The Druid's Garden

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

The Silence of the Hive October 1, 2015

A full hive with bees working

A full hive with bees working

What you quickly learn as a beekeeper is that the sound of the hive matters.  When you first get into a hive, if the hive is in good health and has all of its needs met, the hive is generally pretty quiet (I talk about the hive as a single organism, because that’s really what bees are: a single super organism.)  Sometimes, a hive is louder when you arrive–the bees are fanning the hive with their wings to keep it cool, or they are beating their wings to generate heat in the winter to keep it warm (you don’t open the hive under 50 degrees). But in the absence of extreme hot or cold, a happy and healthy hive emits only a very soft sound, discernible only up close when you open it. Beehives always have some buzzing in them–the bees move around, beat their wings, and go about tending their young and storing away pollen and honey. You can sense the happiness and contentment of the bees in a quiet hive a going about their work. As you begin doing whatever it is you need to do and disrupt the bees, like pulling out frames or moving around hive boxes, they escalate to a louder buzzing sound, where the hive is on alert. The louder the buzzing, generally, the less happy of a hive you have on your hands. They get extremely loud and start flying at you and trying to sting when they think their hive is in danger–this is usually after you do something stupid, like kill bees, bang on the hive box, drop something, etc.. I used to think that this loud buzzing was the worst sound you could hear. Now, I realize there is a much worse sound you can hear–and that is the sound of silence.


This past weekend was supposed to be an exciting time for me as a beekeeper–my two hives each had 30 or so pounds of excess honey in the honey supers from the last big nectar flow of the season, and it was time to go harvest. The honey this time of year is the stuff of legends, the nectar of the gods, the honey that can drive away seasonal allergies and warm the soul for the many long months of winter. Its made of plants that heal–goldenrod and aster.  Its dark and rich, extremely flavorful, and highly medicinal. I had been looking forward to this weekend for many months, excited that we had such a good harvest in the second year of beekeeping. It was especially gratifying after getting through the regulatory red tape of moving my hives from Michigan to Pennsylvania this summer and finding a new home for the hives.


This is what you expect to see....

This is what you expect to see….

My father joined me to help harvest the honey, and we laughed and smiled as we put on our suits, prepared our tools, and got ready to do the harvest. When we opened the first hive, I noted that the bees weren’t on the honey super–this isn’t necessarily abnormal; the colony is quickly shrinking in size as the weather cools and you don’t always find a lot of bees up in the honey super. But something felt just wrong. We were able to pull off the frames one by one, not even needing the escape board I had planned on using.  Then it struck me–there was no buzzing; the hive was silent. As I leaned into the hive and looked down through all the frames and into the brood box where the bees should still be, I could see straight to the bottom. No bees. I realized that the absence of sound was one of the worst kinds of sounds a beekeeper can hear–the silence of a dead or abandoned hive.


Six months ago on this blog, I wrote about the sound of silence and the music of the world–how one researcher found that as species died off and dwindled, as less and less habitats remained, a silence was coming over the world in ways not previously recorded or experienced. This, of course, is decades after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, who documented the effects of pesticide use on bird populations–and who created a national conversation on conservation. And, as I stood there looking at my empty, dead hive, pulling frame after frame, the full weight of the silence was upon me.


There are lots of ways that hives can die these days, but the name for what I found in my hive this past weekend is one you’ll probably recognize: colony collapse disorder (CCD). This is when the workers in a healthy hive up and abandon it leaving their young, their queen, and all of their food behind. Its not that the whole hive moves on, but rather, just the workforce of the hive disappears. Its kind of like if every healthy adult who keeps your town functioning were to walk out of town permanently and head who knows where without any food, water, even a change of clothes, leaving their children, elders, and pets behind, and just disappear, never to be seen again. The worker bees have no chance of survival without the honey (especially as it gets colder and colder), the safety of their hive, and the queen for reproduction–especially this late in a season. Even if they somehow made it to spring, without a queen, the bees cannot reproduce and the colony would die. In a careful inspection of the dead hive, I found bees that had just hatched, half out their cells, dead. Many others never had a chance to hatch and died before they were even born. We’ve had some very cold nights, and I’m guessing they froze to death. Without any adult worker bees tending them or keeping them warm, they had no chance. It was awful.


Its not just the loss of the hive, a dear friend and companion on my journey, that is so painful. Its the representation of what this loss means. Its seeing the headlines about bee declines and deaths and thinking that you can somehow do better, that your organic beekeeping and the love you pour into your hives will make your bees immune to what’s going on. That CCD will never happen to your hives. That your practices, and faith, and love, can create a protective bubble to keep the harsh reality of what we are doing to this planet out.  I am again reminded of what declines in bee, bird, and other wildlife populations mean for the health of our lands. I’ve been speaking so much of regeneration on this blog in recent months, and the loss of my hive really has weighed on me the importance of this ongoing conversation.


In the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of press coverage about Colony Collapse Disorder–what it is, why it happens, what causes it. The truth is, scientists are still figuring it out, but it seems to focus on three areas: pesticides, disease/mites, and the loss of of foraging areas. But it doesn’t take a scientist to recognize the massive changes happening in our lands: all ones needs to do is open his or her eyes and see through the bee’s perspective. Bees need the same things the rest of us do: healthy living spaces free of poison, health and disease free living, no toxins, and adequate food supplies. Those are increasingly under threat, and unfortunately, the situation is not improving at present time.


Less than 1/2 mile from the hives, I noted someone in the yard with his small pack sprayer of chemicals, hitting the dandelions and other plants he didn’t want growing there.  After leaving the hives very saddened, I noted on the same road a “lawn care professional” whom I might more aptly name a “poisoner” spraying an entire lawn down with his toxic brew. Some countries in Europe have outright banned the offending pesticides to help bee populations recover, but in the great US of A, the opposite seems to happen. Instead, we get the “Best Recommendations for the Public” from the USDA in the form of the following:

“The best action the public can take to improve honey bee survival is not to use pesticides indiscriminately. In particular, the public should avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants.”

Indiscriminate use of pesticides? Being mindful of pesticides? Are you serious? The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that we have one, and clearly, as a culture we still aren’t at that point. We have extensive amounts of greenwashing on the part of actual chemical companies and a government entity that panders to them. I think, personally, its time we really start getting louder about these chemicals and frame them for what they are and do: the systematic poisoning of our lands. Seeing that guy spraying the lawn as I was leaving my dead hive was just too much for me.


Lawn: be gone!

Lawn: be gone!

Of course, the other big issue with CCD is that the lawn itself is a food desert to bees and many other beneficial insects and wildlife, food desert. We have many, many kinds of food deserts in the USA today: places where people can’t get access to fresh food, and places where wildlife or insects also lack access. Part of the decline in bee populations is due to the lack of food availability for the bees: those chemically-ridden, manicured lawns provide no food or forage for wildlife, and they poison all who are near them. Less food means less abundance and a harder life for the bees and for everything else–the loss of food and habitat, of course, is driving the growing silence in the world. I’m not sure if this was an issue for my hive as they definitely seemed well fed this summer, but its a contributing factor in bee health more generally.


