One of the greatest blessings of gardening and growing things is the deep energetic connections that you can develop with plants. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February, where I tend it and keep it sheltered from the winter weather to the planting and mulching of that small pepper in late May. This relationship continues as I nurture it into maturity throughout the summer, when flowers and the actual peppers start to emerge. I monitor that pepper plant for insects and disease and do what I can to ensure its success. Finally, I watch the peppers grow large and fat in the heat of the summer. At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that pepper plant. When I eat the pepper in late August, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it. When I save the seed from that pepper for the next season, the relationship becomes even stronger. The pepper will not be casually wasted, given how much energy has been put into it. We are connected; that connection is sacred. The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence that I create with the plants. This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing and preserving some of my own food and dedicating myself to gardening as a sacred practice. You wouldn’t know the difference between a factory-farmed pepper or your home-grown pepper if the factory-farmed pepper is all you’ve ever eaten. Someone growing up in a non-industrialized culture from birth would learn to recognize and nurture that sacred connection between the human and the soil, and the codependency that connection provides. However, for people growing up in western industrialized cultures, not only do we not have the connection—we don’t’ even realize one is missing.
Whether we are growing in pots on our porch or in a big garden, all gardens offer us opportunities for these connections. It is in these gardens that we can begin to cultivate and to understand the sacred: a sacred awareness of the plants and their cycles; a sacred awareness of the magic of the seed and the soil; and a sacred awareness of our relationship to the growing things, the mystery of life.
And yet, conventional ‘gardening wisdom’ is often full of things that aren’t that healthy for cultivating natural relationships. I had hoped, a few years ago, to get a Master Gardener certification–once I saw the number of pesticides and non-organic methods they taught, I went the permaculture design route instead. I think a lot of the conventional wisdom about gardening, whether it’s importing non-natural additives, spraying, etc, takes us further from a sacred relationship with the living earth. Given that, in this post, as I’m excited to start gardening again soon and have been starting many seeds, I wanted to share some ideas and ideas for a true “Druid’s Garden!”
Sacred Gardening: Wheel of Principles
In order to think about sacred gardening, druid gardening, I’ve developed a “wheel of principles” that help me make decisions about my garden. Some of these are rooted in permaculture design, others are more druidical in nature, still others are insights I’ve gained over the years of living and working with this approach. Think of the wheel of principles like general ideas to think about or guidelines; ways of ensuring a sacred experience while you are starting to tend your plants for the coming year.
Working on the Inner and the Outer
This basic magical principle, derived from hermetic magical practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underlying idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on the physical. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. In the disenchanted world we live in, the non-physical, spiritual aspects to various activities are simply not considered—gardening is no exception. We’ll be working with this principle in every chapter of this book—it is the cornerstone of sacred gardening.
Harmony with nature
Nature provides us with an incredible amount of lessons and patterns to work with—by studying nature, we learn all we need to know about how to live regeneratively. This was the basic practice that allowed permaculture design to develop, and it’s similarly the basic understanding that drives our actions. A big part of the challenge with harmony with nature is that a lot of people don’t know how to live harmoniously any longer, and many of the other principles in this chapter and this book give clear guidance on how to do so.
The most basic principle of sacred gardening is to create a landscape that is in harmony with nature, rather opposed to it, and to create a landscape that produces yields beyond food for the human being. Yes, you read that might—sacred gardening is about much more than vegetables, and embraces the permaculture ethical principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. This requires us to question everything we know, or think we know about growing plants, reject the urge to consume, and throw out a good deal of the “conventional” wisdom that has been ported into our heads in the name of consumerism. This is because most conventional wisdom has a price tag attached, and rarely is anything you purchase to put in your garden from a big box store is healthy to you or to the land.
We think of a “yield” from a garden, the amount of vegetables, fruits, and herbs you can harvest is likely the first (and possibly only) thing that comes to mind. But if we are thinking about gardening as a regenerative practice for our lands, earth care also is critical. This means that our yield can also be habitat, nectar, improved soil fertility, improved biodiversity, better water retention, beauty, community, a place for meditation and prayer, and so many other things. In other words, if we extend our idea of what a yield from the garden looks like, then we can yield as much for the land as four ourselves.
Parts to the Whole
This principle is derived from permaculture design, and it can be easily illustrated in any forest. Our culture currently encourages metaphors that suggest that things are not related to the other, when in reality, what affects one thing affects many. So this principle asks us to consider how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together as a system, rather than in isolation. In specific garden terms, this might be practicing integrated pest management, working to plant guilds and do companion planting, and understanding how your garden ties to–and supports–other kinds of life. Perhaps you grow sunflowers and amaranth and leave them out all winter to provide forage for hungry sparrows! Gardens shouldn’t be in competition with nature, but rather, support
This principle is also derived from permaculture design. It suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions). My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations. When we engage in sacred action, we can use this principle to help us find activities that allow us to address more than one purpose.
Think about what you are planting and its relationship to everything else. Permaculture design asks us to de-compartmentalize our thinking and realize that everything is connected. Many plants do well with certain companion plants (as epitomized in the book title Carrots Love Tomatoes) but not necessarily with others. Certain herbs and plants, like chives, lavender, nasturtium, and garlic, can ward away pests and critters, eliminating the need for chemical deterrents. A garden hedge of wildflowers that bloom different times can provide beneficial insects homes and food—these insects help keep the pests down in your garden. Even within a home, thinking about these principles can be used to create systems that require little inputs—home aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow tons of fresh vegetables—just feed the fish! Composting not only reduces food waste and what goes into a landfill, it provides incredible finished compost for use in the soil. We see here the idea of both embracing diversity and building an ecosystem and making sure each plant in that ecosystem is chosen carefully to have multiple functions when possible.
