Mountain Gardens


Paradise Gardening Update


Mountain Gardens began in 1972, when I obtained 2.8 acres of woodland in the high mountains of western NC. Almost from the start, the intention has been to develop a garden which addresses the problems of our times: environmental destruction, war & economic injustice, personal distress & dissatisfaction. Paradise Garden theory holds that these are all manifestations, at the different levels of life (planet, species, individual) of a single problem: that humans no longer occupy a valid niche in Gaia, the superorganism of which we are a part.

We slipped away from a valid niche with the rise of civilization, following the development of agriculture. Civilization is an upstart superorganism and is in fact an aggressive cancer within the body of Gaia. Modernity is the final stage in which all humans occupy a niche in civilization, and Gaia, the living matrix, is redefined as ‘raw materials’. Paradise Gardening is the practice of creating, maintaining and ‘making a living’ from the development of a Paradise Garden, the garden where everything you need (not necessarily everything that you want) is there for the taking. This is proposed as a ‘valid niche’: one which increases (or at least doesn’t decrease) the diversity and fertility of the garden (and the planet), which does not use more than a fair share of Gaia’s resources (land, clean air, clean water, etc.) and which promotes the health, happiness and fullest development of the gardener. Every era and culture has attempted to realize its version of Paradise, but in the run-up to full modernity the subject has been sadly neglected – the search for Paradise abandoned as the earth is trashed and human suffering increase to unbearable levels. Yet the search for the way home remains the most urgent, meaningful and enjoyable life work.

I originally defined Mountain Gardens as a ‘botanical garden of useful plants grown ecologically and arranged ornamentally’, and over the course of forty years have found no reason to alter that, only ways to amplify it. A botanical garden implies a collection of plants, useful plants includes of course food and medicine, also craft plants (fiber, dye, basketry, paper, incense, etc.), fuel, building material and, of course, wildlife – birds, bees, butterflies – and soil improvement, hedges & windbreaks, ornamentals and so on. As of 2014, Mountain Gardens may incorporate the largest collection of ‘useful plants’ in E. N. America, particularly medicinal herbs, perennial vegetables and wildfood plants, our specialties.

“Grown ecologically’ includes naturalizing the plants by utilizing or creating habitats in which they will thrive without, or with minimal, human assistance – thus the effort to maximize diversity of species is tied to the development of / maximizing the diversity of micro-habitats along axes such as sun-shade, wet-dry, acid-neutral, humus-rich, sandy, clay, etc. Grown ecologically also includes the concept of respecting the potential (or in my case, actual) natural vegetation, which in this area is forest. More specifically, my few acres includes examples of rich cove hardwoods, hemlock, white oak and red oak/hickory/heath plant communities – portions of each of these (about half the property) have been maintained and enriched with additional useful species appropriate to them. Ecological cultivation also includes building fertility by recycling all organic matter and preventing erosion.
‘Arranged ornamentally’ has to do with creating an ideal environment. Travel/tourism is, we are told, the next largest consumer of nonrenewable resources after military/defense. The Paradise gardener would rather stay home. In addition to fulfilling our physical needs (see ‘useful plants’, above) the garden can provide for our aesthetic, creative and spiritual needs. Chinese Daoist gardens provide a model for creating a ‘separate reality’ which is both an environmental work of art and an optimum environment for fostering human development to as high a spiritual level as you care to go.

Paradise Garden theory contends that we are born pre-programmed to fit into the world (Gaia), to our mutual advantage. Despite the fact that reprogramming begins (especially in ‘advanced’ societies) almost from the moment of birth, our original program can only be overwritten, not deleted., and it is this archetypal level that it seeks to tap in claiming the ability to fulfill all our needs; physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. (and social – see Paradise Garden as a utopian community, below). At the highest level, Paradise Gardening (the practice) becomes wu-wei, ‘not-doing’ (‘flow’ is a contemporary term in the same ballpark) – a daily focusing on the ‘dressing and keeping’ of a beautiful environment which is itself the result of a dialogue between the gardener and the environment (Gaia) as expressed in the garden, the sum total of all the previous days.

