Sustainable West Milford Educational Garden

Medicinal Plant Garden
By Robin Rose Bennett
West Milford, NJ

This project began after I joined a local sustainability group that had been meeting for less than a year, educating themselves on the issues that called them. I quickly realized I had come to the right place to deepen my involvement with the community. We had just been approved for the town’s “Adopt-a-Spot” program, and had adopted an overgrown triangle in an intersection, and were exploring possibilities of how to use it for education. Our projects are member-generated and led so when I suggested that we might be able to procure a UPS grant to get us started and we could create a native plants garden, I soon was heading up a project!
The triangular hilltop that we had adopted is the center island where 3 well-traveled country roads intersect as a triangle and was covered with thickly tangled, matted layers of poison ivy under artemesia vulgaris, along with every other wild weedy medicine plant you can think of. So were all three sides of the hill. The “soil” was/is pretty much all rocks and we have almost no shade.

It hasn’t been easy, but our native plant garden has been through her first spring, summer, and autumn. We pulled most of the “potent” ivy and other plants out with hands and hand tools as an act of love and respect. The hill now feels like a sacred Tor in the middle of the roads and the garden itself is magical ~ engendering feelings of peace and delight in all those who work in it or stop to see it.

With our $500 grant from UPS, we bought and planted angelica, arnica, black cohosh, golden seal, wild ginger, bloodroot, pleurisy root, sunflowers, tobacco, native milkweeds, lobelias, and veronicas. Of all the plants our hugely robust tobacco plants have unquestionably thrived the most. I always feel like they are saying, “Car and truck exhaust? Hah, no problem! It’s no match for us!” They smell so strong and feel like natural protection for our garden. Most everyone who comes to the garden comments on them and is drawn to them.

We have had truly serious challenges. A lot of our beautiful plants arrived from Zack Woods Herb Farm in the midst of the worst drought and heat wave of the spring. As I mentioned, we have very little shade and maximum exposure. Not surprisingly our gingers, blood roots and golden seal went dormant almost immediately. We are so hoping they will emerge this spring. We also suffered a major orange aphid attack that decimated our wild milkweeds and then proceeded onto our native plants. We controlled them with constant tending and spraying with mint water and soap sprays. Depleted soil is our worst problem. We built it up as best we could this year, but the compost we got was a little too hot for the job. Fortunately we ended our autumn with a donation of 5 square yards of beautifully rich 3-year-old compost from a friend’s organic farm and spread it over all the beds to feed the land over the winter. In the spring we’ll mix it in and begin new planting and tending our perennials. One of our members made a beautiful rustic wooden sign for the garden, as well as firing ceramic squares affixed to stones for plant names and information. We will have informative signs, information about our donors, a pamphlet and a bench next year. I’ve only given one talk so far, but it was well attended, even in a cold rain, and there will be more to come.