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An Update from Mountain Gardens

February 22, 2013

One of the farmers we profiled in Farm Together Now back in 2009 was Joe Hollis of Mountain Gardens in the mountains of Burnsville, North Carolina. In addition to some plans for the future (see below), Joe sent us an update about what has been happening at his place over the last year:

Mountain Garden Accomplishments for 2012

  • Reconstructed kitchen annex and cob oven after fallen tree incident, new pizza oven
  • Added solar panels, greatly increasing our power (now we can use a computer on a rainy day!) Bought a computer for the pavillion (communal). Got wireless internet (DSL), goodby dial-up
  • Great progress on pond, still needs cob reinforcement before filling. Used dirt for new terrace.
  • Big increase in area for food production, new cultivation and terraces on ‘food slope’ Improved sunlight by removing some shading trees around garden
  • Harvested some honey from our bees (3 hives now)
  • Hauled many pickuploads of manure from nearby ‘dude ranch’, built a small road to bring manure to new terraces on food slope.
  • Revamped wildfood beds for experimental cultivation of woodland food plants (ramps, etc.)
  • New, much more efficient herb drier
  • Mushrooms – gathered a lot, identified many new edibles, inoculated logs & stumps
  • Bare root plants sales: shipped $1000 of Chinese medicinal herb plants
  • Successful 8-day Chinese herbal medicine workshop
  • Dropped a lot of dead hemlocks and planted new wildfood garden between stumps.
  • Updated seed collection withmany new species of ‘useful plants’

And for 2013 and Beyond, Mountain Gardens hope you will get in touch and get involved in the following initiatives, Herb/Plant Studies and workshops (get in touch through their website if you are interested in participating):

Our overarching project is to develop a  ‘demonstration botanical garden of useful plants’, distribute propagating material of the plants, and generate important information about their cultivation and utilization and share it via this website and workshops taught at Mountain Gardens.  We do have some special interests; there aren’t clear boundaries (the most interesting plants are both food and ‘medicine’), but I’ve made an effort to separate specific topics below. The overarching Current project: is to expand the plant collection, offer more seeds and bare root plant sales and begin publishing our plant database online.  We offer several workshops, both half-day and all day, which are extended plant walks, in the garden and adjacent National Forest, with discussion of ID, ecology / habitat, propagation, harvest and of course uses (edible, medicinal, craft, etc.) of hundreds of native and introduced plants.
     A major theme here, as will be seen below, is ‘E-W comparative studies.’  By ‘E-W’, we mean specifically E. Asia and E. N. America.  We want to compare, and create a new synthesis from, eastern and western botany, ecology, herbology, horticulture, pharmacy, garden design and, indeed, philosophy.


Sansai literally ‘mountain vegetable’ – the Japanese word includes what we call wildfood. About 50 spp. of plants are used in Japan, mostly in the form of young sprouts and shoots and hence only available for a short time in spring. This category of food is highly prized and eagerly awaited in spring. At least 75% of Japanese sansai plants have a closely related native (S.Appalachian) equivalent.  See the article “On Beyond Ramps” [link]  Current projects:  Integrating native wildfoods and plant introductions from the far east, we have assembled probably the largest collection of sansai plants in the eastern US.  I continue identifying and searching out propagating material to add to the collection.  We will continue to supply Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC and one or two local restaurants.  This year we’ll be offering seeds and, a new feature, bare root plants of an initial selection of 25-30 species. [links]  A goal for 2013 is to develop and post a database of all spp. present with habitat, propagation, harvest time, etc. There will be a workshop on propagating, growing & harvesting sansai plants.

Bupin literally ‘repair substance’ – about 75 spp. of Chinese herbs, in the form of dried roots, seeds, fruits,etc. which are combined with food (meat, rice, vegetables) to “adjust or tonify a person’s physiological imbalance.”  Bupin “revitalize the strength” and “replenish one’s natural power of immunity.” The Asian supermarkets which are appearing in most large cities feature an entire aisle of bupin.  Most bupin  plants can be grown in E. N. Am., and there are probably a number of native plants which could be included in the category- certainly American ginseng and other Araliaceae.  Bupin are frequently consumed as soup, and there are many classic recipes involving 4, 6 or more herbs.  Current projects:  We now grow almost all of the bupin spp.which it is possible to grow in our area, but a there are a few valuable plants for which we are still seeking propagating material.  We are expanding our offerings of seeds and bare root plants.  We will be setting out several beds of spp. which grow well here, for sale to restaurants or in value-added products.  I hope we will post more instructions and photos on the subject on the website.  There will be a workshop on growing & using bupin.

