The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Permaculture in Action – Five Year Regeneration Model Site (My 3 Acre Homestead) August 1, 2015

Last week, I shared some inspiring words about permaculture design, and how it can give us a path forward and an active, regenerative response to the many challenges we face. I wanted to take some time this week to share a more extended example that is near and dear to my heart—and this will likely be the last post on my Michigan homestead, a “celebratory” post of the good work that was able to be done there on the land in terms of regeneration.  I’ve already written about the energetic healing work on the land earlier–this is about the physical space. My homestead in Michigan was recently sold to an incredible human being who will continue her own regenerative work on the land—and for that I’m grateful!

When I came to my homestead, the need for regeneration of the landscape–and myself–was obvious to me in some ways, and not so obvious in others. So here’s a look at my homestead and the healing work through permaculture design that was done there.  So this post is an example of what one determined person (with help from dear friends and her community) can do over a five-year period to regenerate soil and bring abundance and fertility to the land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Challenges

Zones and Sectors, Analysis - 5 year mark

Zones and Sectors, Ongoing Challenges after 5 Years

When I purchased my homestead in Michigan in 2010, much healing and regeneration needed to be done. Its no surprise that permaculturists often select sites that are in the most need of healing—the tools work, and they work well, and we like a challenge. This land was no exception. The landscape was just covered in trash, chemicals, and more. Here’s what I found when I purchased the property:

 

The Lawn and Mowing: First, there was the typical damage of the lawn: no water retention, chemically poisoned, extremely compacted soil, very low-nutrient soil, shallow root mass, lack of biological diversity, no habitat or food in the grass for just about anything. A full 2 acres were being constantly mowed—pretty much anything that could be mowed was being mowed. The grass wasn’t healthy, the soil was so hard you couldn’t even get a shovel into it.

 

Burn piles, trash piles, and garbage everywhere. The previous owners had decided not to pay for garbage service but continued to produce a copious amounts of garbage, so their solution for years was to burn it each week, spread it in random places in the yard, and dump it in the back of the property. In these burn piles, I found everything from nail polish bottles exploded by the heat to lumps of melted plastic, metal coils, and chunks of rubber. The land beneath these piles, of course, had all the chemicals leeching in. All along the edges of the property was a ring of trash—from old bedsprings to plastic containers, for YEARS I found more and more trash along the edges where the trees stood! There was also a full metal bus, which my neighbor was willing to remove and scrap.

 

Scary fluids in metal bins. There were several scary metal drums, stored about 20 feet above the pond in the brush. I looked at them for a good month, trying to decide what to do about them. Finally, my neighbor helped me sort it out—it was hydraulic fluid, and he offered to take it from me since he could use it. Luckily there didn’t appear to be any leakage into the pond.

 

Deforestation. A one-acre section of cedar and white pine trees had been cut about two years prior to my moving in—the google map view still had the trees, but they were all found in the back of the property. A neighbor told me the owners “didn’t like the trees” so they had them cut and dumped. The wood was not used and the land still bore the scars of that event.

 

Ox-eye daisy my first year

Ox-eye daisy my first year at the homestead

Alkali and degraded soil. Early soil tests from around the property revealed soil somewhere between PH 8.1 – 8.3 with almost no potassium to speak of and little to no organic matter. This kind of soil is a challenge—the high PH means that iron, phosphorus, and manganese are less available and may get locked up. I was, like many in my area, living on what had been old potato fields and the soil had been abused quite a bit in those days. You can learn a lot from the soil by the plants that were growing there—one of the few plants I had in the back of the property growing was Ox-Eye daisy; these are indicator species that grows in very poor soil conditions when little else can grow.

 

Water runoff issues. Additionally, the water runoff issues, especially down the driveway, put all the driveway runoff into a shallow ditch that went across the road and into the wetland.

 

Buried shingles everywhere. Someone thought it was a good idea to suppress weeds with toxic asphalt shingles—I found great layers of them under pine trees, down a pathway, in the barn.

 

Massive Garbage/Wood piles in back of property. When the previous owners had cut down all of the cedars and pines in the center of the property, they dumped them in the back, in the woods, and piled garbage on top.

