The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Sustainable Living

Energetics and Tissue States Wheel – Traditional Western Herbalism April 12, 2014

As I mentioned in some previous blog posts, I’m currently taking an herbalism course with herbalist Jim McDonald. I find that visualizing material really helps me. This is my visual from the first class–its the energetics of herbalism, upon which everything rests.  I made this at 13″ x 20″ on some board with watercolors and ink.

My thinking about this image and how to read it is this: the energetic quality is on the outside, the tissue states is in the first row, then the herbal actions with the same temperature/quality are on the inside.  So you have both hot states, and hot herbs, all in one slice of the pie.

I posted it on Facebook, and a bunch of people wanted a larger size of the file, so I decided to post it here :).  If you click on the image, it will take you to a larger version of the file.

Tissue States / Herbal Actions Wheel

Tissue States / Herbal Actions Wheel

 

Herbal Remedies: Steam Inhilations for Sinus and Lung Issues April 10, 2014

I just finished up my first weekend of Jim McDonald’s fabulous Four Season Herbal Intensive. We learned about the foundations of western herbalism and energetics (for a good introduction to this, Matthew Wood’s The Practice of Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification).  I have much learning to do in this area–I’m overwhelmed with how much I still don’t know!

 

During the weekend of the class, I came down with some kind of nasal bug; it was exasperated by the presence of a dog which I turned out to have a pretty bad allergic reaction to.  One of the things that Jim mentioned in the course for a good home remedy for lung and nasal congestion was doing a simple herbal steam inhalation. He said that most aromatic herbs will work well for this, and cited his favorites as thyme and sage.

 

I decided to try out the steam inhalation this week to help get some of the crud out of the lungs and clear up the sinuses. I can’t believe how effective it was. I chose two herbs–garden sage (Salvia officinalis), as Jim recommended, dried and saved from my garden and mullein (also known as lamb’s ear, Verbascum thapsus) which is a herb that I use a lot for healing of the lungs. Mullen grows wild in many places–I’ll do a post devoted to it later in the year when I can take some good photos.  You want to make sure that these are herbs you have used before and that you know well.

Dried sage - beautiful smell and color

Dried sage – beautiful smell and color

Mullein from the jar

Mullein dried from last year!  I’ve already gone through a jar of this just this past winter.

The steam inhalation is very simple. You get a pot and put some water onto boil.  I use my filtered well water….if I had city water with chlorine, I’d probably buy distilled instead, because there is no way I want that in my lungs.

Get a lid for your pot, and bring your herbs and water to a boil.  The lid is important–most of the healing action of the herbs is in the volatile oils, which can escape through steam.  The volatile oils in the steam are exactly what we want, but not till we are ready for them!

Pot slightly cooling

Pot slightly cooling

As soon as the pot boils, remove it from the heat and get a towel ready. Be very careful because the steam is hot. I have found that waiting a few minutes before breathing it in is much more comfortable or you can stay a little further away from the pot. You put the towel over your head, drape the towel down around the pot,  lift the lid, and breathe in.  I think pictures illustrate this well.

Lift the lid off of the pot

Lift the lid off of the pot

Carefully put your head over the pot with the towel

Carefully put your head over the pot with the towel

And finally, when the steam is comfortable enough….

Put your towel fully over the pot and breathe in deeply

Put your towel fully over the pot and breathe in deeply

This worked AWESOMELY well.  My nasal passages are much improved, the sinus pressure has lessened, and the mullein did wonders on the nasty gunk in my lungs. I’ll do this several times each day until my lungs are clearer.  I’ll follow this up with regular doses of New England Aster (which I have been using to control my asthma) and will hopefully be much on the mend soon.

 

Ode to the Apple: Making Applesauce April 6, 2014

In a recent blog post, I talked about the apple as a sacred tree in that it provides us with bountiful, amazing cider. In this post, I’m going to walk through the art of making and canning applesauce. The applesauce I made when I was taking photos for the blog is hands down the best applesauce I have ever tasted in my life! I really like making applesauce because it connects me with the sacred apple tree (more on that in an upcoming post), its very healthy, and it can be shared and enjoyed with others.

Apples free from a neighbor's yard

Apples free from a neighbor’s yard

Finding Apples

The first thing you need to do for a good applesauce is to find your apples.  In my crazy quest last summer to pay homage to the apple, I tasted apples from literally hundreds of trees.  I realized then that not all apples are created equal.  A good applesauce requires a really delicious apple.  These apples a friend and I gathered from my neighbor’s house.  We have no idea what variety they are, but they are literally the most delicious apple–a little tart, a little sweet, excellent creamy flesh.  I used these apples to make my perfect applesauce.