When I got into beekeeping, I did so because I wanted to help understand the bees, help tend them and bring them to the landscape; I wanted to help the land heal. And this weekend, I learned a very important lesson about beekeeping–it doesn’t matter how organic and clean your practices are in the hive.  If the people around you are spraying, even out to two miles, it will make it into your hive. And it will make it into your body, and into your children, and your pets, and your trees, your organic vegetable garden, and everything else. I’m not the first person I know to lose a colony of bees to this stuff, and I certainly won’t be the last. The bees are like our canary in the coalmine–the land isn’t safe and the bees die. My question is: how long are we going to turn our heads and close our doors when our neighbors, governments, friends, family, or farmers are literally poisoning the land we hold sacred? When the canary is clearly suffering or already dead?  That’s the question I think that we all have before us.


Regenerative and sustainable living isn’t all whimsical and happy. We don’t homestead, harvest herbs, and tend the land just because it allows us to sit with fluffy bunnies, milk happy goats chewing on burdock, and drink oodles of lemon balm tea sweetened with raw organic honey. Maybe there’s that image out there–that of idyllic farm life, perfect and content. That if we can simply build enough of an oasis for ourselves and our families, for our gardens and our animals, that everything that is out there won’t get in. The reality is far from it. We do this because the alternative, for us, and for the life on this planet is, death. Its silence. The emptiness of a beehive, the quiet of the birds that once lived and are no more, the shrinking patches of forest–this is why we do this work. We do this because we have to do something, and doing something, however small, is better than sitting around with our faces in our phones pretending nothing is happening. There are days when, as joyful as this path may be, the reality of the challenges we face in the world come right in our faces in a way that we can’t ignore.  This past Saturday, for me, was one of those days.


The Wheel of the Year: Sustainable and Spiritual Activities for the Fall Equinox September 20, 2015

Note: This post is directed at those who live in the northern hemisphere; for my readers in the southern hemisphere, you can see my post on the Spring Equinox for activities appropriate to you!


Hemlocks entering the dark half of the year....

Hemlocks entering the dark half of the year….

As the days shorten and we once again are faced with the coming of the winter months, we are reminded of the cycles that the sun provides to us and the promise, always, of new beginnings.  Each season brings its own spiritual and sustainable activities–and the Fall Equinox is so full of many things to see and to do!


The Fall Equinox sits on the gateway between the light and dark half of the year and after the equinox, we are in the dark half of the year once more. It is at the moment of the equinox that the light and the dark are in balance–and we, too, can seek such balance. In my region of the world, the Fall Equinox happens just as the weather finally cools down, just as the leaves begin to change, just as the air has a bit of a nip it didn’t have even a few weeks before. The goldenrod and New England Aster are in bloom but may be on the decline–and these plants, with some others, are our last sources of nectar of the year for honeybees and wild pollinators. The nuts and apples are dropping from the trees everyone is scurrying to get to them before the snows set in.


I love the fall–I feel like I’ve been in a frenzy all summer with gardening and foraging activities, where there is always so much to do, so much to put by, so many things you don’t want to miss. As the cold comes in, the world slows down a bit and we slow down with it. This is especially true when you are actively homesteading, farming, practicing herbalism, wild food foraging, or doing any other kind of activity that involves working outdoors and in nature.


Given this glorious time, we have many sustainable and spiritual activities we can do to encourage balance, sustenance, storage, and community.


1.  Spent time in (very) close observation of nature. Getting outside to see the amazing, incredible fall leaves and the quickly changing landscape is a must-do for this season. I would suggest that this is a good time to zero in on small details of the changing landscape–see the leaves individually, not just the whole forest or trees. One of the ways to get really close is to obtain a loupe (a small magnifying glass that is highly portable). If you take the loupe out into the land during this time, new worlds open up–you can do very close observation of fall leaves, flowers, and other things.


2.  Hold an Eisteddfod. In the Welsh tradition (and consequently, in the Revival Druid tradition), an Eisteddfod is a celebration and competition of the bardic arts: poetry, music, song, dance, and so on.  This is a wonderful way to enjoy the cool nights before the winter sets in. Getting some friends together, getting a big fire going, have people share stories and songs, offer  some prizes, open a bottle of dandelion wine or pass some freshly pressed apple cider and enjoy!


Pressing Apple Cider

Pressing Apple Cider

3.  Press some apples. Apples are a tree that humanity has held a very long and sacred relationship with–and cider pressing is an important part of that legacy. After a Wassail in the winter to ensure a blessing, the harvest unfolds in September with an abundance of apples! Its great to go out seeking apples–don’t pay for them. Wild apples can be found all over the place: ask your neighbors for their windfall apples, collect them from parks, find them along the road, and more.  You can get hundreds of pound of free apples just for looking and this will result in a mix of  varieties and flavors. In terms of pressing, you can make your own press, buy a press, share a press with friends, or even ask a local cider mill if they will press your apples (many will for a fee).


4.  Learn to Can. Fall is a very abundant time–September in my bioregion provides the largest part of the harvest, including the tomato crops, apples, pears, peppers, beans, eggplant, corn, and so much more. If you are new to canning and want to learn, I recommend you start by learning how to hot water bath can and leave the pressure canning till you have some hot water canning experience under your belt. The best way to learn is to find someone to teach you if possible. You will also want to get a book on canning, like the Ball Book of Canning. I use the Ball Book primarily for vegetable canning–their jam/fruit recipes are too high in sugar for my taste. If you want to can jams with honey, low or no sugar, also pick up Preserving with  Ponoma’s Pectin by Allison Carol Diffy.  Learning about Ponoma’s Pectin really changed the way I canned and made it much more appealing because its more fruit and less sweet.


5. Get to know your farmers Spending time at a farmer’s market can have you score big in terms of the bulk fruits and veggie that you want to learn to can or put in a root cellar. Even with my enormous and productive garden at my Michigan homestead, I still purchased bulk potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers because these “nightshade” family crops in bulk would screw up my crop rotations–they are heavy feeders. Now in my transition period renting in PA, local farmers are even more important! This time of year, farmers frequently have reasonably cheap bulk produce at the farmer’s market. Its a good idea to get to know the people who are growing your food, learn their growing practices, and support them in their work.


6. Establish a Pantry. In the earlier part of the 20th century, every household had a pantry, although today, keeping a pantry is a skill largely forgotten. Traditionally, a pantry is a place where we can store bulk dry goods and canned goods. There are lots of good reasons to start a pantry: first,  a pantry allows you to buy dried goods in bulk to save on costs. Second, a pantry allows you to safely store things away when they are abundant—this allows you to live and eat closer to the seasons and live more sustainably. Third, a pantry gives me food security, where I have a good amount of food in my house in case of emergency, disruption in shipping lines, big winter storms, and so on. For more information on how to establish a pantry, see this article.


7. Build a Root Cellar (or Root Cellar barrel). The compliment to the pantry, is of course, a root cellar. Root cellars take many different forms–I used five-gallon buckets sunk in the earth while I was in Michigan and also helped a friend build his own earthbag root cellar (which was quite a feat, but completely awesome when it was finished). Storey Publishing has an excellent book on different options for root cellars called Build Your Own Underground Root Cellar. The other option for a root cellar is a basement root cellar, where part of a basement is converted.  You can also find a wealth of information available online on any of these three root cellar designs.