 

Energetic issues. I wrote pretty extensively about energetic healing in my “about the land” page—I’m not going to be talking much about this here, but this is also a critically important issue. When something is mistreated, it closes off and curls up in a ball—that’s essentially what was happening to this land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Opportunities

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Despite the degradation present, the site presented a host of wonderful opportunities to enact permaculture design—“the problem is the solution” as Bill Mollison would say. The site included:

 

  • Nearly 1/3 acre of full sun, including a north-facing line of trees that created a heat trap
  • ¾ acre pond (not well placed from a permaculture standpoint for regeneration, but in healthy condition minus the garbage floating in it). Indicator species, like spotted leopard frog, suggested the pond was ecologically healthy.
  • A pole barn and detached garage
  • A variety of microclimates: full shade, full sun, part shade, protected, high ground, slopes, and so on.
  • A lot of established hardwood and nut trees: maples (for tapping, 3 tapable maples on property); several hickories, many oaks, wild cherry for medicine
  • Protective, biodiverse hedges of trees, shrubs, and berry bushes surrounding the property on three sides where neighbors and the road were (these helped deflect noise, protect from pollution, offer food and forage to all life, and provide privacy)
  • A big pile of logs dumped in the back of the property ready to be used
  • A bunch of other supplies, like posts and fencing, dumped into the sides of the property ready to be used
  • Land energetically ready for healing!

 

The Design and Restoration:

In the first year, I spent most of my time doing the physical clean up of the land and observing the site. The trash cleanup took up most of my time on the land: picking up the burn piles, picking up the trash, fishing more trash out of the pond, picking up pieces of glass, dealing with scary materials in metal bins, and so on. I also sheet mulched three 4’ x 20’ beds in the area that I had the most solar gain and sheet mulched a rocky, gravelly area to turn that into soil. The winter came, and I began researching plants and thinking about the overall site design.

Looking back, I think the project evolved as my knowledge of permauclture design and organic farming grew. I wanted to regenerate the soil, to grow a wide variety of annuals and perennials (with a special emphasis on fruit trees, herbs, and biodiversity), to encourage pollinators, and to create a sacred space. My goals evolved as I learned more!

 

Soil Regeneration. Because of the state of the soil, my big goals for the property was soil regeneration using multiple strategies. As I mentioned above, ox-eye daisy was growing abundantly all through the property, and I was told when speaking to some people from our state extension office that I needed to chemically manage it—advice I chose wisely to ignore.

 

Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

In my first year on the land, I sowed quite a bit of red and white clover in all the areas of the lawn that I knew I wasn’t going to do anything with for a period of time. Dandelion and burdock also popped up in those areas, breaking up compacted soil. I spread these as much as I could around the property (much to the dismay of my neighbors, I’m sure!) Dandelion and Burdock have deep tap roots and are dynamic accumulators of nutrients, so they are breaking up compacted soil and healing the land with their very presence.

 

Rather than mowing the whole thing and further compacting the soil, I chose to mow paths in the back 2/3 of the property and continued to mow the front lawn (especially after some legal troubles when I stopped one summer). The clover and dandelions (and other plants I later added, like boneset and new England aster) also provided valuable forage for pollinators. Looking back, being more intentional about this and sowing native grasses with deep root masses would have helped to build soil as well!

 

A second strategy for soil regeneration was bringing in chickens. A good number of permaculturists are using animals and specified grazing techniques to build better soil—my goal was similar. These grazing techniques basically suggest that we can sequester carbon by allowing grasses to get tall, then in allowing an intensive foraging by animals to reduce them to the roots. The roots get smaller when the leafy mass is gone, shedding carbon and building organic matter. As the plants regrow, new roots form and the cycle can begin again. My chickens ate bugs, pooped, and built nitrogen with their good work on the land. I also used them when they were in their run to compost materials rapidly and I was able to spread that compost into the soil. I spread manure from a friend’s alpaca farm, then let the chickens come in and scratch it up looking for bugs.

 

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

I also used soil amendments when I had the opportunity—I made compost teas and spread them in all perennial and annual beds as well as my field. Because of the high alkali soil, wood ash was out (which was a shame, since I had so much of it), but I did spread chicken compost as well as sourced some free seaweed and spread that. A friend had some leftover granite dust, so I used that as well as rock phosphate.

