The Plant Practice

Regenerating the wasteland

Today, as spring quickens the land, we begin a new series that explores our essential and imaginative relationships with plants, as habitats everywhere lie under siege. Mark Watson introduces the leafy weeks ahead, alongside a short tale on enlightenment and feral gardening by fellow radical botanical Joseph Gaglione.
Mark teaches others to connect with the dreaming of plants through embodied practice and focus on mutual relationships. A keen forager and fermenter, he is one of the core team behind the Dark Mountain Project. Joseph is an aesthetic tree pruner, urban gardener, hill walker, city wanderer based in San Francisco Bay Area. Implementing ecological botanical interventions, embracing chaos, becoming feral.
Where do you imagine yourself when you think of plants? In your garden? In a field or waste ground? Out in the wild on a mountain somewhere, or maybe in a desert? Perhaps you don’t think about them. Perhaps you’d like to but don’t know where to begin.

This new series considers different kinds of relationships with these osmotic beings we’ve been co-existing with ever since humans appeared on the Earth; beings who not only provide our world with food, medicine, building materials, textiles, beauty, inspiration for art, myth and more, but who also exist in their own right and in connection with the non-human world.

Over the next month this series will look more deeply at our relationship with plants, beyond (but not excluding) the garden and cultivated field, beyond their utilitarian value to humans.

So what might a plant practice look like and what do the plants have to say to us?

Paying attention to the micro: with heath bedstraw, Darsham, Suffolk.

Anyone can connect with plants, so interwoven are they in our lives. It starts with a decision to make time and space to go out and sit with them and pay attention, to open up, listen at depth, and engage in a two-way dialogue. I see this practice as a kind of responsibility, an obligation even, given the times of ecological unravelling we live in. It’s a way of giving back to the living world we are part of, a way of being in communication and not in control.

It’s also a dynamic way to engage in imagination and ‘dreaming’, qualities of the heart and of the so-called ‘right hemisphere’ of the brain.

I was in my 30s when I first began to ‘tune in’ and ‘hang out’ with (mostly wild and feral) plants in the late 1990s. This became an intense practice of being in relationship with plants and trees wherever I found myself and is still an intrinsic part of my life today.

On one of those early days, I made a connection with a single white foxglove which had seeded itself and was in flower outside our kitchen back door in Oxford. Three of us had met up to spend some time with this plant, and after we’d sat with it for a while we went in the house to lie down quietly and take notice of any impressions, feelings, physical sensations or ‘information’ that arose.1 When it came to speaking about our experiences out loud with each other, my two friends’ readouts  were fascinating and many-levelled, almost epic. I felt disappointed and almost embarrassed when it came to my turn to speak. I had just one word from the foxglove to share: belonging. That was it.

But in the months and years to come, learning to belong turned into an ongoing and demanding practice. Belonging to the Earth, belonging to life, became key in a time of mass alienation from and destruction of the living world. Foxglove provides the heart regulating drug digitalis, and if I was to belong, the heart was where I needed to continually return to.

Through this and other experiences with plants  I came to realise that I was never actually alone in the world.

Gradually, through this and other experiences with plants (not all of them quite as direct as the foxglove), I came to realise that I was never actually alone in the world. Whether I was in an Oxford waste ground or the Botanical Gardens, sitting with a goat willow or becoming friends with heartsease, or in the high desert of south-east Arizona accompanied by very prickly ocotillos and rainbow cacti, it was the plants that were the doorways into a deeper connection with these territories.

The ‘plant people’ in this series writers, artists, scientists, feral gardeners, lichenologists and more – all have their own approaches to plant-human communication that go beyond the straight and narrow worlds of utility, commerce and control. And so we enter the rich (though not always easy) realms of reciprocity and relationship with the green living beings we depend on for our existence.  (MW)


Macro encounter: Joseph Gaglione wandering the  east bay hills, Berkeley, California

Listening to the Plants

On Becoming a Taoist, Sannyasin, Sadhu Gardener



As dreams are the healing songs

from the wilderness of

our unconscious 

So wild animals, wild plants, wild landscapes

are the healing dreams

from the deep singing mind

of the earth.

– Dale Pendell


Maybe it was the introspective nature of the Covid pandemic or the looming shadow of California climate collapse (drought, fire, floods), or the shimmering dreamtime insights from the psilocybin mushrooms, but I was losing the desire to continue to control and manipulate the world of plants.


Scene from a fantastic garden (Indian miniature), unknown, c. 1800’s

The Fall from Grace: Money Ruins Everything

Decades spent working in commercial farming and gardening playing the roles of rural organic farmer, then urban farmer, migrant fruit picker, tree pruner, plant nursery worker, residential maintenance gardener and designer. Mindless landscape transformation. The subtle but continuing anxiety of participating in the frenzied, soul-crushing plants-for-profit, mindless and destructive small-scale landscape transformation.

Engaging in the fossil fuelled dominated world of plastic pots and plastic bags of soil and mulch. Plants pumped up on chemical fertilisers. Creating vanity projects for the wealthy and privileged out of synch and harmony with the local people and native landscape.


Signals from the Bioregion: The Plants Speak

If it is the highest and the greatest 

you seek;

the plant can direct you. Strive to become

through your will

what, without will, it is.

– Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


You begin to make an effort to once again start listening to the plants themselves. It’s a slow, quiet language that stands somewhat outside the human realm and it vibrates in harmony with the larger surrounding ecosystem of air and water and soil and sun and moon and starlight.

This in turn activates memories of lessons and wisdom of the plant people teachers who inspired you in your youth:

The mystical herbalism of Hildegard Von Bingen.