Stemming from the idea of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. The truth is, we have finite resources on this planet; things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy) are better than those that are not (like coal for energy). This principle is derived from permaculture design, but it also can be found in many other places.
This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs. We might think about this in terms of polycultures rather than monocultures. A perennial garden is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield.
Monocultures refer to a single plant (like a field of soybeans) while polycultures refer to many plants sharing the same space. Polycultures are found all throughout nature; monocultures generally are not. Polycultures can work together, where different plants accumulate nutrients (dynamic accumulators), fix nitrogen, provide forage and nectar for insects, provide food for the gardener, and so on. Monocultures do not regenerate the soil, they do not provide a healthy or balanced ecosystem, and they encourage explosions of certain kinds of pest populations due to the concentration of many of the same plant in an area. The largest monocrop grown in the USA is the lawn; but many other monocrops are also present (wheat, corn, soy, etc). Mimicking nature and using nature as our guide, we can shift from cultivating monocrops to polycultures.
Along with this, we might carefully consider what that we plant and those plants’ relationship with the land. Annual agriculture (that is, your typical plants like tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans, and so on) require the yearly work of bed prep, weeding, sowing, seed starting, and harvesting—this disrupts soil ecology and causes extra work. Shifting to use at least some perennials in your growing means that the plant is planted once—and only once—and then the soil is not disrupted again and the plant can grow and be abundant. Most of our most balanced ecosystems occurring in nature have more perennials or self-sowing annuals than the tender annuals we typically use as food crops. Entire books are written on this subject (see resources, Appendix A), so I won’t go into too much depth here. But if we are thinking about building an ecosystem, we should consider the role of our perennial crops—herbs, nuts, fruits, berries—in that garden.
Reflect and Revise
Reflective activity, when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions, is a cornerstone of sacred action and is used in nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Quiet contemplation (through discursive meditation, discussed in Exercise 1 below, or simply sitting quietly and pondering), is critical for this kind of work. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action. Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.
A sacred, sustainable garden is not a fast process. The soil takes years to establish, the seeds take time to grow, perennials, trees and shrubs take time to bear fruit, compost takes time to make, all this stress time and patience. Just as importantly, we have to grow our knowledge to really achieve the kind of relationship with the land that we want to have. The idea that we’ll have a perfect garden in one season is simply not realistic. Like the tree that takes years to bear fruit, we must also realize that gardening, like other forms of growth, takes patience and time. Even growing sprouts on your counter, which is about the easiest way of growing anything, requires patience and time (in days, rather than weeks, months, or years). Understand that sacred gardening is a learning process and the best way to learn is to constantly educate yourself. Take classes, help friends, visit farms, read books, watch videos—anything that will give you new perspectives on growing food. You can see a complete list of books to get you started in the appendix.
This is another principle derived from permaculture design. Waste is a resource that has not been given a proper place—we can think about “waste” in new ways. Human waste and urine, for example, can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions. Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling!
When it comes to growing things, we want to make sure that everything that we grow does not go to waste and that whatever nutrients are in the soil goes back if at all possible. I am always saddened when I go out for bags of leaves in the fall and find whole bags of plants ripped up from someone’s garden in the brown “compost” bags they place on the curb. After spending a whole season with the plants, my neighbors would rather send them “away” than make a compost pile and add those nutrients back into the soil. These same people then go to the store and buy bags of compost and fertilizer (again, demonstrating the consumer mindset of consumeà throw awayàconsumeà throw away). I think this practice demonstrates how little modern people really understand about growing our food from a permaculture-informed and ethical perspective.
Consider any waste streams that can be integrated into a gardening system, like composting. Even for those growing food inside their homes, a worm composting system combined with container gardens can make use and re-use of many nutrients. For those on the more radical side, humanure (that is, composting your own waste) is always an option! Even when I’m growing sprouts on my counter, I save the water from rinsing to water my other house plants—again, turning “waste” water into something needed.
Rather than starting big and going all out, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks. Unexpected issues—and opportunities—can arise as part of the climb. With each step, you get further along and deeper into the practice. The other way of climbing is kind of moving along, bit by bit, and then suddenly looking out and realizing you are way higher than you thought! Shifting to regenerative practices is really no different: when we begin the ascent, we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we also have to take our time and make sure what we are enacting is permanent and self-sustaining or our efforts are in vain. Or, we might find that in our many daily meanderings, we are doing more than we realize. Both are valuable insights!
One of the biggest mistakes that new and enthusiastic gardeners and sacred activists do is to go crazy, convert a huge portion of their land to various gardens in one or two seasons, and then be overwhelmed with the maintenance of those gardens. This is exactly what happened to me on my homestead—within three years, I had all but eliminated an acre of lawn and replaced it with perennials, an annual vegetable garden, herb gardens, fruit trees, and more. And while it was incredible and diverse and all of the things I’m writing about in this section—it was also way too much for me to manage. This example nicely illustrates the concept of spiraling changes: start small, work slow, and allow things to naturally unfold. See how it is managing a small garden (maybe 2 4×10’ beds) and build accordingly. Consider perennials for less intensive management over time as well.
Living in Gratitude
Gratitude is something missing from our everyday lives in industrialized culture, and bringing gratitude back into our actions is useful in all cases, and certainly, in a garden. Gratitude practices for me include developing shrines to honor nature and her spirits, making regular offerings, respecting the plants and life itself with respectful planting, harvesting, and so on.
These are some–of many principles–that I try to live and grow by with my own relationship to the living earth. I hope you find something in here worth taking with you–and gardening with this year! I’d love to hear from you on other principles for sacred gardening that you use!