Now you shouldn’t have to buy apples–lots of old apple orchards are out there, and most people (at least in this area) have apple trees in their front or backyards.  I have found that if you go ask to pick apples, most people will be happy to let you (especially if you offer some of the bounty in return).   You can also find apples in local parks and the like.  If you are gathering lots of apples, make sure you get some sturdy bags (we gathered with 50 lb feed bags – pictured in the photo above) because we were also going for bulk for making cider.  The other thing about making a good applesauce is that sometimes a combination of apples can yield the best results.  So I used a few kinds of apples for the sauce, but the bulk of them came from the incredible tree of the neighbor’s!  You should pick apples from the tree–pull gently and the apple will come off easily if the apple is ripe.

Lots of Apples!

Lots of Apples!

Besides being free, there are a lot of other benefits to gathering your apples wild.  First, they are almost certainly not going to be sprayed with pesticides–and since apples are one of the fruits that hold in the most pesticide, this is something you absolutely do not want to have in your fruit.  Second, you can find varieties wild that you can’t find in the store, allowing for very unique flavors (my friend and I found one apple tree that literally produced apples that tasted like cotton candy last year!)  Third, you are eliminating the use of fossil fuels associated with transporting apples over great distances (depending on your mode of transportation, you might still have some fossil fuel expenditure, but it shouldn’t be nearly that of a commercial grower).  Most of my apples were gathered within 3 miles of my home, or were gathered where I was already heading (e.g. I went to campus for the day, and stopped at the orchard on my way home to pick apples for an hour before heading home).

 

Coring and Peeling your Apples

You can core and peel your apples by hand. I used to do this until I discovered this great little device called an “apple peeler and corer.”  I found mine on Etsy for $10. I don’t actually know why anyone would do anything else–this is SO fast.  I can do enough apples for a huge pot in about 45 minutes–and its a lot of fun to use.  The one thing I will mention is that you want fresh, firm apples to use this little device. If they are too soft or mushy, they will fall apart and cause frustration.

Apple Peeler, Corer, and Slicer

Apple Peeler, Corer, and Slicer

The peeler, corer, and slicer works like magic, and it creates these awesome little apple spirals.  It also creates a great deal of apple peel, which I dehydrated and have been using for tea.

Apple peeled, cored, and sliced!

Apple peeled, cored, and sliced!

Cooking Your Sauce

Now that you have some cored, peeled, and sliced apples, you are ready to start cooking down your sauce.  One word of warning – applesauce easily burns!  Stir it frequently! The one thing that can do you in is having too high of heat and ignoring your applesauce.  I bought a beautiful long wooden spoon from a local craftsperson at the farmer’s market, and I use that spoon to lovingly stir my applesauce so that it doesn’t burn.

To speed up the cooking process and make sure my apples on the bottom don’t burn, I usually use my immersion blender to chop up the apples  (otherwise, this can be a really long process!)

Apples being processed

Apples being processed

Now how much you want to cook your applesauce down is a matter of personal preference. I prefer really chunky applesauce, so I cook mine a lot less than some others do (the store-bought stuff is all way overcooked, IMHO).  Here’s what mine looked like about halfway through the cooking process:

Cooking down the applesauce!

Cooking down the applesauce!

At this stage, I added a bit of freshly ground nutmeg and cinnamon to the sauce.  I also added a little honey for added sweetness–but my apples were pretty sweet, so not much was needed.  Once I had it tasting exactly how I wanted it, I was ready to can!

 

Canning Your Applesauce

Standard hot water bath canning applies here–you hot water bath can your applesauce for 15 min. One of the important things to remember is that applesauce EXPANDS A LOT during canning, so you want a full 1″ of headspace on your pint jars.  I have not had applesauce explode on me yet, but many people I’ve spoken to about it have!

When you are finished, you will have some of the most amazing applesauce you have ever tasted.  It is likely you will be unable to eat the drivel that they call “applesauce” in the stores ever again. And you’ll be one step closer to self-sufficiency and more sustainable living!

 

Enjoying your Applesauce

Canning any kind of food preserves that food at its peak freshness, saving it for you to savor in the cold, dark months of winter.  As I finish this blog post, I eat a bite of my most delicious applesauce straight from the jar, and look back with fondness on those wonderful apple-filled months leading up to Samhuinn.  I think there is real magic in making and preserving applesauce–apples are such an abundant gift from the wild and we can preserve that gift for years to come.

 

Garden and Homesteading Update – March 31, 2014 March 31, 2014

The Spring Equinox was a mere week and a half ago, and today, for the first time, it felt like spring.  The snows are melting and the warmth is coming.  I think its been a long, hard winter for many of us, and not just because of the weather.  It was a dark time for many, myself included, and I am very happy to see the sun and feel the warmth again. This post provides an overview of the garden in its current state (March 31st) as well as the surrounding landscape.  I’ll conclude the post with some of the things I plan on covering on the blog in the coming year.

 

The Broader Landscape

 

The snows are not yet melted, and the lakes and ponds are still frozen over.  Here’s an image of the spiral labyrinth I’ve been walking on my pond all winter–its still there, and the ice is still quite thick.

Imbolc Spiral

Imbolc Spiral

I visited Lake Huron with a few friends yesterday, and likewise, the Great Lakes are still encrusted with ice.  Here’s a shot from yesterday at White Rock, on the Southwestern edge of Lake Huron.

