Our pristine forest is home to the Old Ways Herbal Educational Botanical Sanctuary, funded in part by a generous grant from United Plant Savers. To date, it features the At-Risk Medicine Trail leading to the Old Ways Herbal School of Plant Medicine forest classroom; sheltered nurse beds in low-traffic areas for fussy forest germinators; existing populations of at-risk plants and plants that nurture pollinators; and the early stages of a native food forest. Future plans include significant plantings of American chestnut trees and an expanded native food forest.
Our land provides a variety of ecosystems in the piedmont between the West River Valley and the Southern Green Mountains. Our acreage is about one-third flat, open river bottom farmland boasting sandy loam in field, pasture, and old orchard, well watered from multiple brooks and river frontage. Walking through the forest that covers the remaining two-thirds of our land is a tour of the forested ecosystems of Southern Vermont. Because of a sharp increase in elevation, we have a surprising variety of plants, trees, and soil types. Our keystone tree species change from red oak in the low areas to hemlock groves and sugar maple-dominated hardwood stands at higher elevations. Areas of our forest feature boulder spills; marsh; spring-fed brooks that form rocky waterfalls; and land features related to old sheep pasture surrounded by very rich soil.
Invasive Plants & Insects Our forest has not been logged since around 1950, so we have a healthy forest biome of large trees and rich humus. The burden of invasive species is minimal to nonexistent. Our land has been spared because of elevation changes and because healthy fields and forests are less vulnerable to invasives pressure. However, our area was hit with serious flooding in Hurricane Irene and as a result invasive plants, especially knotweed, buckthorn, and bittersweet, are dominant on riverbanks and low-lying areas along the Rock River. Additionally, as climate change speeds up, invasive insects and fungal blights related to globalization are moving into Southern Vermont, including emerald ash borer and Asian long-horned beetle, as well as the already established hemlock wooly adelgid and beech blight.
Benefit The Educational Botanical Sanctuary has furthered our stewardship and conservation goals, which are centered on protecting our forest and inspiring our community to rejoice in our natural heritage. Our endemic at-risk plant populations have been strengthened, both in numbers and in genetic diversity, by introducing additional specimens. This has an immediate impact on the health of Southern Vermont forests in the face of an onslaught of invasive plants and insects. It is an important illustration of mindful stewardship for our herbal and homesteading classes, on-the-farm education with local schools, and other community groups that may use our classroom.
Educational Botanical Sanctuary Features
At-Risk Medicine Trail & Nurse Beds The trail meanders across a brook, through the native food forest and past the future location of the American chestnut plantings before it reaches our herb school’s open-air forest classroom. Last season’s herb school work-traders helped plant over a thousand specimens representing close to 20 species, as well as creating sheltered nurse beds representing multiple microbiomes and drawing a comprehensive map. This season, work-trade students will help create informative signs and labels to guide students along the trail. Future plans include adding several spurs to the trail to lead students to nurse bed areas farther from the classroom.
Native Food Forest As well as promoting wildlife, the food forest encourages student engagement with the natural world, helps increase the visibility of the interconnectedness of systems, and hopefully works against the idea of natural forest land being “wasted” that we run into a lot. Including but not limited to: persimmon, wild cherry, serviceberry, elderberry, mulberry, hazelnut, butternut, chicken of the woods, chanterelles, morels, shitake and oyster mushroom logs, and some hemlock stumps inoculated with Ganoderma tsuga.
American Chestnuts Due to the brutal spring drought of 2015, we have delayed this aspect of the project until next year. We will plant true chestnuts in a carefully selected and prepared microbiome. After much discussion with the American Chestnut Foundation we decided not to become a test orchard for them due to space constraints. When they release the hybrid in several years, we will try a few of them as well as our true chestnuts.
We are considering inviting forestry and ecology students from local colleges to help plant the chestnuts, in hopes of tying together the past decimation and the inherent resiliency of a healthy forest with the new wave of invasives coming toward us. This kind of thinking will be very important during their careers, as we consider the increasingly devastating forest pests of the coming decades. Hands-on working experience with chestnuts will hopefully serve to illustrate the importance of conservation and stewardship as they move into their professional lives.
Growing Towards Our Goals
As well as maintaining and strengthening our healthy forest, preventing the spread of invasive plants and insects, and promoting at-risk plant populations through protection and propagation, we are working hard to help our community find inspiration in the practice of mindful stewardship.
The educational botanical sanctuary provides an important illustration of mindful stewardship for our herbal and homesteading students and on-the-farm education with local schools. The central mission of surrounding the classroom with a botanical sanctuary is to promote stewardship through community education and inspiration. All community members who attend our classes discuss stewardship and conservation as we walk into the forest, without exposing our forest to too many footprints.
Peer group involvement drastically increases the sense of engagement of all students by making the hard work of conservation achievable. Work-trade students are excited to point out plantings and talk about the plants, medicinal uses, and things they have learned about the northern forest biome during their work days to other students. This leads to many impromptu class discussions of the principles of bioregionalism and conservation, and clearly affects the way newer students view their responsibility as both consumers and propagators of herbal medicine.
At our final class of the growing season, each student in both class levels participates in a ceremony of mindful planting of fall seeds in prepared beds. They become very engaged in the process and in being part of the future of the sanctuary, and hopefully those feelings will build in the future as the seeds sprout.
The students’ avid response to the At-Risk Medicine Trail and being exposed to principles of stewardship in situ has been profoundly uplifting for me as a teacher. I would like to say that we exceeded our expectations for promoting student engagement with conservation, but really it’s more accurate to say that the students themselves exceeded our expectations with their passionate engagement with the garden and their ability to grasp challenging concepts and incorporate new perspectives (i.e. bioregionalism) into their immediate behavior as thinking consumers.
The vast majority of our goals in starting the Educational Botanical Sanctuary have been met or exceeded, to our great joy. We look forward to improving and expanding the project in seasons to come, as we watch the plants flourish in our our forest. United Plant Savers has our most heartfelt thanks for enabling us to start this project with so much success.