The Druid's Garden

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

Building Deep Plant Relationships at Lughnassadh July 29, 2018

Nicotiana Rustica Botanical Drawing

Nicotiana Rustica Botanical Drawing

Last weekend, some druid friends came over for a retreat with a focus on land healing. As part of the ritual we collaboratively developed, we wanted to make an offering to the spirits of the land. I went to my sacred tobacco patch and carefully gathered leaves drying at the bottoms of the plant and flowers for use in this offering, humming a song that the tobacco had taught me and making sure that none of the leaves hit the ground in the process. The ritual went beautifully well and the offering was well received by the spirits.  After the weekend, it struck me how long my relationship with these particular tobacco plants was–more than a decade at this point from seed to leaf to flower to seed.  And how I had something to share about cultivating this relationship over time.

 

So I thought I’d take a short–yet related–detour from my “connecting with nature series” to talk about plant spirit and plant relationship work, specifically tied to Lughnassadh, and building sacred relationships with plants over time, using the wheel of the year and wheel of the seasons.

 

Lughnassadh and Sacred Plants

My sacred plant ready for the Lughnassadh harvest

My sacred plant ready for the Lughnassadh harvest

Lughnassadh is an ancient Gaelic festival still celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.  Of course, Lughnassadh is also a holiday celebrated by many druids and other neo-pagans today as part of the wheel of the year.  While traditions vary from region to region and group to group, it is largely agreed upon that Lughnassadh always was and is a “first harvest” festival.  In my neck of the woods, early August is just when some of the most important crops are coming into season: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, wild berries, elderberries, and more. I’ve come to see Lughnassadah as a festival dedicated to the plant kingdom, not only because of the abundance that the plants produce this time of year in temperate climates, but also become of my long-term work as an herbalist.

 

As I wrote about some years ago, Lughnassadh is a perfect time to make sacred plant medicine and harvest herbs. The power of the sun is energizing, the herbs are in full bloom and many are at the peak of their growing, and the weather is warm for wandering among the weeds. It is after that moment in early August that we start seeing die back and die off of many medicinal herbs as the fall grows nearer and nearer.

 

Today, though, we aren’t just talking about any herb harvesting–we are talking about cultivating deep relationships with one or more plants on a long-term, perhaps lifetime journey.  I first share my story of the sacred tobacco that I have been growing for over a decade, and then share ideas for you to start cultivating your own deep relationship with a special plant.

 

The Story of Sacred Tobacco

I remember tucking the small packet of seeds, a gift from a gardener, herbalist, and wise woman, into my bag ever-so-carefully.  A gift like this was meant to be cherished, and I couldn’t wait till the next spring when I would be able to start some of the seeds. Like little specs of dirt, the tobacco seeds called to me, “plant me, plant me, give me good soil” and I assured them that all of this would come to pass.

 

In the spring, after opening up a sacred grove for planting (something I do regularly with my spring seed starting) I scattered them on some growing trays, and covered them with the finest layer of soil. They sprung up almost immediately, with almost 100% of them germinating, their little fuzzy green leaves reaching toward the light. Within two weeks, I transplanted them, and they grew quickly, getting big succulent leaves and putting up stems.  I transplanted them again, and they grew even bigger.  By the time the last frost had come and gone, they were in large plastic cups straining to get in the ground. I created a special wheel of the year garden for them in a warm and sunny location and into the ground they went.

 

The continuity of the seed....

The continuity of the seed….tobacco pods ready to harvest.

Its fun when you are growing a new plant for the first time; all the photos or descriptions in the world never substitute for the plant itself and its glorious spirit.  This is especially true when you don’t even know what the plant exactly is! I hadn’t grown tobacco before.  My tobacco plants, the 15 or so that took root, were delighted with their new space.  They put on leaf, and then, grew masses of beautiful little flowers that looked like elongated yellow parasols.  As the flowers grew ready to fall off, the plant told me to harvest them and dry them, and I did.  The flowers turned into large seed pods, which eventually grew brown–along with the rest of the plant–and burst open, self seeding for the following spring.

 

At Lughnassadh that first season, I carefully harvested the leaves and lay them in the sun to dry–since my intention was an offering tobacco, something grown solely as an offering to the land and not smoked–I didn’t have to worry about the complexities surrounding the curing of tobacco. I later learned that I wouldn’t have wanted to either way, as this variety has an extremely high nicotine content (and I am not a smoker, ceremonially or otherwise). I let the leaves dry out and go brown and yellow, and then crumbled them up, added the flowers I had already saved, and stored it all in a jar.  I created a little leather pouch and filled the pouch with the tobacco, and went off to make some offerings. The land loved the offering and asked for more and more, so I carried the pouch with me and used it often. I saved the seeds and began sharing them with some people I felt drawn to give them to. I saved the stalks and used them in my smudge sticks. This is the same tobacco (and later, tobacco blend) that I recently talked about in my Beltane Offering Blend post–that blend is my current favorite for creating an offering.

 

Later, I learned that these seeds were nicotinia rustica seeds, also known as “wild tobacco”, “shamanic tobacco” or “Aztec tobacco.”  It is native to North America (and hardy to zone 8), but is no longer widely cultivated in the Americas because the more common tobacco, nicotinia tabacum, is what is now prized and grown. Nicotina Tabacum is much less harsh, with 1-3% nicotine content, which is what people smoke in cigarettes and pipes.  Rustica, on the other hand, has up to 9% nicotine; in some places in the Americas, it is used as an entheogen or as one of the ingredients in herbal blends that also contain Ayahuasca (likely, this is why it is called “shamanic tobacco”). It is believed by some South American Shamans that tobacco is a plant that gives you access to the spirit of many other plants; it is like a gateway plant to the deeper plant mysteries.  I have found this to be true, even though I only use it as the plant has directed–as an offering.

 

Each year I had a garden, I planted this plant, and gave it a privileged space. If I planted only a few things when I didn’t have a garden, my tobacco would always be planted first to be planted. And each year, I saved seeds. Each year, I kept my pouch with me and offered the tobacco regularly to the land–and it was always extremely well received.

 

Over time and over various harvests, the plant shared some of its deeper mysteries with me, a song for harvesting, for example.  Now, when I start new seeds in the early spring, the first sprouts are like an old friend, greeting me once more. I sing the songs, I sow the seeds.  Since I save the seeds, my relationship with these particular seeds, this particular plant continues and persists throughout my lifetime, and in the many cycles of this annual plant’s lifetime. As Lughnassadh is here this week, I will continue my annual tradition of harvesting the plants as they go to seed, laying the leaves in the sun, and continuing this cycle into the future years. I will once again mix my blend and fill up my jar for the year till the spring when I plant again.

 

My choice of tobacco originally wasn’t my own; they were gifts of seeds and I wanted to see them grow.  But in retrospect, I am delighted that this tobacco is now so firmly in my life. I really like the fact that my sacred tobacco has only one use to me–an offering–and that use is critical for my interaction with the broader land.  I also liked the idea of “reclaiming” tobacco from the ways that it has been abused (and grown in a toxic and unceremonial way) by my broader culture.  So part of this work was “reclaiming” a native sacred plant, and part of it was building a brand new relationship with that plant that was my own, not built on any previous culture’s use.

 

This isn’t my only plant relationship–each of the relationships is unique and its own.  But this is certainly one of my more potent ones, and therefore, is a good illustration of the larger technique I’m sharing today.

 

Plant Spirit Connections and Practices

Beautiful Nicotiana rusticas growing in the garden!