Perennial vegetables – I have been collecting and propagating and growing these for over 30 years; only one or two of the hardy spp. from Eric Toensmeier’s excellent Perennial Vegetables continue to elude me.  Current projects:  Offer more spp. as seeds or bare-root plants.  Incorporate propagation, cultivation and harvest information in overall MG plant database and publish web.  Continue ongoing experiments with cultivation methods for efficient harvest of roots and tubers, fertilization and spacing trials for native perennial wildfoods, seed germination methods trials – keep records and share.  Try to get Dioscorea figured out.  Teach a workshop on perennial vegetables.

Tonic / longevity herbs and formulas from China & India – these are another long term interest.  I got a piece of advice when I was 30: “chart your course to intersect with the future.” So I’ve spent 40 years on this topic, figuring to meet up with the post-war generation right about now.  Yes, both Chinese and Indian herbal medicine have devoted considerable energy to developing anti-aging, rejuvenative herbs and formulas.  (Curiously, western herbal medicine has little to offer on this topic).  These herbs and preparations are called ‘tonics’ in Chinese medicine and ‘rasayanas’ (rejuvenatives) in Ayurveda.  Many of the Chinese tonic herbs are the same as bupin (above), but the tonic formulations, which can be prepared as decoctions, pills, wines, tinctures, syrups, etc., are much more elaborate and precisely targeted than the bupin soup recipes.  Rasayanas, coming from S. Asia, are unfortunately mostly, but not entirely, not-hardy.  Mtn Gdns has devoted considerable effort, over 30 years, to collecting any reputed ‘longevity’ herbs which will grow here, and learning to grow them (1) and collecting formulas (2), and now we have quite a treasure trove to share. Current projects: Offer more of these species as seeds or bare-root plants.  Summarize cultural, propagation, harvesting and utilization information on MG herb database. Make wines, tinctures, pills and other classic longevity formulations incorporating our fresh, organically-grown herbs. Share on line the most interesting usages and formulations from some scarce texts which we have acquired (ben cao gang mu, Pharmacopoeia of the P. R. of China, , Ishimpo, etc.).  Since we no longer sell tonic preparations on line (not GMP), begin offering packets of herbs so folks can make their own preparations (tincture: just add alcohol!).  Begin planting beds (a couple square yards each) of most important spp.  Teach workshops on growing and using tonic herbs

Medicinal herbs (other) – In accordance with our generational mandate, Mtn Gdns collects (plants & their usages, literature) and explores the herbal aspects of ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll’: CNS stimulants and depressants, libido (vital essence) tonics, calming / anti-stress / sleep.  Also brain / memory tonics (E.g. Calamus varieties and formulas ).  Also, herbs to promote immune fuction (adaptogens – we grow all possible adaptogens), anti-allergic, anti-arthritic, vision, hearing, etc. herbs and formulas.   Current projects:  Not so many of these plants are easy to grow in this area; a goal is to explore processing, combinations & formulas for those we can grow.  Teach a workshop on psychoactive herbs

Pao zhi – refers to a number of herb processing techniques used in traditional Chinese medicine to alter the energetics, reduce side-effects, increase palatability, etc. of herbs.  I have been practicing and teaching pao zhi for 10 years, and continue to research the topic, currently exploring the newly available ben cao gang mu – a treasure-trove of information. Current project: Continue to develop techniques and accumulate ancient and contemporary information.  Application to Western herbs?  Teach paozhi workshop.

Herbal Preparations – We like to make preparations from the herbs we grow. For ideas and inspiration we draw on  both traditional Chinese and late 19th century American pharmacy.  We practice the best (that we have discovered, so far) pre-industrial extractions and formats for medicinal herbs, utilizing the best Eclectic and standard pharmaceutical texts and Chinese information gleaned from a variety of sources including Li Shizhen and unpublished notes from Andy Ellis.  Current projects: Continue to expand our repertoire of herbal formats, internal & external.  Making alcohol from herbs, rather than adding herbs to alcohol.  Continue developing longevity liqueurs, incorporating more herbs that we can grow and harvest.  Expand repertoire of topical and skincare preparations.  Distill more essential oils and make use of the hydrosols (in tinctures and other preparations).  Offer herbal CSA?  Teach workshops on traditional Chinese and American / Eclectic pharmaceutical techniques and preparations

Native wildfoods – Our work with spring wildfoods is mentioned above (sansai), but of course there are wildfoods at every season.  Two recent books by Samuel Thayer: Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest  constitute a quantum leap in the quality of information on ID, harvesting and preparation of more than fifty of the best native wildfoods.  Current projects: The only problem with wildfood is the gas you have to burn to get to where it is. Our contribution to the movement is to offer seeds and bare root plant starts, and information on appropriate habitat, propagation, etc., so that you can naturalize these plants near your house.  Well also offer several workshops on this topic.

