Category Archives: Gardening & Homesteading

Building an Earth Oven, Part II: Insulation, Finish Plaster, and Cob Mosaic

Friends enjoying the hot oven

Friends enjoying the hot oven

In last week’s post <LINK>, we began exploring the build of an earth oven.  An Earth Oven is a simple structure, made of clay, sand, straw, stone, and fire brick, that you can use to cook foods in a traditional way.  Last week’s post walked you through the first set of steps for building your oven.  In this post, we’ll finish the build, troubleshoot, and talk about how to bake in your oven.  When we last left off, the oven was drying after building the dome.   What is left to do is to add a layer of insulation and a finish plaster, and then offer the oven protection from the elements (an upcoming post cause I don’t have that last part done yet!)

Insulating Your Oven!

Mixing cob insulation layer--keep on adding straw until it barely stick together!

Mixing cob insulation layer–keep on adding straw until it barely stick together!

Once your oven is fairly dry, you will need to add an additional layer of insulation to the oven.  Insulation is critical for the success of your oven, as this determines how quickly the oven heats up and how long it holds heat.  If you want to bake 10 pizzas in a row in the oven, an insulated oven may be able to do it, while an oven with less insulation wouldn’t hold the high temperature long enough and you would have to repeatedly build fires. There are a few things that work and, as I discovered, some things that don’t work, for insulation.

One of the tried and true methods for insulation is to mix your cob with as much straw as possible so that it just barely is holding together. Straw itself has a lot of holes that trap air, so a layer of mostly straw will trap air, creating insulation. You want STRAW here and not hay (straw has many long and thin shafts with air in the middle; hay is basically dried grass).  If you get creative, you can also add lots of glass little bottles to your oven to get even more insulation.  I had read online somewhere that sawdust also makes a good insulation layer–this did not hold true in my experience.  I added a layer of sawdust-cob mix and it had very little insulating properties, so I had to add a second insulation layer.  So let’s add that layer!

To do this, you will mix up your cob, keeping it a little wetter than normal.  Take clean straw and, if you can, use scissors to cut it up if it’s really long (anything over about 12″ in length you can cut down a bit).  This makes it easier to cut it.  Then you mix it in and get ready to add it all over your entire oven.

My big mistake here is that I thought sawdust would be insulating enough, so my friends and I put on a layer of sawdust (and artwork) that we ended up having to cover up.  Ah well!

For extra insulation, I also added some small bottles; these created bigger pockets of air for extra insulation.  You don’t have to do this.  I had a bunch of bottles that I was having difficulty cleaning after they had tinctures in them for a long time, so I decided to put them to use in my earth oven.  You can see that in-progress shot above–the straw insulation with the extra bottles.

Goose helpers help to mix up some cob!

Finish Plaster and Decoration

At this point, you have a fully functional, very well insulated, earth oven. Now you can turn your attention to the decoration of your earth oven, the finish plaster, and figuring out how to put a good “hat” or roof on your oven. The reason you need to think about plaster and a roof is to protect it from the elements. This is an oven made of mud, and thus, exposure to the elements for any amount of time will damage it. Until you get your finishes on, you can put a tarp over it!

You have a lot of options for finish plasters and thinking about how to protect your oven.  Lime plasters are one option–here is a good introduction to lime plaster. If you do a lime plaster, you will have a nice breathable finish that is also very protective of rain and snow.

I made a cob-based finish plaster using a higher ratio of sand to prevent cracking. You will want to mix your plaster in advance and then do a test piece on your plaster to see if it’s cracking or not.  If it cracks, adjust your ratios (particularly see if you need more sand). You will also want to include a short fiber that is very strong. A lot of people use cattail fluff for this; but, I had an abundance of milkweed pods on the property (and I was already using the seeds for seed balls), so I decided to use the milkweed fluff and that worked great.

Plaster can be applied in a thin layer. What I did was to briefly wet down the outer layer (so that the plaster sticks) and then use a trowel and my hands to spread the plaster, about 1″ thick and smooth it out nicely. Here are a few steps:

Mixing my milkweed-based finish plaster–I felt like a frolicking fairy!

Wetting down for finish plaster

Wetting down for finish plaster

After I have started my final plaster–you can see the consistency of the milkweed plaster (a cattail plaster would look pretty similar).

Because I also wanted some artwork and decoration on my cob, I used the cob plaster to shape some nice spirals.  I saved up broken plates, cups, and bowls that had broken during regular use, and then I used a hammer to smash them up and give me smaller pieces.  I embedded these in the cob plaster and used a small sponge to wipe away excess.  When the plaster dried, I went back in and wiped it away again to clean up the mosaic pieces.

I’ll show a few detailed photos of the mosaic:

In this first photo, you can see how I shaped the finish plaster and added the spirals.  The finish plaster below this is still wet; if it wasn’t, I would have wetted it and also scored it with a stick or a butter knife to give the new plaster a bit to hold onto (just like you would do in pottery).  I added cob glue/grout to the inner area and kept adding a few pieces at a time. I did this with extra cob so that things would hold firmly.

Here you can see it as the mosaic progresses.

Now I’m going in and taking a wet sponge and sponging off most of the excess cob.  If there are areas that need more cob, I add it.  The idea is a smooth presentation.

Here’s what the finished mosaic and oven looks like!

The completed earth oven

The completed earth oven

Despite my best efforts, I still had a little cracking on my earth plaster, but I’m ok with that.  I needed to do a second test, and I didn’t, primarily because it was starting to get cold and I was running out of time to complete the build!

Sheltering your Earth oven

The final step for your earth oven is to create a shelter for it.  You either need a shelter or a finish plaster( lime plaster).  In temperate ecosystems with lots of rain and snow, a shelter is your best bet.  I am working on that final step this spring,  so I’ll share more about it once my friends and I finish that part.  It has taken some time because I’ve been harvesting lumber from the property–as trees fall down or are blown down by storms, I am gathering them up to use for my shelter.  This takes more time, but it’s also in reverence and respect for this land that had been logged before I came.

Final Thoughts and Troubleshooting

My oven has a crack! Nearly all earth ovens will develop a crack somewhere. That’s ok, and honestly, the crack can tell you a lot about the oven–as you learn about your oven, you will learn to read the crack to understand the temperature, etc.  This isn’t usually anything to worry about as long as you have built a strong structure.

Shrine on the path to the cob oven (that stone looks precariously placed but it’s actually quite stable! Kind of a cool optical illusion.

My oven takes a while to heat! Yes, it does.  This is not like turning on your fossil-fuel-driven oven.  Earth ovens take time and are absolutely ‘slow food’.  Because of this, you have to spend time tending the fire before you can cook.  To get pizzas, I start my oven about 4-4.5 hours before I want to bake.  If it’s below 40, I start it 5 hours before I want to bake.  This means every 30 min, I am going to tend my fire.  That’s part of the experience.  If you aren’t achieving baking temperatures, you probably need a longer fire.

My oven doesn’t seem hot enough. Get yourself an oven thermometer (the stand-up kind) and see what your internal temperature is.

I will be sharing more details about baking in the earth oven and some cool recipes to try in my 3rd post in this series!  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, I hope that this series has inspired you to get your hands in the mud and maybe build something or help someone build something.  Blessings!

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Reskilling at Imbolc

Imbolc–the first signs of spring (artwork by myself and my father, Mark Driscoll)

In a traditional neopagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc is the holiday that offers the first signs of spring.  Most traditionally, this is when the ewes began to lactate, and the snowdrops appeared on the landscape in the British Isles.  In the age of climate instability, traditional seasonal interpretations become challenged for many reasons–not the least of which are climate disruptions.  So how might we bring the holiday of Imbolc into the 21st century and think about what this holiday means to us today?

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts in this series, the 21st Century, the Age of the Anthropocene, offers us a set of unprecedented challenges and yet opportunities.  As a permaculture designer, I think it’s important to recognize that while the problems we already face are unavoidable, these problems give us a chance to re-see, re-think, and revise our way of living and interacting in the world.  Or, “the problem is the solution.” We know that our way of life is unsustainable,–so the opportunity and impetus is now to do something about it.  Because the Age of the Anthropocene presents us such challenges, it is an excellent time to think about how we can create spiritual practices that deeply engage us in the here and now of this age, and provide us a clear set of spiritual and physical tools that empower us into being part of the solution.

If you look at my previous posts in this series, starting at the Fall Equinox, you can see a clear progression. Here is our wheel so far:

  • Fall Equinox: Receptivity.  Working to embrace receptivity rather than expected harvest and reward and being open to the unexpected; working to adapt to what comes rather than being disappointed by what we expect which does not appear.  In other words, it is setting aside traditional notions of reaping rewards for hard effort and instead focusing on receptivity and flexibility.
  • Samhain: Release: Releasing and letting go so that we can embrace a different and unique tomorrow. Samhain is about unburdening ourselves from both our expectations of the future (tying into the Fall Equinox) and also dealing with our own pain and trauma surrounding an increasingly unstable age.  By letting go we put ourselves in a place to be ready to heal and rest.
  • Winter Solstice: Restoration/Rejuvenation. Now that we have let go of our expectations (founded on a different age) and dealt with the pain and trauma, we are ready to heal, rest, and immerse ourselves in our own spiritual practices.  In the age of the Anthropocene, many people are finding that self-care and rest are more important than ever before.

These three holidays set the foundation for what is to come–they are all internal, asking us to look inward and lay the spiritual, mental, and emotional foundation for the work in the light half of the year.

One final thing before we get into today’s topic–I’ve gotten some serious pushback on this series.  My take is this: the further we move into human-driven climate disruptions, the less the traditional seasonal celebrations are going to make sense, and the more sense of loss we may have surrounding an age that has passed.  From my perspective, it is important to make adaptable tools that work for my spiritual practice that work for right now and that helps me create and foster positive visions for the future. But if you are a traditionalist, my approach probably won’t appeal.  That’s ok, do your thing.

Reskilling at Imbolc

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Today, at Imbolc and our last “dark half of the year” holiday, we consider the next step in our new Wheel of the Year: Reskilling.

As a basic activity to introduce reskilling, consider your answer to the following questions:  Do you know how to provide your own food, water, shelter, clothing, and warmth from nature or the land around you?  How resilient do you feel you are if you no longer had access to the supermarket for a period of time? What traditional skills do you practice?

One of the major challenges we face in the age of the Anthropocene is that most of the traditional skills passed on from generation to generation were lost.  The social and economic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries created generations of people who are entirely dependent on others for taking care of their basic needs. For hundreds of thousands of years–millions even–before we were even homo sapiens, it was a basic necessity for a human being to act like every animal on this planet: to be able to know where to find food and water, to take shelter, to keep themselves warm and safe.  These basic skills have been stripped from us–and as we are watching the global engines which drive systems we depend for these things upon grind to a halt–it is time to do something about that problem.

Reskilling is the idea that we can learn new skills: skills associated with taking care of our basic needs like water, food, shelter, clothing, and other basic know-how.  Reskilling encompasses a great many skills including those in wilderness survival and bushcraft (e.g. how to survive in the wilderness, make fire, wild food foraging, wild crafts and arts) but also those surrounding our homes and lives such as how to grow your own food, food preservation techniques, animal husbandry, beekeeping as well as how to create things for your use: spoon and bowl carving, sewing, hand papermaking, tool repair and creation, blacksmithing, and so much more.  The whole point here is to develop a set of new skills–skills practiced by all of our ancestors throughout much of human history–so that we are more resilient and prepared to meet our needs and the needs of our family, friends, and community.

Why is Imbolc a good time to do this work? Because for those in temperate climates, it is usually the deepest part of winter, and it’s after the rush of the holidays.  This time of year is great for learning and practicing new skills. Traditionally, the winter months were useful for developing and maintaining new skills in a traditional household–this is when the mending got done, the spoons and bowls got carved, cordage was made, quilts were finished, and a host of other skill-based activities took place.

Reskilling is also about planning and figuring out what kinds of things you want to do and what skills you may need to get yourself there. For example, this year, I’m starting to work on a massive project–building our family’s root cellar using earth bag construction. Because this will be entirely done by hand, I have to have the right set of knowledge to know how to build it, how to prevent frost heaving, how to ensure good airflow, etc.  So that requires me to develop a new set of skills surrounding earthbag construction.  That’s what I’m focusing on at Imbolc this year–reading books, watching a number of videos, putting my plans on paper, and developing a new set of knowledge and skills to begin the project.

