Justin Sizemore talks to plants more than he talks to most people, but if you want to get him talking, ask him about his garden — or yours.
Sizemore earned a degree in environmental studies from UNC Wilmington before a series of jobs in landscaping set him on a path to cultivating his own property and consulting on others. In the last year, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation certified his home garden in the West Salem neighborhood of Winston-Salem — occupying the totality of his front and back yards — an official wildlife habitat and part of the Butterfly Highway for providing a sustainable ecosystem for native pollinating insects and wildlife. Over the last seven years, he’s planted more than 80 species, mostly perennials and things he can eat.
“For me, I’d rather put in more effort and have a yard I can eat out of,” he says. “I have a limited amount of space so if it’s not edible it better be a very good pollinator, or I don’t have time for it. [Butterflies] have had a really hard time so anything that encourages them is great. Yarrow is a really good one and it’s one of the biodynamic plants that’s really good for the soil.”
Same with comfrey, chamomile, echinacea and beebalm, which Sizemore says are primary components of most healing salves. Coming to understand humans’ fundamental, symbiotic connection to the land is a theme he’s happened upon time and time again.
“Most of the list that’s good for soil health in biodynamic horticulture is also good for your skin and healing the body,” he says. “There’s a correlation.”
Embarking on that journey yourself doesn’t need to cost an arm and leg if you learn how to work with what you have. When he started shaping his own yard into a home garden, Sizemore felled invasive species of tree like Tree of Paradise and Princess Tree out of Asia and chopped the trunk into long logs that would serve as perimeters for raised beds. When neighbors lay out yard waste, don’t be embarrassed about scavenging. Any wood unfit to burn can serve as a better wall structure than plywood, which contains chemicals. Smaller branches, too, can play an important role in a permaculture method for cultivating raised beds.
It starts with a trench and it’s as simple as filling it with those branches and any other organic matter before piling dirt back on. Then, you plant.
“As that mixture breaks down it retains water and basically makes a raised bed that’s good for 20 years,” Sizemore says. “Really what I’ve been doing is growing dirt.”
He mixes the red clay that folks in the Piedmont like to complain about with his rabbits’ manure and any other organic matter around the yard — or the gutters — to encourage fertility.
He makes his own herbal cooking blends and — because his wife experiences them — he’s dedicated a large section of their front yard to herbs known for dulling migraines.
That concoction involves feverfew, costmary, tulsi and mint for flavor. (Sizemore suggests crushing the spearmint-like costmary in mojitos, too). Learning applications for herbs is a rabbit hole, so much so that sooner or later you might find yourself growing woad for fun.
“That blue war paint, like in Braveheart, is an antimicrobial paint they would use… to look intimidating but if you get cut, that healing ointment is already on there,” he says. “You harvest the leaves and ferment it and once it breaks down a little bit you get a natural blue dye.”
If you can relinquish control just let the herbs go to seed and they’ll proliferate just as easily as they began. It’s all an exercise in embracing experimentation and adapting accordingly.
“Plants have personalities,” Sizemore says. And it pays off to pay attention, though learning counterintuitive basics is key.
“With wilting plants, either [water] early in the morning before it gets hot or in the evening after it starts cooling down,” Sizemore suggests. “If you do it midday, it’ll cause evaporation and confuse the plant. It damages it more. Best to let it soak overnight. The best way to get what’s considered a green thumb is to get your hands dirty. You plant stuff in the ground and it either grows or it doesn’t but it you take care of it.”
Patience is key, but so is planning.
Sizemore suggests new and experienced gardeners attend Old Salem’s annual seed swap, typically held in the winter months.
“All the local gardeners get together and swap seeds and you get advice,” Sizemore says. “Those people collected… heirloom seeds they’ve been growing in their yard and they can tell you exactly what their experience has been.”
He also suggests linking up with Old Salem’s horticultural department and joining a neighborhood gardening club where you will be more likely to encounter seeds native to your area. He’s raising dozens of edible and flowering plant strains native to West Salem. But he says the best part of engaging these resources is inheriting the knowledge from others who’ve tilled soil very similar to your own, not to mention the support of a community within your geographic community.
So, go forth aspiring gardeners, and remember to ask for a little help from your friends.