Saturday, May 28, 2011

Soup in a Basket

From earth to basket to soup pot:
dandelion greens
musk mallow leaves
red clover leaves
green garlic
violet leaves

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

This Universe

In a parallel universe I have a modest homestead, on a bit of acreage that includes a woodlot and running water. It's within biking distance of a small town. It's seriously pimped out permaculturally speaking. There's a forest garden, lots of hedgerows, passive solar, an amazing compost system (humanure included) and hugelkultur everywhere. I forage and wildcraft everyday in my Zone 4. I have a root cellar full of stored crops, a kick ass pantry and apothecary. I live really frugally and DIY a lot of my infrastructure and basic needs with salvaged and thrifted materials. I borrow, barter and trade for many other essentials. For whatever cash I do need, I teach yoga classes at the local community centre, lead weed walks and run reskilling workshops to emerging Radical Homemakers. I sell my herbs and other garden products at the farmer's market. I spend more time outside than not. I live by seasons.

In this universe I live underground, in a rented basement apartment in an older suburban neighbourhood in a medium sized city. I don't have any control over my thermostat. I have a kick ass pantry and apothecary, but no root cellar. I pee in a bucket and compost it. I DIY as much as I can and always look for thrifted or salvaged materials before I buy new. I'm happy to borrow/lend, barter and trade with anyone who's willing. I live really frugally but still pay the bills by working an office job Monday to Friday in a climate controlled building. If I didn't look out the windows every now and again, I'd have no idea what the weather was like. I garden on 4000 square feet of rented allotment gardens that are a 15 minute bike ride away from my home. I'm not allowed to make any permanent structural changes there (Although we did build three hugelkultur beds along some edges!) I have two more weed walks planned for this summer. I forage and wildcraft in my Zone 4, it just looks a little different in a cityscape and because I work everyday and lots of things are weather dependent I can't always get to the plants when I need to.

In this universe I give heartfelt thanks for a sunny day on my morning off and make plans to take advantage of this small window of opportunity. After yoga and before work, I bike to my closest semi-wild Zone 4 area to harvest dandelion flowers for an infused oil. I enlist the help of the ADG. But when we get to the park we notice that some of the pine trees are giving off their pollen. He's been interested in collecting some and we've been watching the pines waiting for just this moment. So I leave him to that and start to fill my basket. When I have enough, I check on the hawthorn trees and realise that they are in bloom and need to be harvested now, or never. I harvest until the ADG finds me and tells me I have to leave for work. I get him to help me for just a few more minutes, we thank the hawthorns and then walk back to our bikes. The dandy blooms will sit out overnight to let some of the moisture evaporate out of them before they go into the oil, but the hawthorn flowers need to get tinctured right away. Since I don't have time, I ask the ADG for the favour and give him quick instructions on tincturing. I send him off but not before he points out that I have just handed a man a basketful of flowers to carry through the streets of Ottawa. But he's also got a bag of pine pollen so I figure that more than makes up for it!

Ok, so maybe I don't have the homestead and the acreage and my job keeps me indoors at times when I would much rather be out. I don't have the land for my hedgerow and forest garden (yet). But I make the best of what I've got. And what I do have is pretty amazing and wonderful. I have someone who will carry a basket of flowers home for me and take care of them. It's a good universe to be in.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Rambling Thoughts

Note: I didn't get this post finished before I headed to Vermont to do some camping with a friend this long weekend, but I'm publishing it today, as is, because I just finished reading this article on Foraging and Food Security and the author expresses a lot of similar thoughts I have about foraging.

I apologise to anyone who may be getting a little weary of the weed/foraging posts of late. But I can't help myself!! The world outside is so lush, alive and abundant right now. I get so darn excited about it all that I just have to tell someone. That means you guys, Facebook and the ADG mostly. In fact, the first thing I did when I saw the ADG the other day was pull out the bag of Dryad's Saddle mushrooms I had just collected as I dawdled home from work.

Now, a lot of serious mushroom hunters might tell you that this particular 'shroom isn't worth bothering with, but since I'm only beginning to develop my mushroom hunting skills, I don't bother with that advice. Dryad's Saddle is a polypore that's very easy to identify and grows in the same place year after year until the wood they grow on is exhausted. When you catch it at just the right stage of growth it is tender, worm free and perfectly edible. And it smells just like watermelon. I prepared the batch the way Wildman Steve Brill recommends.

Marinate broad slices overnight in 2 parts olive oil and 1 part wine vinegar, with some garlic, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, and tamari soy sauce. Drain, and bake 20-30 minutes over a cookie sheet on racks, in a preheated 350 degree oven. Pat dry with paper towels and enjoy as is, or add to any savory recipe.

