Thursday, June 30, 2011

Garden Experiments

As a new gardener coming to the practice primarily from the perspectives of ecology, food security, resource depletion and resiliency, I jumped into the deep end and experimented right away with different techniques and approaches that I didn't find in conventional gardening books.

In particular, I learned quite a lot from Steve Solomon's Gardening When It Counts. I really like his technique for 'chitting' or pre-sprouting seeds and using a homemade gel medium to help with sowing.
For anyone who grows their own sprouts to eat, pre-sprouting uses exactly the same technique, only you stop the process as soon as the seed develops a rootlet. Pre-sprouting gets the seeds going, under conditions that you can control, like temperature and moisture, and gives the seed a significant head start by the time it goes into the ground. You don't have to worry at all about the soil drying out before the seed has a chance to sprout. You can observe germination rates of the seeds and see right away the percentage of your seeds that germinate.

This process works well for peas, beans, corn and all the small seeds. For the larger curcubits, you chit or pre-sprout them in the warmest spot in your house (not exceeding 29 degrees Celsius), between clean, wet but not dripping, cloths or a towel tucked into a sealed, plastic bag or storage container.

Sowing the really tiny seeds is a fussy, finicky ordeal that often leaves me cursing like a sailor and wasting a lot of seed. Mr. Solomon comes to the rescue here with this super cool technique that I just love. He makes a gel medium by disolving one tablespoon of cornstarch per 1 cup of water, brought to a boil, simmered briefly and then cooled until a gel forms.

You may need to adjust the ratio of cornstarch to water to get just the right consistency of gel, neither too thick or too runny. And adjust how much gel you make based on the size, amount and spacing of the seed you plan to sow. Once the gel cools to room temperature, gently stir in the pre-spouted seeds, evenly distributing them throughout the mix. The mix then goes into a clean plastic bag.

Little, baby seed sprouts! Grow babies grow!!!

When you're ready to sow the seeds, cut a tiny hole in one corner of the bag (start small and increase in size if you need). Slowly squeeze out the gel and seeds, just like you're icing a cake.
It takes some time to get the hang of it, but with a little bit of practice you end up with lovely lines of evenly spaced seeds.

Within 3 days my seedlings were up and out the ground and looking good!

With this particular round of seeds I'm trying another experiment and hoping to incorporate some polyculture into the beds that I planted. So I actually sprouted a few different types of vegetable seeds that went into three different mixes, which is why the bags pictured above are numbered. I'm eager to see how this works. I think I will need to get better at spacing and put more thought into which plants to group together. It's quite possible that I'll end up with an over crowded mess of plants competing with each other. I might have to thin mercilessly, which I'm just terrible at. Whatever happens, it will be a good learning experience!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Community Supported Agriculture

I can't believe I haven't done this until now, but I signed up for a CSA this year! Roots and Shoots is an organic farm just outside of Ottawa. CSA members were invited for a tour and potluck a couple of weeks back.

We saw their fields, and learned about their growing methods, like row cover for pest control, how the irrigate and such.

They have a greenhouse as well.

Seeds getting started, waiting to go into the ground.
My first delivery starts next week and I can't wait!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Tree Year: Update

Whoa! Have I ever been seriously remiss on my Tree Year posts. My last ones were in March. I should have known that once gardening/foraging/wildcrafting season got going full swing, other things would get put on the back burner (like most of my dirty dishes!)

I mean the catalpa is in full bloom. It's almost done blooming in fact.

Aren't they gorgeous? They look like orchids, and smell wonderful. I love having such an exotic, tropical looking tree in this northern climate.

I'm not sure how many more posts I'll manage to get in over the summer, but I am still observing my trees and watching for changes throughout the seasons.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Making Medicine

Ah yes. The fine art of medicine making. I strained my elecampane elixir into my thrifted potato ricer-repurposed-as-herb press, through a reusable coffee filter, set into a funnel for stability, on top of wire strainer used to span the distance of the measuring cup, upon which this whole precarious leaning tower rests. Miraculously, it did not topple over! The elixir will be delivered later today to my garden neighbour who hasn't been able to shake a heavy mucous producing cough for many months now. I hope this helps.

