An introduction to a witch’s garden and the Witch’s Gardener
A witch’s garden isn’t just for witches. It’s for those who want the roots of what they grow to reach deeper than into the soil, but into life itself. Whether you’re wanting to grow plants for your own potions, or just like your garden to have a bit of history and folklore to it, witchy gardening offers both and more. Traditionally, the witches of yore found what they needed by foraging in the woods, meadows and moors. As time moved on, many of the plants once thought magical or occult became a part of everyday living, and found their way into cottage gardens, where people grew many of the staples needed for life.
Today we tend to garden for vegetables, cooking herbs and of course beauty. A witch’s garden is one way of exploring how beauty goes much deeper than skin deep.
IT WAS APPROACHING HALLOWEEN and I was looking for a skull to stick on a pike in my witch’s garden, in the front lawn, and she was helping me shop. She held one up, suitably realistic but as I pointed out, too small. A child’s skull.
“Exactly,” she said. “The house is right across from an elementary school is it not?”
How could I not love this woman?
Does she hate children? Of course not, she loves them. But like many witches, she loves to shock.
At her insistence, the skull is still on the pike, long after Halloween, though she is no longer here. It’s my family home – four generations of our family have passed through it and several more families before that. The wood is well baked from a century and a half of hot, humid summers. Once this block was full of houses, now there are just two, which leaves plenty of space for gardening.
My introduction to the witch’s garden
It was in another garden, in another land that I first plied spade to earth for her pleasure.
You see, it wasn’t from a distance that I came to work in the witch’s garden. She had an opening, I was in a strange land and had time to kill and no place in particular to commit the crime. She was new to the gentry and found it dull. Gardening is a tradition there, as are gardeners. I was on my way home, taking the long way. It seemed obvious she needed to liven up her life, I was just trying to helpful.
She always wore black, and while it gave her a sense of elegance, the British have a long tradition of women in white predates Wilkie Collins. In my interview I asked her “How can you be the lady of the manor without at least having a white nightdress to shimmy around the gardens in during the night? The gardener would certainly be tempted into unspeakable acts by that.”
She was thoughtful in her reply, “Well that’s a different matter, if it was ancient and floaty and no longer very white and only to be worn in the moonlight for the gardener I’m sure I could be persuaded … Hair full of blackthorn blossom, a bed of rose petals and the gardener with horns?”
I lifted my hat and showed her my horns and was hired on the spot. And so each spring I became her gardener. My qualifications for the position were slim, but she had her ideas and really only wanted a back to put them into play.
Back home, I had started a garden – mainly vegetables with few witchy plants, taking my cue from an out of print book, A Witch’s Guide to Gardening by Dorothy Jacob.
But was in another book that gardening became interesting to me, the Psychic Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. I contacted the author to find out more about her research, and she pointed the way to Jacob’s thin book, full of short descriptions and anecdotes about the western world’s beliefs about plants, folklore and witchcraft.
Witchy gardening means a bountiful crop of weeds
H has a belief which makes gardening a lot simpler. “Weeds,” she said, “are simply flowers without pretty names.” She grew up wandering the forests of her native land, and knew the plants there like we know the alphabet here. It’s in the wild that she’s most at home, so it was fitting that plants from a witch’s garden, which were often found by foraging, came to be the focus of my garden.
Which means I can let whole swaths of my yard go feral and she’s quite fine with that. Besides, after doing this for a few years now, you never know what will come up on its own.
For the past couple years I’ve found Nicotiana, Tansy, Deadly Nightshade and other plants of a witchy nature popping up from self seeding. I first planted Tansy, a tasty diuretic and once a staple of British stews (and also used for inducing abortions if you go far enough back), about six years ago. I haven’t had to plant it since. In fact I had planned on moving it to another location one year, only to find out it had moved itself there.
