The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part I:Harvesting by the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and Sacred Intent October 14, 2018

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

A field of goldenrod, nettle, and aster greet me on this warm post- Fall Equinox day.  As the moon comes up with a sliver in the afternoon sky, I joyfully take my basket and harvest knife into the field for my fall plant preparations. The breeze has change on the air–winter is coming soon, and the sacred medicines I prepare will bring my family nourishment and strength for the coming dark half of the year. As we are well into the harvest season at this lovely Fall Equinox, I thought I’d take the time to talk about harvesting and preparation by the sun and moon and honoring the harvest. Next week, I’ll talk about the most basic plant preparations and we’ll end this series with talking about energetic preparations through the creation of flower and leaf essences.  That is, we’ll talk about the medicine of both the body and of the soul.

 

Wheel of the Sun, the Phase of the Moon, and the Turning of the Stars

With working with plant spirits, as we’ve been exploring in this series, we can do everything with sacred intent and awareness that plants aren’t just physical beings. This includes our planting, harvesting, and plant preparations. I have found that when I time my herbal practices by the wheel of the sun (harvesting and planting on sacred days, particularly Beltane, the Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain), these sacred times add a bit of magic to my plant preparations. Further, by working with the plants on these sacred days, I begin building a more rich and full wheel of the year practice focusing on medicine and healing. This means, that, over the years, I have special plants that I harvest at certain times of year, and part of my celebration of that sacred say includes harvesting plants. Some of these plants, like tobacco, are plants that I grow while others are wild plants that I have cultivated a relationship with over time. For example, Elder is one such plant: the Summer Solstice is “here” for me when elder is in bloom, and I will often make elderflower cordial on that day to enjoy throughout the year. When the Elder is ripe with fruit, Lughnasadh is here, and I make elderberry elixir for health and healing. These two plant preparations are not only critical to the health of my family throughout the year, but also help me mark and celebrate these holidays with something meaningful.  You might select a few plants to cultivate this kind of yearly relationship with.

 

Moon phases

Moon phases – the Land card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

The phases of the moon offer additional opportunities for sacred timing and herbal preparations. To me, there is little as enjoyable as going out under the full moon or dark moon to create a flower essence. There are two ways to use the phases of the moon: the simple way based only on moon phase, and the more complex way based on what planet astrologically the moon is in at that given time.  In terms of moon phases, preparing and harvesting at a new moon or during the waxing moon is good for when you want to bring healing into the body, strengthen the body, or offer nutrients to the body. The full moon  brings power to herbal creations and energizes them. A waning moon helps draw out or remove toxins, sickness, or other impurities.  If I want to work with removing sickness from the body, perhaps I start with a lunar flower essence of wormwood or walnut, created during the waning moon, and draw upon that energy to help remove sickness.

 

The turning wheel of the stars combined with the moon phase through astrology, offers yet a third possibility for harvesting and herbal preparation. This way is the most in-depth, but also perhaps, most powerful. This way to plant, harvest, and prepare herbal preparations by the phase of the moon is to use astrology, specifically, the moon sign. Each month, the moon spends about two days in each of the 12 astrological signs. The easiest way to know what phase the moon is in is to purchase a biodynamic calendar or a farmer’s almanac; both of these will offer this information. Generally speaking, here is what is important to know:

 

  • Water Signs (Cancer, Pisces, and Scorpio): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting leafy, above ground material for herbal preparations.
  • Earth Signs (Taurus, Capricorn, Virgo): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting and working with roots (below ground material) for herbal preparations.
  • Air signs (Aquarius, Gemini, Libra): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is considered fairly barren and dry.  Libra, however, is also associated with flowers, so flower harvests and preparations are appropriate under Libra. Otherwise, these signs should be avoided for plant preparations and harvest.
  • Fire Signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius): These signs are good “removal” signs, so good for weeding, but not very good for harvest (with the exception of the fourth quarter fire sign, this will be good for preservation).  Generally, you want to avoid harvesting under these signs.

 

These moon phases are fairly complex and can change on a daily basis; what I like about the biodynamic calendar and/or farmer’s almanac is that they spell it out for you on each day (and down to each minute). If you are practicing astrology, you wouldn’t need this kind of tool, but if you aren’t, it is very useful.

