All posts by 7acrewoodfarm

Soil health and mental health

by Joseph Murray
June 24, 2019
Originally submitted to the Warm Springs Valley Garden Club Newsletter

Have you ever found yourself sitting in your garden, trowel in hand, gazing at nothing in particular, completely at peace with the world? Happens to me all of the time. I’m brought back to the “real world” when Anne rings the cottage porch bell signaling tea time or when a visitor rolls-up the driveway. I find it difficult to articulate the state of relaxation I experience in the garden during these special moments of attunement with nature. When I’m away working in a large urban environment, I find that no amount of meditation or Tai Chi provides the mental rejuvenation I achieve in our garden. I’m thankful for these peaceful moments and routinely set aside time to garden in a way that invites this union with nature.

Why do you garden? To produce flowers and vegetables? Based upon the time, resources, and effort you’re willing to expend, your garden probably reflects an agreement between you and nature to provide these material goods. I suspect you also derive enjoyment from your gardening exploits. Let’s bring this immaterial harvest (enjoyment) from the garden to your attention. If you knew there was a connection between gardening and improved mental health, would you garden differently? If your garden was part “medicine cabinet” and part “meditation studio,” would you adjust your preconception of a “proper” garden’s appearance?

Some beds that have been “co-created” with nature may appear chaotic but end up being sustainable and resilient throughout the growing season. Picture by J. Murray (June 24, 2019)

Feeling good in nature

Since science started exploring possible connections between human health and time spent in nature, there’s been a growing body of evidence that interacting with nature – “green space” in urban areas – is good for your mental health. The “dosage” of nature required to realize better psychological health may be as little as 2 hours a week, regardless of an individual’s age, sex, income, place of residence, or existing health conditions. A study of over 900,000 people found children exposed to green spaces were at lower risk to develop psychiatric disorders later in life. Sadly, those encountering the lowest amounts of green space during childhood were up to 55% more at risk to experience a mental illness than those encountering the highest amount of green space. The association remained even after the researchers adjusted for influencing variables like urbanization, socioeconomic factors, parental history of mental illness, and parental age.

Although researchers involved in this study found a strong correlation between green space and mental health, they admit the study doesn’t offer a causative mechanism(s). They speculated potential involvement of factors such as psychological restoration, opportunities for exercise, improvement of social coherence, decrease in noise and air pollution affecting cognition and brain development, and improvement in immune functioning may contribute to improved mental health. I’m particularly intrigued by the connection between immune function and mental health. New studies are confirming that stress can initiate inflammation which in turn contributes to a wide range of psychiatric disorders.

Anne relaxing in a sunny spot and giving herself permission to be still. Picture by J. Murray (June 24, 2019)

Feeling good in the garden

In addition to time spent in green spaces, a gardener may benefit from another mental health boost through exposure to gardening in healthy soil. A meta-analysis of 22 published case studies demonstrated the restorative powers of gardening in reducing stress, anger, fatigue, depression and anxiety.

A particular soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, is well documented as positively influencing the moods and immune systems of gardeners encountering it during gardening activities. When macrophages, special white blood cells in the gardener’s immune system, consume M. vaccae, a specific bacterial fatty acid is released that reduces inflammation and thus lessens the risk stress-related psychiatric disorders. Thank you, Mother Nature, for providing us with a stress vaccine that we may administer to ourselves… by gardening!

Medicinal plants, like soil, can produce mood altering compounds. Joe is planting a female Cannabis plant that will later be harvested for CBD. Picture by A. Bryan (June 24, 2019)

If the soil microbes aren’t happy… nobody’s happy

Gardeners have long appreciated the importance of healthy soil in creating sustainable and resilient gardens. Healthy soil, regardless how it is defined, is dependent upon soil biodiversity. The best way to improve soil health is to promote abundant and diverse populations of soil microorganisms. To promote soil life, consider eliminating practices and products that are harmful to living soil. Research shows that practices using organic growing systems experienced 32% to 84% greater microbial populations compared to “conventional” systems employing pesticides, routine applications of synthetic fertilizers, frequent tilling, and reduced amounts of organic matter. After all, nature has relegated the responsibility of plant nutrition to the life in soil, primarily to microorganisms like bacteria. Why bypass this natural system and use synthetic fertilizers which may upset the complex soil food web that regulates the very soil bacteria we are attempting to nurture? If you perceive the need to do something, compost. Feed the soil, not the plant.

I believe another reason why I find it difficult to find mental rejuvenation in urban environments is the absence of these mood-elevating bacteria. Although my inner-nature bends my steps to some urban areas (like a corporate office park) that appear to have vegetation, what I often find is a monoculture of Japanese hollies and ornamental pears growing out of a lifeless soil covered with colored mulch. The landscape architect’s design and horticulture practices responsible for this artificial landscape prevents nature from establishing the necessary biodiversity of plants above-ground to support biodiversity of microbes below-ground. Maybe it’s fanciful thinking, but it just feels to me that the absence of biodiversity contributes to my sense of alienation when walking in these artificial environments.

We grow a variety of hops… but not for the mind-numbing effects that follow the consumption of several hoppy beers. Our hops are used as an aid for sleep and digestion. Picture by J. Murray (June 24, 2019)

It’s good to get dirty

The hygiene hypothesis posits that children raised in a relatively sterile environment develop impaired immune systems and higher rates of allergies and asthma. This hypothesis is being expanded to include mental health development, as well. Researchers have observed that children raised in rural environments, with exposure to beneficial microbes (in dust from soil) experience more robust stress-related immune systems which typically lower the risk of mental illness compared to children raised in more urban environments. Factors contributing to hygienic environments and reduced exposure to beneficial bacteria include modern sanitary measures, antibiotic overuse, dietary changes, and little access for playing in gardens.

