Seeking Material Knowledge: A Conversation with Alex McGrath
A garden is a massive project that can include many unexpected twists and turns simply due to the nature of working with the earth and living things. A successful garden needs people who are hard working, knowledgeable, flexible, and dedicated. The Healing Garden’s manager, Alex McGrath, and IU graduate, encapsulates these important traits, as well as being friendly to anyone who comes to the garden and happily sharing information and produce. Alex is originally from New York and has learned all that she knows about botany and gardening informally through self teaching and from knowledgeable people, including André Bispo de Jesus (see our previous blog post) and Lauren McCalister of Bloomington’s Plant Truck Project and the People’s Cooperative Market. She first started as the garden manager in March of 2021, after volunteering at the garden for a short time, and she has held the position since. During this time there was a large desire amongst people to seek connection after the isolation of 2020 and lead to a great starting point.
Alex has had no formal training in horticulture, nor farm employment experience prior to the Healing Garden. During the worst of quarantine in 2020 she spent her time teaching herself about botany, foraging, and plants in general. Alex has always loved plants and used to garden as a child. This interest in and love of plants has continued throughout her life. Alex says the garden fits right in with her goals of making “materiality a bigger part of my life and my world rather than spending all my time doing sort of cybernetic labor.” She feels her attention to detail and willingness to learn difficult things has been extremely helpful in her work here.
This time of year, Alex’s time in the garden is spent tending to the plants that are established and helping them to thrive, such as helping them get more space and deciding when to harvest. She enjoys the garden’s relaxed atmosphere and goal oriented growing, as opposed to the rigid settings of other agricultural projects. There is a tolerance for natural behavior of plants and the ebb and flow of the cycle of nature without working against it. Alex feels that her biggest success at the garden has been watching the permaculture principles at the garden be enacted and seeing perennials become established, as well as having a hand in beneficial changes with nature instead of the typical negative human impact.
The Healing Garden holds some of Alex’s favorite plants, including both the welcome “weeds” or purposefully cultivated plants. Devil’s claw and datura, both identified in Western gardening as weeds, inspire her artistically and she is fascinated by their long interesting histories of use in mysticism and witchcraft. Of the plants cultivated at the garden, she loves the white
strawberries, ground cherries, and birdhouse gourds. Another plant at the garden that is extremely important to her is the passionflower, Passiflora incarnata. This is the plant she has the closest relationship with, as she uses it for its calming and sleep aid properties in the form of tea. Overall she finds herself drawn to plants in the garden that have an aesthetic component, not purely focused on eating. She says it's “like how all artists maybe kind of striving towards that [nature’s perfection].”
One of Alex's favorite plants, passionflower, which provides leaves for tea and fruits.
Alex wants people to know that you are capable of teaching yourself many scientific concepts and are able to learn complex things if you dedicate yourself to it. That you “can learn it if you kind of sit down and not let yourself be intimidated. If you can get the access and you have to drive.” Her recommended book to start with if you are interested in learning about botany is Botany in a Day: Thomas J. Elpel's Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families by Thomas J. Elpel. Nature, and its ability to heal and teach, is available to all people if they are able to sit within it and listen.
More of Alex's favorite plants: Devil's claw, datura, and ground cherry.
You can learn more about the people who helped Alex learn botany in the stories below: