The Druid's Garden

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

Dandelion Wine Part III: New Recipes and Insights May 18, 2015

I’ve posted on Dandelion wine before on this blog, and I wanted to follow up on my previous posts on dandelion wine – making the wine and racking/bottling. I’ve also written more generally about the dandelion as a beneficial plant–so why not 4th post on the glorious dandelion!

In this post, I wanted to spend some time talking about dandelion, review the last two years of dandelion winemaking adventures, share two new recipes, and talk about some flavor tests. For basics in how to make dandelion wine, please refer to my first two posts on the subject (linked above).

Bottled Dandelion Wine!

Bottled Dandelion Wine!

Some Thoughts on Dandelions

I want to speak briefly about the spiritual side to brewing dandelion wine. First of all, dandelion is a plant that so many hate and eradicate. Many poison the land to get rid of it–instead of learning about why its growing, what it does for our landscape, and how it may benefit us and wildlife (see photo below). By reclaiming this plant in various ways, we help heal the abused relationship that humanity has with dandelion and deepen our connection to the land. Its also fitting that dandelion is a very medicinal plant–healing the digestion and clearing the liver, primarily. And digestive  issues are plaguing so many, especially because of industrialized food. I also think that from a sustainable perspective, we take something that is unwanted and turn it into something that is very wanted–alcohol. What a way to reach out to people–through wine!  I am convinced that if I share enough bottles of the stuff, I can convince people to treat their lawns and dandelions just a little bit differently–and so I keep brewing the wine.  For these reasons, I love dandelion in all her forms, and I love the wine, food, and medicine that she creates.

Wild Turkey Feasting on Dandelion

Wild Turkey Feasting on Dandelion – Wildlife need the dandelions too!

Two Dandelion Wine Recipes

In 2013, we brewed our first batch of dandelion wine–a whopping 5 gallon batch of  using the #1 recipe listed from Jack Keller’s Winemaking site. It turned out beautifully–sweet, strong, reminding us of the sunrise. Very smooth. In 2014, we decided to try two new recipes of our own creation, based on Jack Keller’s.  Both turned out amazing–so here they are :)

 

D&P’s Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine Wine

This recipe makes a 5 gallon batch, which is well worth making. You can reduce this to 1 gallon if you want by dividing everything by 5. A 5 gallon batch gives you approximately 24 bottles of wine, enough to drink and share!

 

  • 15 quarts dandelion flowers (no stalks, just heads)
  • 5 lb sultanas (golden raisins)
  • 5 gallons water
  • 15 lbs sugar
  • 10 lemons
  • 5 oranges
  • 2.5 cups chopped fresh ginger
  • yeast (1 package, wine yeast)
  • yeast nutrient

 

Pick the flowers on a sunny day when they are open and full–you usually have about a week window of time to pick before they go to seed (in my part of the country, Zone 6b, this is usually early in May). Do not pick the stalks, but a bit of greenery around the head is fine. Using a VERY large vessel or several smaller ones (I use my pressure canner and huge stockpot, you could also use a brewing bucket), boil 4.5 gallons of water and pour the boiling water over the dandelion flowers. Cover with a towel and tie the towel to the pot using string or yarn (see my earlier post for photos). Let it sit for two days, stirring three times a day. You’ll see it start to ferment and start to smell like wine after a day.

 

After the two days, bring flowers and water to a low boil (you will likely need to split the batch into two pots to do this). Thinly peel or grate oranges and lemons (avoiding any white pith) and add to the mixture. Also add the sugar at this time. Boil for an hour, then let cool to lukewarm (70-75 degrees Fahrenheit) and pour back into your brewing bucket, cover, and let sit in a warm place for three days.

Getting ready to bottle!

Getting ready to bottle!

 

Then, strain your dandelion mixture and put into a secondary fermentation vessel, like a 5 gallon glass carboy.  Add all of the raisins (I do this with a funnel–and its tedious), top off the carboy with water till its 3″ from the top, then fit with the fermentation trap. You’ll see the yeast going crazy over the sultanas–its really fun to watch. After a month or so, the wine will clear (that is, everything, including the sultanas and yeast, drops to the bottom and the wine gets much less cloudy). Strain and rack, again topping up with any additional water to get 3″ from the fermentation vessel. Wait another month or two till fermentation ceases completely, then rack again, again topping up with water. Wait another two months or longer, then bottle. At this point, you are about six months in–bottle it and wait another six months before tasting. If you wait even longer, it will just continue to get better and smoother with age. Sometimes, we forget to bottle it and even if you leave it racked, it ages and tastes really good by the time we bottle it :P.

 

The addition of the ginger in this wine is awesome–its smooth, complex, sweet, and quite alcoholic!  Its seriously some of the best wine we’ve ever had!

Preparing for bottling Dandelion-Ginger Sunrise wine!

Brewing Mentor Paul preparing for bottling Dandelion-Ginger Sunrise wine for bottling!

D&P’s Dandelion Bitters Wine

 

This wine has less of a complex flavor than the Dandelion-Ginger above, and it has just a tiny hint of bitterness from the dandelion–which is a fantastic thing for after dinner to get the gastric juices flowing (bitter flavors stimulate digestion). So we see this as a really medicinal and fantastic wine–herbalist approved :). Its doesn’t get as clear as the Dandelion-Ginger wine, but its still sweet, strong, and wonderful.

 

  • 15 quarts dandelion flowers (no stalks, just heads. No need to pick out flower petals)
  • 15 lbs sugar
  • yeast (1 package, wine yeast)
  • yeast nutrient

 

Follow all directions above, omitting the ginger, oranges, lemons, and sultanas. Ferment and enjoy!

Dandelion Bitters Wine ready to bottle!

Dandelion Bitters Wine ready to bottle!

Taste Tests

All three wines (including the original dandelion wine recipe we tried two years ago from Jack Keller’s site) taste great. We like the Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine wine the best because the ginger gives it a really nice flavor, not too strong, but just adding that little amazing extra zing to make it an A+. But any of the three are great–and the longer they sit in the bottle, the better they get. I still have about 8 bottles left from 2013, and they are seriously so amazing (and a very hot commodity when people find out you have it).

 

Here’s a photo of the difference in the color and clarity between Dandelion Bitters (left) and Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine (right). The Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine wine really clears nicely.

Taste tests - the clearer one on the right is Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine

Taste tests with Paul

As my bottles safely age in my pantry, I am once again reminded about the lessons that time and patience bring. I hope that more people take up brewing with dandelions (or cooking with them, or anything else)–its a great alternative to mowing them or spraying them with chemicals. If we can get enough people to do this, dandelions will be cultivated once again in our fields and lawns, rather than hated. And then their sunny, golden heads can serenade the spring!

 

Wild Food Recipes: Maple Candied Violets and Honeyed Violets May 11, 2015

Once again, the beautiful, purple-blue sweet violets are dotting the landscape.  Where I live, they are in full bloom and will remain that way for the next few weeks. Last year I shared a traditional candied violet recipe with egg white as well as instructions for harvesting….this year, I wanted to share two recipes for violets both using sustainable, local ingredients: honey and maple syrup.  As a reminder, with any wild food foraging, please abide by ethical and safety guidelines (see my two-part series of posts on wild food foraging here and here).

Violets!

Violets!

Honeyed Violets

Honeyed violets are so simple to make and so wonderful. They also make a great gift! All that you do is gather up a bunch of violets, wash them, and then dry them and stick them in a jar full of local honey (maybe even from your own beehives!) To make the violets, stuff them in the jar and add honey. The violets will all float to the surface and stay that way (which is fine as long as they are fully coated in honey). They will also slowly fade their color over time, but that’s just more violety goodness going into the honey. I have found that violets preserved this way last six months or more!

 

The alternative recipe is to dry out the violets first then add them to the honey–I have a jar of dried honeyed violets that is over a year old and still good. I enjoy having honeyed violets with my tea–I add a teaspoon of honeyed violets to a cup of warm tea!

Honeyed violets from last year!

Honeyed violets from last year!

 

Candied Violets with Maple Syrup

I decided to take the traditional “candied violets” recipe that uses sugar water or egg white and sugar and give it a locally-produced spin.  Enter: maple-sugar coated violets!  For this recipe, you can start with either maple syrup or maple sugar (again, you can produce this yourself in the early spring!)

For either version, start by picking some lovely fresh violets.

Bowl of violets

Bowl of violets

Wash your violets….

Washing your violets (gently!)

Washing your violets (gently!)

….and then let them dry.

Violets drying out on a paper towel

Violets drying out on a paper towel

Now, get a small saucepan. Either add maple syrup to the saucepan OR dissolve a few tablespoons of maple sugar in the saucepan with hot water (I did the second, but either works as effectively).  For maple sugar, I added 3 tbsp of maple sugar and 2 tbsp of water and dissolved it.

Maple sugar!

Maple sugar!

Syrup or sugar syrup!

Syrup or sugar syrup ready for violets.

Then, add your violets.

Violets in syrup

Violets in syrup

After they are coated, you can pull them out one by one, laying them on some waxed paper or parchment paper to dry.

Using a fork to get violets out one by one

Using a fork to get violets out one by one

The less maple they have on them, the longer they take to dry.  I also chose to sprinkle my violets with a little extra maple sugar.

Violets on parchment

Violets on parchment – some of these had too much sugar (see the pools of it?)  That much sugar takes longer to dry.

Place your violets somewhere where they can spend the next two to three days drying.  Once they are dry, they will shrivel up a bit, but otherwise retain their color wonderfully.

Dried violets

Dried violets

I like to sit these on the table during meals as a little additional treat.

Violets in bowl!

Violets in bowl!

You can also grind them up and use them as sustainable sprinkles on cookies, cakes, and ice cream.

 

I love how sustainable these two violet recipes are–I made both with honey and maple sugar produced right here on my homestead.

 

Geographies of Nowhere, Regaining a Sense of Place, and Embracing the Local May 4, 2015

I sit and write these words while I’m traveling for my work to a professional conference halfway across the country in another nameless city that is typically a carbon copy of another nameless city I visited the year before. The cities blend together after a while, because there really isn’t much difference between them: same Mariotts and Hilton Hotels with their elaborate and, frankly embarrassing, excesses, same busy streets, the same dead-looking people scurrying about. I’ve accepted this travel as a necessary evil of my profession, but it does give me a good opportunity to reflect upon my experiences and our larger system in which I begrudgingly take part. Today’s meditation focuses on the nature of place: its personal, civic, and spiritual connections.

 

Home-grown lettuce: no comparison!

Home-grown lettuce: no comparison!

In the airport, food options are limited, and I haven’t brought quite enough with me to sustain me for the entire journey in the face of flight delays. I carefully look at my options for food, and finally select a restaurant that has a famous chef’s name attached to it. It has a berry salad on the menu that looked appealing. The salad arrives, looking delicious: fresh greens, feta cheese, raspberry vinaigrette, mandarin oranges, strawberries and grapes. I pause, taking a moment to be thankful for the plants who have given their lives for me to eat this and thankful for the sheep who produced the milk for the feta. And then I begin to think about this salad, how it is so far from being rooted in a local place, so far from being seasonal or local. Where did this food come from?  The vinaigrette does not taste freshly made–it kinda has a rubbery taste to it and has a weird consistency. The oranges, grapes, and strawberries came from somewhere warm. The greens, the feta–do I really want to know?  The food certainly isn’t local to Detroit this time of year. Under what conditions was it produced? The problem is, there is literally no way to find out where this food is produced nor under what circumstances: this is not a question one can ask. My guess is that the food comes from one or more of the big restaurant distributors (like Gordon’s Food service). Tracing these strawberries or fresh greens back to a farm is impossible because the system is designed to prevent such activity. What I do know, however, is that this salad is well branded by the name of the famous chef.  That’s all I’m meant to know–the branding, the distributor. My stomach gone sour, I manage to get the rest of the salad down and walk out of the restaurant, looking at the long line of chain establishments in airport culture. This airport could be any airport; this meal eaten anywhere. This “faceless and nameless” salad is just one symptom of a larger problem, what James Howard Kunsler calls the “Geography of Nowhere.”

 

I’ve traveled to most of the big cities in the USA in the last ten years as I’ve attended various conferences as part of the work of my profession. Some cities make more of an attempt than others to have some local sense of place and unique identity (Austin, San Francisco, and New Orleans being the most successful of those I’ve visited). But that local sense of place is often obscured by the rubber stamped replication of the same stores everywhere: Rite-Aid, Walmart, Wendy’s, Outback Steakhouse, McDonald’s, Subway, Bank of America, Friday’s, the list goes on and on. Most places, big or small, are dominated by the same stores everywhere–and the monotony is deafening. We have gotten to the point, in 2015, where there are still local places to be found in these towns and cities across the US, but they are often harder to find and they are shutting down at alarming rates. When you do find these local gems, you realize that even these local places are often dependent on the industrialized machine for functionality, because that is the only way to stay profitable. The local diner, ran by a local owner, still uses Gordon’s food service for all of their food needs. Local food, of course, is just one casualty of this rubber-stamped replication–I think the others are happiness, localized wealth and economies, and a true sense of community.
I’ve been thinking about this issue of being rooted in a place, of our lost localness and uniqueness, after returning from Costa Rica. The contrast between the US and Costa Rica is so stark: where everywhere you went in Costa Rica, local and unique businesses thrived. You were able to meet the owners–they were serving your food grown on a local farm, they were showing you to your room, and they were excited to sell you the wares that they in many cases had produced themselves. And you could literally taste the difference–every meal was fantastic, locally sourced right there in the community.  Every place you stayed was unique and wonderful.  Could you imagine of things were like that here, as they once were?

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde, Costa Rica

 

James Howard Kunsler’s Geography of Nowhere attempts to make sense of the faceless, nameless, rubber-stamped geographies–what he calls dehumanizing places. He argues that the automobile is to blame for much of this as it allowed for continued expansion (an colonizing mentality); it allowed people to move further and further out into the suburbs and become entirely dependent upon the automobile; and it encouraged the destruction of energy-efficient public transportation. It was GM who systematically purchased and destroyed street car lines in the earlier part of the 20th century, making way for wider roads and bus systems. I have seen the results of this firsthand in the Detroit Metro area, where practically no public transportation exists (and you hear of stories like this man who walked to work 21 miles). The lack of public transportation also results in horrific traffic and mean attitudes on the road–a truely unpleasant experience.

 

The suburbs themselves in every place, including both housing and commercial establishments, became areas of isolation not accessible without a personal car. Think about any strip mall or line of stores along a major roadway you’ve visited, and how its impossible to go between them, impossible to walk anywhere between them and how dangerous it feels to be out of your car.  Think about the winding roads of your nearest subdivision–and the repressive laws within. The sprawl encourages isolation.  And thinking about this while you are flying above–you can see how far the sprawl has gone, how visible our sprawl is from the skies…

 

Car-dependent Sprawl....

Car-dependent Sprawl….

Of course, what Kunsler is really arguing is that modern-day America just feels wrong.  It feels wrong, uncomfortable, and yet its all that most of us have ever known.  We have to take vacations to get “away from it all” and when we return, it crushes us.  I have certainly experienced this firsthand–after attending a spiritual retreat for 8 days a few years ago, I remember getting in the car at  with a friend to drive back to Michigan. Our first rest stop, a few hours into our journey, was full of loud televisions, walls of plastic-packaged products, screaming children demanding toys, and food fryers tended by unhappy-looking pimply faced teens.  I literally lost it and could not return inside–my heart was racing, my palms were sweaty; it was a full-blown panic attack, the first one that I had ever experienced. Even when you aren’t dealing with reverse culture shock, it still takes a lot of energy to go out into the world, into the geography of nowhere. Even though I depend on the big businesses a heck of a lot less than I used to, I still need toilet paper or canning jars once in a while. Going into it the world of strip malls and big box stores is uncomfortable; the people who are there shopping have these sad, numb, or dead looks on their faces (pay attention the next time you go shopping–you’ll see what I mean). Now that I’ve largely removed myself from it, it gets harder and harder to return each time. Its hard to explain to people who are still fully entrenched in the system–but sometimes when I tell a few like-minded friends about my difficulty in going out into it, they knowingly nod.