 

The field started out all in ox-eye daisy, heavily compacted soil. In a period of 5 years, few ox-eye daisies remain, and now there are a host of beneficial plants, berry bushes, and more. Where Autumn Olives grew up, I cut them back in the early spring before they leafed out, forcing them to deposit a lot of their nitrogen and carbon in the roots into the soil. This created a more fertile, less alkali soil, which eventually allowed me to create other things.

 

The last technique, one that I did only a little before moving, was to make and bury biochar to help fix carbon and build soil quality. My garden (covered below) received many more amendments (copious amounts of chicken-composted leaves, organic matter, etc).

 

Now a lot of these techniques were initially focused just in my garden—and that was a mistake. My garden was about people care—but the whole landscape needed to be cared for. Later in my time at the homestead, I started building soil not just for the garden and perennial gardens but throughout the whole property.

 

Serviceberry - first harvest!

Serviceberry – first harvest!

Biodiversity and Perennial Plants and Trees. I really wanted to showcase perennial fruit and nut crops as well as perennial herbs for medicine. To do this, I created different small perennial beds: an traditional medicine wheel herb bed in the front, a small orchard of fruit trees with mini-swales behind the barn, a second row of fruit trees with guilds of beneficial plants along the driveway, a butterfly garden, and a mini food forest (there weren’t trees, but there were trellises and large bushes). These spaces were designed and implemented individually.

 

In permaculture, we think about “stacking functions” where a single plant has many uses – the cover, for example, fixes nitrogen, provides good groundcover that doesn’t require mowing, and creates a fantastic nectar source for bees. Many herbs and perennials have these kinds of multiple functions.

 

Butterfly garden, year 2

Butterfly garden, year 2

Pollinator Haven. In my third year, I really focused on pollinators. I added many more milkweeds, spreading them throughout the property. I planted and managed two perennial pollenator gardens with long-blooming plants. I added other blooming plants, especially mid-to-late season blooming plants like oregano, bee balm, boneset, joe pye weed, New England aster, and goldenrod. The goal here was to provide nectar sources well beyond the spring flows. I had my property certified as a wildlife sanctuary and monarch waystation.

 

And, of course, I added the two beehives. I paid close attention to what the honeybees vs. bumble bees and other native bees liked, and I made sure that all of those things were present on the landscape. Clovers, ground ivy, brambles, so many things the bees like!

 

Certification and Signage

As I mentioned above, after some difficulty with my township about my rather wild front yard, I registered the site as a Certified Monarch Waystation and Certified Wildlife Habitat. I did this mainly for education of those driving by my house—the signage showed people that something different, something regenerative, was happening here.

 

Pond regrown - beneficial bushes and groundcover

Pond regrown – beneficial bushes and groundcover

 Education, Outreach, and Healing

A final piece of the design of this site was using the site as a place for others to come, to grow, to learn, and to heal. This took on a lot of different forms: I had 9 other people, at various times, with plots in my garden. Many others learned about various garden techniques like sheet mulching, front-lawn conversion, beekeeping, perennial plants, herbalism, and more. Throughout my time at the site, over 150 people, many through our Permaculture meetup, came through and saw what was going on, and learned about it. I hosted many monthly meetups as well as hosted three permablitzes so that people could come and learn.

 

Others came, when they were in need, to use the land as a quiet retreat for healing or integrative work.   Still others came to celebrate the wheel of the seasons in the druid tradition. These spiritual and healing aspects were as important to the regeneration of the land as the physical ones!

 

Here’s a final map of everything that was planted and where! Thanks for reading :).

 

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

 

Celebrating 200 Posts and Five Years on the Druid’s Garden Blog! July 12, 2015

200 posts!  Here's the screenshot! :)

200 posts! Here’s the screenshot! 🙂

In permaculture design, we talk about the edges and the margins being the most abundant, diverse, and critical places in any ecosystem.  This is where we find the epic brambles and berries, with their thorns that snag and catch, yet bear fruit.  This is where we find the rose, which produces amazing medicine and will grab and tangle. Jewelweed, stinging nettle, wild yam, sweet violet, so many of the best medicinal plants can be found on the edges. Most plants on the edges and margins are thick, lush, and hard to get through.

