"My early gardens were total flops," says Juliet Blankespoor. But with a good dose of passion and perseverance, she went on to become an authority on cultivating all kinds of native horticulture, including healing plants. "It was a calling," she says, "something deep in my marrow that fed my soul." She would go on to study botany in college, learning from fellow gardening enthusiasts while living on a communal off-the-grid organic farm in the Berkshires.
In 2007 she founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine and has been on an educational mission ever since. But she is also devoted to spreading medicine where it’s in short supply. "Social injustice impacts health, so we donate a lot of dried herbs and herbal medicine to organizations that serve struggling communities," she explains. She spoke with Dwell about her path to herbalism, the importance of native plants, and how we, too, can grow our own healing botanicals at home.
Dwell: How did you first get into gardening?
Blankespoor: My dad and grandpa were gardeners. They tried to rope me in when I was a kid, but I was more of a bookworm. When I left home, I got more interested in plants through environmental activism. I started small, foraging invasive weeds to reduce their populations and make more room for native plants. Then I focused on growing easy plants.
Where would we start if we wanted to grow our own botanical remedies?
Start small with just a few plants. You can grow so much in a really small space, even on a porch or balcony. Calendula, anise hyssop, lavender, passionflower, and Spilanthes are beautiful, useful herbs that grow in a variety of climates and bioregions. Aloe vera, spineless prickly pear, gotu kola, and jiaogulan all do well indoors as houseplants.
Organic gardening can be challenging. How do you keep your plants healthy?
The most important thing is to grow plants suited to your climate. Before we even start talking about disease or insect control, it’s about growing plants that thrive in your bioregion and that nourish the soil. But also, if a plant is super subject to certain diseases, I just don’t grow it.
Is there a healing plant you always have on hand?
Milky oats—the same plant that gives us oats. It’s a cover crop that’s also medicinal. We use the leaves as a mineral-rich infusion and the unripe seeds are made into a preparation that supports the nervous system and helps to lessen stress and insomnia. It can be planted in the early spring when other things cannot because the ground is frozen, and it stabilizes and nourishes the soil. You can put it where you’re going to plant tomatoes and peppers later in the season, and it will enrich that soil.
How much work do gardens like yours require?
A lot of medicinal plants are perennials—shrubs, trees, herbaceous plant—so you don’t have to start from scratch every year. Mostly I just have to mulch and weed. Mulching is the key to everything in the garden: weed suppression; water retention; preventing soil-borne plant diseases; and giving the soil a fresh supply of organic matter. Plants are not unlike humans, in that when we’re less stressed, we’re more likely to resist disease.
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