 

I also think the spiritual implications of the “geography of nowhere” are also of critical importance. When a new home in a subdivision out in the suburbs is created, an act of destruction takes place–an immediate destruction of the landscape. This is because the first thing that is done is that “developers” remove the topsoil and strip the land bare to the subsoil. Each teaspoon of healthy topsoil, contains over a million bacteria, 100 grams of fungal hyphae, 10,000 protozoa, hundreds of beneficial nematodes and microanthropods–in other words, so much life, the web of life upon which all other plants and animals depend. The topsoil is turned into another commodity by the “developers” which is bagged and sold to big box stores, and then the new owners of the house have to buy it back, but by then, this soil web of life is long dead. After stripping the life from the land, humans are ready to inhabit the land, complete with fossil-fuel dependent cars and chemlawns. How can a place like this, rooted in so much destruction, have any sense of the sacred? Most habitations and most buildings are constructed in the same way–the land is stripped bare with no thought or care for the life that may already exist there; the homes or buildings are placed not in harmony with it, but in many cases, opposed to it, and then those buildings and homes and their inhabitants continue to pollute and dump chemicals. How can we engage in sacred actions, heal this land, when our habitations have caused such destruction in their creation? I think this accounts for so much of our disconnect from nature–the “nature” of grass inhabiting a chemlawn is not able to be connected with in the same way as that which came before the subdivision. This whole process already, from the time of its beginning, creates a destructive cycle that is only continued with the suburban sprawl. Truthfully, I have a hard time handling the energy of subdivisions or strip malls. They feel wrong to me on a cultural and personal level, but more than that, they feel wrong to me on a spiritual level. And the contradictory thing here is that each time I enter–what happens? I contribute to that destruction. The contradictions of living–in any way–in modern consumerist society are so apparent.

 

The civic implications of such a geography are also important.  When people are kept so far apart and are isolated, there is no sense of community nor democracy. The isolation with means that people don’t interact with those different from them–and this can lead to misunderstandings, resentment, and more (think about the war on the poor; the lack of care and compassion for the needy; the cold-hearted approach to so much social justice we see). No sense of community exists when corporations provide all of your needs, and you no longer need to depend upon each other. I think the concepts of democracy have failed our modern age for a lot of reasons, but certainly, our destructive and isolated living habits have certainly contributed.

 

One could say, in thinking about the geography of nowhere and our loss of a sense of local identity and place, that the corporations have stolen our communities. That they have somehow stolen our local identities from us–but I think the truth is much harder to hear. We have willingly acquiesced to their presence in every city and town and rural area in our lives. We have done this at great cost to ourselves, our environments, and our communities. Every time we decide to purchase a house in a subdivision, to shop at a big box store in a strip mall, or eat at a chain store, we are contributing. Perhaps, as someone sitting on the edge of the Millennial generation (born in 1981, graduating high school in 1999), I want to lay the blame at those who rejected the movements toward sustainability in the 1970’s, before I was born or when I was a young child incapable of knowing better. But again, I look towards the actions in my adult life and know the blame sits with every one of us, regardless of our generation or our previous life choices.  And its up to each of us to make a change.

 

The question becomes: what can we do about this?  I think there are individual things we can do, and also larger-picture cultural things that can be done. On the individual side, I think the first thing to do is to recognize that in a capitalist system, there is a simple law of supply and demand. Whatever there is a demand for, whatever is profitable, creates the jobs, moves the markets, and so on, is what is purchased–and purchasing power can have tremendous pull. The craft beer movement is an excellent example of this. At one time, Budweiser had almost 15% of the market; ten years later, it now has just 7%. Why? At some point, people realized that this mass-produced industrialized product labeled “beer” wasn’t really all that great, and instead opted for local breweries full of quirkiness, options, and above all, flavor.  And now there are more local breweries than ever before.  So more broadly, each time we purchase (or not purchase) something, we are essentially supporting not only that product, but that business and the way it conducts itself in the world. I cannot state this firmly enough.  Don’t like the big box stores in the strip malls? Then find local alternatives–you’ll not only get better service, but you’ll get to often go to more interesting areas in town. The same is true of our homes–when we purchase or even choose to rent a particular kind of home (especially one in the suburbs) we are backing that way of life with our own dollars. Now for some of us, we are in homes and those choices are made and we are committed to them because of previous choices–but even then, there are lots of ways to levy positive change within existing communities. But if or when the choice comes again, can we choose a home that is within walkable proximity to a downtown area? Can we choose a home that doesn’t contribute to suburban sprawl?  As I’ve suggested before on this blog, each and every action we take is a chance to make positive change in the world.  And for me, this isn’t just talk–I know how hard what I’m suggesting is to actually enact!

 

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad

The larger issue here is that intentional planning and selling of a particular ideology to generations past and present has gotten us into this mess, and more intentional planning and education is probably what is needed to get us out. Kunsler suggests something similar in Geography of Nowhere and argues that new urban planners can design smarter, more localized, and more community-driven cities and towns. I think there’s a lot of potential here, but again, it takes groups of people who want these things to manifest them.  I also will mention permaculture design here, as permaculture design isn’t just a design science for lawns–it can also be used to design effective communities. What would happen if we designed spaces using permaculture’s three ethical principles: fair share, care for people, and care for earth?  Transformation!

 

Like most of the more philosophical posts I write on this blog, there are no easy answers.  There are just the hard questions, and the question that each of us can ask: what can I personally do? What can we collectively do?  The answers to these questions will help us continue to navigate into the future yet unknown.

 

Converting Lawns to Gardens: Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Urban Farm April 24, 2015

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm – Beautiful, biointensive, productive.

Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit of coverage about lawn issues, as I really do believe that the lawn can be one of the primary sites of transformation and change for ordinary Americans and others in the Western industrialized world. Not only can the lawn be transformed from a consumptive space to a productive one for growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers to benefit humans and other life, but it can be a site of personal reconnection and healing with our landscape.

 

This is because the lawn is the single piece of nature that the bulk of people, living outside of big cities, encounter on a daily or weekly basis. If we can transform the lawn, we can transform ourselves.

 

This is why I am so excited about this post–through the example of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a new creation of my dear friend, Linda Jackson, I will provide an introduction to how to convert a front yard to a vegetable garden using permaculture design principles. This is Linda’s story, but she’s asked me to report on it for you here to get the word out. I’ll also say that I’m only telling part of the story now–I’ll provide more updates later in the year and talk about what she planted and how its all doing–and more responses from the community.

 

Impetus for Change

Linda was a certified organic farmer, a farmer’s market board member, a board member of a state-level organic farming rganization, and a horticulture teacher for many years. Last summer, through some trying life circumstances, she was displaced from her farm and ended up in a small home in a suburban area in a town called Lake Orion (in South-East Michigan). Linda moved from 10 acres to a tiny 100×200′ plot (with a 50′ x 50′ growing area in the front yard; back yard is full shade). Linda used her background in farming and permaculture design to convert her plain, everyday lawn into not only a place to grow some great vegetables, but also a place of community change and empowerment. Here’s how she did it.

Linda - Before and After

Linda – Before and After

 

Getting Legal

Before one begins to convert one’s yard, the legal aspects must be considered and weighed. As my own run ins with township ordinances have attested, and as protections of small urban farms have been removed in Michigan in the last 12 months (and the legal battles everywhere raging about front-yard farming), Linda decided to take no chances with her plan. She went directly to the township supervisor and spoke with him about her design and plan for her front yard. He told her that as long as she wasn’t growing “weeds” it wasn’t a problem.  She also read through the township ordinances thoroughly to learn what could and couldn’t be done. We are still crossing our fingers that, now that she’s gotten the garden installed, that this will hold true. But so far, so good!

 

For those of you thinking about converting your own yards–do keep legal ordinances (and homeowner’s associations) in mind. They can really sink (and fine, and bulldoze) your hard-earned efforts.  And even a statement like “don’t grow weeds” is tricky–my township, for example, designates common milkweed as a noxious weed (when its a beneficial native plant).

 

Linda at her new farm

Linda at her new farm getting ready to plant some radishes!

Goals for the Urban Permaculture Farm

Before Linda designed her farm and set into action, she created a list of goals to help guide her efforts. She knew farming her front yard in the urban setting was going to be quite different than farming her quiet ten acres in the country. Given this, her goals were as follows:

 

  • Do away with mowing, herbicides, pesticides, traditional lawn maintenance
  • Build a balanced farm ecosystem using permaculture design
  • Grow quick annuals and perennial fruits, herbs, flowers
  • Allow farm to turn a profit by selling produce and farm goods a farmer’s market every two weeks
  • Grow biointensively and organically; use small space gardening and vertical gardening to maximize yield
  • Use my plot as an educational site for community
  • Generate curiosity and excitement in the community
  • Create an aesthetically pleasing, unique space

 

Her triple bottom line was: ecological, social and economic sustainability.

 

Design and Observations

Linda examined her specific site over a period of weeks (she could have waited and observed longer as permaculture design principles suggest, but winter was coming fast and she wanted to get her hands in the soil and start growing first thing in the spring). So waiting a year wasn’t an option!

Plans for the Farm - Overhead view

Plans for the Farm – Overhead view

During these observations, she created a plan of action. In observing her site, she paid attention to the light (recognizing the need to take out several trees); the rainfall (including where water pooled and where it was dry) and the slope of the land and elevation changes.  She also noted the microclimates near her house, where the sun reflected from the house siding and onto the soil, keeping it dryer and warmer than other areas.

