Medicine Gardening: Remembering The Wisdom of Plants

“What medicine do you have for me?” This was the question we each asked as our group of six women sat with the large patch of three-foot-tall, purple-blue asters in the Acorn School Medicine Garden. It was a warm October morning and the asters shifted in the breeze, making gentle circles above our heads and welcoming our attention. It was the last class of the season, and we had each grown familiar with asking this question and allowing answers to come.

Nine months earlier at the start of the Medicine Garden program, this practice of learning directly from the plants hadn’t felt so natural to the participants. Rather it felt downright weird. Crazy even. It is possible, however, to reestablish this very natural human-plant connection, to redevelop this innate ability we are all born with.

We started by sitting in a circle and asking a simpler question, “What is medicine? What does that word mean to you?”

What is medicine?

My American Heritage Dictionary lists several possibilities for the the meaning of the word medicine:

  • The science of diagnosing, treating, or preventing disease and injury to the body or mind.
  • An agent, such as a drug, used to treat disease or injury.
  • Something that is unpleasant but necessary or unavoidable.
  • Shamanistic practices or beliefs, especially among Native Americans; something such as a rite, believed to control natural or supernatural powers.

You may have noticed that the word healing is completely lacking here. This may reflect modern medicine’s focus on managing diseases by treating symptoms. Personally, I want my medicines to heal. I want them to change me so much that dis-ease disappears and health reappears.

The last definition above, referring to shamanic practices, shows an ignorance of shamanism. I know no shamans who profess to “control natural or supernatural powers.” Build relationship with them, yes. Intercede with them on behalf of clients, yes. Control them, no. 

This leaves the door wide open for us to re-imagine and develop new answers to this question, “What is medicine?” 

What are your answers?

I think of medicine as almost synonymous with healing. Any substance, practice, or thought pattern that reweaves the matrix of body or mind (body and mind) toward wholeness and full health can be considered medicine. This means that medicine is specific to each person and each situation – and it’s constantly evolving. As a child, a kiss from my mom and a bandaid worked wonders to soothe and heal many wounds. As an adult today, my homemade salve filled with plant love is what does the trick. Soothing music works for me when I’m feeling anxious. For my husband, the rhythms of chopping firewood are a better medicine. Different things are medicine for each individual, and it can change over time.

For those with strong faith, prayer is medicine. For someone with a science and chemistry background, pharmaceuticals are medicine. For those who feel their kinship with the world, ceremonies of reconnection and reciprocity are medicine.

Medicine is something that we each have the power to create. Almost anything can become medicine (can create healing and health) for someone at some time. While the substances created by the drug corporations may sometimes be effective, they need not be our only choice of medicines; nor our first choice.

There are two ideas here that I want to follow: 

  • First, inherent in our creative abilities is the power to give healing power to any substance or event. This is the Placebo Effect. 
  • Second, when we consciously engage in creating medicine, the depth of healing and extent of healing are unbounded.

Placebos are medicines that you make.

A placebo is a harmless substance such as a sugar pill that causes healing because the person taking it believes the pill is powerful. The placebo effect hinges on two things: the beliefs installed in our subconscious minds and the power of stories to sway our understanding and experience. I talk about this in The Living Earth Handbook:

“Medical science has recognized the strong power of stories for centuries and has many documented cases of patients getting better when given a placebo – a sugar pill or other benign substance that has been dressed up by a story and is masquerading as something more potent. 

Developments in neuroimaging now allow scientists to track the effects of an injection, be it a real drug or a placebo containing only a saline solution. They have found that a saline solution that is presented to the patient as a potent drug in the fight against Parkinson’s is just as capable of increasing dopamine production in their brain as is the actual drug. A placebo creates real effects, not just imagined ones. The Placebo Effect is so prevalent and powerful that drug manufacturers must demonstrate in their drug trials that their medicine is more effective than a ‘mere’ placebo.

Dr. Bruce Moseley is a surgeon who performed a placebo-controlled arthroscopic knee surgery trial on a group of ten patients in 1994. Both the group receiving real surgery and the group that received fake surgery recovered the function of their knees – and those in the placebo surgery group retained those improvements even after they learned which group they had been in. According to a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal, a similar placebo-controlled surgery study was performed in Finland with similar results. When people believe in the power of either a substance or an event to do good in their bodies, the body is able to heal itself.”

