Last year was a terrible garden year for me. We had just moved into our new home in the oldest part of Radisson, an HOA in Baldwinsville, NY, the fall before and I was super excited to get my hands back into the earth that season. Our community is deeply wooded and while we are members of the local community garden which is in a sunny area, our assigned plot was mostly shade. When you come late to the party you don’t exactly get the pick of the punch.
Anyway, me being me, I didn’t realize until halfway through the growing season that the reason why my lovely little tomato plants, cucumbers and Holy Basil seedlings were not growing was actually due to lack of sun. I assumed it was because the soil was too sandy (it wasn’t), or the weeds were too aggressive (they weren’t) or because I wasn’t watering enough (ok, that one is generally true, but in this case it was not). Or, worst of all possibilities, because I actually didn’t know what I was doing.
Needless to say, I spent most of that gardening season mad. Mad at my plants, mad at the world and mostly mad at myself. I had never failed as a gardener before. And while I kill houseplants regularly, I had been well-trained for years by multiple organic farmers on both coasts of the country and had developed a pretty solid green thumb with both vegetable and medicinal growing. I honestly got so down I started to question entire parts of my identity. That’s how far deep down growing lives in my bones.
I am a little clueless sometimes.
It took me a little while to actually look up instead of down and see that my plants were only
getting a couple hours of sun a day because the high bush cranberry, wild grape vines and elder trees that bordered the plot were completely shading out the light the rest of the day. I also noticed that my neighbor’s plants weren’t growing well either. I hate to admit it, but that at least made me feel like it wasn’t all my fault.
Sounds like a lot of ego, right? Yeah. Once everything died and I admitted defeat, I realized that too. I realized that I was not only pushing my will on the plants (so not what I stand for) and asking them for something they could not give, but I was also missing an opportunity. Part of what I have always believed as an herbalist but had lost somewhere along the way as a gardener is that the plants really do try to talk to you. They really do have messages for their human counterparts if we can just be humble enough to listen. If we can get out of our own way and wonder instead what we can do to create symbiosis with the plants instead of domination or exploitation.
That got me thinking about where I live.
When my husband and I first looked at our house in the Summer of 2019, it was not exactly a guided tour. Our house backs up to acres and acres of woods, walking paths and ponds, so of course, we dipped into the woods down the walking path closest to our house and crept up behind the property to check it out.
Along the way, we stumbled and stepped (carefully) alongside blue cohosh, false Solomon’s seal, white baneberry, trillium and foamflower.
I knew this was where I was supposed to be. I didn’t pay much attention to what the house looked like that day. The plants called me home.
So why the heck was I sitting on my porch, in Summer 2020, pissed off at the world because my dainty cucumber plants couldn’t grow in the middle of a forest, community garden or not?
That’s exactly what I started asking myself. I had not only been forcing something that was never going to happen, but I was actually missing out on being part of the exact mission I had felt called to join that trespass-y day the previous fall. Here I was, living on sacred ground – the deep deciduous Northern woods with their hidden treasures in the form of endangered native plant species and I was worried about cucumbers. I should have been stationing myself as a steward. What a waste of allyship. What a waste of woods.
That was the first time I started seriously looking into growing a shade garden.
I didn’t know a lot about growing native woodland perennials. Its not a skill set I ever developed in my farming background, or even in my medicinal growing experience. Its not as easy as people who have done it for a long time tend to say it is. It takes massive amounts of patience (which I don’t have), a great deal of time (which also takes patience) and a change in expectations regarding what you are going to "get out of it”.
What do I mean by that?
Most medicinal native woodland species are used for their roots. Here are several examples, most of which you’ve probably heard of, maybe used or maybe seen:
*false or true Solomon’s seal
*blue and black cohosh
When you use a plant for the root, you have to pull the whole thing up (wild ginger may be the exception to this, since its rhizomatic root system technically makes it possible to cut a portion of it and then gently place it back in the soil, but, just, don’t do it. Its not worth it. These are at-risk species we’re talking about here – they should be treated with the same care as you would treat a red panda or Asian elephant). This makes plant regeneration difficult to say that least, especially if plants are harvested in the spring before they have had a chance to go to seed. Other complicating factors in the preservation of native woodland species include the following:
*Overharvesting. These plants tend to be some of the most potent and sought after medicines in our Western apothecary due to thousands of years of traditional use by both native peoples and colonizers.
