The hallmark of a witch’s garden is that traditionally, it isn’t really a garden. There were certain herbs that a person might have kept near the cottage door, as they were in regular use. But certainly, when witchcraft carried a death sentence, you wouldn’t cultivate plants that could land you on a pyre. Instead, the witch’s garden was found in the forests, in the meadow, amongst the plants that grew wild there.
So when creating a witch’s garden, you want to recreate the environments in which the plants you choose thrive. It’s not necessary to lay out a garden like you might with vegetables, with row upon row of plants. Unless for some reason you’re looking to grow large quantities. A cluster of two or three of the same plant is plenty for personal use, or if you’re just looking for an interesting garden plant.
Instead of a square plot, set up shop in an unused corner, or spread it out over several spots in your yard. And if you wish, have a main garden as well, particularly for some of the more deadly plants which you might want to restrict access to.
Take advantage of natural features when planning your witch’s garden
If it’s a forest plant you’re looking to grow, use a tree as a starting point, and build it up to match the plant, adding rock to recreate an alpine environment, or composting leaves and other vegetation to stand in for the forest floor.
Most of the witch’s garden plants I grow are forest plants, or at least do pretty well in a woodsy environment. So what I look for is a variety of light.
The most important step in planning is sitting still and watching the sun over the course of a day. But keep in mind, the path of the sun moves through the year, so if you’re planning for summer, don’t use the midwinter sun as your guide.
I use a barn at the back of the property for blocks of deep shade, and a tree which grows beside it and over the space for dappled shade, which for most plants that are part sun/shade is best. Dappled shade is like the moving shadows found under trees that let sunlight through the branches.
I also use taller plants to provide shade for shorter ones. Tall, leafy Monkshood, along with the overhang of the barn provides a shady home for a Jack in the Pulpit plant which came back this spring. It was a favorite of the native Americans, and prefers a shady, moist location. The old gutters on the barn drain near this spot, which provides an extra moist environment during the rainy spring months.
Or conversely, consider the shade cast by tall plants when planting shorter ones which require more light. One of the first plants up this spring was a Belladonna, which is on the sunny side of the Monkshood, so as not to get cheated of light. And it helps keep the Jack in the Pulpit shaded.
Watch out for the poisons when growing medicinal herbs as well
Which brings up another consideration. The native Americans used Jack in the Pulpit as a vegetable. It’s likely not a good idea to eat a plant which grows beneath the poisonous Belladonna, or as it’s known, Deadly Nightshade. Or Monkshood for that matter, which has been known to prove fatal just by brushing up against it with an open sore or wound.
For the most part, I don’t use the plants I grow. I grow them because I want to learn how they grow, or to enjoy their beauty, or even the ambience they create. As noted elsewhere, I hate gardening, but love gardens. Or rather love natural spots. So I’m not too bothered by weeds, particularly late in the summer, when it’s too hot to be outside fighting nature.
That means comes spring it’s time to pull the weeds and see what came back. In the neck of the garden I was describing, none of the three new Belladonna plants I planted in this plot last year have come back yet. Belladonna can be finicky, so it doesn’t surprise me. The aforementioned Monkshood is four years old this year, and each year grows taller and wider, squeezing out the surrounding plants.
Medicinal herbs and food combine well in the witch’s garden
I have a path winding through the witch’s garden, which makes access easier and gives it some structure. And creates a bit of a buffer between the poisons and the healing plants.
What grows across from the poison plot are for the most part, beneficial. And would have been stalwarts in a witch’s medicine bag.
My Valerian comes back reliably each year. Occasionally I’ll dig up part of it for the roots, as they make a nice bedtime tea. Next to that is Wood Betony, which also sprung back this year. It was widely used in Europe for healing, and also for magic. And also makes a nice tea, which is good for relaxation.
I also keep an Aztec Dream Plant in a container there, which is believed to stimulate dreams and make them more vivid in small doses. And provokes mystical visions in larger amounts.
