Medicinal Community Garden in Eau Claire, WI. Photo by Kerri Kiernan.
~By Erin LaFaive
Seed saving is a way to pass on favorite plant varieties because of desired traits such as flavor, color, resistance against disease, and for herbalist, concentrated medicinal constituents. It’s also an inexpensive way to have a supply of seeds to start each spring. There are other ways to propagate (fancy way of saying “make more of”) plants too. Stem cuttings, leaf cuttings, grafting, dividing, suckering, etc. Where do we get seeds and other plant parts for propagating plants? One source could be community medicinal gardens like the one featured here. Kerri Kiernan, owner of River Prairie Apothecary describes how the garden was created and future plans.
Where is the garden located?
The herbal garden is located at Forest Street Community Garden where there is a shared garden and rental plots in downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The garden is located in a historic part of Eau Claire called North River Fronts Neighborhood which has a sizable green-space due to its proximity to the river and designation as a "floodplain". The neighborhood still remains to the east of the garden space and Phoenix Park is located to the south of the garden. Soon, bike trails will connect the new High Bridge to the Farmer's Market area by meandering through the Forest St. Garden; it's a great spot for a garden!
There are about 50 individual rental plots at this community garden as well as a large shared plot managed by 10-15 people each season. Produce is shared and extras are donated to the Community Table, a place for people to get a free hot meal every day of the week. The herbal garden is used for demonstrations, education, herbal products, and as a space for medicinal plants to thrive within the city.
How did the garden idea get started?
The herbal garden was started 2 years ago after the gardeners got the "OK" from the city Parks and Recreation Department to expand the community garden north along the Chippewa River. This was in 2014 when I returned from an intensive and inspiring herbal program in Williams, Oregon at Herb Pharm. I was determined to grow some of the amazing plants I had been studying and dreamed of having my very own demonstration garden.
What was the process of getting it started?
Much work went into starting the Forest St. Garden as a whole, and could easily be a book! The herbal garden had already gained support from the city/parks department as it was an add-on for the already existing garden. I engaged a handful of volunteers in assisting with building the dirt-raised beds in the spring and Andrew Werthmann, the garden coordinator, tilled up the space for me as we battled cutworms the first year. In order to start the seeds in March, I set-up a little grow room in my home using fluorescent lights and a space heater.
The seeds were purchased from Horizon Herbs and I also acquired plants from local green houses and other growers. Additionally, I did a lot of transplanting of wild plants that were in spaces where they would potentially be destroyed. I did a lot of transplanting from the prairie spaces along Galloway St. and River Prairie Drive in Eau Claire as I knew it was slated for development. I always tried to remember to be respectful and asked the plants for permission to move them before I dug them up; only once did one bee balm plant let me know it didn't want to be moved by breaking my shovel! Plants sure have personalities too... I also transplanted different plants that were quite abundant in numbers in their natural locations so I knew that I wasn't doing any damage to any local plant populations by bringing some to the downtown garden.
I invested a lot of personal funds to get the garden going but luckily found much excitement and willingness from others to help with digging, weeding, harvesting, etc. As it is mostly a perennial garden now, costs are not so high. Each year I try a few different plants as annuals just for fun and usually trade with other herb nerds and plant lovers.
What kinds of plants are in it?
As you can imagine, I have a lot of plants in the mint family which can be easily split. These include motherwort, lemonbalm, peppermint, skullcap, and maybe a few others that are still establishing themselves such as anise hyssop and horehound. The summer of 2015 was the second year for the garden and I already found myself drowning in mugwort and several other plants that were quite prolific! Echinacea really loves the space and self-seeds hundreds of little plants that can easily be transplanted to another garden. I also have comfrey and valerian which most likely would not be opposed to splitting.
Some newer plants I have added include teasel, lupine, boneset, and elecampane. Some of my very happy self-seeding plants include chamomile, calendula, sunflower, goldenrod, primrose, and more skullcap. If you time it just right, you could collect those seeds in the summer and fall. I collected my own ashwagandha seeds from my first year plants and planted them this past summer with good luck; they did not get big enough to produce seed as I transplanted them late, but that one is definitely worth-while as far as seed collection goes.
Any future plans for it?
I plan to keep using the garden beds in more efficient ways and to play with the borders. It is mostly perennial so I do not till it each year which means that weed pressure is pretty high along the edges. I tried several plants as a border and so far, only the mugwort can withstand the perennial weeds that try to creep in; it looks pretty wild as a hedge. I am a bit of a perfectionist and so I hope to ramp up public events and classes in the herbal garden this season as the garden will be in its third year and looking pretty good. I need to make cute signs for the plants so that when people wander through the garden they can learn on their own. I hope to continue to get more local herbalists using the space as I always have a lot to share.
Working with herbs and plants in a hands-on way is such an experience; you really get to know the plants. I encourage anyone who is interested in medicinal herbs to get in touch with me if they would like to be involved with the herbal garden for the 2016 season. You can find me at: River Prairie Apothecary on Facebook. Another great way to reach me is via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mulched pathways amongst the raised garden beds growing medicinal herbs. Photo by Kerri Kiernan.