Reskilling

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

There are two approaches to reskilling that people often take: reskilling around basic human needs and developing specialist skills.

Basic human skills: At one time, all people were generalists in the sense that they knew how to take care of their own needs: forage or grow food; preserve food; make fire; make shelter; source clean water, etc.  So there’s a set of skills that probably all of us can learn and share together surrounding our basic human needs.  These basics actually encompass quite a few things:

  • Food: Growing food, wild food foraging, animal husbandry, food preservation, fermentation and brewing, low-impact and traditional cooking methods
  • Shelter: how to protect yourself, how to build simple shelters, natural building, building outdoor spaces (outdoor kitchens, etc), root cellars, appropriate shelter for animals, etc.
  • Warmth: Building and tending fires, working with fire for cooking and heating, being able to start a fire with different methods
  • Water: knowing how to source and filter clean water
  • Clothing: Learning how to mend clothing, sewing skills, this may also include things like cobbling (shoemaking) or creating other items
  • Household and functional items: Making things that we need and use every day (cups, bowls, spoons); learning how to do things without fossil fuel (people power), etc.
  • Supporting earth. I would add to this basic list of human needs that we need a healthy, diverse, and abundant planet on which to live, and so skills supporting protecting and preserving our own lands also go here.  These are techniques like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and other practices that help us directly impact the life on this planet.

This list is actually a huge number of different skills. Here, I think, it pays to be a dabbler. Learn a bit about a lot of different things so that you can help prepare yourself for a variety of different challenges that may arrive–and become much more sustainable and earth-friendly in your own living.

Specialist skills. In traditional and pre-industrial cultures, beyond the generalist skills that everyone knew, there were people who specialized in crafts and techniques that were unique. For example, a typical medieval village would have a miller who milled grain, a cobbler who made shoes, a blacksmith who worked iron and other metals, a healer who specialized in herbs and plants; an apiarist who worked with bees to produce honey and candles, and many more things. These skilled professionals could also be found in traditional hunter-gatherer societies.

There were also specialist skills surrounding needs beyond the basic–storytelling, poetry, and other arts were traditional forms of entertainment that some individuals chose to specialize in.  When we think about reskilling, it’s not just about providing our basic needs but also other things that enrich our lives, like providing our own entertainment.

If you are serious about reskilling, I would suggest in addition to working on the basics (which may take a number of years) you might choose to specialize in a particular specialist set of skills from the list above.  Learn how o really hone your craft in that skill. Perhaps you already have a  skill set, and this is a good time to re-commit yourself to those skills.  Or perhaps this is your first time considering it!

Where does the part about ceremony and ritual come into play with these skillsets? There are several ways, which we’ll now explore.

Sacred Actions and Reskilling

One of the ways to ritualize the idea of reskilling is through the concept I advocate in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  In this book, the idea of Sacred Action is that of living in a manner that is sacred–recognizing that everyday life can have sacred intent and bringing in some of that to your life. (There’s a lot more about reskilling in my book too, if you are interested!)

Thus, if you want to focus your energy on learning to sprint and knit, and make your own clothes, recognizing that this is a sacred and earth-honoring activity will help bring your own spiritual principles in alignment with the work.  It allows you to approach the work not as “work” but as a sacred activity that puts you deeply in touch with the land.

Blessing and Honoring Your Tools

Most reskilling requires some kind of basic tools. For me continuing to learn natural building, for example, my drawknife, hatchet, shovel, soil sifter, and wheelbarrow are really important tools that I use regularly. These tools were all that I used to build the heat sink back wall of my greenhouse, my earth oven (posts forthcoming!), and will be what I use for my new root cellar project. These tools represent my connection to the skills I am developing, and  I could not do these projects without them. Thus, the tools can be treated in honor and respect. I like to honor my tools in several ways:

  • Before I begin a new project or start working on a project, I like to do a small ceremony invoking the elements and doing a smoke cleansing of my tools
  • I make sure I care for my tools properly, sharpening them, cleaning them, and putting them away after use.  When I put them away, I thank the tools for their help.

Recognize too that your body is the most important tool for reskilling–thus, you can also honor and bless your own body as part of this work.  You can do this when you honor your tools at the start of the project or in any other self-care-oriented or ritualized way (sacred bath, smoke clearing, etc).

Honoring the Ancestors of the Craft

Another way to bring sacred practices into your reskilling is by honoring the ancestors of your craft. Every skill that you might want to learn has individuals–known or unknown–who have helped preserve the tradition, taught it, rediscovered certain things, wrote books, historically documented material, or whatever else they did to ensure the tradition remained alive. These ancestors of the craft can certainly be honored as part of a reskilling practice.

For example, one of the skills I have committed to learning is leatherworking, both to create things like bags or knife sheaths but also cobbling.  I shared more of the story of my tools and how I honor the ancestors of that craft in this post.  In a nutshell, I named my industrial sewing machine “Coco” after my ancestor of craft and make regular offerings.  In a second example, for my ongoing reskilling surrounding wild food foraging, I honor my Grandfather Custer as my ancestor as he taught me my first wild plants and always took me into the woods. Thus, I have a special place at my parents’ house that I go that is named “Grandpa’s field” and I make offerings and remember him there.

You can create a small shrine, say a small prayer, put up a picture, name a project or tool after your ancestor of the craft.  You can do this work at Imbolc once a year or, consider doing it more often (such as when you clean your tools or when you start a new project).  This is an excellent thing to establish as you are establishing your new skill–consider how you can honor the ancestors of the craft and be inspired by them.

A Commitment to the Journey

A final way that you can ritualize your exploration into reskilling is by doing a ceremony of commitment to your new craft.  I would suggest that you spend some time in the craft first (e.g. in AODA, individuals who are pursuing a new bardic art are encouraged to spend 20 hours–which is enough time to know if they would want to continue it or set it aside.  After you’ve done enough of the craft to know that you want to continue it, you can do a commitment ceremony.  For this ceremony, I suggest that you:

  • Honor and bless your tools
  • Speak about what you’ve already learned and what you would like to learn
  • Set goals
  • Invoke the assistance of higher powers/diety/ancestors/spirits

You can craft this ceremony in any way that is appropriate.  For example, when I took up the leatherworking journey, I did a ceremony like this.  I pulled out the lovely supplies and tools that I had been gifted and I set them around me.  I touched each one and spoke to them of what I might create with them.  I held the tools and honored those who had used them before me and made them.  I set goals for the kinds of things I wanted to create.  I then spent some quiet time sketching designs and meditating, and then I closed the space.  I’m not giving a specific ritual here because I feel that each person and path would require a unique approach.

Conclusion

When I started learning these traditional skills about 15 years ago and moved into more radical lifestyle changes, like taking up homesteading, I think a lot of people (particularly those at my workplace) looked at me like I was crazy.  I think that the tide has finally turned on this, however, and more people are waking up to the fact that the systems we depend on will not be there forever. If anything of the last two years have taught us, at least here in the US, is that things are not as stable as they once were.  We are likely to experience much more instability as climate change continues to progress and we continue to see more social unrest and upheaval on the long descent.  Thus, learning these kinds of skills not only cultivates resiliency in our lives, but it also provides some distance from the very systems that are harming the planet.  Everything I’ve outlined above allows us to live more richly, slowly, connected, and regeneratively, and those are skills well worth cultivating. They are meant to be done in the community, inviting others in to participate and enjoy.

The big issue that a lot of people have is time.  Yes, this kind of approach takes time and energy.  But this is energy and time well spent, both to developing a more sustainable and spiritual practice and creating a better tomorrow for ourselves, our loved ones, and future generations.  Like anything else, I think if we are creative about how we engage in these skills, we can find time to enact them.

I would love to hear from you, readers, on your own reskilling efforts! What are you working on? What have you learned? What would you like to learn?

Building a Rocket Stove Maple Sap Boiler / Evaporator for Maple Sugarin’: Design Plans and Instructions for Boiling Sap

The Maple Sap Boiler!

Maple syrup season is one of my favorite times of year. Honoring the maple trees, collecting the sap in buckets, seeing the magic drip from the trees, and feeling the return of early spring.  Sap begins running just after the deep freeze is over, usually in early February here in the Alleghney Mountains in Western Pennsylvania. A very important factor in collecting sap is having a plan for boiling that sap into maple sugar.  Today’s post will give you full instructions for how to build a very wood efficient outdoor maple sap boil system using bricks, a stovepipe, and four restaurant trays.  I’ve used this system for five years at two different locations and it is one of the best setups I’ve seen.  For more information on maple sugaring, please see the magic of maple trees and maple sap.

There are a few key features about this setup:

  1. You can boil quite a large amount of sap using relatively small amounts of wood because it is using rocket stove technology. We boiled 40 gallons of sap down in 6 hours in March 2021 this system. That included about 45 minutes of getting the fire going and about 5 hours of boiling. We used two small piles of wood, most of which we trimmed as dead wood off of some of our Norway Spruce trees.  Thus, this is an extremely efficient system and can be fueled with downed wood.  The best kind of wood for this system is longer pieces of wood that are the thickness of your wrist or less.  The goal is to keep the flames on the boil system.  Wooden palates also work really well for this.
  2. This system (new) will cost you about $200, and half of that is the cost of the stainless steel pans and the rest is the bricks and stovepipe. However, many of these materials are quite easy to source for free or used, so take advantage of that. In fact, the stovepipe and most of the bricks all were salvaged here on the land, so the only thing we paid for was the boil pans. If you boil 40 gallons of sap a year, the system will pay for itself in under 4 years (around here, local maple syrup runs about $65/gallon). 
  3. This system requires no skills other than some sweat equity to build!
  4. The system doubles as a large party grill, so invite your friends over for the 4th of July for some grilled meats and veggies!  You will just need to source a griddle for it for this use (we use one for free that a friend gave us from her old oven).
  5.  Wood-fired maple syrup tastes much more incredible than maple syrup finished in commercial boilers. When you boil the syrup with wood, the syrup takes on a hint of smokiness that is just incredible. It’s hard to describe the exquisite flavor, but it is truly one of the best things you’ll ever taste!

So with all of that, let’s get started with how to build your own rocket stove maple sap boiling system!

Materials and Supplies

The following are the building materials that you will need to construct your rocket stove boiler.

  • Gravel: Several wheelbarrows full of gravel, depending on how level your original site is
  • Concrete bricks:  24 blocks for the sides and approximately 9 blocks for the back (depending on how you construct your boiler).  They cost about $3 or you can usually easily find them for free or used on Craig’s list (in the US).  We ended up using a mix of bricks foraged from the property that were left by previous owners with some new bricks–you can adjust for slight size differences.
  • Stovepipe: An wood stovepipe with a cap is your second piece of equipment. This is necessary for getting the fire really burning as it allows you to create a rocket stove effect for greatly enhanced efficiency.  Find one used –but make sure it is for wood and not gas.
  • Restaurant Pans: This boil system uses a set of four nested restaurant pans (full size, 6″ deep, stainless steel).  These represent about a $100 investment but can be used for years and years.  We’ve been using the same pans for 5 years now and they show no signs of wearing out.

You will also need some supplies on hand to complete the job:

  • Garden rake or hole to smooth out gravel
  • Shovel to help level and move gravel
  • Wheelbarrow  gravel and bricks
  • Level

Choosing Your Site

Once you have your materials, it is time to choose a site.  I would recommend three considerations:

  • Location: make sure it is at least reasonably near where you are tapping your trees. Large amounts of maple syrup are not exactly easy to move around, and so, you will want your boil system located near your trees if at all possible. 
  • Trees: Second, make sure wherever your stovepipe is located isn’t too close to branches or trees–the heat coming out of this is pretty intense.  You don’t want to damage trees in your sugarbush. 
  • Level: Finally, you will need to have a level surface for building your boiler, so starting with somewhere relatively level is a good idea.  You can always level the area out with soil and/or gravel.

Steps

The end goal is to have a boiler that is 4 standard concrete bricks long, 3 bricks high, and has a fairly sealed in the back that can keep your stovepipe secure. 