8. Convert your lawn. I’ve been a long-time advocate of converting lawns to anything that isn’t lawn: vegetables, herbs, perennials, wildflowers, orchards, and more. Fall is a perfect time to begin a lawn conversion process because many of the materials that are useful for sheet mulching can be found in the fall (like leaves, dead material, etc). I have numerous posts on the subject to get you started, including a discussion of why to convert a lawn, a great example from Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm which was a fully converted front lawn, how to sheet mulch (two ways), and broader discussions of the need to regenerate our lands (which lawn conversion helps us do).


Anything is better than a lawn!

Anything is better than a lawn!

9.  Adopt and begin to regenerate an abandoned site.  In addition to beginning to work on our own sites, consider adopting another site–especially a site that has been neglected or that nobody else cares about. We have so many sites like these–places nobody wants to be, spaces abandoned and damaged–and one of the things we can do as a spiritual and sustainable practice is work to make that site just a little better than we found it. Scatter seeds, add nutrients, understand the history of the land and create a plan! (More on this practice in upcoming blog posts!)


10. Make some Acorn Bread. Another really fun thing to do this season is to gather up some acorns and make some acorn bread! I haven’t yet posted my recipes for acorns, but there is a great PDF from the California Oaks Foundation called Acorn and Eatem.  It has recipes, how to prepare acorns, and more!


11. Explore rocket stove technology. Consider building yourself a rocket stove for fuel-efficient cooking (indoors or out). I have built several of these over the years, and they always make a great meal–and a great project.  I’m amazed by how little resources they take to do any cooking, and in a time of resources that are growing more and more scarce, rocket stoves are a smart idea.


12.  Go Mushroom Hunting. Some of the most tasty mushrooms of the year, at least in my bioregion, can be found in the fall.  The Hen of the Woods (miatake) is a wonderful mushroom that only appears in the fall–it has both medicinal qualities and is a fantastic edible.  Others include late Chicken of the Woods, Puffballs, Cauliflower mushrooms, Honey Mushrooms, and more. If you are new to foraging, check out my two posts on how to get safely and ethically started.


13.  Make some Smudge Sticks. As the plants die off and the cold sets in,  you can make smudge sticks using up any remaining plant matter that you have locally available. Its a wonderful way to create some sacred smoke and a great craft to do with friends.


Amazing early fall harvest day!

Amazing early fall harvest day!

14.  Seek balance. The Fall Equinox is a time where the light and the dark are in balance–and we can seek balance in our own lives in a number of ways. One of the things I like to do during this time is to create a list of the things that I enjoy the most and that bring me the most satisfaction and benefit (being in nature, gardening, foraging, writing, reading, etc).  Then, I keep track of how much time I spend on those activities, and find ways of building more time for those things I love the most. This kind of activity keeps me in balance.  Other simple activities include hot baths, learning how to say no, or even just taking time each day to enjoy a quiet cup of herbal tea.


15.  Make some ink. With pokeberry, buckthorn, walnuts and many other berries and dye plants now available, its a great time to make some ink! I have instructions here for how to do so.


16.  Prepare for the dark half of the year. A lot of people aren’t fans of winter and actively oppose it, but its going to come whether or not we like it to. Given this, approaching the dark half of the year as as much about mindset as it is about physical preparation. One of the ways to make it enjoyable is to ritually and mentally prepare yourself for the coming cold–make some plans for good “stay at home activities” like reading books, writing, artistic projects, learning instruments (for that Eisteddfod!) and more.


I hope that these suggestions are helpful as you celebrate the Fall Equinox. Happy Alban Elfed!



Soil Regeneration & Lawn Reclamation: Creating a Sheet Mulch Bed from Seedy Garden Weeds September 16, 2015

As I’ve discussed recently on this blog, one way of rebuilding and deepening our relationship with the land is through the intentional act of regeneration. This regeneration work, in many cases, starts with the soil. The soil is the web of all life, and without soil, we cannot traditionally grow anything (I say “traditionally” because aquaponics and other systems do have soil-less approaches, but those aren’t really useful to say, converting your front yard into vegetables). Our soils globally are degraded, and most estimates suggest that if things keep going the way they are going, we have only 60 years of topsoil left.  Topsoil takes an extremely long time to recover naturally–about 2″ every 1000 years.  What is happening in the case of industrial farming, growing of lawns, and so on is that material that should be cycled back into the soil them now ends up blown away, in rivers or in landfills. Ninety percent of our food depends on soil (even animals we eat depend on soil, as they eat grains). Healthy ecosystems cannot thrive without soil.  And so, from my perspective, if we want to begin the work of regeneration, we begin that work with soil.


Soil....the beginning of life and abundance

Soil….the beginning of life and abundance

Even if you grow nothing in your soil, sinking carbon and nutrients into the soil is a practice worth engaging in. One soil building technique favored by permaculturists is sheet mulching.


Sheet mulching allows us to recycle otherwise “waste” products (cardboard, newspaper, yard waste, grass clippings, wood chippings from tree work in the neighborhood, etc). It allows us to quickly build soil fertility (speeding up that 1000 year process to maybe 5 or 10 years!). Sheet mulching mimics the natural process of continual layering of organic matter on the top of the soil, and not doing much to disturb the lower soil horizons. And of course, sheet mulching rebuilds our soil, adding vital nutrients and organic matter.


Therefore, sheet mulching has a few benefits over other kinds of garden bed prep:

  1. It allows you to mimic nature and use a variety of plant matter and other “waste” ingredients
  2. It allows you to suppress weedy material or grass to have relatively weed-free beds
  3. It allows you to quickly build soil mass
  4. It does not disrupt the existing soil web of life, but adds to it
  5. It allows us to quickly sequester carbon


Fall is the perfect time to begin planning your garden beds for next year and for doing any large-scale lawn conversions–and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, fall is just about here.  Fall is the best time to work because  its much more enjoyable to work in the cool autumn air compared to the hot July air; for existing gardens, this is when things die off; and when the fall leaves drop, a lot of free and available nutrients for gardening activities!


When I was doing my PDC this summer, we visited Ryan Harb’s front-yard garden in Amherst, MA and did a permablitz including a sheet mulch (I will also do a post on Ryan’s front-yard garden sometime this winter after my “harvest” posts are concluded for the year!) I’m going to share his sheet mulching technique, which was a little different from the sheet mulching I used on my Michigan Homestead that I used this in conjunction with other composting techniques. The method I presented on this blog several years ago requires that you have a lot of weed free organic matter (like fall leaves) which may not always be the case.


Ryan’s sheet mulch technique presented in this post is really good when you have weedy/seedy material (like say, from weeds in a garden bed) and you want to use that plant material but not have weed seeds popping up.  This technique is also good if you have some woody material, like say some small vines or something.  When I began all of my garden beds in my Michigan homestead, I used a very as my primary technique which involved loosening the soil, adding a suppression layer of cardboard, then layering organic matter (mostly weed free) several feet high in the fall and planting in it in the spring.


Materials needed for this technique needed are:


  1. A huge pile of weedy or non-weedy material (woody material ok), so material you pulled from your existing garden; even things like manures often contain weedy material (I learned this hard way the year after my first sheet mulching); fall leaves (preferably shredded) or other organic matter. You’ll need a good deal of this to build soil.
  2. Access to a hose/water source
  3. A lot of cardboard or newspaper or both; enough to cover the pile fully with overlaps.
  4. Access to finished compost; enough to cover the pile to a depth of 3-4″.
  5. Some friends to help. Sheet mulching can be a lot of fun with a bunch of people, and not as much fun without them!

