A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Herb Gardens – Wild Plant Foraging and Conscious Gardening with Dina Falconi

By Erica Paige Schumacher

Somewhere between the imaginative lands of “How Does Your Garden Grow?” and the Beatles’ song, “Let it Be,” lies an untrammeled path of conscious cultivation that may lead us somewhere new, yet very old, and perhaps somewhat wild (in a good way). To a place of balance with nature, at least balance in our gardens, with the Hudson Valley’s natural landscapes, or healing the land and ourselves in mind.

The lessons of nature are poetic, metaphysical, mystical, and seasonal. A harsh winter in which we must rely on one another, our wits and resourcefulness, prudence, friends, and neighbors—give way if we are lucky, or intelligent—to sprouting buds and trees, the seeding of the earth, birds, and bees that pollinate flowers and make food, and plants, animals, and people that grow or run around in a spirit of joie de vivre, or a humbler tone of simple and grateful abundance.

Spring and the warmer seasons also have their perils. Too much of a good thing can become domineering, controlling, or invasive (as in the case of some non-native plants, trees, or bugs). Mosquitos and ticks are not only a nuisance or a bother to humans (they are also food to birds and other important creatures), but these can also carry the potential for diseases, and some plants while beautiful, are poisonous to us or to pets, or can cause life altering allergies, ecosystem disorder, or rashes.

For those who wish to see a more evolved future or present in which plants, animals, and people co-exist as one harmonious ecosystem, some might say it is a very good time to become reacquainted with one’s own landscape, or the community landscape and its potential lessons and gifts. In a sense, while many feel powerless to change the world or its grand or minute gestures that may agitate or disturb, we can view our own immediate environment as a microcosm of the macrocosm; a small world that can be honored to ripple out on some level to our larger world—to nourish it, imbue it with greater meaning or beauty, or to sustain it.

Fortunately, people can do this as resourcefully as nature itself—finding seasonal opportunities to grow herbs, flowers, or trees that are healing, beautiful or beneficial throughout the seasons; plantings that attract birds, beetles, bees, or feed people; growing European herbs and spices in pots or gardens that can transform into beautiful nutritious meals, or create healing states of mindful awareness or bodily health throughout the year at little cost in terms of teas, tinctures, salves, non-toxic home hygiene, or allergy relief.

The Hudson Valley is a place where one’s own “yard” or ecosystem can be a wonderful living laboratory to start small or dream tangibly to cultivate or steward one’s particular vision alongside nature’s own rhythms and teachings. According to Dina Falconi, herbalist and author of Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook, it is better to “grow, not mow.” She recommends knowing the landscape and what it is offering prior to designing it or bending it to one’s will.

The first step in understanding one’s land or the lands of one’s community is simply to take part in curiosity and observation. She also recommends avoiding the common culprits that cause imbalances within our ecosystem: if possible, avoid using herbicides or pesticides. “Growing things is great, but there’s so much here before you ever grow,” Falconi states. “Become a land steward. You want to create a space you love, and perhaps have areas to not control.”

This initial hands-off philosophy of simple or meditative observation allows many things to happen. It often provides a natural landscape for birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife. It may also provide wild food or herbal medicine one is unaware of that can be used for health or well-being throughout the seasons in various forms. Falconi is passionate about this attentive state of meditative observation and being present with what the land bears on its own. “First you’re observing the landscape, and you want to see what’s there,” Falconi says. “I like to help people to see beauty differently and engage with it differently…it’s a dance between observing the landscape, and then getting in there to create more biodiversity, more fertility, and more usefulness based on your values.”

In terms of “helpful plants,” that one might want to re-imagine, Falconi cites the often misunderstood and underestimated dandelion, “Dandelions are a source of nectar to the bees.” Humans can eat dandelion leaves for nutritional value, and roots can be used as healthful tonics, and a relaxing full-bodied nighttime tea for improved liver function. “We should really be having dandelion festivals, not dandelion herbicides,” she said. This overlooked wildflower and its roots have many health benefits, functioning like much of nature’s pantry as both a food and a medicine.

Falconi also recommends paying attention to edible and medicinal wild plants such as gill-over-the-ground (also known as ground ivy or creeping charlie), which is an early source of pollen for the bees that blooms in little purple bell-shaped flowers and can be eaten in salad; it attracts other insects, and has been used in folkloric medicine in teas to treat colds, bronchitis, fevers, sinus issues, and congestion. Some believe the mint family herb, which was imported by Europeans, is supportive of the liver, stomach, and kidneys. However, like other imported plants, it is invasive, and so it is best kept to one aspect of one’s landscape or contained.