Placebos are efficient. They cause the body’s own healing chemistries and energies to become active and create well-being.

The only drawback to placebos is that they operate through our subconscious minds. You can’t consciously decide that a sugar pill will heal your arthritis and have that happen if your subconscious mind knows that sugar won’t help.

Where the body is concerned, the subconscious mind is preeminent. Without its agreement, even the most powerful chemotherapies can’t cure cancer. With its agreement, the simplest of ceremonies can prime the body’s chemistries and energies bring the dying back to health. Healing lies in the domain of what is outside our conscious control and yet inside our awareness. It is rooted in our deepest beliefs about our relationships to the things around us. What you perceive/believe to be powerful enough to heal you, becomes so.

Can we alter our subconscious beliefs? Dr Joe Dispenza, author of You are the Placebo and Becoming Supernatural, regularly demonstrates in his workshops that we can. To do so we need to access the slower brainwave states called alpha and theta. It also helps to bring the electromagnetic waves of our hearts into patterns of coherence. This coherent state of consciousness also happens to ease access into our connection to plants and other living beings. When we are connected into our subconscious operating system while simultaneously engaging with the natural world, our ability to make medicine is at its most potent. The healing that placebo medicine can bring comes because our body’s cells become more able to organize and work together. They become more coherent. The potential is always there; it just needs a catalyst.

Placebos are the catalyst that gives the mind permission to reorder the chemistry of the body. Placebos allow us to change our relationship with ourselves.

The Western medical model is built on an assumption of separation: you are seen as separate from everything outside the boundary of your skin.; your mind is seen as separate from your body. You were taught to experience yourself in this way. Yet everyday experience tells us this isn’t true. From the air outside whose oxygen becomes us, to the very real feelings we experience when witnessing someone else’s joys or sorrows, no life is separate and independent. Our boundaries are permeable.

Quantum physics demonstrates that the tiniest of particles (electrons and photons) can become entangled and remain connected even at great distances. Tickle one entangled photon and its mate will wiggle too at the exact same moment – even if they are now miles away from each other. The particles in your body are just as capable of connection. You too are entangled with the world around you.

When we alter our perception from one of separation to one of connection, we alter our relationship with everything around us.  There is leverage in this perception and experience of connection; leverage that we can use to create healing medicines. One of my goals in the Medicine Garden Program is to remind us how to take advantage of that leverage. By using our consciousness in making medicine, we can create both substances and experiences that wash away dis-ease and create instead the healing capacities that lie dormant within our body-minds. We can make our own placebos, our own catalysts for well-being.

We begin through connection and entanglement with the plants, with soil, and with water.

On the day we sat with the Asters, I was feeling a bit out of sync with myself. As I sat with the plant, admiring her cheeriness, touching her fine-veined leaves, smelling and then tasting the flower petals, I felt my chest relaxing. My breath opened up and deepened. Closing my eyes and feeling into our shared entanglement, I noticed again the cheery exuberance of the asters blooming in late October. My mind translated the sensations/communication/vibrations coming from the Asters: “We are here, seeming out of sync with the seasons perhaps, but so necessary to the bees and insects as we offer our late season pollens. Late bloomers are necessary. Relax. Enjoy. Go with your flow, even if it’s outside the ‘normal’ flow.”

As we sat in a circle afterward, describing to each other our experiences with the Asters, some common themes emerged: opening in the chest and lungs, clarity of thinking, a sense of calmness and peace with the pace of unfolding in our individual lives. Some individual notes were sounded as well, divergent experiences that added to the whole, creating a full description of the many possible actions offered by Aster on the human body and energy systems. The Aster’s ease extended into our discussion. It felt completely natural to learn directly from a plant – a living being embedded in nature’s intelligent network and entangled in the holographic field, a being offering access not only to information but to the integrated form of that: wisdom.

Later in the day during our medicine-making hour, I reconnected with the asters and asked permission to use them. Receiving that, I also asked for advice on how to best use them for myself. I felt inspired to pick the flowers and immerse them in a mix of honey and vinegar, making a deliciously sweet and sour blend called an oxymel. Throughout this winter that bottle of medicine has been a source of reconnection and healing. Just noticing it and breathing deeply, I am reminded of that day in the garden and my entanglement with Aster is rekindled. If I’m feeling particularly out-of-sorts taking a dropperful and then pausing to notice my body’s response allows Aster the space to work with me again, nudging me toward ease and clarity.

