The Druid's Garden

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

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

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Impetus for Change

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

Linda - Before and After

Linda – Before and After

 

Getting Legal

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

 

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

 

Linda at her new farm

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

Goals for the Urban Permaculture Farm

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

 

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

 

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

 

Design and Observations

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

Plans for the Farm - Overhead view

Plans for the Farm – Overhead view

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

 

Preparing the Site

Front Yard Before

Front Yard Before

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

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

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

Natural contours--shaped with the hose!

Natural contours–shaped with the hose!

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

Mulched paths established....

Mulched paths established….

Starting to add compost over weed barrier....

Starting to add compost over weed barrier….

Lots of progress being made!

Lots of progress being made!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Many beds now established!

Many beds now established!

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Complete as of October 2014!

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

 

Some Spring Planting

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

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Linda plants radish

Linda plants radish

Chard in protective tubes

Chard in protective tubes

Me planting some chard!

Me planting some chard!

 

Promoting a Positive Image in the Community

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

 

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

Brochure page 1

Brochure page 1

Brochure, page 2

Brochure, page 2

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

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

 

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.

 

Wild Food Profile – Burdock Root (spring and fall) October 20, 2014

Great Burdock (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Foraging is an important part of my spiritual path, as it is one of the ways that I build a closer relationship with nature.  I also think its an important part of the “oak knowledge” that druids should consider cultivating.  As we regain our understanding of the plants, trees, and herbs around us, we grow closer to that landscape.  By harvesting food from my backyard growing wild, I’m taking that landscape within and allowing it to nourish me.  This nourishment comes in many forms, and not all of them are physical. As our amazing spring returns after a long, hard, winter, I am so excited to get out there and enjoy  wild foods!

The early spring or late fall is a wonderful time for wild foods. From violets to ramps to dandelion greens and dryad’s saddle and morel mushrooms, the leafy veggies, edible flowers, and mushrooms are just amazing.  What I like about fall is that many of the things you enjoyed in spring are back again, for round two, before the winter sets in.

Today I’ll be covering Burdock.  My experience is with arctium minus (common burdock) but what I’m saying can also apply to other burdock species, such as great burdock (arctium lappa).  Samuel Thayer, in his awesome book Forager’s Harvest suggests that the great burdock is more tasty than the common burdock.  But I only have common burdock, and it tastes just fine to me!

 

Burdock and its Nutritive and Healing Qualities

Burdock is a wonderful plant, despite the fact that most people who encounter it only remember it for its spiny seed pods that stick to you–and everything else.  Burdock is often one of those plants that end up on various township and city’s “noxious weed” lists because of its seed pods.  And yes, they can be absolutely wretched and itchy if they end up stuck to your clothing, socks, hair, and so forth.  And yet, here is a plant that provides us with nutritive, healing food and medicine anytime the ground is not frozen solid.

Burdock primarily is a nutritive and metabolic tonic; that is, it is rich in minerals and vitamins, and eating it is beneficial for digestion.  It is best eaten fresh or tinctured.  For a complete list of burdock’s medicinal qualities, I highly suggest Jim McDonald’s discussion of burdock.  Grieve’s Modern Herbal also has a nice entry. Burdock is one of those great plants that you can eat like food, cause it is food, but it has such good medicinal qualities that its like medicinal food.  Its really great and, I think, is really unappreciated!

 

Identifying and Harvesting Burdock Root

You can find Burdock three seasons of the year–in spring, summer, and fall.  Burdock root is best dug in early spring or late fall in late fall. I have a healthy burdock patch on my property, and more comes up each year.  I let the seeds fall in the fall and try to push them into the ground with the bottom of my shoe (being careful not to have them stuck to me), because I want the roots and stalks for good eating :).