What’s in your garden’s soil?
Now that you are aware of connections between gardening and improved mental health, will you garden differently? Like me, perhaps you’ll schedule idle time to simple “be” in your garden and know that nature is working to rejuvenate your mental health. Perhaps you will adjust your preconceived ideas of a garden needing to be neat, tidy, and under-control. Co-creating with nature means there will be some surprises and a tendency to a state that’s not as “neat and tidy,” and certainly not under-control. That’s okay. You’re moving into a new kind of balance with nature with the goal of improving both your soil’s health and your mental health. Leave a little wildness in your garden. Nature may know what’s in your mental health’s best interest. That surprise emergence of a wildflower or, dare I say it – weed, may be a part of mother nature’s prescription to support microscopic pharmacists in your soil to aid in your mental health rejuvenation.

Who knew growing your medicine could be so enjoyable!

After spending some time in your garden and calming your mind, consider bringing a small chair or blanket and treat yourself to a short meditation. Picture by J. Murray (June 24, 2019)

References and Resources

White, M. (2019) Spending two hours a week in nature is linked to better health and well-being. 2019. The Conversation. June 13, 2019. Webpage last accessed June 20, 2019.

Kristine Engemann, Carsten Bøcker Pedersen, Lars Arge, Constantinos Tsirogiannis, Preben Bo Mortensen, Jens-Christian Svenning. (2019) Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2019, 116 (11) 5188-5193; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1807504116

Lori M, Symnaczik S, Mäder P, De Deyn G, Gattinger A. (2017) Organic farming enhances soil microbial abundance and activity—A meta-analysis and meta-regression. PLoS ONE 12(7): e0180442.

University of Colorado at Boulder. (2019, May 29). Healthy, stress-busting fat found hidden in dirt. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 20, 2019 from

Schiffman, Richard (2017). Why It’s Time to Stop Punishing Our Soils with Fertilizers. Interview with Rick Haney (May 3, 2017). Yale Environment 360.

Pollinator Proclamation comments to county board of supervisors

My notes for addressing the Bath County Board of Supervisors Meeting – June 11, 2019 concerning the Pollinator Proclamation

Thank you, Chairman Byrd, for being attentive to this proposed Pollinator Proclamation.  (Addressing the board) I emailed him my letter concerning the opportunity on May 22, 2:36 pm. He responded at 4:42 pm that the Proclamation would be taken up at tonight’s meeting. And he responded on an iPad, no less. I’m grateful for the quick acknowledgement and swift action. Yet another reason I love living in Bath County. 

I’m speaking this evening for the pollinators. Although they live in your districts, they don’t vote… I confirmed that by checking with the county’s voter registrar Charles Garratt (who happened to be in attendance!). And although they contribute mightily to the economic viability of our county, they don’t pay taxes. So it’s difficult for the pollinators to access public government to have their concerns heard. 

They largely go unnoticed. Why? Because their numbers are declining. Need evidence? Take your vehicle’s windshield for example. Do you recall what your windshield looked like 20 years ago? 40 years ago? True, it’s not fun cleaning dead insects from your windshield, but the absence of insects on your windshield should concern you. With each trip in your vehicle you’re performing a simple qualitative survey and the results are not good. Your insect-free windshield illustrates an important point, insect populations are declining. 

And this includes insects that support pollination. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of pollinators to ensuring genetic diversity for world food production. Their loss would be an ecological Armageddon. 

Adopting a Pollinator Proclamation will, in my opinion, be the first step. Such a proclamation will increase awareness and provide momentum in our community. I think we can count on our garden clubs (our county being fortunate to have two garden clubs), birding groups, area master gardeners and master naturalists to step-up and continue to increase awareness with articles in the newspaper and public talks at the library. We can also seek advice from experts in the area, starting with the US Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program to name a few. 

Locally, we can do things to promote habitat for pollinators like mow less and decrease use of pesticides. 

As I said earlier, the pollinators don’t have a way to access county government, nor to write articles and give presentations. That duty falls to us. And it’s a duty we owe to future generations. 

All I am saying is ‘give bees a chance.’  

Good news! The proclamation was the first item on the agenda and it passed!

The Role Native trees play in supporting sustainable and resilient landscape ecosystems (electronic “handout”)

Joe Murray
7 Acre Wood Farm, Burnsville, VA

June 1, 2019
Nurturing Native Plants Symposium, Natural Bridge, VA

The following resources were mentioned in my presentation. Let them help you implement Doug Tallamy’s plan for transforming your landscape. 

  • Read Doug’s book, especially Chapters 11 and 12.
    • Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. (2009) Douglas Tallamy. Timber Press Inc. 

Understanding the “big” picture of how trees sort themselves out into a forest. 

  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from a Secret World. (2016) By Peter Wohlleben 

Identify, research and appreciate your landscape’s tree diversity

  • Start an inventory of plants on your property. My favorite tree identification book:
    • A Field Guide to Eastern Trees. Peterson Field Guides. G.A. Petrides & Janet Wehr. Houghton Mifflin. 
  • Research and appreciate. Get to know the backstory of the trees around your home. 
    • A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. (1977) D.C. Peattie. Houghton Mifflin. 