This year’s volunteer plant, popping up in more than a half dozen locations throughout the yard and three planters, is Datura, or as it’s called around here, Jimson Weed. In the midwestern United States it’s thought of as a weed. But it puts off the prettiest white trumpet shaped flowers which bloom in the evenings, and has a scent that wafts through the garden and spills out into the neighborhood.
Ergo, it’s part of the moon garden, for when would a witch enjoy a garden more than in the evening, in the dark?
A moon garden, an essential part of a witch’s garden
In truth, I hate gardening but love sitting in gardens. Gardens tend to require a lot of work in the summer. Where I live summers can be brutal. Just stepping outside is often enough to drench a person in sweat. There is a time and a place for that, and a certain primordial feel to working the garden in that kind of heat. But it’s not the nicest time to lounge amongst the flowers.
There isn’t a sweeter feeling than sitting at night in the midst of the moon garden, with the crescent overhead, crickets and cicadas singing, and nature’s trumpets blasting out their deadly and intoxicating fragrance across the lawn.
My first experience with the intoxicating nature of botanicals came as I was driving home with my first store bought night blooming plant, a somewhat large Jessamine, or night blooming Jasmine bush. It was just after dark and I was on a long, dark, nearly deserted highway, and started feeling light headed and well, stoned to be honest. I pulled to the side of the road, lowered the window and breathed fresh air. The interior of the van had grown so pungent with the perfume of the Jessamine that I still smelled of it the next day. Having the plant in the front garden fills the entire front of the house with it’s perfume on summer evenings.
Datura brings plant witchcraft into evening bliss
It addition to its nocturnal beauty, Datura has also been used for centuries as a poison. Some people try it for recreation, usually with nasty and sometimes tragic results. Datura makes one delirious and unable to tell what is real and what is fantasy. It can last several days, lead to amnesia, unusual, violent or menacing behavior and of course, death.
In The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carlos Casteneda’s teacher, Don Juan Matus uses the plant extensively, having learned the practice from his own teacher who was a diablero. This sinister introduction was appropriate for a plant which Casteneda referred to by its Spanish name, Yerba del Diablo or Devil’s Weed. Don Juan believed there was a plant spirit, which he referred to as an Ally that lived inside the plant, which he called the ally’s container.
Datura’s white trumpet shaped blooms last just just one night each, before shriveling and dropping off. As they point upwards the plant is known as Devil’s Trumpets. On the other hand, there’s Brugmansia, a cousin to Datura, whose trumpet shaped flowers point down and are known as Angel’s Trumpets.
It too blooms at night, much larger blooms with an even more intoxicating fragrance. And even more intense results if one ingests any part of the plant.
The following comes from the records of a Swiss explorer, describing the effects of taking Brugmansia: “Soon after drinking the Tonga, the man fell into a dull brooding, … This condition would have lasted about a quarter of an hour, then all actions increased in intensity. A thick white foam leaked out between his half open lips. The pulses on his forehead and throat were beating too fast to be counted. His breathing was short, extraordinarily fast and did not seem to lift the chest, which was visibly fibrillating. A mass of sticky sweat covered his whole body which continued to be shaken by the most dreadful convulsions. His limbs were hideously contorted. He alternated between murmuring quietly and incomprehensibly and uttering loud, heart-rending shrieks, howling dully and moaning and groaning.”
That’s one of the little known secrets of gardening. What pleases the eye is often quite poisonous. Even Abe Lincoln’s mom met her fate – not two hour’s drive from here, after drinking the milk of cows who had eaten White Snakeroot. It was a common problem in the Ohio Valley when settlers first arrived, and killed thousands.
A flying potion from the witch’s garden
It’s a given that we would need the ingredients for a witch’s flying potion as after all, we are separated by several thousand miles. For the uninitiated, the potion typically requires plants which are often deadly when taken internally, and psychedelic if absorbed through the skin. The aforementioned Datura and Brugmansia would work for that, but a true potion will have a bit more variety, such as Belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade, and this year I’ve also added Monkshood, a delightful plant where even touching the leaves can cause a severe skin reaction.
