There are special places out there where you can learn
to give and take on Nature’s terms.
Have you ever walked through a place that felt so good you couldn’t help but pause for a while and soak it all in? What was it about that place? A grand vista? A healthy patch of edible or medicinal plants that satisfied an immediate craving or need? A feeling of calm, peace or love?
Have you ever passed through an area that made your stomach turn, or left you with a feeling of uneasiness or disgust? What was it that made you want to keep moving? Was it piles of litter or, perhaps, the damage and negative energy left behind by drunken partiers?
Wild gardening is about creating spaces like the first one – places of subtle beauty, abundance and vitality that draw others to them, often without even knowing why. Though similar in many ways to domestic vegetable and flower gardening (aka home gardening), there are some important differences.
Domestic gardens are about reaping the greatest personal benefit from a plot of land we’ve aggressively manipulated for our own self-interest. As domestic gardeners, we struggle to control everything, cursing the things we can’t. We decide who may benefit from our labours, excluding all others – people, animals, even other plants – who don’t meet our approval. Often, we seek out the biggest, showiest, newest plants, ornaments and garden gizmos in a perennial effort to add novelty and “excitement” to our gardens – or simply to compete with our neighbours.
In contrast, wild gardens are tended for a purpose beyond self. They command an awareness that extends not only to the greater physical landscape, but to the relationships between both the living and non-living entities within them. They entice us to recognize that the minute and the magnificent are equally significant.
Many years ago, while travelling across the country by Greyhound, my friend and I took advantage of a 45-minute rest stop to explore a wooded area nearby. There, we came across a spruce tree that had fallen on top of several spruce saplings. Knowing that these saplings would have to struggle to grow through the thick branches of the downed tree, we took a few minutes to remove the obstacles to their survival. We never expected to be back, but years later, I found myself on that bus again, wondering how those little trees were doing; wondering if our small action had mattered.
I ran down to the woods to check on those little saplings and was thrilled to find beautiful four-foot specimens in their place – and signs that children were spending a lot more time in those woods.
As wild gardeners, we see ourselves as a part of, not apart from, nature. We work with what’s already there, accepting that we are not masters but, rather, caretakers of the land. Our impact is often subtle, and we expect no recognition for it. Instead, we take comfort in the fact that what we do will benefit many, on many levels, even if we don’t benefit directly ourselves.
There are a few different ways to practise wild gardening:
- We can be caretakers of an existing wild space.
- We can rewild a tame environment.
- We can encourage and harvest “weeds” where they already exist in habitats disturbed by human encroachment or disruptive natural events, like flood or drought.
Wild gardening is not simply a matter of planting our favourite flowers in wild spaces. Research, and mindfulness of what’s best for the overall ecosystem, are crucial, because our actions can be far-reaching and long-lasting.
Many natural areas are suffering from human disturbance and neglect. While well-intentioned, the adage “take only pictures, leave only footprints” implies that the earth is better off if people do nothing. It leaves no room for lending a hand when nature needs our help.
When human populations were much smaller than they are today, people could break camp and move on when resources got scarce, allowing the depleted land time to recover. We no longer have that option, so we must care for our surroundings as though – or rather because – our lives depend on it.
As wild gardeners, or caretakers, it’s crucial that we get to know the area we want to look after in an intimate way, not as outsiders looking in. Awareness, observation and research are key.
Start by thinking of a natural area that resonates with you – a place where you like to spend time whenever possible. Perhaps it’s a place where you like to jog, walk your dog, or just sit and enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of nature. It may be several acres, or several square metres. Now bring that image to life – imagine you’re there. How well do you really know this area? Before we attempt to change a landscape, these are the types of questions we should be able to answer:
- Is the area prone to natural disturbances? What types of disturbances – fire, flood, wind, drought, voracious herbivores? What is the natural cycle of these disturbances?
- What animals live there (including insects)? Are there signs of animals you’ve never seen? What are they eating (insects, seeds, fruit)? What’s eating them?
- What kinds of trees and other plants live there, and how do they contribute to the vitality and resilience of that habitat? For example, do they provide shade, food or nesting cover for birds?
- Which particular plants or plant types are commonplace in your wild garden space? Which ones are rare? What does this tell you about the area? For example, a large proportion of thorny or prickly woody plants and herbs indicates a disproportionate number of herbivores have likely outstripped the food supply.
- Are the species growing in your area native to the area or are they “introduced,” that is, native to other countries or ecosystems? This will tell you how much human disturbance has already influenced your garden. (Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers will help you identify which plants are “aliens.”)
- Which native species are commonly found in the habitat of your garden? Are they all there? Which ones are missing, and why? Would adding them back be beneficial to the existing plant community – or harmful? In other words, do they complement or compete with each other?
Yes, these are difficult questions. So where do we even start?
We can shave a lot of time off of our learning curve by reading books and talking to people who know about the general ecological functions of the area we’re interested in – something I highly recommend. But there’s no substitute for spending time there and getting to know it firsthand.
Simply following methods found in books can have disastrous effects if your site differs at all from the book’s site in terms of drainage, soil type, elevation, or other seemingly minor, yet crucial, details. For example, putting cattle on native pastures with well-drained, sandy soil can help regenerate native grassland species. But putting them on poorly drained native pastures can result
in long-term soil compaction that makes drainage even worse, and leads to a dramatic change in species composition – species that cattle (and other herbivores) don’t like to eat.