Altar by the Lake

Altar by the Lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake (March 30, the garden shots below are from March 31!)

Even with all of this ice, however, the land and lakes are slowly thawing.

 

The Garden and its Magic

 

Today I spent time out in the garden in the afternoon, and it was a really welcome and nurturing time.  I can’t believe how much healing one can gain with only a few hours in the sun and with the plants and soil!

 

First, the most important discovery–plants under my hoop houses survived.  I added an additional layer to their shelter, something called “remay” which is a spun fiber.  I added this in early December, after the cold really set in.  It goes under the main hoop and above the plants and helps give them one additional layer of protection.  This still typically only protects the plants to 5 or 10 degrees or so, however.  With the cold winter, and the evenings of -15 and -17, I thought there was no hope for my little hoops.

 

And yet…look what I found today.  You’ll notice in the first picture that the spinach only in the center survived–that’s because the ground freezes from the edges inward.  But I realized, as my hoops were covered with over 2′ of snow, that that snow itself must have provided a buffer for the spinach.  This likely means that my other zone 6 plants (like my pecan tree back by the circle) had a chance of survival.

Spinach Survived!

Spinach Survived! (And see all that snow, still?)

Hope returns to the world!

Hope returns to the world!

A small radish survivor!

A small radish survivor!

I can’t really describe to you the feeling of opening up that hoop house and seeing those living spinach and radish plants.  I had given up on them as the hoops had mostly caved in under the heavy snow and ice that I wasn’t able to remove, as the darkness set in.  I have always seen the garden as a metaphor for myself, and I’ve had so many cold, dark, barren months recently.  Seeing those spinach and radish plants renewed the promise of spring within me….something survived, and soon, it will be giving me further nourishment and strength.  It was a profound moment, there in the garden.

 

All of the fall garden preparation has paid off–the early spring beds are just filled with wonderful soil.  I am so pleased to see it, as I have spent years making this soil the best it can be. I moved my 2nd hoop house (the one that wasn’t protecting anything), prepped a bed of lettuce and carrots, direct seeded them, and covered them back up.

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

One of the other things I wanted to report back on was the effect of the cover crops.  With 2+ feet of snow and ice on the ground, all of the soil in the beds is very compacted–its probably 4″ lower than it was in the fall.  It appears the red clover died off completely….but the winter rye is the hardiest of plants, and it, of course, survived.  Not only did it survive, but it kept my beds covered in it mostly spongy and nice, instead of compacted.  The beds with the winter rye are a full 2-3″ higher than those with bare soil or just straw.

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

I began turning the winter rye under today–it requires a full two weeks of wait time before planting after you turn it under.  I’ll work to turn all of it under in the next few weeks–this is a laborious job and one that could be done with petrochemicals, but after the rather lazy winter months, I don’t mind the hard work :).   I also like to add some brown matter to the soil to help the bacteria break down the rye–I added some composted leaves (leaf mulch) as I turned.  A simple garden fork does this work beautifully (much better than a shovel, which I used to use before I discovered the fork).

Turning under the rye

Turning under the rye

Peas germinate at 40 degrees or higher and don’t mind cold soils.  I used the garden fork to aerate the garden bed, and reduce soil compaction. I just stuck it into the bed and tilted it a bit to loosen the soil.  Then I planted my first succession of peas (Early Alaska, saved from last year) and will plant another succession every two weeks for the next 6 weeks.  This will ensure a continual harvest into the early summer.  You can see my homemade trellises here as well (they move easily enough to the new bed).

Planting peas

Planting peas

I checked on the garlic I planted in the fall.  No sign of sprouting yet!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

The last thing I did today was make a new, large compost pile.  I had the pile started in the fall, but I pulled out all of the food waste I had stored in my tumbler over the winter, added it to the big pile, and added several layers of leaves, some of the old straw from the garden, etc.  The pile is now almost 5′ high and 8′ wide and 4′ long, so it should break down nicely as the weather warms.

Looking Ahead

To conclude this post, I wanted to share a few more of the things that I’m planning on doing more this year:

  • Bees! Perhaps the most important news is that this year I am going to be a beekeeper for the first time :).  I have the hives, the bees ordered, and the rest of my supplies (suit, foundation, etc) are on their way! I’ve read every book on the subject I can find, joined a beekeeping association, found a bee mentor, have a friend who wants to learn as well, and feel I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.  I’ll have a blog post (or three) on the bees soon.
  • Garden expansion: I’m adding about 700 square feet of growing space (plus pathways, etc) to the garden this year to accommodate new vegetable and plant varieties.  In the fall, I added in numerous additional herb gardens in the front yard, and have seeds started for many new herbs.  The big job here will be fencing, and since fencing has been a struggle, I will share some of my experiences!
  • Herbalism course. I’m starting Jim McDonald’s four season herbal intensive course this upcoming weekend–expect even more posts on herbalism in the coming months.
  • Fermentation and foods: I plan to make my own miso, make more dandelion wine, make other kinds of krauts and fermented foods, and share those processes with you this year.
  • Sacred Trees: I’ll keep posting regularly on my research on sacred trees native/naturalized to the Midwest/Great Lakes area.  I think this is important work, and I am certainly learning a lot more about the trees as part of this series.
  • And lots more! I expect to engage in more natural building, foraging, and many other wonderful sustainable and spiritual activities this year–and I’m excited to share them with you.

