An Herbal Medicine Garden in the Pioneer Valley

Unbelievable! It was ten-plus years ago that two of my herb students, fresh out of UMass, convinced me and then helped me to design and create Clearpath Herbals medicine gardens. That was Emily French, now of Sweetgrass Herbals, and Adam Barnard of ‘Yes Farms Yes Food’ bumper sticker fame. I had been missing the direct connection to the medicines and the Earth ever since I had lost access to gardens in my home town of Wendell a couple of years prior. Not having a place of my own, I approached the owners (Al Miller and Suzanne Webber) of Brook’s Bend Farm in Montague, just down the hill from Wendell. Serendipitously, they had just been dreaming aloud about the idea of someone with the right set of skills growing an herbal medicine garden on part of their farm.  

Good fortune smiled. They generously agreed and we broke ground immediately. Working the earth in the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut River basin was a joyous respite from the ultra-rocky, acidic soil of the Wendell hills. I would love to say, “ . . . And the rest is history,” but the truth is, all parts of Clearpath Herbals were in a growth spurt at that time, and I could not devote the time, energy and attention needed to make the herbal medicine garden happen in a sustainable way. For three years, a handful of helpers – a growing group of dedicated herb students – and I started with great intentions in the spring, but inevitably ran out of steam midway through the summer, the weedy weeds overwhelming and crowding out the medicinal weeds.

herbal medicine gardens

Making the Herbal Medicine Garden Happen

At the start of the fourth year, I vowed to make it happen once and for all. The garden deities must have been listening, because a steady, ever-growing stream of students and volunteers started showing up . . .  and it has never stopped. Inspired by the gardener’s adage  – “First year gardens sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap” – we decided to dedicate every  Monday to garden work day. That made all the difference. That,  plus a great schedule that starts with yoga, continues with fun work that never gets too hard, breaks for lunch that includes fresh greens and veggies from the gardens, and also a great swimming hole nearby to cool off if desired; and best of all, excellent company among a living, loving community of humans, plants and pollinators. This has been our working model ever since. True to the adage, by the time we started the seventh year, we had a bona fide beautiful herbal medicine garden, and from years seven through today, Garden manager Leah Meserve helped expand the gardens to the even more magnificent place that they are now.

Optimized-Optimized-Leah and Lilly conferring on herbal mediicne gardens dimensions (1)

Garden Manager’s Leah Meserve & Lilly Demers

Yesterday, my newest garden manager, Lilly Demers of Sawmilll Farm, and I walked among the perennial beds in the soft rain, removing the dead remains of winter and uncovering straw from green heads popping out of the ground. We discussed my pet project for this growing season, an experiment for growing sun-sensitive Chinese medicinal herbs (licorice and astragalus) in herbal medicine gardens that are in direct, unrelenting sunlight. We hope to create ‘living shade’ from rows of sunflowers and codonopsis, another Chinese herb that tolerates direct sun and also trellises. Our plan is to have four adjacent rows in ascending height (Licorice < Astragalus < Codonopsis < Sunflower) planted at whatever angle or arc best protects the sensitive plants from summer sun. We will keep you posted.

If you live in the area and love gardening and good company, every Monday (9:30-4:30) is volunteer work day at our herbal medicine garden, located at 119 Old Sunderland Rd, Montague, less than a half hour from Northampton, Amherst, UMass, and Greenfield. You are welcome to visit, walk the gardens, hang out with great people, and help as much as you would like. Visit the Clearpath Herbals website for more information, and join the mailing list to receive posts about herb and holistic health related topics as well as Clearpath doings and events, including gardens, wildcrafting, herb walks, outdoor and indoor classes, and more. This coming Monday,  May 9, is the first day of the 2016 growing season. Hope to see you there and let us know if you are coming.

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