There are magical places that we discover while wandering in the woods. Places where dense trees give way to a small open meadow dotted with wildflowers and naturally occurring rock formations that create the air of magic and fairies. These wild places happen naturally without thought or design yet they have a profound impact on our memories.
Now think of the last botanical garden or other precisely landscaped space that you have walked through recently. While the color and balance might be pleasing, the magic is missing, the flow of beauty and little surprises of color or naturally occurring stone formations. I have often wondered what it must have been like to forage for roots, berries, greens and any other assorted edible growing wild. Many of my friends forage for edible greens and flowers, roots, berries and mushrooms but the climate and vegetation where I live is not conducive to that. They are fortunate because they live in very temperate areas with lush undergrowth that is still fairly pristine.
Much of the land in suburban areas and close in rural areas have been cleared, at some point, of trees, shrubs, stones and top soil. This severely damages the land and destroys the ecosystem. Then we come in with our bright ideas about what WE want to plant and how We want our landscape to look, forgetting completely about what the land wants....what the land will support. We cordon off areas for rock, for garden beds for pathways and we spend all of our time trying to keep the plants in their contained areas and the unwanted plants OUT. In the region where I live many homes have xeriscape landscaping. They spend a bundle of money bringing in rock, stones, trees and a few plants and then they poison the soil with weed killer trying to keep the plants out of the rock. Don't even get me started on the futility of well manicured lawns (unless you live in Kentucky or Tennessee). Many gardeners (myself included) even make the mistake of turning the top soil and then planting when the biodiversity of the soil was already ripe for seed germination by simply making a little hole and placing the seed in the ground. We have to re-think what we have been doing in our well meaning desire to create beautiful gardens and habitats. Most naturalist landscape designers start this process by learning the climate of your area, looking at the health of the soil and other plants and trees already on the land and then they spend time getting to know the landvaettir or the spirit of the land.
We know through science that trees communicate with each other, that trees and plants can adjust themselves when they are under attack and we even know that lawn sends out a cry for help when it is mowed! That wonderful fresh mowed lawn smell? It is your grass sending out a cry for help because it is under attack! This has caused me to be the crazy lady that hugs trees, talks to plants and animals and apologizes to my little patch of lawn. It is also a common practice to remove plants that were not purposefully placed and label them "weeds".
Revolutionary landscape artists like Mary Reynolds restore the soil with simple ingredients and little rituals, they work with existing trees, rocks, plants and they sit with the land until they know what will flourish. Let me give you a little example. If you have an area where your plants are alive but not flourishing and the soil needs a little help, or you are preparing to plant in a new area, try this: Take a 5 gallon bucket and fill it about two thirds full with water, add 3/4 cup of molasses and then add two good hands full of soil from the plant area. Sit down on the ground, take a long wooden spoon or stick and begin stirring slowly until a strong vortex forms. As you are stirring, think positive thoughts, envision healthy plants, envision the area full and vibrant. Allow the vortex to calm and then stir in the opposite direction creating another vortex. Gently pour out the water over the area. If you have a smaller area then simply reduce the water and molasses. It works to restore the balance and nutrients in the soil. Make sure not to do this if you are grumpy. Everytime we excavate the ground, cut down a tree, move that boulder or destroy the natural plant life we kill off the natural bacterias and microbials in the soil, destroy the natural dwelling place of insects, lizards and other critters, take away a birds home and disrupt the natural balance of life....including our own. We need to begin listening to the land, observing the natural landscape and working with it to build a sanctuary for all of nature including us.
When you have selected a space that you want to plant spend time with it, sit on the ground, feel the soil and give the land time to "speak to you". This may seem a little strange at first (if you have never done this) but I tell you it will let you know what it can support. We moved to a new home at the end of summer last year. I walked the land, spent time in different areas (we have just over an acre) and looked at the terrain. The back portion of our land had been a horse corral. The land was barren even of weeds but the soil was still pretty loose. I walked and walked and realized that this space was not supposed to support raised bed vegetable gardens as I had at my previous home. This land was to be a sanctuary for animals, birds and all the little native critters. I also saw trees of which there was only one lone cedar tree, however I believe there used to be several trees on the property. There would also be a gazebo for sacred space and a greenhouse. We began by purchasing trees that would provide protection to other plants in the summer and bind the soil. These trees also provide food for the deer and birds and they can be very helpful in establishing plants (think seed dispersing). I also allowed the native plants like rabbit bush and sunflowers, wild flowers and clover to come in and establish themselves wherever they showed up. Next year we will add a few more trees and bushes. If it looks to be a good year I will help the clover by doing some seeding. We already have great plants for bees and butterflies on the rest of the property so they will be helpers as well. The intention is to restore a natural habitat on the land for all the animals and critters. Our food will come from the greenhouse. That is what the land would support and what it needs and I will do my best to oblige. For a fantastic book on natural landscapes and restoring land I highly suggest - The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves The next post will be on the topic of land spirits, ritual and our lost ability to speak to nature. Please join me. Thanks!