Beautiful Nicotiana rusticas growing in the garden!

So here’s a simple technique you might do, based on what I’ve written about above: choose a plant to cultivate a deeply sacred relationship with. Plan on this relationship spanning a period of time, years or decades, if possible. Rituals and sacred actions have meaning in part because we repeat them; the more repetition we have over the years, the deeper the connection and meaning.

 

I would recommend choosing a plant that has some sacred use to you and that you can grow, even if its in a pot or on a sunny windowsill.  For the method I offer above, I think the cultiavation of it is important.  If you aren’t cultivating the plant, I would suggest one you have regular access to, and that you can “tend” in some way (pruning, scattering seeds, etc).

 

In terms of sacred use, there are so many options:

  • an offering plant, one that you use to make offerings to the land, ancestors, spirits, diety, etc (this is where my tobacco mainly fits)
  • a smudge stick or incense plant, one that is used to help purify and cleanse a space (also can be an offering)
  • a culinary plant that you use for cooking special meals or creating sacred drinks at sacred times (see, for example, my elderflower recipe)
  • a visionary plant, one that helps you open new doorways
  • a brewing plant, one that can be used to create sacred alcoholic beverages (and you might check out Buhner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some inspiration)
  • a plant for sacred decor, see for example my post on Yule decorations
  • a sacred crafting plant, a plant you can make something from (like cordage, plant dyes and inks, cattail paper, etc)

 

Spend some time selecting your plant–there is no rush.  The plant will be there when you are ready.  Your plant has lived hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, she will wait for you to be ready to begin this work.  In my case, I had no previous relationship with tobacco at all (and had avoided my culture’s use of it); but for other plants I work with in this way, I certainly have had previous relationships (sometimes spanning back to my childhood). By the time I do this work, they are already good friends :).

 

Begin simply by planting your plant or finding it in the wild, watching it grow.  If it doesn’t yet grow where you live, cultivate it. When you interact with your plant, especially for sowing and harvesting, try to do so in an open grove/sacred space.  This helps establish, from the beginning, the sacredness of your relationship with this plant.

 

Visit your plant often. Pay attention to how it grows, how it moves in the wind and how the rain washes over it. Learn your plant in the physical world: learn how it grows in each stage of its life cycle. If it is a perennial, watch it die back and be reborn in the spring. If it is an annual, carefully save its seed each year and plant again to bring your sacred relationship with you as the years go on. Learn what pests may eat it and how to prevent those pests.

 

Connect with the plant in spirit. Listen for the plant’s inner song (each plant has a song, and may reveal that song in time to you). Find out if the plant has a sacred name she wants you to use–and call her by that name.  Find out if you can use that name with others, or if she wants you to keep it to herself.

 

If you can consume part of the plant, do so, and see how it works within you. Do some meditation after consuming your plant; see how it feels and what it reveals. If you want to get even more radical, do a fast and consume only the plant (or tea from the plant) if it is edible; let it sustain you (again, Buhner’s work on fasting may be helpful to you here).

 

Ready to harvest!

Ready to harvest!

Find your sacred harvesting time–perhaps it is Lughnassadh, perhaps some other sacred day on the wheel of the year or a full moon.  Discover how the plant wants to be harvested and prepared; use your intuition and go with the flow of it. Use the plant respectfully, taking just enough to get you to the next harvest (perennial) or saving the seeds carefully (annual).

 

Let the years pass, and continue to build your relationship with the plant. Be slow to speak of this work, and speak of it only when directed by the plant (as tobacco has asked of me); this will keep the magic between you and the plant.  As the years pass, you will grow quite close–and your sacred plant will always be there, with you, offering her quiet presence. The plant will help show you the way to her magic, her stories, her songs. All that you need to do is begin with an open mind, patience and perseverance, and let her guide the way.  Blessings of the plant kingdom this first harvest season!

 

The Giving Garden: A Permaculture Design Site in the Making October 9, 2016

“We grow where we are planted.” This is the theme of a conversation on an earlier post from this year. All of us have the opportunity to do regenerative work in the world, in the spaces and places we already inhabit.  I want to offer examples of “growing where we are planted” when I am able–and today, I have an inspirational story of a new permaculture site in the making in my hometown.  We can see the permaculture principles at work, which makes a great continuation last week’s post.  Further, this post also will provide some additional ideas and suggestions for those who find themselves practicing sustainable living in apartments, cities, or other urban settings.

 

The Dust Settles: Opportunities for Transformation and Growth

I met a friend who recently moved into a building in in the downtown area of Indiana, PA. Trinity has owned this building for some time, but only recently began living there due to some challenging and changing life circumstances. Despite being in the building for only several months, she is already doing great work in terms of urban permaculture. Trinity’s long-term goals include the creation of a space to go, learn, create, and learn, both bardic arts as well as regenerative living.

 

Trinity is the second woman I’ve featured on this blog that has had major life changes lead to a new permaculture design site. Its interesting how some of the best things in life happen when we are overturned, unsettled, or otherwise stirred up from our comfortable places of being and inhabiting.  I’ve certainly understood that feeling well myself, especially in the last few years.  To use the metaphor from the Tarot, the tower crashes down, and once the dust settles, we can clear the rubble and build something new and better. Who wants a tower anyways? What about a rooftop or front yard garden? What about a giving tree?

 

This principle–of letting go and rebuilding–is a powerful lesson about the interplay between the power of doing good in the world and that of alchemy and personal transformation.  Our lives rarely go as we expect, and sometimes, a lot of difficult things happen to us in a very short period of time. We are left responding in whatever way we can–often, that means, physically moving somewhere new, leaving the beautiful homesteads and farms behind, and finding places to heal. What amazes me is the power of the human spirit to overcome personal difficulty and use it as a creative and regenerative force for good.  There is a powerful lesson in this for all of us–one, in my opinion, of the most important ones I know.  That we will face tragedy and challenge is part of being human.  What we do with that, how we transform it, what we build and grow from it, is what makes us shine.  So let’s spend some time with the bright light that is Trinity, and the space she is creating!

 

The Giving Garden: Use the Edges, Engage the Community

Trinity has no access to soil; rather, her building is on a main street, shares walls with adjacent buildings, and has concrete or brick on all four sides. Despite these challenges, she has rose to the occasion, “greening” the concrete, growing vegetables in nooks and crannies, and beginning many transformations. I’m excited to follow her journey here and see how her space develops. I think that her work can be inspirational to many of use who are living in very limited circumstances, be those financial, space-wise, and more.

 

One of the first things Trinity wanted to do was to bring a sanctuary space to the otherwise barren concrete of our downtown area. Earlier in this year, most of the trees on main street were cut down to do some road work, and the downtown has been looking very sad and sparse since.  Truthfully, I don’t even like walking downtown any longer since so many of the trees are gone. Trinity still does have a tree near her building on her street, but the adjacent street is completely barren.

 

Trinity has brought nature beautifully back into the space with the “Giving Garden.” Suddenly, as you walk, along the street is a burst of flowers, beauty, greenery; a space to sit, to enjoy some veggies, and to respond on a chalkboard to a regularly changing prompt.  We’ll first take a stroll through the giving garden, exploring it through photographs and exploring the different permaculture principles as well as common sense principles.

View from 6th Street!

View from 6th Street!

