My main aim as a herbalist is to promote and share knowledge about herbs and wellbeing, and to show how to integrate this into people’s own lives in practical ways.
By teaching in a domestic environment, using my garden, I hope to inspire people to grow their own herbs, learn how to forage safely, and appreciate our herbal heritage and culture. The courses are always practical, and bring like-minded people together in a supportive and engaging way.
My interest in herbs has always been as an environmentalist, as we depend on the world around us for our health and wellbeing. Experiencing the efficacy and safety of herbs in my own life, I saw working as a herbalist as a means to teach others of their value to us, and hopefully encourage people to recognise the importance of our natural resources. We can’t have sustainable herbal medicine without nurturing our environment. It is being increasing recognised that we benefit from being in nature.
As for my interest in gardens, it feels like a form of nature worship to me, and I have been gardening for as long as I can remember. Plant reverence and the creation of sacred landscapes has been practiced by humans for thousands of years: ancient peoples were more aware of our dependence on nature. Records show that ornamental gardens imbued with religious significance were being made as long ago as 3000 BCE.
A domestic garden symbolises many different things. Here in Herefordshire, where so much agricultural land is awash with toxic chemicals, it can be a place to grow one’s own food and medicine, away from chemical adulteration.
It can be a wildlife haven.
It can be a place of transition between everyday existence and a more contemplative world – the spiritual significance and effect of a garden is often of a very personal nature.
A garden is ‘nature crafted by man’, when we have time and leisure to create it: nature physically and visually framed within the bounds of the garden wall, fence or hedge. Divine nature and gardens appear in creation myths and visions of pleasant afterlife destinations. The word ‘paradise’ derives from the ancient Persian ‘pairi-daeza’, meaning an enclosure. The Arabs taught European herbalists about the uses of many medicinal plants, and also about ‘the garden as a place of refreshment, conducive to health through repose and exercise’.
In Shinto, the oldest native Japanese religion, the unique and extraordinary in nature is venerated: a rock, a tree, or plant can possess spiritual aspects that can draw the gods to earth. Beauty is perceived as being a property of natural chance or accident (with an appreciation of imperfection) and simultaneously, of perfection of a man-made type. And so it is, I feel, with my garden. There is an order that I imposed on it, and (increasingly) a randomness as plants and trees grow and seed.
It is dynamic, a complex sensual matrix - of scents, of tactile experiences, tendrils reaching out and branches to weave around, changing with the time of day and the season.
It is never the same, continually evolving and transforming, a form of kinetic land art, where you as the maker work with many different elements – with time, the senses, the physical, intellectual, earthly & symbolic.
From a bare field seeded with a strong growing agricultural rye grass and a few rows of sickly looking pear trees, we have ‘made a wilderness’. It still has a structure to it, but nature has taken over.
First we tried to improve the heavy clay soil, lightening the structure with organic matter in the form of bark chips, manure, and composting everything we could. We mulched, allowing seedheads to stay all year round (for self seeding and for wildlife), not tidying up too much, letting areas re wild.
We planted native hedges (field maple, hazel, spindle, hawthorn and blackthorn as food & corridors for wildlife) and a traditional Herefordshire apple orchard, choosing varieties with a range of different ripening times.
We nurtured self seeded trees, honouring the provenance, trusting that if they were thriving, they must like the terrain. We gave homes to trees and plants that were outgrowing their pots, grew herbs from seed, some decades ago when I first started a herb garden and have been harvested sustainably for all those years. Plants came from friends, from charity plant sales, from nurseries, from the rubbish dump on the edge of the woods - giving homes to all unwanted and surplus stock - I’ve been rescuing ‘unwanted’ plants all my life. . We are trying to encourage more wildflowers in the still strong growing grass by weakening it with yellow rattle. We propagated and nurtured and now we have a wilderness, by working with the land, not trying to cultivate rarities that don’t like heavy clay, but creating an environment where native and naturalised plants thrive, and wildlife does too. I have tried to grow plants that provide nectar all year round – the bees loved the early flowers of the angelica, then the apple blossom and the roses later, and in September the Michaelmas daisies will be flowering.
The many fruit trees (damson, plum, greengage, cherry, apple, pear, quince, medlar, mulberry) and blackcurrants provide enough food for the birds as well as us – just today, I was entranced by two noisy green woodpeckers calling insistently as they flew around the tree canopy, enjoying the topmost plums.
Make the most of the qualities of seeming ‘poor’ soil – lavender, rosemary and thyme love the dry stony areas by the house, the residue of the concrete building that was there before.
Many of my visitors are relieved to see how wild my garden is – as if a herb garden has to be neat, orderly, and high maintenance. The herbs grow in amongst other plants, some grown for their beauty or scent, or because they are good for insects, or because they needed a home, or because I love them for some other reason. Hedgehogs, foxes, and badgers are welcome (even though they ripped into the polytunnels).
After 12 years the soil structure is being improved by the many seasons of falling leaves, and a path weaves through the trees and bushes that was once a barren field. A small mixed coppice and a shelter belt of sweet chestnut, ash, oak, aspen, larch, birch, alder ,lime, walnut, rowan, field maple, elder, cherry, the odd pine and fir, and even a few old Christmas trees are looking more and more like a wood. It is deeply satisfying.
Written for The Hedge, Autumn 2018.