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 tortuga” is 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.