Tree Selection and building guilds

Feed the soil, not the plants

  • Learn the importance of microbes in the soil and lessons they can teach us about the microbes in our guts. 
    • The Hidden Half of Nature. David Montgomery & Anne Bikle
  • An explanation of the awesome soil food web and ways you can support microbial diversity.
    • Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. (2010; Revised Edition).  By Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis
    • Mycorrhizal Planet: How Symbiotic Fungi Work with Roots to Support Plant Health and Build Soil Fertility. M. Phillips. 
  • I do not recommend buying compost… certainly not from a box store. You won’t know if it contains sewage sludge (now called biosolids).
    • Science For Sale: How the US Government Uses Powerful Corporations and Leading Universities to Support Government Policies, Silence Top Scientists, Jeopardize Our Health, and Protect Corporate Profits. 2014. D.L. Lewis. Skyhorse Publishing. Explains the problems with biosolids. 
  • Make your own compost. It’s easy! I just use leaves (collected in the fall) and grass clippings.
    • The Rodale Book of Composting, Newly Revised and Updated: Simple Methods to Improve Your Soil, Recycle Waste, Grow Healthier Plants, and Create an Earth-Friendly Garden(Rodale Classics). 2018. G. Gershuny & D.L. Martin. Rodale Books. 

May the forest be with you

Other online resources:

A plea for a pollinator proclamation

Joe Murray

Note: The following is a letter submitted to the Chairperson of the Bath County Board of Supervisors and our local newspaper, The Recorder.

May 22, 2019

Richard B. Byrd, Chair
Bath County Board of Supervisors
P.O. Box 381, 
Hot Springs, VA 24445 

An open letter to the Board of Supervisors and citizens of Bath County

Is it possible to find common ground on economic and environmental issues during these politically polarizing times? The answer is, “Yes!” Even those people firmly entrenched in their political party’s ideology recognize the importance of pollinators to their community’s (and the nation’s) economic and environmental well-being. 

Sadly, the pollinators are in trouble and in need of recognition and support. In addition to the often recognized bumble bee, the diverse cadre of animals performing pollination include birds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles, and other insects. Homeowners may help pollinators by leaving a little “wildness” in their landscapes as habitat for not only pollinators but for other beneficial organisms, including predators to help control pests. Want more information to help pollinators? Visit

Pollinators play an important role in agriculture (Virginia’s largest private industry) with an economic impact of $70 billion. One out of every three bites of food you eat results from pollinators. 

The beautiful vegetation of Bath County owes much to the work of pollinators. The role pollinators perform in agriculture, gardens and residential landscapes may be observed and understood with a modicum of effort. Pollinators also play critical roles in supporting forests, meadows, and wetlands. In short, the influence of pollinators reaches into all corners of our county and impacts hunting, fishing, and tourism.  

Politically, the adoption of a pollinator proclamation presents a win-win situation. Many other states and federal agencies have made pollinator proclamations an annual event to increase the public’s awareness of this important issue. I encourage the Board of Supervisors to seize this initiative and to formally recognize the contribution of pollinators with a Proclamation that June 17-23 (2019) be recognized as Bath County Pollinator Week. Enclosed you’ll find a copy of Virginia’s proclamation. 


Joseph Murray,
7 Acre Wood Farm
Burnsville, VA

Chop Drop & Yank

Removing unwanted woody plants with the “chop-drop-yank” approach

by Joe Murray

(Note: This post was originally submitted as an article to the Warm Springs Garden Club newsletter – May 2019)

When Anne and I encounter a woody plant that doesn’t “fit” in our landscape, we employ our own unique “chop-drop-yank” approach to remove the botanical interloper. Our most common unwanted woody plants are multiflora rose, autumn olive, Japanese barberry, oriental bittersweet, and assorted briars. We don’t fancy using herbicides (or any products ending in “-cide”) or tractors pulling up plants. We try to move gently on the land to have minimal impact on soil and its interconnections with the “living” landscape.

Figure 1. Our tools for removing woody plants. Back row, from left to right, Extractigator and Extractigator Junior. Front row, from left to right, Fiskars lopper, Corona hand pruners, and Fiskars shears.

Anne initiates the process with her shears and loppers, “chopping and dropping” the shoot systems of unwanted woody plants (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Anne chopping and dropping.

The chopping and dropping of woody plants’ shoot systems improves our efficiency by saving time – no need to drag brush to a cart for disposal on a burn pile! Additionally, the cut pieces cover the soil as a rough-and-ready mulch until its decomposition yields organic matter and returns nutrients to the soil. Anne whittles away at the shoot system, leaving approximately 18” of stem above ground which I use later when I follow behind – pulling up the root system of the unwanted woody vegetation with the aid of an extraction device. Using the age-old principle of leverage (Figures 3-5), I place the jaws of the Extractigator on the base of the woody stem, gradually pull back the handle, and watch with satisfaction as the plant’s root system rises out of the ground. I then grasp the upper portion of the stem (that Anne thoughtfully left) and gently tug the remainder of the plant from its terrestrial realm.

Tapping the root several times on the ground knocks off any soil before tossing the extracted root system to the forest floor. There, it starts the slow and gradual process of decomposition along with its chopped bits and pieces of stems. If the plant is too big for the Extractigator, we simply chop-and-drop for two or three consecutive years until the root system has depleted all of its stored energy and presents a dead tombstone-like stump that will eventually decompose.

Figure 6. Extracted plants left to right multiflora rose, japanese barberry, and autumn olive

An internet search reveals many different kinds of plant-pulling tools. Our preference, the Extractigator© employs the leverage produced by our weight (not our strength) leaning on the fulcrum to lift the plant’s roots out of the ground. We purchased two sizes: the “Classic” jaw size is capable of grasping stems up to 2 inches in diameter, while the “Junior” jaw size grasps stems with diameters up to 1.5 inches. The smaller junior model weighs approximately 3 pounds less, much appreciated when spending an afternoon hiking through the woods, popping-up plants. The company also makes other sizes for substantially larger stems, as well as a diminutive version for stems less than one-half inch. Sadly, at this time there are no distributors in Virginia. We ordered our Extractigators directly from the manufacturer in Canada and found the purchase and shipping to be straight forward.