Mandrake would be the perfect topping, but alas, my one attempt at that disappeared one evening, a tragedy as my lady always referred to it as “our baby.”
Speaking of which, the ingredients for the potion are then suspended in fat, ideally the fat from an unbaptized baby. To use the potion, historically you don’t spread it directly on your skin, but on the shaft of your broomstick, or log as it was often referred to. One only needs to use a slight dash of imagination (or have watched the WGN series Salem) to understand where the potion comes in contact with the witch, and can thus see the erotic possibilities of the practice.
Sexuality and witchcraft go hand in hand, and in that perhaps gardening is a very fitting metaphor. The act of seeding fertile ground, the sensual delights … scent, touch and taste all combine for elemental. On a deeper level, gardening is an act of creation. We look at bare earth and imagine something new there – new life bringing its own cyclical nature to play. To plant a garden alone makes one an artist. To do it together makes us lovers.
The practical nature of a witch’s garden
Garden plants make excellent screens to hide yourself from prying eyes. Tansy does this well (and helps keeps away flies), and along with it I use Wormswood as a barrier, which is used for among other things, the production of Absinthe, the lady and I’s traditional cocktail of choice. Hence the need for privacy.
The tallest plant in the garden is the Castor Bean, which reaches over ten foot tall in some cases, and has leaves up to two foot wide. It also produces spiny little fruit balls, containing small “beans,” which is the source of not only castor oil, but the poison Ricin.
We have a small orchard, three apple trees, because what’s a witch without apples? Holly bushes for the druid in everyone, English Ivy because it creeps so nicely and makes everything look like a cemetery, and Wysteria because it grows wild, blows the mind with its scent and is quite destructive over time.
Some years ago I had all but eradicated the Poison Ivy in the garden, all but one vine. I was on the verge of yanking it out when she stopped me. “Is it not a poison garden?”
The witch’s garden for healing
The truth of course is that most people accused of witchcraft during the witch hunts, if they had any connection to herbalism, was in the business of healing. But sometimes it didn’t work, and as there was no medical board to go to for redress, they would instead turn to the witchfinder.
So for healing, we have Echinacea or cone flowers, Valerian whose root makes for sweet dreams to the insomniac and a healthy crop of St. John’s Wort because you gotta stay upbeat when your witch is on the other side of the world. Even poisons, such as Belladonna tend to have medicinal benefits as well.
One man’s demon is another man’s angel
Whilst discussing the garden with a fellow gardener here, I was surprised to find she had many of the same plants. I squinted and looked her in the eye, looking for the tell tale signs of something witchy behind her gaze. Instead I was shocked to find something different there … purity. I gasped, taken aback at my error.
For it’s the benevolent aspect of plants in a witch’s garden which have been with us the longest, back to the ancients. Even the plants with malevolent uses tend to have healing properties as well. The young lady in question, rather than growing a witch’s garden, has a garden quite similar but is in fact, a Bible garden.
Whether your tastes run to white or to the black, (or even the red), for those of us interested in this subject, we find it has another purpose. It’s gardening with folklore as seeds. The folklore of gardening stretches way back and in many directions. In my own country, you have the gardens borne from the melting pot, merging with the plant folklore of the native Americans. And indeed, many of these plants found their way home to the empire, along with the list of the benefits and dangers, before finding their way back here somewhat tamed.
On the witch of the witch’s garden
Admittedly, she’s creepy, ghoulish, dark and evil personified, if evil kept its tongue in its cheek. She is suspense, she can quicken my heart and make my breathing jagged with a mere look, a casually worded turn of phrase, the instant her eyes fade to black and I see the spark catch the tinder and start to blaze. She can make being afraid of her the most erotic experience on earth.
She is violent, tender. She could hold a butterfly in the palm of her hand and it wouldn’t know she’s there.