Falconi’s books are widely read and her workshops are often sold out. Perhaps this is due to her beautiful sensibility and attitude about allowing things to grow, noticing what’s there, and working with nature, as well as what one might want from a garden or landscape (for example, perhaps potted herbs for cooking may not be natural to the Hudson Valley, but they add beauty, delicious nutrition, and fabulous aromas to the kitchen’s territory and healthy nutrition to family fare). She advises knowing the land, knowing oneself, and co-creating within that range of potential, consciously.

Some may want to leave parts of the landscape wild for the birds, beetles, and bees and cultivate herbs that may normally grow in dryer European climates or soils, yet offer health and beauty outside one’s kitchen door. The point is not to be extreme, but perhaps to designate different parts of the landscape that function as a whole canvas for different and co-creative purposes. “I like eating garlic mustard and I am glad to have it within my reach, but I also need to control it heavily, so I can grow other things like goldenseal,” she states.

So, rather than having a perfectly manicured (or poisonous) lawn without any nutritional or ecosystem benefit as a model, or a wild overgrown yard on the other extreme end, Falconi just wants people to be aware of what grows naturally and harmoniously, and then make conscious choices with nature as stewards and shapers in union with that mysterious force. “We can play that role in the choices we make…not to control, but not by being hands-off, either.” The beauty of this approach or philosophy is that we rediscover our creative abilities alongside Nature’s. Within that is a whole range of healing potential, learning, and beautiful healthful eating, natural exercise, ecosystem, and wildlife support and more optimized living. Ultimately, working alongside nature to heal the land, birds, bees, families, and community is a creative act. “I have a bias towards foraging,” Falconi states. “The wild plays a big part in what I do, but we can also introduce what’s endangered and bring in exotics that are important.”

Falconi and other local herbal and plant experts are not all purists; she thinks the history of a plant is important, as well as knowing its natural habitat and its uses. She cited goldenseal as an important herb to reintroduce. Native Americans knew it as a medicinal plant for many ailments; they then taught the settlers about the herb’s healing components. “It was virtually wiped out due to the loss of old-growth forests, and it was over harvested,” Falconi states. Goldenseal is a strong antimicrobial and has other therapeutic properties. Falconi is not opposed to growing things from Asia, or other regions as long as something is investigated as non-invasive. “For example, Hardy Kiwi is Russian and Asian in its origins, and it can be grown for many reasons. It offers people Vitamin C, it provides important bird habitat, and it doesn’t invade anything,” she states. “Again, it depends on how it is managed.”

Though Falconi and other local experts recommend wildcrafting and foraging for many important reasons, they do not overlook the utility and beauty of potted gardens for Mediterranean culinary herbs such as thyme, basil, rosemary, and oregano. “One can have herbs from the Island of Crete in pots,” Falconi states, adding that these herbs can weave a lot of flavor, aroma, tradition, and nutrition into every meal, honoring family or European roots or dishes with herbs plucked from a potted garden that would not naturally exist in the Hudson Valley. “A person can choose to grow potted plants that would not naturally be here, and have an amazing burst of flavors that are full of antioxidants and immune supportive constituents,” Falconi states. “And a pinch goes a long way. That pinch has a lot of medicine and flavor in it.”

“To invite butterflies, let your milkweeds grow,” Falconi adds. “Once you open your eyes, and see the land differently, you can shape the land for specific things.” For allergies, Falconi is reluctant to see one herb for one set of symptoms; healing is not a zero-sum game. She views the planet and each person holistically and sees the human organism in relationship to the whole cosmos—much like Leonardo Da Vinci in his Vitruvian Man drawing. However, she points out nature’s wisdom on this point. “Nettle comes up as the tree pollens come out…so spring arrives, pollen arrives, and nettle also arrives.” Nettle has been used to treat inflammation from histamine responses. “So in the early spring nettle arrives and serves as potent food and medicine for about four to six weeks, and then it gets taller and can be used as a tea. In the fall you also have goldenrod and its flowering tops can be used for allergy and sinus symptoms.”

Nature’s wisdom is cyclical and supportive. Studies show that older people who are given a plant to take care of in their later years have greater happiness and longevity. One can conclude from this logic that taking time out in the yard, landscape, on one’s rented deck or in a community garden has the same beneficial and tonic effects for people and wildlife in all life stages or phases of life. And there is something beautiful and mysterious about it all that may be as communicative as existence itself. In addition, or in sum, what we do with our landscapes is very important for all species of animals, the birds, the bees, and other insects that support life.

To learn more about Dina Falconi’s important work, books, and philosophy visit: botanicalartspress.com.