Based on some tincturing experiments by my dear friend Sara and consultations of some herbals and my herbal instructor, we’ve concluded that the inulin in burdock, which is a source of much of its medicine, is much higher in the fall than in the spring (the plant likely lives off of inulin  in the winter to survive).  Inulin is a natural carbohydrate found in many plants. So you will want to keep that in mind when gathering your burdock roots.

Late Fall Harvests: The leaves die back in the fall, sending their energy back into the roots.  After a good hard frost or two, the burdock leaves will mostly die back on the first year plants.  This is the time to harvest the roots, especially for medicinal purposes.  You can wait a while to gather after this point, however, eventually the ground will freeze and then you won’t be able to dig the roots deeply. Its easier to identify the burdock in the fall, with its huge green leaves and long skinny stalk, and fuzzy green (and later brown) burs.  Usually first and 2nd year plants will be near each other–2nd year plants die off and go to seed at least a month before the 1st year plants lose their leaves.

Early Spring Harvests.  Likewise, in the spring, the energy is still in the roots, where nutrients  were kept all all winter long, and the nutrients push those nutrients upward and outward and leafy greens and flowers emerge once more. Before that energy returns completely, however,  early spring can be a prime time to gather root crops like cattails and burdock.  Once the plants just peek above the soil (or the water, in the case of the cattail) then you are ready to harvest. The key with harvesting root crops in early spring is to harvest them early, just when you see them peeking up and can identify them.  The longer you wait, the more energy from the roots goes into the leaves, and the roots become less tasty and nutritive. .In early spring you want the early 2nd year plants (the ones that didn’t go to seed the year before).

While its easy to identify burdock in the fall, its still pretty easy in the spring once you know what you are looking for and where to find it–soft, light green heart shaped petals, usually growing in small clusters.  The spring clusters will first have two leaves, and then a small rosette.  They will have the distinctive burdock smell–slightly bitter.  They come up at the same time that the violets bloom, and generally (at least here) before the dandelions bloom. I knew exactly where to look this spring, just in front of my garden along the pathway.  Here are the rosettes of the freshly sprouted burdock plants.  These burdock plants have to be dug up, because eventually if I let them remain, they will grow burs and the burs will stick to me each time I try to enter my garden.

The following photos are from my spring burdock harvest.  The fall burdock plants have much bigger leaves!

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Once you find yourself some burdock rosettes, the real fun begins.  Ideally, you’ll have a long, narrow shovel (called a drain spade, like this).  I don’t have such a shovel, so instead, I put the shovel on one side of the burdock and jump on it, going as deep as I can.  Then, I do the same thing on the other side of the burdock.  One one side, I dig a small hole as far down as I can next to the burdock root, and finally, pry as much of it as I can up with the shovel.  Rarely does the whole root come up, but there is plenty for me to work with using this method.  The drain spade is MUCH better.  The key to buying a good burdock digging shovel is that it is sturdy–place your foot on the middle of it and try to bend the shovel.  If the shovel bends badly, its no good for burdock digging and you’ll break it on your first time out.

Digging Burdock

Digging Burdock

While you can get massive roots out of the ground like the one featured in the image below, these are usually more woody and a bit hollow on the inside.  Sometimes they can get long black cracks as well.  They are still ok to eat, but the younger roots, less than a year old, are much more easy to work with.

Huge burdock root!

Huge burdock root!

The day a friend and I were digging burdock, we filled up a 5 gallon bucket in less than 30 min.  We harvested in about a 15′ square area, and there is still a ton of burdock out there for the harvesting.

Bucket full of burdock!

Bucket full of burdock!

After we harvested the burdock, we didn’t wash it (you want to wash it right before you eat it to avoid any water loss–water loss is one of the biggest challenges for storing vegetables, even short term).  Instead, we put it in bags and stuck it in the fridge.  You also want to chop off all the green heads–the greens will cause water loss.  Storing in a root cellar would be better for this, but alas, I don’t yet have a good root cellar.

