Category Archives: Gardening

Stacking Functions and Herb Bed Design


As many of us are working in our herb gardens this time of the year, I thought I would don my gardening smock and talk about my particular gardening philosophy-ecological landscape design.

Coming from a homesteading background, I am a strong believer in a big annual vegetable garden, canning, freezing and preserving. Here in the Midwest, where nothing grows in the winter, it is especially important to put food by.

In studying plant ecology and ecological design at Goddard, I came to the idea that using this method when planting our gardens is ideal. It is far less labor intensive than conventional gardening and does not utilize harmful chemicals.

Gardens based on ecological design heal the planet. They create pockets of wellness in the ecosystem and promote mutually beneficial relationships with other creatures-healing the rift between humans and nature. This is an integral part of creating wellness.

In ecological design, gardeners create supportive communities of plants, insects and animals, based on ecological function, called guilds.

The classic example of an annual vegetable guild is that of the three sisters in which beans are planted around the base of corn plants to fix nitrogen in the soil. Squash is planted as ground cover to help retain moisture in the soil and prevent erosion.

A fourth member , less widely known, element of this guild was utilized for attracting pollinators and improving the yield of the beans and corn is Cleome serrulata or Rocky Mountain Bee plant.  An alternate common name of this plant “Navaho spinach” relays the fact that the plant was a source of food. It was also used as a medicinal and as a dye.

When an element serves multiple purposes in a system it is said to have stacking functions. Picking plants with stacking functions is especially important to gardeners working in very small spaces.

This  method of planting can be applied to perennial herb beds if we are aware of the ecological function plants serve. Different teachers use different terms but some basic functions include:

1. Nitrogen fixersherbal stacking functions
These plants have of nodules full of Rhizobia in their roots systems which convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogenous compound in the soil.

2. Dynamic Accumulators
These plants usually have large tap roots which will break up compacted soil and carry nutrients buried deep in the earth to their leaves. When cut back and left as mulch they reintroduce these nutrients to the top soil.

3. Beneficial Insect Attractors
These plants draw insects and birds to your garden. Ideally placing these plants near berry plants or bean plants will encourage yield through increased pollination. Insects and birds also serve the purpose of controlling pest problems in your garden.

Other categories include ground cover, host plants for butterflies, and plants for providing wildlife habitat.

Once we know the needs a plant meets in an ecosystem, we can begin to use this idea when planning our gardens.

Pick plants with multiple functions for your beds.  A low growing plant from any of these categories will act as ground cover.

When designing your perennial beds keep this information in mind, even if it is something as simple as planting peas and oats together.

For example, the picture below is my Berry Guild.  It is the newest guild I have  planted.  It is taking the place of my poke forest which I relocated inside the fence because of neighborhood children.
The plants include two  red currant bushes, thorn-less blackberries, strawberries, clover and anise hyssop.  In addition to being medicinals, the clover is a nitrogen fixer. Both the clover and the hyssop, are fairly low to the ground, and will attract pollinators to the fruit bearers. The strawberries will provide ground cover and hopefully lots of berries.

There is also  some volunteer lemon balm and feverfew that I am leaving in place.The idea here is to get the whole area covered. I am tired of wood mulch. You can’t see it in the picture, but there is also a bird house on the fence.


There is certainly much more to ecological design than I have explained here as plants serve many more functions. If you look on Faoi’s page here on the blog, I have last year’s plant inventory posted for downloading with a list of its functions. Not all of my plants are in ideal guilds, yet. It is definitely a work in progess.

I usually recommend Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden as a good starting point for people who want to learn more.

A more thorough primer is Edible Forest Gardens written by Dave Jacke and  Eric Toensmeier.

A useful database that explains ecological functions of many plants is the  “Natural Capital Plant Database”  put together by Daniel Halsey and Paula Westmoreland.

Starting Seeds at Home


ISU Extension recommends equal parts of top soil, peat moss and perlite. I prefer to have less sand or perlite because you don’t have to your transplants as often if there is more organic material in the soil. I use the following combination when I make my own. It also works better with the soil block makers.