 

I also have some very tragic news on the homesteading front.

  • Chooks. In late December, when I was out of town for the holidays, all of my hens passed on to their next life; they made a good meal or two for a hungry raccoon.  My beloved rooster, Anasazi, did survive (he has many lives, clearly) and is living at a friend’s house till I can raise more hens.  This was a combination of an ice storm, insecure living arrangement, loss of electricity, impassible roads, and a bunch of other things.  I have mourned their loss and miss them terribly.  But, I look forward to new hens later this year.

 

I hope that everyone has a wonderful spring–I’d love to hear about how you are enjoying the warmer weather and melting snows and what plans you have for projects this year.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) – Magic, Mythology, and Medicinal Qualities March 26, 2014

“MAPLE SUGAR” – Chippewa Song

“Maple sugar
is the only thing
that satisfies me”

 

This is the third in my series of posts about magical trees native to the Americas. In this series of posts, I explore the lore of sacred trees, describe their magical and mundane uses, edible qualities, medicinal qualities, and other assorted lore. While there are approximately 128 different species of maple, I’m going to focus my comments on one dominant maple in this region–the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) although some of the commentary here also applies to other kinds of maple trees. The sugar maple is a tree with which I have always had the strongest of affinities.

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves unfurling early in the spring

Early in the spring, the magic of the maple begins. When the temperatures drop below freezing in the night, but the temperature goes above freezing in the day, the sap of the sugar maple begins to run.  It rises up from the maple’s roots bringing sweetness and nourishment to the tree. When the trees start to bud (and the temperature gets a bit warmer) and the land awakens, the sap ceases running for the year.  I’ve been honored to be part of a maple sugaring operation for the last two years–it has given me yet another perspective on the beautiful sugar maple tree.  In fact, I was just out there today enjoying the smell of the sap as it boils, the dripping of the sap into our buckets, and the community surrounding what we affectionately call “the sugarbush.”

 

About The Maple

The sugar maple grows through much of the Midwest and north eastern parts of the USA, and has been a dominant tree in the four states where I’ve lived–PA, NY, IN, and MI.  In fact, the sugar maple is critically important to the health of forests throughout its range, often forming pairings with beech, birch, oak, and/or ash. A typical tree can grow up to 115 feet tall, although it is also quite shade tolerant and therefore functions as a great understory tree.

 

Maples produce a vibrant display in the fall–and none better than the sugar maple.  The sugar maple is sometimes called the “fire maple” because it produces brilliant red/orange/yellow leaves.  I love watching them slowly change over a period of days until they are all fiery and beautiful!

 

Scene from my garden with fall foilage in bloom!

Scene from my garden with fall foliage in bloom!  Maple trees are mostly red and yellow in this scene.

Maple at Risk

Unfortunately, sugar maples have seen quite a bit of decline due to logging of forests (they are slow growing, and faster growing trees, like birch, will often come up in their places after a forest is logged).  Sugar maples are also not very tolerant to pollution, including soil acidification and acid rain (this is mainly caused by automobiles). While they were once found in parks throughout the USA, with the rise of the automobile, these trees had a harder time surviving in urban areas.  Culpepper goes as far to call this tree a “gentleman’s tree” as it was often found in urban parks.  The salt from roads also damages the tree’s root systems, contributing to its decline. This is not to say that the sugar maple is still not a dominant tree-it is.  You just need to get off the roads and out of the cities to see them.

 

Edible Nature of the Sugar Maple

The sugar maple’s decline in 21st century USA is a terrible shame because the sugar maple is one of the gems of our woodland tree species. Perhaps this tree is best known for its sweet sap, which can be boiled down to make maple syrup or further boiled to make maple sugar (a process I detailed last year). This process requires 40 gallons of maple sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup–certainly, as the native American legends describe below–the maple teaches us that hard work reaps just rewards. I also have made a sacred trees brew with maple, hickory, white pine, and birch.  Its a fabulous drink, and brings in the sacred blessings of these trees.

Pemmican was made by pounding strips of meat and berries with maple sugar and letting those dry out in the sun (Iroquios, The Hunting of the Great Bear). Pemmican was an incredibly important food for native peoples and American colonists alike, especially those in the frontier areas of the USA.

Finally, maple leaves are edible, and they are actually pretty tasty in early spring.  I like them in salads or as a little snack.

 

Wood uses

Maple wood is often used for furniture and flooring. It has a beautiful light color and I have found it nice to work with for carving and natural building. As I learned in a recent round pole framing workshop at the Strawbale Studio, bark from maple poles freshly cut just comes off like butter with a simple draw knife! If I ever get to build my own cob house, I hope to use maple for the rafters! It is also often used for making instruments (I have a beautiful panflute made of maple).

