Some personal reflections on herbal gardening!

I am a gardener and always have been, I helped my dad, who is also an avid gardener when I was barely able to walk, I now have two sons who are also gardeners so lets say it runs in the blood. Gardening helps me to connect to nature, to ground myself, to relax, to mull things over without getting stressed…. gardening is a therapy in itself. Gardening has taught me about seasons, about the life cycle of plants, about the plants themselves, about soil types and exposition, about the needs of different plants, about ground cover, about life.

The gardens that I make are and always have been medicinal plant gardens, I have never been attracted to garish hybrids developed in glass houses or worse for their color and glitz, I prefer those plants that don’t show off but have a natural beauty and are produced by nature rather than man.

These plants are my friends, I have a true connection with them, in your own garden you really get to know everyone, their particularities, if they are feeling ok or not, what they like and what they don’t like, if they need tending to or not. And sometimes, magical things happen in gardens. Let me tell you about valerian for example…I had a garden some years ago, a garden on very poor, acid, sandy soil and facing south, so also very dry. I had collected a large number of medicinal plants and as many of these originate from the southern areas of Europe, they grew fairly well in these conditions and so the garden was prospering. However I thought to myself how nice it would be to have a valerian in the garden, they grow in the region, I could go and get one and replant it here. After a few seconds of reflection, I came to my senses, valerian loves humidity and shade, it grows naturally in woodland paths, it would hate it here, in fact it wouldn’t even grow…there is no point and so I left it at that. A few days later I was fiddling about in the compost area of the garden and I happened to gaze over to the flowerbed next to it and there I saw a young, yes you’ve guessed it a young valerian nestled behind the nettles in the shadiest, dampest part of the garden. For me this was magic, a present from the plant world.

I love the way you plant things in gardens and then other wild plants come and nestle next to the ones that you have planted, you can almost feel the relationship they have between them, protecting each other. There is definitely a delicate balance to find in a garden between what is commonly called weeding and letting nature take its place. It is true that the only two places in the world where the soil is left naked is in the dessert and in intensive agriculture, nature always makes sure that the soil is covered. I love the way that if you study a piece of natural pasture or woodland or any wild edge there is always a myriad of different plants growing together, interwoven with each other, kissing and loving each other.  That is why the gardens I make are always tightly planted, I don’t like naked soil and if there is a period where my garden has gaps I mulch.

When difficult situations appear in one’s life, there is often a blessing behind it. A year ago I had to leave the place where I was living in France and this meant leaving my beloved garden, yes the one with the valerian. Leaving my plants felt like abandoning my children and this was made worse by the fact that I knew they wouldn’t be tended to. The place where I was moving to didn’t have room for my plants, the situation was doomed, oh well I will have to put into practice my (excellent) capacity of letting go. Just I was actually letting go (yes things often happen this way), a good friend and local organic vegetable grower offered me the possibility to make a garden for my plants in a small plot of land that he had, nestled in the hills and at walking distance from my new home…and what I call ‘the forest garden was born‘. To cap the good luck, he also helped me to transplant the plants, mulch them, put rocks round them and all in all make them feel at home. Although only a few steps from the former garden, the soil is completely different and rather than southerly exposition it is northerly. Moving plants in November before a hard winter could have lead to disaster…. to tell the truth I was worried about how many I may loose. But no, everyone, even the lavender that looked for a long time like it had come to the end of its life path has come back to life. There is a bee hive, loads of fruit trees, a stream and all this surrounded by forest…. what a dream, every time I go to this garden I feel like I am in the one place in the Beaujolais that I can call home and I truly believe that when the time comes for me to leave the region, this will be the place I remember with my heart.

Due to the life changes that meant that I had to move my plants, I also had to get used to a different rhythm of life. For the previous ten years, I had been wild crafting and growing things as a living, working on the farm and bringing up seven children. In order to survive and because changes happen in life because life is change, I was now working, still with plants (thank God) but in a completely different way. I was doing more teaching and as I teach on the field this was great but I also found myself in an office coordinating a great project, Herbalistes sans Frontières’, a project I believe in and am proud to be at the beginning of but an office based job all the same. Well life works in wonderful ways and at the same time as my ventures into officedom, the herbal school was also offered the possibility of creating a medicinal plant garden in part of a large park in Lyon and I was to oragnise and guide the students in this project. So another garden had fallen from the sky and this one in France’s second biggest city and in a public park…what a challenge.