I don’t use peat moss due to the negative environmental impact. Organic Gardening ran an article that explains that all very well, if you are interested.

2 parts top soil
2 parts coco peat or compost
1 part sand or perlite

I mix a few organic additives in the mix to provide nutrients to the seedlings, although I don’t add nitrogen at this point. We want to focus on healthy roots at this stage, not green leafy growth.   Phosphorous encourages root growth. Bone meal and azomite are good sources.

If you make your own soil, it needs to be sterilized.. This is very important. Soil can be sterilized by heating it in a 180 degree oven for 30 minutes. I use a crockpot or my granny roaster depending on how much soil I need.


You can use many sorts of containers to plant the seeds. To begin with I planted them in cardboard egg cartons. Then I moved up to the coco-peat containers. Now I use a soil block maker system. I’ve had my seed block makers for five years now.  While it has definite space-saving benefits and conserves soil,  my favorite part about using it is that my transplants won’t become root-bound and experience very little transplant shock.

Roots are smart.  If they encounter too much resistance, they try to find a way to go around it.  They stop growing when they no longer encounter resistance.  This is called air pruning.  If you leave room for airspace around your cubes, the roots will NOT grow together. I have never had that problem. If the cubes are touching, the roots will continue to grow into the next.

If you use egg cartons, you will need to transplant into a larger container eventually as they are not larger enough to support a seedling. You can save larger containers for transplanting. It important to make sure that you have cleaned and sterilized these containers.

If you make your own newspaper pots, they need to be a minimum of 2 ½ inches high by 2 inches in diameter. Paper pots may disintegrate within five weeks.

To fill any of the containers:

Pack them with potting soil, moisten the soil with warm water and tamp it down a bit. Allow the soil to drain and repeat as necessary to fill your containers.


Before you plant your seeds it is good to know which seeds are cold germinators and which seeds need a warmer start so that they can be placed in different spots. A kale seed will germinate at 55 degrees, while tomatoes germinate at 75 degrees. Watermelon may not successfully germinate until it is 85 degrees. Additionally some seeds germinate overnight while others take weeks. As containers need to be covered until germination, it is good to group them accordingly. Most of your vegetable seeds will germinate within 7 – 14 days. Some herb and flower seeds need a period of cold stratification before they will germinate. The best guide on how to germinate seeds I have found is available on the Internet at     The Seed Site is also a  great site, but I find his germination charts to be confusing.

1. Plant seeds. It is not necessary to plant seeds deeply. If you think about how seeds self-sow in nature, you realize that they are just lying on the surface of the soil. Thick and thin is the best motto when planting seeds.

Fine seeds simply be sprinkled on the surface or you can use the paint brush trick.

Medium seeds can be covered to a depth that no greater than the thickness of the seed. It is always better to cover the seed with too little dirt than to bury it too deeply.

Large seeds can simply be pressed into the surface and covered lightly.

2. Cover the top of your container with transparent material such as plastic film or a plastic lid to keep moisture in. Remove this cover as SOON as you see germination.

diy growing lightsLighting

Your seedlings should be receiving at the very least eight solid hours of light per day. A 12 hour light-dark cycle is more desirable. You will likely need to use artificial light to accomplish this. It doesn’t have to be a fancy set up. You can use a shop light with one warm bulb and one cool bulb on a timer. The lights should hang between 6-8 inches above the top of the seedlings, which may mean raising the lights, as the seedlings grow. If they are trying to grow too quickly to “reach” the light, they become long and leggy. Putting your seedlings in a window will work but you will probably find that the plant grows toward the light and gets a little leggy.


It is best to keep the soil moist by lightly misting it with a spray bottle or a pump sprayer, rather than actually pouring water on top of the seedlings. This causes seeds to drift and may result in fungal problems. I like to bottom water my larger soil blocks but I wouldn’t do this with my small blocks.