Sheet Mulching

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheet mulching to cover up lawn–it feels very subversive (to the status quo) and empowering (hey, let’s get some veg in here!).  So let’s get started!


After a good 2 hour harvesting and weeding session, the PDC group had a large pile of weeds.

Some of the weedy material!

Some of the weedy material!

And so, to make use of this material, we converted another 4′ x 20′ part of Ryan’s lawn to a productive growing space. We began by laying down the layer of weedy material–the layer was probably about 1.5 feet thick when we started.

Laying down the material in a pile

Laying down the material in a pile

After each step you water the pile. The water helps the material break down faster. After reading the Liquid Gold book, I would probably, at this step, also encourage everyone to pee on the pile to add additional nitrogen or add some saved urine for the pile….but we unfortunately skipped that step during the permablitz :). After wetting the pile, we began adding compost. We added 3-4″ of compost the whole way over the pile.

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile - wise placement!)

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile – wise placement!)

Adding compost to the pile

Adding compost to the pile

As we added compost, we used the back of the rake to evenly distribute the compost.

Ryan smooths the pile

Ryan smooths the pile

After that, we worked to flatten the pile by dancing on it. The dancing is critical–I’m not sure this method will work without dancing at some point.  Get in there in your bare feet and go to it!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

After this step, we add the cardboard and newspaper.  This functions as a weed suppression layer–we need to suppress any weeds that may want to poke up through that rich compost!  So while some of us prepped cardboard, others laid it down.

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first....

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first….

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

You can get cardboard and newspaper readily–most big stores will have so much cardboard every day that they are generating from materials coming in. Furniture stores or Appliance/TV stores have really large boxes that work well for this. Last week’s newspapers, also, can be readily available. Or if your neighborhood has paper recycling, just go pick boxes up on the curb.  Regardless of how you procure your newspaper and cardboard, lay down a good amount. We laid down a full layer of newspaper, paying close attention to the edges.

Newspaper on edges

Newspaper on edges

Then we watered the whole pile quite well, again.

Wetting down the pile

Wetting down the pile

The next step is to add the wood chips–this will provide the plants to be planted in this pile next year some mulch, which retains water.  Bare soil is not typically found in nature and so we want to mimic nature by using mulching materials.  The wood in the chips will eventually break down as well, further adding humus and nutrients to the soil.

Adding wood chips as mulch

Adding wood chips as mulch

Wetting down the pile – we’ve finished!

Completed sheet mulch!

Completed sheet mulch!

This sheet mulch area won’t be planted in right away–we made this pile in July, and Ryan planned on planting in it in the spring.  That’s usually how it works: prepare the piles prior to planting.  The reason for this is that the sheet mulch pile can get pretty hot as the green plant material is breaking down and that can be too hot for plant roots to survive.  By letting the pile sit, the pile will break down naturally and create an awesome growing medium.


In my own garden at my homestead, in early spring, some of the material from my fresh sheet mulch piles still hadn’t broken down when I went to plant the spring. I added additional compost for around the plant, and the plants did just fine.  By the end of that first summer, there was no more cardboard or material–all was beautiful, rich, black soil.  Nature does try to slowly reclaim your soil and piles–if you find yourself in a thicket of plants you no longer want, sometimes its easier just sheet mulch over them again. So you sheet mulch, grow a few years, get a bunch of creeping weeds, and then just sheet mulch over it again; this doesn’t harm the soil, and continues to add organic material.  Yay for soil regeneration!
PS: If any Druid Garden blog readers are planning on attending the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA this weekend, do comment and let me know so we can meet up! :)


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

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

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

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


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


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


Impetus for Change

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

Linda - Before and After

Linda – Before and After


Getting Legal

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


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


Linda at her new farm

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

Goals for the Urban Permaculture Farm

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


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


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


Design and Observations

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

Plans for the Farm - Overhead view

Plans for the Farm – Overhead view

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


Preparing the Site

Front Yard Before

Front Yard Before

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

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

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

Natural contours--shaped with the hose!

Natural contours–shaped with the hose!

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

Mulched paths established....

Mulched paths established….

Starting to add compost over weed barrier....

Starting to add compost over weed barrier….

Lots of progress being made!

Lots of progress being made!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Many beds now established!

Many beds now established!

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Complete as of October 2014!

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


Some Spring Planting

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

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Linda plants radish

Linda plants radish

Chard in protective tubes

Chard in protective tubes

Me planting some chard!

Me planting some chard!


Promoting a Positive Image in the Community

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


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

Brochure page 1

Brochure page 1

Brochure, page 2

Brochure, page 2

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



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


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


Making Smudge Sticks from Homegrown Plants and Wildharvested Materials: Step by Step Instructions with Cedar, Rosemary, Sage, Mugwort, and More! December 14, 2014



I recently posted about my research on Eastern White Cedar, and I wanted to follow-up that post with information on making smudge sticks, inspired by Eastern White Cedar. Smudge sticks are bundles of herbs that are dried and burned for purification and ceremonial uses. They come out of Native American traditions, but today they are broadly used by many for their purification purposes.  I use them as a druid in my ceremonies, to bless and cleanse my house, to cleanse outdoor spaces that are in some kind of energetic funk.  But I also use them practically–as a blessing for my garden at the start of the growing season, as a way to remove hostile energies from my chickens who aren’t getting along, or to pass among friends before sharing a meal.  They are a great way to bring a bit of ceremony and the sacred into the everyday.

Freshly Wrapped Smudges

Freshly Wrapped Smudges


Why make your own smudges? Sustainability, Plant Ally Relationship Building, Intentions

Like many ritual objects,  smudges are often created, shipped, and encased in plastic without a clear sense of their origins or whether or not the plants were harvested in a sustainable way. This means, at minimum, that fossil fuels are expended to get them into your hands and waste is created in the packaging and processing.  As I’ve discussed on this blog before, with ritual objects and food and everything else, the objects we choose to use reflect the energies of their creation.  This means that if the sage was grown and harvested conventionally using chemicals that polluted the land, the sage carries those energies.  Do you want to use that for a sacred ceremony honoring the land? I really don’t think this point can be understated, even though its often overlooked.


There’s also the matter of developing close relationships with plants that grow in your bioregion and working with their energies. I have found that if I’m burning traditional smudge plants such as desert sage and incense cedar (plants don’t grow near me in Michigan), I think another kind of disconnection occurs–a disconnection with the local plants that might be grown or used for this purpose.  Anyone anywhere can burn desert sage that they purchased at a store–but what makes my region unique is that I can burn mullein or sweet clover in my smudges along with a more traditional sage. I want to honor the plants that grow here; I want to grow plants ceremonially for this purpose, and be involved in every aspect of the creation of an object used for sacred activity.  So given the reasons above, I’ve taken to making my own smudge sticks!


If you are crafting your own smudge sticks, you can develop them for specific purposes.  A mullein-sage-rosemary smudge for personal clearing would be different than a sage-sweetclover-cedar smudge for typical house cleansing or a juniper-lavender-mugwort smudge for good dreaming.  You can craft smudges that can be used for different purposes and craft them with intent.


Determining Energetic Qualities of Plants

Kittens are seriously into making smudges and lend a joyful energy to the process!

Kittens are seriously into making smudges and lend a joyful–if challenging–energy to the process!