 

Preparing the Site

Front Yard Before

Front Yard Before

Two ornamental fruit trees (that did not produce fruit) and a silver maple were first removed to produce full sun on the site. These produced 15 yards of chipped mulch, which Linda put to good use as pathways in her garden. After the trees were removed, Linda also ordered 10 yards of compost from a local compost company and set to work (and she worked full days, 4-5 days a week, for 5 weeks to finish her site).

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Linda knew she wanted her farm to be aesthetically pleasing and mimic patterns in nature (another permaculture design principle). To do this, she used a hose and the natural contour of the land and laid out her beds and pathways.  She had the idea of “flow” in her mind as she designed, creating a series of soft waves.

Natural contours--shaped with the hose!

Natural contours–shaped with the hose!

After this, Linda laid down brown recycled paper to create a weed barrier (similar to the sheet mulch techniques I shared several years ago on this blog).  Then she laid down her thick mulchled pathways (about 6″ of mulch) and added more weed barrier compost for the beds themselves (eventually making it to 10″ after a neighbor blew leaves all over her farm and she laid down a second layer!). Here are some photos of the transformation as it took place.

Mulched paths established....

Mulched paths established….

Starting to add compost over weed barrier....

Starting to add compost over weed barrier….

Lots of progress being made!

Lots of progress being made!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Many beds now established!

Many beds now established!

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Complete as of October 2014!

Nearly complete as of October 2014–the front area there is a rock garden and rain garden since water pools there often.

 

Some Spring Planting

After the snow melted and the temperatures warmed up this spring, Linda installed drip irrigation lines and began her finishing touches on the garden and the soil composition before planting. I visited her this past week, and together, we planted kale, radishes, and chard: the first of the spring crops able to go into the ground. Linda impressed me with her organic pest control techniques: each kale seedling got a healthy spoonful of cayenne pepper and each chard seedling was popped into a toilet paper tube to protect it from rodents, slugs, and possible frost damage (and this was a good thing, since its really chilled down recently). Here are some shots of the current garden. I was also impressed that we planted nearly 80 kale seedlings in her space, with plenty of room for many other delights! I think she’ll have no problem having plenty of product to take to the farmer’s market and to put on her plate.

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Linda plants radish

Linda plants radish

Chard in protective tubes

Chard in protective tubes

Me planting some chard!

Me planting some chard!

 

Promoting a Positive Image in the Community

As Linda put her garden in in the fall and as the weeks passed, the neighbors watched the yard’s transformation and anticipation in the community grew substantially.  Here was someone doing something unique, different, groundbreaking, and exciting. The important thing to understand about this kind of public growing space is that people will talk. They will ask questions, they will be curious, and interest (of several kinds) can take place. I experienced this firsthand when we were planting kale, chard, and radishes this past week.  Multiple people stopped by, took a look, asked what we were up to. We cheerfully told them and they smiled and said they were thinking about doing it themselves.  So far, Linda has been lucky as the response in her community has been incredibly positive. Several people have asked her to put in gardens for them–but Linda wants to empower them to do their own work, not do it for them.

 

Given the above, Linda decided to be proactive about promoting her space, and in addition to talking to the township prior to starting, she decided to create some marketing materials. She went to my friends at Roots to Fruits for some snazzy graphics to share and feedback on her designs. I also helped her create a Powerpoint presentation that she shared in over the winter at a few local and regional events.  I also worked with her to create a brochure that she can give to people who are passing by that explains both the purpose of the garden and resources to get started. The brochure will be housed in a “take one” box on her mailbox so anyone who comes by can learn more about the site.  I’m including the brochure in jpg format here as well (you can click on it to see it full size).

Brochure page 1

Brochure page 1

Brochure, page 2

Brochure, page 2

I think the proactive approach to marketing and community engagement is really the key to a successful front-yard garden, especially one that will stand the test of time.  As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ll be checking in with Linda later in the summer on a visit back to Michigan to see how things are going!

 

Conclusion

In many ways, the typical lawn is a reflection of our own strained relationship with nature. Its poisoned and modified (as is much of the food we eat), it is unsustainable (as much of our lifestyles are), it has an appetite for chemicals and fossil fuels (as many of us do), and its generally barren with little activity or diversity of life (as nightly TV addictions can attest). Transform the lawn, and in the process, we can transform ourselves, our communities, our world.

 

I’ve seen this transformation in my friend Linda, who left a very difficult situation scarred and wounded. Through installing this front-yard farm, Linda was transformed and healed. And now this lawn, transformed, is transforming the community. Linda tells me of two neighbors on her street that are considering converting their front-yards to veggies and fruits as well, and I suspect that many more will follow the trend in the years to come. Since she’ll be selling veggies at the farmer’s market, she will inspire so many more who might not walk or drive down her street with her story, and most importantly, her delightful edible goodies.

 

What To Do With All That Stuff? Breaking Patterns, Eliminating Excess, and Downsizing April 18, 2015

Americans, in particular, although a good big of the Western industrialized world, have entirely too much stuff. Annie Lenoard’s “Story of Stuff” tells the tale of the linear process in which stuff enters our lives–from natural resource exploitation to factory production to the store shelves to our homes, and rather quickly in many cases, to the landfill. She discusses “planned obsolescence” whereby products are specifically designed to break or wear out after a short amount of time (think about those expensive hiking boots that you bought new that only lasted one summer); or “perceived obsolescence” where stuff is perceived as no longer useful (for example, any technology over 2 years old is “out of date”). Despite these perceptions, the clutter and stuff seems to dominate our lives and new stuff is circulating in and out at all times. But a lot of it also gets “stuck” in our lives rather permanently, taking up unnecessary space, and causing us issues. We hear stories of hoarders who can’t let go of anything–but really, how many among us can say that we don’t have too much stuff? And when this stuff leaves our homes, it creates waste streams and pollution.

 

About two years ago, I began making a serious effort in my life to reduce the amount of clutter and stuff I had accumulated and–just as importantly–to prevent more stuff from entering. I wanted to share that process with you and talk through some of the issues surrounding stuff. At this point, I’ve cut out 70% of the stuff from my life–and feel much better for it.

 

Problems with Too Much Stuff.

Wasted resources. A lot of people not only have a house/apartment full of stuff but also a storage unit. A larger house to hold all that stuff, plus a storage unit or whatever else, is a serious waste of space and resources (and in this time of dwindling resources, is this even ethical?) We should live in our spaces, not fill them with useless stuff that just takes up room–and requires heat, maintenance, and so on.

 

Physical Clutter is a burden, in more than one sense. This brings me to physical clutter. Physical clutter is emotionally draining and can sap one’s motivation and energy. Just walking into a cluttered space gives one a feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed–and if you are living in this constantly, its really unhealthy for you. I have a good friend who had so much clutter in his physical space that you could hardly walk through there, it wasn’t pleasant to visit. I watched him spend all of his time–for literally years–rearranging it, thinking it would just take him another few weeks to get arranged and once it was, he could do real work up there. But he ended up in this vicious loop where he’d shuffle the stuff from one area to the next, and it was still cluttered, and he spun his wheels in other areas of his life all the same. And he never really realized it was happening, or at least, seemed powerless to stop it. When an extreme event forced the stuff out of his life, it was amazing to see his creativity return, new jobs and opportunities open up, and his general mental state of mind and happiness improve.

 

Art studio clutter--apparently it doesn't bother kittens!  A cleaner, clutter-free studio = more creative energy!

Art studio clutter–apparently it doesn’t bother kittens! A cleaner, clutter-free studio = more creative energy!

The Energetic implications of clutter. As my friend’s story illustrates, there is, of course, an energetic side to having too much stuff. Stuff holds energy–and very frequently, not energy you want in your life. If you’ve ever tried to do a house cleansing, even a simple one with some salt, water, candles and smudge sticks, you probably know how hard it is to clear a space that is full of stuff–it just doesn’t work. Also, other people’s stuff holds their energy, and that can be a real problem depending on whose stuff it originally was. Stuff also holds the energy of the processes used to create it–which can also be an even bigger problem if it was created in a way that caused suffering (I spoke about this at length a few years ago on ritual tools, but it applies more broadly). So when you have all this stuff everywhere in your life, its influencing you on multiple levels.

 

The most stuff that enters your life, the more demand there is for it. All that stuff had to come from somewhere–and when it enters your life, it was acquired somehow. This acquisition is part of the basic laws for supply and demand: the ore “stuff” that is purchased in a system, the more perceived demand there is for that stuff and the more stuff is produced. This leads to even more drain on natural resources, more waste produced, and more energy expended.

