People always tell me that snakes in the garden mean you have a healthy ecosystem going on. That’s true. But when you walk across the yard and see multiple sets of slithery waves in the grass at the same time, it’s a different story.
Snakes go away in the winter here. This is how it’s supposed to work. I can go outside without worrying about.
It was Christmas Day, the Wife and I were standing in the lawn off to the side of the house. There used to be another house between us and the neighbors, Mr. And Mrs. Roser. Long gone. Now it’s a pretty good expanse of lawn, and it was warm for Christmas Day.
Looking down I saw a garter snake, about three foot long, a big one, laying just to my left. I bellowed. It evacuated. Looking to my right I saw its mate, passing in front of me, converging in their paths.
It was a bad omen.
A garter snake has between 10 and 40 babies. This one would have been pushing the top of the scale. I knew I had at least a half dozen adults living rent-free in the yard last year, and several of their kids. What I hadn’t considered was the house next door, which was vacant likely had just as many. And the one next to that, even more feral than my own. So come this spring, there could be a few hundred snakes wandering the lawn.
I’ve only seen garter snakes here, but we have water moccasins in the Little Wabash River, three blocks down the street, and occasionally a nest of copperheads will be found in town. A healthy ecosystem for garter snakes, is healthy for them as well.
Then the people who own the house next door came to clean it up for sale. She told me they killed one with a triangular shaped head, which often means venomous. When they cleaned out the shed, they rustled up twelve. Who likely slithered off to our yard.
Not wanting to kill them, the Wife and I have set about disrupting their habitats. It’s a large yard, and we cut down twenty or more good sized sapling this winter. A few had more or less grown into trees.
We cleared more brush than George W. Bush on his Texas ranch. And we went from seeing ten to fifteen snakes a day, to one or two. And sometimes none.
Call me Saint Fucking Patrick.
A tragedy in the orchard.
It’s only three apple trees, but it’s my orchard. One tree grew sideways, and eventually became almost parallel to the ground. Most people would have chopped it down. I just watched it as it starting growing branches straight up, which for it was straight out.
Unfortunately, having a tree growing sideways on the ground makes for an ideal snake habitat. Which spilled over to the other trees, so I didn’t even pick the apples. I didn’t want the temptation.
But this year, the crooked apple tree didn’t come back, and is set for removal. To deny snakes their last refuge.
It’s oddly poetic for a witch’s garden, that to drive away the snake, you remove the apple tree.
Apple trees seem very innocuous on the surface … “don’t sit under the apple tree, with anyone else but me.” But apple trees carry countless pagan connotations. Read Phil Rickman’s first book of the Merrily Watkins series, Wine of Angels to get a feel for it.
Then plant a few trees. Apple trees grow fast, take only a little space, and you’ll quickly start to pickup the Hansel and Gretel vibe.
A pagan symbol disappears and a stone circle takes its place
The lovely Lisa took over the front garden last year. It was originally a rose garden, years ago, then the roses died. It’s shaded by a Magnolia tree, and any time you go to plant something, you have to explore to find a spot without roots.
I had created a spiral, one of the great pagan symbols with rocks. My mother collected most of these rocks. Not like a geologist, but she did manage to find some that are rather interesting. And large. My idea was to fill the spaces between the arms of the spiral with plants.
By the time Lisa moved in, I’d already realized a spiral created a nightmare to keep weed free. Combine large rocks, lots of plants, and a thick weed base, and you have what? A perfect snake habitat. They moved in en masse.
After a year of trying to keep it weeded, she agreed with me. It was time for the spiral to go. So we went with a stone circle. I did try to align it with a certain day, but it was a wild guess and I was likely wrong. We can test the alignments and adjust as necessary.
Being a completist, I also built a small cove for honoring the ancestors. Obviously, at four foot across it’s a scale replica. But it’s a helluva lot easier to run the weed eater through.
First do no harm …
The first medicinal plant I grew was St. John’s Wort, and I made my own tincture, which definitely works. It helps keep a person balanced, but you have to watch out with certain medications.
I’ve grown Valerian for probably five years. It dies to the ground in the winter, then comes back.
Since I have no trouble sleeping, I don’t really need Valerian. So each year it comes back, grows quickly, grows tall, displays a ball of beautiful white flowers, promptly falls over and dies back to the ground come winter.
Beneath the Angelica the past couple of years grew Horehound, which I had hoped to make into tea. It’s great for clearing the head and lungs. But it was overshadowed by the Angelica, and this year refused to come back.
Witch’s gardens are perennial
Over the last couple of years the garden has gone even more feral than usual.
A mulberry tree which gave a bit of shade to the witch’s garden initially had grown out of control as well. One massive branch was threatening to pull down the roof of the patio, so it had to be surgically removed. Without falling on the plants below, so that was a winter job.
Compounding the problem is a Wysteria vine which climbed the tree and encircled that branch, along with several others. Wysteria holds on tight. It came down to wrestling a few hundred pound limb off a roof that was about to collapse at any second, with a chain from the ground below. Without damaging the plants. Even I knew it was stupid. And once it was down, it needed chopped up and dealt with.
Between the trees, vines, the snakes and the poison ivy, I was ready to abandon the witch’s garden, burn everything to the bare ground and sow it with salt.
But when we finally got the branches cleared, spring was starting and plants were popping up. You can’t abandon your children. And besides, these are the ones that refuse to die.
The witch of legend, and possibly from history at times, was a forager. After all, having a garden full of poisons outside your cottage would get you tied to a stake pretty quickly.
That means since many of these plants are perennials, and many others are self sowing, plants tend to come back year after year, without any work. It’s foraging in your own yard.
Even better, since these are technically weeds in the locations where they are originally found, they are incredibly robust plants. Providing they match your planting zone.
