My garden started out as a raw hillside of red Georgia clay that you couldn’t get a pick axe in unless it had rained. Most of it was either barely growing Bermuda grass, eroded down to the bedrock, covered in areas of native blackberry canes so sharp I took my life in my hands to harvest, or loads of oak and various other native tree babies tough as wire. Almost 13 years later, it is an oasis of plants of every imaginable kind, deep black soil beds, wood chip pathways, fruit and medicinal plants, and herbs masquerading as weeds in amongst the Bermuda grass (which is almost crowded out now).
Into this I began terracing it and when I could loosen the soil and amend it, I put in spring bulbs. In California it never got cold enough to grow tulips and other bulb flowers so I was excited to have color in the spring (we didn’t have spring either really).
But then slowly I built up areas of soil and terraced areas that were especially eroded. And into those areas I started growing vegetables and some culinary herbs. After about 4 years of very hard work, building rock raised beds, putting in some fruit trees and bushes, I had a garden. I did my Permaculture Design certification in spring of 2009, and came back home to put it all into effect here.
In California I grew about 40 kinds of herbs, both medicinal and culinary, but it was such a small garden space, and I worked about a 50 hour week, I was limited. But coming here, I didn’t have to work like that, and I had about 5x the space. It is about 1/3 untouched forest with deer, squirrels, other rodents, snakes, and very large oak trees and other native species. I love my woods. But it is at the bottom of a very steep hill, so I stay out of it pretty much.
The rest is gradually all being converted to garden space, except a couple of little postage sized grass areas to please the neighbors. The very steep area east of the house which is our septic field can’t be used for food or trees, but I have been working on sowing wild flowers or clover for the bees. The side of the house to the west is already terraced in rock raised beds and the front grassy area already has 3 beds, 3 elderberry, one peach, an oval rock raised bed of pollinator attractors of flowers and herbs, a row of flowering bushes along the top by the road, a green ash in a little herb bed, and a curly willow surrounded by another raised rock bed of herbs. Along the front of the house along the front walkway is a double row of large containers full of herbs. This is plant haven.
Beginning my intense interest in herbalism began when I was introduced to Patricia Kyritsi Howell through a sustainability group I belonged to, who gave our group an herb walk and class up in the Appalachian Mountains. She is a renowned herbalist and Wise Woman practicing in the SE, out of Ashville, NC area. I had always loved herbalism and used what my mother taught me from a pioneer family background from California. But this is the mother load of herbs here in the Piedmont of Georgia. That walk was a total revelation. I had been pulling up what I thought were weeds from my young garden, only to find out they were all medicinal or edible herbs! And that the Cherokee recognized and utilized over 1500 medicinal native plants in our beautiful mountains and foothills. I had to start learning!!!
Later I took a classroom class with her and we explored 45 of the most utilized ones, and I bought her book Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians available on Amazon.com or thru her own website. That was the entrance to Narnia for me. I realized I lived in the middle of a treasure trove of plants of which I was mostly ignorant. I had to remedy that ignorance so I began identifying and studying one by one all the plants on my property (.7 acres, on a steep hills, in Barrow County, Ga.). Eventually when I topped 500, I stopped counting. I have boxes full of carefully written research notes, and a wall of books collected for the identification and use of them. It has been quite an education.
I began an internship program here in my garden (Hillside Gardens, Auburn, Ga.) about 9 years ago and one of my first interns was Stephanie Coile who is also a Wise Woman, certified herbalist, and amazing source of knowledge. She taught me how to make basic salves, ointments, tinctures, and a host of other techniques to make my own medicine. She taught me herbs; I taught her growing them, and about Permaculture.
As I slowly developed growing areas and built up the soil, with the help of my various interns, we planted about 40 trees –fruit, medicinal, and bee/butterfly friendly, created beds around them and began planting perennial plants for what in Permaculture Design is called a Food Forest. I resurrected and collected native plants, was gifted or purchased many, and eventually amassed about 150 different kinds of herbal plants, mostly perennial or self seeding. Not all of them have thrived as we have a relatively thin layer of soil over bedrock, but most of them which did survive do produce. But beware if you start down this path, it can be an obsession. A good one though, fascinating.
One of the things I have practiced for a lot of years is not just to automatically pull any plant I can’t identify. I’ve had to wait as long as a couple of years to discover what they are, and I have mostly been glad I didn’t accidently waste a gift from Gaia. One of those is Sida Rhombifolia, a wiry woody perennial that is tough to pull up. Turns out is one of the most effective antibiotic plants on the planet! It happens all the time. And sometimes I’ll plant a specific species in one place only to find it growing someplace else, and the original location died off. I think they grow feet and move to where they want to grow. Or at least it seems that way. I so respect plants, I figure they know best where they want to grow.