Plants are a living library growing all around us; if you need help remembering how to work with  and use that library, consider joining us in the Medicine Garden. The Spring Intensive begins on March 27th.

*For more perspectives on the value of connecting with the plant world, check out this panel discussion at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.

*For more information on the 2020 Acorn School Medicine Garden Program, click here.

Hedge Power: Growing Our Way to Health

Looking outside my bedroom window in the morning, I see birds. In the fall it was brown and spotted towhees bobbing and hopping through the hedgerow planted outside, looking for any remaining grapes or for insects in the grasses beneath. In summer, it was sparrows, titmice, and bluebirds sampling the young grapes, testing for ripeness. These grapes get no extra water in the summer or any extra care from me, so the fruits tend to be prolific but small. I browse on them too, only occasionally picking a whole cluster.


Grapes and Rose attract many birds

Today is mid-March in what’s been a mild winter with a couple of hard freezes just a week ago. The shrub rose next to the grape vine in this hedge is fully leafed out. The lavender-pink blossoms are hanging due to the frost, but still showing color. Roses are a great medicine with astringent properties that tone the gut as well as the skin. Emotionally, they are known to “gladden the heart” through their fragrance and beauty. I like to pick some of the flowers and chop the petals into salads or sprinkle over hash browns for a dash of color.

Further down the hedgerow, looking out a different window, I see the vivid blue flowers of rosemary. This part of the row is near my front door. I can easily step outside to grab a rosemary sprig for my cooking. As a thick evergreen shrub, it provides hideouts for small birds, and on a sunny afternoon hummingbirds will zing by, checking it out for nectar.

In late spring the artichoke in this hedge will send up a cluster of flower stalks. We eat most of them, letting a few bloom to feed the bees. The wide strap leaves of Amaryllis are poking already from under the edge of the rosemary. In late May or June, they will share their delectable perfume and bright pink, trumpet-shaped flowers.

Chives and kale are two others tucked into the hedgerow. The chive clump is big enough to satisfy my cooking needs. The kale reseeds itself and has been around for many years. I pick the young, tender leaves for sautés.

Lemon verbena is another medicinal shrub that grows here. The summer fragrance is intensely lemony, and bees love these flowers. I chop the leaves and mix with raspberries and rose petals in cider vinegar, letting the medicines steep into the vinegar over the course of a month or so before straining them out. This has become a favorite household staple, mixed into a refreshing summer drink or used for simple oil and vinegar salad dressings.

Pomegranate and bamboo are also part of the plant mix, and a brown turkey fig provides an anchor at the far end of the planting. This is a mixture of plants that might not work together in any other context, yet each brings beauty, functionality, and delights I hadn’t planned for because of the hedgerow design.

What is a Hedgerow?

At its simplest, a hedgerow is a mixed community of plants that creates a boundary or border within a landscape. It may be a very small plant community covering only a few dozen square feet or it may extend for many miles. Hedgerows can be straight as an arrow or sinuous and curvy like a river. They fit in both formal and informal landscapes, in small gardens or large farms, on ranches and in cities.

I may be pushing the definition of hedgerow a tad when I refer to the grapes outside my bedroom. These do have a wire fence to lean on, while a classic hedgerow is more completely freestanding. However, the mixed nature of my planting and the flow of one plant into the next makes it very like a hedgerow.

Hedgerows are often thought of as a useful strategy, but not a beautiful one. It’s true that they have most often been used to create windbreaks, divide farm fields, prevent erosion, or create a screen, but none of these uses prevents us from designing them for beauty as well – or from including plants that offer us or other creatures the medicines and foods we need.


Hedgerows are a simple way to design a soil-healing dynamo into your landscape.

Why Plant a Hedgerow?

Hedgerows are medicine for our landscapes. Whether you live in an urban or rural area, chances are the soil beneath your feet could use some help becoming fully vital and able to do all the things it can do: feed plants, sequester carbon (and lots of it), infiltrate and store rainwater, provide a home to a multitude of creatures, and support all higher forms of life – including us!