 

In our own lives, the edges and margins often create discomfort and confusion, but also abundance. I’m certainly on the margin myself at the moment–I’ve recently left Michigan, sold my homestead to a most capable and incredible herbalist who will carry on my work on the land and do much more of her own (that’s how magic works, folks!), and I now find myself exploring a new town in the region where I was born. This week, I’m leaving for a two-week intensive permaculture design class, starting or continuing a few other major projects, and just really looking forward to my new life here in Western PA.

 

So perhaps its fitting, in the midst of all this change, that this post marks nearly five years with the Druid’s Garden blog and is my 200th post!  I’m so honored that you, dear readers, have continued to follow this blog and learn and share. In some ways, this blog has evolved quite a bit. But in some ways, this blog continues to accomplish exactly what I hoped it would from the very beginning, that is, to engage in conversations about druidry, permaculture, sustainable living, and all of the things in between. So I thought I’d step back from my regular posting and think about what this blog has accomplished–and where its going next!

Me in my Michigan grove with my panflute

Me in my Michigan grove with my panflute

The history of this blog….

Five years ago, I started this blog to help track my progress on my advanced druid studies, where I had self-designed a 3rd degree project focusing on sustainability and druidry for the Ancient Order of Druids in America. I finished that work in 2013, but decided to keep blogging. First, while I am writing professor by profession (meaning I teach writing, research writing, read others’ writing, publish articles, assess writing, and so on all day), I wasn’t spending any time on my own personal writing, and the blog was a wonderful way for me to do some writing on a subject that I’m knowledgeable and passionate about. Second, this blog sought to address what I perceived to be a large gap in discussions within the druid and earth-centered spiritual communities and druid community about real earth-centered and sustainable practices. I had hoped to engage in discussions about how to develop sustainable, spiritual practices to address the predicament we face as a species.  So I drew on permaculture design, traditional western herbalism, wild food foraging, the reskilling movement, natural building, organic farming, and more to try to do this. I’ve been so excited to see how far this blog has gone, how many people are reading and sharing, and I’m honored that all of you visit my little corner of the web.

 

Some of my favorite posts…

I wanted to direct your attention to some of my posts that aren’t as visited as my more popular posts, but are some of my favorites:

Trio of Sacred Manure Balls with an Oak Leaf

Trio of Sacred Manure Balls with an Oak Leaf from “Holy Shit” – Sometimes I crack myself up!

 

Holy shit. This was my very first post on the blog, where I spent time reminiscing on the importance of compost and my experiences in spreading it over my new garden.  Ah, the good old days!

 

Mystery of the Stumps, Revisited: One of the most important lessons I ever learned was described in this post–the incredible healing power of the forest. This is also, consequently, when I really got into mushroom hunting.  The forest has always been my best teacher.

 

Ode to the Dandelion. I just love the dandelions, and I think they hold some of the keys to rekindling our relationship with nature.  After posting this on Facebook and sharing it with some friends, it was amazing to see people’s reactions. I have some exciting news about the dandelion coming up soon, in fact!

 

Sacred Sites in the Americas (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6): I did a whole series of posts on sacred sites in the Americas, which I feel was critically important work. Part of this was because in the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (of which I am a druid grade member), sacred sites comprise some of the curriculum–and we just don’t have them in the USA like in the UK.  And when we do have them, there are serious ethical issues of cultural appropriation and such. So this series of posts represented my own solution to a very “American” druid problem. I had originally three posts, but then I felt the need to keep writing, so now there are essentially six parts in this series.
Druid Tree Workings (part 1, part 2, and part 3): Another recent series of posts I really love is the Druid Tree Workings series.  These posts came from my very long work with the land and the trees.

 

Sound of Silence: Mass Extinction and the Music of the World: This was one of my more recent posts and definitely one of my favorites. I think a lot of us following druid or other earth-based paths really struggle to effectively accept and respond to everything that is occurring, especially to events beyond our control.

 

Druid’s Crane Bag:  This is another older post examining the druid’s crane bag, and what is in this druid’s bag :).

 

Where do we go from here?

Even though I’m still very much in the discovery mode of what this new life will be–and eventually, what kind of land I’ll end up on (urban farm, intentional community, another small homestead? who knows?), I’ll still have plenty to cover in the upcoming year on this blog:

  • Continuing my work on Sacred trees in the Americas (these posts come slowly, because each post takes about 20 hours of research and meditation to complete).  Some examples are maple, hemlock, and eastern white cedar and my most recent post on American beech.  Next on the list include black birch, white pine, chestnut, ash, elder, and hawthorn! 🙂
  • Continuing to present recipes, harvesting information, and medicinal information on wild plants, mushrooms, and herbs, similar to these posts: candied violets, chicken of the woods mushrooms, and jewelweed salve.
  • A longer series on Permaculture Design and its connection to earth-centered practices like druidry. I’m doing my Permaculture Design Certificate at Sirius Ecovillage in Massachusetts–I’ll be posting about their village and some of the material that I learn.
  • A series of posts on urban gardening and other sustainable solutions for those renting and those living in a town or city (both of which conditions I find myself in for the next year or two till I’m ready to buy again).  This will include visiting a few urban garden sites, urban composting, container gardening, solar ovens, and more!
  • Spiritual insights and suggestions to handle energy-based disruptions to our land. In Michigan, it was oil pipelines and more oil pipelines.  In Pennsylvania, it is fracking.  So many earth-based, awake, and alive people I know are dealing with these all over the world–so I’ll be sharing some of my experiences in energy-based work here.

Ultimately, this blog is a joint project–I consider my readers just as critical to the success of this blog as I am.  So what would you like to see? What would you like to see more of?  I’m all ears!

Joyful tree in Spring (by Artist Dana Driscoll)

Joyful tree in Spring (by Artist Dana Driscoll)

 

The Druid’s Garden as a Metaphor for Living June 14, 2014

A metaphor for mindful living can be found through the understanding and application of the principles of the garden.  The more you spend time in a garden, the more you’ll understand the power of this metaphor (and I suggest that everyone spend time in a garden as often as possible and through as many seasons as possible). We can understand everything from the foundation of our lives (the soil) to the balance of elements (air, fire, water, earth) as necessary for a successful garden.

 

A well tended garden

A well tended garden

The Passage of Time and the Garden. In our lives, we have things that grow for just one short season  (annuals) to those things that grow each season (perennials) to what grows tall and bears serious fruit only after substantial time (trees/shrubs).  Small things in our lives may bear abundantly in most years and require practically no tending, like a black raspberry, while other things we must tend for very long periods of time (peach trees) before we see fruit.  Other things grow and produce, but only for a season, and must be cultivated carefully and protected from extremes (tomato and basil pants). Occurrences at the wrong time, like a chill period or a three week period with high temperatures and no rain, might hamper the fruit for the whole season.

 

The Seasons. The seasons pass in our lives just like they do in a garden; there is a time where the annuals die off, the perennials and shrubs and trees send their energy back into their roots, and the land lies fallow. There are times of harvest, when so many good things come our way.  There are times to plant seeds and tend them.  Recognizing what season we are in–and EMBRACING that season, whatever it may be, is critically important.  Recognizing also that we cannot stay in the late summer and fall harvest time forever, continuing to rake in the benefits and the harvest.  Enjoy the harvest when it lasts, but recognize that harvest comes only so often, and only after the hard work of cultivation.

 

The Soil. The soil is critical in a garden–gardeners often say that they don’t grow plants, they grow soil.  The soil, be it rocky, loamy, sandy, or full of clay, and the soil’s ecology (nematodes, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc) determines the health of the plants, their growth, their production, their resistance to pests and disease, and their general well-being. Compost, made of rotted down plant matter undergoing an alchemical transformation process, is added to the garden for nutrients and to help retain water. How will you build good soil?  Will you do it naturally, working with the soil ecology? Will you allow beneficial plants, like the dandelion, comfrey, clover, blue false indigo, and so on, to help build soil with you?

 

Composting. Composting happens in our lives–sometimes what is growing has grown out of control or used up the nutrients in the soil, or plants that we don’t want and that don’t bear fruit (or even may be harmful, like poison ivy or water hemlock) are growing and we must pull them out.  Sometimes, the whole garden must be started again as the seasons move in our lives from fall to winter.  In the last year and a half, this is what happened to me–fall set in, my garden had to be cleared for the winter months, the old material piled upon a heap and simply let to rot, and my work in the broader world had to lay fallow for a time.  I resisted this mightily at first, I thought there was something wrong with me, but as time went on, I realized that this period of composting and laying fallow was entirely necessary.  I think our culture assumes we should always be working, always productive, always DOING something.  But that’s not the way a garden works–it must have its time of rest and fallow….as do we.  Embracing this time of fallow, of composting, is a necessary part of healthy living.