 

Excess stuff keeps us captive.  I think this last point sums all of the above–stuff keeps us captive.  Some people have houses or apartments so full of stuff they feel they can never leave (I know a lot of people who say this). Others have stuff from loved ones who have passed on, and by holding onto that stuff, they are holding onto their loved one–which prevents healing and release. When you go to an area that has too much stuff that you really don’t want, you get this sense of burden–and its a form of captivity. The stuff has its hold on you….so how do you break free?

Understanding the Problem: “Automatic” Acquisition and Disposal

To return to the “Story of Stuff” above, we might think about the two automatic behaviors that literally drive the consumptive system: acquisition and disposal. When I say “automatic” here, I’m using a term from learning theory that refers to behaviors that are ingrained, require no thought, and are often engaged in without any critical reflection.

 

Purchasing, accumulating, and disposing of stuff is all about automatic conditioning. We are literally conditioned by television, advertising, even our school systems, our culture, to buy, buy, buy and toss, toss, toss. Purchasing something is our culture’s solution to any problem or need: needing to demonstrate affection, needing to solve a problem, boredom, a way to smooth over a disagreement, and so much more. When we don’t want something, out to the curb or into the trash bin it goes. We don’t even give this whole process a second thought–we just engage  in it, over, and over, and over again. And in the process of engaging it it, we support a system that is literally destroying the land and desecrating this glorious earth that sustains us.

There is no such thing as away!

There is no such thing as away!

 

Recognizing this conditioning for what it is, injecting some critical thinking in the process, and eventually breaking the conditioning entirely puts us on the path to a clutter-free life.

 

Solutions to the Stuff Problem: The Mindset Shift

Before I talk about how I eliminated 70% of the stuff in my life (and continue to eliminate even more), I want to talk about to engage in the mindset shifts that help you prevent new stuff coming into your life and help you make better, conscious decisions surrounding stuff.

 

Wants vs. Needs. We have a serious problem in our culture in separating our wants from our needsMaslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start: the actual needs for human survival are food, water, air, basic clothing, and shelter. Needs above the base needs are not more stuff but rather safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. It is these basic things that are needed for happy human living–and I think a lot of our culture tries to replace these things with stuff…and fails miserably. So when we really take a few steps back to think about what we need vs. what we want, we can start making priorities in our lives.

 

While my mindset shift concerning stuff came from a lot of places, it was highly motivated by my teaching of an ongoing community-service based course in Pontiac, Michigan, where many people live without their basic needs being met (like adequate food, warm clothing for winter, or shelter). Seeing children in our program without gloves or knowing they were getting their last food for the day with the “snack” at center 5:30pm, really shifted my own view about needs. The goal of my course was to help improve children and adolescent’s literacy skill–but more than once I saw that kids couldn’t work on their reading or writing when their basic needs weren’t met. This really led me to a long series of meditations on the nature of stuff, wants and needs, and more–and lead to this blog post and the resulting change in my life!  When you encounter people who really don’t have all their needs met (or you’ve experienced that in your own life), it makes you be more grateful for what you have–and helps put a want and a need  in perspective.

 

A No New Things Policy. Another mindset shift, and series of conversations that can really be helpful is to tell friends and family that you have a “no new stuff” policy. There are different ways you might go about it.  The most extreme is to tell them that you aren’t interested in any new stuff, period, and refuse to take stuff when its offered. Less extreme is gently reminding people about your “no stuff policy” when they do give you something, but taking it anyways the first few times as everyone is adjusting to your policy. You can also setup meaningful alternatives: for example, if they want to give you something, baked goods, handmade things, or natural things (beautiful shells, etc) are welcome, as is a helping hand around the home. I have found that this has really led to some interesting and productive conversations. It was also met with some serious resistance depending on who you are trying to talk with (and for some, especially older family members, it takes years of conversations to make it work). Having alternatives to gift giving at holidays and birthdays (see next post) is a really helpful way of helping others make this transition.

 

Reseeing Gift Giving. A while back, I talked about sustainable alternatives to gift giving for the holidays–this is something my family has been doing for years and its really successful: we by a few gifts for one person, we only buy what they request or need, and we are conscious of waste throughout the process. Since the holidays and birthdays produce an excess of stuff, eliminating that stream of unwanted stuff makes a huge difference.

 

Gifts come in many forms. I would also add to my suggestions about gift-giving is that there are other gifts that are more valuable than stuff bought with money. What about an hour or two of your time to help someone clean their house or accomplish some other task? What about a song, piece of writing, or artwork you created? What about a nice backrub? What about some fresh veg from your garden or a jam made from berries foraged in the forest? What about teaching a friend something new? What about conversation over a really unique tea? There are all kinds of gifts that we can give that are of our time and our creative expressions that do not require purchasing stuff. When you look at this list, it makess going to the store and buying something look kinda lame.

 

Eliminating other sources of stuff. Stuff seems to sneak up on you, and in many different ways and forms.  Spotting the stuff creep is another step in preventing future problems. Consumerism is designed to send a lot of stuff our way–from free “gifts” of no value sent to you in the mail to swag at work to gifts nobody wants to a culture where shopping is a primary hobby. So working to look at how else stuff enters your life and eliminating those sources helps.

 

Reseeing existing stuff and avoiding perceived obsolescence. The other thing here that’s important with a mindset shift is getting ourselves out of the consumer mindset and avoiding the “perceived obsolescence” that plagues our culture. Electronics are the worst offenders in this regard, and they have been one of the focus points for my own re-seeing of existing stuff.  Given the serious ethical issues under which electronics are produced and the environmental hazards of disposal, I’m trying to get the most out of them, stretching them way beyond their typical two year cycle. There is this perception that anything that is older than 2 years is useless in terms of electronics. I’ve found that this is simply not the case: with careful maintenance and maxing out the RAM, my 6 year old iMac is running just fine and is still able to handle anything I throw at it. My  computer before that is still being used by my parents for web browsing and word processing. I don’t have a smartphone and have been using the same standard phone for 4 years now. These are conscious choices that put me at odds with most of conventional thinking and behavior, but that’s ok (I’m not one for convention anyways).

 

Recognizing what stuff IS important. Some stuff is important to us, and there is nothing wrong with that. I think that recognizing what we value and want to keep and cherish is also an important part of this process. For me, I realized that my herbalism supplies, my art studio, my books, and my gardening and homesteading supplies were important: these were the things that enriched me creatively and spiritually and allowed me to live sustainably. So while I did make cuts in these areas, I allowed myself to keep these things guilt-free.

 

Eliminating Stuff and Reducing Clutter

Good stuff for Craig's list!

Good stuff for Craig’s list!

By now, hopefully I’ve convinced you that excess stuff in your life comes with its share of serious problems. And while the mindset shifts above can help new stuff from entering your life, its not going to really solve the problem of the existing stuff in your life. And the existing stuff is a real problem, because it often has energetic and emotional holds upon us. Let me say this: if you take on the mindset shifts and be vigilant about the stuff you don’t need, you will only need to do the following (painful) process once. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Let’s talk about how we can engage in sustainable, sacred action even in the process of removing excess stuff.

 

In my case, I had a largish house where a lot of stuff was mine (like a well-stocked art studio and too many books); I also had stuff I had been holding onto for sentimental value that I hadn’t used or touched in years (like old video games, instruments, old clothes, various kick-knacks). But I also had a lot of stuff that people had unloaded on me: friends’ s who had stayed with me for periods of time and left “a few things” to come get later; excess stuff from my divorce (where my ex took only what he wanted and left the rest), things people brought over thinking it would be useful for me (and wasn’t), and so on. When I started wanting to reduce this stuff, I was overwhelmed with the amount of it.  These are the principles that helped me through this process:

 

Producing No Waste. When people get overwhelmed with stuff, the most likely thing that they do is turn to the automatic behavior of disposal–that is, they throw it away. While this is certainly a response to deal with the immediate problem (too much stuff), it creates ethical dilemmas of its own because you are putting more waste into the system, especially when that stuff could have another use.  Not to mention, you are perpetuating the cycle of consumption and disposal. One of the permaculture design principles that I’ve been working with really seriously for the last few years is “produce no waste” and if we think about eliminating stuff from this perspective, it becomes more challenging, yes, but certainly more rewarding.  Our stuff may not be wanted by us, but it can still be used in a great many ways by others, and tossing it in a dumpster shouldn’t be on the table.