I use a combination of readings on magical herbalism from the western tradition, traditional western herbalism, the doctrine of signatures, my own understandings/intuition, and my work with plant allies to decide what plants should go in what smudges.  Sometimes I craft smudges by intuition alone, and then have them ready to give a friend or use when I feel led.  Other times, I research the plants or put plants together that I know serve a specific purpose (like mugwort for travels or dreams).  The process here should be of your own design, and for that reason, I’m not giving you general “use this plant for this” because A) there’s a lot of that out there already; B) the plants don’t like to be put into such boxes; and C) many plants have multiple, varied uses.  Sage works for so much more than just purification, for example, but if you look it up, you’ll find it listed time and time again for purification and cleansing.  Yes, sage is great at that, but sage has other uses!  And furthermore, if you are using wildcrafted and local ingredients, there might *not* be a magical tradition surrounding that plant–but you still may feel led to use it.  That’s perfectly fine–you can let the plant spirit and your intuition guide your path.


Finding Local Plants for Your Smudges

In the next section, I’ll be talking about some of the plants that I use to make smudges.  These plants are local to my bioregion (zone 6A, South-eastern Michigan) so you may have to adapt this list.  If you aren’t sure if the plant in your bioregion would make a nice smudge, simply dry some out and burn it; with one caveat–I never burn noxious or poisonous plants, but plants I know are used for herbalism or food (e.g. do NOT EVER burn poison ivy or poison hemlock).  Use some common sense.  But if the plant already has uses as a medicinal herb, edible herb, or smoking herb, then its perfectly fine to see if you can use it for a smudge.  See how it smells, see how energetically it makes you feel. See if it smolders (smoldering plants, like mullein or sage, are particularly useful for smudges).  Pay attention to the conifer trees that grow nearby–chances are many of them burn nicely and smell good.



Plants that Can Go Into Smudges

Plants dried in the fall or fresh harvested in early December for Smudges

Plants dried in the fall or fresh harvested in early December for Smudges: yarrow, mugwort, sage, thyme, lavender, rosemary, white pine, juniper, eastern white cedar


1) Aromatic Cultivated herbs.  Aromatic herbs are one of my biggest categories of plants for crafting smudges–aromatic herbs are herbs that smell strongly when you rub them.  Many aromatic herbs make great additions to smudge sticks because they smell great and have good energetic qualities of clearing.  Be careful, however–not all aromatic herbs burn the way they smell–make sure you burn a bit before adding them into your smudges or you may be in for a surprise.  Mint and lemon balm are a good example of this–mint and lemon balm smell and taste amazing, unfortunately, neither burn with a pleasant smell.  Other aromatic herbs, like valerian, are extremely potent when burned (and are extremely potent in general) so you’ll want to use caution.  These are the aromatic herbs that I’ve found through incense making and trial and error work well:


  • Sage – White sage has the most distinct smell, but many sages smell wonderful.  Even garden sage burns with a pleasant aroma, pleasant but different than white sage.  I grow many different kinds of sages for my smudges.
  • Rosemary – Rosemary is another staple for smudges.  Interestingly enough, you can use both the root and the plant of rosemary–and they have different qualities.  The rosemary stalks burn wonderfully in a smudge.
  • Lavender – I like to include a quite bit of lavender in my smudges for both the pleasant aroma and the energetic qualities–it smells just wonderful when burned and is a powerful plant ally.
  • Sweet Grass – This does not grow around me, and thus far, my attempts to get any started from seed have been thwarted.  However, if you can grow or obtain some ethically, it is a wonderful addition for a lot of reasons (good smelling, honors the spirits).
  • Hyssop – An herb with ancient connections to purification work.  Hyssop smells wonderful.
  • Eucalyptus – Another herb for clearing work; its smolders nicely.  You have to plant this in my region–it doesn’t grow wild, but will grow to a nice size over the summer.
  • Valerian – I have used dried valerian flower stalks in my smudges primarily, although I suppose the roots would work as well (the roots would be even more potent).  Valerian is extremely potent as both a cleansing herb but also in smell–I would only use a little in a smudge, and that smudge would be typically reserved for clearing really nasty energies or hostile energies out (and I’d burn it with the windows open).
  • Bay leaf: I have also had luck with bay leaf as a smouldering herb.
Basket of freshly made smudges!

Basket of freshly made smudges (with small paper labels so I know what went into it)!


2) Wildharvested Aromatic and Medicinal Herbs:  In addition to those you can grow in your garden, I have found that a number of wildharvested herbs are wonderful for smudges.  I got most of the ideas for these when I was taking my four season herbalism course and we were talking about smoking blends.  If they work in a smoking blend and are safe for that, they can work great in a smudge as well!

  • Mugwort – Mugwort has a nice smell when burned (and its used in a lot of herbal smoking blends).  Mugwort is specifically tied to dreams and can produce very vivid dreaming.  While this is a good thing short term, do keep in mind that vivid dreams over a long period of time can exhaust you–so use mugwort with care, but definitely use it!  Mugwort also grows beautifully straight and tall, and really does do well in smudges.  A lot of people cultivate mugwort, but I find it wild growing everywhere around here.  I really love this plant.
  • Sweet Clover – This is my solution to the lack of sweet grass–sweet clover does not burn as sweetly, but energetically, it has similar qualities and a similar smell.  And it grows wild around here (and my bees adore it).
  • Mullein – Mullein leaves have a nice “smoldering” quality–they smolder in the same way that sage smolders.  They don’t smell nearly as nice, but the smoke itself does have a beneficial impact on the lungs and can, medicinally, be used for “clearing” out the lungs of toxins.  Follow me here–in Buddhist practice, the lungs are said to house grief.  I think, for a personal smudge stick where I was working to clear out some deep emotions and emotional recovery, I would most definitely put mullein in it
  • Yarrow: Yarrow is another herb I like to use a lot in my smudges for its energetic qualities; it smells a lot like itself when it burns due to the high volatile oil content.


2) Trees.  Traditionally, cedars (like incense cedar or red cedar) were used for smudges out west.  In my bioregion, I look primarily to the conifer for smudging possibilities (you can cut these and use them fresh):

  • Eastern Red Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana): This is a wonderfully aromatic plant with berries that also are used medicinally.  I love using juniper in my smudges–but it has little prickly bits, so use it carefully so that you don’t get stabbed.
  • Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidantalis):  Eastern White Cedar crackles and pops when it is freshly dry due to its high amount of volatile oils.  If you use the cedar branches when they are first dried, they smell wonderful but literally crackle and pop when you burn them due to all of the volatile oils—which is a bit of a fire hazard, but also can kind of be fun. However, if you hang the cedar in your house for a few months and let it dry out, the oils slowly dry out of the cedar and then you can make your smudge sticks. The sticks at this point will smoke beautifully.
  • White Pine (Pinus Strobus): I’m still experimenting with this as a smudge tree, but so far, I’m happy with the results and it burns with an almost vanilla-like smell.  Wonderful!
  • Staghorn sumac: You can make smudges with small clusters of berries and or collect and use the leaves after they have gone red in the fall.  Staghorn sumac has a very calming effect (I use it as an herbal smoke for my bees) and smolders nicely–plus, it is a beautiful red color that provides visual beauty in your smudge.  It has a fairly pleasant smoke (not very aromatic).