We like our approach to managing unwanted woody plants. We feel this approach gives us the opportunity to interact more closely with all of nature’s interconnections in a particular place on our landscape. In addition to identifying and working on the unwanted plants, we’re noticing (and celebrating) the diversity of other plants, mosses, lichen, rocks and critters that often go unnoticed. We no longer fret about unwanted plants on our property because we know that within two or three years we will have worked our way through all our land. When we return to an area that we addressed several years back, we rejoice (Anne actually dances!) seeing the land hasn’t returned to its unruly, pre-managed state. Rather, these managed areas behave with a different intention. We’ve noticed the native vegetation flexing more muscle and holding its ground, making it even easier on our next visit to chop-drop-yank the few holdout unwanted woody plants that dared return.

If you would like to learn more, visit the company’s website
They can also be reach via email at or phone at 1-855-743-0353.

Got Milkweed?

In Thinking Like a Plant (©2013)Craig Holdrege devotes most of Chapter 5 to “The Story of Common Milkweed” and writes “Only when we get to know the life and ecology of the organism that are part of our world do we have the possibility of seeing ‘drama in every bush.’ Such learning can happen in a variety of ways, but nothing can substitute for firsthand experience of the life history of another organism. To enter that world, to see its intricacies, and to realize that in every direction you look you will find new connections and relationships – this is a central foundation of sustainability. For how are we to care for what we don’t know?”

On February 12, 2019, Somers Knight (local Millboro Elementary School volunteer, retired public school teacher, and a Virginia Master Naturalist) presented her program on “Monarch Butterflies and Master Naturalist” as part of the 2019 Salon Series at the Bath County Public Library. 

Library gathering with Sommers Knight –  Joe Murray

Mesmerized and intrigued by Somers’ firsthand tales of raising monarch butterflies in her elementary school classroom and local volunteering, attendees learned facts about monarchs, their life cycle, migration, and strategies for helping support habitat for Danaus plexippus, Monarch butterflies. 

Although Monarchs frequent a variety of plants (including boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum– see photograph), these magnificent butterflies cannot survive without milkweed to eat and on which to lay their eggs. Monarchs and other milkweed specialists feed on milkweed, digest the substances, build up their own body substances, and store components of milkweed sap in their bodies. Because the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides in milkweed sap, in high doses, can be fatal to an animal, some citizens rush to remove milkweed from their tended properties. Holdrege offers that this rarely happens in nature, as pre-lethal doses typically induce vomiting in the herbivore eating the milkweed plants.  Most importantly, milkweed provides valuable nectar resources to bees, butterflies, flies, and a host of pollinators. 

Photograph credit: Monarchs on Boneset plants – Anne Bryan

In our (Bath County, Virginia) area, Asclepias tuberosa  (Butterfly weed),Asclepias incarnate (Swamp milkweed)and Asclepias syriaca(Common milkweed) are the preferred milkweed types. As one might infer, swamp milkweed prefers moist soil, but will also grow in well-drained gardens and likes full sun. Local residents who maintain their own utility rights-of-way may transform these utility corridors into Monarch and pollinator habitat by planting milkweed and other pollinator-supporting wildflowers. Residents planting pollinator gardens and dedicating areas for native species not only provide habitat for pollinators, but provide necessary pollinator support for home gardens and farms in our area.

Got milkweed? In spring, look for existing milkweed sprouts to emerge. Through May and June, vigorous shoots grow 3 to 5 feet, surpassing goldenrod. Within a colony (one milkweed plant with its many shoots), flowering typically lasts about 4 weeks. July, August, and September see milkweed pods slowly grow and seeds develop. By October, early November, and into winter months, seedpods begin to open and white silky comas allow seeds to be carried away by winds. As this timeline suggests, providing habitat for milkweed affords many opportunities for enjoyment, observation, connecting, and celebration!

Citizens who wish to plant milkweed have many opportunities for seed and plant purchasing and for learning about the Monarch butterfly through a variety of websites, including, and For a free sample of milkweed seeds, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Live Monarch – 2019 Seed Campaign, P.O. Box 1339, Blairsville, GA 30514.

Readers interested in planting milkweed seeds are reminded that fall planting is ideal, and that milkweed also propagate through rhizomes. For spring planting, cold stratification improves seed germination. When hand-scattering seeds, consider scattering seeds in an existing area so that new colonies may emerge, as milkweed pollinated from within its own colony does not normally result in seed development. Milkweed colonies may be identified by uniformity in shoot color and shape, in leaf shape, and/or by flower color. (Reference:  p. 156, Thinking Like a Plant, by Craig Holdrege, Lisdisfarne Books, 2013.)

Readers interested in supporting pollinator populations, including Monarch butterflies, may read about Common milkweed in this US Forest web-link

Many thanks to the Salon organizers – Ronda Clayton, Lee Elliott, and Bill Jones – and to presenter Somers Knight for a delightful evening!

Mind the elders overhead, for they are the essence of wildness

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”  John Muir

In late winter, expectant gardeners look to the canopy of their trees for signs of spring. At first glance, they may see only an unremarkable collection of bare branches. Closer examination reveals a miniature forest of lichens growing on branches and the trunks of their trees. Once aware of the presence of lichens, gardeners may exhibit a wide range of responses, from disinterest to active fear. Unfamiliar with lichens, and assuming there’s a problem, they’ll panic and call in landscape “experts” (often equally unfamiliar with lichens) whose recommendations and actions can be harmful to lichens. [Or worse, the author is aware of a tree company in Long Island, NY, that actually offers a service to scrub lichens from trees with wire brushes and disinfectants!] This article will briefly describe lichens and their role in nature, in an attempt to clear up misconceptions and allow readers to look upon these wee green life-forms with appreciation and wonder.  