 

These are all tried and true methods for working with plants and also recognizing the many different ways in which sacred timing can be used to increase the potency of the plants. There are many opportunities to choose timing that best fits your purpose with herbal creations, and doing so adds a layer of sacredness to your actions.  Some of these systems may be contradictory (what if the moon is in a fire sign, but it is the Fall Equinox and you want to harvest?) so you need to pick your time and focus on the energy of that particular aspect.  I have found that the wheel of the sun has the most power, and if not, I will use a combination of the second two; or work hard to find the perfect moment where all three are in alignment (like 2 days before the fall equinox when the full moon is taurus for root harvest and preparation!) You don’t always get such amazing timing, but when you can, it makes the event more meaningful.

 

Honoring Spirit and Harvesting Plants

From an animistic perspective, when you harvest a plant or do any other kind of plant preparation, engaging in respect and honor is part of the necessary work. Part of this is because plants are lending you healing power through its actual body; in the case of root harvests, your harvest may end the life of that plant entirely. I believe that part of the sacred medicine of the plant is built into the relationship that you, as preparer, have with the plant itself.  In taking any part of a plant for healing purposes, and asking a plant to work for us, it is only right that we honor the plant spirit as part of our harvest.  We can harvest ethically and with sacred intent. So let’s talk about a few ways we might do this:

 

Honoring the plant. Prior to harvest, make an offering of some kind to the plant. This can be anything simple: a blend of herbs specially prepared (see my tobacco Beltane blend, for example), a song, music, drumming, a dance, a bit of your own liquid gold, a bit of your own energy, a small stone or other token.  Doing this ensures reciprocation between you and the plant, and lets the plant spirit know that you respect it. I belive this also makes the medicine stronger, as you are building a relationship of respect and mutuality with the plant. You might find, through inner listening, that the plant has a particular kind of offering it wants you to make–and different plants, just like other kinds of people, have a variety of different preferences.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

 

Harvesting for life. Harvest only what you need and think you’ll use.  For anything above the ground, harvest parts of plants or plants at the end of their life cycle, taking a small amounts.  For plants that are abundant, you can harvest more; for plants that are rare, harvest very little (or cultivate them further before harvesting anything at all). If you are doing a root harvest, make sure that your harvest will not damage the larger plant population.  I grow or wild cultivate nearly all of the plants I want to do a root harvest from, that way I am in control of exactly how many plants I have planted and how many I am going to harvest. I will not harvest from wild populations unless A) they are extraordinarily abundant and B) I have already worked to spread these populations further.  You can also consider doing plant or flower essences for plants that are extremely rare (Indian Ghost Pipe being a good example).

 

Cultivation and Relationship. Harvest and preparation are not one-shot events but rather, can be lifetime experiences rooted in a practice of nature spirituality. This means that these plants aren’t just a passerby you interact with once in a while, but can be strong plant allies and friends. Recently, I shared a post at Lughnasadh about how to cultivate long-standing relationships with plant spirits.  I used sacred tobacco (nicotiana rustica) as my example for this work and offered one strategy to do so.  The plant spirit posts I also recently shared offer more tools for this work.

 

That’s it for this week–during my next post, we’ll get into four different kinds of preparations you can make: drying herbs and teas, tinctures, infused oils and salves, and finally, plant essences.

 

Seed Starting and Garden Planning: Reasons to Start Seed, Seed Research, and Seed Starting Setups March 13, 2014

Its that time of year that if you haven’t already started your seeds, and you live in say,  a zone 5 or 6 climate, you really need to start thinking about starting them!  This blog post will talk about what I’ve learned about starting seeds from the last few years–it can be tricky with some plants, but its well worth the experience.

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Why start seeds rather than buy plants?

There are a lot of reasons to start your own seeds, both practically and more energetically.  Let’s start by examining the problems with purchasing plants from a nursery.

