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Digging further into garden plot

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I learned a lot last year when I decided to try growing some veggies in a small community garden plot. I learned that you don't garden unless you're OK with being the target of a raid or two.

I was raided a few times -- most notably by an elderly woman with a history of garden raiding in the North End. Eyewitnesses say she wore a babushka and was on her way home from church. But that's OK, because I gardened with the mindset of learning how to garden and shared everything I grew anyway.

I learned through experience, considering I had never gardened before in my life. With the advice of friends and family, my garden grew better than I ever expected.

I grew cucumbers, beets, potatoes, beans, dill, mint, Brussels sprouts, turnips, carrots and tons of lettuce.

I devised a cheap, environmentally friendly way to deal with my ant problem. A mixture of cornmeal and coffee grinds killed off the little critters and saved my beets. Try it. It works like a charm.

My theory is you'll always eat well if you have a garden -- whether it's in the city or on the rez.

Now it's time to learn more.

My first step this year was to sign up for a seeding workshop at the local community centre. It's free and it's a great way to meet people. This year, I'll have two plots: a new spot for veggies, and the one that was raided last year is going to become my traditional plant and herb garden.

From what I've read over the years, traditional medicines were advanced and well-known remedies a few hundred years ago. I've read accounts of native Americans saving newcomers with scurvy by giving them a tea made with pine needles and other herbs rich in vitamin C.

When I was really young, traditional medicines were always around the house.

I remember my great-grandfather Alphonse would go out in the swamp and into the forest to pick special medicines. He'd dry some herbs and grind others up on his counter in the verandah. One of his favourite medicines was wecase -- or what's known as rat root in many aboriginal communities.

Wecase is a swamp plant, so I won't be planting any, but I still ask around and get some when I need it to help clear up a cold. It tastes awful but it works.

I will plant prairie sage and sweetgrass, which I can use for smudging. I've researched some other medicines that I might try to grow.

I found some notes online about a lecture given in the 1990s by elders Lawrence Smith and the late Garry Raven.

Raven recommended alfalfa tea as a natural remedy to calm the nerves. Alfalfa might be a good plant to try growing -- my teenager and toddler can both be a handful at times.

Red Clover can also be made into a tea and sipped to relax at the end of a hard day.

The elders recommended other wild plants for diseases that seem to plague many of our people.

They said a mixture of wild licorice, water lily and sweet flag is useful for treating diabetes. Nettle tea can be used as a blood thinner and to help with kidney stones. It is believed sweet flag root lowers cholesterol. But like regular medicine, traditional medicines can be dangerous if they aren't used properly.

Traditional medicines are best used with a doctor's and herbalist's advice. It's a fascinating subject, which makes me want to dig a bit further.

I need to find a traditional aboriginal medicine person who might share some knowledge with me. Maybe I'll go ask my great-uncle who lives back home on the reserve.

And maybe this summer, I'll do some traditional plant harvesting of my own -- in my garden and in the wild.

All this research makes me wonder what a difference traditional medicine could make in the lives of people who need their help the most.


Colleen Simard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J6

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