 

Arts and Crafts

The Pennsylvania Dutch used the inner bark of the red maple (acer rubrum) boiled in water for dying flax or wool (they combined it with copper for staying power).  This produced a lovely purple–I haven’t tried this myself yet, but its certainly on my “to learn” list!  The Native Americans also used maple to make aprons or bows.  Women used maple to make aprons, and at least in one story, painted those aprons red.

Gaurdian maple tree in the snow

Guardian maple tree in the snow

Herbal/Medicinal Qualities

Culpeper’s coverage of the maple tree suggests that the maple strengthens the liver and opens obstructions of the liver and spleen.  Hagender’s coverage of the maple suggests that the Chippewa used a decoction of the bark to treat sores, the Mohegan to cure coughs, and the Tsalagi used the silver maple bark for sore eyes, cramps, and other gynecological problems.  There really isn’t a lot of coverage about the maple in most modern herbals, which is pretty surprising.

 

Native American Lore

In order to understand the sugar maple in the Native American lore, I reviewed numerous legends–the sugar maple features prominently in their tales.

  • The maple as a gift that takes work. The maple was one of the only sources of sugar for the native peoples–as such it was seen as a gift from the creator.  While the maple is a gift, the native tales are clear that this gift takes work (in the form of collecting sap and boiling it down to make sugars). In Gluskabe Changes Maple Syrup, the Creator had originally had sap flow from maple trees as rich and as thick as honey–one needed only to break off a branch and the sap would flow out at any point of the year. However, Gluskabe, who’s job it is to report back to the Creator, comes across a group of people who were fat and lazy, who abandoned their village and instead laid down in a maple grove sipping sap all day. Gluskabe was instructed to fill the maple trees with water each day for a full moon cycle, and now, people would have to work to have the sweetness of the maple and they would only have it for a short time in the spring to learn the error of their ways. At the end of the story, the people worked to turn the sap into sugar by burning cedar and making white birch buckets (using the magic of those two trees as well).  The work of the maple sugar is also found in the Senaca legend, Woman who Fell From the Sky, where the maple sap is changed to keep people from living too easy. In another legend, The Sugar Maple, the Sugar maple gets help from Woodpecker, who helps him by pulling out the grubs that are under maple’s bark.  Later, Woodpecker is dying of thirst during a drought, and Maple allows him to drink by pecking holes in the tree.
  • Maple as a delicacy. Maple sugar was seen as a delicacy by the Native Americans.  In several tales, babies appear sucking maple sugar.  In other tales, it is prepared as a drink with herbs.  In one Ojibwa legend, a maple syrup feast is mentioned.
  • Honoring the maple tree in ritual. In order to keep the maples producing the sap, Native Americans did maple ceremonies to ensure good sap harvests each year.  These were typically done right as the sap began to flow from the trees.  These ceremonies usually involved having everyone gather around the tree, addressing the tree in ritual language, and offering the tree tobacco incense.  This reminds me quite a bit of apple orchard wassailing.
  • Maple as a gentle tree. When talking sticks are made out of maple, it is said to represent gentleness.
  • The Fiery Red Leaves of Maple represent blood. The reason that maples turn red in the fall can be explained by Chasing the Bear, where a long bear hunt ends with the hunters piling up sumac and maple branches and butchering the bear upon the branches.  In another version of this legend, “Hunting the Great Bear” reported by Hageneder, the long bear hunt happens each year.  The the four brothers (who make up the constellation of the great bear) finally kill the bear and the bear’s blood falls down from the sky and turns the maples red.

Western Magical Information

The maple tree is ruled by Jupiter (Culpeper). Hopman suggests that maple is used for love and wands, its also often used as a handfasting herb. Again, I found very little in the western esoteric traditions, and what I did find, I’m not sure of its source. I do think that the native American legends provide us with some wonderful information about the maple, however.

 

My Experiences and Insights

With her running sap, her gentle presence to her striking bright reds, yellows, oranges, and purples, I truly believe the Maple tree is a gift from the land.  Her sap typically runs between Imboc and Alban Eiler (spring equinox) and her leaves brighten between Alban Alfed (fall equinox) and fall by Samhuinn. I think the fact that the two more prominent events of the Maple occur around the equinoxes is no coincidence, for I have always seen the maple is a tree of balance, a tree that sits between the worlds.

 

Maple as a tree of gentleness and yet as a door opener. has always resonated with me. Meditating near a maple often leads one on unexpected journeys on the inner landscape.  Sometimes, as I sit by an old maple tree, the tree tells me her story and I listen and learn.

 

When I was a child, sugar maple was one of my favorite friends.  With her smooth, light gray bark, and evenly distributed branches, she made a perfect tree for climbing.  From the canopy above, I would hide in her embrace, looking out at the world below.   I would spend hours in one particular maple tree, sitting on a long, outstretched limb and observing the world around me.  Inch worms lived in the tree, and once in a while, a bird might land.  The sugar maple tree has always felt very protective and nurturing.