Cut-away view of the Maple Sap boiler with a shot of how to place the stovepipe for getting the rocket action!

Level your site and add a gravel foundation. The first thing you will want to do is create a level site using gravel.  We laid down 4″ of gravel across the area where we were building our boiler.  Level out the gravel as best you can, and check to see that it is relatively level before you start adding your bricks.  You can do this by using a larger level or use a smaller level on a piece of 2×4 board.  Adding gravel is important for two reasons–first, it allows the site to have good drainage and it prevents frost heaving (which is obviously an issue anywhere you are harvesting maple sap).

Build your walls, ensuring they are level and that the pans fit between them.  Next, you will build your two walls, building one tier of bricks at a time.  The first tier of bricks is two lines of four bricks across, and 21″ apart (the pans are 20″ 3/4″ wide).  As you work, make sure your bricks are level both short-wise and long-wise so that as you build your structure, you can keep it level.   After you lay your first set of bricks along both walls, double-check that all four of your pans fit and adjust accordingly.

Then, add your second layer and repeat the process, and finally, add your third layer and repeat once more.   At this point, your pans should fit snugly, but they should be able to be lifted out and put in with relative ease (remember when you start boiling, you will have to remove them at the end of the boil!)

Build your back and secure your stovepipe. I‘m going to show photos of how we built our back.  There are a few considerations.  First, you want to seal it up as much as possible so that the airflow goes primarily through the pipe and out any cracks (you can use cob for this or even small pieces of the concrete block).  You could use ashes or vermiculite if you wanted, but we just added smaller pieces of block.  Second, you will want to make sure your stovepipe is extremely stable so once you start boiling, you don’t encounter issues where it falls over, etc.  Second, you want to make sure you place a half brick or large stone under the pipe–as the ash builds up as you are burning all day, you do not want the pipe to clog.  Ours sits about 4″ off of the ground.

We had an interesting chimney-sized brick that was a square with a hole on our property, so we used that as something to better hold our stovepipe.   You can also just hold it in place with a few bricks long-wise.  After all of this building, you are ready to fire it up and boil!

Using your Boiler

I have some tips and tricks for using this boiler, as I’ve been boiling sap on this kind of setup for six years.  Here they are:

The absolute most important thing is to make sure your fire is going well for about 45 minutes before you add your pans.  One of the things that will cause the most grief and slow down your boil is a poor fire with your pans added too early.  If you get your fire started and wait at least 45 minutes, keeping it fed, by the time you add your pans, it should be able to keep going.  This means you need to procure wood and make sure its dry before the day of your boil (cause no wood outside is dry in Feb/March!)

Make sure you have dry wood that burns well. Your goal is high flames and a hot fire–not coals.  The flames should be touching the bottom of your boil pans.  This means you want smaller diameter wood (sticks, branches, wood palettes).  Often, your sugarbush will have enough downed branches that if you collect and keep dry, you will have enough.  If not, pick up some pine palates–they work wonderfully in this boil system and burn very hot. Cutting dead branches off of nearby conifers is also excellent and will yield many flames.  We recently had part of an Eastern Hemlock come down and a year later, that wood is amazing for sugarin’.

Good eats cooked on the edge of the boiler on a cast iron griddle!

You will need to tend your boiler throughout the day.  Plan on feeding it wood every 15 min, keeping an eye on the amount of boil, adding more sap, moving sap, and generally enjoying the day. This is an activity that requires your presence and is certainly “slow food.” Choose a nice day for boiling–you want a sunny day, as warm as it can be.  Usually, here our trees run in late January and through February and we choose to boil on a warm day in early March for boiling.

For your boil, you will want to have some kind of wire skimmer/strainer with a fine mesh, a mug or dipper for moving sap between the different pans, some heat-resistant gloves or mitts, and a vessel for transporting your finished sap (I recommend a pressure canner since it has the locking lid) for moving your hot sap to the house for finishing.  The oven mitts WILL get sooty so those from your kitchen will likely be ruined (which, of course, I learned the hard way).

You want your sap to be actually boiling–if it’s steaming but not boiling, it will take a LOT longer to boil off and your fire needs to be hotter.  Getting that rolling boil is necessary to make progress on your sap. You can get it too hot and then it starts to boil over–just add more cool sap to cool the pan down if necessary. 

The bricks next to the stovepipe will have a little bit of rocket action themselves–so it is a good place to cook yourself some lunch or dinner, especially if you have an iron griddle (see below).

This is about as dark as you want to go outside–bring it in the house to finish at this point.

Sugaring can be a really fun and community-oriented event.  In the many boils I have participated in over a decade, I’ve learned how to carve spoons, weave baskets, make cordage, and a number of other natural crafts that we would enjoy as we sat around the fire and took turns tending it. 

As you are gathering up your sap, make sure to discard any ice in your buckets or storage containers.  The sugars stay in the remaining non-frozen sap, so you can save yourself hours of boil time by removing the ice–this condenses down your sap and there is less to boil off.

The point of an outdoor boil is to boil off 80-90% of the water–and then take it indoors for finishing.  It’s hard to maintain the right levels of heat in this system to get it 100% of the way–you risk scorching or burning it.  So by doing most of it outside and finishing it on your stove (where you have full control) you are able to really be effective.

Sugaring Stage 1

Boiler Pans - the rightmost are the hottest (boiling) and the leftmost are the warming pans

Boiler Pans – the rightmost are the hottest (boiling) and the leftmost are the warming pans

Get your fire going and wait about 45 min until it is going really strong and well. If you add your pans too early, you will struggle to get the fire going and waste a lot of time.  Once it is going and will stay going when you feed it wood, add your boil pans being careful not to burn yourself.  Then, pour 3″ of sap in each pan. 

The way this system works is that the pans closest to the stovepipe will be hotter than the ones further out.  So your first pan, at the opening of the fire, will be your warming pan, your second pan will be hot and maybe boiling and pans 3 and 4 are your main boiling pans. You can see this from my image.

Feed your fire regularly, trying to make sure the flames are enough to keep at least your first two pans boiling steadily.  As the pans start to boil down, you will add the liquid from the 2nd pan into the 3rd and 4th as they boil.  Then add sap from the warming pan (1st pan) to the 2nd pan, and add more cold sap into the warming pan.  Use your mug for this.

This method works best because if you are adding cold sap directly, you are slowing down your boil–and the more you slow down your boil, the less efficient you are.  By adding sap from the second pan that is near boiling, you will not slow down your boil.  By having a warming pan, you keep the sap heating up and ready to move. As you boil, your final two pans will get darker and darker as the sugars are concentrated in the syrup.

As you are boiling, there will be bits of stuff in your sap–strain it as you add it, but the smoke and ash will continue to come into it a little bit (this is GOOD as it gives amazing flavor).  As the foam appears, skim it off and discard it.

Toward the end of the boil, you will either boil through your sap or get tired and want to call it a day.  At this point, your strategy switches.  You don’t want to boil it too far down or you can risk it turning to sugar–and the outdoor boil system isn’t very precise.  One of the things to look for when you are getting ready to be done is that the bubbles in the boil get thicker and the color turns much darker.  So, as you see your pans boil down and you are out of sap, you can start removing them.  First, pour off any remaining sap into your 2nd pan from your first and remove it.  Then, do the same with the second.  Allow these to boil down another 15-20 min and then, rake out your coals. 

Getting down to the final two boil pans!

At this point, you will want a good vessel that can carry your sap back to the house.  The absolute best tool for this job is a pressure canner with a lid that locks.  This will prevent you from burning yourself and you can finish it right in the pressure canner.

The easiest way to remove your sap is to label it out with your mug into your pressure canner until the boiling pan is almost empty.  Then, with a friend, each of you can take one side and pour off the rest. The pans are hot so be careful. They are also covered with soot, and you might be too after handling them.

At this point, put the lid on your pressure canner and take it back to the house.  You still have to boil it down a bit more on the stove.

Indoor Finishing

Finishing your sap indoors usually takes another hour or two, depending on how far down you were able to get your sap.  Bring your sap to a boil again, and with a spoon, check it every 15 minutes.  You should try to keep an overhead fan running–if you boil too much sap down in your house your house can actually get sticky (this is why we do outdoor boils).  After another hour or two (or 5, if you still have to go quite a ways), you will boil it down to the point where you have a thick and lovely maple syrup.  What I usually do is bring out a little syrup I have from the year before and compare it to what is in my pot–and when I get to the same consistency, I am done. 

The spoon test: the one on the left is from last year and the one on the right is from this year. The one on the right still needs to boil down a bit more

Get yourself a few clean mason jars, and pour your sap into your mason jars.  Wait 24 hours.  You’ll have some stuff in the bottom of the jars from the ash and smoke from the boil.  Pour these off carefully, making sure not to get any of the stuff from the bottom of the jar.  Usually, if I’m pouring off 3-4 jars, I will pour all of the sludge into one jar and let that sit a second time, and pour it off a second time.  That’s the syrup that I will use first.  The idea is to get as much of that out–because that will impact the shelf stability of your syrup. You can also experiment with finely woven linen or cheesecloth to get all the bits out. 

There you have it!  This is literally one of my favorite activities to do all year–it is meaningful, sacred, and fulfilling. I wish you the brightest blessings of the maple tree and joy in your endeavors.

 

Putting the Garden to Sleep: End of Season Activities and Rituals

Garden bed with scarecrow

The day before the first hard frost. Our garden is still bountiful as the Butzemann watches over all….As the darkness continues to grow deeper on the landscape, it is high time to consider how to put the garden to rest for the winter and honor the garden that has offered you so much bounty and joy for the season. I actually find this one of my favorite gardening activities of the year, both on a metaphysical and physical level. There’s something special about “tucking” your garden in after a productive growing season and knowing that the land will go fallow and rest as the cold and ice come. Here are both the physical activities and sacred activities that you can do to help put your garden to rest.

Do note that my timings are based on the temperate climate in Western Pennsylvania, USDA Zone 6A.  You can adapt appropriately based on your own end-of-season and seasonal changes.

Metaphysical Activities

Metaphysical activities support the garden and the downward/restful flow of energy that allows the land to be fallow before returning to abundance in the spring.  For millennia, our ancient ancestors all through the world did rituals and ceremonies to support the abundance and health of the land; these are intended in the same direction. (For some you can do later in the year, see this post).  Physical and metaphysical activities go hand in hand–everything that we do in the physical world has an impact on the metaphysical, and vice versa.  Thus, by working on both levels, we are able to achieve maximum effect.

Burning the Butzemann

In the Pennsylvania Dutch Tradition, the Butzemann is created at Imbolc and set out to protect your crops and land at the Spring Equinox–and we practice this tradition each year.  At the Spring Equinox, a friendly guardian spirit is invited into the Butzemann to guard the crops and flocks for the coming season. And at Samhain, the Butzemann must be burned to release the guardian spirit and offer thanks.  What we usually do is build a bonfire somewhere near or on Samhain.  Then we take our Butzemann to the fire and once again call the Butzemann by name (the naming tradition being very important) and speak of the good things that happened on the homestead and garden (e.g. you protected our crops well, we harvested 15 pumpkins, our flocks were safe from hawks, etc).  Then we release the Butzemann to the flames and watch it burn (which is always really cool).  This completes the Butzemann ceremony until Imbolc when a new Butzemann is constructed (from the previous garden’s materials and other burnable materials) and the cycle begins again.

Honoring the Soil and Compost through the Soil Web Ceremony

Garden shrine with fall bounty and freshly fallen oak leaves

Compost is a major theme this time of year, as so many things die to have their nutrients reclaimed by the soil web of life. Even perennials, including plants and trees, contribute to this great soil web of life.  Thus, it is very appropriate to honor the soil web this time of year.

For this, I like to do a “soil web” dance.  This is an embodied ritual that involves me dancing (barefoot if possible) on the earth, allowing my footsteps to be my prayer to the earth.  I may be moved to praise the soil web, the nematodes, the worms, the bacteria, the protozoa, and so much more.  My dance always involves dancing in the garden, through the paths, and eventually to the compost pile.  At the compost pile, I leave an offering (last garden harvest food and/or liquid gold are very appropriate here).  I may also make symbols with sticks with leaves as a shrine to the soil.