The sun peaked out on Thursday, just before it went down, and I wandered out and checked on my trees. (A Tree Year post is coming soon.) I collected some larch needles and spruce shoots. I combined the larch needles with sea salt in my blender and ended up with a crazy, bright green salt that smells and tastes kind of citrus-y, tart and wintry all at the same time. I used Hank Shaw's syrup recipe for the spruce shoots. It's lemony and sweet and I'm definitely mixing a drink with this syrup and soda water!

On my lunch break yesterday I returned a book to the library. To get there, I walked along the river for a ways, then cut through a grassy area behind a low apartment complex. Under a stand of trees, there was a section that hadn't been mowed. I identified at least 30 edible and medicinal plants growing there. All this in an area of maybe 2000 square feet, that is about 2 minutes from a busy four lane road. As I walked through, mentally cataloguing all the plants I recognised, I kept thinking of what Sam Thayer said in the video I posted the other day, about how when we eat a landscape, we want to love and protect that landscape. And I couldn't help but wonder, if all those people living in the apartment building knew what they had growing right outside their doors, would it change the way they felt about that space? Would they get excited, celebrate it and care for it? Would they feel as fiercely protective about it as I do, looking for signs of disease, stress from pollution or pesticide use? Would they descend on the area and immediately over harvest everything useful and leave it a barren wasteland? Would they nurture and encourage the plants, collect, save and spread their seeds and take only enough to ensure the plants could continue to thrive? Would they think about the other living creatures that need those plants, like birds and animals, pollinators and other beneficial insects?

Sometimes I worry about what would happen if everyone started foraging for food. What impact would we have as a result of widespread foraging and wildcrafting? I do feel that if more people got their food and medicine from the green spaces where they live- especially in an urban environment, they might be less inclined to throw their trash there, or spray it with chemicals. They might be more concerned about how much car exhaust, leaking oil and other toxic substances that are a part of our modern lives end up in those spaces. I also love how empowering it can be to know that you can access food and medicine for free.

I'm spending the weekend in Vermont with a friend. We'll be staying in a gorgeous state park with lots of hiking trails through the wooded mountains. It's illegal to pick anything growing along the trails, and of course I'm more than happy to respect that. But the area was once settled by tough farmers who eked out a living for a couple of generations in those mountains. They cleared the land, raised cattle, planted orchards and field crops. You can still see the apple trees, the escaped plants that once lived in someone's herb bed and the old stone walls that enclosed cows and pigs. I can't wait to explore those spaces and I'll be thinking a lot about our human interactions with the land.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Of Forests and Food

Update: An article came out in the NY Times today about harvesting ramps (wild leeks). To make sure this plant doesn't go the way of American ginseng and goldenseal, ask about harvesting practices if you buy them at the market or order them in a restaurant, and don't get them if you don't get a good answer. If you harvest ramps, please practice good foraging ethics!

Rain, rain and more rain. I'm not complaining, but it does slow down the gardening activities somewhat and makes harvesting medicine plants pretty much out of the question. For that, you ideally need a few days of dry weather, and then you harvest on a sunny day around mid-morning, after the dew has lifted, but before the heat of the day evaporates volatile oils.
Normally at this time of year, I would be harvesting violet flowers and leaves, dandelions, nettles and horsetail among other things. But that's all just going to have to wait. It's an exercise in patience and acceptance.

I can and have been harvesting dandelion roots and roasting them for coffee. And I'm foraging for food plants as weather conditions really only apply in relation to the comfort level of the forager. I don't mind getting a little cold and wet for free food. Especially when I forage in the city and am only ever a few kilometers from the comforts of home.

On Sunday I walked to my friend's place, where I'm keeping three of my mushroom logs. There is a short woodland path on the way, and a large stretch of woods just beyond that. Down the woodland path I harvested some lush dandelion greens, violet leaves, bishop's weed that had escaped from a backyard, and a handful of balsam fir tips. At my friend's place, I harvested 5 big shitake mushrooms from my logs! I gleefully continued on to the woods. Most of the forest floor was submerged in water and I was muddy and wet within seconds, but happily waded deeper in anyway, listening to the splish of water and the sucking of mud at my boot heels. I had the whole woods to myself. I imagine other visitors were content to wait for dryer times.

Where the forest floor wasn't under water, the trilliums bloomed, white and purple. Trout lilies were everywhere. The yellow violets were in flower and the bellwort too. The false Solomon's seal was just budding out. I saw wild ginger and wild leeks. I found a tiny patch of spring beauty.