And there were many challenges from motivating students in cold winter weather, to getting on the right side of France’s famous bureaucratic side, that is to say the paperwork and protocol between us and the parks police force for things like having access for my car full of wheel barrow and plants to fitting in with all the other governmental structures that shared the same place. There were also challenges around gardening in the city, thinking more about visuals than usual and signs for informing the public about the plants, it felt like the plants were also working with us towards educating people about herbs and healing. My job as a gardener changed also; here I had a workforce, instead of weeding, pruning tidying and planting, I was coordinating, making decisions, guiding others. Occasionally however in order to get a real feel of the garden and the plants I sneaked a gardening session in alone without letting anyone know. There is a blog about this garden with loads of photos www.jardinecoledeplantesmedicinales.blogspot.com

As the Lyon gardening project has been a success, it looks like we may have more land to garden next season, What I have in mind is a permaculture garden for vegetables and herbs, it would be really exciting to get my teeth into an urban permaculture garden and help students and the general public learn about the wonders of bringing life back to dead soil through recycling the organic material lying around.

It often happens when writing, that what one expresses in the written word manifests more strongly in one’s life.This has just happened to me on the subject of gardening. With my recent discovery of socal networking for Herbalistes sans Frontières and all the rest of my office-based work coupled with my life change last year, which meant leaving the farm where I had spent the last ten years, I suddenly realised that my computer’s keyboard and screen were gradually taking up more and more space in my life. First of all I tried to deny this to myself, oh no, it is work, I have so much to do , I have to pay the bills, I have no choice etc. I am 47 years old and all the choices in my life have been based on nature, lifestyle and organic living  and here I found myself forgetting all that and because my work is still ‘plant’ related thinking this made it somehow ok to be spending all my waking hours on a computer. Thankfully my inner self managed to fight back by giving me signs that all was not well, I felt stressed alot of the time, unconnected to the natural world that is such a major part of my reason for being alive…basically I didn’t feel good in myself. So I have decided to be very strict with myself, plan times for working on the computer and keep to those plans, no ‘I am just quickly going to post a photo onto facebook’ and finally be on there for over an hour, no “I must just get back to the mail that so and so  sent” etc etc. This decision means that I can also see the need that I have for gardening and spending a large part of my time with the plants on the countryside, a need that helps me keep in balance as a person, that helps me keep heallthy mentally and physically, a need that helps me retain a grounded sense in what I am doing with my life. So instead of just opccasionally tending the forest garden, that I spoke about earlier, I have realised how lucky i am to have this space, how blinded I was by the pull of internet  developping the Forest garden will be part of my life, I can feel the surge of new energy just thinking about it. The Lyon city gardening is my work, which invloves teaching and group gardening but for me this isn’t enough, I need to get back to my inner garden. The forest garden will give me the time I need alone, creating, communicating with the plants, experimenting and just gently ‘gardening’ harvesting and being in my own, secret, forest garden….how lucky I am to have this  choice and how long I take sometimes to see the obvious.

Cathy Skipper (France)

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2 Comments

  1. ASingingWolf said,

    May 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    How beautiful and how it pulled at my heart-strings to read your story about moving your plants! But I love the photos of your forest garden – you are very lucky to have such a good human friend and a place to re-locate your plant friends. =).

    I am just learning herbalism and am a beginning gardener, so I’ve ordered organic herbs and spices from http://maisonterre.net/herbs-spices-organic/ until my plants are ready to harvest! Thank you for the postings and happy Spring!

  2. IsaBella Davis said,

    September 26, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    An incredible connection you have with the earth and all of her friends..when people ask why I garden here in the south in the mid nineties I just say “its in my soul..a need to be one with the living earth and her splendor..a wonderful blog you have and a joy to read and learn from..my sincerest wishes that you continue your journey and continue influencing the younger generations to come..


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