If you created a “last harvest” meal, you can use this as an additional offering (see below).

A “Rest Well” Chanting Ritual for Gardens and Land

Inviting the land into peaceful slumber is another way you can put the garden to bed on a metaphysical level.  For this, I particularly like using Ogham and chanting magic (with a drum if it’s warm enough).  I chant the following ogham (you can adapt these to your own ecosystem or needs)

  • Ruis (Elder) pronounced RWEESH: Elder is for endings, cycles, and resolution.
  • Phagos (Beech) pronounced FAH-gus: For preservation, sleep, history, and memory.
  • Quert (Apple) pronounced KWEIRT: Apple is for future abundance, blessings, and harvests.

So the chant would go:

Ruis – Ruis – Ruis
Phagos – Phagos – Phagos
Quert – Quert – Quert

And after this, you can start playing with the syllables of each of the three trees in any order, such as:
QUE–eee—iii–rr–tt – QUERT  QQQQ —EEERRRR —TTT
And so forth.  Just allow your vocal cords and body to explore this expression fully.

End your ritual chant with a focus on Ruis, as Ruis is the Ogham connected to the present moment.

As you chant, really envision the energy of each of these trees coming forth: the Elder coming in to help aid with the end of the season, for closing down, and for resolution.  The Beech carries the garden/land through the darkness of winter, where it is able to rest, the soil is preserved, and carries forth the memory of the past into the future. And finally, the Apple, which offers the promise of future abundance and carries a blessing to the garden/land.  Really project this energy as you chant.  As you feel the ritual is complete, start to wind down, ending with chanting Ruis very softly.

Garlic Ritual: A Land/Sea/Sky blessing

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

The garlic planting ritual is a really nice way of seeding a blessing for the entire season to come.  Garlic is the last thing to be planted in the fall in our ecosystem (at the time you plant garlic, your fall crops should already be being harvested).  And that garlic will stay in the ground for almost 9 months, being harvested in the heat of the summer.  In the winter, the garlic sets deep roots and then, as the spring comes, it sends its green shoots up into the air.

After you plant your garlic, honor your garlic with a simple land, sea, sky blessing. Gather up the following materials:

  • A bowl of hardwood ash (or compost)
  • A large bowl or bucket of clean water (rainwater, snowmelt, spring water, water from a local spring or creek) and a bough of a conifer (Eastern hemlock is what I use, but you could also use white pine, cedar, juniper, etc)
  • A flute or other woodwind instrument (or your breath)

You can put your items on the ground or create an altar for the ceremony.

Sprinkle the ash/compost on the bed and say, “With the blessing of the earth, may you root deeply this winter.  May your roots and bulbs be blessed, and through that blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.”

Next, asperge the bed with water by dipping the branch into the bucket of water and flicking it all over the bed.  Say, “With the blessings of the sacred pool, may you be nourished and grow.  May your bulbs and roots be blessed, and through that blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.”

Finally, play your flute/woodwind instrument.  If you do not have a woodwind instrument, you can get down and blow directly on the soil, offering your breath to the soil.  When you are done, say, “With the blessing of the air, may you sprout in the spring and grow strong through the summer.  May your entire being be blessed, and through this blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.

Finally, cross your arms and bow your head. Say anything else that comes to mind at this point, honoring your garden.  If you created a “last harvest” meal, you can use this as an additional offering for the garlic.

Physical Activities

Physical activities are probably the typical things that people do in the fall–but some of these have a bit of a magical twist.  I’ll share the physical counterparts and how these are ritualized and connected to the work above.

Putting the Garden to Rest / Fall bed Prep

In the process of fall bed prep--the back bed got very weedy this year so we are sheet mulching it for weed suppression. We add a nice layer of our own finished compost. Chicken flock assists.

In the process of fall bed prep–the back bed got very weedy this year so we are sheet mulching it for weed suppression. We add a nice layer of our own finished compost. Chicken flock assists.

Fall bed prep can be any number of things.  At the Druid’s Garden homestead, we use sheet mulching/lasagna gardening techniques for our annual vegetable garden areas, and so this is the best time to build soil.  After the first hard frost (for us, usually mid-October), we clear away any weedy material and cut back annual plants (leaving the roots in the soil; they will break down and aid in soil compaction).

Then we do some sheet mulching–depending on the bed, this might include a layer of fall leaves and compost, a layer of cardboard (if the weeds got out of control) or simply a layer of finished compost.  If we are starting new beds, we always build them in the fall with layers of finished compost, hot compost/straw bedding (from chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea coops), and leaves.  You can also consider a winter cover crop (which doubles as fodder for your animals).   As you are doing this work physically, you can be doing the metaphysical work I described above.  (If you use this method, in the spring, all you need to do is use a broadfork or garden fork to aerate the bed!).

For perennial beds, we will do our final herb harvest of the season, tying up bundles of herbs in the house to dry.  We will trim back plants that die back during winter (e.g. echinacea, mountain mint, monarda, etc), and cover up plants that benefit from light cover (strawberries). We will also harvest any extra seeds from our refugia garden so that we can scatter them or give them away in the coming months or year.

Garlic is the one crop that you plant this time of year, and garlic can have its own special ritual, as I described above. I have instructions for planting garlic here.

Once all the summer crops and those that died back after the hard frost are removed, then you can do the “rest well” chant above. Obviously, anything that is still growing (kale, lettuce, etc) is covered and protected for the coming cold, and to extend the harvest season (for more on this approach, see Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook).  I like to use these last garden foods through Yule and finish them off for our Yule feast.

Making Compost

Chickens scratching it up!

Compost making is a great thing to do in the fall, as the winter will allow the compost to break down.  At the Druids Garden Homestead, we have chickens to do some of this work for us, but I’ll share a chicken compost and a non-chicken compost method.  Our method is to rake up as many fall leaves as we can and place these in a large pile near the coop (of course, jumping and meditating in them is also part of this!).  Then, as the snow and ice comes down, we layer another layer of leaves in the chicken run.  They don’t like walking on snow and ice, and this keeps them comfortable and occupied.  They scratch the leaves up, poop their nitrogen-rich poop, and are happy chickens.  When about mid-April rolls around and the ground thaws out, I muck out all of the chicken leaves (along with giving all of the coops a thorough cleaning, which gives us a lot of straw).  I layer the chicken leaves/compost with the straw in thin layers, piling this up as high as it will go.  You can add anything else here you like (non-weedy) such as coffee grounds and other fresh compost items. With a warm summer, this breaks down into an amazing pile of compost by late fall—just about the time you are doing your garden bed.

If you don’t have chickens, take fall leaves (preferably mulched) and add them in thin layers with other good compost-making things: manure, vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, all of the old garden plants that died back during frost (non-weedy) and anything else you have.  Keep your layers of leaves pretty thin, especially if you weren’t able to mulch them.  Note that some leaves break down really quickly like maple, where others (oak) take a really long time to break down.  This approach should get you a nice pile of finished compost by next fall.

For either, honor the compost by doing the Soil Web Dance.  You can honor your new piles or your finished piles (or general composting area)

Final Harvest of Summer Crops

Finished compost

The final harvest of summer crops for us comes in the days before the first hard frost.  Some things with a light frost can be preserved, but once we hit about 35 degrees, that’s enough to kill of almost all of the summer crops: peppers, nasturtium, tomatoes, basil, pumpkins, squash, beans, zucchini, etc.  Thus, starting in early October, we pay very close attention to the nightly temperatures, doing row cover as necessary.  But, when our first hard frost is imminent, we harvest the last of the crops: all the green tomatoes that will ripen on the counter for the next few weeks, beans, corn, peppers, basil, etc.  We like to cook a special meal with this (Samhain meal if possible, depending on the year) and make a special offering from this for some of the ceremonies above.  It is a great way to enjoy the last fruits of the summer season and also create a special offering food.

Gathering for Next Year’s Butzemann

As we are clearing the gardens and the Butzemann, we begin to think about next year’s Butzemann.  It is customary to collect some of the materials for use in next year’s Butzemann from this year’s landscape.  As we cut the gardens back, we gather materials that are stowed away in our shed till Imbolc.  I always like to leave an offering for any plant who is going to be part of the Butzemann.  For example, this year, the big patch of Mugwort spoke to me to be included for next year, so I have a large bundle of her saved for next year’s Butzemann.

Conclusion

Late fall is truly one of my favorite times because there is so much richness in how you can engage in sacred gardening and sacred action. I hope that this post has provided you with some ideas for how you might honor your soil, put your garden to rest, and start setting up physically and energetically for the season to come.  Blessings!

Sacred Gardening: A Druid’s Spiritual Approach to Weeding and Clearing Plants

A shrine for the spirits of nature in a new outdoor kitchen area

Druids revere all nature as sacred–but what happens when you need to weed your garden? What happens when you need to clear a new area for a project where lots of things are growing? Is there a way to clear plants or trees honorably and with reverence?  In fact, there certainly is!  In today’s post, I’ll walk through some simple suggestions for how to weed and clear plants respectfully and with reverence. This is all part of my philosophy of Sacred Action, or bringing earth-honoring, care-oriented activities into our every day life (if you are interested in this concept, check out my Sacred Actions book!).  This is part of what sacred gardening, creating a true Druid’s garden, is all about!

Our big project this year was starting to build an wood-fired, naturally built outdoor kitchen with a maple sap boiler/grill, an earth oven, a small pavilion and set of rocket stoves (this is an ongoing project and I’ll share more about it in upcoming posts). In order to do this, we had to clear a small bit of land. Where we are situating our outdoor kitchen is on the edge of a clearing with a shaded overstory, just as the forest begins. The tentative plan for our earth oven was about 6′ into an area with some brush and small trees. We were hoping to use this spot  for the earth oven because sometimes we get bad winds from the fields that are to the south-west of our home, and by locating it slightly in the brush, it would allow us to provide it some additional shielding from the elements. But, this particular spot required me to clear a small 5′ path and about an 7 foot round area in the brush–assuming the spirits of the land and plants agreed.  I’ll walk through the general principles using the clearing of my earth oven space as an example.

1. Recognize the agency  and sanctity of nature by seeking permission and offering gratitude.

An offering bag near some garden weeds that will be cleared

One of the first things to remember is that if we are going to cultivate reciprocal relationships with nature, we must treat nature with respect, reverence and recognize nature’s own agency.  This means we do not take from nature without permission (treating her with the same respect you would do any other person. There are different levels of permission: one-time permission and ongoing permission.

Getting permission for anything is twofold: seeking it and allowing the necessary time for negotiation and conversation.  Don’t expect to get permission to clear a large area of land 5 minutes before you want to clear it.  Seeking permission begins with simply spending time engaging with spirits of the land and explaining what you want to do and why. Explain what you would like to do and how you will do it.  See what results from this converation: sometimes you can get a clear go-ahead, while other times, the spirits may want something in response (e.g. clear this area but leave this area to grow wild; build this shrine, use everything that you’ve cleared, etc).

If you are clearing for a permanent space (such as a garden, outdoor kitchen, home, etc) you can seek a blanket permission statement.  This means that you have the general permission to create the garden and then keep it as a garden, clearing as necessary.

Two months before starting construction of the earth oven, I began by asking permission.  I started by making an offering at the space I wished to clear and speaking aloud what I would like to do, where the boundaries of it were to be, and why.  I asked the spirits to think about my request.  A week later, I returned to the spot and we started discussing. I came back several times over the course of a few weeks and after that, I received the confirmation that I was permitted to proceed. As part of this negotiation, I was told that each plant species would have something different they would like me to do as I cleared.

2. Setting Boundaries for Activities

As part of your request, make it clear what you plan on doing and how long this agreement lasts.  For example, if you are cultivating a garden, make it clear that you would like permission to tend this garden throughout the year and weed any plants that come up in the garden that you haven’t planted, etc.  This allows you to set some clear boundaries for the kinds of activities you will engage in over time.  You can also set boundaries about other things, such as not using any chemical sprays, etc.  The idea here is that you will make a clear agreement with the spirits of the land that you are both satisfied with so that you can proceed.

In the case of our earth oven, I agreed to tend the path and boundaries of our earth oven space and also to cut back some of the surrounding areas if they grew too close to the oven, always asking the plants’ permission.  We established where the areas of the other outdoor kitchen were to be before proceeding.  I was also asked to build two smalls shrines, one to invite the spirits of the hearth to join us (see the first image in this post) and a hidden shrine to honor the earth elementals.