Air Circulation

Once your seedlings are growing it helps to have air circulating above them. This discourages fungal growth and simulates the wind triggering thigmomorphogenesis. This is beneficial to the plant because it results in shorter sturdier stems. (Stern: Introduction to Plant Biology – 198). If you don’t have a fan, you can just ruffle your hand gently across your seedlings. For plants that need to be started at warmer temperatures such as peppers, tomatoes and basil, you can use one of those heater fans to heat the air around the trays. I have found this to be more effective than bottom heat.


The first two leaves that emerge are known as the cotyledons.  These are not true leaves and they will yellow and fall off as true leaves appear.  If you need to transplant seedlings to a larger container this can be done any time after the first true set of leaves appears but I like to wait until the second set appears.

Hardening Off

Seedlings grown inside need to be hardened off by gradually exposing them to daylight and outdoor growing conditions. 7-10 days before you are going to plant them in the ground, set your seedlings in a protected shady place. Every day after this put them in the sunlight for successively longer periods, until they are ready to put out.

Planting Out
I like to try to plant my starts out on a cloudy day which is usually easy to accomplish in the spring. Don’t hurry the plants be sure to wait until temperatures are appropriate and soil crumbles easily in your hands. If you work damp soil too soon in the spring, you are likely to create compaction and other problems.


Wellness Garden

PicMonkey CollageGardening has always been an interest of mine. I’ve always had more time than money, so gardening was an integral factor in my family’s access to healthy foods.    When I decided to attend the Master Gardening classes at the Extension office, it was with the idea that maybe I could teach gardening to people as a way of helping people who couldn’t otherwise afford it to grow their own healthy food.

Over the years I’ve come to see gardening as much more than access to food.  I recently wrote a short paper  on the range of environmental factors that influence health.    I may share that once the semester is over or I may submit it for publication elsewhere.   It is all full of footnotes and citations and not something I would normally share on this blog.  While I was working on this,  in my brain it suddenly clicked for me how many different ways gardening can help people meet their health needs.

So I have decided to  start incorporating my sustainability studies into  my work with clients.  As my dear friend Margi puts it, I am a lumper.   One of the ways I will do this is to  provide them with an individualized garden plan and guidance on creating  their own wellness garden.

I don’t think that the wellness garden model has to be the same for everyone.    Perhaps a community healing garden, could be established at a local park?  Container gardening on an apartment balcony is an option, as well.    Perhaps  clients  could collaborate; creating more connections?     I envision myself hosting free preparation classes and plant swapping parties for clients in the future.  I will be offering up free starts from my teaching garden.  There is no reason one should ever have to pay for an herbal preparation.   They are simply too easy to do for yourself.

Each client’s wellness garden will be designed according to  specific   needs, but with the idea that gardening will have the following universal benefits:

1. Connection to Place      Traditionally,  it was common for migrating populations to carry medicinal and seed plants with them in their wanderings.   This is ancient wisdom and  one of  the ways humans have  managed to disperse our plant friends all over the world.   Recent research affirms that creating a familiar landscape can help people acclimate to new surroundings.

Gardening may also help people to connect to their community in concrete ways.   They might work in a community garden plot or share extra produce with their neighbors.   By attending local gardening talks and plant sales, they may  create connections with people who share a common interest, as well.   The closing ritual at the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference involved everyone bringing seeds to the gathering, mixing them and sending small pouches home, with each attendant,  for sowing.   It was such a lovely tangible way to create connection.

2.  Stress Reduction       While any form of relaxation can help one shift down, it seems that gardening may have greater impact.    In a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology in  2011 researchers stated that:   “Thirty allotment gardeners performed a stressful Stroop task and were then randomly assigned to 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading on their own allotment plot. Salivary cortisol levels and self-reported mood were repeatedly measured. Gardening and reading each led to decreases in cortisol during the recovery period, but decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group. Positive mood was fully restored after gardening, but further deteriorated during reading.”