One of the keys to successfully creating publicly visible spaces (front lawn gardens, etc) is making sure they are beautiful, interesting, and pleasing to the eye. I wrote about this extensively in my discussion of Linda’s Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.  It doesn’t matter how functional it is–if people can see it, it needs to “look nice” and not be “overgrown” as that is associated with distending.  (This whole issue deserves its own treatment at some point–> the cultural assumption is that if we let nature grow unchecked, it is assumed that we no longer care for it!)  And so, Trinity has done a smart thing with not only growing some vegetables and herbs, but doing so in  way that draws people in.  Trinity has put a lovely invitation on the wall, letting people know how the space can be used and shared.

Invitation to share the space

Invitation to share the space

Trinity’s 30′ or so of frontage offers just sidewalk; and so to grow things, Trinity had to bring in soil, create beds, and build the space from scratch. Part of her design includes made many little “niches” in the space, creating a variety of different ways for passerby to interact. Here’s one such niche–a set of vines growing from foraged forest sticks as trellises.  This is not only visually pleasing but also offers free food (squash and beans) and enacts the permaculture principles of layered purposes and using the edges and valuing the margins.  Trinity is growing the vines out of tasteful planters.

Beautiful and bountiful vines!

Beautiful and bountiful vines!

Another small “niche” she has designed is the sitting area, which shows up just after the squash and beans. This is a close up of the sitting area, where there is a blackboard where Trinity regularly updates the question that people can answer (and people do!) The sitting area invites people to come, be for a while, and simply to enjoy the space.  She’s asking people to observe, interact and intuit in this space.

img_9175

Moving along the front, the next niche is the giving tree itself.  People can take and leave vegetables, gifts, and trinkets. Children come here and leave and take small toys, for example.  Again, there are a few principles happening here: stacking functions (visually pleasing, growing food, offering gifts), functional interconnection (seeing how the parts work together with the whole). There is very creative use of the edge space and margins (in this case, the otherwise unused edge of the building).  This space is also working on multiple levels: in this case, the social/community as well as the ecological.

Giving Tree area

Giving Tree area

Finally, there are the areas near the stairs and leading up to the actual building that have more vegetables, flowers for pollinators, and more.  Trinity is obtaining a yield with her herbs and veggies and also working to redistribute surplus and engage in people care and fair share.

Herbs and veg in front edge space

Herbs and veg in front edge space

 

Front edge spaces

Front edge spaces from another angle.

One of the things you can see here is how she used rocks and built a bed to build soil. The other thing she did (which I’ll describe in more detail below) is use old feed bags, straw, and small amounts of soil to grow a real vegetables! This is embracing renewables and freely available resources.

And finally, after walking past this delightful space, you feel welcomed as you enter the building.

Welcome to the building!

Welcome!

What I like about this as a permaculture demonstration site is that it is intensive, functional, and engaging.  Each day, it brightens the downtown area and community, while clearly demonstrating many of the principles that can help us live more rengeneratively. This is a wonderful example of how people in urban settings can do so much!

 

The Rooftop Garden: Obtain A Yield

The other outdoor space that Trinity is intensively working is the only space where she has full solar gain–the rooftop.  She has a serious start to a lovely rooftop garden, even getting her vegetables in late (late June) due to her recent move.  Recently, when I visited with her, she fed me celery and tomatoes from this very rooftop garden!

Obtain a yield- yeah!

Obtain a yield- yeah!

Trinity has re-used old feed bags as planters. They hold water, are extremely light (to not put undue stress on the building roof), and are otherwise using waste as a resource.  Essentially what she did is use the “strawbale garden” technique in feed bags instead–planting her veggies in a small amount of soil in the center of the bed, but growing primarily in straw as the growing media.  This technique does require the plants to be watered fairly frequently, but it works well (and Trinity and I have talked about the possibility of drip irrigation for her garden next year).

Here is a nice view of the low-soil, lightweight beds. Onions are doing fine!

Here is a nice view of the low-soil, lightweight beds. Onions are doing fine!

Here is a nice view from the rooftop garden–again, the green is an incredible contrast to the urban concrete and buildings.  This rooftop garden could be expanded quite a bit to grow tons of food.  The light colored roof will also help reflect the heat and keep the veggies cooler in the hottest months.  Trinity is consulting with an engineer to see the possibilities long-term for the garden in terms of weight, etc.

Rooftop garden beds!

Rooftop garden beds!

Trinity’s tomatoes are trellised on some old antenna cables and wiring–also repurposed. As you can see, she is certainly getting a great yield out of this garden!  And this is only the beginning–I can’t wait to see what she continues to do next year :).

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

This is just a small slice of some of the outdoor things that Trinity has been doing in her new abode–I’m excited to see where she goes next.

Gift Exchanges and Sharing: People Care and Fair Share

Another fun thing that Trinity recently did to engage the community and encourage alternative narratives surrounding sharing and “stuff.”  A few weeks ago, our town hosted the Northern Appalachian Folk Festival; it includes music, food, vendors, and a variety of classes (I offered a vermicomposting class, for example). Trinity put out a whole “free” spread in front of her building that encouraged people to take anything they like, leave anything they like, and make a donation.  Many people didn’t know what to think of this (it is so far outside of mainstream capitalism today!) but caught on and joined in on the fun!

Part of the Gift Economy Display at the Folk Festival

Part of the Gift Economy Display at the Folk Festival

On the broader scale, this kind of action links with the gift economy movement. Gift economies and circles are springing up all over the USA, and certainly, have been in place in many parts of the world.  It functions entirely different set of assumptions: it is about care and support, not exchange. I linked above to Charles Eisenstein’s discussion of the Gift Economy, which I think is a good place to understand this philosophy better.

 

Growing Where We are Planted

Trinity is embracing the idea of “growing where she is planted.”  Every space we inhabit has its limitations–in the case of Trinity, she has no soil.  Instead, she has turned the problem into a solution by capializing on what she does have: frontage, visability, and a beautiful roof with solar gain.  Trinity literally grows where she is planted on many levels. Its a beautiful representation of the three permaculture ethics: earth care (growing things, pollinator plants, bringing greenery back into concrete); people care (offering free food, sitting space, beauty, community), and fair share (giving to others any surplus).  I hope you have found her work to be inspirational on your own paths, especially for those of you in limited living circumstances. I will continue to follow her on this blog as the space develops and grows!

 

Wild Plant Profile: Stinging and Wood Nettle’s Medicinal, Edible, and Magical Qualities! July 10, 2016

Wood Nettle

Wood Nettle

Grasp, love, grasp thy nettle tight!
Beneath the blossom there be stings
Which start and stab; but out of sight
Within that flower lie folded wings
So now, ere these be set on flight
Grasp, lover, grasp thy nettle tight!

 

Those stings which, lightly touched, do harm–
If those but hold them fast enough;
Spent of their poison shall disarm;
And seeing but a little rough,
Reveal beneath the covert form
So dear, and deep, and close, and warm
–From “Now or Never,” Laurence Housman

 

The above poem, published in 1915, shares one of the stinging nettle’s secrets–that if you grab the nettle firmly, rather than gently, the nettle stings will break off harmlessly and you can handle it without the sting.  But reaching for it tentatively will have the stings all in your skin! Nettle is one of my very favorite wild foods and medicinal plants, so this week’s post is devoted to nettle’s edible, medicinal, and magical qualities.  This is a good time to be gathering nettles–and eating them with all the other wild and tasty treats of the season (like chicken of the woods mushrooms and black raspberries!) I’ll also share some harvesting tips and recipes I’ve developed for enjoying nettles.

