How Gardening Can Heal the Land — And You

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Jessi Bloom is an award-winning ecological landscape designer, professional horticulturalist and ISA-certified arborist. Her new book serves as a guide to rejuvenating bodies, minds and spirits through plants and practices in your own backyard. Shawn Linehan

Maybe you think of your garden as a place to escape from work or other stresses. Or perhaps you see it as a special place where you can feel close to nature. But have you ever thought of it as a sanctuary? As a sacred space?

If you haven't taken this leap of faith but are intrigued by the idea, then take the time to read "Creating Sanctuary: Sacred Garden Spaces, Plant-based Medicine, Daily Practices to Achieve Happiness and Well-Being" by Jessi Bloom (Timber Press). The book serves as a guide to rejuvenating bodies, minds and spirits not in some faraway tropical resort but through plants and practices in your own backyard.

gardening book cover

Bloom would know how to do this. An award-winning ecological landscape designer, professional horticulturalist, ISA-certified arborist and owner of NW Ecological Services in Woodinville, Washington, she wrote the book not just from a professional background but from personal experiences as well.

"It's been a long journey," said Bloom. "There are a couple of things that have happened in my life that led me to write this book."

One occurred when she was writing a previous book about permaculture with David Boehnlein ("Practical Permaculture: For Home Landscapes, Your Community and the Whole Earth" by Timber Press) and was going through transformations in her career in which she realized many people had become stuck in what she calls a "consumerism pattern of destruction." The result, she believes, is an "environmental amnesia" in which people don't consider the impact of their buying habits on their lifestyles and, thus, the natural world around them. Bloom set a goal of trying to change this behavior to help people live more sustainably.

She made that decision after coming to a realization from the proverb "physician, heal thyself."

"Earlier in my life, I suffered through a lot of illnesses, and those illnesses weren't treated by Western medicine in a way that was healing. Every specialist I went to, every treatment I had made the issues worse to the point of almost complete physical failure. Then I was diagnosed with PTSD, which also led me on this path of trying to find healing in a way that wasn't the Westernized version of using pharmaceuticals."

For Bloom, the solution was creating a sacred place

The key to that was developing a special relationship with plants. "I think that helped sustain me through the worst of times. Simple rituals. Simple recipes."

After all, she pointed out, this is the way humans once lived. "Once upon a time, people lived very connected to the earth and used plants as medicine. A lot of the things that we suffer from — depression, anxiety, stress, grief — there are plant allies for all of those. I realized that a lot of the teachings that I found in healing myself were from a connection (with plants) that we are missing as a culture. As a species, we've just gotten so far removed from having that relationship with the rhythms of the seasons, the medicines of plants and the practices that were once common way before we were all here."

The book, Bloom said, is an accumulation of all these things and the realization of how some of the things she does in the sacred spaces she created in her garden and home can be healing and therapeutic. "Sacred space is one of the things I think our world could use a lot more of, where people feel faith, can relax and rejuvenate."

She realizes that, outside of a church or in special spaces people have sought out that are deemed sacred, this can be hard for many people to do. She knows that tends to be especially true in a consumer-oriented culture in which our faces seem to be constantly glued to screens of one kind or another. "But in my mind," she said, "I think we need to make every space sacred, starting with our most intimate environments in our homes and in the garden."

Bloom divides the book into three sections that offer guidelines for how to create sanctuaries and sacred spaces within them. The first section explains how to create sanctuaries and scared spaces, the second focuses on plant suggestions for a sanctuary garden and how to use them as allies for healing, and the third offers ways to nurture yourself to create a healthy body, mind and soul.

Defining sanctuary and sacred space

meditation garden
According to Bloom, there are no rules when it comes to creating your own space as long as you take care of the area. Shawn Linehan

Bloom thinks a sanctuary or a sacred space is personal and based on individual needs, so she said she was careful not to use rigid definitions to guide readers in creating their own sanctuary or sacred space. "I want people to find out what that means for themselves, and a lot of that boils down to belief systems and how someone was raised culturally," she said. "So, it might look a little different for folks."

One thing Bloom said that people should keep in mind is that the idea of sanctuary can be anywhere, including growing medicinal and edible plants indoors. For instance, Bloom pointed out, "I have a lime and a lemon tree in my living room, where I also grow lots of aloe and herbs." The point, she said, is that "having that life force energy nearby that you can nurture is something I think we were designed to do as humans. We are designed to take care of plant life and be a part of a bigger ecosystem."

While creating your own ecosystem, whether it's indoors, outdoors or both, there are general guidelines she thinks apply in all cases. That starts with deciding how the space is going to be used. "That's No. 1, so it's kind of like creating a mission statement or setting goals," she said. In doing that, she emphasized that you not only have to ask yourself how you want to take care of your garden space, but you should also ask a deeper question: How do you want the space to take care of you?

"Having reverence for the land is a big piece of this," she stressed. One of the common traits of showing reverence to the garden is to honor the earth by not taking the ecology of the site for granted or abusing it. The way to avoid that pitfall, she said, is to make sure you take care of the ecosystem by creating harmony and balance. This begins literally from the ground up with healthy soil, with plant choices that invite in insects and pollinators and avoiding chemical controls.

