and would be appreciated.  I had never met Leela, but her request filtered down to me in the usual indirect and mysterious way of Amma, where congruency and serendipity are as commonplace as chai, and just as sweet.  Thinking that this would be a perfect opportunity to check the authenticity of my various strains of Tulsi with someone who was very familiar with the plant, I also packed up one each of the four Tulsi cultivars that we offer, nestling them into a box, reserving  a spot in the right rear luggage compartment of our Toyota, which was otherwise piled high with bedding, foodstuffs, musical instruments, diapers and other perceived necessities.  I packed a Krishna Tulsi, a Vana Tulsi, a Kapoor Tulsi, and after a short hesitation, the littlest Rama Tulsi, which looked like it might expire during the ride.  It had been cut back a few times to prevent premature flowering, and it’s very small leaves poked out from the stems like tentative toes wondering if the waters of the life would be kind, or cold.  We closed the luggage compartment, loaded in the kids and the water bottles, and accompanied by the strains of Bhajan music joyfully thrumming from the car stereo, away we went!
Those of you who have been to Amma’s retreats know what I’m talking about when I say it’s hard to get there and easy to be there.  Thousands of people converge on the Ashram (temple) in San Ramon, and despite the fact that Amma strongly encourages carpooling, the driveway is jammed,  parking is scarce, and so getting back and forth from Hotel to Ashram is always a challenge.  Once ensconced in the Ashram, however, one is taken up in the embrace of Amma’s aura, and despite the crush of humanity, never is heard a discouraging word.  The attendees seem to act as a whole organism, cooking food in giant cauldrons, controlling crowds, selling goods, all dedicated to furthering Amma’s humanitarian efforts while nurturing spiritual awakening.  It is a wonderful yin-yang of functionality within an environment filled with bright colors, meditation, prayers and exceptional music.  Amma’s  darshan is transcendental. 
My role in the family seems to be that of driver and luggage boy, a job requiring a lot of attentiveness in the midst of traffic (despite the unnerving wails of grandchildren strapped against their will in car seats), followed by tricky maneuvers to find parking.  Once landed, I load myself like a donkey bound for the gold rush, lugging purses, bags, bedding, boxes and myriads of water bottles and snack bags from here to there.  This requires much patience, but it is a part of the selfless service that makes everything around Amma work (for free), and as such I endeavor to engage my duties with a smile. 
 I kept an eye and an ear out for Leela.  The package of seeds rested in the front pocket of my jacket, always ready to transfer to her when we should meet.  The Tulsi plants remained for awhile in the luggage compartment of the Toyota, that is until one fateful moment when I opened the rear door and  the open topped box fell out upside down on the pavement of the Marriot parking lot.  The little Rama Tulsi jumped right out of its pot and landed bareroot on the cold pavement!  “Yikes!” I exclaimed, and repotted it on the spot, with what soil I could find.  The prognosis was not good for my littlest Tulsi.  Soon thereafter, I found a shelf outside the Ashram where I could lodge the box, where it sat for two more days, while I searched in vain for Leela. 
The press of humanity was great as the retreat drew to a close.  We proceeded in a dense circling mishmash of smiling humans below the stage where Amma stood, still beaming and fresh after hugging a thousand people in a row, which took all night long without a break.  She showered us with rose petals, and although my heart was uplifted, one sad thought kept arising:  Where oh where was Leela, and didn’t Amma want me to provide the seeds for her Ayurvedic gardens?   We exited the hall and I went around the side to find my shoes.  As I tied the laces, I asked the person next to me if they knew Leela.  They shook their head, but a bright fellow nearby overheard, and indicated excitedly that she was in the flower tent, right behind the lady’s bathrooms.  I was supposed to gather together with our family for final farewells–some of us would be leaving by plane to Detroit, others would be returning to Williams–the time was short.  But I made a dash for the flower tent, and found a couple of ladies there, scavenging through the last of the flowers to make a bouquet that would be sold to a departing devotee, one more farthing to further the mission.  “Is Leela here?” I asked.  “No,” they said, “but we work with her.”  “Oh,” said I, “I have seeds for her.”  “Hey, she’s been looking for you!” they exclaimed.  “Give us the seeds and we’ll see that she gets them.”  I reluctantly gave over the now crumply package of seeds, feeling just a bit disappointed.  I couldn’t be absolutely sure that Leela would get the seeds, and my poor Tulsi had suffered unnecessarily–I should have left them home under the lights!
My sweet family stood all together in front of the Ashram.  We said our goodbyes and just as we hugged, one of the ladies from the flower tent approached excitedly.  “Leela’s just over there by the flower tables,” she exclaimed.  “I gave her the seeds and she’s very happy!  Do you want to see her?”  Yes, I did want to see her, but my family needed me just then, and time was tight, there was a plane to catch.  “I’m glad she got the seeds,” I said, “and regret that I cannot go to see Leela right now.”  Then, picking up my box of plants, a bag of empty water bottles, a devastated lunch sack, a sagging bag of craft supplies, three blankets and a guitar, I waddled down toward the parking lot.  Leela had never seen my Tulsi, but at least the seeds had been successfully delivered.  Maybe the whole verification issue was just a figment of my worrying mind.  Best to let it go.  I let it go. 
A day and a half and 400 miles later, back at home, I unwrapped the plant  box, expecting the worst.  However, the Tulsi plants looked better than the ones that had been left at home under the lights!  One was flowering anew.  “Hey,” I intoned, “I guess a quick visit to Amma was good for you, too!”  Lifting the littlest Rama Tulsi out of the box, I just couldn’t believe it was still alive.  In fact, it looked healthier than when I put it in, despite having been dropped on the cement.  It was late at night, but I found a pot, a bit oversized, but good under the circumstances, as well as some potting soil.  I repotted my little Tulsi, placing it on the bench where it would receive light at seven in the morning.  The next day I came back to provide water, and the little cutie smiled up at me as if to say, not only am I real Tulsi, but like all plants, I am–a miracle.

