October 12, 2019

Our Garden

A Medicine Garden in the Sonoran Desert

Our medicine garden at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine is home to over 120 different plant species spanning over forty families. Some are desert natives and many are from other bioregions and ecosystems around the world. Growing a variety of plants in such a specific and extreme environment like our Sonoran desert requires a willingness to experiment and a lot of attention to detail. With seventeen beds and nearly two dozen pots and planters, we are able to manage our resources to create micro-climates suitable to the preferences of our plants. We consider how plants grow in their natural environment. In our tree bed, we have, you guessed it, trees, growing in community with one another just as they would in nature. A canopy of shade cloth and vining jasmine growing over the top covers is on one of our beds where we put shade loving plants and anything that needs protection from our relentless sun. Plants that want full sun in a more temperate growth region often can’t handle direct Arizona sun. Many of our beds are watered by sprinklers set to a timer which allows us to be wise with our water usage. This also allows us to plan plant pairings by water needs to help us avoid under or over watering neighbors. Another variable is soil composition. As you move from bed to bed, you’ll find that some are raised higher and are full of soft and loamy soil. Some beds have more sand and others are lower to the ground with a heavier rock or clay content. By taking into consideration what each plant needs, what resources we have available, and the ways in which we’re able to manage these resources we’re able to bring a hands on experience of medicine plants to the Sonoran community.

The magic making of a garden would not be possible without a dedicated team of cultivators. Here at Sonoran, we have a team of four gardeners led by JoAnn Sanchez, head gardener, professor and AHG registered herbalist. Each team member brings their own unique perspective and skill set to the garden. JoAnn started the medicinal garden at Sonoran in 1998 so that medicine plants could be close to the learning environment. Her favorite garden task is garbling, or sorting herbs after drying and before storage, this sorting for her is a peaceful task. Nathaniel was a home gardener caring for a thriving assortment of fruit trees, when he found an opening at the Sonoran garden, and knew it was fate as he planned to apply for the medicinal program the following year. Nathaniel loves the process of putting time and energy into nourishing the plants’ habitats for the opportunity to see them flourish. Siobhon was a student of JoAnn’s at SWIHA and had taken care of the garden as an intern in the Western Herbalism program. After graduating, she was offered the opportunity to join the team as a gardener and educator to give the students at Sonoran opportunities to experience hands on herbal medicine making. Her favorite part of the job is getting to help the students turn garden plants into usable medicines through tea blending and tincturing workshops. Kira studied herbalism with JoAnn and after graduating went on to work at an organic food garden. She joyfully accepted the chance to work with medicinal plants when the opportunity presented itself. Her favorite part of gardening is harvesting, especially flower harvests. Josh is the newest member of the team and has extensive plant and farming experience. He feels that gardening is infinitely nourishing.

Even though the summer months have brought days of temperatures consistently in the triple digits, most of our plants are still thriving. Our desert plants are acclimated to the intense heat and all are doing very well. The desert lavender continues to grow, well over eight feet tall. The desert willow has put out a spectacular production of soft pink flowers with a beautiful floral scent. The yerba mansa patch is still speckled with flower stalks topped by a white cone center and petals. Our prickly pear plant produced 10 new pads this summer, that grow larger every day. One of our mulleins is on its second year of growth and has put out it’s tall flowering stalk. As a biennial, mullein spends the first year of its life low to the ground growing soft leaves in a rosette and its second year of life puts up a stalk and produces small yellow flowers that give way to capsules full of small black seeds.

Additionally, medicine plants from many environments around the globe are thriving in our garden this autumn. Holy basil bushes around the garden provided an excellent harvest of leaves this year, but now it is time to stop harvesting to allow the plant to make seed. The seeds of our Echinacea and Evening Primrose are becoming viable as well. We will soon be racing the birds, eagerly awaiting a seedy snack, to get them into our seed storage for future planting. The Bacopa loves the intense heat and continues to flower and spread as a succulent ground cover, and the many ornamental onions are showing off their bright clusters of white flowers like midday fireworks. Several Hibiscus sabdariffa plants across the garden, planted by seed a few months ago, have grown bushy and are beginning to develop buds on the stems. The soft, pink flowers of this Malva plant turn to plump red calyxes, which are harvested and dried to be used during hot months as a nutritious and cooling tea remedy. Pomegranate and fig trees are covered in immature fruits that will continue to ripen as the weather cools. The real star of the garden right now is our goldenrod plants, standing so tall and beautiful. The tops are opening up with gorgeous ferns of yellow flowers, attracting every pollinator to its sweet nectar. The open goldenrod flowers will be harvested, dried and stored for later use in teas. Plants in every stage keep us from ever having a chance to get bored.

This month of October will be spent preparing for the big planting days we have scheduled at the end of the month. Spanning two days, students alongside the garden staff, will recondition the soil and place starter plants as well as seeds in the ground. The gardeners are busy combing medicinal plant catalogues; choosing which plants to order for this year’s planting. We consider our growing zone and the plants needs while choosing possible plants to introduce to our growing community. To make this process as smooth as possible, our team is working on a list of cleaning and preparation tasks. All over the garden we have nut grass and Bermuda grass which have made their way into the beds, amongst the crops we’ve grown over the spring and summer, and will need to be removed before we plant again. We happily welcomed the annual summer weed purslane into the garden again as an effective ground cover and nutritious snack. It is a deliciously tangy and moistening food containing a high amount of essential fatty acids and nutrients. These plants are beginning to wither after producing its seeds, so we will collect them and distribute them around the garden for next year’s crop. All of the plants that are ready for seed harvest will need to be collected and if they are at the end of their life cycle pulled out of the ground. Any plants that struggled from the summer heat will be fertilized and rid of yellowing leaves and stems, making them ready to recoup and regenerate, as we head into the cooler weather.

The medicinal garden at Sonoran grew from an inspiration to bring botanical medicine to life. The garden began in 1998 with herbalist JoAnn Sanchez introducing a few botanicals to tend. Over the years, the garden has grown under Ms. Sanchez’s supervision and now provides living examples of medicinal native plants along with plants from a variety of ecosystems and traditions. Students have opportunities to volunteer in the garden as well as observe the natural life cycle of plants through the seasons. There is a wealth of information gleaned from spending time in the garden; students can see, smell and touch the plants they learn about in the classroom. The garden also supports the botanical medicine-making lab and botanical teaching demonstrations by providing plant material used in making fresh and dried plant tinctures, teas, salves, infused oils and herbal vinegars. Not only is the garden a living classroom, but it also hosts the Southwest Conference on Botanical Medicine outdoor classes, affords opportunities for students to learn organic gardening and medicinal plant cultivation, and provides a beautiful and peaceful community space. The garden fosters the values of stewardship and ecological awareness as students see the connection between the health of our environment and the survival of medicinal plants. The medicinal garden serves us in so many ways; we hope that you come visit and enjoy the plants through the seasons.