There's no white coats or sterile labs filled with test tubes here. This is homegrown, backyard, folk herbalism. You don't need fancy, expensive equipment for that. Most things you'll already have in your kitchen, and the rest you can find in the thrift stores. Which isn't to say that this is a sloppy or careless operation. I harvested the elecampane roots at the right time of year, in a place free of contamination. I processed them properly. All the equipment I use is clean, clean, clean. The final bottle the elixir goes into is sterilised and thoroughly dry. It is correctly labelled and clear instructions are given on its use.

I whispered an incantation over the potion, standing under the light of the full moon, while turning three times counter-clockwise. O.k. that's not true. :) But my best wishes for the recovery of the recipient do go along with this preparation and I hope she gets better soon!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wildcrafting Wednesday

A couple of fermentation experiments. On the left: milkweed flower buds and garlic scapes that will hopefully be a tasty, caper-like condiment. On the right: burdock stalks and dill seed. Also have some spruce shoots and chive blossoms infusing in vinegar.

I couldn't resist picking these sweet roses I spotted growing in amongst some other bushes, along a bike path.

Gathering red clover blossoms.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wild Food in the City

I ran an urban, wild food and medicine workshop at the allotment gardens on Sunday. There were about 20 people in the group, including some kids. The first half of the workshop was spent identifying plants, talking about their food and medicinal uses, when to harvest them, in what season etc. We looked at burdock, stinging nettle, yellow dock, red clover, milkweed, violets, plantain, daisies, comfrey, mugwort and grape leaves. I did my best to choose plants that had some part that was in or just coming into season, were both edible and medicinal, easy to identify, prolific and safe. When I compiled the list of possible plants to talk about I came up with over 50 plants!

I brought everyone to one of my plots for the second half. I had a tent set up and straw bales covered with blankets, and it was here that people chose an herbal preparation to make. They could make an infused honey, vinegar or oil with some of the plants we had just talked about.

I also served some drinks and snacks. Of course the snacks were *wild*! I made stuffed grape leaves that I harvested around the city, and then fermented. The stuffing was rice with burdock stalks, milkweed buds, stinging nettle, wood sorrel, dill, mint and my herb salt seasoning which is powdered nettle and bishop's weed leaves mixed with sea salt. I made a dip by blending some more wood sorrel and chives into yogurt. That dish was a big hit and disappeared really fast!

For drinks I offered juice made from my own currant syrup. I made a sun infused iced tea with mint, lemon balm, catnip and marshmallow. Everyone loved the iced coffee with roasted dandelion root, sweetened with maple syrup.

People seemed to be enjoying themselves and interested. I did my very best to provide them with accurate, practical knowledge and I loved having this opportunity to provide food for the workshop group and to introduce them to the plants and share what I have experienced and learned.

I'm sure there is plenty for me to improve on for future workshops, but I can say this: the folks who came out on Sunday were never a group of strangers to me. Even before we met, they were people that I was there to look after, meet their needs and provide for, for the few hours that we were together. I worked hard to do that and hope I made it some ways to achieving it. At the end of the day, I felt satisfied with my efforts and I had a lot fun with this workshop and the great group of people who joined me!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Grazing Days

I've been a vegetarian for years at a time, for various reasons, on and off since I was 16 years old. My most recent stretch of going meat free was largely for environmental and ethical reasons and because the ADG is a veggie, so our shared meals are always vegetarian.

In April, for health reasons, I started eating meat again. I recently learned that I am allergic to beans and eggs, which were two significant sources of protein for me, and my last blood test revealed that my iron levels were sitting somewhere in the bottom of the Marianas Trench. I experienced troubling symptoms that made it challenging to live this wonderful, crazy life of mine to the fullest. After thinking about it for a long time, and with some gentle nudges from my naturopath, I decided to reintroduce meat back into my diet again (3 times a week only) to see if it helped.

There was never any doubt that the meat I chose would have to be local, organic, sustainably and humanely raised and slaughtered and ideally grass-fed. Luckily there are quite a few farms in the Ottawa area that offer most of everything I am looking for. Over the last two months I have eaten grass-fed lamb, elk and pork from heritage black pigs.

Has it made a difference? Oh wow, has it ever. Within 2 days my symptoms started disappearing one by one and I feel much better than I have in a long time. It seems pretty clear that eating meat again is the right choice for me and what my body needs, and I'm very grateful that I have access to meat that is raised in line with my ethics and values. Oh and it tastes amazing too!

On Saturday I had the opportunity to visit a farm and see how it's done, up close and personal.

