The green thumb runs in my family – I basically grew up in a garden. The love of earth as well as growing plants and harvesting them seems imprinted in my DNA. Although I still thoroughly maintain a deep connection to nature, I presently live in New York City, and until my husband and I find a place to settle out of the city, I (sadly) find myself without a garden.
I decided to write about gardens anyway, especially since I know two esteemed experts on this topic: their names are Mom and Dad.
Every year, I spend my summer vacation in France with my family, and I find such a relief from the city when I’m in their garden. It feels connected, out of time, thriving, a true Eden. There is a harmony and an energy that I rarely encounter. It feels like plants are happy to be there.
My parents’ method of growing plants is close to the concept of permaculture. The term permaculture comes from two words: permanent agriculture. This refers to a sustainable and self-maintained management of the soil, a holistic philosophy that promotes respect and understanding of the interactions that effortlessly happen in nature1.
Understanding Soil and Plants
As my parents explained, they try to have a minimum impact on the natural processes at work in the soil. In plowing, for example, they avoid turning the soil, and instead use a “grelinette” – a sort of broadfork – to promote aeration and drainage. In the first few centimeters of soil lie aerobic microorganisms, and they need oxygen to thrive. They are a key part of decomposing compounds that plants absorb and need2.
Crop rotation is another major concept, as each plant absorbs different elements from the soil. My parents usually planned ahead and drew their own garden map each year, making sure there was enough nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus for vegetables to grow.
Growing stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is also beneficial. It is more than a plant that hurts when you touch it. When combined with water and left to ferment, it produces a (stinky) elixir packed with nitrogen. Buried in the soil below tomato plants, it works like magic, and can also be used as a spray to fight fungi and strengthen the plant’s natural defenses.
Another idea that I love is to create an insect hotel. In a vegetable garden, growing flowers is as important as growing vegetables. Flowers bring pollinators! Cucumber, tomato and zucchini plants will benefit from the determined assistance of bees and other pollinators. Choose melliferous (honey-producing) flowers such as borage (Borago officinalis). Athough it is usually regarded as a weed, not only do the flowers attract bees, they are also edible – and yummy.
Melliferous flowers do not all bloom at the same time, and this is perfect. Make sure you have a variety of different plants and you will attract pollinators all season long. And of course, do not forget aromatic plants; Thyme, Rosemary and Lavender are also melliferous.
A good lesson to learn from permaculture: there is no such thing as a weed. My mom recently identified Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria, also called goutweed) in the garden. It is a stubborn perennial that tends to form solid underground ramifications, is highly competitive and hard to eradicate. After some research, she found out that Ground Elder is edible3. Its taste is similar to carrot or celery, and it was used throughout the Middle Ages to treat gout4, thanks to its diuretic and mildly sedative properties.
Every insect or animal can exist in a balanced ecosystem; problems happen when this balance is disrupted. Yes, even a few slugs and snails shouldn’t be a problem if the adequate predators – hedgehogs, slow worms and others5 – are around to prevent their proliferation.
But here is something beautiful about a sustainable garden; sometimes, it’s also about letting go, and accepting loss of a small part of your production so all species can cohabitate on your patch of land.
Recently, my parents found two caterpillars from the beautiful Old World swallowtail species (Papilio machaon). They were happy to see the butterfly, quite rare in the neighborhood, so naturally, when the two caterpillars showed up – a rich light green color with bright orange, yellow and black spots – they chose to accept their presence. As the caterpillar feeds from Umbelliferae, they feasted on a dill plant (Anethum graveolens), but it was a small price to pay to achieve the variety of species and the balance of life.
A Simple Practice to Connect With Nature in Your Garden
As my dad mentioned, there is one more thing he consciously does every day; he walks. Just walking, visiting and enjoying the garden with a smile on his face, he is sending and receiving the unique mutual love we all share with plants and nature. Give it a try for yourself!
Understanding the forces at work is key to enjoying a healthy, organic and thriving vegetable garden. Variety seems to be a key factor too; not sticking to only one type of potato or tomato, for example, but rather inviting mixed species. And, above all, it is also about accepting that plants will grow according to their own purpose and express as a messy garden. But when we understand nature, we know that it is not, in fact, a mess, but a beautiful, happy manifestation of life.
Gardener’s healing salve
Being a gardener also means dry hands, dirt under your nails, cuts and scratches. It seems natural to continue applying the holistic model throughout the whole process! Here is a recipe for a salve that will keep your hands moisturized and healthy.
- 1/4 oz beeswax
- 1 oz jojoba oil
- 0.5 oz calendula flower infused oil (Calendula officinalis in olive or sunflower oil)
- 0.5 oz comfrey leaf infused oil (Symphytum × uplandicum in olive or sunflower oil)
- 20 drops of Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum)
- 35 drops of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
- 5 drops of German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Melt the beeswax in a double boiler
- Add the carrier oils while stirring until all the beeswax is melted again
- Add the essential oils at the very end
- Pour in a 2oz jar and quickly cap to avoid allowing vapors to escape
- Let sit until solid
- Label your jar and find a customized fun name for your salve!
I would like to address a special thanks to my parents, Véronique Meyer-Marbach and Dominique Marbach for sharing with me their knowledge and beautiful pictures.
1 Windsperger, Ulrike (2017). Manuel de permaculture. Ulmer. p.10.
4 Hill, John (1812). The Family Herbal. Bungay: C. Brightly and T. Kinnersley. p. 157.