Burdock harvest

Burdock root harvest

Eating Burdock

To prepare burdock root, you’ll want to start by washing it well.  I use a carrot scrubber, which gets off most of the dirt.  I don’t wash my burdock until right before eating it.  Once you scrub the dirt off of it, you can peel it (I find peeling pretty much necessary b/c its impossible to get fully clean).  You’ll see that it looks and acts like a carrot–this is true for the whole preparing process.

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

You can cook it in the same manner you would a carrot, and it has a similar cooking time.  I sliced up this burdock root and threw it in a pan to saute.  I then added some leftover rice noodles, leftover pesto pasta, and topped it off with feta cheese.  Nums!

Burdock dish

Burdock root with rice pasta, pesto, and feta cheese

 

Flavor and Taste

Burdock root doesn’t show up a lot in western cooking, but in Japan, it is a highly valued ingredient (you can search for “gobo root” and find all kinds of awesome recipes). I think its really delicious in the right kind of meal.  I treat it pretty much like I would a carrot in terms of where I would use it.

In terms of taste, I find burdock to be very mild and slightly sweet.  It tastes kinda nutty and earthy, and I find that it compliments many dishes.  Since it also has tonic, regenerative, and nutritive qualities, its just great to eat when you can get it. Its also a fantastic food because traditionally one would have long ran out of carrots by this point in the year, and burdock root would get you through the “hunger times” of early spring.

 

Wild Food Profile: Autumn Olive / Autumn Berry (Elaeagnus umbellata) + Autumn Olive Honey Jelly Recipe September 14, 2014

 About the Autumn Olive

Autumn Olive in spring (Courtesy of Wikipedia; I forgot to photograph this in the spring)

Autumn Olive (also called Autumn Berry, Japanese Silverberry, or Spreading Oleaster) is a bush that is native to China and is considered an “invasive” in the USA. In a good part part of the 20th century, it was used extensively by the US Army Corp of Engineers to hold hillsides in place from the growing highway system spanning the US and to fix nitrogen. The Autumn Olive grows exceedingly quickly; it can rise up several feet in a few months and bush out. It also spreads rapidly due to its berries being a favorite of birds. It is a nitrogen fixer, so it is often found in abused land areas or landscape areas that are regenerating (like old farmer’s fields or industrial sites); I should add that its one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers we have and it does fill an important role in the ecosystem.  It is extremely prevalent here in Michigan; I’ve also seen it in Indiana and Ohio and in the warmer parts of PA (like Bedford county). If you search invasive plant sites or talk to people, they will often call this plant a menace plant. And while this bush does spread quickly, it does have its benefits, especially in the form of beautiful, tasty, autumn olive berries with their incredible cranberry-like tart and sweet flavors.

 

The fruit is extremely high in lycopene (up to 17 times more than tomatoes, according to a USDA report described in the linked article).  The fruit also contain high levels of Vitamins E, A, flavionids, and fatty acids.  Underripe fruit are high in tannins and are very astringent, but as they ripen, they get much sweeter (especially after a bout of cold weather!)  I know that there are people exploring commercial cultivation of this plant due to the berries’ nutritional value and the plant’s ease of growing. And they are super tasty!

 

Harvested autumn olive in a "blickey" (a gallon jug with the top cut out; can be hung on a belt for easy harvesting)

Harvested autumn olive in a “blickey” (a gallon jug with the top cut out; can be hung on a belt for easy harvesting)

 

Harvesting Autumn Olive

After 3 years of growth, the Autumn Olive bears fruit. You should look to start harvesting it somewhere in September, usually around the Fall equinox (if you live in Zone 6a like I do).  A good year of fruit can have up to 8 lbs of fruit per bush (I have found that in Michigan, we only get this kind of abundance every few years). The fruit is really delicious and tart and not really like anything else out there. The closest thing I can think of is a cranberry, but autumn olives have no bitterness and are more tart.

Fruiting bush - notice the abundance!

Fruiting bush – notice the abundance!

