Create Your Own Botanical Sanctuary: Learning from the Land

Nurturing at-risk plants is far easier than you think, whether you have acres of forest or a container garden on a fire escape. Start a botanical sanctuary in a pot in your yard! Guerrilla garden ginseng plants! Creating a project like this on a scale that makes sense in your life is attainable, reasonable, and an important and relevant goal.
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Sanctuary as an Essential Element, Botanical and Otherwise

A botanical sanctuary is simply an area pledged to preserve plant biodiversity and the natural conditions to promote the continuance of plant species. At the Old Ways Herbal Botanical Sanctuary, we promote at-risk native plants with a particular focus on medicinals. However, a botanical sanctuary does not need to have such a specific focus; it can simply be a place for native plants to thrive, or even a green space in an area that is otherwise gray concrete (with the caveat that we are never promoting the spread of invasive species).

Sanctuary signifies safety from persecution, and is an essential element in a healthy world. For plants, this means safety from habitat destruction and fragmentation, overharvesting, and out-competition by invasive species. Instead, we endeavor to create a safe, diverse environment that naturally meets the needs of its plant inhabitants, with ideal resources for the population to thrive, such as pollinators, seed dispersal mechanisms, water, soil nutrients, exposure and light, companion plants and keystone species, and animal allies. As we encourage our gardens and forests and wildlands to flourish, we create sanctuary spaces for animals, birds, and insects, encouraging them to thrive away from persecution. Likewise, we can apply the same principle of sanctuary to building vibrancy within our human communities, as we strive to create a safe, diverse environment that provides the ideal resources for us all to thrive.

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The Old Ways Herbal Botanical Sanctuary

In order to describe how a botanical sanctuary may take shape, I will describe my project. Remember that your sanctuary can be as simple or elaborate as you have time for; this is simply one way, as I have begun to ask the forest behind my home to welcome and nurture large populations of at-risk plants. Our partnership with the land is characterized by stewardship, love, and mutual respect between us and our plant and animal communities.

The story of our land is typical for Northern New England. Old growth forest colonized by white homesteaders in the 1700’s, completely clearcut for sheep farming by the mid-1800’s, then largely reforested as vast numbers of the white population invaded west during Manifest Destiny. It’s been shaped by Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight, along with several occurrences of selective logging.

The forest has adapted and flexed in the way of healthy natural systems for a complete resurgence, an inspiring vitality in the face of all obstacles, such that it is hard to believe that it was pasture as recently as the 1880’s. Although this history is specific to our region, the narrative of overdevelopment, human-driven destruction, and natural resurgence is universal, even in these harrowing times of climate change.

Our botanical sanctuary features over 100 at-risk native species (thousands of specimens). It has been funded by two grants, and hopefully will receive a third in the next few years to keep expanding. It starts where the pasture meets the forest at a small brook and 200-year-old collapsing stone wall, featuring endemic coltsfoot, trillium, bloodroot, spring beauties, and other spring ephemerals. The trail moves up into the forest, where it branches into three: one leads to large endemic stands of blue and black cohosh, solomon’s seal, mayapple, three species of trillium and two of lobelia, partridgeberry, celandine, and wild columbines. The second leads deeper into the forest and branches several times, increasing in elevation and passing natural features including boulder spills and a cave, with endemic stands of native plants as well as wild-cultivation beds, medicinal mushrooms, and a burgeoning food forest. The third trail follows the ridge line through wild-cultivated beds of at-risk native medicinals grown as an interplanted specimen garden, with another small brook crossing on its way to the open-air classroom of the Old Ways Herbal School of Plant Medicine. This project is enormous, endless, and a true labor of love, intended to fill my heart with plantlove in the face of the constant bombardment of global destruction, and to further our stewardship and preservation goals, which are centered on inspiring our community to rejoice in and protect our natural heritage.