 

Nettles, Nettles, Everywhere

Around where I live in PA, we have two kinds of nettle: stinging nettle (urtica dioica) which is a very common plant throughout the US, and is native to Europe, Western Africa, and Asia (and naturalized here in the US). Stinging nettles (urtica dioca) typically shows up on the edges of forests–I’ve found really nice patches of it on the edge of baseball fields, for example, right where the forest brushes up against the lawn.  I’ve also found it in the open around structures, like barns, and sometimes in open fields.  Sometimes it is in a stand on its own, and sometimes, it is woven in with other plants. It prefers a sunny, less moist setting than its woodland cousin.

 

Wood nettle (laportea canadensis) is a native plant to the Americas.  It prefers the moist, deep forest.  I find it almost exclusively in bottom areas that either hold a lot of moisture or that have some flooding.  Most often, I find it in small or medium sized creek beds (sometimes on the edges or even in the middle) with lots of shade.  Forest swampy parts also often hold this delightful plant.

 

The sting of wood nettle is not as potent as that of stinging nettle–some wood nettles have a lot less stingers on them.  Both are equally enjoyable and share nearly all of the same qualities from an edible, medicinal, and magical standpoint.

 

Nettle as Awareness Medicine

When I was a kid, I remember being stung by nettles and carefully rubbing jewelweed on my stings to soothe them. Back then though, I only knew I wanted to avoid the nettle, and so I paid careful attention to where it grew.  This is one of nettles many lessons: nettle awareness medicine.  It teaches us how to pay much closer attention to our surroundings, and reminding us that there are consequences for failing to do so. Most people stop at nettle’s stinging qualities; the stings, in the form of fine hairs with irritating chemicals, often prevent people from knowing nettle’s deeper mysteries. But if we instead grasp it tightly, so much of the medicine and magic of the nettle opens up before us.

Another awesome wood nettle!

Another awesome wood nettle!

 

Fire and Water as Transforming Agents

Nettle is transformed from a stingy plant that you don’t want to touch to a delightful and tasty medicine and food–with the simple application of heat, water, (steam) and time. In the nettle, we see our own inner academical processes at work:  our rough edges and prickles sometimes have to be transformed though the fires of alchemy. If we allow them to remain, we can never get to our healing or enjoy the fruits of our labor.  But if we are able to transmute these qualities, we have the potential for reaping great rewards.

 

Nettles stings are also therapeutic (see below); specifically, they bring a flush of new blood to areas that are stung, addressing stagnation in the body’s system. I believe that nettle works on the same level spiritually and offers a powerful lesson. Sometimes, we can’t avoid the pain of living and life, but it is in these most painful moments that we are able to clear away old stagnant patterns of living that no longer serve us. Sometimes, it is because of this pain that we have new opportunities for deeper growth.

 

Harvesting Nettle

You can harvest nettles simply either by doing what the poem above says–grasping the nettles tightly (although you are still bound to get stung!)–or you can use gloves and a pair of scissors, like I do :). You can harvest the tops of nettles anytime, especially before they start going to seed. Once they have gone to seed, they get quite woody (but are still good for tea, but not for fresh eating). They eventually get really mineraly, which is great for tea still, but not so good for fresh eating.

 

Nettles can be harvested very sustainably and ethically, especially if they are in abundance. If you bend stinging nettle plants down to the ground, they will send up new shoots, which you can then harvest. If you cut the tops off of them, they will also send up new shoots (sometimes multiple sets), which you can also harvest.  I spend my summers harvesting from the same nettle patch multiple times–coming back a two or so weeks later gives you a completely new batch of fresh nettle tops!

 

Harvesting stinging nettle in flower to encourage new growth!

Harvesting stinging nettle in flower to encourage new growth!

Supporting our Body’s Systems and Nettle’s Healing Powers

Nettle is both an incredible nurturing food but also a top-rate medicinal; I daresay it is one of the most widely useful and practical plants we have in the local ecosystem here. First of all, it has a tremendous amount of minerals and vitamins: vitamin K, protein, iron, and magnesium (of which we are nearly all deficient).

 

Nettle is a metabolic tonic that helps address depleted states of the adrenals and kidneys. It is what we know as an alterative herb, restoring health and balance to the body. While it works slowly, it works well over time and offers a lasting effect. The nettle personality (the person for whom nettle is particularly indicated) i someone who is constantly in the sympathetic nervous system state and is often jumpy, nervous, twitchy or anxious. Nettle helps bring people out of the sympathetic nervous system state and back into the parasympathetic.

 

Cold nettle tea is also a great diuretic, which supports the urinary tract and the kidneys.

 

Even nettle’s sting also has benefit.  It is used as an alternative treatment for any stagnant conditions of the circulatory system and the blood, particularly for arthritis and osteoarthirtis. Tendonitis can be treated by stinging the affected area and adding a salve of solomon’s seal oil or a yellow dock leaf.  Nettles sting can also be used to treat the loss of sensation in the body (e.g. in the fingers after an accident).

 

Nettle Dip - yum!

Nettle Dip – yum!

Some Nettle Recipes

Because Nettle is so abundant, I have developed a number of recipes that showcase nettle in a variety of ways.  Here are a few of my favorites:

 

Nettle French Onion Dip

  • 1/2 cup of nettles (fresh)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1/2 cup of sour cream
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

This is a very simple dip–I recently made this for my plant walk, and it was a huge success!  Bring water to a boil, add the nettles, and boil 3-4 minutes to remove the sting.  Drain and press the nettles to get the excess water out.  They will look a lot like cooked spinach. Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, saute your onions in olive oil until they are brown.

 

Add the nettles and the onion into a food processor and process until chopped.  Add salt to taste, and sour cream.  If you let the flavors meld in the fridge for a few hours, this dip is even more tasty!

 

Nettle Pesto (Vegan)

For a simple nettle pesto, combine 1/2 cup blanched nettles with 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup basil, and salt to taste (you can also add Parmesan cheese to it if you like!).  You can eat this fresh on pasta or sandwiches or freeze it.

 

Nettle Palak Paneer (veg/vegan)

Palak paneer is one of my favorite Indian dishes; when I had a ton of nettle available, I thought, why not create a nettle paneer? You can do one of two things: make it all nettles or make it spinach + nettles. Either way, it is absolutely delicious!

 

  • 2 cups of nettles, blanched (about 4 cups before cooking) (You can also go 50/50 on the nettles with spinach)
  • 1/2 cup paneer cheese (substitute extra firm tofu)
  • 1 medium onion (cut finely)
  • 1/2 chunk of ginger (shredded/cut finely)
  • 1 Small tomato (finely chopped)
  • 6 tbsp ghee or cooking oil
  • salt, to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 green chilies (depending on your spice level)
  • 3 tbps of cream (optional)

 

Begin by blanching your nettles (and spinach, if you are using it). While it is blanching, you also want to fry your ghee/tofu in 3 tbsp of the ghee or cooking oil, browning them on all sides.

 

Strain your nettles and spinach, and allow to cool a bit. Then, add them to your food processor and process them a bit to make a rough puree.

 

In a skillet, combine 3 tbsp of ghee/cooking oil with the ginger, onion and garlic and saute for about 5 min until everything goes translucent. Add chilies and tomato and saute for another 2-3 min. Add the pureed nettles and paneer cheese, season to taste. If you want, you can add 3 or so tbsp of fresh cream.

 

Blanching nettle

Blanching nettle

Serve this over rice–delicious!

 

Vegan options: tofu instead of paneer, use cooking oil, omit the cream.

 

Nettle Nervine Nourishing Tea

I find nettle tea to be a really delightful treat. My favorite tea blend, one that supports and nourishes the body, is the following:

  • 1 part nettle leaves, dried
  • 1 part oats, dried (whole oats, not crushed oats) or oatstraw
  • 1 part lemon balm
  • 1 part catnip

Blend these together and make an herbal infusion. Boil water, add herbs, put a lid on it, and seep for at least 10 min. Enjoy with some raw honey!