*Slow Growth Patterns. American ginseng takes 2-3 years to even think about producing fruit, and the plant doesn’t reach full maturity for 5-10 years which is when the plant can actually be harvested.
*Animals. Guess what? Deer get sick too. They also like to pull up plants to get better, just like we do. I have had many a goldenseal plant go the way of the animal herbalist.
*Invasive Species. I am still cursing whoever it was that let their ornamental plants run a muck on the edge of the woods on my street. There is now a thick groundcover of ivy covering the first twenty feet of woods behind many of our houses. Who knows what was there before that has since been choked out. While many invasive species are medicinally valuable, they should be kept away from woodland spaces since they grow at rates that our native species just cannot keep up with.
When I started my shade garden this year, in the same plot where my cucumbers met their unfortunate fate the year before, I kept all this in mind. I did not expect to gather much of what I planted for medicine, at least not until enough years had gone by that they had been able to get a good footing, which means plenty of time for new generations to sprout. It has been a slow start, but after a planting season of hard work and the help of my apprentices, we’ve got pretty good patches of angelica, comfrey, bugleweed, Solomon’s seal and skullcap (an exception to the root rule – we use leaf and flower). My black cohosh plants are still finding their way, and I try to support them as best I can. Next year I’ll add goldenseal, bloodroot, wild ginger and ginseng.
Why do this, beyond just the simple reason that I have a lot of shade?
We have the chance to be advocates for the plants. We are able to choose how we relate to them, the role we want in their lives and if that is going to be one of exploitation and greed, or one of symbiosis and support. I encourage you to take the time to grow something for their sake, not just for yours. Garden with a different set of expectations and you will get more back than you thought, I promise.
Don’t have access to shade or don’t have access to a garden spot at all?
No problem! Give wild cultivation a try!
Wild cultivation is like some eco-warrior level sh*t. I give you full permission to think of yourself as a ninja for plant justice if you start down the path of wild cultivation. All you have to do is find some woods and start planting stuff there. Plant seeds you order online, plant seedlings from a friend’s garden, plant plants that you rescued from woods that are about to be plowed to make room for a housing development (Please do this. Plant rescue & relocation as part of wild cultivation is not only extremely needed right now but is a great alternative to rescuing a puppy, so much less work and you can rest well knowing you helped an endangered species find safety). Just make sure what your planting is supposed to be there.
Especially if you live in a place where the woods are at-risk from the pressures of invasive species, wild cultivation is a great way to garden without a garden. Its sort of like the “adopt-a-highway” campaigns – you sign up to tend and care for the plants you put there but you don’t actually bring anything home with you. Note: the end goal of wild cultivation is NOT to harvest what you plant, but rather, to propagate species who need our help right now.
I have wild cultivated blood root and goldenseal in several different pieces of woods. Like a ninja.
Wild cultivation is also often easier than trying to grow plants in a shade garden because you are actually planting them in their native habitat. There is real life groundcover, real life woodsy insect pollinators and real life tree cover. Instead of putting them in captivity for safe keeping, you led them back home. Home with a watchful human helper looking over them.
Go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back.
Ok, I think that’s enough rambling for one day. There are countless resources out there for the propagation, planting and cultivation of native woodland species, but if you’re interested in learning more, the first place to start is at United Plant Savers. These folks have worked for years to seed save, cultivate and spread awareness about at-risk plants in the Unites States.
Please check them out at www.unitedplantsavers.org
On their website is info about how you can get involved, cool stuff on forest growing and access to online classes. You can also donate there as well.
Want to grow a shade garden for medicinals or wild cultivate but don’t know how? Besides the internet being a great source (especially the website for your local agricultural extension) please consider checking out our upcoming class Grow, Gather & Blend: An open forum on cultivating medicine from soil to bottle. For more information on this super fun upcoming event, click here:
Thanks for stopping by everyone! May you go in peace, ninja plant warriors for good.
Oh, and just in case anyone was worried, we added a sunny garden spot this year and the cucumbers are doing fine :)