The previous owners had not logged the land since around 1950, so there is a healthy forest biome of large trees and rich humus. The burden of invasive species is minimal to nonexistent. Our land has been spared because of elevation changes and because healthy forests are less vulnerable to invasive pressure. However, our area was hit with serious flooding in Hurricane Irene and as a result invasive plants, especially Japanese knotweed, buckthorn, and bittersweet, are completely dominant on the riverbanks, low-lying areas, and logging sites, aggressively choking out everything else.

Additionally, as climate change speeds up, invasive insects and fungal blights related to globalization are moving into Southern Vermont, including emerald ash borer and Asian long-horned beetle, as well as the already established hemlock wooly adelgid and beech blight.

One of our stewardship goals is to maintain the health of our forest in the face of encroaching invasive plants and insects, as well as increasing the genetics of at-risk plant populations in the hopes that genetic variety will strengthen survivability in the face of Southern Vermont’s massive burden of invasive species: preservation and protection of our intact forest is central to our mission. Strengthening native plant populations is key to this goal.

The botanical sanctuary is an important illustration of stewardship for our herbal and homesteading classes, education with local schools, and other groups that use the classroom, promoting stewardship and conservation through community education. Central to this project is the idea of increasing accessibility of the forest across socioeconomic lines, which are extremely distinct in our area. Most classes only experience the trail to the classroom itself, which limits the impact of too many footprints, but everyone who comes here is introduced to the concept of stewardship and its importance in our area. In particular, herb students play a very active role in the botanical sanctuary. Each class begins with a walk to the classroom, during which students experience seasonal changes and engage hands-on with the forest biome. Apprentices and work-trade students build and maintain beds and trails; course students plant seeds during our final ceremony to leave something of their energy behind and help the forest flourish.

The impact is noticeable. Every spring I get emails from past students telling me about the goldenseal they planted in their mother’s shade garden, or the butterfly weed they’ve interplanted with their vegetables, or the burning bush they pulled out: hands-on time demonstrably increases their sense of engagement and makes the hard work of conservation achievable on whatever scale makes sense for their lives.

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Create Your Own Botanical Sanctuary

Our project is big because it makes sense here. Discussing the project details is meant to illustrate a concrete application of these principles; apply them in an impactful way, in a reasonable scale for your life.

Identify your space

Your land, a family or friend’s land, a good guerrilla garden location, a bunch of buckets on the lawn, a community garden…you do not need to buy acres of forest to establish an effective, harmonious sanctuary.

Befriend the Land

Spend time there. Learn its feeling, its shade and sun, the animal and insect and plant life that already flourishes. Water, drainage, existing soil composition, wind. Identify current threats—flooding, the propane delivery truck, Japanese knotweed, your dog…how will you protect your sanctuary from the things that threaten it?

Look Back Before Looking Forward

Learn its history. Identify assets—former cow pastures are often fertile. Identify areas that will need to be remediated, such as grassy areas downhill from train tracks. Your local historical society has maps and information that can be extremely useful. If you live in a rural area, USDA and NRCS also keep detailed historical maps of farms and ex-farms.

Dream Big…

List all of the plants that you would grow there in a perfect world where money was no object and you had nothing but time. Focus specifically on plants that will flourish with the existing sun, shade, water, environment; trying to grow marsh plants in an arid climate is varsity-level propagation, not for the faint of heart, and never for the beginning of the project. Set yourself up for success early and often, and plant the out of climate stuff when you can afford the heartbreak.

…But Spend Realistically

Choose 5-10 plant species off the list that are the easiest to grow in your environment and do well together. The first plants in the sanctuary are the hardest to propagate, so they should also be the hardiest. Once a plant community is thriving it is much easier to add to it.