3. Exercise    How beneficial gardening is obviously depends on the level of activity involved.   Someone who works for hours a day  in their  garden derives more benefit than someone who only spends 10-15 minutes a day  weeding and harvesting,  but anything that gets people up off the couch and moving is worthwhile.

4. Self-Sufficiency     If  our  goal as herbalists is to give the medicine back to the people, we need to make recommendation such that our clients are able to grow and harvest  their own food and herbs for wellness.    My studies have led me to believe that using permaculture methods to design “wellness gardens” is the optimal method of doing so because it is far less labor intensive than conventional gardening.

5.  Environmental Healing    Gardens based on ecological design heal the planet.  They create pockets of wellness in the ecosystem and promote mutually beneficial relationships with other creatures healing the rift between humans and nature.  This to me is an integral part of creating wellness.    Humans are only one part of a much larger system and until the integrity of that system is restored, we can never truly be well.

6.  Creating a Sense of  Engagement    As a rather disillusioned Occupier,  I have come to the unpleasant reality that  very little we do will effect systematic change.   To say that is disheartening would be an understatement.   However for many people, myself included,  gardening becomes a form of activism.  As guerrilla gardener Ray Finley so eloquently put it in  a recent TedTalk:  “Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries.”

7. Economy    Even those who are truly reticent may change their tune when they realize the savings involved in growing your own herbs,  growing your own nutrient rich fruits and vegetables and making your own herbal preparations.

I recognize the importance of meeting clients where they are.   I know not everyone wants to garden or has a space where they are able to grow food.  Also there will always be those people who are so pressed for time that adding more work to their schedule would not be health promoting.    So as a back-up,  practicing herbalists should have access to a teaching garden as  a place where they can help those clients understand that healing comes from the Earth and not from a store.

Teaching Garden Plans

Trillium Plant from Echollective CSA


In the latest issue of the Essential Herbal, there are a couple articles on ethical harvesting of herbs; one of  which I wrote.  I was glad to see more than one person submitted articles like that.   The ethics surrounding plant ecology and herbalism is so important to me that it is  one of the things I study at school.  Right now much of the focus of my research is on the issue of natives vs non-indigenous plant.   It has certainly been an education for me. Previous to this semester of school, I weighed in heavily on the natives end of this debate.   Since beginning my work my feelings on this are not so clear cut. In fact I am beginning to see some plants as the precious gift from the Ecology, if we would just learn to listen more deeply to their message.

Regardless of where I land on this issue, one thing is certain.   The use of medicinal plants contributed hugely to the disappearance of some plants in our native landscapes.  In addition to being mindful of the way I harvest herbs,  I feel it is my responsibility to grow and protect some of those plants that we  have harvested to the point of endangerment.  One way I think that herbalists can do this is to establish teaching gardens in our yards or communities.  I certainly have seen plenty of beautiful examples to learn from.   I’ve been working on my garden since I moved here six years ago.    Walking a student or a client through my yard to learn identification seems safer to me than traipsing around in delicate ecosystems, creating more human disturbance.     I do have issues with public displays.    On some levels this idea of inviting strangers into my space is unsettling to me.  I have a very personal relationship with my plants and the idea of people poking around in my sacred place, is a little unsettling to me. I worry about the energy bringing people into my space will create.   Knowing that I am not alone in my introversion, I can’t imagine I am the only  gardener to feel that way.  I have been thinking about this in the context of my environmental health studies which are currently focusing on the role sense of place has on well-being.  I am thinking that this project will bring me personal experience in this area as well.

EchinaceaSo while I mull all of this over,  I am working to re-design my garden.  My hope is  that one day be a learning place; not only about herbalism but about the permaculture techniques I am studying, as well.
It will likely be my part of my senior project; incorporating  design, ecology, plant propagation and Materia Medica knowledge.   Technically that is something I begin working with on in the fall semester, but  it is something I need to begin planning now as I transplant wandering plants and introduce new friends in my garden this Spring.  Someday maybe I will have the smallest sanctuary on the UPS list.  At least I already have a name for it.

Any other suggestions would be welcome….