The Medicine Wheel Garden at Maple Grove Public School

It all began with a telephone call on the day of the huge snowstorm in mid-April. With the thermometer hitting 37 Celsius on my patio today, it seems so long ago. I remember several hundred grackles, redwing blackbirds and assorted songbirds had fallen from the sky to congregate on my front lawn, devouring the extra seed I’d put out for them. And Nancy Astin, a teacher at Maple Grove Public School in Barrie, came on the line. She had a project. An amazing project - a Medicine Wheel garden!

Later, I was to learn how the idea grew from a number of factors, including the school’s pioneering partnership with Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority which had students growing native plants from seed for the school’s No-Mow Zone (as well as for streams that run by the school); the Land Acknowledgement that began to play over the school’s announcements and the realization that students had little idea of what it meant; and the need for a calming place to sit over the course of the day.

In one sense, this was right up my alley. I specialize in native plants, and these are the ones that the first peoples of this area would have used as medicines – whether for food, healing or spiritual well-being. But I don’t have that knowledge. My interest in offering the plants that make up the natural communities that would have been found here before the settlers arrived has been to heal our space on the planet, to link with other gardeners in creating networks so the creatures that support our foodweb can flourish.

So in another sense, I was intimidated. I am an immigrant. I don’t have the experience borne from the teaching of parents, grandparents and elders of the traditional uses of native plants, and I have little understanding of the meanings of the four directions teachings upon which the medicine wheel is based. I knew one thing, we could not proceed without getting advice and leadership from local indigenous people. Maple Grove was ahead of me there – they have had a long-standing partnership with the Barrie Native Friendship Centre and a meeting was arranged.

I was late. I joined Nancy and her colleague Greg Smith along with Hank Monague and Vanessa Kennedy from the friendship centre in a classroom at the school, gathered around a low table. The conversation was a little stilted at first, but a sense of trust developed as we shared our thoughts. I had compiled an initial list of plants that I handed round – but had realized at the last minute that I had made a mistake in matching the four key sacred plants to the four directions. Hank, squinting at the list, nodded when I acknowledged the error. So we chatted, and we laughed, and the plans were made.

This has been a steep learning curve for me. Here are the written resources I found most helpful:
- The Medicine Wheel Garden – Creating Sacred Space for Healing, Celebration, and Tranquility by E. Barrie Kavasch (Bantam Books – 2002)
- Anishnaabeg Bimaadiziwin: An Ojibwe Peoples Resource, a website created by Georgian College Aboriginal Resource Centres wheel.html
- Toronto Region Conservation Authority Medicine Wheel Garden (Gitigaan Maskiki)

The four directions of the medicine wheel have multiple layers of meaning. East, South, West, North… Kindness, Honesty, Sharing, Strength… Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... Fire, Earth, Water, Wind…Yellow, Red, Black, White...Eagle, Turtle, Buffalo, Bear...Tobacco, Sweetgrass, Sage, Cedar...These categorizations are just the start of a complex indigenous world view that imbues every aspect of our universe with spirituality. The teachings can take you a long way. To start the journey, reach out to the first peoples of the place where you live.

The next step of the journey for us was a blessing of the ground. That task fell to Neil Monague from Chimnissing, who came to the school yard to talk to the importance of this space that is rooted in an ancient culture and will give expression to bright hopes for growth and renewal. He gave tobacco and he sang. He told stories, shared his wisdom and, in the way of Ojibwe elders, he made us laugh.

I had made out a detailed plan of the garden – but I was uncertain about one issue. The medicine wheel garden is bisected by two paths in the shape of an X – but where does the X align with the points of the compass? The temptation is to have one path run north-south and another east-west. In my research, I had seen illustrations of medicine wheel gardens with direction poles that weren’t at the end of the paths, rather at the centre of each of the four sections of the garden. Nothing I’d read had made this clear, however, but Neil confirmed my thinking. The compass points should run through the centre of each quadrant's bed, and the paths should run northeast - southwest, northwest - southeast.