What are lichens?

An individual lichen is not a single organism, but a symbiotic partnership of up to three different organisms: a mycobiont fungi with a photobiont of cyanobacteria (type of photosynthetic bacteria, earth’s oldest known life form) and/or algae. For a sweet analogy, think of the body of a lichen as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The chocolate layers represent the mycobiont (fungus) enclosing the creamy peanut butter filling, the photobiont (cyanobacteria and/or algae). 

Cross-section depiction of a the body (thallus) of lichen. Fungal hyphal strands weave a protective web above and below the photosynthetic organisms. Drawing by J. Murray.

On the spectrum of symbiotic relationships, lichen’s partnership of mycobiont and photobiont(s) falls somewhere between parasitism (one partner benefits while the other is harmed) and mutualism (both partners benefit). The mycobiont may receive up to 90% of the sugars produced, leaving just 10% for the photobiont. This lopsided partnership more closely resembles controlled parasitism. 

Depending upon the particular mycobiont, lichen may assume one of three common forms: crustose, very small bodies appearing to have been spray painted onto a surface (substrate); foliose, a small leaf-like structure pressed against the substrate; or fruticose, thallus is rolled-up into a three-dimensional form. 

Three forms of lichen growing on an exposed rock in the Highlands of Scotland: crustose (white and black), foliose (orange), and fruticose (pale green). Image by J. Murray, Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve

Lichenologists have been perplexed how to classify and determine the evolutionary origins of lichens because a lichen is a partnership between two and three organisms. Although lichens are named with respect to the mycobioint, the fungi in its lichenized form is significantly different in appearance and function than its non-lichenized form. For example, one species of fungus existing in a lichenized form above ground may be named by lichenologists. When this same fungus is in its non-lichenized form below ground, it’s provided a different name by mycologists. Other than the fungi’s form, the only thing that has changed is that above ground it formed a lichen partnership with a photobiont (cyanobacteria and/or algae), while below ground it may have formed a mycorrhizal partnership with a different photobiont, the tree’s roots!

Where do lichens grow?

Up to 30,000 species of lichens grow just about everywhere on Earth – from the top of the tallest mountains to bare rocks in the desert. Although lichens have survived, unprotected, for 15 days in the vacuum of space, they have proven to be very difficult to transplant to different locations and even harder to culture in laboratory settings. Lichen species are very selective upon which surface, or substrate, they’ll grow, though lichens obtain little to no nutrients from their substrate. Lichens are grouped based upon the substrates upon which they grow, the three most common: terricolous (bare soil), saxicolous (rock), and corticolous (tree bark).   

Corticolous lichen species typically sort themselves out in different areas of the tree based upon their desired habitat. Those desirous of light and less moisture are higher in the tree’s canopy while those preferring less light and more moisture, lower on the tree’s trunk. The characteristics of tree bark further influences lichen distribution within a single tree and among tree species.  Lichens are faced with many microhabitats on tree bark, shaped by the bark’s texture, rate of exfoliation, moisture-holding capacity, pH, leachates, exposure to the light, and other factors. [As an aside, the polymorphism of a tree’s bark is more unique than a human fingerprint!]

By now, it should be apparent to the reader, corticolous lichens do not harm trees by their superficial existence on the surface of bark, as lichens obtain the majority of their moisture and mineral nutrients directly from the air by absorption. The presence and health of lichens in an area serve as an indicator of air quality because the absorptive tissues of the lichen are laid bare to the environment.  

When do lichens grow?

Lichen metabolism is dependent upon available moisture. When dormant, lichens appear dull in color and their tissues, dry and brittle. Unlike a plant’s leaf, lichens do not have a waxy cuticle to help store water in tissues nor roots to absorb water from their substrates. When actively photosynthesizing, lichens appear more vibrant in color and feel soft. For our area, the best times to observe lichens actively growing are in the fall, spring, rainy periods in the summer, and warm periods in the winter. 

What do lichens do?

Lichens have played a significant role in shaping Earth’s terrestrial environments. Soon after the appearance of lichens 400 million years ago, they set about the task of soil formation, breaking down rock 25 – 100 times faster than physical and chemical weathering. Terricolous lichens nurture soil by adding organic matter and protecting the soil from erosion, compaction, drying, and temperature extremes. With other photosynthetic organisms, lichens helped influence the atmosphere through photosynthesis (sequestering carbon dioxide and producing oxygen). 

Lichens are intimately linked with other organisms in their ecosystems. Lichens provide food, shelter, nesting material and camouflage for many organisms. Lichens are an important food source for slugs, snails, terrestrial arthropods (mites, springtails, and silverfish), mountain goats, moose, deer, and squirrels, making up to 90% of the winter diet for reindeer and caribou. A recent study into declining populations of migratory birds established a link between declining populations of arthropods and short-sighted forestry practices negatively impacting the establishment of lichen. 

Sensitivity to air pollutants enable lichens to serve as bio-monitors for air quality, an inexpensive alternative to high-tech pollution monitoring equipment used by the US Forest Service and the National Park Service. Lichen samples can also be harvested in areas of concern and submitted to laboratories for identification and analyses of specific air pollutants like metals, PCBs, ozone, fluorides, sulphuric and nitric acids and even radioactivity.

Lichens, like many other organisms, are closely associated with trees. In addition to involvement with other tree “associates,” lichens directly interact with trees. One interaction, in particular, should interest gardeners – the ability of some species of lichens to “fertilize” trees. Lichens with cyanobacteria photobionts, like Lobaria pulmonaria, perform nitrogen-fixation (convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that plants can use). During a rain event, a nutrient-rich solution leaches from the lichen, travels down the trunk, and is absorbed by the tree’s roots. Nitrogen-fixing lichens, like L. pulmonaria, maycontribute up to 50% of the total nitrogen input for old growth trees in conifer forests in the Pacific Northwest. 

