FORT YATES, N.D. – “Medicine wheel gardens build on the radiating energy of
circles – ever on the move,” said E. Barrie Kavasch, ethnobotanist,
herbalist and author of many books on plants and healing. Kavasch, who has
Cherokee, Creek and Powhatan ancestry, has visited ancient medicine wheels
around the world and made gardens inspired by their patterns for more than
On the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota this summer, Aubrey Skye,
Lakota, will consult Kavasch’s book, “The Medicine Wheel Garden: Creating
Sacred Space for Healing, Celebration, and Tranquility” (Bantam Books,
2002), to create one that will serve as a nursery for endangered prairie
Whether you’re growing rare or common plants in your gardens, you’re doing
the environment a favor, according to Skye, gardens coordinator for the
Standing Rock Diabetes Program.
“Wildcrafting of herbs has become a cottage industry, and many are
over-harvested,” he said. “If you grow your own, you can gather them
without putting a strain on wild populations and the birds, insects and
other creatures that depend on them.”
You’ll harvest a bounty of health benefits for yourself as well, said Skye:
“Medicine wheel gardens feature healing plants, such as sage and echinacea,
and they’re places to meditate and get away from the madness of today’s
world. You may also find that gardening is itself a meditation – as well as
healthy outdoor exercise.”
Designing the plot is a personal matter. “When you lay one out, think about
what’s on your mind,” said Kavasch. “What do you need? What does the land
A medicine wheel garden can be large, with north-south and east-west
walkways dividing the circle into quadrants, and a wide variety of
perennials, annuals, and shrubs. Or it can be very simple.
One of the most effortless designs requires making a small circular rock
outline in a place that’s special to you, dividing the circle into
quadrants with rows of stones and waiting to see which plants show up.
Herbalists in many traditions believe that those you need the most are the
ones that will appear.
Kavasch tried the latter approach with her first medicine wheel garden, in
a woodland clearing near her house is rural northwestern Connecticut, and
soon found strawberries, cinquefoil and sweetgrass sprouting in it. “What a
wonderful sign!” she remembered thinking. She returned to the spot again
and again for solace and prayer.
You may wish to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of your garden according
to your own traditions, said Skye, who explained: “When we’re in touch with
the earth, it regenerates our spirituality and reminds us of what we’ve
learned from our plant and animal relatives. Although there are different
ways to pray to the Creator, ultimately there’s only one higher power and
it lives in each and every one of us.”
PLANTING THE GARDEN
If you decide to plant a garden rather than simply wait to see what Mother
Earth provides, here’s how to proceed. For more gardening advice, refer to
“Plant a traditional-foods garden” (Indian Country Today, Vol. 24, Iss.
Seeds or plants? Many experienced gardeners prefer to buy seeds and sprout
them. Sweet Grass Gardens (www.sweetgrassgardens.com), owned by a
Seneca-Mohawk couple on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, sells sage and
sweetgrass seeds; Native Seeds/ SEARCH (www.nativeseeds.org) offers mainly
Southwestern seeds; and Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) has options
that thrive nationwide. The last two have discount programs.
Medicine plants can be fussy, according to Skye, so beginners should go to
a garden center, where they’ll find many ready to pop into the ground.
Other good sources for both plants and seeds are Horizon Herbs
(www.horizonherbs.com) and Richter’s (www.richters.com).
Pick a spot: Whether the location is sunny or shady will determine what
plants can grow there. Then determine the bed’s size; five to 10 feet
across is enough for a novice, whereas 20 – 30 foot diameter gardens would
work for someone who’s experienced. Stick a stake in the ground, and tie a
string to it that is half the diameter. Keeping the string taut, walk in a
circle while marking spots along the circumference with small sticks.
Mark the cardinal directions: Indicate north, south, east and west with
larger sticks. Use a compass to determine the directions. Or, suggested
Skye, go out on a starry night, find the Big Dipper, and imagine a line
extending from the last two stars on the dipper’s bowl. That line points to
the bright North Star, which indicates due north.
Clear the surface: Spade up grass or other plant matter within the circle.
Don’t use herbicides or other chemicals, warned Skye, as that defeats the
purpose of growing healing plants.
Fertilize the soil: Using a pitchfork or shovel, work in organic compost
and/or composted manure (about 50 pounds for a small garden and two or
three times that for a large one).
Place the rocks: Remove the stick markers. Use cobble-sized rocks to mark
the circle and the quadrants. If the garden is large enough for paths,
cover them with gravel or river stones.
Assign the colors: The North quadrant is to the left of the north end of
the north-south axis; proceed clockwise from there to the East, South, and
Plant and mulch: Sow seeds, or put in transplants. Conserve soil moisture
and keep down weeds by placing straw or bark around the bases of the
plants. Also try scattering rocks within the quadrants. The rocks act as
heat sinks, soaking up heat during the day and releasing it at night, thus
keeping the plants at an even temperature. Water during dry spells.
Harvest time: Turn to Kavasch’s book, “The Medicine Wheel Garden,” for
recipes for lotions, bath salts and other preparations. Don’t try to
medicate yourself, however. Herbs are powerful medicines and can even be
toxic in some cases; if you’re new to using them or are taking prescription
drugs with which they might interact, you may cause more problems than you