Feed the Soil

You may need to amend your soil for optimum nutrients. Take a soil test and send it to your state university extension department or farm service; this is easy and cheap, and SO worth it, as they send you very specific recommendations for a wide variety of crops. There are different soil types that are amended differently, far too much to go into here, but I recommend the work of Eliot Coleman as a great primer on this topic. Compost is great but it’s not always the answer, especially if you already have fertile soil or if you are trying to grow plants that prefer a little less sweetness, like prairie and desert plants. In urban settings, you may want to inoculate with mycorrhizae to improve the plants’ ability to build their network. If you’re gardening in a historically polluted area, you may want to grow a couple crops of sunflowers and dandelions first to bioremediate the soil.

Look at the Big Picture

Plan a garden layout that is harmonious and inviting to respectful humans and pollinators. It should also not be vulnerable to animals: make sure there’s enough paths for deer/dogs/whatever, otherwise they’ll go right through your beds, but they’ll go around them if it’s easier. Beds can curve, spiral, stairstep, contain boulders or statues or bird baths or whatever else strikes your fancy.

Consider Sanctuary

How will your garden be a sanctuary, and to whom? A sanctuary for the plants, yes, and the pollinators, of course. How about birds and animals? Are there members of your community who need access to a safe green space? How can your garden have a larger impact?

Build Beds Before Planting

It’s hard to wait once you have plant babies ready to go, but proper bed construction makes all the difference. Construct beds in layers, with the richest soil or soil/compost blend deepest, then soil amended for optimal drainage, and duff/leaves/straw on top. The actual layers will depend on your area and the environment you’re trying to create.

Propagation Techniques for At-Risk Plants

Consider how these plants grow on their own: where do they flourish? What weather do they like? How do they spread their seeds? Put yourself in the plant’s perspective and try to mimic its preferred natural conditions. Some like to be planted in the fall for overwintering before waking up, or taken in and out of the freezer several times to mimic the freeze-thaw cycle of spring (stratification). Others like to have their surfaces scratched or burned. Here is an article “Starting Medicinal Plants From Seed” that goes into step-by-step detail on these techniques. The best book I’ve found on this topic for guidance on the needs of individual plants is Life in the Medicine by Leslie Gardner. I usually just consider who the plant is and take a guess, and it almost always works, but sometimes when I’m trying to grow weird out of climate things like wasabi and ginger and kava kava it’s a useful resource.

Planting

Plant starts and seeds with an eye towards the time of year and ideal transplanting weather. Lay them out as you would find them in nature, with their appropriate community. Monoculture does not exist in nature, except in stands of invasive plants, who lack the healthy plant communities found in their country of origin. For instance, I grow Black Cohosh, Goldenseal, Solomon’s Seal, Wild Yam, False Unicorn, Partridgeberry, Mayapple and Blue Cohosh together in the deep forest beds, whereas my three Lobelia species, Joe Pye, Wild Ginger, and Angelica enjoy the moist edges of the brook. Label plants and draw a map for reference; many at-risk plants are at-risk for a reason, and might not come back for a few years, so it’s important to know where they are. Nurture them as you would any delicate transplants, including watering in dry weather if appropriate, mulching prior to deep winter, etc.

Have Patience

It takes most fussy at-risk plants a couple years to get well established, so do not give up on them if they don’t all come back the following spring. Sometimes they’ll surprise you the following fall or spring, and sometimes it takes even longer. Be careful not to double plant if you haven’t seen the plants reemerge—a better plan is to start a new bed in the second spring to avoid this common mistake. Once plants are well established after a few years, adding more plants is easy—the existing community nurtures the new friends.

Build Community Support

Consider how you build community around your sanctuary. Is there a food forest that needs to be harvested? Medicine to harvest and share? A yoga or meditation space? Think about how your sanctuary can have a larger impact than on you alone.

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Botanical sanctuaries allow us to act as stewards, loving caretakers of the land and our plant neighbors. Likewise, we must steward our human communities, care for each other with love and respect, and stand together as physical and emotional sanctuary against threats, whether that’s Japanese knotweed or white supremacists. Initiating this type of project helps bring the importance of sanctuary into sharper focus, as you become immersed in creating a specific area of safety and vibrancy. I hope it brings you the joy and understanding it has brought me.

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