Lessons: Wild, Labor-Free Garden

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Yarrow. Angelica. Hoary mountain mint. Wild onion. Sweet violet. Greens ­galore: purslane, lamb’s-quarters, wild lettuce, wild beet, dandelion. All these and many others grow beautifully and prolifically in my wild herb garden. What’s more, the garden is absolutely labor-free save for harvesting and enjoying, which are not work at all.

When I moved here five summers ago, this farm in rural Rowan County in eastern Kentucky appealed to me because of its peace and isolation. It’s mainly woods, with a five-acre meadow that surrounds the house. This means not only that I can enjoy birds of both meadow and forest here, but also that I am blessed with a botanical treasure of wild herbs.

At first, I thought I should transplant some of each kind into the “real” herb garden I was making out in front of the house. I was quite taken with the angelica, which I’d never seen growing wild, but after spending a summer digging up plants, none of which survived transplanting, I decided the angelica was just fine growing where it was in the meadow. I hadn’t had any plans for using it; I think I wanted it closer just so I could say that I had it in “my” garden.

I had better luck–perhaps too much–with hoary mountain mint (Pyc­nanthemum incanum). The leaves make a good tea, and my jar of dried leaves also serves as a nasal decongestant: I open it and inhale the aroma, and the bite of menthol not only helps me breathe more easily, but also takes me back to summer. I dug up a plant and moved it to have it handy. Like the true mints (Mentha spp.), though, hoary mountain mint is aggressively hardy, and this one grew all too well.

The sweet violets also succeeded beyond my expectations. I transplanted five or six along the outer border of the cultivated herb garden. They lived but required tender nursing for two years. In another two years, they started taking over. They’ve almost squeezed out the thyme and are making inroads into the lemon balm and mignonette. They were lushly green and blooming last spring. I was exultant until I realized that my hens-and-chickens had vanished. I found them pale and limp, dying under the violets. Feeling guilty, I pulled out some of the violets. Now, in October, the violets are blooming again, and I see that they have seeds–small, round, light tan seeds in three-armed seedpods–but have I made vio­let jelly or candied violets or violet nosegays out of these plants? No.

The same is true for most of my other wild herbs. I never get around to eating the purslane that grows weedlike in the vegetable garden or making the cold drink from red sumac berries that I’m told tastes like pink lemonade. Sometimes I gather wild greens for spring salads but not often.

I use herbs mainly to help me think.

The angelica taught me about my place in the world. The lacy, graceful plants grew fine in the meadow without my meddling fingers, but in my arrogance I thought I knew better where they should grow, and I killed dozens of them.

The violets and the mountain mint showed me that although they respond well to transplanting, they need nat­u­ral checks and balances. The violet population is exploding, and the hoary mountain mint grew to shrub size, woody in one season. Neither result was what I intended.

Purslane and dandelion help me think about weeds. Emerson defined a weed as “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”. When I was in my teens, my family thought it was really funny that I wanted to spare the “pussley” when we were chopping the weeds out of the tobacco. I still allow purslane to grow in my vegetable garden simply because the light green fleshy leaves are lovely. I felt justified in my affection for it when I learned that some people actually buy seeds to grow purslane for their salads.

And what can be more beautiful in early spring than a field or yard aglow with the bright yellow suns of the dandelion? I am confounded and disturbed that some people have their lawns chemically treated simply because the word “weed”, symbolized by the dandelion, offends their self-concept. Don’t they know that every part of the dandelion is useful–the root for tea, the leaves for salad greens, and the flower for wine or, according to an Amish cookbook, jelly? Don’t they know that if they watch closely, they might see half a dozen goldfinches the exact color of the dandelions hopping about among the bright blossoms and exploring their secrets? Don’t they know that the dandelion is the smile of spring?

I used to wish my name were Rose because I wanted to be as violently, dangerously, exotically beautiful as this cultivated flower, to be intoxicating, to be noticed and extolled. Now that I’m older, yarrow growing wild in a meadow is the plant with which I most closely identify. Yarrow is just as beautiful as the rose, but you must come close to appreciate it. Its beauty is quiet and peaceful and safe. It grows wild everywhere: in fields, in gardens, in barn lots, in the cracks of sidewalks. Rose blossoms are often cut, but yarrow, minding its own business, is left free to grow.

“God Almighty first planted a garden, and, indeed it is the purest of human pleasures.” –Francis Bacon

Rebecca Bailey lives with her husband in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, where she tends an orchard and herb, flower, and vegetable gardens. She is the author of a volume of poetry ­titled Three Women Alone in the Woods.

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