Of course we all love herbs and gardening and we know all about the positive aspects of that. Many of us would like to switch it up, drop the jo…b and pick up rake and hoe and out to the fields we go! (for a living) But not so easy, really. Just like a wild herb of the field, you need to find your niche to grow and prosper. That’s what this segment should be about–how to find your niche, grow and prosper, and be happy. Today’s segment is on Peppers (Capsicum spp.). I happen to have read in the news last night that fast food joints have increased their “hot” offerings (like habanero sauce, etc.) by 15% in the last year. Of course most of us are into slow food, but the trend is obvious. People want flavor enhancement and maybe they also know that Peppers increase circulation, deter stroke, improve digestion, fight parasites, reduce cholesterol, increase longevity, etc. etc. So peppers, for all practical purposes, are profitable right now. By all indications they will continue to be popular, and that means that those of us who grow them should be able to sell them, peppers in the fresh form, dried peppers, and value added products that contain peppers (like salve, sauce, salsa, chocolate) you name it, peppers will be likely to make it more popular, and help you make a living, to boot. So here’s my business advice: Grow peppers and you will be able to sell peppers. Horizon herbs has a lot of mighty fine pepper seed, we grow all our own pepper seed, and we do find it to be a good selling item and getting better. We’re doing more and more with peppers, and we carry some of the best kinds. I did a quick check in the “asian food” section of my local alternative grocery yesterday, and a 30 gram bottle of whole dried “Thai Bird Peppers” was selling for $5.95. A quick quality check on the contents was disappointing. Peppers looked old, poorly dried, bad color, etc. but being peppers (and containing the ultra-hot seeds) you can be sure they would still work. But we can do better than that. Peppers need to be picked absolutely ripe and dried quickly and thoroughly. Pepper skin tends to be an efficient barrier to dryness, so it helps to (at least) split them before trying to dehydrate. Peppers of good color, recent, organic, at the above retail price of 0.20/g would sell for $90.00/lb. Of course you can’t really sell them that expensively unless you break it down and package it. The standard retail markup is 100%, which means that the seller of the abovementioned thai bird peppers was only getting $2.97 per unit, but even that looks pretty profitable on a per pound basis. Then again, the grower, who was probably in a third world country and not getting a fair wage, was making only a small part of that $2.97. And a lot of the price was going to the fancy bottle and label, which were of much higher quality than the contents of the bottle, that’s for sure! This brings up my final point for this article, which is obvious but often missed: go farm direct. (or garden direct, if you’re small) Take out the middle man with a tackle to the knees. Grow your own, process your own, and sell your own. Oh, I know, somebody is going to bring up the “certified kitchen” headache, but all other things equal, you’re going to get a better living wage by selling directly to your customer. The middle men can sell fast food, because it needs to travel really far… The rest of us are going to keep it local.

Hummingbird Hawk Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum)

Who Am I?