 

Eliminating Ethically and Consciously.  Thinking about eliminating stuff ethically, then, leads us towards “alternative” movement streams that don’t end up in the landfill. For household goods and clothing, you might look for alternatives, alternatives even beyond the Salvation Army and Goodwill (a lot of your stuff ends up in their dumpster). We have a local center (the one I mentioned earlier) that accepts household items and clothing; they give all of this freely away to anyone who is in need. If you have no such center, you can also use Freecycle and Craig’s List: giving stuff away for free is an easy way to meet new friends, give someone something they need, and remove stuff from your life that you no longer need. You may also think about friends or family who need the stuff you have: when I cut down my art studio by 30%, I gave nearly all of it to two places: a local community center for kid’s art and a good friend who was looking for some supplies. Musical instruments I had had since I was a teenager also went to the community center–I had difficulty initially letting go of them, but when I heard they would be used to start a band to keep the kids off the streets, it was joyful to give them away. A few years ago, I gave my big screen TV away to a friend who is a caretaker for a disabled person: the disabled person’s TV was going out and he needed another one. What options you have really depends on your circumstances and local area, but do ask around to family and friends–you’ll be surprised how many people are in need of something you may have to give. And when you can make a difference with that stuff–it makes the process all the more enjoyable.

 

What to keep. Rather than think about what you want to eliminate, think about what you want to keep–and the rest can go. I mentioned above the things that I valued: I put those on a list, and I worked to eliminate anything that I didn’t hold in that kind of value. This made the decision process much easier. For me, a lot of this ended up being stuff from my life-before-sustainability: gaming supplies, electronics, DVDs, and more. Once I realized what was important to me now, I was able to find better homes for what wasn’t.

 

Create a “staging area” for Letting Go Because stuff is overwhelming, I found that it helped to create a “staging area” where the stuff could sit for a time while I mourned its loss.  Stuff would go into the room I wasn’t using, and I would have time to let it go  before moving it off to its new home. There were things in my life that I would never use again (like gaming books, etc) but I couldn’t bring myself to let them go for many years.  But when I had the staging area, I could let them sit there for a while until I did my mourning and then pass them on to someone else who could–and did–make use of them.  This is especially a useful strategy for things that you have either had a long time or had a deep emotional connection with. This worked really well: I was able to spend a lot of time going though every space in my home and then, once that process was done, was able to rehome all of it fairly quickly.

 

Enlisting help.  Other people don’t feel about your stuff the way you do–finding the *right* friend or family member to help you eliminate is a good idea. You don’t want someone who will talk you into keeping anything–you want someone who is ruthless and firm, who will convince you that you don’t need what you think you do. It may take a few tries to find the right friend, but when you do, he or she will be invaluable in helping you eliminate clutter.

 

Going, going, gone. After you have started this process and gave away the first lot of stuff, you’ll find that subsequent reductions of the clutter are actually much easier.  Now, I have very little emotional attachment to any stuff, and I can easily give it away (and can be that ruthless and firm friend who can help others do the same).

 

Other Ways of Managing Stuff

In addition to eliminating stuff and making sure new stuff doesn’t enter our lives, there are at least three ways of reseeing our relationships to our existing stuff that can also help:

Making conscious purchases of higher quality. Purchase carefully and consciously can help slow down waste streams. I still do buy stuff, but I try to think about my purchases, plan them in advance, and when possible, allowing several days or weeks between a decision and the actual purchase. I generally try to never buy anything on a whim. There are exceptions to these rules, of course, but they are good general principles to follow for daily living. The other issue here is to purchase things that do not have planned obsolescence–rather, purchase things of higher quality (and usually higher price) that will last longer. Iron skillets are a great investment, as are a good pair of leather boots taken regularly to a cobbler and regularly oiled.

 

Making it last and taking care of it.  When stuff is cheap and plentiful, it has less value.  By making less purchases and making them carefully, your stuff takes on more value to you.  You can also make a conscious effort to take care of what you have better so that it doesn’t wear out or break easliy.

 

Repurposing.  Creative repurposing can take many forms–one of the ways you might think about solving problems or using existing stuff is to see it in new ways.  This helps us purchase less and also gives our stuff a new lease on life.  There’s the whole movement of “upcycling” or taking old clothing, books, and other items and creating something from nothing.  For example: I took a bunch of old jeans that couldn’t be donated and made a rug; I gave that as a gift to a friend who had cold floors and liked handmade things. This repurposing is especially useful for stuff that isn’t high quality or is worn out….trying to find a use for it can be a creative, fun challenge.

 

The Move to Simple Living

The more space we have, the more space we have to fill. Choosing to live in smaller spaces, with less gizmos, gadgets, and clutter, can lead to more fulfilling lives. I’m doing that as we speak–leaving my homestead of 5 years  and moving into a space less than half the size of my previous house.   While this move was for other reasons (described in my earlier post), I’m also using it as a chance to make some “stuff changes” in my life that will help. Moving to a smaller space will help me continue to be conscious of my space and storage, will allow me to have a smaller environmental footprint, and live a more meaningful and simple life.

Apparently, I had a lot more to say about eliminating stuff than I first realized!  Its been a very important part of my own transformative process, and one that I’m glad I endured.  Even though eliminating stuff was hard at first, the challenges were worth the rewards!  Thanks for reading :)

 

 

Other Sites: The Hotel Belmar Garden (Organic, Biointensive, Incredible) April 11, 2015

Once in a while, you encounter something that is truly extraordinary. Something created by a unity of human effort and ingenuity and natural processes that is a sacred and inspirational place. I want to share one of those places with you today–both because its a wonderful opportunity to learn, but also to see so many sustainable living activities in action.  I’ve written about sacred gardens before–and this is truly such a place.

 

While I was in Costa Rica, my friend and I literally stumbled across this amazing organic vegetable garden behind the Hotel Belmar in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Roberto Mairena is the sole farmer of this land, and he works with joy in his heart and s smile always on his face. Although he spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, we learned a great deal from him, seeing so many of the principles that we were working to learn and enact in the USA at play in his garden–all in one place. Truthfully, this was the most inspirational and incredible garden I have ever visited (and I have certainly visited my fair share!)  What was so inspirational is that Roberto was literally doing everything himself and doing everything right and was, with the exception of imported chicken manure and a few bioferment ingredients, a closed loop system (that is, the garden largely sustains itself rather than taking nutrients and materials from other places).

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

You read about this kind of garden in books, and a lot of people are “working toward” this kind of thing–but here it is, all in one place, with so many things going on and so many little features that add up to an incredible whole. My friend Linda, a 30+ year experienced organic farmer and agricultural educator herself, was blown away with this place.  She and I spent over an hour exploring and photographing and documenting everything (so that we could learn), and then we spent almost an hour talking with Roberto and communicating in the language of plants with lots of excited pointing.

 

Robertos garden was also fully integrated into the hotel, which also is important to recognize (I have never seen a hotel in the US that had such a practice–much of the food served at the hotel came from the garden, less than 100 feet away). I am going to give you a virtual tour of his garden, and talk about some of the exciting features and what we can learn from his approach. I will say that this blog post is going to be a bit long and full of photos–but if you want to learn how to garden in a really sustainable, sacred way, its worth following along!

 

Size and Shape of the plot

We estimated that Roberto was farming about 5000-6000 square feet, and had over a 1/4 acre plot in cultivation in total–and he was able to grow amazing amounts of food and cultivate an amazing amount of diversity in that small space. Our Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask Roberto how many hours he worked in the garden each week, but from the love and care and attention to detail, we think that its likely a full time position (or close to it). We know this approach could be replicated on a smaller scale with effect.

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

One of the key features of this garden is how it uses the landscape, and the slope of the landscape, to effect. You can see the paths winding upwards, the slope catching the southern sun. The garden also has this wonderful, whimsical quality that is hard to put into words. There is a lot of joy growing here!

 

All Organic and Biointensive

Roberto was growing using only organic methods. This means no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, nothing that would harm the ecosystem or ourselves. He’s also employing nearly all of the methods used for biointensive farming, so we would classify his approach as organic and biointensive.

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

There’s always discussion among permies, gardeners, and farmers about how to best prep your beds for planting annual veggies (perennials are another matter). Do you double dig it (using a biointensive method) or sheet mulch it?  Roberto favors the double dig method, and let’s just say his soil is the most beautiful, spongy, amazing thing, so that’s winning some points in my book!