3) Flowers.  There is also a visual component to making a nice smudge stick, and I think this is where various wild flowers can lend a hand.  Most of the flowers don’t have a particularly strong smell when burned, but a bit of purple or yellow or white in your smudge can look absolutely beautiful (and add energetically to your smudge).  A visit to any flower field in the height of the summer will certainly give you much to work with.  You can also cultivate flowers like statice or baby’s breath which hold their beautify for long periods of time for your smudges (I would not buy these commercially as they are almost always sprayed with something you don’t want to make airborne).  I like using goldenrod, yarrow, and lavender in the later part of the season for this.


Step-by-Step Instructions for Making your Smudge

Now that we have some sense of what ingredients can be used in a smudge, the next step is gathering them and actually making the smudge!


Step 1: Gather Materials.  Go out and gather your materials–bring in your fresh conifer branches, your dried yarrow stalks, etc.  I have found that plants can be gathered and used fresh or dried, but the fresh ones take longer to dry out (and you want to make sure its not humid so that the inner ones don’t mold).  I typically make smudges in late fall after the frost has wilted the plants a bit and semi-dried them out (its a way to use up the last herbs of the season).

In addition to the herbs/plants, you’ll also need some cotton string (don’t use anything synthetic since you will be burning it) and some scissors.  If there is a kitten in the home you might want to keep her out of the room, as otherwise she will attack the herbs and strings as you try to make your smudges :).


Step 2: Set intentions. I like to create a sacred space for magical crafting prior to starting any such endeavor.  Different traditions would do this in different ways, of course, and you might just do something simple to setup your space. For my tradition, I open up a grove and then work in that grove.


Step 3: Start with some conifers.  I like to wrap conifers around the outside of the smudge (this is personal preference) and so I’ll lay out a bed of conifers first.  In the photo below, I’ve started this smudge with juniper (freshly cut that morning) and lavender (also cut that morning from outside in early December).

Lay out ingredients

Lay out ingredients


Step 4: Add additional ingredients, layering them.  To this smudge I’ve added some semi-dried out thyme from outside and some semi-dried out garden sage.

More ingredients!

More ingredients!


Step 5: Gather your ingredients up in one hand and loosely bunch them.  Cut a long piece of the string and begin wrapping your ingredients.

Gather and begin to wrap ingredients

Gather and begin to wrap ingredients


Step 6: Continue to wrap the ingredients.  If you wrap them too tight, the smudge may not burn (depending on what’s in it) so experiment with your herbs/plants and tightness.  I like to take my cotton string up and down the smudge twice, which helps hold it together a bit better than only one trip up and down. The photos below show different parts of the wrapping process.

Wrapping the smudge

Wrapping the smudge

Keep wrapping

Keep wrapping till you get to the top


Step 7: Tie your smudge off so that its secure.

Tie off

Tie off


Step 8: Once you’ve wrapped your smudge, you can trim it up a bit.  I trim both the ends and the little bits that stick out (they will have trouble burning).

Trimming smudge

Trimming smudge

My completed smudge!

My completed smudge!


Step 9: Allow your smudge to dry out 4-8 weeks (depending on what’s inside and how wet it was when you put it in there).  I like to use a wooden drying rack (I use this for a lot of of my herb drying); the rack was $3 at a yard sale!

Drying smudges on the top of my rack

Drying smudges on the top of my rack


I hope that you found the above information useful–if there are other plants I should add to my lists above, or plants that work well in your bioregion, please leave a comment!  Thank you, as always, for reading!


Don’t Bag Your Leaves: An Analysis of Nutrient Loss and Soil Depletion for Leaf Removal November 7, 2014

This is the time of year when the leaves all drop in their delightfully whimsical fashion.  And yet, it seems that fall is not an enjoyable time for many, especially if those leaves end up on the lawn. I’ve discussed problems with the practice of keeping a lawn before, and today, I’d like to look at our relationship to leaves and typical practices for dealing with leaves.  People spend quite a bit of their own energy and fossil fuel energy removing leaves from their lawns (raking, blowing, mowing, and so on).  These leaves seem to end up in three places for a typical American household in the sprawling urban and suburban areas:


  1. In bags on the side of the roads for “compost” (most common in my area by far)
  2. Blown onto the side of the road and left there and/or picked up by the city (more typical in urban settings)
  3. In a burn pile smouldering away (this also happens a lot where I live).


Some of the more radical folk, like permies and guerrilla gardeners the like, might end up composting their leaves in our gardens or otherwise keeping the nutrients on our properties; but this is a rather rare approach and one not practiced by the bulk of the American populace. Many of us who are radical gardeners go out seeking the bags of leaves left on the curb to bring additional nutrients to our properties (I do this every year).  However, not all of us have the benefit of composting or keeping our leaves–not raking, mulching, or composting leaves is illegal in some township or city mandates and also in many subdivisions throughout the US. And leaves aren’t often the only things found in the leaf compost bags–usually when I go out to collect, I find a good deal of other matter and live plants.  This year, at about 10% of the houses where I picked up leaves, I also found the remains of someone’s backyard garden (tomatoes) and at another 10% I found other kinds of food from trees just thrown away (walnuts, apples, acorns, pears, etc).


And so, today, I’d like to explore this practice a bit and its long-term impacts on soil health…and what we might do instead.


Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

What’s Written on the Bag: Linguistic Framing of Leaves

When people talk about the leaves that drop from the trees in the fall, they often call it “leaf litter” or “yard waste.”  Looking at the brown paper bags that people buy to store their leaves in for pickup, they say “Lawn refuse” or “Yard Waste” or “Refuse” on the sides. We label the bags and then frame what we put in them as waste or refuse; something to be discarded.  So we are already creating a framework for seeing materials that come from our yards as “waste” rather than seeing the nutrients in the leaves as a valuable thing.


What’s in the Leaves: Nutrients Contained in Fallen Leaves

The other issue I’ve been pondering for some time is the nutritional content of the leaves, and how many nutrients leave a typical American lawn in suburbia each year when they are discarded.  I found a reasonable analysis about the nutrient content leaves here; their calculations are based on one ton of leaves (which, granted, is a lot of leaves).  This section presents a look at the nutrient content in leaves and how much is lost when we put them on the curb (or how much is gained by picking up someone else’s leaves).


According to the analysis above, 1 ton (2000 lbs) of leaves has the following:

  • 940 lbs of carbon
  • 20 lbs of nitrogen
  • 2 lbs phosphorus
  • 2 lbs potassium
  • 32.8 lbs calcium
  • 4.8 lbs magnesium
  • 2.2 lbs sulfur
  • Plus other nutrients and a great deal of organic matter (organic matter not calculated)


Before I get into my analysis of how much we lose by putting leaves on the corner, I have a few caveats.  First, this kind of analysis requires quite a bit of assumptions and estimations; I’ve done my best, but what I have found might be specific to my local area in South-East Michigan.  Second, I’m certain that leaf nutrition varies pretty widely based on the  soil profile of the region, the nutrients present or absent in the soil already, the types of trees, the weather for the year, and so on.  With that said, I do think even a rudimentary analysis, like the one I’m presenting, gives us some starting points.