You also may need to negotiate with specific dominant plant species in an area.   For example, in the case of our garden, I’ve made it clear that dandelions are welcome to grow anywhere, but I will be harvesting any within our garden areas for making food or medicine for ourselves and our animals.  But, any dandelions that grow outside of the bounds of the garden will be undisturbed (unless I further sought permission to harvest them for a different purpose, which would be a different negotiation).

3. Clear mindfully and listen to the voices of nature as to how to use cleared material.

Once you have permission to clear an area, establish a garden, or weed regularly, the next step is to start clearing it in a way that is reverent and respectful.  I like to call this “mindful” clearing.  I’m going to clear in a gentle manner, pulling out each plant, checking in with each plant to see how they would like me to proceed (cut you off at the root? Harvest the root? Put you in the compost pile? Feed you to the geese?).  Thus, as I clear, I am also engaging in deep connection with the plants and hearing their voices for how to proceed. As I do this, I continue to make offerings, I sing songs, and I raise good energy for the work I am doing.

Beginning to clear the area for the earth oven

I work to do as much clearing without the aid of fossil fuels as possible, relying on hand tools, as this allows me to get closer to the individual plants I am clearing. Once in a great while, I do have to use a battery-powered lopper or chainsaw, and I let the spirits of nature know what I am doing before I do anything.

So in the clearing of my earth oven space, I spent about 2 hours clearing the space, while I was in a meditative place.  Using movement meditation, I cleared my mind as I cleared down to the soil, making sure that each plant I was clearing had a chance to share what they would like to see happen.  I ended up transplanting several wild yams into another section of the forest.  The Allegheny Blackberry asked me to take their roots and use them for magic (they have been teaching me their magic for many years now) and to compost their stems and leaves.  The small spicebush asked to be potted and given away.  The Virginia Creeper had me pull out enough to clear, asking me to make a small wreath of her and then place that wreath on the altar.  And so it went with each of the plants in this space, where I listened to their voices and did my best to honor their requests.  In the end, I had not only a cleared space but new magical plant knowledge and several roots for my spiritual practices.

I do the same thing in my garden as I am regularly weeding and tending. While I don’t necessarily need steps 1 and 2 each time I got into weed the garden, when I am weeding, I am still listening to the voices of the plants and honoring what they would like me to do with them.  I am treating them in reverence and respect, even as I clear them.

Eventually, you may find that even the most dominant weed can be negotiated with to grow elsewhere.

Doing these practices in this way allows you to both hear what the plant spirits may offer you as well as give you a chance to learn some of the uses of common plants in your area.  For example, if you are clearing a garden, many garden “weeds” have tremendous herbal and edible uses including lambs quarters, ground ivy, pursuance, dandelion, red clover, chickweed, and wood sorrel, to name a few.  If you are pulling out something and you don’t know what it is, take a few minutes to learn and do what you can to make use of that plant for food, medicine, crafts, or spiritual purposes.

4. End in Gratitude

Wood Sorrel

Wood Sorrel, garden weed, delicious food!

Finalize your work each day in gratitude–gratitude for the land itself, the soil, and any plants or materials that were moved or pulled as part of the work you were doing.  Recognize the sacrifice that these plants have made and honor them.  You can practice gratitude by making offerings (such as this offering blend), drumming, dancing, doing a land blessing ceremony, or any other number of things.

In the case of my earth oven, the end of the clearing, I again sat with the space and honored it with flute music and offerings.  I meditated to see if there were any additional messages, and if not, I continued to work on the project.  The next steps in the project were to create a draining gravel foundation to prevent frost heaving, and so when I went back to the site a few days later to start removing soil and subsoil, I made sure to continue to make offerings at the shrine I built and continue to offer gratitude.

Conclusion

As the above explores, the key to honoring nature while also tending spaces, weeding, or clearing land has to do with the approach.  Rather than immediately moving into clearing, spend time honoring the spirits of the land first, the physical bodies of the plants to clear, and take your time to make sure you are engaged in reverence and respect.  This kind of practice integrates spiritual practice with everyday life in the practice of sacred action, and can certainly deepen our own relationship to our immediate landscapes.

Starting a Successful Front Yard Garden and Avoiding Legal Trouble: Interview with Linda Jackson of Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Original design for Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Six years ago, I shared about Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a front-yard garden located in the Detroit metro area. When I shared this post, Linda was in her first year of gardening in this new location, and was regularly selling her produce at a local farmer’s market and engaging with her community.  Here are links to my first two posts about her incredible garden that discusses the original process, design: Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm and Return to Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.

A few weeks ago, when I was visiting Linda, I shared some photos of her garden to my social media, and many people responded by saying “she must not have a homeowners association”, “ how did she not get in legal trouble?”, or “my township would make me tear that down!” The questions and comments of this nature just kept rolling in. In fact, Linda is now in her sixth year of her front yard garden with no issues or complaints from neighbors, etc. Thus, I thought it would be useful to interview Linda and learn from her about how she was able to have this incredible front-yard garden in a suburban area, explore some strategies that she used, and share those strategies with others.  If more of us can do the kind of thing Linda is doing—converting lawns that consume resources to gardens that provide food for people and wildlife, nectary sources for insects, and so much more, we can really begin to make positive change in this world and vision a brighter future.

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm - August 2021

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm – August 2021

Dana: Tell me about your vision for Nature’s Permauclture Urban Farm.

Linda: As I’m seeing it evolve, the word permaculture plays an integral role.  Because we need to build community, protect the environment, and people can also learn how to make a sustainable future, sustainable income, and way of sharing knowledge with others.  That’s why I wanted to convert my lawn.  I wasn’t only about food but about cultivating good habits and activities.

Dana:  You were originally an organic farmer farming 10 acres, right?

Linda:  Yes, so when I moved here, I moved from 10 acres to a 50×50 growing space. I brought a lot of what I knew but here, because it was so visible, I wanted to make it aesthetically pleasing.  I wanted to make it “landscapey” but not a traditional landscape.  But I knew it had to be very visually appealing to the eye.

Dana:  You are on the edge of a small town in suburbia, in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.  And you have this front yard garden that everybody can see.  So, tell me about your garden.

Linda:  When I came to the place, I was just thinking that I needed a place to put my hands in the soil. I stood out in the middle of the road and I said, what can I do with this? Its only 50×50.  So I said to myself, “Ok, I’m going to create a garden. But it can’t be a boring square garden.”  I’m not into lines, I’m into curves.  The earth isn’t straight, its curvy.  So, it was something where I said—I need food, my community needs food, I want wildlife comfortable here: insects, frogs, snakes, dragonflies, etc. So when I created the garden, I was thinking about both wildlife and people and their needs. And really, I wanted to be happy in nature when I walked out of my front door, rather than seeing the lawn.

Dana: So you essentially transformed this lawn, plain grass, into this amazing garden.  Do you have a sense of how much food you are producing?

Linda:  On average, enough to feed 20 or 30 people from the greens each week, thousands of pounds of produce per year. So for the first five years, every week, I was going to the farmer’s market.  And I had more than enough for that capability out of this garden. Now, I’m doing the market every other week.

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Dana: So you are literally able to go to the farmer’s market each week and sell just from this 50×50 square foot space?  This really tells readers just how much you are able to produce here.

 

Linda:  I do French intensive agriculture methods, which includes succession planting and companion planting.  While I can’t be certified organic here, I use all natural methods for pest control.  These include using yellow and blue sticky plates for bug control, neem oil, cayenne pepper for slugs, dog hair to keep out rabbits, and much more.

We do have 4000 acres of wild lands behind this neighborhood, but the protocols that I use here keep the deer away.  I use onions lining every bed and herbs (sage, thyme, and lavender) lining the garden.  I don’t have any fencing, because that would detract from the beauty of it. I can sell and give the herbs away too, and they keep away the deer, and they also provide food for pollinators.

Dana: Obviously there’s a lot of people out there in similar circumstances to what you are in: they live in suburbia. They have a very small space, maybe 50×50 or even smaller.  And they are looking at this lawn and saying “this isn’t sustainable” and they are looking to grow some food and cultivate some habitat. But at the same time, in this region, we have several examples of families that have put in a front yard garden only to have their township make them bulldoze it.  Can you talk us through the steps that you did to come to this place where you had a very successful front yard garden that is welcomed by your community?  Specifically, how did you navigate the laws, ordinances, and neighborhood requirements?

Linda:  This garden is now six years old and I’ve never had a problem with neighbors complaining or the township.  Basically, when I stood out and looked at my new home, I had about a month to get everything in the ground before winter came.  I realized that I was the new person on the block, so I had to introduce myself to the neighbors.  And some way or another, I had to tell them what I was planning on doing. I had the vision in my mind, and I knew what it was, but I needed them on board. So I took them cookies. I took them lavender lemon shortbread cookies and I opened up a conversation with them.  I told them I was planning on making a garden in my front yard.

Bean arch in front pathway

Bean arch in front pathway

I also drove around the town to see if there was anyone who was doing something similar in my town.  I saw 2 or 3 places where someone was doing something like this in their front yard, but more landscaped. But I noticed that these didn’t have a focal point, or a flow. It wasn’t beautiful enough. It was choppy. I had to think about the long term: the shade, the rain, the sun, the water, the wind, but also the people and how they perceive it in all of the different seasons.

I next went to the township and I asked them, I’m thinking of putting an edible garden landscape in my front yard.  I didn’t call it a garden, I called it an “edible landscape” which may have helped. I spoke to the head guy in zoning, he says,  you can do that as long as there are no weeds growing. He gave me a piece of paper with the ordinances and I took it home and read it. It said anytime you put more than 5 yards of soil down, you have to have approval.  But soil is not compost. Soil has rock that’s broken down, minerals, etc. Compost is leaves, plants, and brush that is all organic matter.  So, if I put compost down and not soil, I can get away with it.

Dana:  So it was kind of a technicality but it worked.

Linda:  It was a technicality but I could win on it if anyone wanted to challenge me. So once I got the OK from the neighbors (because they could turn me in anytime they wanted) and I got the OK from the township, I went for it.

When I moved in, the front yard had one large and two small ornamental trees. I had these taken down and mulched so I could use the mulch in the gardens and in the paths. In other words, all of that organic matter was put right back on the property.

But back to the landscape. I knew that if this was going to be successful, I had to make something extremely visually pleasing so that the neighbors won’t complain. I decided against raised beds like I did in the past because that’s too constrictive and it’s something they are used to seeing and it may look too much like a garden. I saw how my elevation mattered. The two houses on either side of me were higher, so I was in a low area. And so I had to make it contour.  I did a combination of curves and wood chips, that way if I had heavy rains, I wouldn’t have any issues and the water would be able to soak right in.

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

But when things started happening, people were walking by. They would stand and stare.  Little kids would come, and they wanted to play. The paths were like an energy run for them.  They just wanted to run thorough those curvy paths.

 

What I have found out is that people think its work.  But little children see it a form of play, they want to play and help.  So that makes it fun for them.

 

Dana:  I want to focus on the aesthetically pleasing aspects because these seem to be one of the key aspects that can really help you do this.  It’s not just about growing vegetables and replacing the lawn.  It’s about inhabiting a space in a way that makes it truly beautiful. When people stop, rather than say “look at this garden that looks like an eyesore” they say “wow!”  Can you say more about that?  How do you create that?

Linda:  It’s a good question, because in my previous farm, I had 10 acres that was far from neighbors.  And my farm there was very constricted.  They were square with lines. And I realized that that’s easy because its farming. A lot of arms are really functional, but not necessary aesthetically pleasing.

And so I drew upon some of the things that people would do to a typical lawn and typical front yard.  But to not have it visually dead with lines.  I needed something that would come alive, that the eye would move through the space, just like a nice piece of artwork.   There’s something about the eye enjoying flow, the curve.

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

For example, my feeling was, to have flowers in the front, so when I looked out my window I could see insects and bugs and they would be beautiful next to the house. Flowers with long bloom times so that something was always blooming during the summer.

Dana:  Yeah, you really can see that when you walk up to your garden—your Yarden.  It does take you in.  The waves and the curves really take you in.

