Create a medicine-wheel garden

Published in Indian Country Today in January 2005.

Medicine-wheel gardens build on the radiating energy of circles — ever on the move,” said E. Barrie Kavasch, ethnobotanist, herbalist and author of many books on plants and healing. Kavasch, who has Cherokee, Creek and Powhatan ancestry, has visited ancient medicine wheels around the world and made gardens inspired by their patterns for more than a decade.
On the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota this summer, Aubrey Skye, Lakota, will consult Kavasch’s informative book — “The Medicine Wheel Garden: Creating Sacred Space for Healing, Celebration, and Tranquility” (Bantam Books, 2002) — to create one that will serve as a nursery for endangered prairie plants.
Whether you’re growing rare or common plants in your gardens, you’re doing the environment a favor, according to Skye, who is gardens coordinator for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Diabetes Program. “Wildcrafting of herbs has become a cottage industry, and many are over-harvested,” he said. “If you grow your own, you can gather them without putting a strain on wild populations and the birds, insects and other creatures that depend on them.”
You’ll harvest a bounty of health benefits for yourself as well, said Skye: “Medicine-wheel gardens feature healing plants, such as sage and echinacea, and they’re places to meditate and get away from the madness of today’s world. You may also find that gardening is itself a meditation — as well as healthy outdoor exercise.”
Designing the plot is a personal matter. “When you lay one out, think about what’s on your mind,” said Kavasch. “What do you need? What does the land need?”
A medicine-wheel garden can be large, with north–south and east–west walkways dividing the circle into quadrants, and a wide variety of perennials, annuals, and shrubs. Or it can be very simple.
One of the most effortless designs requires making a small circular rock outline in a place that’s special to you, dividing the circle into quadrants with rows of stones, and waiting to see which plants show up. Herbalists in many traditions believe that those you need the most are the ones that will appear.
Kavasch tried the latter approach with her first medicine-wheel garden, in a woodland clearing near her house is rural northwestern Connecticut, and soon found strawberries, cinquefoil and sweetgrass sprouting in it. “What a wonderful sign!” she remembers thinking. She returned to the spot again and again for solace and prayer. “Songbirds and other critters would come right up to me,” she said. “I think they thought I was one of them.”
You may wish to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of your garden according to your own traditions, said Skye, who explained: “When we’re in touch with the earth, it regenerates our spirituality and reminds us of what we’ve learned from our plant and animal relatives. Although there are different ways to pray to the Creator, ultimately there’s only one higher power, and it lives in each and every one of us.”

Planting the garden
If you decide to plant a garden, rather than wait to see what the earth provides, here is how to proceed. For more gardening advice, refer to the post, “Plant a traditional-foods garden.” 

• Choose plants. Determine which ones are appropriate for your area by talking to people in your community or turning to Barrie Kavash’s book, “The Medicine Wheel Garden.” Most should be perennials or shrubs that are self-seeding, so they will reappear year after year. Each growing season, you can tuck in a few annuals, such as nasturtiums (with their edible flowers), chilis and tomatoes. 
• Seeds or transplants? Medicine plants can be fussy, according to Aubrey Skye, so beginners can go to a garden center, where they’ll find many ready to pop into the ground. Experienced gardeners may prefer to buy seeds and sprout them. Sweet Grass Gardens (www.sweetgrassgardens.com), owned by a Seneca-Mohawk couple on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, sells sage and sweetgrass seeds; Native Seeds/SEARCH (www.nativeseeds.org) offers mainly Southwestern seeds; and Seeds of Change (www.seedsof change.com) has options that thrive nationwide. The last two have discount programs. Other good sources for both plants and seeds are Horizon Herbs (www.horizonherbs.com) and Richter’s (www.richters.com).
• Pick a spot. Whether the location is sunny or shady will determine what plants can grow there. Then determine the bed’s size; 5 to 10 feet across is enough for a novice, whereas 20 to 30 feet would work for someone who’s experienced. This figure is the garden’s diameter. Stick a stake in the ground, and tie a string to it that is half the length of the diameter. Keeping the string taut, walk in a circle, marking spots along the circumference with small sticks.
• Mark the cardinal directions. Indicate north, south, east and west with larger sticks. Use a compass to determine the directions. Or, suggested Skye, go out on a starry night, find the Big Dipper, and imagine a line extending from the last two stars on the dipper’s bowl. That line points to the bright North Star, which indicates due north.
• Clear the surface. Spade up grass or other plant matter within the circle. Don’t use herbicides or other chemicals, warned Skye, as that defeats the purpose of growing healing plants.
• Fertilize the soil. Using a pitchfork or shovel, work in organic compost and/or composted manure (about 50 pounds for a small garden and two or three times that for a large one).
• Place the rocks: Remove the stick markers. Use cobble-sized rocks to mark the circle and the quadrants. If the garden is large enough for paths, cover them with gravel or river stones.
Assign the colors. Color can refer to flower, berry, or foliage hue. The North quadrant is to the left of the north end of the north-south axis; proceed clockwise from there to the East, South, and West.
 • Plant and mulch. Sow seeds, or put in transplants. Conserve soil moisture and keep down weeds by placing straw or bark around the bases of the plants. Also try scattering rocks within the quadrants. The rocks act as heat sinks, soaking up heat during the day and releasing it at night, thus keeping the plants at an even temperature. Water during dry spells.
• Harvest time. “The Medicine Wheel Garden” has recipes for lotions, bath salts and other preparations. Don’t try to medicate yourself, however. Herbs are powerful medicines and can even be toxic in some cases; if you’re new to using them or are taking prescription drugs with which they might interact, you may cause more problems than you solve.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.

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