The time had come to clear the sod and lay out the garden. I left that to the folks at the school. Many people contributed their vision. Much planning was done at the school that I wasn’t involved in, including discussion with indigenous students and their families. I heard there was a desire for roses, and added the Virginia Rose to my list of plants. Nancy wanted the garden to be surrounded by large rocks. I wasn’t sure of this from the design perspective, but I did feel that natural boulders should be used, not the armourstone that was first suggested. These came from my neighbourhood near Elmvale - Nancy spent a couple of hours picking the perfect ones - 29 in all - and David Anderson of DDA Trucking delivered them. Then they were carefully positioned in place. Amazing job! When I arrived with plants on June 5, I was blown away by the presence the rock circle conveys to the site.

The sod had been taken off and piled up nearby, the paths were carefully marked out with string and soil had been spread in the quadrants between the paths. So all I had to do was position the pots of plants where they were to be planted by the students. Wrong! I stuck a fork in the ground and discovered, under the beguiling layer of rich black earth from Garden Gallery, solid clay, stiff and unwelcoming. Fortunately there was a detail of students on hand and, provided with the necessary implements, they fell to and broke up the clay and mixed it up with the imported soil. When they finished, another group arrived, the indigenous students who did the planting. I let them get on with it. They did well, digging out the holes and crumbling the clay in their hands, mixing it with the new soil (plain soil, no amendments, at my request) as they backfilled. Then we went back and forth with watering cans, to get the plants watered in, while Greg led a team of youngsters in laying out the sod in a new location. As we worked, other students and teachers came by to wonder at the medicine garden. When I left, a lone student was pacing the paths, back and forth, in every direction. Starting his own journey of discovery.

Here’s the list of plants used for the garden:

Aztec Tobacco Nicotiana rustica
Field Pussytoes Antennaria neglecta
Common Sundrops Oenothera fruticosa
Helen’s Flower Helenium autumnale
Brown-eyed Susan Rudbeckia triloba
Golden Alexanders Zizia aurea
Grey-headed Coneflower Ratibida pinnata
Large-flowered Tickseed Coreopsis grandiflora
Tall St Johns Wort Hypericum ascyron

Sweetgrass Hierochloe odorata
Wild strawberry Fragaria vesca
Nodding Wild Onion Allium cernuum
Blue-eyed Grass Sisyrinchium montanum
Oswego Tea Beebalm Monarda didyma
Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea
Virginia Mountain Mint Pycnanthemum virginianum
Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum
Michigan Lily Lilium michiganese
Virginia Rose Rosa virginiana

White Sagebrush Artemisia ludoviciana
Field Pussytoes Antennaria neglecta
Blue-eyed Grass Sisyrinchium montanum
Wild Bergamot Beebalm Monarda fistulosa
Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum
Ohio Spiderwort Tradescantia ohiensis
Wild Mint Mentha arvensis
Tall Ironweed Vernonia gigantea

Eastern White Cedar Thuja occidentalis
Wild Strawberry Fragaria vesca
Pearly Everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea
Bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis
Wild Ginger Asarum canadense
Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca
Wild Bergamot Beebalm Monarda fistulosa
Obedient Plant Physostegia virginiana
Giant Blue Lobelia Lobelia siphilitica
New England Aster Symphyotrichum novae angliae
Susan Beharriell
- 5 July 2018 at 07:59pm

Thank you so much for sharing this advice, story and providing the plant lists. I have been waiting a while for the Kavasch book on inter-library loan because I am researching creating such a garden in our community. What are the dimensions of the garden? Are there any photos? Anything else to share? Many thanks, Susan
- 6 July 2018 at 07:22am

Great project!
Would be good to see some pictures added!
- 6 July 2018 at 11:13am

This is so inspiring! Hope to see some pics too- I'll have to get some of our garden (it's a similar idea) in Toronto, which had been mostly done with your plants!
- 6 July 2018 at 05:15pm

I know, I know, I need to add more pix to this site. And especially for this story. Photo essay in the works, maybe. I'm think the time to photograph is in the fall when they will have filled in a bit and more will be in flower. I will do another blog then, more specifically about the plants. I think the circle diameter is 30 feet.
Susan Beharriell
- 22 August 2018 at 10:29am

Are there any photos to share, please. They would make a presentation so much more effective!
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