From Plant Killer To Herbalist
Growing up in Chicago, my mom had a killer garden; inside and out. I was surrounded by all colors of the rainbow and every plant imaginable. Regardless of the season, our house was full of green, even when the outside was blanketed with white. We could have been in Miami, for all I knew, as plants grew abundantly in our cold, tundra-like climate.
My mother grew up in Poland, where a strong tradition of gardening and putting your heart and soul into plants, herbs, and vegetables remained supreme.
She didn’t grow up with big-box supermarkets or the ability to eat an orange in the middle of winter. In fact, she didn’t grow up with oranges. They ate what they could grow, they ate what was in season, and they ate locally…by default. Now-a-days these things come at a premium, even luxuries, but back in her day, this was standard.
The Polish Garden Allotments
In Poland, my mom and her family had what is called ogrodki dzialkowe: the Polish garden allotment. They were little gardening plots allotted to families by the government. Back then, no one had a big house or land. In fact, the apartment my mother grew up in was about the size of my current living room (and I don’t live largely)—-to give some perspective.
The garden allotments were usually just outside of town, a sprawling piece of land where each family had a little parcel to grow whatever they wanted, greenhouses were abundant, crops taller than most people and greener than the rolling hills of Ireland. The plots laid out like little suburban neighborhoods, walking from garden to garden, a neighborhood which seemed more like an organized jungle than a boring plot of concrete. Instead of houses, many had little huts, ‘tiny houses’ (before they were cool) where one could sleep if necessary, or (let’s be honest) if one had too much vodka to drink that night.
More Than Just A Garden
Let me tell you, these plots are amazing, inspiring and fascinating. The amount of time, effort, beauty and community created surrounding these little lots is astounding.
Every growing season, families would march over to their gardens and spend every last bit of free time growing lush gardens, drinking vodka with neighbors and eating their fresh harvests. It’s as if the Polish people’s blood was mixed in with the soil of the dzialkowe. Blood, sweat, tears and tomatoes.
Then, as autumn approached, they would can and store their vegetables for the winter, making sure every last bit was utilized. Nothing went to waste. This place was HEAVEN. Utterly beautiful, a calming and zen-like existence, where you learned about life, ate your first snails, sipped your first blueberry soaked vodka and picked your first fresh raspberries.
When I think of my happy place, I think of my family’s old ogrodki dzialkowe, a place with the sun shining brightly, and the color green so etched in my mind. The gardens uprooting my senses.
Green Thumb: Nature VS Nurture
So, with all this in mind, surrounded by plants, herbs, and vegetables, you would think I’d be an expert at gardening. I was BORN to garden, right?
WRONG. You couldn’t be any more wrong.
As I grew up and left the nest, I thought I would easily imitate my mother’s garden and emulate her bright green thumb. But, as the story goes, I was awful. I killed almost every plant I owned, even the ones that are supposedly difficult to kill. I had a skill, and it was killing plants, and I’m sure I’d find a way to kill fake plants if I had the chance.
How could this be? In what world did the daughter of a constant gardener, a human with a lineage of growing plants, did I become a plant killer? How was this fair?
A Career Change
When I decided to go to graduate school to become an acupuncturist and herbalist, my mother was pretty skeptical. “You kill every plant you own, how will you develop relationships with these herbs and plants?” Her surprise and skepticism were my drive and fuel to finally befriend and learn to care for the very things I let down year after year. I dove deep into my education, spending countless hours memorizing, identifying, tasting, touching and learning functions and indications for the 400 plus herbs in the Chinese materia medica.
Not only this, but I dedicated myself to planting them too. I wanted to know and understand what it took to grow and care for the very things that would care for me, and eventually my patients. What did they need to survive and what would my new relationship look like with these plants and herbs?
After four years of grueling studies, I finally graduated with my degree in Chinese medicine and herbalism. I was officially a herbalist, and I made sure it was an honest description of my job title and skill-set.
No longer the plant killer, but the plant whisperer, I’m able to grow herbs for patients, plants for my home, and have a newfound sense of pride when it comes to my own garden. While the love for gardening can be passed down, I realized it was up to me to learn to care and nurture for the very gardens that took care of me as a child.