 

First, nurseries have different tricks to get plants to appear healthy, and to make them look good to purchase, but in reality, a lot of the plants sold commercially are in a weakened, stressed state.  If you pick up a nursery plant, and you see it already flowering, that’s a really bad sign.  Why?  A flowering plant means that it has already entered its reproductive cycle, rather than staying in its growth cycle for being planted in the earth. Another way that plants get stressed is when they are root bound in their containers (e.g. the roots are up against the sides of the container, even coming out of the bottom).  They are already stunted, and transplanting them is further shock and stress.  Furthermore,  you also have no idea what chemicals and fertilizers were used to grow that plant–but chances are, they are damaging, and may even be fatal to bees and other pollinators. A stressed out nursery plant is going to have a harder time growing into a healthy, productive plant; that same plant may also going to potentially kill bees and other life in your yard (especially in purchased from big box stores). Finally, moving plants spreads disease and can cause you to have a lot more problems during the growing season.  I had this happen last year–a friend was gardening with me, and he was running late on his garden, and purchased nursery plants (including tomatoes). I never had problems with blight before, but last year, all my tomatoes blighted badly. I know partly there were energetic reasons for this blight (as my linked blog post explores) but there were also practical ones.

 

The benefits to starting your own plants from seed are incredible!  First, it is much more cost effective to start your plants yourself (even with the initial investment of grow lights or another setup depending on what light you have available). The variety of seeds that you are able to start is far superior to what you will find in a nursery–you can grow any seeds you like, and can also grow seeds that you saved from year to year.  I save many seeds, and also purchase new open-pollinated/heirloom varieties to try.  The ones that do well, I keep and over the years, these varieties become well adapted to my garden and climate.  There is also the importance of establishing a relationship with your plants early and maintaining that relationship throughout the growing season.  By starting seed, I am tending that plant through every phase of its life, and there is no greater reward than biting into that first ripe tomato after you’ve started the plant from seed.  Seed starting is a magical, alchemical process that deeply benefits the grower.

 

What do I need to get started?

Seeds. So now that I’ve convinced you to start some seeds this year, what will you need?  You’ll need some seeds–you can get these from a number of reputable seed companies (my favorites are Seed Saver’s Exchange, Victory Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, and Horizon Herbs) and/or ask friends who garden if they have extra seeds (trust me, they do).  You do NOT want to just go and buy seeds off a rack at your local big box store–these seeds are not open pollenated (meaning you can’t save them) and most of the companies that produce the seeds are owned by Monsanto.

 

Growing medium. You will need some growing medium–its best to start your seeds in some kind of seed starting mix.  You can produce your own, or you can buy some locally.  We have a small greenhouse near here who does a nice sphagnum moss/soil potting mix, and I usually use that.

 

Growing flats. You’ll also need some growing flats.  Since the big box stores want you buying their plants, you usually can’t find growing flats at the store.  I usually get mine by the side of the road during “spring clean up” days, where people throw out their trash in giant heaps.  I’ve found most of the tools for my garden and all of the flats I need this way.  If you can’t find them, you can purchase them online or through local farmers in your area.

 

Light and heat. You will need some way for your plants to stay fairly warm (most seeds like to germinate at a temperature between 60-70 degrees). You’ll also need to make sure they are getting adequate light (12-16 hours a day, direct light).  Some seeds require light germination (like many herbs) but once they germinate, all require light.  If you have a nice southern-facing window, you can put your seeds there (just check that they don’t get too cold at night).  If you are like me and have practically no southern windows, you might need a grow light setup (see next area).

 

Seeds in small cups from my sister's growing setup!

Seeds in small cups from my sister’s growing setup!

Water.  Your seeds will also need water, so keep this in mind when you are setting up your seed starting area.  Seed flats can be doubled with a solid flat on the bottom to avoid having water spill onto the floor.

If you had, say, a spare greenhouse in your yard, this would all be a lot easier.  Since most of us don’t have such a thing, we make do with what we have!

Two Sample Seed Starting Setups

Since I’ve been starting seeds for several years, each year I have worked to expand my seed starting operation a bit.  I’m pretty happy with what I have now, and I think this is enough for my needs for the foreseeable future (until I get a greenhouse someday!)  The seed starting setup I have now has six LED light panels (purchased online, they only give plants the blue and red spectrum and are highly energy efficient), two T5 lights (which use up a lot more energy) attached and housed to a metal rack.  I also have two heat mats (my den is cold in the winter and I have trouble with germination without the mats). I have all of the seeds on a wire metal rack inside doubled flats so the water doesn’t drip out.  This setup cost several hundred dollars, but I justify it because I use it every year and when I’m not growing seeds in the late fall and winter months, I’m growing microgreens and sprouts using the LEDs!  So this setup gets about 8 months of use a year–hence the investment in the LED lights.  I wish I had a sunny window in which to grow these kinds of things, but with the way my house is setup, that simply isn’t the case.