Methods: On my trips out to get leaf bags from the side of the road this year,  I did some counting in my area to estimate the amounts and weights typical bags of leaves had.  I went out for three weeks and brought back 46 bags of leaves; I went out twice each week to different areas within a 3 mile radius of where I lived. I counted how many leaves people left on the curb and when I got back, I weighed them to get their average weight.  In a fourth week it rained, and while I collected bags, I did not weigh them because the water weight would have impacted my findings. I then did some simple math using the numbers above.


Amount of leaves per bag and per yard: Most leaf bags I picked up ranged from 8lbs – 22lbs, depending on whether or not they were shredded. Shredded leaf bags typically account for about 20% of the bags I pick up.  Even unshredded bags are often compacted and pretty heavy, especially if the leaves fell relatively flat or were slightly wet when they went in the bag.    The average for the bags was just above 10 lbs.  People in the suburban area where I go leaf hunting put out an average of 4.5 bags of leaves on collection day; some had many more, and most had been putting them out for a period of weeks. My estimate is that most families in my area put out at least 7 bags of leaves in a fall season assuming they have a few trees in their yard dropping leaves; this amounts to about 98 lbs of leaves (I’m going to round this to 100 lbs to make the math simple).


So for each 10 lb bag of leaves put on the curb, it has:

  • 4.7 lbs of carbon
  • .1 lbs of nitrogen
  • .01 lbs of phosphorus
  • .01 lbs of potassium
  • .16 lbs of lbs of calcium
  • .02 lbs of magnesium
  • .01 lbs of sulfur
  • And Iron, Zinc, and much, more.


That’s a lot of nutrients.  And that’s just the leaves–I don’t have any way of figuring out what whole tomato plants and other plants ripped up from the soil are also contributing, but I suspect these numbers are much higher.  And then, if homeowners are also removing their grass clippings all season long, that’s a whole other calculation to include.


There are alternatives!

There are alternatives!


What’s Left in the Soil:  Long-Term Removal of Nutrients and Inadequacy of Fertilization

Now one bag of leaves makes an impact, but perhaps a small one.  The problem is that one bag of leaves isn’t what’s being removed–this is about the long-term systematic removal of nutrients from our landscape.  As I was driving through a bunch of Detroit communities last weekend, what really struck me was the age of the houses.  Many of the houses I was looking at literally were 75 years, 100 years, or older.  In my research on dandelions, I discovered that typical lawn practices prevalent today really rose to popularity after World War II, which suggests that people haven’t been bagging up their leaves forever, but likely they have been doing it for some time.  So let’s assume that for the last 50 years, most citizens of Metro Detroit (or any other city or suburban area) have been removing their leaves from their property.  So if we take the numbers above and assume 100 lbs of leaves being removed each year, we end up with nutrient loss something like this:


Nutrient Loss over Time

Nutrient Loss for Fall Leaf Removal for 100 Years (all numbers in pounds)


These numbers are striking, but what is even more striking is the fact that I haven’t accounted for any other kinds of “yard waste” such as grass clippings (put out on the curb weekly or bi-monthly by many) or other kinds of yard compost that people don’t want.  I might do a case study of this at some point, but for now, we can see the potential for soil nutrient health decline.


I’d like to offer one other piece of evidence as well. My house was built in 1945, so my yard likely suffered the same fate for most of the last 70 years as well.  When I got at my homestead a few years ago, prior to putting in the garden, I ran soil tests.   These are exactly where the leaves (and lawn clippings) would have been taken from (and I knew from taking to my neighbors that the people who owned this house did such practices).  I found that the soil where I wanted to put in my garden was pretty much sand.  It had little organic matter and a P.H. of 8.2 (our PH is high in this area, but the lack of organic matter made it higher).  It had only 8 PPM of Phosphorus (considered extremely low), 22 parts per million of potassium (low) and magnesium of only 27 parts per million (extremely low).  To get my soil prepared for growing crops…what did I do? Went around and picked up everyone’s leaves, imported massive amounts of organic matter in the form of manure, compost, and this year, even a pile of seaweed from a local pond.  And now my soil tests are beautiful and my soil is rich and healthy (and much lower in PH thanks to the organic matter all of the leaves helped create).


What’s going back into the soil?  Not enough.

In a natural process, assuming no removal of nutrients, it takes 500 years or more to produce one inch of topsoil.  This gives you a sense, I think, of the enormity of the challenges that face us in regenerating landscapes with these destructive lawn practices.  But, you say, aren’t people putting things back into the soil?  Yes, and we’ll take a look at that next.


1) Plants can pull certain kinds of nutrients from the air; typically this is nitrogen and oxygen. So certainly, some nitrogen theoretically could be being brought back into the soil, although typical lawn ornamentals and grass don’t do this well.


2) Most nutrients are in the soil, and those nutrients are cycled through the dropping and decay of organic matter.  Trees and other plants (like Burdock, Comfrey, Dandelion), penetrate deep into the ground and pulling up nutrients to the surface, which they then deposit as leaves or dead plant matter.  But how many nutrients are down there for the taking?  If nutrients are systematically removed from the same spot over a 25, 50, or 100 year period, I suspect that at some point, the ground underneath will simply run out of those nutrients. I also have a theory (untested) that this is part of why we have so many plant and tree diseases.  We keep removing organic matter and nutrients from our landscapes in this form, through logging, etc, and those aren’t going back into our system.


3) People also often add fertilizers; but most commercial fertilizers focus only on the three macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  All of the micronutrients (some of which are critical to plant and human health, such as magnesium or calcium) are not added.  Fertilizers also come in a water soluble form (nitrate) and cause substantial problems for our waterways (I am not going to spend the time today to describe soil ecology, but a good introduction to it is here).


4) Mulch is sometimes also added to select areas.  But wood mulches are very high in carbon and little else.


5) Some people do buy compost and add it in select areas (say, a garden) but this is in select areas; I don’t see people dumping compost all over their lawns to make up for the loss of nutrients.  More on this in my next post.


So even with the inputs, it seems likely that a substantial net loss in nutrients in the soil immediately surrounding most of our homes and communities due to the “composting” practices of leaves and grass clippings.

Concluding Thoughts

What concerns me about this analysis, if its in the ballpark range at all (and I have reason to believe it is) is that each year, the soil surrounding our homes and in our communities gets more and more depleted as we continue to remove nutrients from our soils systematically through fall leaves and grass clippings.  This leaves me with a few serious concerns:


1) More and more people are becoming interested in urban gardening, homesteading, and the like, and yet, if they want to dig up their backyard, they are facing soils with literally no nutrients, organic matter, or life in them (as I faced when I started my homestead).  If we all wanted to do this, where would all the nutrients come from?


2) We aren’t looking at a few places of depletion, but probably we are facing it with nearly every suburban and urban home in the US.  When we combine this with modern industrial farming practices that kill soil life and strip the soil bare, its a very worrying issue.


3) The systematic loss of particular kinds of nutrients is also concerning; in my herbalism course, we have spent a great deal of time talking about magnesium deficiency (which the bulk of Americans are suffering from) and deficiency in other micro-nutrients; interestingly, many of these showed up in the list of what was in fall leaves and being removed.  Even if you were to grow some veggies in your soil that you added some organic matter to, would there be enough magnesium and other essential nutrients for your own body’s needs?


4) Perhaps most worrying of all: if history has anything to teach us, the widespread degradation and depletion of soil and other resources leads to a civilization’s collapse.  Combining this with many other ecological challenges suggests the widespread and systematic need for radical change.