However, gardens that lay fallow (bare) for too long, however, aren’t healthy either.  Perhaps you find yourself in a holding pattern, not able to move forward for a time.  Don’t let that garden stand bare, ready to plant, with soil exposed to the elements.  It will erode, and you will lose valuable nutrients and humus.  Instead, plant a cover crop to give yourself time to move forward….cover crops are temporary things that fill gardens.  I mean this literally and figuratively; clover is one of the best cover crops we have as gardeners.  I’d also say that if you are in this state, you might work with clover (as a tea, sitting by the plant and meditating, as a tincture) and it will help you through this time.

 

Shelter and Growth. If we use additional shelter to protect our plants, they may grow better but be weak.I can put hoop houses up, to protect myself, my heart, my emotions, and for some plants they work well.  But hoop houses can only be used in the spring in fall, as a buffer–if we use them throughout the summer, the plants will smother, wither, and die.  This is another important lesson of the garden…know when to take shelter and make shelter; when to shelter yourself…and know what seasons that shelter no longer serves you.

Careful timing and sowing

Careful timing and sowing

Plant Allies. Plant allies are one of the most important things in a garden. These are plants that serve a beneficial nature, like companions, to those we want to have bear fruits.  As we are going through our times of plenty and times of sorrow, look to the plant allies in a garden for help as to where you are.  Dandelion breaks up compacted soil; dandelion may also help you break up stagnation in your life.  Mints provide substantial, long lasting forage for pollinators, who help pollinate various developing fruits in our garden–mints might help cultivate inspiration and allow us to draw upon the awen within.  Learn carefully what plants do in the broader world–I think you’ll find that they can perform similar roles within us if only we are willing to listen and learn. Will you draw upon these plant allies in your life when you need them?

 

Metaphor for life. When I look at my own life recently, I recognize that I’m coming out of a fallow period and now I look across this great garden, prepared with the soil that contains the compost of so many things I had to pull out of my life (or that were pulled out for me).  While those old plants are gone, the nutrients haven’t been lost, and if I’m careful in my own thinking process, I can transform them and use them again.  So the past experiences, people, and so on that may no longer serve us still can be used for new growth.  Introspection and meditation can help us work with this old plant matter and transform it–that’s a lot of what I did in my fallow period, where my garden was barren but the bacteria were working hard throughout the winter to convert dead plant matter into rich earth.

 

This post was a lesson that my plant ally teachers, specifically, yarrow and dandelion, have shared with me.  Its a lesson that I think can be useful to others, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

 

Sowing the Seeds of the Future: Spiritual Insights on Seed Starting and Growth December 16, 2013

Sprouting lettuce for spring planting

Sprouting lettuce for spring planting

There is so much magic in a tiny seed. Dormant, still, silent, the seed speaks of unimaginable potential. The seed is the first—and last—step in the cycle of most plant life; they complete the circle of life. Seeds can lay dormant for years, decades, and in some cases, centuries.  When parched earth finally gets rain, when the fires die down and only ash remains—the seeds carry new life forth.

 

Growing a plant from seed is a magical experience. Through this process, a magical transformation takes place both in the druid gardener and in the seed. You nurture and support the seed, giving it rich soil, light, warmth, and water. The seed nurtures you, providing lessons, healing, and strength. In the briefest of moments, the seed sprouts, sending tendrils up into the heavens and down into the earth, uniting the solar currents of the sun and the telluric currents of the earth. For some fast-growing plants, you can literally see them growing early in their life cycle. This same process is mirrored within the soul of the grower, hope and life are born anew.

 

As the seed springs forth, its first two leaves (called cotyledons) are not “true leaves” but rather represent the seed’s first tender steps into a larger world. Once true leaves develop, the plant takes on the characteristics of its variety.  Like a human infant, springing forth is only the first step of the journey of growth and development.

 

Sorting seeds in December!

Sorting seeds in December!