Just outside of Ottawa, in Manotick Station, farmer Paul Slomp pasture raises a herd of black and red Angus yearling cattle on a rotational grazing system. The farm, Grazing Days, is run as a CSA with deliveries starting in October. The land is leased and Paul actually lives in the city, and get this: he bikes over 20km each way, every day to take care of his animals.

Paul is a friend of a friend, and we stopped in for a short visit on Saturday evening and walked through a few of his fields and checked out his herd. We saw the electric fences that he moves on a daily basis, giving his animals fresh, new pasture every day, while allowing the just-grazed areas a period of rest and renewal. He showed us the super cool, self-training, nose pumps that the cattle use to access fresh water whenever they want. He talked about the ways in which he is increasing the bio-diversity of the grasses he grows and improving the fertility of the soil. From a distance we saw the corral he is working on, using the design principles of the amazing Temple Grandin.

The summer sun lazily slid lower in the sky, the tall, tall grass whispered in the breeze, refreshingly cool after a hot day. The cattle chomped and filled their bellies and were at turns skittish and curious about the the two legged creatures with long shadows moving through their turf. It was a perfect summer's evening and heart-biggering beautiful. I didn't want to leave. I wanted to freeze time and stay in that field forever, fresh cow patties and all.

Of course, I know it's easy to romanticise some kind of pastoral idyll. I mean, I don't have to bike 40+ km every day in all kinds of weather, and work my ass off all day long, no matter what the weather is like, with no real shelter, nor deal with whatever stresses come with being a grass-fed cattle farmer and CSA business owner. I'm sure there are challenges, struggles and lots of hard work and maybe even some hard times. But I'm also sure that all the hard work, commitment and dedication amounts to something of real value and worth. The respect and care for the animals, land and people is as obvious as a lightning bolt. And if I'm going to be a responsible meat-eater, it definitely amounts to something that I want to support and sign up for.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Summer Living

I love what this picture says about the life I live now. There is work reflected here, but leisure too. There is evidence of modern conveniences, but also a more simple, resilient lifestyle, chosen intentionally.

In the background the sun oven stands empty, but earlier in the day it boiled potatoes and then cooked rice to perfection. During these long, hot days of summer I can cook two dishes a day, if I plan it right.

I can't remember the last time I used a dryer. Even in the winter and on rainy days, I hang my clothes up inside, but nothing beats the smell of clean clothes fresh off the outside line.

I decided not to go wildcrafting yesterday morning, cleaning, doing laundry and catching up on dishes instead and taking care of the plants I have already harvested. I emptied the dehydrator and got those herbs into jars. I saved this big bunch of nettle for the evening and sat outside after dinner removing the leaves from the stalks. I really enjoy each aspect of handling the plants, and find this one particularly calming and meditative. It's not something you can rush through. There is healing in this, of a kind that you'll never get from a pill.

In my glass was soda water and some of the spruce shoot syrup I made in May. O.k. and there might have been a splash of gin in there too! It's the brand of gin that's made with 10 different botanical ingredients, so the whole thing was basically an herbal preparation. There's healing in that I'm sure. ;)

I also made time for reading. I'm slowly working my way through the Little House Books. I loved the show as a kid, but never read the books. It makes for nice, light reading I don't care what anyone says! (Ahem....that means you ADG.) I had to laugh when a friend of mine saw me reading the book one day and told me that her classmate is reading it too. My friend is 8. Oh well, if a bunch of men in their late '30s can get together to play Dungeons and Dragons every week (Ahem...that means you ADG!) then I can read a children's book about the adventures of Ma and Pa, Mary, Laura and 'Manzo.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Urban Physic Garden

A Facebook friend posted this article about the opening of an Urban Physic Garden in London, England. I love it!

Physic (in this case, meaning 'the science of healing') Gardens were developed in the 1500 and 1600's in Europe. They were usually attached to universities and used to educate physicians and apothecaries in the uses of medicinal plants and to conduct botanical research. The Chelsea Physic Garden, is a well known garden that was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. The garden still exists and is now open to the public.

Though this space is temporary, I love what the Urban Physic Garden is doing. They took an empty, wasted lot and transformed it into an inviting, vibrant, beautiful space, constructed with salvaged materials and donated plants.

The events they are offering sound wonderful. There are herb walks and workshops, a baking school, lunchtimes lectures, film nights and more!