 

I hope that you find a chance to have your life enriched by the blessed sugar maple tree!

 

Making Dandelion Wine Part II: Racking and Bottling March 21, 2014

A delightful nine or so months ago, I posted about attempts at the first batch of dandelion wine.  In today’s post, I’ll talk about what has happened since that first post and the process that we went through to finish off our wine.

Yes, a real rack of bottled wine!

Yes, a real rack of bottled wine!

I have talked at length about different preservation techniques on this blog.  There is such magic in growing, foraging, harvesting, and preserving one’s own food and drink.  When you pop the cork on your own homebrewed wine, or you unseal a jar of fresh black raspberry sauce, it is like nothing else you have ever experienced.  Food bought at the grocery store begins, more and more, to look like soggy cardboard and tasteless drivel masquerading as something edible.  This is not to mention the pesticides, GMOs, and other additives foods, even fresh foods like lettuce, now have all through them.  And the fossil fuels required to get them to the store, to harvest them, to package them…the list goes on and on.  Real food, that we grow and preserve ourselves, comes as a labor of love and a connection to the sacred landscape.  As I continue further into this journey, I can taste, smell, and experience the difference with each mouthful.

 

This 5 gallon batch of dandelion wine has certainly been a labor of love.  Truthfully, when I decided I wanted to brew a batch of dandelion wine last year, I had no idea what I was in for!  After making our wine in late May, we waited three full months for the primary fermentation to cease (this is when the wine stopped having crazy amounts of bubbles).  At this stage, we were supposed to rack it (meaning transfer it from the primary fermentation vessel, with all the raisins and yeast that settled to the bottom) to a secondary fermentation vessel and then wait two months so it will “clear” and then bottle it.  Well…erm…we waited a little longer than 2 months after the initial “racking” into secondary fermentation.  We waited more like 5 more months.  We got so busy with the apple harvest, and then the winter holiday season, that we just finally got around to bottling the stuff.  But it was very much worth the wait!

 

I’m going to walk you through step by step our process of bottling the wine. At this stage, the wine has been allowed to do its initial fermentation (in a glass carboy) and then we “racked” it, or transferred the liquid (but not the yeast sediment at the bottom nor the raisins in the liquid) into a 2nd glass carboy where it fermented and “cleared” (meaning the yeast sediment dropped to the bottom). We were left with a 5 gallon batch of yellow wine with a fine layer of yeast sediment on the bottom.

 

Here we start by doing a lot of sanitizing of our bottles and our bottling bucket. This allows us to be sure there isn’t any bad bacteria in the bottle or bucket that could screw up our wine. Potassium metabisulphite is used as a sanitizing agent–you mix some up in water, spray it, and add more water, and swish it around.  You let it sit for 10 minutes then rinse really well.

Cleaning equipment (the bathtub works great for this)

Cleaning equipment (the bathtub works great for this)

Sanitizing bottles

Sanitizing bottles

While the sanitizing is ongoing, we also soaked our corks (they require a 20 minute soak) to get pliable. They did not want to be covered in water in a bowl, so I stuck them all in a jar and that worked well.

Soaking Corks

Soaking Corks

Once our equipment was prepped, the real fun began. We had to transfer the wine into the bottling bucket and avoid the layer of yeast that landed on the bottom of the wine. Gravity and some equipment from the brewing store does most of the job for us.

I am transferring the wine!

I am transferring the wine!

Once the wine is transferred (which takes about 15 min), we had to make sure that we got the last good drops.  Here, my brew mentor and dear friend, Paul, is siphoning out the last of the wine and trying not to stir up the yeast on the bottom of the glass carboy.

Getting last bit of wine

Getting last bit of wine

Before we bottled the wine, we decided we better have a taste. The wine was not bitter at all–it was sweet and quite strong!  I don’t drink much at all, so it was an experience for me!

Tasting the wine

Tasting the wine

To bottle the wine, the bottling bucket has this neat little wand that you simply place into the bottle and push up slightly so that the wine will flow into the bottle. Then you pull it out and it is ready to cork. So simple!  I realize how important good equipment is to this whole process!

Filling bottles

Filling bottles

After that, you cork the wine using the nifty corker (I borrowed the bucket and corker from friends since I am new to brewing).

Corking the wine!

Corking the wine! Its not really as hard as the expression on my face suggests.

After that, there is nothing else to do but let it age in the bottles another 6 months to a year and create a nifty label (which I haven’t yet done).

Yay! My first bottle of wine!

Yay! My first bottle of wine!

We stored the wine on its side in a dark, cold closet. If the wine doesn’t sit on its side, the corks may dry out.

23 bottles of wine!

23 bottles of wine!

Winemaking was an epic adventure.  It did require some initial investment for equipment, but now that I have the equipment, any additional batches of wine are going to be cheap to produce!  I also am happy to say I’m following in the footsteps of my ancestors–my grandmother on my father’s side loved making dandelion wine, and made it in gallon batches with a giant balloon on the top to regulate fermentation. I’m told by my parents that her wine was quite strong and quite tasty. I think I’ll drink some of my wine in honor of my grandmother this Samhuinn. And from the sound of it, my wine is going to be just as strong as hers was!