I know that for many, the period between Alban Arthan and Imbolc can be challenging because of the darkness and cold. But I, sitting near my warm fire with the seeds of hope and life, enjoy such times. As a druid gardener, December and January are times of such joy, for these are the times when I return to my seeds. I spend weeks sorting through saved bags of seeds, remembering seeds given to me from friends, re-establishing relationships with seeds I have been saving for years, or studying new seed packets I purchased.  Part of this is just to reconnect to the plants, to look forward to what is to come.

But, this is so I can plan how much seed I need to start and when I need to start it. For the seeds I’ve saved, I think about the relationship I’ve shared with that plant, that strain of seeds. Now in my fourth year of serious organic gardening, I have strains of kale, lettuce, beans, tomatoes, corn, peppers, and herbs that I have had many years of friendship with—the seeds represent a way to carry our connection through the darkest of times before it begins anew.  As I sit with my packages of seeds, I reflect upon our past history and look forward to future harvests.

 

This year, dear readers, I suggest that you sow at least a few seeds. If you have the space for a larger garden, consider sheet mulching an area in the spring  and planting some vegetables. Create a sacred garden space for growth—of the druid and of the garden.  Growing a bit of your own food puts you in a sacred relationship with the land and its cycles—and all of it begins with the seed that you grow. If you only have room for a few pots on a porch or a windowsill, you can still experience the magic and teachings of the humble seed. I suggest starting some herbs (mint, oregano, or chives are all very easy to grow) or growing some vegetables in containers.

 

Once you start your seeds, consider your relationship to the plants.  I have found that plants really enjoy music, and I play my flutes and panflute for them often.  I speak to them, listen to their stories and secret tales, and open myself up to their teachings.  This is a very personal process, but you will your way. Meditation with the seedlings can provide great insights.  Connect with the spirit of that plant—each species has a spirit, and you can see that spirit out and learn from it.

 

If you decide to start seeds, ask around.  Chances are, someone you know has seeds and is willing to share.  If you are purchasing seeds, it is important to know that not all seeds are created equal.  The seeds of our ancestors were all what is now known as “heirloom” and “open pollinated” and could be easily saved from year to year and were adapted to the localized climates that they lived in. The seeds of today—including nearly all you would purchase in a big box store—are often genetically modified and hybridized. GMO and hybrid seeds are modified so that you can’t save them, and often have other modifications to the plant and/or are treated with chemicals. Energetically, these seeds represent the worst of humanity’s shattered relationship with nature, and buying them supports industries that are actively causing harm to our planet.

 

For seeds that are open-pollinated and heirloom, you can visit the Seed Saver’s Exchange, Horizon Herbs, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, or High Mowing Seeds.  For information on how to start and save seeds, the book Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners (Ashworth and Cavagnaro, 2002) is a wonderful reference and one that I have used for many seeds.  I also have a post on seed saving spinach and lettuce seed this blog.

 

There is no greater magical gift in the world than that of a seed, and no greater magical act than that of growth.  If you have questions about seeds, seed starting, or magical gardening please feel free to contact me or respond here.

 

*I’d also like to acknowledge that some of my insights gained in this post came through mediation from the first knowledge lecture in Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn system (which I have been studying for the last 8 months).

 

Embracing the Sacred and Understanding the Druidic Garden: Growing and Preserving Your Own Food September 7, 2013

Some recently canned foods--this whole cabinet is full!

Some recently canned foods–this whole cabinet is full of hundreds of jars of jam, sauce, and pickles!

When I was a child, I used to read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  In her books, Laura spends a lot of time talking about food preservation–slaughtering the pig, making maple sugar, making “head cheese”, sowing crops, cutting hay for the animals, cutting and storing ice in the ice house, threshing wheat, making butter, digging potatoes, and so forth.  This was an incredibly important part of the lives of the Ingalls family. The book about Sam Gribley, who runs away to the mountains to live off the land, My Side of the Mountain is very much the same–although its set in a more modern time, Sam spends most of his time talking about providing for his own needs through foraging and trapping.  And in each of these books, I’m struck by how much of each of the books are devoted to the basic necessities of human survival: food and shelter.  But it wasn’t just that they were preserving food and surviving–it was the manner in which they survived.  When Sam talks about his relationship with the wild strawberries, and the loss when the old woman comes and makes him help her pick them all, he describes a sacred relationship.  When Laura writes about her relationship with their family’s horses, horses the family depended on for plowing and transportation, the relationship is sacred. When Laura’s family asks neighbors for help for building their home, their home becomes rooted in that community.