And since fate determines I can be nothing else, I am her gardener, tending the witch’s garden she never visits.
That she might be a witch first came to mind when she first discussed plans for the garden.
“Baking children into pies doesn’t have to be frightening though does it? We’ll build a special child oven in the garden, and we’ll have a vegetable garden full of chilli plants for antiputrefaction sauce in case they start rotting before we eat them all.”
Unlike Morticia who famously snipped the heads off roses, she loves flowers and beauty. I’m lucky, her taste in flowers matched my mother’s so she inherited mom’s peonies and a magnolia tree likely a century or more old.
I sent her photos, she made suggestions, requests … oh hell, demands and I do it. It’s not really because her voice takes on the chill of the grave as her hand slid into my pocket to pull out my knife. In truth, it’s the smile, the sound of her voice when she sees something beautiful that spurred me on.
Lady Chatterly this is not
Less you think this story has a happy ending, like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, you must know, it does not. Come this spring I’ll be tending to my own, and across the world will grow a garden I will not see. Gardening is easy, life is hard. There were no foreign accented sighs in my own garden this year. Such things it seems aren’t fitting the lady of the manor.
For to work your magic, to be a witch requires freedom, which even in these enlightened times you’re hard pressed to find in the very proper gardens of her country. I who have nothing am free. She has one possession which ties her to her native soil, and which bars the gates to me now.
As agriculture was cyclical to the ancients, so it is that gardening is to us. Those who follow a witch’s path are more involved in those cycles than others. When you put a wild thing in a cage, they eventually lose their wildness, and with that their powers. And so she became someone tame, without need of her horned gardener.
It was with her, and in our gardens that I found my own nature. I have been bothered and bewitched by witches before, but I always assumed I was an innocent in the practice. In reality I carry it in my genes. When my people first came to this part of the midwest, they brought the craft with them. Cato, the local witch of legend, dating to the earliest settlers is of my line, grew some of the same plants I do now.
Even my beloved Granny Bert insisted on doing some things, from gardening to having dental work done, based on the phases of the moon. The old beliefs managed to squeeze through the cracks, even into my generation.
It was a pendant bought from a small shop near a stone circle that brought on the end. I had found it on my own and didn’t know the meaning, but when I arrived back on her grounds, the master of the house recognized it, and recognized it as the same symbol found in an old likeness of her. Her powers now passed to another of her line, and now I wore her symbol, and was seen as competition. When I left, the gates were barred behind me, entrapping her of her own free will.
Perhaps this is the secret of the witch, that practical means are ways that give the witches their gifts. For the most part, it’s not magic, but hidden, or forgotten knowledge that lets them do what others cannot. And so there is this, my witch’s garden journal, so that she imprisoned on the moon might watch from afar along with you, what is done in her memory.
it’s a labor of love, and on most weekends I can be found in jungle clothes and pith helmet, trying to bring a bit of order to a landscape growing wild by design.
All to put a smile on the face of the witch, who watches over me from afar.
Welcome to a guide to magick herbs and herbalism – witchy plants, white and dark, potions and poisons for the cauldron, as well as goodies for kitchen witches
The Witch’s Garden is a guide to the old ways, old magick and herbal medicine. Learn more about the gardening and gathering practices of our ancestors, be them the wise or cunning women of Europe, or early settlers and Native Americans of the American continent. And follow along with our own zone seven witch’s garden, as I try to nurse a collection of witchy plants through the year.
A notebook of thoughts, ideas, experiments failed and successful in growing a witch’s garden. Since witches are often nocturnal creatures, we also go into moon gardens, and a fair amount of cottage gardening as well.
See what’s blooming in the witch’s garden. Photos and dates for a witch, moon or cottage garden in the U.S. Zone 6
An incomplete as hell herbalist, the science and folklore of the plants, how to grow, how to serve to cure or to kill. Company can be so bothersome, but sure, come in and have a nice cup of tea?