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

The garden was refreshing, in part, because so much of it was using local materials in its construction and maintenance. You may have noticed the old tree posts used to hold up the frame in the above pictures. All of the terraces were also made using locally milled boards (this is done when any tree is cut or falls down; we also saw this at work on the farm we stayed at) and using sticks to hold them in place.  Here’s an example:

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Trellises were also made largely from repurposed materials.  Here’s one such example:

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

Increasing Soil Fertility with Manure, Compost, Biofermentation, and more

Because Roberto isn’t using any chemical fertilizers, he instead uses a balanced series of soil amendments, most of which he makes on site:

1) Chicken manure from a local farm (one of few imports into the garden)

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

2) Additions of Eggshells and Ash. The soil of Costa Rica is quite acidic (as evidenced from the stunning blue hydrangeas growing all over the countryside). To counter this, Roberto uses substantial amounts of wood ash (which adds potash and trace nutrients and is highly alkali). Crushed eggshells add long-term calcium back into the soil.

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

3) Worm castings (red wiggler worms eating compost from the hotel; break down mangoes and some limited veggies). Roberto used some repurposed plastic trays and had stacks and stacks of the worms in the trays.  They made short work of the mangoes; the pits went back into the regular compost.

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

4) Rich compost from the hotel (more about this below)

5) Bioferments of various kinds (again, more below).

Compost

Roberto has a few tricks up his sleeve to make really amazing compost.  First, he uses four different bins, plus worm composting, to break down material as fast as he can.  After the worms have eaten the flesh of some fruits and veggies, he throws the harder bits right into the main compost bin.  Then, as it fills, he uses a series of repurposed PVC tubes with many holes drilled in them to provide aeration without having to turn it (this is just brilliant!).  Finally, he makes compost removal easy with a series of removable flat boards, so once the compost is ready, he can simply remove the boards and rake it into the middle of his work area (you can see this in the photo below).  Frankly, learning about these methods alone were enough to make the entire trip to Costa Rica worthwhile!

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

I’ve made bioferments with just comfrey, but Roberto was taking this to an entirely new level.  He’s using bioferments to add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity to his already beautiful, living soil.

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure.  We didn’t figure out how he made it.

We asked Roberto for his Bioferment recipe, which he was happy to give us, and we translated the last bits with help from blog readers!  I plan on making some of this quite soon.

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

  • Water – 200 liters
  • Molasses – 5 liters
  • Whey – 20 liters
  • Ash – 4 kilos
  • Cow Manure 50 kilos
  • Mineral salt – 1/2 kilo
  • Calcium Carbonate – 1 kilo
  • Rock Phosphate – 1 kilo
  • Mountain Microorganisms (inoculum fermented for compost and other organic fertilizers; prevents odors and prevents disease) – 5 liters
  • Yeast – 500 grams
  • Yogurt – 500 grams

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

Roberto also uses his edges and margins wisely (a principle from Permaculture Design).  On each edge of the garden bed, he has herbs to encourage certain kinds of beneficial insects and keep away pests and problematic insects.  He also uses trap cropping throughout the garden (where one plant will be grown as essentially the sacrifice for the pests so that the other crops are left alone).

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

Border herbs and more trap crops – lavender, parsley, chives.  Hardware cloth keeps out small critters but doesn’t take away from the look of the garden.

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

Roberto favored smaller, shorter rows with lots of companion planting.  Strawberries were planted in many rows (also in white bags, you can see this in the photo above, to reflect the heat and keep them from spreading).

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

He also used the metal roof of his shed to catch rainwater and send it into a cistern for watering.  Drip irrigation lines and a simple pump moved the water where it needed to go up or down the hillside and into the beds.

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

Part of the biointensive method is cultivating less area but always having something growing in that area.  Roberto is doing this quite effectively–when we arrived, he was clearing out beds of old and dying tomato plants, prepping the soil, and immediately putting in lettuce and spinach seedlings.  This continual crop rotation (much easier in a climate like his, but still do-able anywhere!) means that there is always something growing (often more than one something using companion planting methods) and the harvest is staggered over the season.

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

Another key aspect of Roberto’s approach was to integrate annuals and perennials, especially on the edges of the bed.  Although many of the plants we grow as “annual” are perennial in Costa Rica, he also integrated treecrops and agroforestry along the edges of the garden for even more growing power.

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

To conclude, every part of this garden, from its use of the natural features of the landscape to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams”, is carefully thought out and beautifully executed. I know there is a lot more going on here than I can share, but as you can see, its really a sacred space. I can only hope that one day, my gardens will be half as sustainable as Roberto’s were!  It was truly a delight to stumble upon this gem in the heart of Monteverde–I am inspired and amazed!

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!

 

Resources to Learn the Inner and Outer Worlds of Herbalism: Plants, Books, Courses, Lore, and More April 4, 2015

drying herbs

drying herbs

I have been doing an ongoing series of posts about herbalism: herbalism as a druidic practice, my path into herbalism, and medicine making during sacred times of the year. Given the fact that its early spring, and the herbs are starting to emerge back into the world, I wanted to follow-up with another post about how one can go about learning to be an herbalist and some of the resources to get you started.

 

There are a lot of ways to become an herbalist, but I would start by saying that the study of herbs is no quick thing. Like anything worth doing, it requires dedication and practice. Traditional western herbalism contains an immense body of knowledge that requires not only good memory and study skills, but also intuition, observation, and reasoning. You will be challenged, fully, by studying the herbs, their medicine, and their work upon the body. It will take years to develop enough knowledge to be a deeply effective herbalist, but you will also learn things even on your first day of studying herbs that you can apply to better your health and address various ailments.

 

Taking a Local, Sustainable Approach. I want to start by emphasizing that traditional western herbalists, myself included, try as much as possible to take a local approach to plants. This means getting to know local plants that grow or that can be cultivated, gathering them or growing them yourself, and using them rather than those that perhaps are more widely commercially available, but are not locally grown. Many of the really popular plants that are commercially available, like Goldenseal, Osha, or Black Cohosh also suffer from serious overharvesting and and are threatened–this is not sustainable.  There are ways of getting these plants sustainably, specifically, from small herb farms who cultivate them and harvest without disrupting wild populations. But those farms’ products are likely not found in your typical heath food store and have to be sought out.

 

As a locally-based herbalist, using the local plants will allow you to monitor the health of the species and grow some yourself.  Even if you have no land, a trip into the nearest farmer’s field, your family’s front yard, or a nearby forest can greet you with a wealth of herbs (in fact, the first herbs that are easy to learn like dandelion, plantain, violet, strawberry and ground ivy can all be typically found in most lawns). But also, being able to grow and gather your own plants puts you in a relationship with that plant that you would not otherwise have. There’s a huge energetic difference between harvesting stinging nettles fresh vs. opening up a plastic bag that you’ve purchased–a difference from a sustainable perspective, but also a difference from an energetic perspective. Using plants that are more abundant, too (read= invasive) can also help control their populations. For example, purple loosestrife, much maligned throughout Michigan, makes one of the best remedies for conjunctivitis.

 

Taking a local approach to plants is especially important to note because so much of our culture (and our own behavior patterns) is designed to fuel consumptive behavior.  If we really want to break free of consumptive cycles, it means doing a lot more things ourselves, and gathering and growing our own herbs is one of them.  I know there are a lot of well-meaning herb companies, but they still ship their herbs using fossil fuels, they still bottle or bag up herbs in plastic…all of this can be avoided (or mostly avoided) by taking a local approach.

 

Dana's herb class - 2014

Dana’s herb class – 2014

In-Person Herbal Intensives. One of the best ways for finding information on locally available medicinal plants is by learning it in person from someone who practices herbalism locally or regionally, which brings me to in-person herbal courses. I strongly suggest that if you are serious about learning herbs, try to find an in-person herbal intensive. Better yet, if you can take classes from a few different herb teachers, do so. I had read herbals before taking my year-long herbal intensive class, but learning herb through plant walks, lectures, and discussions fit my mode of learning much better, and allowed me to ask questions and also learn from other students. Plus, my herb teacher is one of my favorite human beings–many herbalists are cool, quirky, weird people who are fun to learn from and get to know. Mountain Rose herbs maintains a list of herbal schools here. Some herbal schools are in-person only (like my class from Jim McDonald); others offer distance courses, such as Rosemary Gladstar’s Science and Art of Herbalism class.

