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The Garden You Didn't Plant

One of my favorite moments in spring is when I come home in the afternoon to air scented by the sweet violets blooming in my yard. Their flowers vary in color from pink to deep purple and they bloom even before the crocus, bloodroot and trees. As an herbal medicine, they make a good tonic for the immune system, and their heart-shaped leaves were once thought to be an indication of benefit for the health of the heart. The precious little violets grow up amongst the grass in the lawn---had I applied weed killer, they would have died.

Growing at the base of my retaining wall for the second year is a gorgeous, large rosette of mullein leaves. They have the soft texture of felt and can be used to help to relieve asthma and bronchial complaints. Later in the summer when its tall, central, stalk blooms little yellow flowers, I will carefully pick them, one by one to put into oil. Once infused, it can be used to relieve the pain of an earache.

As usual, showy, broad-leafed burdock is coming up along the creek. The seeds of this plant inspired Velcro with their pesky, barbed hooks that attach to fur and socks later in the summer. The new leaves and stems can be steamed and eaten as a vegetable and in the second year of its growth, the the plant's long tap root, also known as gobo root, can be dug to be eaten, dried or tinctured to nourish the liver. To be honest, digging this root is very difficult because it usually grows in compacted soil and can be up to a yard long. You may opt to purchase a fresh root from the Asian market.

Lemon balm volunteers all over the place, especially in the partially shaded areas. It is a pretty plant, and nothing is better as a tea or fresh plant tincture to diminish the effects of stress. Chop up a few fresh leaves and steep in hot water.

Catnip is everywhere. Rather than eradicate, I "erradiCAT" by keeping it in the ground until my old cat, Max, comes to visit me in the garden. I just yank some up and toss it to him so he can luxuriate in its slightly rank odor. Catnip is a calming herb and especially useful for children.

I have no use for the thistles that have established themselves in my yard. They crowd out the grass so I will use a spade to pop them out of the yard and put them in the garbage rather than the compost.

Wild cleavers cascades down the hill by the driveway. It grows like a blanket woven of green sprigs over vegetation and shrubs. When young, it can be eaten like spinach. It is well known as a diuretic and an herb good for the lymph system.

Last year, some big, burrowing animal that I have never actually seen dug a new home for itself under my 15-year-old garden sage, and to my dismay, the plant began to die. I am greatly heartened to now find that it had already sent down new shoots under its long branches, and I now have three smaller offspring looking quite healthy. No matter that they are growing in my garden path. I will just walk around them. I will, however, have to trim the lavender back off the path where it grows well, coaxed by the rising heat of the gravel footpath.

I know a lot of people complain about feverfew taking off, but I love it and will hardly ever pull a volunteer. I prefer to dry the pretty, daisy-like flowers in bunches that I can use in wreaths or under a bow as gift wrap.

Clary sage has been a surprise. I planted one gorgeous, large plant years ago and it has multiplied in a place with poor soil, so every May I have a show of tall, purple spikes of flowers. It requires no extra water, and the foliage is dark green and very attractive. Clary sage also emits a rather odd, sharp fragrance when disturbed but the essential oil is divine.

I have to admit that I did resort to sprinkling a preemergent where the puncture weed grows, so its new seeds will not sprout. I have had it with flat bike tires and painful encounters with the pointed sharp seeds that get brought into the home stuck to the bottoms of shoes and sandals. They really hurt bare feet!

But for everything else, I will forgo the weed whacker and spare the spray. I don't mind at all that these useful herbs volunteer and delight me with their fragrance and usefulness. They are pretty to look at, too.

Merry Harrison is a clinical herbalist, teacher, author and wildcrafter.
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Reprinted with permission: Catalyst Magazine

Other articles for the garden...

Grow Your Own Herbs  •   Growing herbs From Seed  •   Acquiring Medicinal/Culinary Herbs  •   Unusual Culinary Herbs
Exotic Garden Herbs  •   Harvesting Your Herbs  •   Mint  •   Repelling Pests  •   Fall Gardening Tips  •   Harvest Season

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