 

Seed Starting and Garden Planning: Reasons to Start Seed, Seed Research, and Seed Starting Setups March 13, 2014

Its that time of year that if you haven’t already started your seeds, and you live in say,  a zone 5 or 6 climate, you really need to start thinking about starting them!  This blog post will talk about what I’ve learned about starting seeds from the last few years–it can be tricky with some plants, but its well worth the experience.

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Why start seeds rather than buy plants?

There are a lot of reasons to start your own seeds, both practically and more energetically.  Let’s start by examining the problems with purchasing plants from a nursery.

 

First, nurseries have different tricks to get plants to appear healthy, and to make them look good to purchase, but in reality, a lot of the plants sold commercially are in a weakened, stressed state.  If you pick up a nursery plant, and you see it already flowering, that’s a really bad sign.  Why?  A flowering plant means that it has already entered its reproductive cycle, rather than staying in its growth cycle for being planted in the earth. Another way that plants get stressed is when they are root bound in their containers (e.g. the roots are up against the sides of the container, even coming out of the bottom).  They are already stunted, and transplanting them is further shock and stress.  Furthermore,  you also have no idea what chemicals and fertilizers were used to grow that plant–but chances are, they are damaging, and may even be fatal to bees and other pollinators. A stressed out nursery plant is going to have a harder time growing into a healthy, productive plant; that same plant may also going to potentially kill bees and other life in your yard (especially in purchased from big box stores). Finally, moving plants spreads disease and can cause you to have a lot more problems during the growing season.  I had this happen last year–a friend was gardening with me, and he was running late on his garden, and purchased nursery plants (including tomatoes). I never had problems with blight before, but last year, all my tomatoes blighted badly. I know partly there were energetic reasons for this blight (as my linked blog post explores) but there were also practical ones.

 

The benefits to starting your own plants from seed are incredible!  First, it is much more cost effective to start your plants yourself (even with the initial investment of grow lights or another setup depending on what light you have available). The variety of seeds that you are able to start is far superior to what you will find in a nursery–you can grow any seeds you like, and can also grow seeds that you saved from year to year.  I save many seeds, and also purchase new open-pollinated/heirloom varieties to try.  The ones that do well, I keep and over the years, these varieties become well adapted to my garden and climate.  There is also the importance of establishing a relationship with your plants early and maintaining that relationship throughout the growing season.  By starting seed, I am tending that plant through every phase of its life, and there is no greater reward than biting into that first ripe tomato after you’ve started the plant from seed.  Seed starting is a magical, alchemical process that deeply benefits the grower.

 

What do I need to get started?

Seeds. So now that I’ve convinced you to start some seeds this year, what will you need?  You’ll need some seeds–you can get these from a number of reputable seed companies (my favorites are Seed Saver’s Exchange, Victory Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, and Horizon Herbs) and/or ask friends who garden if they have extra seeds (trust me, they do).  You do NOT want to just go and buy seeds off a rack at your local big box store–these seeds are not open pollenated (meaning you can’t save them) and most of the companies that produce the seeds are owned by Monsanto.

 

Growing medium. You will need some growing medium–its best to start your seeds in some kind of seed starting mix.  You can produce your own, or you can buy some locally.  We have a small greenhouse near here who does a nice sphagnum moss/soil potting mix, and I usually use that.

 

Growing flats. You’ll also need some growing flats.  Since the big box stores want you buying their plants, you usually can’t find growing flats at the store.  I usually get mine by the side of the road during “spring clean up” days, where people throw out their trash in giant heaps.  I’ve found most of the tools for my garden and all of the flats I need this way.  If you can’t find them, you can purchase them online or through local farmers in your area.

 

Light and heat. You will need some way for your plants to stay fairly warm (most seeds like to germinate at a temperature between 60-70 degrees). You’ll also need to make sure they are getting adequate light (12-16 hours a day, direct light).  Some seeds require light germination (like many herbs) but once they germinate, all require light.  If you have a nice southern-facing window, you can put your seeds there (just check that they don’t get too cold at night).  If you are like me and have practically no southern windows, you might need a grow light setup (see next area).

 

Seeds in small cups from my sister's growing setup!

Seeds in small cups from my sister’s growing setup!

Water.  Your seeds will also need water, so keep this in mind when you are setting up your seed starting area.  Seed flats can be doubled with a solid flat on the bottom to avoid having water spill onto the floor.

If you had, say, a spare greenhouse in your yard, this would all be a lot easier.  Since most of us don’t have such a thing, we make do with what we have!