 

Closing Thoughts

I hope that you take the opportunity to get to know this amazing, incredible, nurturing, and healing plant!

 

Lawn Regeneration: Return to Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm October 14, 2015

Front yard view, mid September

Front yard view, mid September 2015

As I’ve mentioned on this blog many times before–the spaces where we live and work each day are prime places to begin the regenerative work and rebuild our relationship sacred connection with nature. For many, the land nearest to us happens to be a lawn, one small part of the 40 million acres of lawn in the USA; currently the largest crop currently grown. And the lawn is a great place to start, for so many reasons.  Back in April, I wrote about Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, a project of my dear friend Linda.  Linda is a woman with deep spiritual connections to the land, and she knew she had to make a radical change to turn the lawn of her newly purchased home into something more in line with her principles. In my initial post, I shared Linda’s work in taking the initial steps in converting her entire 50′ x 50′ front lawn into a vegetable garden and showed some early plantings.  In this post, I wanted to check in with Linda to provide some updates and see how the season has gone for her.  Did she get in trouble with her town?  Did her project work? What happened throughout the season this year?  How did the veggies grow?

In Permaculture Design, one of the basic principles is to “obtain a yield” but the concept of “yield” is much more broad than just the fruit or vegetables.  So in this post, we’ll be looking at the many “yields’ that converting a lawn can give us,  including the vegetables themselves, community building, mindset shifting, education, exercise, meditation, health, habitat, and more. What Linda and her community have found through this process is that the yield of this garden goes far beyond  just the vegetables.

Community Building and Education

Linda began the process of converting her lawn to vegetables on October 2014, so her farm is now officially a year old. When I asked her how the last year has been, she said, “Its the best medicine I could have ever asked for. I didn’t know what to expect if I did this, if I was going to be called out or reprimanded. But everything went beyond my expectations.”

 

I want to start with the community aspects with Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, because for a project like this to be successful and embraced, the community is probably the most important factor. Building good relationships with local government and neighbors is part of how a project becomes successful rather than finding itself in legal trouble. Linda has not had any legal issues at all surrounding her farm–and its now been in place, very visibly, for over a year.

 

In talking to others who *have* gotten in trouble for lawn conversions, the problem seems to stem from a few places. First, not being aware of the laws or working within the laws (which may have ordinances about things like “weed” height, etc). Linda spoke with officials in her town government prior to converting her lawn last year, and they verbally gave her the “go ahead as long as there aren’t any weeds.”  Second, trouble happens when you are not engaging with the neighbors in a positive direction; Linda says that lavender-lemon shortbread cookies and fresh vegetables get you far!  Third, trouble happens when the garden looks unmanaged, wild, or unattractive to neighbors. If you can address these three aspects: laws, neighbors, and beauty, you will have success in converting your lawn.  So let’s take a look at a few ways that Linda was able to engage her community.

 

Child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Neighborhood child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Linda has been amazed by how much the community has embraced her front yard farm. She says “this is the happiest I’ve ever been, especially in getting affirmations from the children in the neighborhood wanted to come and help harvest. They would come help and then take home fresh food.” Linda describes several children who were regular visitors to the garden, learning from her, wanting to do the work in the garden. This kind of interaction can only happen when you are out in the open, in a community, in a neighborhood, where people can easily find you.  But more importantly, Linda is teaching neighborhood children a powerful lesson about nurturing our relationship with the living earth and learning about where food really comes from.

Kids packing up produce!

Neighborhood kids packing up produce!

Linda describes another story where a neighbor was walking with her grandson down the street, and they came to the garden.  The boy ran over to the garden and came inside and didn’t want to leave the garden because he was so happy to be there.  Gardens like these powerfully attract children, who haven’t yet lost the wonder of being in such a sacred space. Children, certainly, can sense the difference.

 

In a third story, Linda describes how an older man was walking down the street and came to the front of the garden and sat on one of the stumps Linda had placed there. He sat on the stump for a good 20 minutes, just observing the garden. Linda said, “It kind of reminded me of The Giving Tree. That’s why I put those stumps there, so people could come by and take it all in.” In each of these cases, we see people of all ages being attracted to the garden–attracted to this welcoming and sacred space that Linda has created.

A place to sit....

A place to sit….

In terms of what kind of an impact she’s having on surrounding lawns, Linda’s newest neighbors are planning on converting their lawn next spring, and other neighbors have likewise expressed interest in doing away with their lawns.  Linda expects that in a few years, more and more gardens will be appearing!

 

Now that Linda has experienced such a positive response from her community and has “tested the waters,” she plans to do more direct educational and outreach events this year and in the coming season. The first event she’s planning is a fall harvest festival, where she invites all of the neighbors to the garden to come harvest the last of the vegetables before the winter. At this event, she will share recipes and food cooked from the garden so that people get a sense of how to eat locally and sustainably. In the spring, she plans on offering more classes on lawn conversion and organic vegetable gardening.

Beans on the trellis near the house!

Asian long beans hanging from the trellis near the house.

 

Growth and Harvest

Linda is an organic farmer with over 30 years experience, and it shows in her work and yields. Linda focused her farm this year on specialty greens: spinach, kale, minzua, arugula, tatsoi, salad mixes and lettuce as well as beans, herbs, potatoes, and cut flowers. Her farm has produced beyond her wildest expectations. When I asked her how her season went, she said “It was the best season I had ever had. Even better than my 10 acre farm.” In her front yard farm, she’s farming approximately 1000 square feet; her previous farm had about 6000 square feet in cultivation. We talked for a bit to try to understand what the difference was, how this small front yard garden was outperforming her previous farm, and she has no way to explain it. Others, too are trying to solve the mystery–she’s had visitors from the MSU State Extension office and other local farmers come to try to figure out how her small farm is producing so much, to test her soil, and so on.

 

Of course, I have an explanation that one can’t measure with scientific equipment: Linda poured her love into this land in a way she never was able to with her former land. Yes, she’s a fabulous farmer and knows how to grow good food–but in this case, she was growing more than food, she was growing community.  She was regenerating soil, she was regenerating her community’s relationship with its food and the land–and I think it was this interconnectedness that makes the difference.  This is a sacred space, a space that has grown care in the community in the same way it has grown vegetables.

The flower garden...

The flower garden

Linda is still calculating her exact harvest numbers for the season, but said she harvested between 1500-2000 lbs of food this season, mostly in greens. She said she was pulling out 30 bags (3oz each) of spinach and salad greens, 15-20 bunches of kale per week, even getting other farmers and friends to harvest as well. And still, the food keeps on coming! I want to note that greens are not a heavy crop, and the idea that anyone could pull almost 2000 lbs of greens out of one 50′ x 50′ space in one season is just incredible.  Its doubly incredible considering that Linda is also doing very low carbon farming–she uses no power tools of any kind–everything is

 

Linda used various pest methods and did not have difficulty with rabbits or deer.  She lined the garden in various alliums (shallots, onions, garlic, chives) and also used herbs (lavender and rosemary). She tucked in bits of dog fur, procured for free from a local dog groomer, around the edges. She said she saw a few rabbits come in, but they went back out quickly and wouldn’t stay around to eat. The deer didn’t enter the garden.

Sunflowers!

Linda reaching up to the sunflowers!