The do nothing farming of Masanobu Fukuoka, tending his wild vegetables and orchards of citrus trees on a hillside in Japan.

Dale Pendell’s psychoactive plant poison and herb craft from Pharmako/Gnosis.

The defiant, feral, salvaged, wabi-sabi2 aesthetic of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage garden

and Adam Purple’s makeshift mandala garden rising out of the rubble of New York City’s Lower East Side.

Rudolph Steiner and Alan Chadwick’s biodynamic, holistic, spirit in nature gardening connecting heaven and earth: ‘Opening the soil to starlight’.

The ‘eat something wild everyday’ gift economy ethos of the forager Frank Cook.

The Mountain Paradise gardens of Joe Hollis.

Transfixed and transformed. No longer finding a need to force, manipulate or control. Once again resting in the grace of photosynthesis, eating sunlight, magical healing of the botanical plant kingdom. 

Pollinator garden created by the author

Plant Liberation

The less I do, the more of an artist I am.

–  David Hammons

There is no one so great as the one who does not try to accomplish anything.

– Masanobu Fukuoka


In Hindu philosophy the third and fourth stages of life are that of Vanaprastha, the forest dweller/hermit stage and the Sannyasa stage, in which you renounce worldly and materialistic pursuits to focus your attention on the contemplation of the gods. Finding myself philosophically poised between these two stages of life, my attention turns towards the contemplation of my gods – the plants, flowers and trees.

Wild fennel growing along the railroad tracks, Berkeley, California

You leave your gardening tools and controlling mind at home and roam the hillsides and urban city streets becoming informed and inspired by the majestic forms of the native oaks and lichen-covered buckeye trees. You take notice of the dandelion and dock emerging from cracks in the sidewalks, the feral, fecund, poetic repairs of the plant successions that are transforming a vacant lot into a wild ‘crypto forest’.

Wandering around with a pocket full of native seeds and a backpack full of plant field guides, tossing seed bombs over chain link fences and highway dividing strips, planting acorns in the moist, rain soaked hillsides. The beginning of the path of a Taoist, Sannyasin, Sadhu gardener. (JG)


Cover of ‘The Art of Pruning’ with illustration by Claire Stringer

from  The Art of Pruning: how to look at a tree

Learning to see, embracing the aesthetic eye

We begin by looking deeply into the tree. In doing so, the forms and patterns that come together to create the uniqueness of the tree are slowly revealed to us. Instead of imposing abstract, simplistic rules and guidelines on the tree, we allow the tree itself to guide us in our approach to pruning. Working with form, dimension, space, biological time and also the life-force of the tree, we can move away from the mechanical, rule-based approach of pruning, towards a more intuitive, poeticized and artful form. This ultimately allows us to better understand the beauty and essence of the tree.

Finding the essence

To discover a tree’s essence, we begin to study and observe its aesthetic beauty and unique biological characteristics.  Shape, texture, colour, and form all come into play: 

the paper white bark and the lacey curtain-like branches and leaves of the birch

the star-like leaves, horizontal branching, and the fall colour of the Japanese maple

the twisting, curving branch structure and elegant flower show of the magnolia

the strong architectural form and the muscular branching patterns of the oak

Trees also exhibit seasonal essences: spring flowering, lush green summer growth, fall colour displays, the bare branch calligraphy of their winter silhouette.

This changing seasonal essence is a barometer of the weather, a timekeeper of the seasons, and a nature-based performance art show moving in slow motion throughout the year.

The job of the pruner is to try to capture and hopefully enhance the essence of the tree, creating a balanced composition between trunk, branches, leaves, and flowers.

Finding the line

The line of the tree consists of the shape and movement within its trunk and branches.

By observing the line of the tree we are able to uncover its branching patterns, leaf density, and the feeling of movement within its structural form.

The branching patterns of the tree are not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye but also act as elegant biological solutions that have evolved to move water, oxygen, and nutrients throughout the tree.

By making aesthetically informed pruning decisions, we keep intact the integrity of the tree’s branching structure, make cuts which are conducive to the health of the tree, and also highlight the gracefulness, beauty, and movement found within the tree’s form.

View from the East bay hills, Berkeley, California



1 We called this process ‘visiting and dreaming’, and it became the foundation stone of the plant practice. First, we would visit the plant or tree before going home to return to the visit in our imaginations. We would then speak our experiences out loud with each other.

2  The beauty of the natural cycle of growth and decay and of all things imperfect, impermanent  and incomplete.


Dark Mountain: Issue 22 – ARK

Our full-colour Autumn 2022 edition is an ARK carrying a cargo of testimonies, stories and artwork gleaned after the flood


Read more
  1. This is such a beautiful and inspiring project, very uplifting; I’m so glad I came across this by chance this morning.
    I sit here trying to work out creative ways to combat thoughtless folk who leave their rubbish on top of my wild pollinator patch outside our tenement block.
    Onwards and upwards!
    Many thanks for sharing such a beautiful endeavour.

  2. I really want to resonate with all of this. There is much that I do resonate with and I thank the authors for their work (and non-work!). But the pruning part lost me. I see the value of pruning for a tree’s health, and of knowing what cuts are in fact healthful for that particular tree. But forcing a human aesthetic onto a tree seems to contradict the attempted throughline of the piece: deference to plants as we find them. Similarly, on the cover of the pruning book is the image of a square tree, a tree drawn in the shape of its container, a tree conceived according to the geometry of the page. In sum, in a bit of exaggeration to make the point: “I will make you beautiful” is a dominant culture habit of mind that can be insidious. Let us help each other to leave that behind.


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