Am I this body,
Womb to tomb,
Protoplasm, orgasm, proliferation
And ultimately, decomposition?

Am I this ego,
Like a chunk of space debris
Making a bright streak of oxidation,
Burning through the atmosphere of praise, defense and fear?

Am I this mind,
Rendered sharp in practice,
Cutting through adversaries
And memories until they bleed?

Am I this emotion,
The inner tide of hate and desire,
Twisting me into something I am not,
Controlled only by discretion?

Am I this heart,
That yearns to engulf the whole,
Truth, beauty, fragrance of flower,
The seat of my true self, the coals of my fire?

Or am I this spirit,
That hovers and smiles
At my human attachments,
My worries and judgements?

I stand on the beach, stare out at the sun,
Sinking red on the world’s horizon,
Me no different than sand flea or sparrow,
With great Nature–one.

Arnica in the home garden

Arnica_700_montana_flowerA vibrant patch of Arnica, with flowers radiant in the summer sun, is a lovely focal point of the apothecary garden. In herbal medicine, Arnica is among the most useful of remedies. The tincture or oil infusion of the dried flowers, applied topically, is an effective treatment for blunt traumatic injury, strains and sprains. The herb is an effective discutient, increasing circulation and helping dispel morbid matter–swelling goes down, bruises dissipate. Since antiquity, Arnica has been combined with Calendula and Saint John’s Wort, a dynamic threesome that assuages pain, fights infection, promotes nerve reparation and speeds healing, a formula that proves useful to this day.
Arnica montana (Mountain Arnica), the endemic European species, is considered official. However, other species of Arnica (there are 28 in North America) are used by local herbalists, and appear to be medicinally interchangeable with the official species. Arnica chamissonis (Meadow Arnica) enjoys a wide distribution in North America and Europe, and is listed in the German Commission E Monograph as a viable substitute for A. montana in herbal medicine. Finding substitutes for the official species is a worthy goal, since populations of A. montana are declining over much of its range. Collection of flowers for medicinal purposes is illegal in France. The plant is classed as “vulnerable” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Germany, Lithuania and Slovenia. A. montana is variously protected in Czech Rupublic, France, Italy, and the Ukraine. The plant is listed as “critically endangered” in Luxembourg, “threatened” in Sweden, and “extinct” in Hungary. Collection of flowers and roots for medicinal purposes, combined with encroaching agriculture and urbanization have contributed to depopulation of the wild stands, creating shortages of the herb in commerce. Under the circumstances, it makes sense to grow Arnica.
Those living at altitude will do well to concentrate on the A. montana, which makes large flowers that are easy to pick and make lots of medicine. Those living at lower altitudes might have better luck with A. chamissonis, which is a bit easier to grow. Given a suitable soil and sun exposure, this plant will thrive even at sea level
Arnica seeds respond well to standard flower seed propagation methods. Prepare a light seeding mix that is free of lime and contains sand, forest loam and peat moss (or coir). Press the seeds into the surface of the soil or barely cover and tamp, then keep the flat warm, in the light, and evenly moist until germination, which occurs in 1 to 3 weeks. The seedlings will be quite small and slow growing at first. Once they are large enough to handle, individuate into pots and tend them for up to a year before transplanting out to the garden. Once a good patch is established, it is fairly easy to produce more plants by means of division. Dig a rhizome, pot it up, and aerial parts will soon appear.
Arnica enjoys a full sun exposure and loose, moist to mesic, acidic soils. The plant is intolerant of lime. Because it is rhizomatous (reproducing by way of underground creepers), it quickly populates a raised bed with a dense, monotypic stand. We have found that amending the native soil with compost, coir, peat, and sand, making a very loose mix that can easily be penetrated by the runners, helps promote the spread of Arnica and will result in a good yield of medicinal flowers in the fall of the first year, in the summer of the second year and for years thereafter. Harvest the flowers in early flowering stage and dry on screens in a warm, dark and well ventilated place. Dry until crispy. It is a good idea to use the flowers soon after drying, as they tend to get buggy in storage.
Arnica is apomictic, meaning that seed formation is initiated asexually by spontaneous division of the gamete prior to the blossoming phase. The plant does not require pollination in order to make viable seed, and every seed will produce a plant identical to the mother plant. For the purpose of seed saving, this means that there is no need to collect seed from a minimum number of individuals, and there is no concern about hybridization with other species–the seeds you harvest will remain true and strong whether harvested from one seed head or a thousand. So feel free to grow your Arnica and save your own seed–nature needs your help!

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