So your goal is create a landscape. Obviously you want to use existing features when you can. Some plants need full shade, or partial shade. These also often thrive on the compost laden forest floor. So it’s not enough to just plant some seedlings beneath a well manicured tree. You have to inject a dose of the wild into it.
You’re rewarded with healthier plants, and of course, all the pollinators that they attract. And yes, you do get the occasional snake infestation, but when things take off in the spring, it’s all worth it.
Belladonna was the next plant to pop up through the ground. I’ve got two that come back year after year … one a traditional, the other from Turkmenistan. That one is the more hearty of the two. It went from three or four inches tall to a foot in the first week.
Elfwort, or Elecampane as it’s properly known usually blooms in the second year, and I was disappointed when mine didn’t. But it came back last year – a third year, and bloomed. Once more it’s popping up from the ground, though it appear a second one I planted a year later didn’t make it.
Datura, a particularly deadly poison comes back whether I want it to or not. Though I usually do. A few years back I picked up particularly hearty strain, a Datura Hindu which has taken over my large containers, choking out the Evening Scented Stock. It’s too beautiful of a plant to discourage the practice, plus I get a few extra in each pot to spread through the yard.
Datura is known around here as Jimson Weed. My own little patch has yet to rival those you see growing along the side of the road.
Each time I wander the garden I keep eye out for Woodland Tobacco, a native American poison and medicinal herb, and Castor Bean plants, another poison favored by the KGB. Castor Beans, like Tansy – which was used for abortions and digestive ailments, pop up everywhere. But the Woodland Tobacco is more selective. Last year I transplanted one I found in a hanging basket thirty yards from the actual witch’s garden.
Particularly lazy? Go with native plants
I hate gardening. I don’t get an erection from pulling weeds, digging into the earth, crumbling soil between my fingers, swatting the incessant swarms of mosquitoes and gnats. I don’t find Nirvana in sweat dripping into my eyes, heat rashes forming, all done from a squatting position.
I like sitting in the garden at night, getting tanked. Or walking around in the twilight, seeing what’s blooming.
So my goal is to make the act of gardening as easy as possible. The easiest way to do that is to plant native plants. They grow naturally, with no intervention.
That’s pretty much the requirement for all my plants. Except for a bit of weeding, I seldom even give most of them water, except those in containers.
The first year my Jack in the Pulpit took right off. While weeding, I accidentally pulled Jack from his pulpit. The next year I did the same thing. When it came back this year, I made a little protective ring of stones. And I didn’t pluck Jack.
Joe Pye Weed was named for a Native American healer who found himself living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, healing colonists. This was his secret weapon and his adopted Christian name became associated with the plant.
It was used all across native American cultures. Even the Greeks used it.
I planted it about three years ago, beneath a small tree. I was hoping it would eventually block the view across the alley behind the house, of my neighbor’s yard. This year it’s hitting about four foot tall and the neighbor is disappearing from view. And I’ve yet have to give it a drop of water this year.
Don’t forget the fairies!
When it comes to fairy gardens, I want to believe. I really do. Perhaps it’s living in the midwest. The conventional version of fairies we’re all used to don’t exist here. Our fairy folklore resembles Arthur Rackham on acid.
But the first plant I grew in the witch’s garden was not only a poison, Foxglove, but a fairy garden plant, Fairy’s Thimble.
There is also a rather ancient Peony bush, and a very recent Fuchsia plant, which one could insinuate serve no diabolical purpose, but are instead, offerings for the fairies. Plus they look pretty.
This year’s lesson from Spring in the witch’s garden
Unlike a conventional garden, a witch’s garden can thrive in neglect. After ten years, this one has certainly seen its share of that.
I envy those with small yards, where everything is compact and there is no space to fill. Around here if you don’t fill the space with grass or plants, nature fills it with weeds.
While clearing a small forest from next to the alley, we uncovered my original witch’s garden. It was small plot, about three foot wide and six foot long. The bricks were still there, outlining it. But no trace of the plants survived.
Then again, only one survived that first year.
Witch’s garden plants are quite often weeds. What sets them apart isn’t a botanical name. It’s the story, or use behind it. Plant a weed in a location which that weed is known to thrive in, and it should thrive.
Over time the witch’s garden has become spread out. There’s still the main garden in the back, where the perennials show up. Keep up on the weeds and it manages itself. If the weeds take over, chances are it’ll be back next year and you can try again.
I’ve built a sitting area next to the house with paving stones and rock. It has a rather large fire pit, about four foot across. For burning all the brush we keep finding. It’s where the moon garden resides now. But in what used to be a rock garden, is now a growing selection of medicinal herbs. And across from those, several more in containers.
And containers of plants which attract hummingbirds. That serves as entertainment around here on evenings where sitting outside is an option.
The front garden is under the careful watch of The Wife. She buys at Walmart, the plants on clearance, with no thought of folklore. It’s whatever touches her heart, and I love her for that. And when I research the plants, more often than not I find some connection which makes it a worthy addition to the witches garden.
Plus hers bloom better.
That just leaves the rest of the yard. The best way to fill open spaces is with trees. So we’ve been planting trees. The ones that survived last year were two white birches, native to the area.
Last year the Mimosa tree died, as they frequently do. That was my mother’s pride and it really was impressivee when in bloom. It’s still there, skeletal, dropping bark and limbs. To fill the space we planted a couple of conifers, because like the White Birch, they’re fast growing and require little maintenance.
But that’s the thing about plants. Someplace in the yard is another Mimosa tree growing. I haven’t found it yet, but it came from my mother, who one day dug a hole in the ground and planted a tree.
The tree is dead, as is she. What once you knew as a living thing, is now a skeleton. But over there, in that spot that gets just the right amount of sun, that tree is starting a new life.