Li Shi-zhen’s forgotten herbs – Li Shizhen’s ben cao gang mu is a massive encyclopedia of natural history which treats almost 2000 minerals, plants, animals, insects, fungi, artifacts, etc., with details of harvesting, preparation and utilization (thousands of formulas and combinations are given) not available anywhere else.  Fortunately: it has been translated into English!  Unfortunately, it lists for $1600, there are deals online but it’s still about $800.  Also few libraries seem to have purchased it.  Fortunately, I have a copy!  It only took about $60 and 10 hours of turning pages at the copy machine.  Unfortunately, the ‘editorial apparatus’ (indexing, explanatory notes, etc) is minimal, the text is riddled with typos and who knows how many errors in translation.  Current projects: Begin to supply some necessary study aides such as a table of contents by latin plant name (the only table of contents given is in pinyin, and often it’s an obsolete pinyin name).  Continue reading through the text, highlighting its unique information, esp. on preparations and longevity formulas & techniques, edibility, propagation and cultivation, etc.  Compile a list of herbs not included in modern TCM (E.g. Bensky), then develop a list of new spp. to acquire.  Incorporate much Li Shizhen information in the series Chinese herb workshops.

Positive identification of Chinese herbs:  E-W herbal comparisons – There are at least 50 ‘east-west herb pairs’ (genera embracing both an E. Asia and an E. N.Amer. medicinal species), and a question of great interest is to what extent can our native plants be used in place of the imported species?  We have assembled all available published information (four books and assorted information from the internet), and are assembling the pairs of plants (ginsengs, black cohosh, dioscorea, solomon’s seal, hawthorn, etc.) affording a unique opportunity for comparative study.  Current projects: Continue filling out the plant collection; utilize new spp. suggestions from Li Shizhen.  Organize the extensive collection of reports which my students at Daoist Traditions have prepared over several years, each comparing the native and oriental species of a medicinal genus (a bulging file-drawer full)..  Incorporate info on ‘equivalent spp’ in Chinese herb workshop series.

Heirloom vegetables:  One of our major Current projects is food self-sufficiency.  Not just kitchen garden vegetables, of which we grow a good supply, but starch and protein crops like corn, beans, squash and potatoes.  My former apprentice, Dr. Jim Veteto, recently purchased land just over the ridge from Mtn Gdns on which to establish his Institute for the study of S. Appalachian food crops.  We’ll be partnering with his Southern Seed Legacy project to grow out heirloom corn and bean varieties collected right here in Yancey County.  What a thrill! We look forward to working closely with Jim on his projects, sharing apprentices and workdays and assisting in the preservation of local heirlooms.

Towards the development, demonstration and promotion of a way of living on earth that is sustainable, just and personally satisfying:  this is of course the sine qua non [without this, nothing].  I put it here last, but it’s first, always.  The best philosophy we have of a sustainable, just, satisfying life on earth is Daoism.  If this is true, one would expect to find echoes (at least) in other times and cultures, and indeed similar philosophies arose in ancient Greece but, lacking a Zhuangzi [Chuang-tzu], they lost out to Plato; and, since the victors write the history, the Cynics, Skeptics and Epicurians have been grossly misrepresented and are now largely forgotten. ‘Primitive’ people understand, which is why they’ve retreated to some of the most inhospitable environments on earth rather than joining up for the ‘benefits’ of civilization; unfortunately, they don’t write books about their philosophy, writing itself being an artifact of civilization.  ‘Primitivism’ (within which I include Daoism) is the philosophy of living on earth; modernism, from Confucius and Plato on up, is the philosophy of alliance with the human superorganism, which cancerously grows by consuming its host.  We all must choose; how we live is our bet, and we are betting the survival of our (thus far immortal) genes.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 24, 2013 3:41 am

    Love the pictures! What a good photographer

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