Next to that is a Bloody Dock plant, or Bloodwort. I mainly grow it for the blood red veins which resemble humans that contrast with the bright green leaves. It makes a tasty green in salads as well. Also ornamental are Asiatic Lillies, planted years ago before this was a witch’s garden, but still come back.
Eating up the most space in this little section is an Angelica plant, utterly necessary for the creation of gin and vermouth. And martinis are at times, utterly necessary. Angelica cries out for dappled shade, and a cool environment. I can’t provide a cool summer, but I can provide deep shade for the hottest part of the day, and dappled shade for the rest, with the exception of mornings, where it gets full sun in the cooler daylight hours.
Something else to consider is as this Angelica plant is two years old, it will likely not come back next year. Which isn’t a bad thing, if you can afford to buy gin rather than make your own, as it gives you a chance to experiment with another large plant next year.
Below that is a Horehound plant, digging the shade from its leafy brethren. It fills out the space, and provides shade for garter snakes in increasingly numbers, but its primary use is it’s great for cold seasons.
White Coral Bells provides ground cover, because it was the first song I learned as a kid and introduced me to fairies. And at the back, Mugwort and Wormswood grow bushy and tall, and hide much of the ugly privacy fence.
The formal garden goes informal in the witch’s garden
A short path separates the healing herbs from the front part of the garden, which a longer section, rectangular in shape. This was my one attempt at creating a formal garden area. The majority of the ground here is covered in paving stones, with opening for plants. In the area that’s not covered, A Butterfly Bush anchors the space, planted by my dear, departed mother years ago.
In the back, Tansy seems to keep the flies at bay, and has several witchy uses, so I scatter it around the areas where I sit or work. It also makes for a nice tall border plant to hide whatever madness is going on beyond the garden.
The front border saw Delphiniums and Foxglove last year. Foxglove was the first witch’s plant I ever grew, several years ago, noted for its use as a poison. That first plant would bloom twice, once in spring and later in summer and lasted two or three years. Since then I can’t keep one alive to save my blackened soul. So far, the Delphiniums are taking the same route, so perhaps it’s the soil, as it’s one of the few places back here where there’s good light.
Everything else planted here last year appears to have died except for a mass of English Ivy which covers almost everything. Poking out through that is way too much Poison Ivy. And of course Mother’s Butterfly Bush is as immortal as ever.
Surprisingly this spring, a plant came back heartily in the border, planted last spring, another Belladonna which had died early, swallowed up by weeds. This one, Atropa komarovii, is from Turkmenistan and the neighboring region inside Iran. Like most Belladonna, it grows best in shaded areas, and the dappled sunlight in this part of the garden seems to suit it well.
The border here consists of a monster Elfwort plant, known by its proper name of Elecampane. This is its third year, and last year it was late coming up. This year it was one of the first. A second Elfwort next to it, planted last year is yet to make an appearance. Behind that are Daylillies and Fuchsia, which seems to be growing wild and spreading. Both have fairy connotations, more so than witchy, but fairies are cool.
And of course, more Poison Ivy.
Across the path from there is a bed grown wild and untamable. The English Ivy sneaks through there, as I’m trying to train it to go up the patio windows and posts. On one end is a Holly plant, for the Druids. And casting shade and dappled light over a few Asiatic Lillies, as well as most of this garden is a Mulberry tree.
There’s a small sitting area next to it, with a roof overhanging. One branch of the tree is pushing down on the roof, so it will have to go or it’ll take it down. Climbing up one the posts that hold up the roof, and sending our runners in a few different directions is a Wysteria, which wraps nicely around the pole. It barely blooms though, as there just isn’t enough light. Wysteria can cause problems with structures like this as well, so it’s also in need of a trim.