The wild leeks were abundant enough that I harvested just a few, very carefully, trying to disturb as little of the soil and surrounding plants as possible. I am acutely aware of how precious this ecosystem is in the heart of the city and I know that this particular stand of woods, surrounded on all sides by houses, apartment buildings, busy roads and a school, gets a lot of traffic from dog walkers, children, cyclists and such. Wild leeks or ramps take a loooong time to grow and get established and they are considered at risk in many places, because they are so popular and are often greatly over harvested. If you do pick them, it's better to take the edible leaf and leave the bulb behind, and never remove a plant with a seed pod. Knowing this, I felt like I had uncovered a most valuable treasure and felt humble gratitude as I gently replaced soil and leaf litter from the spot I had just cleared.

Leaving the forest, I found a huge patch of garlic mustard in the perfect stage to harvest for the young, second year stalks. I went to town on it, pulling it out by the roots with an equal amount of abandon, as the restraint I exercised with the wild leeks. Finding edible invasives is a different kind of feeling from the hushed awe of discovering a rare and elusive plant. It's like hitting the jackpot. It's a windfall of abundance. I went home with a massive bundle of it under my arms. I proceeded to spend the next four hours in the kitchen, processing and cooking all that food. But hey, that's what rainy days are for.

And the rest of the time that I can't be outside, I hit the books and scour the internet for more information. Lately, I've been on a pretty steady diet of all things related to permaculture. I signed up for a course in the fall to get my design certificate and I hope to learn as much as I can between now and then., Sepp Holzer's site and the Permaculure Research Institute of Australia are my virtual go-to destinations at the moment.

The more I read, learn and take my first tentative steps toward practicing permaculture, the more enamored I become with this incredibly elegant design philosophy. It's such a joy to discover and explore!

How are you spending these rainy days?

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Wild About Weeds

Uh...blogger had some kind of massive stroke today and as a result has suffered some memory loss. I was able to recover one post, but yesterday's post with all the awesome food foraging links seems to be forever lost in the internet ether.

Here they are again - but without my highly intelligent, incredibly witty, scintillating commentary this time. ;)

NPR radio segment with Sam Thayer

My weed walk

The part on foraging starts around the 4:20 mark.

Contentious Perspectives on Weeds

Foraging for food to help make meal ends meet

"Throughout the financial ups and downs of this past winter, my husband, Rich, and I have relied on foraged food to add variety and nutrients to our diet. It may not seem like a big money saver to eat nettles instead of spending $2 on a bunch of greens at the store, but it adds up over time. When you have only $50 to your name, every dollar counts. I've found that I can actually avoid going to the store for weeks if I buy eggs from our neighbor, stock up on bulk food..., and forage for our mushrooms and greens."

And just in case you haven't had your...ahem...fill of weeds yet, here's two more items for ya:

More Sam Thayer!

Watch the full episode. See more In Wisconsin.

Weedwifery: A Feral Approach to Folk Herbalism

In the original post, I blathered on about the revival of a food foraging and wild medicine movement being a radical and game changing counter-current running through society and how it can transform the way we engage with the world. Instead of retyping all that nonsense, I'll just repeat what Mr. Thayer says in the video: "When we eat a landscape, we love and protect that landscape." 'Nough said.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Days Like This

I work late on Wednesdays, but have the mornings free. This Wednesday morning was filled with glorious sunshine and warm temperatures. It was perfect for a short trip to the garden. The plan: harvest nettle. If I want enough nettle to last through next winter I have to start harvesting regularly now and continue until the plant flowers. It's a task I'm happy to do, even when it leaves my hands and arms tingling for hours afterwards. There is nothing so heady and intoxicating as the scent of fresh cut nettle. If I could fall in love, marry, have little babies, grow old and die with a scent, this would be the one.

So on this Wednesday, after yoga and breakfast, I packed up a rare mug of coffee, a pair of gloves, my secateurs and headed out on my bike enjoying birdsong and a cool breeze.

I've been encouraging the nettles that grow on my plot, so they are quite well established now and thriving. Within half an hour I had collected about 2.5lbs. I had enough time left to harvest a fistful of wintercress, rhubarb and a few tulips just about to break into bloom. With my baskets full I left for home.

Just as I got onto the bike path, a lady walking her dog caught my attention and pointed out a mama fox and her three kits sitting in the grass in a stretch of greenspace. We stood there watching them for a while. Two more cyclists and another dog walker joined our group. We looked at the fox, the fox looked at us and the kits gamboled in the shade, oblivious to the fact that they had a rapt audience.