Two Sample Seed Starting Setups

Since I’ve been starting seeds for several years, each year I have worked to expand my seed starting operation a bit.  I’m pretty happy with what I have now, and I think this is enough for my needs for the foreseeable future (until I get a greenhouse someday!)  The seed starting setup I have now has six LED light panels (purchased online, they only give plants the blue and red spectrum and are highly energy efficient), two T5 lights (which use up a lot more energy) attached and housed to a metal rack.  I also have two heat mats (my den is cold in the winter and I have trouble with germination without the mats). I have all of the seeds on a wire metal rack inside doubled flats so the water doesn’t drip out.  This setup cost several hundred dollars, but I justify it because I use it every year and when I’m not growing seeds in the late fall and winter months, I’m growing microgreens and sprouts using the LEDs!  So this setup gets about 8 months of use a year–hence the investment in the LED lights.  I wish I had a sunny window in which to grow these kinds of things, but with the way my house is setup, that simply isn’t the case.

My seed growing rack - colorful!

My seed growing rack – colorful!

LED lights with onions growing

LED lights with onions growing

Timer keeps my plants happy

Timer keeps my plants happy and well lit.

A second setup is something I helped my sister and brother-in-law with.  They live in the city, and have limited space for growing things and limited light.  This was their first year starting seeds. They had an eastern window, so what we did was plant seeds in small styrofoam cups cut short with holes poked in them (they picked the cups up in the garbage, new).  We labeled the cups and placed them on a metal tray with some foil to protect it.  Then, to protect from cats and to further trap sunlight, we put  box around the cups in the window.  We put a small thermometer in the soil, and monitor the soil temperature. If it dips below 35 at night, the window will radiate cold, so they put the plants on a nearby radiator (radiating low amounts of heat).  The Styrofoam does provide a good deal of insulation, however.  I like this setup a lot because it uses existing energy flows in the house and repurposed existing materials.

Seed starting setup with box to trap heat and keep cats out

Seed starting setup with box to trap heat and keep cats out

Setup without box (note the weights in the corners to hold the tray on the windowsill)

Setup without box (note the weights in the corners to hold the tray on the windowsill)

Researching Seeds & Determining Plant Times

One of the things that can be challenging about starting seeds is figuring out when to start them, how many to start, and what care is needed.  Seed packets often contain very general information, and I would recommend researching each plant that you are starting (sub-varieties don’t need to be researched; i.e. all tomatoes are started the same).  Knowing something about plant families helps too–for example, I start most alliums (leeks, onions, chives) in late January to get a jump on their long growing time (garlic, of course, is started in the fall).

 

I’m not going to lie–this process can get overwhelming.  I’ve met quite a few novice gardeners (and remember my own experience years ago) with trying to figure out what to plant and when to plant.  However, to aid in this process, I have a few suggestions.  First, there are seed planting guides out there on the web that can talk you through the basics.  In my opinon, however, the web is no substittue for an experienced farmer/gardener–so seek out advice from experts (or really, anyone who has done any growing–we all have knowledge to share).  A friend this year gave me her whole biodyamic planting guide (see below), and that was super helpful.

Second, it helps to take the seed research process in stages.  Don’t start researching seeds in March when you need to get seeds going–research them in December, by the fire. I love to do this close to the holidays–its the perfect time of year to think about new growth. Then, by January, any new varieties I have researched are done and I have a planting plan moving forward.

The other thing you can do is create note files and spreadsheets. When I helped my sister with her herb garden, we looked up each seed she had and created a word file with information found on the packet and online.  Here’s a screenshot of that file.  Notice at the very top of that file, we also have a list of her last frost dates.  This is critically important to know when to plant (because it tells you when you can set plants out).  You count backwards from the average last frost date, and that tells you when to plant seeds.

Sample plant info file

Sample plant info file

After we had this file (which turned out to be 10 pages for 15 different herbs, still a bit overwhelming because we also compiled growing and harvest info) we broke it down into a more simple spreadsheet with growing and planting instructions.  Here’s a screenshot of the spreadsheet.  Once the seeds were started, we highlighted them in green.  Some of them had to be started a little later or cold stratified (e.g. set in the refrigerator for some time) so they didn’t get started on that day.

Spreadsheet

Spreadsheet

Planting by the Signs or Planting by the Moon: Biodynamic and Biointensive Seed Starting

If you are a gardener interested in the more esoteric side of things, you might also want to consider how the movement of the celestial bodies impacts plant growth. There are two approaches that I am aware of to this–biointensive and biodynamic. The biointensive growing approach advocates seed starting on the full moons or the new moons.  The biodynamic approach advocates examining the relationships of the planets (using astrology) to determine planting times (among other things).  Since the astroweather changes from moment to moment, you need to find a biodynamic calendar (unless you know enough about astrology to calculate it yourself!)  I have experimented with both of these approaches, and both have merit, IMHO.

Nurturing Seeds

After I plant my seeds, I spend time with them each day monitoring their progress and watching them grow.  I find it pleasant to meditate near them, and they also respond well to music that I play from my panflute.  Enjoy these early days with your seeds–soon they will be healthy vegetable and herb plants in your garden!

I hope that the ideas presented to you in this blog post can help you make the most of your garden this year!  Happy growing!

 

 
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