One of the biggest challenges of wild gardening is letting go of our egos and accepting that we don’t have total control over our natural environment. Rather, we are just one of many forces that shape it. By working together with other natural elements, such as fire and wind, we can help to create wild spaces that all manner of life can benefit from, not just ourselves. For example, when reintroducing native species to an area, we can take advantage of prevailing winds by sowing plants with wind-dispersed seeds on the upwind side of the area we’d like them to spread to.
Emotions and feelings are very important, so be aware of how you feel in your wild space as well as when you take actions that will impact it. Does your intervention feel right, or are you imposing your will on the landscape?
When I was first introduced to chaga, a medicinal mushroom that grows on birch trees, I was encouraged to harvest the entire mushroom because “it’ll grow back” … over a period of five years.
When I started harvesting it myself, I adopted this method even though it didn’t feel right, and I followed a loose five-year rotational harvesting schedule. One day, I came across a mushroom that had a chunk missing from it. I thought it was odd, since I don’t know of any animals that eat chaga, but I took the rest and continued on, noticing that every chaga mushroom in that area was also missing a piece. Before long, it dawned on me that I was in someone else’s medicine garden.
Someone who had taken care to ensure there would be a continuous supply of chaga in this area.
Someone who, perhaps, was treating a loved one with cancer. I wondered what they would think when they came back to find their medicine chest ransacked. I felt horribly ashamed of myself for having only considered the people I was collecting the chaga for and not those who might come through this forest after me. I immediately left the area and have followed the example of this mindful harvester ever since.
Getting to know one area really well takes time and patience, but there are simple actions we can take to improve the health and energy of a wild space while we’re learning.
Picking up litter requires no knowledge of ecology or plant species, yet it has a dramatic effect on the look and feel of a wild space. When cleaning up an area, it’s easy to harbour negative thoughts and feelings about the perpetrators of the mess, but I prefer to focus on how much better the place will look and feel when I’m done – not just for myself, but for the next person who comes along.
I’m often reminded of a friend who was intent on building a primitive shelter in an urban green space. Between work and other commitments, his time was limited, but he’d go out to his secret site whenever he had a spare hour or so. One day, while heading to his shelter, he noticed all the garbage littering the woods. Without a second thought, he grabbed a stray bag and started filling it.
After some time, he reminded himself that he was supposed to be working on his shelter. He stood up and looked around, and was struck by an unexpected realization: he already had.
Areas that are highly influenced by human disturbance often have an abundance of exotic plant species such as burdock, chickweed and stinging nettle. These areas will probably never return to their original condition without massive inputs of human energy and resources. So why not go with the flow and harvest some of these valuable, exotic foods and medicines while encouraging even healthier, more productive growth for the future? This means harvesting in a way that promotes regeneration and tweaking the habitat so it remains favourable for continued growth.
Though I wholeheartedly encourage people to take advantage of “weeds” where they already exist, I do not advocate seeding or transplanting these plants to areas where they will, or could eventually, invade our already-threatened native habitats. Species like comfrey, St. John’s wort and sea buckthorn are commonly promoted by permaculture enthusiasts with little thought as to how these plants will impact the landscape when the person who planted them is no longer around to care for them. I know of four unique areas where comfrey has escaped its previous garden confines and is all but impossible to control because its creeping roots are too deep to remove, even with a drain spade.
Some introduced plant species, including St. John’s-wort, are labelled “invasive” because they tend to spread quickly and unhindered, eventually transforming habitats by outcompeting native species.
Find out which invasive species may have stolen into your wild garden (invasivespeciesmanitoba.com is a good place to start) and do what you can to remove them or at least control their spread by removing their flower or seed heads and disposing of these in a way that won’t result in further spread.
Getting to know the diverse fauna and flora of your wild garden might seem overwhelming at first. A simple way to get your foot in the door is to choose just one or two of the plants and get to know just them – really well. Learn to recognize them in any season, including winter. Where do they grow? Where don’t they grow?
Take note of areas and conditions where your chosen plants are healthy and robust and compare them to areas where they’re lanky, discoloured, stunted or sickly looking. Are these different areas wet or dry, sunny or shady, warm or cool, open or densely vegetated, regularly disturbed or not? Is the soil loose or compact, rich or poor, polluted or healthy? What other plants are yours associated with? (You don’t need to know these other plants’ names, just recognize them.) Do they stifle your plants’ growth?
For edible root crops, learn which soil conditions produce decent-sized roots that are relatively easy to harvest. Experiment! For example, burdock roots tend to grow long and straight in loose, well-drained soil and short and branched in poorly drained, compacted soils like Red River gumbo.
As you become more familiar with just these two plants, you will understand the importance of how they contribute to and respond to their environment. But you will also find yourself taking note of things you never before gave a second glance to. Thanks to these two plants, a door will open to a whole new world.
Botanist, writer and founder of Prairie Shore Botanicals (psbotanicals.com), Laura Reeves loves to share her enthusiasm for wild edibles and wilderness skills through courses, workshops, private consultations and an upcoming wild edible video series. Her new book, Laura Reeves’ Guide to Useful Plants: From Acorns to Zoom Sticks, is a local bestseller.
Botanist, writer and founder of Prairie Shore Botanicals, Laura Reeves loves to share her enthusiasm for wild edibles and wilderness skills through courses, workshops, private consultations and an upcoming wild edible video series. Her new book, Laura Reeves’ Guide to Useful Plants: From Acorns to Zoom Sticks, is a local bestseller. For more info, visit and like Prairie Shore Botanicals on Facebook.