I live for days like this; days when we are reminded that humans are not the only living creatures that inhabit this city and the air is filled with the scent of fresh cut nettle.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Cherry Tree

When we rented our first plot in 2009, we inherited this beautiful sour cherry tree.
It shaded 2/3 of our garden and produced very few cherries that went entirely to the birds, but I loved that tree. The blossoms in the spring were gorgeous and the shade gave us a cool, comfy space to rest in the garden.

I had garden parties under that tree, did yoga and lounged on a straw bale couch under it. I decorated it with scarves and hung mobiles from its branches. Sadly, sometime during the winter of 2010, two main branches came down. We informed the garden coordinator to have the branches removed and some city workers came and took the whole tree down.

The ADG and I were devastated. We had hoped that the remaining tree could have been saved and were so sad to see the whole thing gone. All last summer the stump reminded us of our loss. We tried to take comfort in the fact that we had a lot more sunshine to work with now, but it wasn't much consolation. Not knowing what to do with the space around the stump, it became weedy and overgrown.
Then the stump started suckering like mad. Soon it became a thicket of suckers that looked really unattractive. This spring I cut them all back, but left one that had grown quite large. I don't know a lot about tree growth, but I wondered if the sucker could be encouraged to grow into a new cherry tree. With hope, I began to think about what I could do with the space around the stump to make it look better and turn it into a productive area. Then when I saw what my permaculture teachers Bonita and Sebastian had done around a maple tree they had cut down I knew that I had my plan!

I basically copied their method, adapting to the conditions and materials on hand. After aerating the soil around the stump, I put down layers of paper, added some compost and coffee grounds on top. Then I mulched with leaves and straw.

Because there were already a few plants established that I wanted to keep, I mulched around them. There are two clumps of daylilies, a patch of sweet woodruff, stinging nettles, tansy and coreopsis. There is one little waterleaf that has been struggling from the exposure to the sun that I'm hoping will perk up and survive in this new setup. Finally we ringed the bed with the branches of the cherry tree that had been cut down.

I'm super pleased with the results and I'm excited to plant more things into the bed. I'm very interested in seeing what happens to the cherry sucker. It's got lots of buds on it and if it comes into bloom I'll be very happy. With luck this space will once again provide beauty, shelter and shade in the garden!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Going Wild on the Radio

Finally! After days of rain, the weather cleared on Thursday. I've been chaffing at the bit to get outside for some wild greens. Yesterday was the day, and the timing couldn't have been better. I got a call from the Ceeb asking if I would be available to come into the studio and do a radio interview to talk about my upcoming weed walk, and I wanted to bring in some samples for host Alan Neal to try. This is what I harvested yesterday. From left to right: garlic mustard, stinging nettle and wintercress.

I used some of the garlic mustard and stinging nettle together with black walnuts I harvested and stored last fall, to make a wild pesto.

The rest of the nettle went into a tasty soup, which can be served hot or cold. The winter cress I briefly boiled and then sauteed with olive oil and my homemade garlic powder.

I hope Alan enjoys his samples and that I do the plants justice!

I also harvested quite a few evening primrose roots, but I didn't have time to get to them. They're still soaking in this tub, waiting for me when I get home later today.
If you want to tune in I'll be on CBC radio 1 at 4:45 trying to sound like I know what I'm talking about, and not passing out from the nerves. Radio interviews make me so nervous! I'll be drinking lots of oatstraw tea today to stay calm. :)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Nature Cure

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this segment of CBC's The Current, while getting ready for work this morning.

Discussed is the concept of the healing effects of nature, how our brains are hardwired to appreciate and want to be in contact with nature, some of the detrimental effects of city living and Nature Deficit Disorder. Some studies show that time spent in nature actually balances our neurological systems.

I was really interested in the mention of E.O. Wilson's theory of biophilia.

"The term "biophilia" literally means "love of life or living systems." It was first used by Erich Fromm to describe a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital. Wilson uses the term in the same sense when he suggests that biophilia describes "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” He proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology."

Yes! I love that. And this short radio doc presents some really interesting ideas that seem to support the concept.

Hello, my name is Amber, and I'm a biophiliac.

The segment is about 30 minutes long and really worth a listen. Enjoy!

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Winter Sown, Spring Sprouted

So I winter sowed some seeds in January and they've been outside ever since then, doing their thing.

Here's how they look now at the beginning of May. As you can see a few trays never sprouted. In total I planted 10 different kinds of seeds, 5 of which sprouted, so a 50% success rate. Considering it's only the second time I've tried this and I'm still learning and experimenting with the technique, I'm really happy with the results. The Betony, English daisy, Horehound, Echinacea and Calendula didn't sprout.

But the Chickweed, Queen Anne's Lace, Evening Primrose, Boneset and Astragalus did. I can't wait to put them into my medicinal/wild edible garden!