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ABC’s Green Garden Practices and Community Outreach Programs

The American Botanical Council’s (ABC) 2.5-acre herbal oasis, hidden in what some might consider an atypical urban area of Austin, Texas, contains 30 gardens that beautify the landscape and provide educational benefits to the public and others. But are ABC’s gardens “green”? HollyFerguson, ABC’s education coordinator, says “Absolutely.”

Musculoskeletal and Central Nervous System Garden.Photo ©2009 Matthew Magruder

Although some may assume that all gardens contribute to a healthy environment, as the plants grown in gardens pull harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, this is not necessarily true in all cases. The amount of energy used to construct and maintain some gardens can actually generate large levels of CO2 emissions, such as those produced through the use of gas-powered gardening equipment, water irrigation, and pesticides, fungicides, artificial fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals.

The ABC gardens, however, are designed to have greater environmental benefits through the use of so-called green gardening practices.1 For instance, the majority of the labor for the ABC gardens is done by hand, including weeding, and ABC only uses organic pesticides and fertilizer. The property also utilizes a rainwater collection system that is based loosely on a Roman aqueduct system.2 Gutters along the roofs of 3 ABC buildings—the main building, the annex, and the greenhouse—trap rainwater and run it underground to a filtration system, which cleans out large and small particulate matter and then sends it to storage tanks on the ABC property. These tanks collectively hold a total of 12,700 gallons. If there’s a large amount of precipitation in a particular month, ABC can maintain all of its gardens with rainwater alone. The rainwater system can limit city water usage, furthering ABC’s efforts to support sustainable gardening and permaculture. (The gardens were originally designed through consultation with the famous horticulturalist and botanist Gabriel Howearth Landeros. He specialized in permaculture and biodynamic gardening techniques.3)

Passionflower Passiflora incarnataPhoto ©2009 Matthew Magruder

According to Gayle Engels, special projects director for ABC, the last time someone checked (a botany intern in 2004), there were 246 different plant species in the ABC gardens. Some of the species that the gardens contain are ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi, Malpighiaceae), used by shamans in the traditional medicine of South America; curry leaf (Murraya koenigii, Rutaceae), much-loved in India for its use in flavoring foods but also used medicinally and studied for its hypoglycemic effects; and numerous species that act as forage plants for butterfly larva and nectar plants for adult butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

Various other species in the gardens include the following herbs: comfrey (Symphytum officinale, Boraginaceae), traditionally used to heal tissue injuries; passionflower (Passiflora incarnata, Passifloraceae), traditionally used as a sedative; lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, Lamiaceae), which has demonstrated both sedative and antiviral activity; Madalene Hill doublemint (Mentha x gracilis cv ‘Madalene Hill,’ Lamiaceae), a mint that has both peppermint and spearmint properties, named for the late Texas herbalist; and yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica, Saururaceae), which could be used for mouth sores, sinus problems, and rheumatoid arthritis, according to late herbalist and author Michael Moore.

Jimson Weed Datura stramonium Photo ©2009 Matthew Magruder

Some of the 30 herbal garden themes include: Asian, antioxidant, fragrance, children’s herbs, human systems (including digestive, respiratory, musculo-skeletal, excretory, cardiovascular, reproductive, central nervous and immune), Southwest pollinator, international cuisine (including Mexican, Mediterranean, Southeast Asian, French, Chinese, and Middle Eastern), and first aid. The ABC New Hope greenhouse (donated by New Hope Natural Media) is where plants are born and housed during unfavorable weather. (For a full list of gardens see the ABC Demonstration Gardens sidebar.)

One of the greatest ways that the gardens contribute to ABC’s mission of educating the public about medicinal herbs is through ABC’s internship program with pharmacy and dietetic students. Many of these students connect with ABC through the University of Texas and Texas State University, although some travel from other states to intern with ABC.

Ferguson primarily uses these gardens to teach interns how to make medicinal teas, tinctures, salves, and lotions. Students are also able to view the natural sources of some pharmaceutical ingredients through their work in the gardens. “This is an especially valuable lesson to the pharmacy students who, before ABC, may have made no connection between the pills they know and the plants they may be derived from,” said Ferguson. “The dietetic interns also learn numerous aspects about plants as food and sources of nutrition.”

ABC hopes that this instruction can help bring more balance to the understanding of natural products to those who are taught primarily conventional medicine. Also it will possibly encourage students to incorporate the use of herbs in their work along with conventional pharmaceuticals, bringing more of an integrative approach to the medicine field.

“The gardens were conceived over 10 years ago as a prime public-facing project designed to promote ABC’s educational mission on a local basis as well as through its internship program,” said Engels. “We try to reach the public, not only through educating their future healthcare professionals but by showing them, through classes and tours of ABC’s gardens, how they can incorporate the healthy herbs into their own lifestyles.”

Ferguson has also implemented various community outreach programs. She frequently attends a local farmer’s market on Wednesdays and sells medicinal and culinary herbs from the ABC gardens to spread awareness of herbs and increase the visibility of ABC. Often she accepts the services of those wishing to fulfill community service hours, allowing them to volunteer in the gardens. Recently, she and Denise Meikel, ABC’s development director, have been exploring the possibilities of creating an herbal health education program for disadvantaged youth. Various local organizations, such as LifeWorks, a local nonprofit homeless shelter for youths, and Southwest Key Programs, Inc., a national nonprofit that specializes in community-based treatment programs for troubled youths, have brought groups of students to the gardens where they get a chance to experience nature and learn about medicinal herbs. This fall, there will also be workshops on the ABC grounds that consist of lectures coupled with in-garden experience. The ABC gardens will become a demonstration area for those who want to volunteer their time while gaining garden and medicinal plant education.

Several gardens on the ABC property have resulted from the ABC Garden Dedication Program, in which ABC creates or names an existing medicinal herb garden (usually 10 feet square) of a donor’s choice that displays a desired theme. Gardens that have been dedicated in this manner include the planned Ayurvedic garden, adopted by Nature’s Formulary and Organix-South, and the Oriental garden, created in collaboration with the Academy of Oriental Medicine at Austin (AOMA) and made possible by a grant from High Falls Gardens.4 (Parties interested in helping ABC build a new garden or dedicating an existing garden should contact Denise Meikel at ABC.)

One particularly unique garden at ABC is the Vicki Adams Rose Garden, in memory of a former employee of ABC. Vicki Adams initially volunteered and later did part-time work for ABC until just before her death at age 93.5 Engels explained that ABC does not normally establish memorial gardens, but Adams was a special case: “We already had a rose garden, and she loved the roses, so we dedicated it to her memory because she was so special to us.” There are also some memorial trees and benches dedicated to those personally connected to ABC staff members. (For a current list of dedicated trees and benches, please see the ABC Memorial Trees and Benches sidebar.)

More information on the ABC gardens and how to donate to them is available at

—Kelly Saxton Lindner


  1. Marinelli J. How green is your garden. National Wildlife. April/ May 2009; 47(3):46–50.
  2. Silverman W. Creating an herbal legacy: protecting and preserving healthy herb solutions. HerbalGram. 2007;74:12–13.

  3. Engels G. Renowned horticulturist designs ABC gardens. HerbalGram. 1999;47:12

  4. ABC collaborates with Academy of Oriental Medicine at Austin to create Chinese medicinal herb garden. HerbalGram. 2007;73:10

  5. Engels G. ABC loses beloved staff member, Vicki Adams. HerbalGram. 2003;57:8.