My seed growing rack - colorful!

My seed growing rack – colorful!

LED lights with onions growing

LED lights with onions growing

Timer keeps my plants happy

Timer keeps my plants happy and well lit.

A second setup is something I helped my sister and brother-in-law with.  They live in the city, and have limited space for growing things and limited light.  This was their first year starting seeds. They had an eastern window, so what we did was plant seeds in small styrofoam cups cut short with holes poked in them (they picked the cups up in the garbage, new).  We labeled the cups and placed them on a metal tray with some foil to protect it.  Then, to protect from cats and to further trap sunlight, we put  box around the cups in the window.  We put a small thermometer in the soil, and monitor the soil temperature. If it dips below 35 at night, the window will radiate cold, so they put the plants on a nearby radiator (radiating low amounts of heat).  The Styrofoam does provide a good deal of insulation, however.  I like this setup a lot because it uses existing energy flows in the house and repurposed existing materials.

Seed starting setup with box to trap heat and keep cats out

Seed starting setup with box to trap heat and keep cats out

Setup without box (note the weights in the corners to hold the tray on the windowsill)

Setup without box (note the weights in the corners to hold the tray on the windowsill)

Researching Seeds & Determining Plant Times

One of the things that can be challenging about starting seeds is figuring out when to start them, how many to start, and what care is needed.  Seed packets often contain very general information, and I would recommend researching each plant that you are starting (sub-varieties don’t need to be researched; i.e. all tomatoes are started the same).  Knowing something about plant families helps too–for example, I start most alliums (leeks, onions, chives) in late January to get a jump on their long growing time (garlic, of course, is started in the fall).

 

I’m not going to lie–this process can get overwhelming.  I’ve met quite a few novice gardeners (and remember my own experience years ago) with trying to figure out what to plant and when to plant.  However, to aid in this process, I have a few suggestions.  First, there are seed planting guides out there on the web that can talk you through the basics.  In my opinon, however, the web is no substittue for an experienced farmer/gardener–so seek out advice from experts (or really, anyone who has done any growing–we all have knowledge to share).  A friend this year gave me her whole biodyamic planting guide (see below), and that was super helpful.

Second, it helps to take the seed research process in stages.  Don’t start researching seeds in March when you need to get seeds going–research them in December, by the fire. I love to do this close to the holidays–its the perfect time of year to think about new growth. Then, by January, any new varieties I have researched are done and I have a planting plan moving forward.

The other thing you can do is create note files and spreadsheets. When I helped my sister with her herb garden, we looked up each seed she had and created a word file with information found on the packet and online.  Here’s a screenshot of that file.  Notice at the very top of that file, we also have a list of her last frost dates.  This is critically important to know when to plant (because it tells you when you can set plants out).  You count backwards from the average last frost date, and that tells you when to plant seeds.

Sample plant info file

Sample plant info file

After we had this file (which turned out to be 10 pages for 15 different herbs, still a bit overwhelming because we also compiled growing and harvest info) we broke it down into a more simple spreadsheet with growing and planting instructions.  Here’s a screenshot of the spreadsheet.  Once the seeds were started, we highlighted them in green.  Some of them had to be started a little later or cold stratified (e.g. set in the refrigerator for some time) so they didn’t get started on that day.

Spreadsheet

Spreadsheet

Planting by the Signs or Planting by the Moon: Biodynamic and Biointensive Seed Starting

If you are a gardener interested in the more esoteric side of things, you might also want to consider how the movement of the celestial bodies impacts plant growth. There are two approaches that I am aware of to this–biointensive and biodynamic. The biointensive growing approach advocates seed starting on the full moons or the new moons.  The biodynamic approach advocates examining the relationships of the planets (using astrology) to determine planting times (among other things).  Since the astroweather changes from moment to moment, you need to find a biodynamic calendar (unless you know enough about astrology to calculate it yourself!)  I have experimented with both of these approaches, and both have merit, IMHO.

Nurturing Seeds

After I plant my seeds, I spend time with them each day monitoring their progress and watching them grow.  I find it pleasant to meditate near them, and they also respond well to music that I play from my panflute.  Enjoy these early days with your seeds–soon they will be healthy vegetable and herb plants in your garden!

I hope that the ideas presented to you in this blog post can help you make the most of your garden this year!  Happy growing!