An important aspect of this garden project from the start is that it be relevant to as many people as possible. This means a small piece of land (a ‘fair share’) and minimum external inputs such as fossil fuels / machinery and, especially, money. I began this project with several acres of woodland and $500, and no training and only slight experience in any of what I have been doing since: garden making, building, botany, horticulture, herbalism, homesteading. No grants or other capital infusion. I have rarely been on a payroll until I began to teach one class per semester at a nearby college of Chinese medical arts (I teach medical botany and herbal preparations) , and have always lived below the ‘poverty line’. No savings, no insurance (except now I get Medicare and $150/month from the government – I didn’t ask for it, but I don’t turn it down either) – it’s a matter of harmonizing not only our deeds with our words, but also where we place our faith and trust. The reward is the freedom to work/live whole-heartedly, and the peace of mind the Greeks called ataraxy. The eschewal of money has a deeper meaning: money is the ‘blood’ of civilization, and the amount of it that flows through us is a direct index of the extent to which we are a participant, both depending on and supporting civilization. Exactly where we are on a line that has Paradise at one end and money at the other is less relevant than what direction we are moving in. Paradise making will be a multi-generational endeavor, so much of the satisfaction must be, and is, in the process.

Of course it is almost impossible to live completely outside of money / civilization, so the garden must earn some income, which it does by selling seeds and plants (we grow some rare ones), medicinal herbs and preparations, and teaching . Occasionally we do in fact generate little burps of $, which are quickly converted into one of the three recognized acceptable items of purchase: plants, books and tools. (all non-consumables). Life without money, far from being regret-filled, is liberating – like fasting, when you suddenly find yourself with all those extra hours in the day (formerly devoted to cooking, eating, cleaning up). We are told that hunter-gatherers had more leisure time than any human populations since. I enjoy waking, whenever I feel like it, to a choice of interesting creative tasks all of which I want to do; or, best of all, just stepping out into the world and responding to it: total immersion: Paradise gardening.

What one can do with all this leisure time, the theory suggests, is go deeper into whatever aspect of the Paradise garden (or anything else) that takes your fancy; for example, I got interested in medicinal herbs, for several reasons. I was growing them, because they are important, but rarely using them, because I rarely got sick. Then I learned about tonic, health-promoting herbs, an aspect of Chinese herbal medicine, and wanted to grow them. Twenty years later Mountain Gardens is a pioneer both in growing Chinese herbs in America, and in incorporating native herbs into the highly sophisticated Chinese herbal medicine system. I rely on these herbs for my own health and longevity, and we provide them to our community through our ‘self-help herbal medicine center’, which consists of an extensive library of both popular and professional texts and a very large collection of dried herbs, single herbs extracts and Chinese formula extracts, as well as other preparations (syrups, pills, salves, lotions, liniments, etc.) which we make here. (We do not sell our products on the open market as jumping through the requisite hoops would draw us in the direction of $ and away from Paradise). This is a unique facility for anyone wishing to do self-diagnosis (or already having a diagnosis; I do not do diagnosis) and self-treatment with Chinese and/or native herbs, and it’s self-serve and open to the public 24/7/365.

A related topic to which we devote considerable energy is exploring the ‘great botanical/floristic disjunction’ between E. N. America and E. Asia, particularly as it relates to useful plants. We grow oriental and closely related native edible and medicinal herbs side-by-side, for comparative study – another unique project. Thus, for example, we grow a wide selection of sansai – the ‘wild mountain vegetables’ of Japan, as well as their close native relatives. This aspect of our garden researches generates its own income – we sell spring wildfoods, including such rarities as wasabi leaves and the young shoots of the prickly-ash tree (another prized condiment), to a restaurant and could certainly sell more if we decide to – what we have been doing for thirty years is now avant-garde cuisine. Efforts are underway to develop some of our delicious native wildfoods as a marketable product (small-scale, artisinal). Similarly with the medicinal herbs, we grow both native and oriental ginseng, black cohosh, Solomon’s seal, wild yam, and many more ‘non-timber forest products.’