As I have learned these skills and have become familiar with the plants, I have taught various classes and built up my internship program with wonderful results. People leaving here are full of spark and hunger for using what we have here in the Georgia foothills, and developing their own farms, gardens, and environments. So, if you live in the area, talk to me about doing the internship program if you are interested. We have the only Permaculture Design based internship program in the SE to my knowledge. It isn’t a certification program, but it’s hands on and very real.
With all that in mind, I continue to pass on as much of what I know as possible. And in that vein I wanted to share with you some of my own resources.
I found a bunch of wonderful seed companies which are treasures. Probably my most exciting one is Strictly Medicinal Seed Company https://strictlymedicinalseeds.com . When the new catalog email came in today I jumped into it like Alice down the rabbit hole. Oh Boy, a kid in a candy shop. I started making lists of what I wanted, a wish list that probably would cost about a $1000 if I got everything I wanted, and would take about 30 acres to grow it all, but still, Oh Boy! My passion pops out and I’m dreaming of Black Cohosh, Bilberry bushes, Astragalus, the list is very long. Keeping in mind I already grow about 150 medicinal herbs already. But when you study herbs and are in love with them, and you see the name pop up in the list with the picture and you can have it…it’s dream time.
Another one which is mostly culinary plants is Kitazawa Seed Company. But they too carry a nice assortment of unusual herbs as well as a great assortments of oriental vegetables I don’t know where else to find in the U.S. (besides they’re in English instead of Chinese or Japanese texts). Like several kinds of Burdock, Mugwort (Japanese variety), Parsley, Perilla (several kinds), Vietnamese herbs like Kinh Gioi, and Ngo Gai, and Knotweed Akatade. I just love this company because of the great greens and Oriental vegetables too. firstname.lastname@example.org and kitazawaseed.com
Bakers Creek Heirloom Seed Co. https://www.rareseeds.com/get-to-know-baker-creek/our-village/ which has an amazing and fascinating series of exciting rare plant seeds. Most of the homestead farms and gardens around here use their seeds with great success. https://www.rareseeds.com/search/?keyword=Herbs Self heal, Moringa, Echinacea, Marshmallow, Betony, Wormwood, Valerian, Hyssop and many more. What I love about this company is that it is also doing a major job of preserving bio-diversity for us. They do a lot of work cultivating and collecting plants that are on the edge of extinction.
Another one that is great for heirloom seeds is Sow True Seeds https://sowtrueseed.com/ they have a wonderful collection of herbs: https://sowtrueseed.com/collections/herb-seeds It’s great for a perusal just for the fun of it.
Richter Herbs https://www.facebook.com/pages/Richter-Herbs/138377556865087 also has a wonderful collection. This is a massive collection of seeds, they even have Edelweiss! They have 16 kinds of sage and sagebrush just a as a tiny example. Soapwort, Seaholly, Lobelia, Licorice, the list is huge. If you are trying to find something specific, this is probably your best bet.
Seed Savers Exchange and a list of other wonderful seed companies not in the Monsanto stables is found here: https://deeprootsathome.com/4-ways-to-keep-monsanto-out-of-your-home-garden/ I just totally avoid any of the Monsanto companies which were prior free seed companies but that have been usurped and which have been limiting bio-diversity.
I was out in the garden this afternoon taking out two Bradford Pears which are invasive, but which had been sold to me falsely as Hawthorn – a heart health herb, tree, and fruit source. It really pays to trust the people you buy seeds and plants from. These trees have been there 5 years and if I hadn’t asked my local Extension Officer in Barrow County to help me with my food forest, I would not have known. Now I can replant with some other berry trees and we won’t waste the time these trees wasted in lost production all those years. My intern, husband and neighbor and myself made quick work of them and later we’ll chip the branches for mulch. I’ll also look for a true Hawthorn because I really want to be able to grow this as an herb.
We worked on some of the beds in the food forest improving the soil with composted manure and mulch, in expectation of planting in the spring so we’ll have room for some more herb goodies. Oh Boy!
I’m still glowing with the expectation of new things. I’ll also take some of the seeds I already have like Vitex and German chamomile, and end of Feb. I’ll start them inside.
Check out my earlier post on seed catalogues and seed starting earlier this month. I have some Moringa tree seeds available as well as a bunch of other seeds I’ve saved this year. If you are curious, post on this blog.
Certified Permaculture Designer, Hillside Gardens, Auburn, Ga.