I’ll elaborate on these concerns and what we might begin to do about this in my next blog post, which will discuss the concept of restoration agriculture and further discuss permaculture design.


Don’t Let End of Season Veggies Go to Waste! Making Nutritive and Healing Soup Stocks/Broths October 26, 2014

What the heck, broccoli? Why did you never produce broccoli?  Into the pot you go!

What the heck, massive broccoli? Why did you never produce broccoli? Into the pot you go!

So its the end of the season, a very hard frost is on the horizon for the week and several lighter frosts have already occurred. You look out across your garden with its overflowing abundance. There are still beans, swiss chard, tons of herbs, celery, kale, cukes, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and more. And while some of these veggies can make it through a few hard frosts and will last well into the late fall (like kale) and some will last in the ground over the winter (like onions or carrots), for others, their time is very limited without a hoop house for cover. Even with a hoop house, some won’t survive another week outside.  And then there’s that pesky broccoli.  This year, my broccoli grew to 3 and 4′ tall, leafed out, got woody, and never produced a single flower head.  My friend and garden mentor says its likely because my soil is too rich; it never was forced into its reproductive stage.  Regardless, I have all this broccoli biomass and nutrients locked up in something not really all that edible. So, given the excess of veggies and the darn broccoli, what’s a homesteader to do?

Its simple: this is the perfect time of year to make a few huge pots of broth for the soups in the winter months. Take all of those extra veggies, even the ones that maybe had some frost damage or lots of imperfections, and toss them in a big pot of water. Take that pesky broccoli that never produced anything, chop it up, and get its nutrients into your stockpot and eventually into your belly!


Applying a bit of herbal knowledge, any kind of stock is better with a little nutritive and tonic herbs and veggies as well, so in addition to the typical garden vegetables, I also will add several kinds of nutritive and tonic foods to make the stocks more nutrient dense and healing–nettle, hen of the woods mushroom, turkey tail mushroom, burdock.  These are wild foods that are fairly abundant this time of year, if you know where to look.  And I think this step is important–if we work to make our foods as healing and nutritive as possible, we are better equipped to fight off disease and illness.  I always take the extra step to add nutritive plants and mushrooms to my stocks and gain their benefits each time I open up a jar of the stock :).

Kelsey (WOOFer) preparing chard for veggie stock

Kelsey (WOOFer) preparing chard for veggie stock


Vegetable Stock Recipe:

The idea is to fill a large pot at least 2/3 of the way full of veggies before you add water.  I don’t work with a specific recipe, but throw in what I have.  My last batch had this:

  • Whatever is left in my garden (this year, primarily broccoli stalk, beans, swiss chard).  Anything pretty much works here, different veggies will give different flavors, e.g. pumpkin will be much different than cabbage.  All turn out just fine though :).
    • With this, however, do be aware that the brassicas (broccoli, cabbage) should only be in the stock for about 45 min total.  Otherwise, my friend who is a chef tells me, they release sulfur compounds that give your stock an “off” taste. So consider adding these towards the end of your soup stock.
  • At least a few tomatoes (more for a more tomatoey broth) or a jar of stewed tomatoes if you are out of fresh ones.  This helps give the broth color and richness. Again, this is great for the end of the season.
  • Several large onions
  • Several large carrots
  • A bunch of celery stalks (I cut three whole plants from my garden for my huge soup pot)
  • Fresh herbs (thyme and sage)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • At least a foot-long piece of burdock root, peeled and chopped up (I dug this fresh from my yard for this purpose; more is always good)
  • A handful or two of fresh or dried stinging nettle (I had dried this earlier in the year)
  • A few handfuls of dried or fresh hen of the woods (miatake) mushroom or turkey tail mushroom (threw in some of each that I had fresh and dried)


The last three ingredients are the nutritive and tonic plants that provide amazing amounts of nutrition, making this super awesome healing veggie stock.  Burdock is a plant I recently discussed on my blog in my last post. Burdock has antioxidants, inulin (a prebiotic that helps reduce blood sugar, body weight, cholesterol), potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, iron,  and lower amounts of many other vitamins and minerals. Nettle, likewise, has extraordinary amounts of vitamin K, along with vitamin E, calcium, and manganese and again lots of smaller amounts of other things.  Finally, hen of the woods has Naicin, Riboflavin, and Omega 6 fatty acids.  By adding these last three “wild” ingredients, I am supplementing the already powerful nutrition that the more standard garden vegetables provide.


If you don’t know where to get a large pot, believe it or not, you can sometimes find stock pots in a well stocked hardware store near the canning isle.  You want a stainless steel one or an enamel one.

Stock pot with awesome ingredients

Stock pot with awesome ingredients

I cook my veggie stock on low for at least 12 hours before pressure canning or freezing it.  You know its done once the veggies look drab, like the photo below (then you can strain the veggies, compost the veggies, and pressure can the broth).

Drab, spent vegetables going to the compost

Drab, spent vegetables going to the compost


Chicken Stock

The other stock I’m doing this year is a chicken stock.  This is a simpler stock, and consists of the following:


  • 2-3 pounds of chicken feet (procured from a local farmer at an extremely good price); you can substitute a chicken carcass or other meat bones
  • Three large onions
  • A pound or two of carrots
  • A pound or two of celery
  • Rosemary and sage
  • Salt and pepper to taste


And for this, I try to fill a stock pot up at least halfway with ingredients and the rest with water for the stock.  For this, I find that the ideal flavor hits somewhere around 12-24 hours.   For other kinds of bone broth (like chicken bones) I might go up to 48 hours.  But for the feet, a shorter cooking time seems better for ideal flavor.


This chicken stock recipe again uses up the material from the garden (especially the celery, which does not like getting too zapped by the frost) and in the case of my chicken feet, also uses a meat product that a lot of people don’t want.  Most of the organic, free range, local chicken I can purchase around here runs $3.50 or $4/lb.  For a whole chicken, it can be anywhere from $20-$30.  This kind of seems like a waste if I’m just making broth from it.  I can get the chicken feet for about $2 a pound, and since its only for soup stock, the chicken feet work much better.  And they really do make a great stock.  The deal is, of course, you have to look at chicken feet while you are making them and deal with the fact that there are feet in your stock.

Chicken feet in soup...for real.

Chicken feet in soup srock…for real.

The alternative would be to roast the chicken, enjoy it, save the bones, and use the bones for making your stock. The idea here is that by making a “bone broth,” you are extracting a lot of minerals and vitamins not found in the meat of the animals. This includes high amounts of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, certain amino acids, and collagen.  By, again, cooking this broth over low heat over a period of days, you extract maximum nutrients and maximum flavors.

You can add the nettle, hen of the woods, turkey tail, or burdock (or mix and match) to your chicken stock as well, of course.  These recipes are very flexible and fluid.


Stock that has been strained, ready to go into the pressure canner!

Stock that has been strained, ready to go into the pressure canner!


After your stock cools, you can strain it and compost the veggie bits.  The meat bits I put out into the woods for some happy rodent or raccoon to come across.  At this point, I pressure can it (85 minute pressure can for quarts; 75 minute for pints).  You could also freeze it (again, if you’ll remember from my earlier posts, I don’t freeze much because the power grid is poor around here and we go days and days without power).


All winter long, I will be able to enjoy the richness of the veggie and chicken broths and stay healthy and warm.



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