Lessons: Wild, Labor-Free Garden

| April/May 1996

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.

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