And yet, birds and beneficial insects flock to the garden. The sunflowers are now providing good seed for the birds, the plants, even this far into October, are still producing nectar and pollen for the bees. She described seeing numerous beneficial insects such as honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, and even dragonflies–all in this space that was once almost entirely devoid of life.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Although we had a wet summer, Linda did use drip irrigation as an additional aid for the garden soil.  In her drip irrigation lines she added fish emulsion and kelp meal for regular nutrition to the plants.  These are ways of getting more direct nutrition right to the roots of the soil.

One of the benefits of a front-yard garden compared to a traditional farm (which Linda was on prior to this) is proximity, or what permaculture designers call a zone. In Linda’s previous farm, all of her vegetables that she was tending were fairly far from the house, some beds quite far from the house (Zones 2 – 4). In her front yard, they are there right where she lives, where she parks her car, when she gets her mail, as soon as she steps outside (Zone 1). This, and this alone, makes the urban farm quite distinct from its rural counterpart–its not “away”, rather its “right here.”

 

Healing and Regeneration

As I mentioned in my first post on Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, Linda had left a very bad personal situation, and she came to this new land hurt and in need of healing. Her land, likewise, was hurt and in need of healing in the way that so many modern lawns need healing: it had soil compaction, it was chemically ridden, and it was devoid of any habitat or life beyond the grass. Linda and her land came together for their mutual healing, and through that healing, have grown together to create the most sacred of spaces.

 

Linda describes her activity in the garden not as work but as meditation.  Certainly within druidry, we recognize different kinds of meditation, including movement meditation.  This movement meditation is one that brings Linda to the garden each day, and allows her to see her interaction with the garden not as “work” but as peaceful and engaged living.  I too, have experienced this movement meditation through the practice of gardening–sowing seeds, moving compost, raking leaves, weeding–all of these quiet, repetitive movements allow for deeper thoughts and introspection.

 

Linda also talks about the garden as her place of healing: it allows her to be outdoors, it provides her with exercise, it gives her interaction with her community, it provides her with vitamin D, it gives her nutritious food (food is medicine) and of course, continues her healing work.

A beautiful shot of the farm

A beautiful shot of the farm

 

Next Steps

In addition to the community education plans, I spoke to Linda about her fall preparation in the garden.  She explained that she’s going to add in more perennial crops this upcoming season (like blueberries, if she can get the soil PH low enough–its quite high in South-East Michigan) and start planning her crops for next year.  She plans on adding layers of leaves, pine needles (to help the soil PH) and another 5 yards of finished compost to her beds in preparation to the spring.

Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

 

Converting Your Lawn?

If you are considering converting your lawn or part of the lawn, a good place to begin is to examine the laws in your town.  Some people choose to defy the law to plant their vegetables, just be aware of the laws prior to beginning your journey so you understand the ramifications of your choices.  Second, have a plan going in of what you want it to look like and what you want to grow.  Third, start doing some sheet mulching! This is how Linda, and many others, convert lawns easily: layering organic matter with a weed suppression barrier.  Fall is a perfect time to do this as organic matter (in the form of leaves) is easily accessible and in large amounts.  Fourth, I’d suggest starting small.  Linda is a very experienced farmer–for someone who hasn’t grown much, consider converting a portion of the lawn and building up to a full lawn conversion over a period of years.  I, too, learned the lesson that bigger isn’t always better and smaller is more manageable as you are learning.  Above all–have fun in the work of regeneration!

 

The Wisdom of the Elder: Recipes for Infused Elderflower Honey, Elderflower Cordial, and Elder-Lemon Tea June 24, 2015

Elderflowers!

Elderflowers!

Elderflowers (flowers from the Sambucus nigra plant) are in bloom right around the Summer Solstice (at least where I live), and this is a perfect time to create delightful healing recipes. One of these recipes uses raw honey (from my hives, of course) to gain the added benefits!  If you are looking for recipes for elderberry available later in the season, I posted a delicious recipe for elderberry elixir last year!

 

Medicinal Benefits of Elderflower

Elder – both the berry and the flower– is a first-rate medicinal plant that is unmatched in its ability to bolster the immune system and fight off illness.  I really enjoy having elderflower around in the winter months, especially when flu season comes around.  The flowers of elder come into bloom anywhere from late May till early June depending on the season and where you live–but for me, usually they are a premiere summer solstice plant.  Traditionally, elder has a very wide range of herbal uses–Grieve’s herbal details some of them. In more modern herbal practices, the flowers, specifically, are taken internally as an anti-inflammatory herb, especially for conditions in the respiratory system (like the flu, bronchitis, pleurisy and so on). It has a diaphoretic action that can be help to manage fevers–and this is how I use it, most often. If you get the flu, you want elderflower nearby! Baths of the elder flower (you can make them from dried or fresh flowers) for itchy skin also work well.

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Harvesting and Preparing Elderflowers

Elder are super-easy to spot when they are in bloom–look for low to medium-sized shrubs with bunches of beautiful white flowers. They usually are margin plants, meaning they like to grow on the edges and the margins–like on the edge of a forest. You may also find them out in the middle of a field or in part shade.  I’ve never found any deep in the forest. Remember that, as tempting as it may be, don’t pick elder by the side of busy roadsides as these plants are likely contaminated with exhaust (see my general suggestions for wildcrafting and foraging and avoiding toxins here.)

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

Once you find your elderflower, I suggest harvesting them with scissors or a knife. You can harvest them without either of these, but it does make it easier. A basket with a tight weave, a bucket, or even a cloth bag works very well to place your harvested flowers inside. I suggest giving the flowers a very good shake before placing them in–the elder are home to a number of small bugs, bees, and other creatures that you don’t want to take home with you.  You want to harvest the flowers that are near full bloom or in full bloom.  You also want to pay attention to the smell–different elders have different smells, and you want one that smells nice and aromatic (some of them can get a little stinky).

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

Once you have your elderflower safely at home, you can keep them in the fridge up to 24 hours without them going too limp, and since it does take time to harvest and process, I sometimes will harvest on one day and then process the following day.

 

When you are ready to process them, I suggest taking your elder outside, because the hardest part of processing elderflower is making sure none of the little bugs are still in the flowers!  What I like to do (for either of these recipes) is to cut the stems off the flowers (only the flowers and berries are edible).  I do this while I inspect the flowers for bugs, worms, or other critters, and gently shake or knock them off.  You’ll be surprised how many there are in your flowers.

 

Pay attention for elders that have a really big bud–there is likely some little bug living in there (so I cut those out and leave them in a shady spot).  Make sure you remove most, if not all, of the stem.

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

You’ll be left with a pile of lovely elder flowers ready to make delicious and medicinal concoctions!

Ready to take inside!

Ready to take inside!

 

Elderflower Infused Honey

One of the easiest ways of preserving fresh elderflowers is in raw, local honey. You get both the benefit of the honey as well as the elder flower–making this an AMAZING remedy.  Infusing elderflower into honey couldn’t be easier.

Freshly harvseted honey for infusing!

Freshly harvested honey for infusing!

Loosely pack fresh elderflowers into a mason jar and pour your honey over the flowers.  Fresh honey works best for this–if your honey doesn’t pour well, you can stick it in the sun for 30 min and that will warm it up (or stick it in a bowl of hot water).  If your honey is crystallized, you can stick it in a double boiler for a time and it will liquify (but don’t get it too hot or you will kill the good enzymes present in raw honey).

Pouring honey

Pouring honey

Once you’ve poured in the honey, take a knife or chopstick and gently stir the honey and elderflower together.

