Reposting the short article I wrote for MindBodyGreen:
Reposting the short article I wrote for MindBodyGreen:
Reposting the event report for the New York Indie Beauty Expo I covered for Cafleurebon with Michelyn Camen. Fun!
My garden has been my productive ally for almost 12 years, nourishing my family and providing many of the plants needed to create extractions for my Lalun products. In addition, I have wildcrafted for many years because I believe wild plants are inherently stronger due to natural selection. They tend to be natives of a particular region or climate and define the context within which we live. It makes sense to partake of something just within reach. We reduce our carbon footprint when we incorporate locally grown plants into our lives and wild plants are uniquely connected to the seasons. Unlike their cultivated counterparts, they cannot be harvested unless they are in season. This encourages us to be more in touch with the cycles of the year.
My garden has always been organic. I learned about biodynamics after my daughter attended a Waldorf school, participating in stirs and applying the preps. I turned my garden into a closed system where composting was key. Since I had also been working with wild plants, it occurred to me that I could combine the two. So I stopped pruning, removing leaf detritus, fertilizing, weeding and watered only minimally. I called my gardening method “wildgrowing” and proceeded to welcome volunteers, propagate native wild plants from seed or cuttings, allowing leaf detritus to mulch and fertilize, watering intermittently and not pruning. The idea was to simulate how plants would grow in the wild while maintaining the closed system of a biodynamic garden.
By not pruning, my plants would go through their entire growth cycle. Blossoming rosemary suddenly attracted bees by the dozen. Winter rose hips were harvested to make healing oxymels and skincare extracts. Plants would reseed. By not sweeping away dead leaves and detritus, mulch resulted that would help retain moisture in the soil and provide nutrients once the leaves had broken down. If you got down and peered under those dead leaves, you would find the earth teeming with life. Allowing the weeds to grow meant I could welcome new plants into the mix. It was fun guessing what would sprout up next.
Once I began wildgrowing my garden, many of the non-native plants died, so I replaced them with propagated cuttings of plants I encountered on hiking trails in the nearby hills. I had been wildcrafting many of those plants, but as the summers got hotter and more intense, I began to question the soundness of wildcrafting in such a sensitive environment. The first wild plant to inhabit my garden was Artemisia californica or cowboy cologne and it grew well for a while. Next I added mugwort followed by rose geranium, horehound, wild mint, white sage, black sage and wild fennel. I have also had volunteers like winter jasmine,
cilantro, chamomile and wild carrot. Of course there’s plantain and dandelion which grow all over the world. Everyone’s a bit scruffy as I work out my method, but my garden has become a slice of nature in the city.
Wildgrowing means I can harvest plants without disrupting the cycle of growth in the wild. This is especially important in a sensitive ecosystem like the LA basin. Sustainable wildcrafting works if the environment can support it, like the Hudson Valley where I spend a month each summer. But if everybody decides to wildcraft in a sensitive ecosystem, havoc will eventually be wreaked. Instead of harvesting plants in the wild, only seeds or cuttings can be taken. These are also living mementos that connect us to our landscape. When I rub a black sage leaf between my fingers I am reminded of the steep trail overlooking Altadena where I obtained the cutting that eventually grew into the plant in my garden.
The most beautiful and complex gardens are the ones found in nature. It sounds trite but true. The way plants arrange themselves, their spacing, canopy height, location within the terrain and seasonal variation are contingent upon complex factors that elude our ability to design in the same manner. The only explanation for this kind of sublime arrangement is plant intelligence. If we wish to understand this order, perhaps we’d need to think like wild plants.
Cultivation, on the other hand, has been in existence for about 10,000 years. Prior to that, humans lived amongst wild plants, adhering to their rules. We probably had a very good understanding of how the plant world functioned as it nurtured us through millions of years of evolution. It’s impossible to quantify how much knowledge was lost when we developed agriculture. But there are clues in our spiritual rituals where notions of a single creator was overlaid onto a complex tapestry of “pagan” existence. We don’t need to excavate very far to arrive at those early beliefs. Perhaps there is some vestigial knowledge of how to live within a wild order. It seems natural to want to coexist with plants in a wild garden. But how can we arrange it? I think it’s safe to say that when we “play god” and lay down a lawn atop a field of weeds, we screw things up (monoculture, sterility, etc.) What if we responded to the subtle energy of the plant world and tried to figure out what was needed instead?
I have been picking wild plants, working with them and marveling at them for 25 years. Each new species has revealed itself to me, often at the exact time when I have needed it most. Plant intelligence. I’ve been grateful for these gifts, but I’ve also understood the price. Harvesting could mean the plant would have fewer chances to procreate and return the following year. So I am prudent, stingy and vigilant.
As a wild gardener I’ve learned to accept and embrace change. Nature is constantly in flux, so I expect shifts to take place. My garden isn’t always picture perfect, especially during the summer months when many of my plants either die or lie dormant. Life and death are very much a presence. I’m already propagating the third generation of rose geranium from the initial cutting I planted ten years ago. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about my plants and their life cycles from birth to death and how to give them a fighting chance. While some plants thrive and persist, others fail and die. I’ve learned to work with this reality. The eventual success of a wild garden depends not only on the plants that thrive, but also on the ones that fail. That’s how it is in nature and that’s how it unfolds in my perfectly imperfect, wild garden.