The property is a small valley (‘cove’) oriented approximately north – south, with high mountains to the north and a ridge on the east and west (incidentally, or perhaps not, excellent feng shui). The center acre, the valley floor, slopes from north to south, but is horizontal east to west, it is triangular – narrower to the north (my boundary with US National Forest), and wider to the south (the boundary is a gravel road). Originally, the property was entirely wooded, the center was rich cove hardwoods, mostly tulip poplar stump regrowth from logging about 30 years before. This is the area which I cleared for garden space and building material – a log cabin. The land had never been cultivated because it is very rocky; the rocks were used for terrace walls, paths and steps. Everything was done by hand labor with simple tools, my only compromise being a chain saw. The original plan was very simple: a clearing in the woods, divided by several E-W hedgerows of useful small trees and shrubs and dwarf evergreens, and a circuit path along the wooded ridges with framed views of the central terraces. The various structures (there are now about a dozen, counting sheds and outhouse) mostly ring the clearing.

Around the clearing (the cove hardwoods area) was a band of hemlocks, and above that (i.e. drier) oak / hickory with Rhododendron and other heaths. The dense evergreen hemlocks were a major factor in the layout of the property as they provided screening to divide the garden into separate ‘rooms’, and to block and then frame the views from the ridge path. Tragically, they have all died, over the past ten years, due to an imported pest.

An ending is an opening and, in this case, there is suddenly sunlight reaching fertile soil which had previously been too densely shaded to permit an herb layer. A priority for the past few years has been to influence the direction and composition of the succession process which will inevitably follow, by broadcasting seeds and spreading brush (to catch autumn leaves for mulch and, eventually, humus), burning the hemlock brush and spreading the ashes to neutralize the acidity of the soil and using the logs to define paths and terraces (and inoculating the stumps in hopes of generating edible fungi – no luck with that so far). As a result of the hemlock’s demise the circuit path joining the two ridges has now been completed and instead of the garden being ‘a clearing in the woods’ , the garden is now the entire property.

What was for the first ten years mainly a solitary effort is now a group project. I began having a helper as soon as I had an extra shelter, and that has gradually expanded into an apprentice program with 6-8 interns living here from March – October and usually one or two short-term visitors / WWOOFers in addition; we also occasionally host college classes and work parties. I recently inaugurated a fellowship program to encourage apprentices to return for another year or longer. I would like to see Mountain Gardens evolve into a small community in which we all work together, half time, to maintain the garden; and each person works half time on an individual garden-related project for personal income. The apprentices receive room and board, but no stipend; the facilities I have developed here: the gardens, the quite extensive research library, the herb shop and apothecary and the surrounding natural areas constitute a unique educational opportunity, and I have many more applicants than I can accommodate. The apprentices live in several small structures (cabins, yurts, earth-sheltered dome) and share an outdoor kitchen, common room, solar shower & hot tub. Meals are communal, The life style is ‘neo-primitive’ – we cook and heat with wood, utilize gravity water flow, have a limited amount of photovoltaic electricity for lights and computer with internet.

Outreach is important; my main purpose is to inspire and empower others, particularly young folks who are not yet trapped in the cash economy and feel that there must be a better, more satisfying and harmonious way to live on earth. In addition to the apprenticeship program, we offer many workshops on gardening and medicinal herb topics and maintain a website where we share helpful information. Recently the apprentices have developed a Facebook page. We have also begun making short videos about useful plants and about Mountain Gardens, these are posted on youtube.
Current goals (2015) include increasing food production – I believe it will be possible to provide all the food, not just vegetables but also fruit, staples and protein, for ten people from a couple of acres of very marginal (agriculturally) land, which will be a demonstration of the fact that, to feed the world, we don’t need genetic engineering but land distribution. Also mapping the garden and producing a guidebook to our plant collection. We have recently added ducks and now have enough sunny garden space to grow staples: corn, potatoes, beans.

Joe Hollis