 

The last few generations of Americans–certainly my own– have typically not lived in a society where we have the knowledge (or, often, desire) to physically provide for our any of our own needs. When I grew up, we occasionally ate venison that my uncle hunted, we ate zucchini and other veggies from the garden when they were available, we ate some of mom’s canned sauce or beans, but most of what we ate we purchased.  The relationship that most of us have with our food was one of an exchange–hard-earned money in exchange for this or that preserved, packaged good. I think my experiences of our home garden were less common than most children who grew up in the 1980’s–this was the real start of “convenience” foods that required very little work or preparation (TV dinners, heavily processed fast foods, etc.). The 1980s, as John Michael Greer reminds us in his newest book Green Wizardry, were the backlash era against the progress/appropriate tech/homesteading movements of the 1970’s, and unfortunately, pushed Americans further down the path of consumption.

 

I, like many of my generation and the generation before and generation after me, have grown up in a time where we depend upon others (often, large agribusiness or corporations) for our food (and clothing, shelter, heat, transportation, and livelihoods).  And while most of us don’t engage in labor-intensive food production, we are also depending upon a system that has removed our sacred relationship with food. We also exchange our time for money in other kinds of work; some of which is much less fulfilling than growing one’s own food. The food we eat is often mass produced with unacceptable ethical standards, from pesticide use to shipping with fossil fuels to genetic manipulation to migrant worker rights violations.  When we eat that food, we eat of all of the energies that produced it.

 

More jars--this is before I've canned apples!

More jars–this is before I’ve canned apples!

The spiritual dimensions of this cannot be understated.  When one is eating food that one has not grown/foraged/slaughtered, one is bringing in unknown energetics and processes into one’s own body.  That food, if it comes from a big grocery chain, is likely 100’s, if not 1000’s of miles removed from the land one inhabits, which creates energetic distance.  Further, one’s relationship with that food is often a constructed image, a brand name product (I’m now reading Chris Hedges’ book, Empire of Illusion, where he talks about the illusion of the image/brand at length).  The sacred relationship with food is lost.

 

I have come to understand that gardening, especially using druidic principles, is all about relationship building; building a sacred relationship with your food. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February to the early growth of the plant in March while the cold winter continues outside, to the planting and mulching of that plant into my garden in late May.  This relationship continues as I

Ears of corn!

Ears of corn!  The most beautiful sight to behold!

nurture it as it grows into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and later little green peppers start to emerge.  Finally, I wait for that pepper to ripen in early September.  At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that plant.  When I eat that pepper, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it.  When I can that pepper and turn it into salsa or freeze it for later, I am sustaining that relationship over time.  When I save the seed for next season, the relationship becomes all the stronger.  We are connected; that connection is sacred.  That sacred connection extends and extends to all the land–everything becomes more sacred by the simple act of growing and eating one’s own food.  The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence of you and the plant.

 

This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing–and preserving–my own food.  This is a lesson that I’ve come to over a long period of time.  I think that people who grow up in a culture where providing for one’s needs is common and where reliance upon the land allows that sacred connection to form from birth.  If you read any stories or myths from Native American tribes, you see this in everything that is written.  But for someone like me, someone who did not grow up in a culture that nurtured that sacred connection, I had to seek this out and discover it on my own.  When the sacred connection occurs, the shift is striking.  I’m amazed and filled with wonder each time I set foot in my garden and watch my plants growing.  I am filled with reverence and respect with each egg I pull out of my chicken coop.   When my tomatoes blighted this year (which I will write about soon), I felt their suffering.

 

As we move into forty or so years of convenience foods, fast foods, and the like, the skills of food procurement (through growing, trapping, hunting) and preservation (through fermentation, canning, drying, smoking) are not practiced by most of our population.  Even for someone like me, who wants to know the skills, learning the old ways requires a lot of resources that aren’t necessarily easy to come by.  I think about my meager skills, and despite years of hard effort and learning everything I can, I’d be unable to provide for all of my needs.  But as I continue to grow, my sacred connection with the land takes on a new meaning.  I am her caretaker, as she is mine.  When I take her fruits into my body, I am nourished and blessed.  This is the most sacred of sacred connections, and it makes you respect the food down to the last bite.