Practically Pagan: An Alternative Guide to Gardening, by Elen Sentier
Moon Books, 9781789043730, 143 pages, 2021
The introduction alone is worth picking up this book. Even if you don’t get past the first ten pages, the front section of Practically Pagan – An Alternative Guide to Gardening by Elen Sentier is a robust read packed with useful information. Elen Sentier is a magical woman, born of magical people, and her writing is imbued with the cunning craft of her lineage. Passing on her knowledge through writing books on British native shamanism and in magic/mystery/romance novels, Sentier also offers training in the old British ways. This book captures her experiences working with the land and is an absolute pleasure to read.
Straight out of the gate, this book is a metaphor. Does it include gardening tips? Sure, but it’s really about reconnecting with nature using the various growth, death, and rebirth cycles of the year. Sentier says this book “leads you through the eight seasons of the Celtic pagan year and gives you guidance on how to work with each season.”1
With the number of books already on the market about this very topic, it might seem futile to add to that pile. I respectfully suggest taking those other books and throwing them in the donation bin and keeping this one on the shelf to hand down to those who come after. Being able to tie seasons and moon phases with planting and harvesting is precisely the kind of magic that resonates with me personally, and I can tell you this book is never leaving my collection.
Working with the cyclical rotations of nature is great, but what about actual plants? While it’s tempting to just go all in about the metaphoric essence of this book, I am happy to tell you that there is indeed actual information about actual plants and a very interesting bit about hedges. Completely random, I know but hear me out. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have hedges might not really understand the boon they have been given, especially if said hedges surround a garden.
Sentier explains, “Hedges work because they don’t ‘stop’ the wind but ‘filter’ it. Moving air does get through but because it’s had to fight its way through a tangle of branches and leaves it’s lost 80 or even 90 percent of its energy. So, what was an 40mph wind on one side of the hedge is barely a 5 or 10mph by the time it gets through…and has also lost its wind-chill factor.”
Not only is that practical advice, it also metaphorically dials into the fact that surrounding yourself with people who love and support you will also filter out the rest of society in a way that leaves you feeling protected, supported, and able to flourish. We all need some hedges in our spiritual lives to filter out the intensity of things going on around us. Not to block it out completely, more like a provision of space to catch our breath before moving forward.
These are the type of books that I love discovering, when the writer seems to be leading you down one path but upon reading and absorbing the book you realize it’s about so much more.
Sentier’s writing is comfortable, like she knows what she knows and she’s eager to pass it on to whomever is willing to listen. It also feels familiar, like a long-lost cousin that you find yourself in conversation with during a family reunion. Clear language adds to the accessibility of this book: even if the reader doesn’t identify as pagan, there is more than enough actual gardening tips included to make reading the book a pleasure. Great ideas for planting, too!
The book is laid out according to season (Midwinter Solstice, Imbolc, etc), and provides an overview of that season plus various correspondences that have been historically associated with that season. Keeping in mind that geography will dictate what can and cannot be planted, Sentier does an excellent job of using broad strokes when discussing various plants used for each season.
She is very quick to point out that choosing what to plant very personal and that plants change just as people do: “I’m not quite the same Elen I was a moment ago, nor yesterday, nor last year, so the mental and emotional clothes I wear won’t fit now, won’t be suitable for me as I am now. And neither will the plants in my garden, nor the garden herself, be the same from one day to the next. So, there’s never any right or wrong, only what’s appropriate for Now.”2
Sentier lists a variety of herbs and their uses in their respective sections. She also continually stresses the importance of listening to the land to see what it wants. She explains, “The garden…told me in the first month after we moved in that it wanted to be a garden of the wheel of the seasons. I explored this on squared paper and offered up ideas to the garden spirit but she firmly put me in my place by telling me to go get my compass and find out where the directions are in relation to the house.”3
She sorted out where the gardens would go and what would be in them by listening to what the land had to tell her. Most of us lead such busy lives, we don’t really make the time to listen to the earth as we pull weeds or choose vegetables to put on the table. This book showed me that although I don’t have a garden physically, I could look at myself as a garden and apply the same principles. Mind-blowing.
Whether you actively garden or simply daydream about it, Practically Pagan – Alternative Guide to Gardening will not disappoint you. Being able to tie everyday actions to an overarching goal of being better people and doing better for the environment is one of the key messages I personally took away from reading this book. The magical knowledge being passed down in this book is worth picking it up, and if there is an interest in gardening, so much the better.
Sarrah October Young is a writer and practising witch who wished she could do stand-up comedy. When she isn’t writing or witching, she can be found posting about her cats on IG @therealoctober.