"This type of ecosystem garden, that has butterflies fluttering around and birds singing, is a lot more comfortable to be in than an environment that is rigidly controlled with pesticides and that has been hedged to death. This is a big part of sanctuary and sacred space from the book's perspective, but even this can be defined by everyone a little differently."

A meditative garden isn't just about the plants. It's also about creating an overall relaxing atmosphere that also includes sounds. Shawn Linehan

As you think about how you're going to create your sanctuary using these guidelines, Bloom said you need to think about how you're going to use it. In thinking about this, she emphasized that your sanctuary can serve multi-functional purposes based on the needs of your own spirit and soul. Some of the purposes she lists in the book include prayer, healing, worship, mediation, practicing yoga or qigong, growing medicinal plants, relaxation, creating a special place for children, burying or memorializing pets, relaxation or cleansing.

Different parts of the sanctuary can be used for the purposes that are most important to you. Some of the elements you can include in the garden to create these sacred spaces include a portal or entrance, altars made of large stones, bells and chimes, garden art, a gathering place for small groups, fire pots, lanterns, labyrinths and spaces for prayer, meditation, yoga or qigong.

Selecting plants for your sanctuary garden

garden with bridge
A proper sanctuary garden should be filled with plants that have both healing and rejuvenating qualities. Shawn Linehan

Bloom offers her take on the top 50 plants to include in a sanctuary garden. The list, which is organized by forest layer — trees, vines, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and annuals — is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the only plants that can or should be included. She chose them for both the role they play in forming garden layers, as each one has an ecological purpose and function, and for the healing relationships people can develop with them.

There are small pictures of each plant and descriptions that include the plant's growth habits, Bloom's thoughts about the plant and information about its sacred powers, which are fascinating. Gingko, for example, represents survival and adaptability and is associated with prosperity, longevity, health and fertility. Lavender helps with meditation, mental clarity, psychic development and strengthens love. Goldenrod confers good luck and helps in the healing process.

"What I wanted to find were plants that were very significant culturally around the world from a spiritual and medicinal perspective that have been used for thousands of years. One of the trickier things — this was fun to research and was probably my favorite part of the whole book — was to find uses of the plants as far back as I could, most often about 5,000 years. Then to find the validation through scientific studies in the modern day of those uses."

She cautions people not to think of plant medicine as voodoo or alternative medicine. "Plant medicine is the original medicine that's been here since the beginning of mankind. We've evolved with plants so they've delivered us medicine all along. They still do. Some of the very basic medicines are just plant derivatives ... aspirin, for instance, comes from willow. Everything comes from plants. Looking at it from a nutritional or a medicinal sense, either way, they are our allies. And, so, finding the connections of plants that are validated for spiritual uses was fascinating."

A chapter in this section explains how to develop a relationship with plants, even weeds! In the book, she points out that Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh said "Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them." When Bloom sees weeds, for instance, she doesn't see an interloper into the garden space. Instead she sees them as symbols of persistence and patience that can be an asset to the soil in providing biomass that adds nutrients and prevents erosion. In some cases, such as dandelions, they can even have medicinal properties. Getting too caught up in removing them, she believes, can cause a person to exert too much energy in controlling the garden rather than relaxing in it as a sanctuary.

Nurturing self

fruit herb water in mason jars
You can grow nurturing ingredients in your sanctuary garden and use them to make flavored water and herbal tea. Shawn Linehan

The final section of the book offers suggestions for best practices for taking the flowers and herbs of a sanctuary garden and its sacred spaces and using them to nurture your body, mind and soul. "I really wanted to focus on emotional well-being because a lot of herbalism looks at what do you do if you have a cold, what do you do if you have a cut or specific kinds of ailments. But there are not a lot of good resources for emotional ailments. So, using plants to heal your spirit was something that I really wanted to emphasize because I think we could all use that from time to time." Think of this as caring for your personal ecosystem.

To detox from the stresses of modern life, Bloom offers recipes for naturally flavored water for hydration, teas, garden smoothies, protein bombs made from nuts and seeds, spa times involving spirit baths and foot soaks, hair rinses, facial toners and even how to make an herbal dream pillow. Bloom believes that meditation is an important part of the stress detox routine and offers suggestions for clearing a space for meditation. She says you can make almost anything space work as long as you make it something that will entice you to go there.

How to get started

There are several exercises in the book that help people get started. "I know for me that learning meditation was kind of a challenge because I am always on the go," said Bloom. "When I would sit still, my brain would race even more. It was a hard thing to learn initially. In the book, I use some guided meditations that are a little more helpful so that you're focusing on something very specific. Those specific meditations have helped me a lot while I have been in the garden but have also helped me dream up what I want in my life and what I need for myself. So, meditating doesn't have to be this perfect space. It could be that you just have a bench and you sit down and meditate or find a comfortable area that makes sense in any given moment."

Bloom's hope is that these and other suggestions will show people how to shift their perspective from being an observer of nature to a participant in which they get their hands dirty and have relationships with the outdoors and plants and animals. There is a lot of research that shows from a therapy standpoint that getting outdoors is very healing for people with various ailments. "I know that PTSD is one of them," she said. "It's a huge help to get people outside and interact with other organisms to incorporate into their life a way to honor the earth that maybe they haven't thought about. If they can do that, it will help them create peace and harmony in their gardens and that will help them feel safe and good."