 

Wilcrafting Plants: Plant Identification. If you want to be a locally-based herbalist and use plants in your area, you want to learn not only about the herbs yourself, but how to grow and/or wildcraft those plants. Wildcrafting medicines and growing one’s own is actually, in my opinion, not only encouraged by necessary for good herbal practice. We have this tendency in our culture to just be willing to purchase everything–and certainly, plenty of herbal supplements, tinctures, or dried plants are ready to be purchased (and for some without access to plants or with limited mobility, this may be the only option). But if you have the means, invest the time in learning the plants and how to use them. If this is your goal, you  will want to get out there and start finding things! I want to refer you to my two-part series on wildcrafting as a good start (these articles include information that is applicable for wildcrafting herbs for healing/medicine). I’ve mentioned a few books really good for plant identification before–one of my favorites is Oslund and Oslund’s What’s Doin’ the Bloomin? You can also get many different kinds of apps and other resources–these are plentiful and a library has much to offer! Look also, for older plant taxonomies and guides–there are some lovely books easy to find and usually quite cheap that can teach you about tree identification, flowers, etc. The Audobon Society puts out a series of compact field guides will full color photos.  You can also get apps, like the free Leaf Snap, that can be super helpful if you are into the smartphone thing (I’m not, lol).

 

Learning about the Body: Energetics and Actions. Picking up an herbal and saying “oh, such and such plant is good for X” is a good way to get yourself in a lot of trouble–and while this method may work for simple ailments (like a burn, which is always in a hot state) its not good herbal practice. Why? Because traditional western herbalism doesn’t work like alleopathic (mainstream) medicine. Traditional western herbalism recognizes that each person’s “energetic” state in their body is different and how illness manifests in the body likewise, may be different. This means, in order to treat something, you need to know enough about energetics (called “tissue states“; the link gives Matthew Wood’s take on it) to give the right herb that will compliment and address the person’s energetic state manifesting in response to a condition.

 

Here’s what I mean–if you have a cold, your cold might be manifesting as cold (meaning you have the chills) and stagnant (meaning nothing is moving, the snot is stuck in your head) or you might have a cold that is hot (you are running a fever) and damp (you have a damp, wheezy cough, your snot runs profusely, and so on). These all very different states that the body is in–and require different herbs.  I’d use warming and stimulating herbs to treat the first condition while I’d use cooling and drying herbs to treat the second; for both I’d use immune system aids to aid the body along. If I gave the hot/damp person hot herbs, that may aggravate the condition even if the herb also had some sort of immune system boost.

 

So, the solution to this is before you dive into the herbs themselves, you should learn about how energetics work.  For this, the best book I have found is Matthew Wood’s The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. If you want to get started, my herb teacher, Jim, has a guide posted here. The second thing these books and resources will teach you is about herbal actions, or what effect the herb actually has on the body (e.g. plantain coat and soothe the mucus membranes with its mucilaginous quality).

 

Once you understand basic energetics, you can move on to using and understanding materia medicas (that is, herbal books)….

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures–in this case, from queen anne’s lace–from wildcrafted ingredients

Learning about herbs: Materia Medicas. Over the years, many different guides to specific herbs–Materia Medicas–have been written by skilled herbalists. There are several for free online, like Grieve’s Modern Herbal and Culpeppers Herbal. These are great resources and places to get started! My personal favorite herbals are Matthew Wood’s two Earthwise Herbals (Vol 1 and Vol 2). You will need to purchase both to have a full range of herbs. I also really like Adele Dawson’s Herbs: Partners in Life which as gifted to me about a year ago by two dear friends. Dawson doesn’t just talk about remedies, she also gives recipes and her innate knowledge of herbs. I think each herbalist will have his or her own favorite books–but the ones I’ve just listed are some good ones to consider.

 

Making Plant medicine. One of the areas I enjoy the most with herbalism is making various plant medicines. I’ve had a few posts over the years that detail some of my recipes, like Jewelweed Salve, Dandelion Bitters, Sore Muscle Rub, or Steam inhalations. The two books that are my go-to guides for these are complimentary and both excellent purchases: Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine and James Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. These two present you with all of the principles you need to make awesome goodies.  If you want specific recipes and suggestions, you can pick up one of many Rosemary Gladstar’s books.

 

Plants as Teachers and Allies. A critical part of learning how to be an herbalist is working with the plants themselves as teachers, allies, and guides. While different herbalists have various views on the inner worlds of plants and their teachings, one of my favorite teachers in this regard is Stephen Harrod Buhner. His Secret Teachings of Plants, Sacred Plant Medicine, and The Lost Language of Plants are great places to start.  Many of my writings on druid tree workings and other spiritual practices can also aid you in reaching the plant realm.  There is so much more to say on this topic, but I think my earlier druid tree working posts covers a good deal of the basics :).

 

Learning about the Body: Anatomy and Physiology. But wait, isn’t this about plantsWhen I dove into herbalism a two years ago, I was surprised at just how much I had to learn about the body and its functions…and wished I had taken an anatomy and physiology class while still in college!  Herbalism was just as much about plants as it is about their interaction with the body. The book I’ve used for this is Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy: An Intergrative Guide to the Human Body. There are really good Youtube videos on the subject as well.

 

Learning about food and nutrition. Good eating is the cornerstone to good health. Working to heal your body and keep it in prime health means that you not only need to understand about plants as medicine, but realize that everything that you eat also has the power to heal (or to harm). This was made very abundantly clear to me when I worked with a nutritionist and herbalist to heal my asthma.  In the case of my asthma, which was brought on by a gluten sensitivity, herbs would only take it so far (and would be treating the symptom). By changing my diet and adding herbs, I was able to address the root cause instead. This is all to say that its important to learn about nutrition and healing foods as much as it is to learn about healing plants. Jim Mcdonald has some good links on herbs and nutrition in his master index here (which is great to check out for many more reasons!)

Dried herbs and old kettles!

Dried herbs and old kettles!

 

Getting the right tools and equipment.  Starting out in herbalism doesn’t have to cost you much, if anything–the plants are freely available on the landscape. However, as you go on, you might find some tools and equipment helpful. Much of this you can repurpose or build yourself.

  • Dehydrator and/or drying rack – to dry herbs for later use, including teas. Teas are best made with dry, not fresh, herbs because the drying process breaks down cell walls.
  • Jars (I use mason jars, reusable and infinitely useful) – for storage of dried herbs, tinctures, infused oils, and more.
  • A double-boiler for making infused oils and salves (I found mine for $20 at a garage sale).
  • Tincture press. These are super expensive online, but I made my own for super cheap (instructions are here).
  • A few of the tools for harvesting and foraging: bags, basket, a pair of scissors, gloves (for nettles and prickly things), and a hori-hori knife (these and more listed in this blog post).

 

Herbalism Conferences are wonderful ways to learn from various teachers, attend plant walks, learn about energetics, and more. If you have the time and funds, an herbalism conference is well worth attending! Some conferences include the Herbfolk Gathering, the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, and the Great Lakes Herb Faire.

 

Growing Herbs. You can also learn a lot about herbalism just from simply growing a few herbs in your garden. For a full introduction to this, you can see Cech’s The Medicinal Herb Grower.

 

On the process of learning. I think I mentioned on this blog before that part of my research as a university professor is on how people learn. Since undertaking any new learning has its own set of challenges, I’ll conclude with some brief advice from the science of learning that can help you more successfully take your first steps into traditional western herbalism.

  • On setting yourself up for success. Recognize how you learn best, and make your learning conducive to that approach. Perhaps you are a visual learner: seeing the plants, looking at pictures, engaging in observation and study: these will help you learn best. Perhaps you need to learn the big picture first–learning about the big picture of energetics will help you before delving into the herbals. Perhaps you need to learn by doing: find some youtube videos and follow along yourself. The key is to figure out how you learn best and use that strategy to maximize your success.
  • Learning from someone else. Even if you aren’t able to take a class (or even if you are) you’d be surprised who has a bit of herbal knowledge around you. Ask around for people who make teas, use salves, and so on. Its really wonderful to find someone to learn from, even if its just a friend teaching you a few things.
  • Pair up and learn together. Its also wonderful to take a class with a friend or family member or to self-design a curriculum you can use to learn about herbs together. This will lead to rich conversations and keeping each other moving forward.
  • On challenges. If we continue to do the same thing over and over again, we don’t grow in the same way that if we are to challenge ourselves frequently to use–and learn new–knowledge. If you want to be a good herbalist, you have to find ways of challenging yourself to grow your herbal knowledge. Maybe tackle a big herbal project, like making a small family herbal medicine cabinet. Whatever it takes to have you grow each time you try something new.
  • On the nature of expertise. Any serious profession or subject requires considerable effort and practice to move from being a novice to to being an expert. Being an expert herbalist may not be your goal, of course.  But for many subjects, research has suggested somewhere between 5000-10,000 hours are necessary to have real “expertise.” Even if being an expert, practicing herbalist, isn’t your goal, realize that learning anything as complex as herbalism does require hours and hours of investment. So be patient and give yourself the space and time to learn.

 

I hope this post has illustrated some ways to learn about herbs and that you find it useful!  I would love to hear your ideas and experiences with herbs, dear readers!

 

 
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