Where the Wild Things Are


A grass path meanders through the manicured beds in Dina Falconi's garden in upstate New York. In the beds, kale, lettuces in a quilt pattern, tomatoes, and culinary herbs flourish above a groundcover of strawberries. Espaliered apple and pear trees, interspersed with grapevine, hug the hillside and look down over the kitchen garden border. Up the hill, past the beds flanked by plum and apricot trees, a seating arbor is both a resting place in the garden and an entryway into the forest.

The centerpiece of the garden is a 30-foot arbor constructed by Dina's husband, Tim, of red cedar, part of it with a waist-high fence woven from saplings. Five-leaf akebia, hardy kiwi, and deep purple clematis intertwined with a magnolia vine, as well as an astonishing array of sweet-smelling, fruit-bearing plants, cover the structure. Near the arbor are all manner of berries--red raspberries, gooseberries, and black currants--tiered on small trellises. The plateau holds the curved beds of cultivated plants, concentric circles divided into four pie slices with paths everywhere.

Walking around this well-tended landscape, you might not notice immediately that many of the plants are what most of us would consider weeds. That's right, weeds.

"Yes," Dina says, "plants show up unannounced in my garden." These unexpected visitors are not necessarily unwelcome. Dina is an herbalist, and she nurtures more than 50 species of wild plants for the products she makes. And from May through October, Dina's garden becomes a classroom where she instructs her students on the multiple uses of a wide variety of plants, ranging from ornamental to culinary, medicinal, and body-care applications.

Bridging food with medicine is the herbalist's approach to gardening, and an integral part of Dina's teaching. Stepping outside the door of her upstate New York home into her own garden of wild and cultivated plants, Dina explores the backyard for new additions that spring up. She fills her basket with a harvest of violet leaves, dandelion, sorrel, and chickweed for a salad, a practice that started when she first moved to the country as a college student and was introduced to wild plants. Though she grew up in New York City, Dina developed an interest in the healing and nutritive power of herbs after a family friend helped alleviate her migraine-like headaches with a total change to a natural lifestyle, including eliminating all processed foods.

Along with her move to country life came a curiosity about the multifaceted aspects of what was growing on her property. "Wild plants are a resource on every level, and I encourage them and learn how to work with them," she tells me. Learning about the healing and nutritive properties of wild plants led her to harvest and eventually to cultivate them as useful additions to her vegetable and herb garden.

"Generally, edible wild greens have a much higher nutritional value than cultivated greens," Dina says, adding that wild greens contribute varied textures and intriguing flavors to a meal.

Food and medicine are not the only reasons to accept, if not invite, weeds into your garden, Dina explains. Some have beautiful flowers, foliage, and seedheads, or repel harmful insects while attracting butterflies and other pollinators. Weeds as groundcovers help control soil erosion. "Gardeners choose plants for either their beauty or their function," says Dina. "I mix the two worlds up, so beauty and function do not eclipse each other. The wilderness and wildness come into my garden. I balance the wild with the cultivated."

Most gardeners think in terms of good plants and bad plants. But when you visit a garden where this thinking has been pushed aside, it is, at first, a visual puzzle--plants known as weeds are coexisting with cultivated plants. And though the garden appears orderly and the hand of the gardener is evident in the neatness of the beds and pathways, there is something slightly out of tune that takes some getting used to. That something is a new way of looking at weeds. "My garden is not perfect," says Dina with pride, "but it is democratic. No 'Weeds out, cultivated plants in.' Wild plants have so much to offer."

A stroll outside yields ingredients for a lunch of soup, pesto, salad, a quiche, and herb tea--a wild harvest meal prepared by Dina's class. The knowledge that Dina imparts to her students is that the garden is a living weed museum that connects us to our history and other cultures. "Change the relationship with your environment," extols Dina, "so you become engaged with the world of plants." Some wild plants have been with us for more than 10,000 years, she tells her class, and we have evolved with them. Yet today including weeds in your garden might take some getting used to. The rewards, though, are tasty and vivifying.
Weeds Need Weeding

Weed appreciation and control go hand In hand. Knowing the differences between the types of weeds will help you keep growth where and how you want it.

Perennial weeds (such as dandelion and nettle) can have deep fibrous roots or a long taproot, creeping underground stems, or stems that bend over and root. To control perennials, you must dig them up, taking care to remove the entire root without breaking it. Broken-off roots resprout readily: chop them up with a cultivator, and you will have many times more plants than you started with. Put roots of perennial weeds in a hot compost pile only!

Annual and biennial weeds (such as lamb's-quarter and garlic mustard) produce a lot of seeds. Annuals tend to have shallow fibrous roots. Biennials have deep roots the first year. Pull or hoe these weeds before they set seed. Avoid adding weed seeds to your compost unless the pile heats up enough to kill the seeds (about 130°F).
10 Most Wanted Weeds

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). It's used medicinally as an immune stimulant; historically, it was used to relieve flu aches and as an antiperspirant. Caution: A closely related species is poisonous.

Chickweed. A tasty salad green that's been used topically to treat skin irritations. Grows in cold weather.

Common mallow. Harvest leaves for salad or cook in soup--mallow is popular in ethnic cooking. Herbalists use tea made from the leaves and flowers to soothe sore throats.

Dandelion. Leaves are healthful both cooked and in salads, Leaves and roots were used in ancient tonics to aid liver function and better overall health.

Lamb's-quarter. A tender annual substitute for spinach that does well in the heat. Use in salad or cooked,

Motherwort. The flowering tops are used for heart problems and female health concerns.

Nettle. A rich source of iron and calcium eaten as a cooked vegetable or made into a tea, Look for it in hair products as a scalp stimulant and tonic.

Plantain. Eat the leaves raw in salad or cooked in soup, Makes a healing poultice that is used to relieve bug-bite symptoms and aid the healing of wounds.

Violet. Add a taste of spring to salads, soups, and pesto. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and high in vitamin C. Herbalists apply violet internally for irritated throats and externally to treat burns.

Wild fennel. It has an anise-like scent and taste, and its yellow flowers attract beneficial insects that prey on leaf-eating pest insects.

For information on her products and book (Earthly Bodies & Heavenly Hair), and a course description, contact Dina Falconi at 468 County Route 2, Accord, NY 12404; 845-687-8938.

Visit OrganicGardening.com to learn how to make simple tinctures from the weeds in your garden and find recipes for an herbal meal prepared with homepicked ingredients.

PHOTO (COLOR): Friendly flora: "If gardeners could see weeds as allies and not enemies," says herbalist Dina Falconi, "they could put them to good use."

PHOTO (COLOR): Open-air classroom: Certain plants are desirable and others are not, we are taught. These little helpers are eager to pick wild greens for lunch. The garden, the fields, and the woods are the classroom where Dina teaches her course on herbs. A trip to the garden yields lamb's-quarter, violet, and other wild greens. Strawberries are fermented Into mead, an ancient type of honey wine.

PHOTO (COLOR): Picking favorites: Dandelions are welcome here because they provide seeds for birds and nectar for bees. Dina uses wild greens In almost every meal--she's sure they are tastier and more healthful than those you can buy In the store. Even In the off-season, the arbor Is dramatic and accentuates the connection between the garden and the forest. Children feel free to relax and explore in this garden.


By Zazel Loven

Photographs by Roy Gumpel

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