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Gardening Consultant Maggie Herskovits Celebrates Urban Plant Life


Published July 2, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Maggie Herskovits leading an urban plant walk in Burlington - RACHEL MULLIS
  • Rachel Mullis
  • Maggie Herskovits leading an urban plant walk in Burlington

At the end of a vast parking lot gritty with spilled gravel, a woman in a plant-print jacket gestured to what some might call an urban wasteland. The lot by Burlington's Perkins Pier is ringed by train tracks, the loading docks of businesses and stubborn clumps of dusty weeds — hardly a place most people would expect to start a plant walk.

But Maggie Herskovits is different from most people. The gardening consultant and author said she had a "gardener's existential crisis" when she was pulling weeds for a park in New York City.

"I was like, Wait, this [plant] is also alive. What am I doing?" she recalled. "That's when I really started to learn more about plants as beings, more than just their names and that they're 'bad.'"

Herskovits eventually quit working for city parks and launched a garden consulting business, Pathway to Plant, that gives due consideration to spontaneously growing plants, even the ones most people think of as weeds. Now living with her husband and young son in Winooski, she offers gardening services, publishes hand-drawn urban plant guides and hosts educational experiences such as monthly urban plant walks through Burlington's Railyard Apothecary.

One past experience that shaped Herskovits' sensibility was her work as a horticultural therapist at Rikers Island prison. The program had minimal resources to fund a garden. "It kind of opened me up to the creativity of lack," she said.

She recounted how one of the prison courtyard gardens had difficult soil conditions and little sunlight, yet inmates found being there therapeutic. Herskovits discovered bladder campion, a white-flowered "weed" with ethereal balloon-shaped swellings rising behind its petals, growing on one side of the courtyard. She and the inmates intentionally transferred the flower to the newly created garden.

"It was so pretty," she said. "That really helped to click in my brain ... that beauty is where you choose to see it."

As Herskovits studied bladder campion and other often banished beauties, she began sketching them, eventually collecting and publishing her drawings as informational zines.

"Art has a really nice way of distilling deep, challenging concepts so that they're easier to digest," she said. With her plant guides, Herskovits aims to inspire a fun and joyful approach to exploring one's surroundings.

An Urban Field Guide to the Plants, Trees, and Herbs in Your Path by Maggie Herskovits - COURTESY OF MAGGIE HERSKOVITS
  • Courtesy Of Maggie Herskovits
  • An Urban Field Guide to the Plants, Trees, and Herbs in Your Path by Maggie Herskovits

Herskovits' first book, An Urban Field Guide to the Plants, Trees, and Herbs in Your Path, will be published by Microcosm Publishing in early 2025. In it, she highlights yellow rocket, a biennial herb with a penchant for showing up unannounced. Native to Eurasia, the plant is considered a noxious weed in some parts of the U.S. But to Herskovits, it's a "beautiful addition to a spring wildflower bouquet" and "delicious as a bitter spring green." She draws the plant with the care of a portrait artist, noting its bright yellow flowers, slender seed pods and popularity with bees.

While researching her book, she learned that the bladder campion she found in the prison courtyard was originally introduced from Europe as an ornamental flower for gardens. In other words, people once cherished it for its beauty — until it fell out of favor and something else was deemed more beautiful.

"Maybe this flower doesn't fit our mold right now. Maybe it was too, as they say, 'aggressive' and escaped cultivation," she said. "As soon as the plant makes choices for itself, we kind of vilify it."

With Pathway to Plant, Herskovits cultivates a more open-minded approach to gardening, offering her clients on-site consultations, recommended plant lists, design plans and installations. Sometimes her service involves buying plants, but other times it's about designing what's already there in a more intentional way. Using existing plants lowers the cost of landscape design, making her service more accessible to gardeners and plant lovers on a budget.

She recently worked with a Burlington client who had maintained several large, lush garden beds. But when he moved out of his building and began leasing to tenants, the beds became haphazard and unruly. Instead of buying plants, Herskovits and the client's property manager, Peter Steinhoff, dug up everything and divided it to fit in smaller beds that would be easier to maintain.

Herskovits has "changed the way I look at redesigns and plans because, in a lot of cases, the plants you need are already on-site," Steinhoff said. "She's an infinite well of information when it comes to plant and perennial knowledge."

Too many people assume that a plant from a nursery is superior to one growing spontaneously, Herskovits said. She's visited nurseries that sell different-colored cultivars of wild carrot — a plant that grows wild in Vermont.

"It looks different from the wild version, so people assume it's worth spending money on," she said.

Hiring Herskovits to tackle a home garden isn't the only way to glean her knowledge — her urban plant walks offer plenty of info and inspiration. As attendees crunched across the gravel lot on the recent walk by Perkins Pier, she pointed out pioneer species, the only kind of plants that can grow in the bare, nutrient-poor ground. Left alone, these species would soon be replaced by other plants until the ecosystem eventually evolved into a climax community, such as a hardwood forest. But in Burlington, the plants' growth is perennially interrupted by human activity: construction, trampling, urine and even pesticides.

"Change is what makes this environment what it is," Herskovits said.

Illustrations by Maggie Herskovits - COURTESY OF MAGGIE HERSKOVITS
  • Courtesy Of Maggie Herskovits
  • Illustrations by Maggie Herskovits

At the corner of Battery and Maple streets, she introduced walkers to one such pioneer species: mugwort, a dense, leafy plant with purplish-brown stems. She called it the quintessential urban weed.

Attendees touched the undersides of the leaves, which are covered in little hairs that give them a silvery appearance, then crushed a leaf to release its mild citrus scent. In addition to aiding lucid dreaming, Herskovits said, mugwort was once used to flavor beer. Apparently, its hallucinogenic properties weren't helpful in sedating the masses, though, and the leaves were replaced by hops.

"Now we see mugwort as a nuisance," she said. "But back in the day, people saw it as something that could open up their minds."

The tour continued up Maple Street and north on South Champlain. Herskovits helped the group identify a wild carrot, noting that its taproot allows it to squeeze into tight spaces and that moths and butterflies love its white flowers.

Broadleaf plantain was next, followed by horsetail, white clover, shepherd's purse and wild lettuce. Then daylilies, bouncing-bet and chickweed, a diminutive plant that's great in salads.

Along South Champlain, Herskovits was disheartened to discover that a vacant lot that once exemplified an urban meadow had been disrupted, again. The cause? Construction in the neighboring park. The herbs and small trees that had grown unbidden along a fence had been trampled and covered in soil.

But Herskovits' hardy optimism won out as she shared stories about the plants that remained: beloved goldenrod, with its sunlit display of tiny flowers on arching branches; bitter chicory, which removes heavy metals from soil; and burdock, which has a long history of use in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. She pointed out red clover, the state flower of Vermont; the common violet, with its edible, medicinal flowers; and common mallow, with its quirky seed heads resembling old-fashioned spheres of waxed cheese.

Some of these plants have long taproots to draw nutrients from deep in the soil, while others have fibrous rhizomes that stabilize the ground. They all work together to bring life to the city, she said.

Learn more about Pathway to Plant at and about Maggie Herskovits' urban plant walks under Classes at

The original print version of this article was headlined "Garden, Interrupted | Author and gardening consultant Maggie Herskovits celebrates the resilience of urban plant life"

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