Linda:  Yeah! I kept playing around with these designs and the garden evolved.  I tried different angles, to figure out how it would look good from the side, from behind, from within it. The goal was to make it good from all of these different angles and offer a visual experience.

Dana:  That’s really important to people. Because for your neighbors, they don’t want to feel like their home values are being degraded because of someone’s front yard garden or an unruly yard. So, from what you are saying, if you are going to do this work, you have to do it in a way that is very visually appealing to people.

Linda: Yes.  You are right because one of my siblings, when I was planning this, she said to me ‘Linda you are going to have to tear this apart because nobody is going to like it.” So she was a naysayer before I started it. Once it was done, and the curves were there, dark black compost flowing around, and the contrast of the paths, then she said “Well, we’ll see what happens in the spring.”  And then, my neighbors were asking, what’s going to happen in the spring?  And the lady across the street said, “Just watch.”

So the overall design is this: the flowers next to the house are the accent point. The greens are flowing with the paths. You get a lot of eye entertainment.  And I don’t have your typical landscape flowers: there are no lilies, Hostas, etc. That seems to be the go-around for everyone’s yard around here.  I said, Hollyhock! The old-fashioned stuff, pollinator friendly, things that they haven’t seen before.

Dana:  How do you continue to engage in a dialogue with your neighbors about this garden?  We were out there just a little while ago and one of your neighbors stopped by, and talked to you when we were out there!

View from driveway

View from driveway

Linda:  I’ll tell you what.  That was the part I didn’t mentally think about when I started doing this. I started doing this for my own gratification, to keep my energy flowing, and to get my hands in the soil, for my exercise and health. But then the neighbors started asking, “hey, can I have some of your produce?”  For example, one of my neighbors stopped by last night for kale and salad greens. My other neighbor is pregnant and loves cucumbers; I make sure she gets them.  The neighbor girls on the other side here love eating raw cucumbers. So, it was a just a matter of putting it out there. Recently I had some organic farming students from Oakland University come to learn here. East River Organics wanted a design done, which I worked on, and they brought the person who was going to implement the design out to take a look at my garden, because this is what they wanted to do for a new project to do garden outreach to differently abled people.

So I’m at that step now, where, after five years, I know it’s happening and its ok.  And it’s starting to really bring people in! Someone asked me, why am I not in the newspaper? I don’t know! I’m not quite ready for that.

Dana: Well at this point, if you were going to get in trouble for the garden, it would have already happened. And, I think what’s key here, is that you engaged in a dialogue with the right people early on, and you continued to have a positive relationship with your neighbors.  But it sounds like if you want to be successful at doing this, it’s about doing that ongoing engagement work first and foremost, rather than just doing it on your own. You live in a community and you have to engage in that community as you are planning and implementing your garden.

Linda:  Yes exactly.  One the big comments I get is about how much work it is. A lot of my neighbors work and say “I don’t have the time to do this.”  It’s hard, the word “work”.  I don’t really see this as work.

Dana:  Can you talk a bit about the backyard? I know you have a food forest going back there.

Linda:  I have a space about 25×50 back there and its evolving.  I have a sugar maple overstory.  I have three paw paw trees, raspberries, black cohosh, strawberry, sweetgrass, other understory plants.  I have ramps, from you, thank you.  I share how to harvest them with the kids—just take a piece of the leaf.  These are things you don’t see at the store.  When the pawpaw come into fruit, which should be next year, it will be a wonderful chance to educate the kids.

Dana:  It sounds like you have more annual sun agriculture in the front and shaded perennial agriculture in the backyard.  And you’ve gotten rid of almost all of the lawn.

Linda:  Yes, just enough to have some paths or for someone to park their car if necessary.  But there’s no reason for more lawn—I am converting every bit of it into something that benefits nature and the community.

Dana: I know you are transitioning away from the farmer’s market and working to make this more of an educational space in the future. Can you share more about that?

Dana and Linda

Dana and Linda

Linda:  Yes, that’s where I will be needing to do more promotion.  I’ve already connected with many people in my area who are interested in organic practices. The garden is also a big draw to children; children see vegetables in the grocery store, but I’m growing some different things that are really exciting to them. Like the Asian long bean, it’s over a foot long. The kids come up, I give them a bean, and they walk away happy. It’s like candy to them!

So for me, the next step is working less on the market gardening and more on educating, promoting, teaching others how to do this.  If someone wants to break up their landscape, there are so many things that they can do that will still look visually appealing and move them away from the lawn.  For example, blueberries.

Dana:  Let’s return to this idea of work and a garden being “too much work.” So tell me about the work of this?

Linda:  Well, you don’t have to mow your lawn if there is no lawn to mow! And I get plenty of exercise and have no need for a gym membership. This garden is my workout.  It is physical, but rather than lifting weights, I’m lifting soil or compost! Mulch! Especially as I get older, it’s also a way for me to stay healthy and strong.  I also see it as meditation.  I am out in the sun and getting my Vitamin D.  I am keeping myself moving, I’m not rickety or creaky. I can move 10 yards of compost, even in my late 60s!

Dana:  It does seem like there are so many benefits: food you are producing,  an income, the exercise, educating people, not having a consumptive lawn, meditation, health benefits,  providing a vision for the future.  Showing all of this in a way that demonstrates that it can be sustaining, and joyful!  There just seems like there are no reasons not to do this!

Linda:  Yeah! I love the way you presented that thought. That’s what it is all about for me.  I am so happy that this garden is such a place for joy. I have a tendency to be modest, but I do think that the front yard garden speaks for itself. I am speaking through the language of my garden.

Dana:  Well, thank you so much for your time and expertise, Linda!

To conclude, Linda’s garden is really a source of joy for all who visit it.  And somehow, she has found a “magical formula” to living in a suburban area with hosing restrictions, codes, and township laws—through cookies, through making it visually appealing, and through always thinking about the needs of her community.

Wild Food Profile: Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) Seed Flour & Yellow Dock Pancake Recipe

Harvested dock seed with a ready-to-harvest yellow dock plant

This past month, I had a chance to visit Silver Acres, my friend’s 5 acre farm in the thumb of Michigan, where she is practicing rewilding, restoration agriculture, and permaculture.  We were walking through her field and found a good deal of yellow dock that was in seed form–which for the Midwest US, usually happens around Lughnasadh (August 1st) and continues to the Fall Equinox.  While I’ve eaten the young leaves and used the roots as medicine, I haven’t had a chance to try making any seed flour yet–so we set about our task joyfully.  I’m quite impressed by how easy this flour is to make (compared to say, acorn flour) and it cuts nicely with other flours.

Foraging for wild foods is not only a fantastic way to connect deeply with the land but also allow us to reconnect with our ancient ancestral lifeways.  It allows us to connect deeply with the land and bring some of that energy int our own lives.

Yellow Dock Ecology and Foraging

Yellow dock leaf with goose blessing.

Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) is in the buckwheat family, which is part of why she makes a nice flour!   Yellow dock is also known as Curly Dock or Narrowleaf Dock. Yellow Dock is a first-aid responder plant, an opportunistic plant that can quickly spread to new areas after disruption. Thus, you will often find her growing in areas that have poor soil, have recently been disrupted (such as construction sites), or other places where the land was recently disturbed.  As part of her ecological function, she begins to break up compacted soil with her deep tap root. One of the reasons its good to learn how to eat and make medicine of yellow dock in all of her forms is that she is considered an “invasive” weed in the USA, and thus, ethically-based foraging is a wonderful way to keep this plant in check.

Yellow Docks are perennial plants that can, when mature, produce up to 40,000 seeds per year.  The seeds can stay in the ground for up to 50 years, and when the opportunitiy arises, the yellow dock will arise from the soil!  This is how they are able to so quickly colonize disturbed areas.

Once you find a patch of yellow dock, you can return to it over and over again for food and medicine.  The seeds persist on the plants into the winter, and slowly drop as winter turns to spring. The easiest time to spot them is after the seeds have turned to a beautiful rust brown and dried (usually by mid August here in Pennsylvania). Thus, you have a fairly long harvest window with regards to the seeds. Each year, Yellow Dock also produces curled leaves (see photos) which are fairly palatable when young (cook in several changes of water).

Seed head closeup – this is perfect for harvesting

The very good news in terms of foraging ethics is that because Yellow Dock is considered invasive and can be found in abundance almost everywhere, you can harvest as much yellow dock seeds as you want for flour.  A few hours of harvesting and processing can yield considerable amounts of very easy-to-process flour!  I still recommend that you seek permission from the plants and offer gratitude if you have permission to harvest.  I have found it is easiest to harvest these with a basket or paper back.  Just snap off or cut the mature seed stalk and place them into a bag.

Harvest the seed heads when they are dry for the best flour. If you have to harvest them wet, let them sit out in the sun until fully dry.  Its hard to strip them from the stalks when they are wet.

Preparing Yellow Dock Flour

Grinding in a small grinder

Yellow Dock flour has three major steps for preparation: remove seed heads from stalk; toast seed heads on the stove or in the oven; and then grind them in a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, or magic bullet.  I’ll walk you through each step.

I will note here that some foraging books say Yellow Dock Seed is not worth harvesting because its impossible to separate the seeds from the chaff (the seed casing).  But in the case of Yellow Dock, you simply grind everything up together.

Remove seed heads from stalk. Once you have harvested, find a nice place outside to sit and strip the seed heads by hand into a large bowl or other vessel. Return the stalks to the land (somewhere where you want yellow dock to come up, as there are likely seeds remaining!).  I suggest doing this outside because it is a messy job!

Toast the seeds.  The next step is to toast the seeds.  You can do this on the stovetop in an iron skillet- just add a few handfuls of seeds, stir them till you hear popping, and then remove from heat and do the next batch. Alternatively, you can roast them in the oven for 5 minutes at 350.  You’ll see a difference in both the color and smell of the seeds. This step is really worth it as it produces a much better tasting flour!

Beautiful ready-to-enjoy Yellow Dock Flour

Grind the seeds. Using a Vitamix, magic bullet, coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle, grind the seeds in small batches.  You will want to work to get as fine of a grind as possible on your flour.  You’ll end up with something looking like the photo on the right!

Storage: Like other wild flours, this has about a six month shelf life. You can extend the shelf life by freezing it (where it will stay good up to two years.

Recipes

There are few things to know about Yellow Dock flour. First, Yellow Dock flour does not contain any gluten, so it will produce a much “flatter” bread than wheat flours, which you should keep in mind when using it.  When it is cooked on its own, it has a bitterness that can be a bit unpalatable (e.g. straight yellow dock flour) so I recommend using it in combination with another flour (use 25% or 50% yellow dock).  The bitterness is considerably lessened into something quite delicious when you add some sweetness.  I don’t find that it has a particularly strong taste but rather will take on the taste of the other ingredients (like acorn flour).

Yellow Dock Pancakes

I adapted my acorn pancake recipe for use with Yellow Dock, and it works great!

  • 1 cup yellow dock flour
  • 1 cup other flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (duck eggs if you can get them!)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or butter
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Cooking up beautiful pancakes!

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till well mixed. Dock seeds can tend to absorb moisture, so check to see if its too thick– if so, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up. Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Here are some other inspirational recipes for your yellow dock flour!

Double Chocolate Dockseed Cake

Curly Dock Bread

Dock Seed Brownies

Dock and Lambsquarter Flour Crackers

Dock Sponge Bread

Wildcrafting Your Druidry: A Local Materia Medica and Herbalism Practice

As we continue to explore the concept of wildcrafting druidry and sacred action that is, developing a spiritual practice and daily life that is fully localized and aligned with nature right outside your door, it is a useful time to consider the role of herbalism and developing a local materia medica.  In herbalism terms, a materia medica is a body of herbal and plant knowledge for the curing of diseases and the promotion of good health.  For example, any book on herbalism that includes entries on herbs and their healing properties is a materia medica.  By starting to develop a local materia medica for your area, you can learn more about the incredible healing properties of plants in your area and develop a sacred connection with them.  You can start entering into a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship with the land and support your own health–this is because not only are plants able to treat illnesses, but they also support our long-term health!  So let’s talk through the steps that you might do this:

Step 1: Identify your site and needs and spiral outward.