In addition to being a tool that restores health to soils, hedgerows can also be designed to create habitat and food for a wide range of wildlife; produce medicines and food for humans; modulate the flows of wind and water; and add beauty to our landscapes. Few simple strategies can offer the versatility and abundance created by a hedgerow.

Hedgerows are also easy to install and require much less maintenance than a vegetable garden or orchard while producing plenty of things to eat. The synergy created by a few well-chosen plants allows those plants to take care of each other, making less work for you. In a less formal garden, hedgerows require little care to establish and even less after that. Some pruning to keep things in balance may be all you need to do after the first few years.

There is no one formula for creating a hedgerow – that’s part of their versatility. Climate, topography, and your landscape goals all play a part in creating a hedgerow design. No matter how the hedgerow interacts with these elements, however, you can design and install it in ways that will regenerate the soil under and around it.

How Do Hedgerows Heal Soil?

The health of any landscape begins with soil and water. We have been mostly taught to think of these two things as collections of inanimate molecules whose actions are completely at the mercy of physics and chemistry. The truth, however, is that living organisms structure and organize the activities of the soil and the movement of water far more than we had previously believed possible. Bacteria and fungi are especially critical components of our soils, while bacteria are prime movers in all parts of the water cycle.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at a living soil. This soil is covered by plants or by their decaying parts, as in a forest blanketed with leaves in autumn. Sun rarely touches this soil directly. The plants create a protective buffer zone that moderates soil temperatures and the evaporation of water. This soil is a great place for bacteria and fungi to live, creatures who live in close association with the plant roots.

Plants and plant roots working in symbiosis with bacteria and fungi are the foundation of a healthy soil. Healthy plants are able to make far more sugars and other carbohydrates through photosynthesis than they need for themselves. The extra goes out through the roots into the soil. These root exudates are food for bacteria and fungi. This exchange begins the dance of community relationships that is commonly called the soil food web, a vast network of exchange for energy, water, nutrients, and information.

Soil with this active exchange network can both store the nutrients needed for plant growth – including very soluble nutrients such as nitrogen – and unlock those nutrients as they are needed. Minerals cycle in such a soil. Nitrogen, calcium, and other nutrients are there when the plants need them – and in forms that are easily digested by the plants.

Fungi are particularly active in producing the complex carbon-based molecules we know as humus and glomalin. These are stable, carbon-rich molecules that assist in the sequestration of atmospheric carbon. They create a crumbly soil that is ready to receive water. A humus-rich soil is porous and can infiltrate water effectively, even in a heavy downpour.

This assists the “small water cycle,” creating a water reserve in the soil that plants will transpire back into the atmosphere over time. This is water that will fall again as rain further inland. In a healthy ecosystem, the cycle of water from ocean to rain and back to ocean is measured in months, years, possibly even decades – not in the hours or days we currently witness as storm events send a churning current of brown, dirt-laden water down our rivers and out to the ocean.

Whenever soils are tilled or left bare, this living soil community is destroyed, along with its nutrient networks and water holding-capacity. A hedgerow is a place of stability and evolution for the soil community. It provides an ongoing safe haven for all the soil’s creatures. When soils nearby are disturbed in ways that set back this soil community, the hedgerow becomes a source of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and other creatures so critical to a healthy soil.

As soil science evolves from a chemical orientation toward d biological one, we are discovering that soil is a living organism, a structured and organized whole whose many living parts form a unity of balanced and dynamic relationships that create vitality for the whole. That whole is not just in the soil, it is the whole landscape and ecosystem, which includes you. Hedgerows are a simple way to design a soil-healing dynamo into your landscape.

What Are Other Benefits Offered By Hedgerows?

The benefits of hedgerows don’t stop with their impacts on soil and water. The many species of plants that can become a hedgerow also offer a multitude of above-ground benefits. They may offer nectar and pollen needed by bees, native pollinators, and other beneficial insects. They may offer seeds and berries that feed birds and wildlife. Their interlaced structure is also a great hiding place for small birds, toads, and other beneficial animals.

When I think of hedgerows, the hawthorn tree quickly comes to mind. This is a thorny, small tree with branches that form thickets perfect for small birds, such as juncos and towhees, to hide in. The flowers are beautiful clusters of white or pink foam, and both they and the later berries are a potent heart medicine. When in bloom, the flowers are often covered in both native bees and honeybees.