Wow. I would love to see something like this happen here. Anyone want to start a Physic Garden with me? :)

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Monday, June 13, 2011

The Peonies Are Blooming

They make for a lovely view to wash dishes by, in the fading light on a Sunday evening in June.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wildcrafting Wednesday and Other Things

I'm reading Common Herbs for Natural Health byJuliette de Bairacli Levy.

It's a lovely little book, filled with lots of herbal lore from Juliette's unique perspective and wisdom gathered from years of travelling, learning, practicing and teaching.

Something I found particularly fascinating, was how she used herbs in the garden to improve the health of her plants, treat diseased plants and manage pests. She explained that every year she would replenish her stock of dried herbs and whatever was leftover from the previous year she would sprinkle around the base of her plants growing in the garden.

I love that she treated her plants with herbs, like you would treat people! Excited to give it a try, I collected what was left of my store of last year's herbs and brought them to the garden. I sprinkled them around some newly planted seedlings, and some gobo (the cultivated variety of burdock) that is getting eaten by flea beetles. I'll post an update on how it turns out.

I processed all the herbs I harvested last week. I dried the raspberry and violet leaves and put them into jars this morning. Some of the horsetail was turned into a syrup and the rest was dried. The nettle is almost dry and it too will be stored in jars. The cleavers went into an alcohol tincture and the honeysuckle flowers in honey.

I needed to make room in my place because I went out again this morning. Today I harvested more nettle and violet leaves as well as wild roses, plantain and a bit of red clover. Wednesday mornings are quickly becoming my favourite time of the week!

I did end up making some posters about comfrey that I put up in a couple of places in the garden. (I totally cut and pasted from Wikipedia and then forgot to cite my source. Oops!)

Interestingly, I had a conversation with a fellow gardener last night about invasive plants and I mentioned that dog strangling vine had made it into the allotments, and as far as I could tell, had no redeeming qualities. She then started talking about comfrey and about horribly invasive it is. I took the opportunity to tell her about how much I love the plant and all its uses. She was surprised that there were so many benefits to the plant. I told her I was on a mission to change people's minds about comfrey!

Then, this morning while I was at my plot, I ran into a neighbour while he was scything down the big patch of comfrey growing on his plot. I mentioned it to him and he told me that comfrey is apparently a great fertiliser for the garden. Now, I don't know if he got that information from my poster or not. I happen to know that he is a Master Gardener, and he knows a lot about gardening, so it's entirely possible he was onto comfrey already. Either way, I was happy to chat with him for a bit about the glorious and blessed comfrey! Then he gifted me with two sweet potato plants, which totally makes up for whoever it was that came into my garden and lopped off the top of my chicory plants that I was letting go to seed, so I could save the variety which is especially grown for the root, for making coffee. Now I'm going to make a sign for what's left of my chicory plants!

Note: The ADG hesitates to mulch with comfrey that is in flower as it is possible that the flower will put down roots. I tend to fly a little more fast and loose with my comfrey mulching, though I suspect the more careful approach is the wiser one.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Blessed Comfrey

Once upon a time a gardener planted comfrey at the allotment gardens, and now there are big patches of it growing near my plots. Comfrey spreads readily from the tiniest piece of root left in the ground. Experienced gardeners will tell you, once you plant comfrey, don't ever dig it up, or else you will have it everywhere. Someone must have ignored this advice, or perhaps a new renter had a plot tilled with comfrey growing in it. Whatever the history, we are blessed to have access to such a wonderful plant growing in abundance.

I say 'blessed' because comfrey is rich in nutrients and minerals and makes a wonderful mulch for garden beds. You can add it to your compost pile to heat things up, or add it to buckets of water and let it steep into a funky smelling compost tea. Free, organic fertiliser! Not to mention that the plant also has wonderful medicinal qualities as well.

On Friday evening I took my wheelbarrow to the comfrey patch to gather some plants for mulch.
Sadly, not everyone sees this plant the same way I do. A lot of people, who do not know about the many benefits of comfrey, think of it as a nuisance weed that spreads and takes over their garden. They curse it and the person who brought it into the allotments. Even worse, they treat the comfrey patch as a trash heap, throwing garbage and other garden refuse into the plants (and I'm not talking about the biodegradable kind). Among others things, I uncovered this tangled mess of plastic trellising.

I pulled it out and carried it to the dumpster, feeling sad and a bit angry. Why would my fellow gardeners, who understand what it means to grow something in the earth and then eat it, do this? I wondered what it would take for people to stop using this space as a dump.