Autumn Olives flower in the spring, and have quite a pleasant smell and nectar that my bees certainly appreciate.  Seeing how many flowers there are in the spring should give you an idea about how much fruit you will find in the fall. Sometime in early September to mid October, the berries ripen going from green to orange to a dark red. It is when the whole bush is red, a deep red, and the berries are ready to fall off (and you see the birds eating them), that they are ready to pick.  If you see orangish berries still on the bush, its not ready, and you should wait a few days.  Tasting the bush will confirm this–even the red berries on a bush with orange berries aren’t going to be a sweet.

Not quite ripe fruit

Not quite ripe fruit (notice the orange)

Be sure to pick ripe bushes before a big rain….if the fruit are quite ripe, they fall off the bush easily and a hard rain will knock them all to the ground. I had a bush I was enjoying this year, the first to ripen on my property a few weeks ago.  A big storm came and dropped them all to the ground before I was able to harvest them!

Each bush also tastes slightly different–some are more tart, some are more sweet, some are more flavorful.  When I am picking, I will go from bush to bush and taste a berry or two on each one.  When I find a bush that tastes good, that’s the bush I pick (they are so abundant that I can skip bushes if I want).  If the fruit on a particular bush tastes too astringent, wait a few days and come back–it should ripe up soon enough.  I love the diversity of flavors that the different bushes produce, and so, I have certain “favorite” bushes I visit each year.

Ripe berries ready to harvest and eat

Ripe berries ready to harvest and eat

In a good year, two people can pick a gallon or more of autumn olive in an hour or so. In any year, the autumn olive is absolutely worth your time to pick.  Autumn olive makes fantastic jelly and fruit leather due to its tart quality.

 

Autumn Olive Jelly

I’m going to walk you through the process of making an Autumn Olive Jelly, with photos, because this is one of the best ways to preserve these delightful fruits.  One thing about the jelly–the fruit juice tends to separate from the fruit pulp as it sets, so you get these interesting mottled looking jars of jelly.  I think they look kinda cool, but they might be a turn off (and frankly, that’s fine, because that’s more jelly for me).

Ingredients:

  • A bunch of autumn olives, washed
  • Pomona’s pectin (described in this post)
  • 1/2 cup  – 1 cup honey per 4 cups of processed berries

Equipment:

  • Hot water bath canner
  • 1/2 pint or 1/4 pint jars with new lids
  • Food mill
  • Masher (wooden or potato)

1.  Wash and prepare your berries. You want to wash your berries and also sort through them to make sure you don’t have any foreign objects, bugs, etc.  This process is called “garbling” (and I have no idea where that term came from).

Lovely fruit!

Lovely fruit!

2. Add them to a big pot and begin cooking. Add them to a big pot and put your burner on medium high.

Autumn Olives in Pot!

Autumn Olives in Pot!  That’s quite a lot!

3.  Cook and mash your fruit. You want to cook down the berries so that they are hot, and mash them down as you are cooking.  Make sure to stir often so you don’t burn your berries.  Once they get good and watery and they are broken up, continue onto step 4.

Mashing autumn olive

Mashing autumn olive

4. Use a food mill to remove seeds. You will need to get the seeds out of the mash, and I find using a food mill works really well for this purpose.  You’ll notice that the juice of the autumn olive tends to separate from the pulpy fruit and skin–that’s just how it is.

Food mill

Food mill

5.  Prepare canner and lids.  Measure out autumn olive juice and get it back on the stove.  You need to measure out your juice so that you know how much you have for the purposes of adding pectin. The juice will be this awesome beautiful pinkish red…it might have foam.  That’s ok.  I will explain what to do with that in a bit.