Grandpa's field

Learning about the medicines outside your door!

I think it’s helpful to consider what you might include in your materia medica. It should be locations that you have easy and regular access to and with the ability to do at least some harvesting.  What I suggest you do is use a spiraling outward approach.  Start with right where you live–e.g. the plants in the lawn right outside your door, the trees on your street, the plants in the park at the end of the block.  Learn the plants that are closest to your home first.  Then, as you grow your knowledge, start spiraling outward: the local state park, the homes of friends and neighbors, etc.  You can do this work regardless of whether you live in the city, suburbs or country.

The other option for you to start is to consider finding or growing a local herbal equivalent of one or more medicines you currently take or needs you currently have.  Perhaps you want a first aid salve–there’s a whole backyard of healing plants for that! Perhaps you want to increase your overall vitality and health–there’s a dandelion and burdock root for that!  Perhaps you want to strengthen your heart–there’s a hawthorn tree for that! For my own path into herbalism, you can hear about my own journey in managing asthma with New England Aster!  The point here is that you can identify some basic needs and then use that as a basis.

I actually prefer the first approach I’ve listed, as it puts you in touch with plants right outside your door.  If you start working with these plants, you will find uses for them in your life!

Step 2: Build a Reciprocal Practice on this Landscape

Before you even begin to think about harvesting and using the plants where you are, you will want to think about how you can build a practice of reciprocation, honoring, and respect to the living earth.  I recommend you think not only in terms of an offering for any individual plant that is harvested but also the larger landscape that you are working on.  For individual plants, this might include things like:

  • Asking permission to harvest
  • Offering gratitude with an offering and saying thanks
  • Working with the plant to help ensure its genetic legacy (saving and spreading seeds, translating roots and seedlings)
  • Visiting the plant at other times, not only when you want something or want to harvest (e.g. showing friendship and respect)
  • Building the cycles of the plant into your own seasonal celebrations

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

In terms of a larger reciprocation practice, it is useful to consider what the land there might need and how you can be in service to the land.  This is often very different in different ecosystems, but might include any of the following:

  • Metaphysical support through rituals and energy work
  • Land healing practices, such as converting lawns to gardens, cleanups, replantings, and more
  • Social action, community organizing, or political action to protect and preserve nature
  • Other activities as is appropriate for the local ecosystem

The reason this step is so important is that for much of the Western world, longstanding colonialism has put many people in a mindset where nature is theirs to take from, to use, and to harvest at will.  This exact mindset is one of the roots as to why we are facing a planetary crisis: because we must learn to balance what we take from nature from what we give and the reciprocation practices are key to that.  I’ve been teaching wild food foraging for a long time, and there are extreme problems with the overharvest/take what I want mentality with many people in those communities.  By building reciprocation first and foremost into your practice, you can sidestep these extremely problematic relationships with nature and build one on mutuality and respect.

Step 3: Observe, Interact and Identify Plants, Mushrooms, and Trees

Medicine making with hawthorn - here's my masher!

Medicine making with hawthorn at Samhain!

Now that you have a sense of where to look, you will want to start identifying the plants, mushrooms, and trees that grow most immediately to you.  It is extremely helpful if you can keep track of not only the common name (Pennsylvania Hawthorn) but also the Latin name (Crataegus tatnalliana / Crataegus pennsylvanica.)   Many common or folk names may actually refer to multiple plants (Boneset is a good example here–in my region it refers to at least three different plants, two of which are medicinal and one of which is poisonous) so having the Latin name ensures that you have the right plant.  Even if you can’t identify the specific species, work to at least identify the plant family as a start. I have found it helpful in my own work in this regard to create a digital file of plant names and features as a first step.  Here’s one of my early files that I can share that I started creating when I first moved to this new land (I’ve since moved this into a more comprehensive digital file, but this is where I started).

Identification skill is excellent to learn.  While there are apps and groups that can help you with plant identification, I also recommend that you check out Botany in a Day by Thomas Epel and Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to start learning how to identify different parts of plants.  If you build your knowledge using these books, eventually, you will be able to identify plants by plant family without looking them up.

One of the things that is really helpful to do during this stage is to pay attention to how abundant the various plants, trees, and mushrooms are.  Pay attention to how much is growing and where it is growing.  Just because something appears abundant doesn’t necessarily mean it wouldn’t be harmed from harvesting–the key is to cultivate a relationship on this land so that you can monitor not only the plants but also how much of everything there is.  This will allow you to decide what you might use and in what ways!

Step 4: Build Your Materia Medica and Start Making Plant Medicine

Flower essence

Goldenrod Flower Essence

Now you are finally there–the opportunity to build your own materia medica over time and learn how to make plant medicine. Herbalism can be a lifelong study, and one of the things I want to stress here is that doing this work takes a lot of time.  I have found for my own learning that I like to learn a few plants at a time: how to make medicine from them, how to do different preparations, and then actually use those plants in my life.  Even if you learn only a few plants across the course of a year, as you progress, soon you will know many plants.  This is a better approach than harvesting a ton of stuff, preparing it, and then not using it.  An intensive study of a few plants will lead to rich rewards!   For example, right now I am learning the various uses of the Spruce tree–this includes various recipes for spruce tips, preparing and use of a spruce tip salve, working with the wood, and much more!

For medicine making, I would highly suggest Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook as he covers a ton of useful information on the different kinds of plant preparations (his herbal information is good also, but insufficient for many local plants).  Richo Czech’s Making Plant Medicine offers key information on ratios for tinctures and other plants and is a very useful supplement to Green’s work (I use the two in conjunction and don’t need anything else!). These two books can help you know all of the basics for how to do different plant preparations. I also have some medicine-making posts you can check out: A Druid’s Guide to Preparing Plant Medicine; Flower essence preparation;  and harvesting guidelines.

Part of the materia medica is taking notes–take notes on everything that you do (e.g. the salve recipe, when you harvest) and also test the effects of your herbal preparations on yourself–note how it feels, if it works for your purposes, and so on.  You can certainly supplement your own knowledge with published research on herbs: for a comprehensive guide to many herbal plants in North America, you can see Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbal books.  But remember–your own body and experiences should be very central to developing your materia medica.

Once you’ve had some success and good recipes, preserve them in some way that is appealing to you.  This could be a handwritten journal, a digital file, or anything else.  The important thing is that you create this knowledge for yourself and presented in a way that you will resonate with.   My current materia medica sits in two places: I have a very extensive digital file that I update regularly.  I also have a handwritten materia medica that explores more of the spiritual aspects of each of the plants I work with regularly.

Conclusion

Herbs drying on a rack!

Herbs drying on a rack!

Developing an herbalism practice–even with a few key plants in your ecosystem is an excellent way to build a core Ovate practice, learn how to live in a reciprocal relationship with nature, and align yourself with the living earth.  This is a practice that centers nature in your life.  It is completely different than going and buying some bulk herbs and mixing them up into medicine–while there is nothing wrong with doing this, it doesn’t really give you the deep spiritual practice that identifying plants, engaging in reciprocation, and turning them into medicine does.

Another thing you can do with this practice is to tie it to your yearly seasonal celebrations: for example, for me, Beltane, the Summer solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain are all medicine making holidays–meaning that in addition to my rituals, I also make certain medicines, spiritual tools like smoke clearing sticks, and align my work with the current harvest.  This gives me a richness and layered approach to my spirituality and makes the medicines I make even more meaningful.

I hope that many of you will try this–if you haven’t already started or traveled some way on this path.  I would love to hear your stories and experiences with local materia medicas and herbalism!

Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices

Sacred Actions book!

I’m really excited to announce that my new book through REDFeather / Shiffer Publishing is now availableo!  The Book is titled Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices. I wanted to give you an introduction to the book and the concepts behind the book.  If you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time, you’ll see a great deal of familiarity: my explorations and writing on this blog shaped this book, although the book goes well beyond the blog.  In a nutshell, Sacred Actions presents a hybridization of nature spirituality, sustainable living, and permaculture practices and ethics.   I can’t wait to introduce it to you in today’s post!

Order in the US or UK from the Publisher (available now). Pre-order from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK).  Pre-Order in Australia from Booktopia. 

As I’ve written on this blog before, I believe that we are possible of creating a better future–a healed, nurtured world where humans, animals, plants, and all life can live in harmony and balance. Not only is this possible, but it is also critically necessary for us to survive. Perhaps this seems like a far-off fantasy, but I have hope in this future. To build this future for our descendants and for all life on earth, this work starts with both a vision and starts in the lives of each of us who desire to take up this work.  Consider Sacred Actions a manual of personal empowerment for those who want to integrate nature spirituality, sustainability, permaculture, and earth-honoring approaches and build a better tomorrow.

Graphic from book: creating a sacred space in your home through signs and reminders

Graphic from book: creating a sacred space in your home through signs and reminders

It’s no secret that it’s extremely hard to practice any nature-based spirituality in an age where the destruction of nature is a product of daily human activity.  The deeper that you go into any path of nature spirituality, like Druidry, the more you experience this dissonance.  How do we practice nature spirituality when we are experiencing ecological decline: extinction, pollution, global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, and much more? Seeing news reports and dealing with ecological issues in our own region and communities can leave people feeling lost, confused, and stuck in a place of inaction. People come to paganism, Druidry, and nature spirituality because they want to reconnect with nature. But in the process of doing this, they also struggle with the integration of spiritual practices with their everyday lives and balancing their lives with the harsh ecological realities we face. As we are increasingly confronted with the catch-22 of holding nature as sacred but participating in a culture that is harming nature and threatening ecosystems globally, the question that so many of us ask is: how can I integrate an earth-based spiritual practice with an earth-honoring lifestyle?

Inside of book – Food and Nourishment / Summer Solstice Chapter

To address these challenges, I wrote Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices.  What is sacred action? Sacred action is the principle through which we can solve the challenges I’ve shared above.  Recognizing that everyday, mundane life can be an opportunity for deepening our spiritual practices and connections with the living earth by living in a way that honors nature through those everyday actions.  It is the process of transforming our lives, through our intentions and action, where we turn the mundane through a wide set of new practices, skills, and activities.  It’s about taking small steps towards a brighter future.

Graphic from book: Three sacred garden designs

This book was born here on the Druid’s Garden blog. For years, as part of my own path, I explored a wide range of practices and worked to integrate my own path of druidry into my everyday life by learning sustainable living, organic gardening, permaculture, herbalism, and so much more.  In time, I learned to teach these things to others, organize community groups, and start to spread the word further. I have written the book to be accessible to anyone, regardless of their living circumstances, resources, or life path.

Book Overview

Sacred Actions offers a wide variety of sustainable living activities, rituals, stories, and tools using an eight-fold wheel of the year approach. Thus, this book is a synthesis between nature-based spirituality and sustainable living practices through explorations of a wide variety of topics.  Each chapter, tied to one of the eight holidays, offers a specific theme, rituals and activities for sustainable living, stories, and fun graphics.

Graphic from Book: Permaculture’s Principle of the Zone

One of the core aspects of the book is that I use permaculture ethics (people care, fair share, and earth care) to weave through the book. People care focuses on making sure ourselves, our families, and those around us have their basic needs. Earth care focuses on attending to sustaining our earth and all life on earth through our own actions. Fair share focuses on taking only what we need so that others may have what they need too.  Through the presentation of these ethics of care from permaculture, we are able to re-see a number of everyday life practices through the lens of sacred action.

The eightfold wheel of the year is the framework through which I present stories, practices, rituals, activities, and much more with the goal of helping readers further practice sacred action. The book begins at the Winter Solstice, where I offer core rituals and activities surrounding an ethic as care as a core foundation of sacred action using permaculture’s three ethics of care as a foundation of the book: people care, earth care, and fair share.  At Imbolc, we focus on the principles of drawing upon the wisdom of the ancestors through reskilling and knowledge building.  At the spring equinox, I present one of the most challenging topics: addressing consumption, materialism, and waste, and I show many alternatives to typical living such as worm composting, ecobricks, and spiritual tools and rituals for various kinds of spring cleansings.  Beltane focuses on our homes and everyday lives–exploring sustainable options for cooking, heating, water usage, cleaning, lighting, and so much more.   At the Summer Solstice, we think about the energetic and ethical dimensions of food, developing seasonal food rituals, and honoring the land through our daily eating choices.  At Lughnasadh, we explore sacred gardening, planting by the signs, growing food indoors and outdoors, lawn conversions, and so much more (this is my favorite chapter, haha!).  At the fall equinox, we explore how to take things into our community: in our workplaces, creating and organizing groups, transportation, rituals and tools for our broader action in the world.  Finally, at Samhain, we explore how to create more sustainable ritual tools and working with nature outside of our door.