On trees for shade and hanging out the clothes, and looking for the original yard
Adjacent to the garden, over the winter I pulled down the above ground pool. I hated to see the pool go, as summers were made bearable by floating and drinking cold rum drinks. Instead I’ve converted the area to a vegetable garden. It’s coming along, though I’m still assembling beds, filling containers and working on irrigation.
I’d prefer rum drinks.
The house was built in the 1880s or 1890s, and it’s pretty certain they’d have had a vegetable garden. I know there was a well, across from where the garden is now, and it’s possible the garden was in that area, as it would make sense to have a water source near the garden before the advent of city water and garden hoses.
When the pool came down, I also took down the eight foot, incredibly generic privacy fence. The result is an opening up of the yard once more. It’s possible to see, vaguely how the house would have operated when it was built, when the now useless back door of the basement led out to the yard, so that laundry could be taken directly out and hung on the line.
Part of my work here is trying to let the house breathe on the inside. How to keep it cool in hot weather, and that means trees for shade. Today we keep trees away from the house to prevent damage in case they fall. But that forces us to rely on air conditioning. For me, having the windows closed feels suffocating, isolating. I’d rather sweat a bit and hear the sound of the birds outside the windows.
So we have shade trees on each side of the house. And wherever you have a shade tree, you have a spot for a witch’s garden.
In the back of the lawn is an area, mostly hidden by a few trees, Ivy and large bushes. It’s grown wild over the past few years, and within that mess is the original patio and witch’s garden. Today all that remains are the stones and St. John’s Wort, along with Daffodils, Hyacinth and a Clematis, growing up a trellis and further up on a sapling that’s growing out of the Ivy.
Last year we tried to start a fairy garden here, but the garter snakes took it over and I refused to do battle. This year we’re trying to clear out the brush and deprive the wriggly ones of a home, and bring this back under control, so we can turn it over to the fairies.
Turning a rock garden into a witch’s herb garden
Off the back porch was a rock garden, which grew only a single rose bush, weeds and lots of small rocks. Last year we cleared half and planted strawberries, which are doing great. The other half I planted herbs … Rue, (which was actually the year before), Hyssop, Anise Hyssop, and Dittany of Crete, along with a few others that didn’t come back. The Dittany of Crete hasn’t either but the others are doing quite well.
Several of the plants here are meadow plants, and get their shade from the plants that surround them. That’s the effect we go for, making sure those that dislike light are shaded by taller, light hungry ones, as there is a lot more sun, and our summers are much hotter then the European climates where these plants originated.
The remaining area we planted bulbs and seeds for moon garden plants. Next to the rock garden I’ve built a patio with paving stones, utilizing the sidewalk and side of the house. Since it’s enclosed on two sides, and gets lot of morning sun, it’s the location for the new moon garden. But that’s another story.
The point is, don’t confine yourself to single space. A witch’s garden is wild thing, and don’t be afraid to leave little touches of it all over your yard. Take advantage of wherever you find sun or shade. Indoors as well.
What is the witch’s gardener’s best friend?
For those like myself, who hate gardening but love gardens, your best friends are perennials which come back every year. Other plants, like Datura and Night Scented Stock which reseeds itself liberally. The less you have to plant each year, the lower your cost, and the less time it takes to get things in order.
And sure, you can propagate by division, or collect seeds and grow seedlings. But that’s more work. As I said, I love gardens, not the process of gardening.
This year it’s working out nicely. Which hopefully gives us a chance to catch up on the areas that have grown feral over the past few years, and get other parts of the lawn and garden setup to take advantage of plants that have a fixed home, year after year.
A garden is a living thing. When you’re really in tune with nature, or your little neck of nature at least, it doesn’t need your intervention to live and reproduce. It’s what they do naturally, when given a chance.
A garden growing naturally is after all, one of the key definitions of a witch’s garden. As I said, a witch’s garden isn’t really a garden, but a slice of nature that gives what you need to practice your craft. If the plants don’t grow freely in the woods in your area, then create a bit of woods yourself.