Following a rain event, nutrient-rich solution from the leaches of lichen in the crown of the tree traveling down to be absorbed by the tree roots. Image by J. Murray.
Lobaria pulmonaria located at the base of two white oak trees along Muddy Run Road, approximately 7 miles northwest of route 220, in the George Washington National Forest. Image by J. Murray.

Lobaria pulmonaria. Image by J. Murray.

Species like L. pulmonaria are indicators of an old-growth forest. When primarily managed for production, forests are prevented from advancing beyond the earliest stages of succession, thus preventing the establishment of lichen species like Lobaria pulmonaria from developing. [As another aside, I highly recommend the book by Richard Preston, The Wild Trees: A Story of Daring and Passion, in which Lobaria pulmonaria plays an important role!] 

How can I support lichens in my landscape? 

The next time you gaze up to your trees in hope of seeing signs of spring, take a moment to enjoy the lichens. Let their presence remind you of the interconnectedness lichens bring to your landscape ecosystem. Appreciate the “wildness” of lichens, that they can neither be transplanted nor forced to grow. 

Acknowledge their free spirit by allowing wildness to return to your landscape. Avoid practices that exert “control” and tend to remove wildness from your property (pesticides, fertilizers, excessive pruning, large expanses of lawn). Strive to increase your plant diversity on your property. Replace the turf below the tree’s canopy with a simulated forest floor. Leave branches and leaves under the tree to promote a habitat to support the diversity of microorganisms, above and below ground. 

There’s still a lot we don’t understand about lichens. They’ve been slow to give up their secrets because they resist growing under artificial conditions in laboratories. Don’t let their small size fool you! The lichens may be the most undomesticated life form in your landscape. Tigers can be tamed and taught to perform tricks, but not lichens. Irwin Brodo, a legendary lichenologist, said it best, “Lichens are the essence of wildness.” 

Our Second Year as a Botanical Sanctuary

The following was submitted to the Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation for inclusion in the Spring 2019 publication.

We’re writing this summary, comfortable in our little cottage, while the land around us is experiencing the polar vortex, griping much of the nation this January (2019). While we’re concerned about the health of our plants, we take comfort in knowing our work to improve soil health improves the resiliency of our sanctuary and its ability to respond to ever-increasing severe weather events associated with climate change. 

Upon seeing our United Plant Savers sign, visitors inquire about the purpose of a botanical sanctuary. We enjoy sharing information about the UpS Botanical Sanctuary Network and how we feel we’re contributing to the UpS mission. On several occasions we’ve had to clarify that the network initiative is a partnership between a non-profit organization and citizens volunteering their land and labor, not a state or federally funded program. These conversations often drift to a discussion of who should regulate the growing, harvesting, preparation and dispensing of herbal medicine. Until the plants can speak for themselves, we’re happy to be their spokespersons!  

Native grasses and wildflowers replace areas of turfgrass between the swales.

Taking advantage of the significant slope of our land, we installed a series of swales, each with a themed plant (medicinal herbs, berries, and nuts). In the nut swale, hazelnuts and chinquapins should be of sufficient size in a couple years to provide enough shade and protection for the incorporation of at-risk medicinal plants. Our task this year is to identify (and grow) plants associated with at-risk medicinal plants in nature. In addition to planting these “companion” plants, or “guild members,” in our forest, we will incorporate them into our swales so at-risk medicinals will feel right at home. Between our swales, we allow just enough space for walking paths and let the rest of the land to go wild with native grasses and wildflowers.

Last year, we built an electric deer fence (image) to protect approximately 2 acres of cultivated land. During the planning phase, we thought it prudent to extend the perimeter of the fenced-in area to include a portion of the forest to separate deer from future plantings of ginseng and goldenseal. After our faithful BCS tractor (“Tina”) blazed a path through the forest, we attached 2×4’s to metal fence posts at a 45 degree angle and affixed seven wires, spaced approximately 1’ apart. After about a month of “learning,” that involved regular repair and replacing of electrical lines, the deer “accepted” the proposition that this portion of the forest is “off limits.”  

In 2018, we gave nine presentations on sustainable land care practice, highlighting our botanical sanctuary. These presentations addressed diverse audiences ranging from local garden clubs, native plant societies, patrons at public libraries and even one at a the Biodynamic Farming conference in Portland, Oregon. Joe taught a day-long workshop on woody plants at the Allegheny Mountain Institute, a permaculturally-inspired educational non-profit organization training young adults in creative food growing systems and public outreach. Anne was a featured herbalist at our local farmers market.

We appreciate the support and information made available by UpS on their website, Facebook posts, and in the Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation. Reading about the great things happening at the UpS Botanical Sanctuary and the other sanctuaries in the network, renews our sense of purpose and realization that our sacred 7 acres is part of a much greater whole.

In 2019, we continue to practice the three principles we learned at the Findhorn Foundation,  an intentional community in Scotland: co-create with the intelligence of nature, practice inner-listening, and that our work is “love in action.” 

Awakening a Residential Landscape’s Individuality

By Joseph Murray

This article was submitted for publication in the 2020 Stella Natura calendar. I encourage you to purchase a calendar (or two) to support the great things going on at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.