Graphic from the book: how to create a root cellar barrel to store garden produce!

Here is a list of just some of the topics covered in this book:

  • The ethics of care: people care, earth care, and fair share
  • Rituals for harvest, planting and growing
  • Rituals to honor food
  • Composting methods (vermicompost, compost piles, humanure, liquid gold)
  • Lawn liberations and conversions
  • Sacred gardening techniques (Planting by the signs, preparing soil, using available resources, swales, hugelkultur, organic gardening, pollinator-friendly spaces)
  • Indoor sacred gardening techniques (container gardening, sprouting, sacred herb windowsill garden)
  • Developing ritual tools and materials sustainably and locally
  • Turning waste into resources (ecobricks, trash-to-treasures, upcycling)
  • Cooking by the sun or sustainably (hay boxes, solar cookery)
  • The home as a sacred space
  • Ethics of food and how to work with times of local abundance
  • Honoring food through ritual and ceremony
  • Energy and transportation
  • Food storage and sustainability (pantry, root cellar, root cellar barrels, canning and more)
  • Community organizing, groups, and earth ambassadorship
  • Developing workplace sustainability practices
  • Rituals for sacred activity and bringing the sacred into everyday life
  • Reskilling and honoring ancestral wisdom

Inside of book -rituals and activities section

Thus, through reading this book, readers will gain access to rituals, philosophies, ethics, tools, practices, and activities that they can use to integrate, and expand, their own spiritual practices and tie these to earth-honoring living.  It is, ultimately, a manual of empowerment for neo-pagans wanting to make more earth-honoring lifestyle choices.

If you want to hear more about the book, you can also view my recent interview with Chris McClure on Facebook live with Shiffer/Red Feather here.  You can also listen to the upcoming Druidcast (releasing in June with Philip Carr Gomm) or the Carrowcrory Cottage Podcast with John Wilmott (Woodland Bard) on June 27th at 9am EDT!   I’ll share more links as they come through.

To order: Order in US or UK from the Publisher (available now). Pre-order from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK).  Pre-Order in Australia from Booktopia. 

Thank you, readers, for your longstanding support, comments, and faith in me. This book exists because you have supported me for so many years! If you have enjoyed this blog and this journey, please consider picking up a copy of sacred actions. I am in gratitude for your support.

 

Beltane Gardening Rituals: Garden Blessings, Standing Stones, and Energy Workings

Here in the Laurel Highlands of Western PA, Beltane marks the start of “planting” season, where we move our indoor seeds out into the greenhouse to harden off, where many seeds like carrots and beans start to go into the ground directly, and where the land is budding and blooming with the joy that spring offers.  And so in today’s post, I’m going to share some Beltane spring garden blessing ideas for you, as you can craft your own sacred “druid’s garden”.

One of our amazing sacred gardens here at the Druid's Garden Homestead!

One of our amazing sacred gardens here at the Druid’s Garden Homestead!

The concept of “blessing” is quite wide-ranging.  In the broadest sense, a garden blessing is any working that offers positive energy and protection to a growing space for a season, ensuring your plants a bountiful harvest, long life, and joyful existence.  Blessings can be extremely wide-ranging and pretty much anything you do can have some positive effect if you set to it with the right intention.   In the tradition of this blog, I’ll offer three possibilities for doing garden blessings at the start of your growing season: prayers and offerings, rituals to raise positive energy, and creating a standing stone shrine.  These blessings can be worked directly into a Beltane ritual or at any other time of power when you want to create a ritual link to your sacred gardening practice.

Preliminaries: Blessings, Energies, and Standing Stones for Sacred Gardens

I have a few preliminaries for consideration before we get into the Beltane blessings. First, you want to be clear about your intentions for growing plants or blessing this garden space.  Are you growing annual vegetables (tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, beans, etc) for your family? Are you creating a sacred garden for growing offerings, smoke cleansing sticks, or other sacred tools?  Are you cultivating a perennial flower bed for pollinators?  Does it do a bit of all three or something else? I would suggest spending some time thinking about your intentions for the space you are blessing so that you can choose the right kind of blessing and establish your intentions clearly.  Those intentions are set in part I of the ritual.

The second thing is that everything with the land should be done in a place of reverence, respect, and reciprocation with the living earth. I write this again and again on this blog for a simple reason:  here in the USA, at least, we are so indoctrinated to take what we want from nature, see nature as a thing in service to us, and do damage to the living earth through our action that it is often a subconscious behavior.  Thus, it takes a lot of mindful distancing and reprogramming our brains to think differently all the time.  So as you do any of these blessings, bringing in that feeling of reverence, respect, and reciprocation is critical to this work.

The three aspects that I am sharing can be used together in a single ritual or they can be used individually.  If you are planning a single ritual with the three, you will want to open up a sacred space as befitting your own practice (I use the AODA’s Solitary Grove opening, as AODA’s druidry forms a core of my practice).  Once you have your space opened, you can engage in the three activities–or just do one.  You can also adapt these specifically for your own needs.

I’m using the example of dedicating a newly expanded garden space that exclusively grows herbs for sacred uses (I will share more about this space in an upcoming post and how I developed it). I have a new bed that grows various sages, sagebrush, tobacco, and sweetgrass–all of these I use exclusively for sacred purposes such as making smoke clearing sticks and offering blends. I may give some of these plants away to friends and fellow druids, but I do not sell them. So my example below uses this in context: you should adapt this as necessary for your own needs.

A slate standing stone. I found this kayaking last year and it wanted to be in the garden. It took a few years to find this!

For part 1, you will want rainwater or other sacred water, incense or a smoke clearing stick, and an offering (water with liquid gold, something you’ve baked, or your own offering blend), and some form of divination. You can also set up a simple altar with anything else you would like to dedicate the space.  For Part 2, you will need a shovel or trowel, a small standing stone (any stone that can be placed 1/3 of the way in the soil and 2/3 out), healing waters, and spring flowers or other markers of the season (use what you can find locally).  The stone can be as small as 6″ tall or much taller as you can find!  Please make sure the stone is willing to serve in this capacity before you put it to use–sometimes finding a standing stone can take time and you can skip over part II and do it later if you don’t have a stone available. For part 3, you only need yourself.

This ceremony draws from several sources, but the most prominent is the Sphere of Protection used by the Ancient Order of Druids in America (which is adapted used in the 3rd part of the ceremony).  For more on the magic of setting standing stones and on how to learn the sphere of protection, I recommend The Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer.

Overview

The first practice is a simple one of acknowledgment, respect, and dedication–setting your intention for space, making an offering, and offering prayer and blessing for the garden. The second part of this ritual sets a standing stone in the center of the bed.  Ancient cultures, including those who set stones throughout the UK, recognized that a standing stone offers light and blessing to the land.  In the druid tradition, we recognize the power of standing stones, both to connect us to our ancient ancestors and also in radiating the solar current down into the telluric. The third part creates a sphere of protection for the garden for the coming season by drawing upon the energies of the seven elements.

Beltane Garden Blessing, Part I: Intentions, Prayers, Offerings, and Messages

Open up your sacred space.

Start by setting your intentions for the garden space.  This should come from the heart.  You can adapt the following:

“Spirits of place, spirits of this garden, I dedicate this new garden bed for the purposes of growing herbs for my sacred work in walking the path of druidry and healing the land.  Sage, sweetgrass, tobacco, lavender, and mugwort, may you grow tall and strong.  May you thrive in the heat of the summers, and may your roots and seeds rest with the deep winters to emerge again in the spring.  May we work in partnership and joy this day and through the coming season.” 

Make your offering to the garden bed as you see fit.  I like to place mine just in the soil.

“I make this offering in friendship and respect.  With my hands and my heart, I will work to prepare this space for you to grow and thrive. May I always remember to take only what you are willing to give, and may we work in partnership.”

Now, pour the rainwater over the bed.

“The waters of life bless you, this day and always.”

Light the smoke clearing stick and blow the smoke gently across the bed.

“May the fire of the sun and the ashes of these herbs bless you this season.”

Pause and simply take a moment to enjoy being in the presence of the new garden bed.  Pull out your divination system and ask, “I would love to hear what messages you have for me, that might guide my work with you this coming season.”

Use your divination system (drawing a card, using inner communication, drawing an ogham, whatever you best use)

If this is the end of your ceremony, close out your grove.  If not, move to part two.

Beltane Garden Blessing, Part II: Setting a Standing Stone

Hold the stone before you (or touch it, if it is quite heavy): “I honor this grandmother stone.  She who is millions of years old, and who carries with her the wisdom of the earth mother.  Dear stone, will you aid me in bringing blessing and light to this garden?”

Wait for a clear indication to proceed (this may be an inner response or some positive feeling).

Placing standing stone in the bed

Dig your hole to place the standing stone.  The stone should be placed 1/3 of the way into the soil and remain 2/3 out, reaching to the sky.  Once you’ve dug your hole, pour the healing waters in the hole and say, “Cradle of the earth, accept this stone and the blessing of these sacred waters.  May you be blessed and nurtured this day and always.”

Place your stone.  As you place it, intone the words of power, “Awen, Awen, Awen”.   Pack the soil tightly around the stone.  Pour the remainder of the water on the stone, saying “I offer you this water as a symbol of gratitude for your blessing in this garden.”  Circle the stone with spring flowers. “I adorn you with flowers, honoring the life that you will bring.”  Chant additional “Awens”.  As you chant, feel the rays of the solar current descending into the stone and radiating out into your garden bed.

Close your sacred grove or move to part III.

Beltane Garden Blessing, Part III: A Sphere of Protection for the Garden

Say, “Now that this garden is blessed and the stone is set to radiate energy to this land, I offer a weaving of protection for the season to come.”

Move to the east and call the east in whatever format you see fit or use this: “Spirits of the east, powers of the rising sun and the hawk of May soaring in the heights of the morning, I call to you to protect this sacred garden, this day and always.” Feel the powers of the east present in your space.

Move to the south and call the south in whatever format you see fit or use this: “Spirits of the south, powers of the summer sun and the stag in the summer greenwood, I call to you to protect this sacred garden, this day and always.” Feel the powers of the east present in your space.

Move to the west and call the west in whatever format you see fit, or use this: “Spirits of the west, powers of the salmon of wisdom in the sacred pool, I call to you to protect this sacred garden, this day and always.”  Feel the powers of the west present in your space.

Move to the north and call to the north in whatever format you see fit, or use this: “Spirits of the north, powers of the great bear in the starry heavens and the tall stones, I call to you to protect this sacred garden, this day and always. ”  Feel the powers of the north present in your space.

Place your hands on the soil of your garden bed.  Call to the telluric currents of the earth in whatever format you see fit, or use this: “Spirits of the land beneath this sacred garden, spirit below, telluric current of energy that flows through this land, I call to you to well up and protect this sacred garden, this day and always.”

Stand up and raise your hands to the sky.  Call to the solar currents of the heavens in whatever format you see fit, or use this: “Spirits of the skies above this sacred garden, spirit above, solar current of energy that flows from the sun and the turning wheel of the stars, I call to you to descend and protect this sacred garden, this day and always.”

Final Standing Stone with Stone Altar

Place your hands upon the stone at the center of your garden (or on your bed if you did not do part II).  Call forth to the six elements and ask for their protection.  “By the six elements here invoked, and here present, I call upon the lunar current, spirit within, the spark of life within all beings.  May these elements combine and form a sphere of protection around this sacred garden, this day and always.” As you do this, envision the elements coming together in the center of the stone and then radiating outward to form a multicolored sphere that protects the garden bed.  Firmly establish this image in your mind.

Step back and offer gratitude, “I thank the powers for their blessings on this garden and on this working.”

Close your sacred space.

 

Dear readers, I would love to hear how you’ve done garden blessings and if you decided to use this at any point.  Blessings of Beltane!