There is a large bulletin board in the centre of the allotments. If I posted some information there about comfrey and all its benefits, I wonder if that would make a difference? If people saw the comfrey as a valuable, free resource that could help make their gardens lush, their soil rich and their vegetables happy, instead of seeing it as a cursed weed, would they be more respectful of the space where it grows? I don't think a lot of people read what is on the board and for many people at the garden, English is not their first language. I think I'll try it anyway and see what happens.

Actually, I find that my visible actions tend to create opportunities for discussion. People see me harvesting nettle and other weeds and ask me about them. Now, I see some ladies picking nettle.

Maybe if they see me with my wheelbarrow full of comfrey, they'll stop and ask me about that too, and I can tell them how awesome it is!

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Few Things

Salad in a basket: peppercress, chives, dandy greens, waterleaf, spinach, kale, violet leaf, bishop's weed, sorrel, clover leaf.
Here's how my polyculture, cherry tree bed is starting to look after getting it started in early May. On the shady side I've planted chickweed, and another attempt at cleavers, we'll see if this one takes. On the sunny, south-west side, I transplanted yarrow, sage and St. John's wort.

After such an incredible turn out for the weed walk last month, I decided to run a longer, more in-depth workshop later this month. You can find the details about it here:
Wild Food in the City: Urban Foraging for Food and Medicine

I also created a public document of what I think are some important Principles of Ethical Foraging and Wildcrafting.

I'm really excited for the Fletcher Wildlife Garden's Annual Native Plant Sale tomorrow! I missed the last two years. Here's a list of what they will have for sale. There's quite a few edible and medicinal plants that I would like to add to my garden.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Wildcrafting Wednesday

The weather turned on Sunday afternoon and Ottawa is experiencing a hot, sunny spell. That means it's just right for harvesting medicine plants!

I skipped off work a little early yesterday afternoon, so I could wildcraft before it got too late in the day. With baskets and secateurs I headed to the garden. I harvested honeysuckle flowers, violet leaves, cleavers, raspberry leaves, stinging nettle, horsetail and mullein leaves. Every available surface in my apartment is now covered in plants and it smells heavenly.

Finding the cleavers (Galium aparine) was a real treat. I've been looking for a good patch of cleavers for a couple of years now, after failing to get it successfully established in my garden plots. There are quite a few Galium species. Ornamental gardeners will likely be familiar with Galium odoratum, or sweet woodruff. In Ottawa, Galium mollugo abounds in the urban wild. I see it everywhere. G. mollugo does have some medicinal properties, and I plan to experiment with it a bit because it is so abundant, but it is not widely used in herbal medicine. G. aparine, however, is considered 'official'. It is a popular lymphatic herb, early spring tonic, and also used to treat cystitis. Topically it makes a nice wash for burns and other skin irritations.

You can tell G. mollugo and G. aparine apart very easily. G. mollugo, also known as hedge bedstraw, has a stem and whorled leaves that are glabrous, meaning smooth and glossy, whereas G. aparine is covered in minute, hooked bristles. This allows the weak stemmed plant to 'cleave' to nearby vegetation, reaching up for sunlight and spreading out. The stems on G. mollugo are more sturdy and tend to stay upright on their own. Both G. mollugo and G. aparine have pretty, white flowers. If you see a smooth Galium with yellow flowers, you've probably got lady's bedstraw. (In case you haven't figured it out yet, the bedstraws were historically used to stuff beds! They contain a substance that turns to coumarin when dried and smells like vanilla and fresh mown hay. I can imagine that this would be quite pleasant to sleep on.)

The tiny seeds of G. aparine are also covered in the same hooked bristles and if you are a dog owner, you may have cursed while trying to remove them from your dog's fur after a walk. Interestingly, as these plants are in the same family as coffee, if you have the patience to collect and roast the seeds, you apparently end up with a very decent coffee-like beverage.

You can also create a mat of cleavers and fashion a passable strainer from it. Milkmaids in the old-y days would filter hair and other debris out of milk from their animals with it. The other neat thing that most of the Galiums can do, is curdle milk, which is great if you're a cheesemaker. Lady's bedstraw also goes by the name cheese rennet because of this. Oh, and you can wash and lighten your hair with the yellow flowers of lady's bedstraw.

I just love these sweet, little plants and am endlessly fascinated by them. And I'm thrilled to have found that patch of cleavers!

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