Now, a farm comes closest to its own essence when it can be conceived of as a kind of independent individuality, a self-contained entity.   Rudolf Steiner

Ask homeowners about their landscapes and more often than not, you’ll hear a mournful tale of plants performing poorly. They myopically focus on specific features of their landscapes and fail to consider how the different “parts” could ever work together. Believing they lack the necessary knowledge to improve their landscapes, many homeowners turn to experts in the traditional landscape management industry to fix perceived problems. Yet the following year little has changed, or worse, the health of their land further degraded and their plants dependent on fertilizers and pesticides. In one year, a homeowner may hire a landscape designer followed by a tree expert, turf expert and a horticulturist or gardener. Experts often operate in their own bubble and fail to appreciate that their actions impact everything in the landscape. The experts and the homeowner may view their actions apart from, rather than a part of, nature. Their voluntary ignorance aside, the fact remains: the parts of the landscape areinterconnected and the landscape itself is connected to the greater community. To use a human analogy, the homeowner’s property resembles a precancerous cell operating independently of neighboring cells. This cellular dysfunction can impair the health of the tissue (neighborhood) and even the greater organ (community) should toxins (pesticide and fertilizer runoff) be released into the circulatory system (community’s watershed).

In response to repeated requests from farmers for Rudolf Steiner to provide guidance on how they could reverse the trend of soil degradation and reduced yields, Steiner gave an eight-part lecture series on agriculture in 1924. These lectures outlined principles to improve soil and plant health; afterwards they became the basis of Biodynamic Agriculture. Horticultural practices used in traditional landscape management have been influenced by the industrial agricultural model and, not surprisingly, produce similar problems on residential landscapes. Just as farms can be transformed by Biodynamic principles, I believe residential landscapes are capable of similar transformations.  An understanding of Steiner’s agriculture lectures deepens one’s relationship with the land, be it a farm, garden, or residential landscape. The principles outlined by Steiner, particularly the concept of a farm individuality, can provide a way forward for homeowners struggling with their landscape’s identity.

Early in his lectures Steiner introduced his concept of a farm as an organism or individuality. Steiner concedes that although it’s unlikely one will ever achieve a farm that’s absolutely self-contained what’s critical is that one develops a holistic perspective in order to recognize the interconnectedness of all the farm’s components. Furthermore, Steiner said that there are non-material properties associated with the flow of energy and substances between the components of the farm that are not apparent to farmers only considering the outer material realm. I’ll attempt to provide my own interpretation of this imperative – homeowners should try to maintain the fertility loop on their properties by composting existing materials growing in the landscape, not bringing in compost produced from another location. In other words, over time, the landscape individuality will be able to detect excesses and deficiencies and make modifications to achieve balance. George Washington Carver, a contemporary of Rudolf Steiner and also a spiritually minded scholar, shared this idea of the farm as a self-contained entity. Although Carver’s primary focus was on helping southern black farmers achieve self-sufficiency, and viewed a reliance on chemical fertilizers counterproductive, his core belief was that to rely on external inputs implied that the farm was in some way deficient, an idea untenable to Carter.  

Steiner’s description of a farm as an individuality can be applied to residential landscapes because both entities are ecosystems – a biological community interacting with its physical environment, a term that didn’t come into existence until 11 years after Steiner delivered his series of agriculture lectures. Believing in the axiom that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Steiner encouraged farmers to hold the holistic perspective when considering how the parts work together synergistically. With a few modifications, the same Biodynamic principles used for the farm can be used for the landscape, the obvious exceptions being practices involving animals (manure and materials for making the preparations). The other  Biodynamic principles can be performed on a residential landscape as they would on a farm: composting with the six compost preparations, use of potentized liquid field sprays, striving for biodiversity, and working with natural rhythms of the earth and cosmos. With this new focus on the landscape individuality, previously perceived weed and pest problems (should they occur) become valuable indicators to help the homeowner make small and slow adjustments to return balance back to the landscape. In some ways, it may be easier to work with a residential landscape than with a farm as an individuality: first, there’s no harvest and exporting of materials with the loss of nutrients from the property; second, since the plants in a landscape are primarily perennial, there is less disruption of the land and the perennial shedding of plant material can stay in place as mulch or be used in composting; and finally, typical residential landscapes are significantly smaller than farms and easier to maintain. 

Steiner also called for a diversity of mini-ecosystems on the farm to include forest, orchard, woody shrubs, habitat for fungi, wetlands and meadows. Although a very large landscape may be able to incorporate these components, a typical residential landscape will not. Yet if homeowners reach out to neighbors to suggest that the topography on their land may lend itself to a meadow of wildflowers, a wetland, orchard or other component, then by connecting neighboring landscapes – each specializing in their mini-ecosystems – the parts may interact. In addition to partnering properties to develop a larger individuality, the opportunity exists to share perspectives on landcare with neighbors, family and friends. Indeed, transforming one’s landscape with Biodynamic principles is an example of the oft used expression – “Think globally, act locally.”

I have been maintaining a Biodynamic landscape around our home for five years and have experienced a deeper relationship with nature than I ever have in my previous 30 plus years as a professional in the landscape industry. I have found it deeply satisfying to witness our landscape’s individuality emerge and surprising at times to watch it act on its own volition.  These moments of surprise serve as a mirror in which I can choose to see myself or to see the whole; to either be apart from, or a part of, nature and the landscape individuality. 

Nature has an impulse to perform what ecologists call “secondary succession.” I’ve observed abandon pastures on neighboring properties undergo changes in plant communities, eventually ending with a specific climax community, an oak-hickory forest for our region. Similarly, I see nature’s successional impulse on our property as I mow the lawn and encounter pioneering representatives from the adjoining forest advancing the forest farther into our yard. The regularly mown lawn and primped flower beds represent my impulse to achieve an outcome (albeit unsustainable) while the advancing forest represents nature’s impulse to undergo succession to restore a climax community as its outcome. However, there’s a third impulse, the most special places on our landscape, where the individuality of the land emerges, a combination of my desire mixed with the land’s impulse. These are areas where natural succession seems to have placed itself on “hold” in order for a new dynamic equilibrium to occur.