Foam

Foam

6.  Prepare pectin: add calcium water to mixture. You might notice that many recipes call for nearly 50% sugar.  I don’t find these recipes healthy; they are too sweet and full of calories.  The sugar masks the real quality taste of the berries.  I found pectin called Pomona’s pectin – it allows you to can with much less sugar or to can with honey.  So for this recipe, we are using  Pomona’s pectin.  You can follow the directions on the label that are specific for jelly (like using grape juice).  To use this pectin, you will mix up calcium water and add it to the fruit. Next you mix the pectin itself into the honey.  Finally,  you mix the honey into the berry juice and bring it to a boil for a short amount of time.  You can use the ratios on the instructions; I found that only a little honey is needed so I have been using 1/2 cup honey to four cups autumn olive mix.

Pomona Pectin

Pomona Pectin

7.  Add mixture into jars and hot water bath process for 20 min (1/2 pints). If you have foam at this point, you can skim it off and put it in a jar.  It will solidify, and then you’ll have a delightful treat to eat with a spoon. You can store the foam in the fridge and enjoy a scoop whenver you like.

8.  While jars are processing, lick the spoon and enjoy the leftovers in the pot. Trust me, you don’t want to skip this step.

Num nums.

Num nums.

9.  Pull out of canner, wait till jars seal, and enjoy! You will notice that autumn olive separates a bit as its sets.  This is perfectly normal, but does look a bit weird.  The good news about it looking weird is that if someone is going through your cabinets looking for something to eat, they might be less inclined to eat your autumn olive jam, so I consider this a natural defense mechanism.  The jam is delicious!

Strange looking jam!

Strange looking jam!

Get as much as you can!

Get as much as you can!

Now if you strained this, you could probably get rid of the spoltchyness and only have one color of jelly.  But I like the way it looks, with its interesting patchwork colors and shapes.  Enjoy this often!

Finally, I want to direct you to also read Sam Thayer’s Autumn Olive page, because he has a lot of great info on this wonderful plant in terms of pounds per acre and so on.  He suggests that some are considering commercial cultivation of these wonderful fruits because of their vitamin and mineral content, nitrogen fixing ability to regenerate the soil, and potentially high yields.

 

Elderberry Syrup with Ginger, Cinnamon, and Clove: A Powerful Medicine to Keep Sickness Away September 10, 2014

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

It is that delightful time of year again, when the berries of the fall ripen, when the pumpkins grow orange on their vines, and when the elders are literally loaded with berries.  The elderberry tree is a fascinating plant, rich with mythology and magic.  The word “elder” of course has multiple meanings, but I like to think of this plant as my elder in a literal sense, that I can sit at the feet of the elderberry tree and learn much from her wisdom.  We were blessed this year with a bumper crop of these delightful elderberries, and I set to work making a medicinal syrup (I like to call it Elderberry Elixir) to aid in immune system support for the winter.  Last year when I made this syrup in September it went bad by the time January rolled around, so this year I got smart and decided to can it for longer-term storage.

 

You can make this recipe with dried berries instead of fresh ones.  Fresh elderberries have been reported by some to cause an upset stomach, but when you dry them or cook them they are perfectly fine and highly medicinal.

 

My herb teacher, Jim McDonald, taught me that Elder is particularly useful for the kind of immune system support one needs to prevent viruses from replicating throughout our bodies–the elder provides support to block that kind of replication.  It has a host of other health benefits, such as a high amount of flavenoids and for general support for colds, reducing the amount of time one needs to get through the sickness.  This Elderberry Elixir is a great and tasty way to take such medicine.  Jim has a fantastic write up on elder (both flowers and berries) on his site that I highly recommend you read! Grieve’s herbal has a complete listing for elder online here.