Hawthorn berries in early fall.

Hedgerows may also harbor medicine plants that benefit pets or farm animals. One of our hedgerows contains wormwood, Artemesia absinthium, a natural dewormer for farm animals. We harvest some of the gangly branches on occasion, offering them free-choice to sheep and goats. If needed the animals eat them, if not they are ignored. Artemesia flowers are loved by bees, and the silvery grey leaves are a lovely filler in bouquets, making this plant useful in many ways.

Hedgerows can also be placed to buffer winds, creating microclimates that can further diversify the landscape. They can be used to make life hospitable for tender vegetables or sensitive lemon trees. Animals, including birds and deer, may take advantage of a hedgerow for protection during storms.

Hedgerows are a healing tool, one that offers many benefits to people, animals, plants, soil, and planet.

How Do I Create a Hedgerow?

The diversity of hedgerows is up there with the number of stars in the sky. Where you live and what your goals are will strongly influence what plants go into your hedgerow. How long will your hedgerow be? How wide? How tall will it get? These are all variables determined by your location and needs.

The following are a few simple guidelines to get you started. If you are new to plants and growing things, you will want to consult with someone who has a strong knowledge of plants that do well in your area. However, getting your soil off to a good start is the same no matter where you live, and that’s one of the first steps.

1. Know Your Goals – Do you want to feed birds and bees? Attract butterflies? Grow herbal medicines for your family? Grow some of your own food? Create a fragrance oasis? Promote native plants? Knowing what benefits you want the plants in the hedgerow to provide is a great place to start. You may have several goals. That can work. The hedgerow by my home runs for 100 feet, yet it offers plenty in the way of food and medicine to meet some of my needs as well as that of the birds.

2. Choose a Location –  Hedgerows create borders and boundaries. Is there a place you would like to see screened or enclosed such as a patio or vegetable garden? Hedgerows buffer winds. Is there a prevailing wind that needs moderating? When run along the contour of a landscape, a hedgerow will help to stop water from flowing downhill, giving the water a place to sink in. Is there a place that needs this service in your landscape?

3. Prepare the Soil – Once you have a location selected, you can begin to prepare the soil. I suggest sheet mulching (see below) as an easy and effective way to start – one that mimics Nature’s soil building strategies. It also makes it easy to leave in place any existing trees, shrubs, or other plants that you want to incorporate into the hedgerow.

4. Choose Your Plants – This is the step that you want to take your time with. Once you know your goals you can start to look at lists of plants that can fulfill those goals. For example, if you want to feed birds, check in with local birding groups or county extension agents to find out what plants are best in your area. Diversity helps to build health and resilience in your hedgerow, so aim for a minimum of 8 different species – a mix of shrubs and perennials with small trees as well, if you want more height.

There is much more to be said about choosing plants, placing them, planting and tending them in the first few years as they get established. If you live in Northern California, I can help – or find someone else with good plant knowledge to help you in choosing plants especially if you are new to gardening. Ask lots of questions, and then go for it! Watch your hedgerow grow; see what creatures comes to use it; tweak if necessary; relax and enjoy!


Rose with wormwood in late summer.

*Sheet Mulching. These are the basics: Knock down any grasses or other tall weeds and cover the area to be planted with a layer of cardboard. Top the cardboard with at least 12 inches of carbon-rich mulch. This could be leaves, straw, wood chips, or anything similar that you have on hand. Pine needles are the one thing I would not recommend using, at least not on their own. Some mixed in with other stuff is fine. Water the mulch as you put it down in layers to kickstart the decomposition process. Microbes will do the rest over time.

This sheet mulch can sit for months while you decide on the plant list and placements. It’s building soil, and all you had to do was gather and put down the materials.

When you are ready to plant, push aside the mulch and cut through the cardboard with your shovel. Dig your hole, plant, and add compost at the top of the newly re-filled hole. Earthworms, which should be living under the cardboard by now, will distribute the compost in perfect amounts right where it is needed in the root zone. Resettle the mulch so that the soil is covered but not the trunk or stems of your plant. Water gently.

Options: When you first start to mulch you can put manure under the cardboard layer, but only if you know the mulch will be sitting for at least 2 or more months before you will plant. The manure layer can help to build a richer soil, but it is too strong to plant directly into before it has had a few months to break down.