Two examples illustrate this new dynamic equilibrium, what I believe is our land’s individuality expressing itself on our property.

About eight years ago, our utility right-of-way corridor was, like neighboring utility corridors, overrun with brambles and invasive plant species growing on degraded soil, a result of aggressive trimming and spraying of herbicides by utility contractors. To encourage pollinator insects and discourage trees from taking root and growing into overhead electric lines, I set about the Sisyphean task of replacing the undesirable plants with what I believed to be more appropriate native species. Frustrated at not seeing “my plants” becoming established and realizing my task was futile, I approached the problem differently, investing my time making observations of the land. I felt as if the land was attempting to do something. I observed an increase in native wildflowers and grasses (which I did not plant) as the land rapidly transformed the utility corridor into a goldenrod corridor, providing wonderful habitat for pollinators and many other insects. An added benefit further satisfied my initial goal: goldenrod releases a chemical inhibiting the germination and establishment of tree seedlings. In reflection, I wonder why this transformation to a largely self-sustaining pollinator corridor didn’t arise in the past and why nature has hit the pause button on natural succession. Perhaps what is happening at this moment is a new phenomenon not covered in my ecology textbooks.

About five years ago I abandoned weeding our blueberry patch, again out of frustration, and admitted defeat in the war I declared on dandelions. Unfamiliar with growing blueberry shrubs, I assumed my bed should look like the pictures in books and magazines, weed free and mulched. In awe, I observed how fast dandelions completely enveloped the entire bed. As the bed was located in a prominent location, friends lowered their gaze to express sympathy that I had lost control and had obviously given up on gardening. They were confused by my enthusiasm for the blueberry patch and my reports that yields had increased, with fewer pest and disease problems. Turns out the dandelion blanket is just what was needed for blueberry shrubs and our soil. With its continual eruption of new leaves, the dandelion foliage serves as an effective green mulch throughout the year. The dandelion roots break up compacted soil and, with the aid of soil organisms, transform the soil into such a wonderful friable growing medium that we are reluctant to walk into the bed because our feet sink into the soil. The dandelions bloom all season to provide valuable support to pollinators otherwise dependent on more restricted blooming periods of other plants in the garden. We harvested dandelion roots and added them to yarrow to make a splendid bitter tonic used before meals to aid digestion. Plus, the greens are a tasty addition to salads!

If I had continued headlong into imprinting my control over my land, as many do, I might have escalated my tactics by carpet-bombing the land with fertilizers and strafing weeds and pests with pesticides. I’ve witnessed this war between property owners and nature for most of my career in the landscape industry. In fact, I’ve been both a hired mercenary and an arms dealer perpetuating this unsustainable attack on nature.

Although I had heard of Rudolf Steiner’s description of a farm’s individuality in the past, I assumed it was a concept that applied to farms and farmers. However, upon realizing the futility of my actions attempting to control nature, I slowly realized that his message has a broader appeal to anyone open to a relationship with nature. I only wish I had taken Steiner’s lesson to heart sooner and declared peace with nature years ago.

For more information on compost preparations used in Biodynamic farming see Wali Via’s article, “Biodynamic Compost Preparations,” published on the Biodynamic Association’s website,


Steiner, R. 1993. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. A Course of Lectures Held at Koberwitz, Silesia, June 7 to June 16, 1924. Translated by C.E. Creeper and M. Gardner. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc., Kimberton, PA. 

Biodynamic Association. 2019, January 31. Biodynamic Principles and Practices. Retrieved from   

Saving Seeds: It Just Makes Sense

Saving seeds as an act of societal justice. Are you a seed saver? If so, then you are part of a larger global movement saving heirloom and open-pollinated seeds under threat of extinction (largely as a result of industrialized agriculture and multinational agrochemical corporations closing in on controlling the majority of seed supply companies). Aside from fighting the good fight, we really cherish seed collecting at 7 Acre Wood. It not only connects us back to our gardening ancestors, but also connects us to future generations.  

Saving seeds makes economic sense. Saving seeds saves money. Thanks to the exponential production of seeds produced in each flower head, you’ll have plenty of seeds to share with other members of the garden club. You’ll recognize this savings when you can cross off seeds from your list of things to purchase for the 2019 gardening season. 

Saving seeds makes environmental sense. Recent research indicates that during this time of the years, flowers in your garden activate important bits of information in their seeds to give their offspring a “jump start” in growing your garden next year. For example, if your flowers have been activating specific genes to help them deal with soil challenges, the resultant seeds will germinate next year already primed and ready to deal with those same challenges faced by their parents. By seed sharing, we’re growing flowers that are better suited to grow in Bath County as compared to seeds produced from flowers from some other region in North America. 

Saving seeds uses common sense. The process for saving seeds is straight forward; simply collect, clean (sorting seeds from fruit or residual flower parts), dry and store. Don’t be shy about trying; deep down inside we all have the innate knowledge to save seeds. That little voice inside of you will guide you through the process. We like to store our seeds in small paper lunch bags, placed inside of metal trash cans in an outbuilding so the seeds can experience cold temperatures. 

Saving seeds makes good health sense. Traditional vegetable plant varieties typically produce more nutrient dense food than hybrid commercial varieties that have been bred for high yields and to be responsive to pesticides and fertilizers. 

Supporting seed savers makes ethical sense. Supporting local and regional seed-saving groups strengthens the network of seed savers and preserves plant diversity for future generations. Ask Rhonda at the Warm Springs library how you can assist in her development of a seed-saving library. For more information on seed saving, contact the Seed Savers Exchange ( Better yet, join this important organization and “stick it” to those greedy multinational agrochemical companies!