Stirring and pouring

Stirring and pouring

Let it sit in a warm place for 1 week, then strain the elderflower out of the honey and enjoy.  Keep an eye on the honey–honey keeps because it has a low water content.  The elder shouldn’t bring it above that level, but if it does, you’ll want to keep it in the fridge to prevent spoiling.  I’ve never had a problem with any of my infused honeys, however, especially from herbs, but there is always that possibility.

Elder infusing next to some hawthorn flowers

Elder infusing next to a hawthorn flower glycerate

Now you can eat this honey just like any other honey–but it has the added benefit–and flavor–of elderflower!

 

Elderflower Cordial

Another amazing thing to do with elderflower is to make a cordial–this recipe is for a syrup that you can add to any fizzy thing, like soda water, seltzer water, or even champagne or vodka.  You can drizzle it over ice cream or enjoy it on pancakes.  It also goes nicely in a tea. And the best part is that every time you take it, you are boosting the immune system!

The cordial recipe depends on if you want it to keep for a long period of time or if you are going to drink it right away.  If you want to drink it quickly or freeze it, you can omit the citric acid and lemons in the recipe below.  If you are going to can it (like I do) or just bottle it up and keep it in the fridge make sure you include the citric acid. If you bottle it in sterilized bottles or jars, it will keep for several months in there.

 

Here’s my recipe (makes about 8 cups):

2 quarts of water (8 cups)
2 quarts sugar (3 lbs sugar; I use raw sugar for this–you could also use honey or maple syrup)
8 heaping cups elder flowers, stems removed (about 30-40 heads, depending on the size of the head)
2 tsp citric acid (necessary if you are canning, otherwise, you can omit)
3 lemons, sliced and zested, pith removed (lemons are also necessary if you are canning to increase acid content, but gives it a really nice flavor)

 

Start by preparing your elderflowers as above. You might even dip them in water to make sure all the critters are gone, but I prefer more humane methods.

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

Put your sugar and water in a large stockpot and heat it up till the sugar is dissolved.  While this is heating, prepare your lemons by zesting them and then cutting off the pith, and slicing the insides in small slices.  Many recipes don’t remove the pith, but I know from winemaking that the pith can cause wine to go bitter, so I also remove them for this recipe.

Sugar dissolved into water (I'm using raw cane organic sugar, so its a darker color)

Sugar dissolved into water (I’m using raw cane organic sugar, so its a darker color)

Once the sugar water has cooled down so that you can stick your finger in it, stir in the elder flower, lemon zest, and lemon slices.

Added lemons and zest

Added lemons and zest

Mixed in elderflower!

Mixed in elderflower!

Put a lid on it and wait 24 hours.

Infusing elderflower....

Infusing elderflower….

Put a clean teatowel or fine cheesecloth in a strainer and strain the mixture.  The mixture is now complete and can be enjoyed.  You can pour it into sterile jars and it will keep in the fridge for 1-3 months (you’ll know when it goes bad–it usually will grow mold on it!)

Straining Elder Cordial

Straining Elder Cordial

At this stage, I will reheat the mixture to a slow boil, then ladle it into canning jars, and process it in a hot water bath for 10 minutes (for half-pint jars, 20 min for pints) to ensure that it will keep for several years.  Not every year is a good year for elderflower, and so I will make extra in good years. I like to make this on the summer solstice and open it up at Samhuinn and the Winter Solstice to begin enjoying (and to begin bolstering my immune system for the upcoming flu season!)

 

Honeyed Elderflower and Lemon Tea

You didn’t think I’d let all those infused flowers go to waste after straining the honey or the cordial did you? Heck no! “Produce no waste” is a permaculture design principle that I abide by. From the honey infusion, when I strain it, I will keep the strained flowers with their bits of honey in the fridge and use them for tea within a week or two (since Grieve talks about elder being a good blood purifier and tonic, I think its great to take this tea semi-regularly anyways). Or, I will freeze it into an ice cube tray to use later.

 

The flowers and lemon from the cordial can likewise be dried for a tea (I do this in my dehydrator on the “herb” setting at 95 degrees, cause elderflowers are very delicate and can turn brown quickly). When its dry, I put it in a mason jar, which is good for the next year or so. Either tea will have its own sweetness already present and is delicious on its own, or mixed with other herbs.  So save your flowers, brew them up, and enjoy!

 

Sacred Lessons from the Bees, Honey Flows, and Honey Harvesting June 13, 2015

I’ve been making the transition to Pennsylvania and to my new life here (I spoke of this transition in an earlier blog post). Sorry for the delay in a regular weekly post–I’m back on track now, and have many wonderful things to share with you in the coming weeks.  Today I’m going to talk about bees and share photos of my first honey harvest.

Bees moving to their new home

Bees moving to their new home in early May!

I’ve now been a beekeeper for over a year, and I have begun to deeply resonate with the honeybee. Honeybees are the most amazing, gentle creatures–they make everything from the plants, are extremely hard working, and extremely fascinating.

 

One of the decisions I made, in my transition from my 3 acre homestead to small-town renting (renting until I find my new land) was to keep my two beehives. Moving two beehives across three states is no easy feat–it requires state inspections, paperwork, and a good friend with a truck willing to drive you there. It also requires overcoming some of your own fears.  So in early May, a dear friend and I moved the bees–we move about 50,000 of them in two hives. They were moved to a friend’s farm in PA–an ideal spot, 70 acres, full of clover, flowers, and so much more. I’ve been regularly checking on them, and have been thrilled with their progress in their second year. Most new beekeepers don’t get any honey their first year, and certainly, my hives were no exception. But now in their second year, despite their 450 mile trip to their new home, the hives are strong and the nectar flow is steady. So in this post, I’ll talk a bit about my thoughts after a year of beekeeping and my experiences with the first honey harvest.

 

Beekeeping Ethically

I’ve become very vigilant about the protection of bees. After seeing the magic of the hive, and visiting other hives who have not survived for various reasons, I’ve begun working to educate others about the bees–knowledge is power. So you can think about this in two ways: the choices that the beekeepers make and the choices that everyone else makes.  Let’s start with the beekeepers.

 

Beekeeping class I gave recently!

Beekeeping class I gave recently!

Beekeepers are faced with a lot of choices and the “standard” approach advocated in many books is not the best–its very similar to the choices one faces with other kinds of farming or animal husbandry. You can farm industrially on a large scale with chemicals and destructive practices, or you can farm organically and holistically.  You can keep chickens locked up in a building suffering, or you can let them free range to eat bugs.  This is all a matter of choice. Beekeeping is the same way–you can engage in industrial beekeeping with plastic foundations (which the bees do not like) and add tons of chemicals to the hive to prevent various diseases and cart them all over the country to pollinate monocrops, or you can work in partnership with the bees using organic approaches and holistic systems design. Similarly, you can choose to harvest ALL the honey from a hive prior to the winter, letting your bees starve and installing a new package of bees in the spring–which brings you a ton of profit. Or, you can harvest only the excess honey and ensure that the bees make it through the winter unharmed. You can choose to kill the queen and put a new one in there the bees are not familiar with at the first sign of trouble (called re-queening) or you can let the bees raise their own queens. The list goes on and on.