 

One of the reasons I prefer to pick my own berries is that it allows me to develop a relationship, hopefully over a period of years with many visits, with the elder as a species but also as an individual tree. Learning to find your own medicine if you are able, and spending time just sitting with those trees, seeing how they grow, picking their fruit and giving thanks, perhaps leaving an offering, is a critical part of herbal practice.  The plants are our teachers, our allies, and they respond better to us when we establish a relationship.  I kinda see it like the difference between having a conversation with a stranger vs. a very close friend–if you end up having a 20 min conversation with someone you just meet, you might have a good conversation, get to know the person a bit, learn a bit about their life. But if you ended up having that same 20 min conversation with a person you knew well, that conversation would be much different, likely much deeper.   Working with the plants themselves is a lot like that–the stronger of a connection you develop with a particular plant species over time, the more effective of a medicine it is going to be for you.  Elder is one of those plants that is quite abundant throughout most of the US, and its worth seeing her out and sitting at her roots and learning from her.  She has powerful, potent medicine for us, and many other lessons to teach as well.

Elderberry Elixir

Ingredients:

Fresh or dried elderberries (you can get dried ones from Mt. Rose Herbs).  The recipe is based on ratios, so you can get as many as you want of these. I prefer the fresh, but not everyone can get to them.

Fresh ginger, 1 TBSP per cup of fresh berries / per 1/2 cup dried berries

Cloves, 1/4 teaspoon per cup of berries / per 1/2 cup dried berries

Cinnamon: 1-2 teaspoons per cup of berries (depending on your taste) / per 1/2 cup dried berries

Honey: 1/2 cup per cup of berries / per 1/4 cup dried berries

Water enough to cover the berries

 

Instructions

1.  Remove your berries.  You  will have bunches and bunches of awesome elderberries after you go picking (or you will have the dried ones ready to go). One of the best ways to remove elder is to start by freezing the berries.  If you freeze them, they will come off super easily, and freezing will save you a lot of processing time.

Pulling off frozen berries

Pulling off frozen berries

2.  Measure your berries and add water to cover. Measure out your berries and add an appropriate amount of water to cover them up.

3. Prepare your other ingredients (except honey, that comes later). You will want to chop your ginger very fine.  You can use whole cinnamon sticks and cloves if you want as everything will be strained.  I like the powders because I think I get a better extraction that way. Add your ingredients to the pot.

You can use a food processor to quickly prepare ginger

You can use a food processor to quickly prepare ginger

Look at those lovely ingredients!

Look at those lovely ingredients!

4.  Mash up your berries and simmer your ingredients for 1-2 hours.  The longer you simmer your ingredients, the better extraction you’ll get of everything.  I like to cook this a minimum of two hours.  After you’ve cooked it that long, let it cool on the stove for a while (likely another 30 min to an hour).

Mashing berries

Mashing berries

This is a very good sized batch!

This is a very good sized batch!

5.  After it cools, use a strainer strainer to strain out the seeds, cloves, ginger and other “hard” materials.  If you are canning it, you don’t want to let it get too cool.

Strained syrup

Strained syrup

6.  Add honey.  Add your honey to the syrup at this point.  You can also choose to add honey to taste later in the process if you are using raw honey and want to preserve its natural enzymes.  I added my honey then canned it, so I did lose some of the raw honey benefit, but my syrup will stay good for a very long time, so I decided the trade off was worth it.  I could have canned or froze it without the honey, and added it in as I was taking it.

7.  Select a preservation method. I chose to hot water bath my elixir, mainly because when I made this last year at this time, I just stuck it in the fridge and then when I really needed it, it had gone moldy.  It will keep in the fridge for about 3 months, but that isn’t going to get you through the whole year till the elderberries are in season again.  So I would suggest either canning it or freezing it.  I chose to hot water bath can it–I followed instructions online for canning elderberry juice (1/4 headspace; 15 minute hot water bath processing time). The elders are very tart and contain a lot of acid, so the recipe is a safe one for hot water bath canning.

Ready to can the syrup!

Ready to can the syrup!

 

There you have it–a powerful medicine from a wonderful plant ally.  In terms of dosage, you want to take 1-2 tbsp of this a day; even more if you feel sickness coming on.  Its not “medicine” in the traditional pharmaceutical sense, so you can take a lot if you’d like.  I usually stick to the 1-2 tbsp per day and find that works quite well for me!

 

 
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