 

I see beekeeping as a partnership–I wouldn’t do anything to them that I wouldn’t do for myself or to my land. This means no plastic in the hive, no chemicals in the hive, and ensuring that the hive health is the top priority (rather than my own desire for honey). I mainly use an approach advocated by Ross Conrad in his book called Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. I use this approach with a few modifications, including letting bees build their own comb for their hive bodies rather than giving them pre-stamped wax foundation–this allows them to build cells to fit their needs rather than build cells to fit a beekeeper’s desires. (This is why I take issue with the “flow hive” that everyone is talking about–its very beekeeper centric and not good for the bees themselves). The way that we treat the bees has energetic outcomes: as I’ve argued elsewhere about food, the better we can treat the land and those animals or insects helping to produce our food, the better we feel when we eat it. But more than that, the bees are such a wonderful blessing to the land–its important we treat them as sacred partners.

 

Protecting Bees more Broadly

The problems don’t just reside with the beekeeping practices. Bees, and other pollinating insects like Monarch Butterflies, are in serious trouble on a larger scale. Modern land use–from industrialized farming to maintenance of the lawn–are destroying habitats and exposing bees to destructive chemicals. At some point, I’ll break down these practices in more detail, but for now, suffice to say that pesticides (especially neonicatonids), chemicals, GMOs, all the nasty things so many of us who have a spiritual relationship with the land are trying to avoid–are destructive to the bee. When bees go out into the world foraging, they bring back to the hive whatever they pickup. Pesticides and chemicals build up in the hive over time, weakening the hive and eventually leading to a crash. I’ve seen this firsthand–dead hives of dead bees because of “mosquito spraying” in Michigan. Its a horrible sight. To add insult to injury, companies producing and marketing these pesticides have “greenwashing” sites that make it sound like they care about the bees: no Bayer and Monsanto, I’m not buying it.

 

There are so many things we could be doing differently with regards to our land use. I look at all the places unnecessarily mowed–I look at the swaths of green lawns and the chemicals used. Those could be instead planted with wildflowers and kept without chemicals (or fossil fuels). Keep the dandelions in the ground, plant other kinds of flowers and trees that produce abundance for all–there is a better way! Of course, companies who sell flowers are going to have to stop spraying them with neonicatonoid pesticides first :(.  Its going to require a paradigm shift, but believe me, the bees–and everything else–are worth it!

 

Bees drawing their own comb!

Bees drawing their own comb!

Bees as Alchemists

Even with the challenges that we face regarding land use, beekeeping practices, and bee safety–there is so much to learn from the hive. Bees are truly spagyric alchemists, beginning with materials from plants: netcar, pollen, and resin, and making amazing things: beeswax, propolis, and honey. Bees begin making honey by foraging for nectar from whatever plants are blooming–they drink up the nectar and it goes into a special stomach where they add enzymes to begin to break down the complex sugars into simple ones. They bring this back to the hive, where it is further cured to reduce the water content and eventually capped into honey. One pound of honey requires approximately 100,000 visits to plants on the part of bees.

 

The wax comes forth literally from their own bodies. They have wax producing glands that create small wax flakes that they use to build comb. Since the wax also derives from honey, it has the same awesome smell. Even in my first year, I was surprised about how much wax I got from the hive–a lot of it was when they built comb somewhere that they shouldn’t have, or had built cross comb that I had to remove.  I’m excited to process this wax and make candles, creams, soaps, and salves with it!

 

Propolis is “bee glue” and is collected by the bees from plants. Its essentially plant resins, and forms a sticky glue where the bees need to seal something up.  It has incredible medicinal qualities, including as a contact antimicrobial and great for surface issues, like burns.  I took a whole class just on the medicinal uses of propolis–its incredible stuff.

 

Bees are also masters of sacred geometry, producing a lattice of hexagrams.  The Beelore blog has a nice discussion of some of the other geometric connections to bees.

 

Visiting the Hive

When you up the hive, the first thing that greets you is the amazing smell–its hard to explain what it smells like, but its kind of a combination of propolis, beeswax, honey, and something else–maybe the bees themselves.  Its rich. Then you hear the hive– hive has a very low buzzing as the bees go about their work; if you disturb them too much the buzzing increases in volume as the bees buzz louder to sound the alarm. They also buzz louder to fan the hive on a hot day and help regulate the temperature.

 

I am amazed by how gentle the bees are. If you are a careful beekeeper, you can open up the hive and look at the bees and they are quite calm and happy. I don’t smoke my bees, even though most books suggest to do so–I find it just fires them up and I’d rather work with a calm hive. I still have yet to be stung–and if I’m stung, its not due to aggression on the part of the hive but due to my own stupidity.

 

My First Honey Harvest

A visit to the two hives yesterday revealed that the hives are doing tremendously well. They have a full hive of honey and brood, and the “supers,” which are the excess honey stores that we can harvest from, are about half full of honey and wax. While much of the honey not yet ready to harvest (it is not yet cured, which is necessary for long-term storage), we were able to harvest a few frames from the early spring nectar flows.  These frames were a beautiful, light colored and flavored spring honey consisting mostly of autumn olive and honeysuckle. Here we are at the hives:

Getting ready to harvest honey

Getting ready to harvest honey

A full beehive!

A full beehive!

We gently brushed the bees off the comb and replaced it with new frames for them to build.

 

Straining the Honey

We were left with five beautiful frames of honey, the best we had ever tasted:

Honeycomb

Honeycomb

Because honey extractor equipment can run upwards of $700 or more (and depends primarily on plastic foundation we would rather avoid in our hives), we opted for the “crush and strain” approach, which is an old and effective method that yields wax and honey. To do this, we used Joe Lydeck’s instructions on Youtube for a simple crush and strain bucket (the second version in his video). This cost about $30 total and was super easy to construct.

Buckets for straining

Our honey straining system- two buckets, a honey gate, and a nylon strainer from the hardware store.

Here we begin by cutting the comb off of the frames.  The smell is amazing, the sticky and gooey honey comes right off the comb.

Cutting the comb off the frame

Cutting the comb off the frame

Next, we cut some of it up for comb honey. We also added some comb honey to the jars for our strained honey so that the jar would have a bit of honeycomb in the middle–I saw this kind of presentation in an upscale shop, and thought that we could do it with our own honey.

Cutting comb honey!

Cutting comb honey!

After cutting up the comb, the fun part begins–crushing! You can use different methods for crushing (most use a potato masher, which we couldn’t find).  So we opted for crushing it with our clean hands. This was a lot of sticky, gooey fun!

Crushing up the honey!

Crushing up the honey!

After crushing it up and keeping what comb we wanted, we put the bucket out in the sun for a few hours. This helped warm the honey up so that it would extract from the crushed up comb a bit more easily. After we put it out in the sun for a while, I lifted up the bucket to see what was going on–here is the honey dripping out freely into the lower bottling bucket!

Honey coming through holes!

Honey coming through holes in upper bucket!

After the wait, we strained the last of the honey and ended up with about 20 lbs of honey–which was incredible given we only had five frames. At this point, we began to bottle. We used sterilized mason jars and other assorted fun jars for the honey. As I mentioned before, we added honeycomb to the center of some jars, and other jars just were straight honey–you can see this in the photo below.

Pouring the honey into a jar

Pouring the honey into a jar with honeycomb

We bottled up the honey and were so pleased with the harvest!  I have to make some nice labels for the jars still, but look at all that honey!

Bottled honey!

Bottled honey!

The best part about all of this work is that the equipment needs to be licked clean!

Licking the pan clean!

Licking the pan clean!

 

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

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

 

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

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

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

 

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

 

Size and Shape of the plot

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

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

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

 

All Organic and Biointensive

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

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

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

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

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

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

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

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

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

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

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

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

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

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

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

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

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

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

Compost

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

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

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

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

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

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

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

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

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

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

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

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

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

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

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

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

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

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

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

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

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

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

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

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

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!