The Druid's Garden

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

The AODA’s Seven Element System: Above, Below, Within, Earth, Air, Fire, Water March 1, 2020

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree demonstrating the seven-element framework

 

Perhaps the first thing to think about in any system of spiritual or magical practice is the way in which a practice offers a framework to understand reality. These frameworks vary widely based on the spiritual tradition: some use a complex system of deities to map concepts to reality.  Deities often have domains and represent certain aspects of reality (e.g the Horned God Cernunnos of Celtic Mythology can represent fertility, abundance, the land itself, and so forth). Other systems may have songs, stories, and dances to help explain the world.  Other systems may recognize different kinds of energies and map them (such as the Jewish Kabbalah or Yggdrasil, the world tree, in Norse tradition, In AODA, our primary framework is a seven-element framework. The seven-element system is a highly adaptable and non-dogmatic framework that you can use for a variety of purposes, whether or not you belong to AODA. As an elemental framework, it works with a classification of energies present on the land to provide a framework for raising and drawing energy in particular ways, for rituals and more. Once you have an understanding of a system of representation like the seven elements, you can work with it in any myriad of ways to develop your own unique practices, adapt it to your local ecosystem, and so forth.

 

The seven elements include three aspects of spirit: spirit above, spirit below, and spirit within, as well as earth, air, fire, and water. Thus, in this post, I’ll explain the historical roots of this framework and some of its features. This post is really the precursor to next week’s post when I show how this kind of framework can be used to create any number of rituals and practices, including land healing and blessing.  (As a reminder, since I became Grand Archdruid of AODA, I’m dedicating one post a month to AODA-specific practices!)

 

Understanding the Elements as a System of Representation and as Symbols

The first part of the seven-element framework is the four classical elements. The classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water or some similar equivalent were part of many ancient cultures including those of Ancient Greece, Persia, Babylonia, Tibet, and China. In ancient Persia around 600 BCE, the ancient philosopher Zarathustra (Zoroaster) seems to have originated–or at least, first written down–the four-element theory and described the four elements as “sacred” and “essential for the survival of all living beings and therefore should be venerated and kept free from any contamination.”[3] The failure to keep these elements pure could anger the gods. If only the modern world had such wisdom!

 

As in the classic period, today, the elements can be seen both as physical things (e.g. the soil as earth, the fire as fire, water in a stream) as well as metaphysical. Thus, we can see the four elements represented in nature and in revival druid symbolism, but also emotionally and physically in the human body. For example, earth in the druid tradition is tied to the energy of the bear, trees, and stones on the physical landscape. We can see representations of the earth everywhere we look–in the mountains, the stones, the caves. Its also tied to the personality qualities of determination and perseverance, the physical bodily qualities of being strong or having a high constitution, and the metaphysical qualities of grounding and rootedness. If we were to trace the element of earth back to through traditional western herbalism, we’d also see earth connected to the melancholic temperament, which indicates a deeply reflective, introspective, and quiet individual. Thus, the element of earth as a concept gives us a system to help classify and categorize the worlds within and without. This kind of thing is quite useful when you want to call upon all of the above with a single word or symbol, as we do in the Sphere of Protection ritual and other such rituals in AODA.  What I mean here is this: if I want to bring these qualities into my life, a simple thing I could do is trace the symbol of earth in the air each day (in AODA, it is a circle with a line pointing to the earth), carry a stone in my pocket, or lay down upon the earth.

 

What any elemental (or other) framework does, including AODA’s 7 element system, the Hebrew Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Chinese 5 element system, and so on, is offer a way to represent the world.  It offers a way to take the complexity of matter and spirit and put it into an accessible framework that can be worked, adapted, and understood. Elemental frameworks, such as the classic four elements work to create a more simple system to represent the complexities of reality. The elements are symbols. Symbols are simplified things (e.g. a word, an image) that stand-in for something else or represents it, usually a set of much more nuanced and complex concepts. Symbols help us interpret and understand the world, and offer us frameworks not only for meditation and ritual but also for daily life.

 

The reasons you might to want to master such a system are numerous. For me, it helps me design effective and on-the-spot rituals and practices, design effective meditations, understand the ways my life may be in balance or out of it, and allows me to have a system of understanding in which to work as a druid.

 

 

The Four Elements

And so we begin with the four elements in AODA’s system, drawn from the broader druid revival and western antiquity.  These are some of the classic meanings for each, but in AODA practice, we encourage individuals to adapt these meanings as they see fit.

 

Earth is the element tied to the north, to the dark moon, to the energy of winter and midnight.  We find the earth physically in mountains, stones, trees, all of what classical writers would call “the firmament.”  The energy of earth, manifesting metaphysically, offers grounding, stability, strength, and perseverance. Earth encourages us to be grounded and stable in our work.  In the druid revival tradition, earth is often associated with the great bear, both manifested in the heavens as Ursa Major, but also on earth as a physical bear, who represents many of earth’s qualities.

 

Air is the element tied to the east, to the waxing moon, to the energy of spring and dawn.  We find the air physically in the wind, the sky, the clouds, the rustle of the leaves as they blow in the breeze.  The energy of air, manifesting metaphysically, offers us clarity, knowledge, wisdom, focus, and objectivity. Air encourages us to temper our emotions with reason, evidence, and clear thinking.  In the druid revival tradition, air is associated with the hawk soaring in the air at dawn.

 

Fire is the element tied to the south, to the full moon, to the energy of summer and noon.  We find the fire physically as a fire itself (such as that at a campsite or in your fireplace) but also in the combustion materials to create heat and energy (in the modern world, oil or electricity). The energy of fire, manifesting metaphysically, has to do with our inspiration, transformation, creativity, passions, and will—how we direct our lives and what we want to bring into manifestation. In the classical texts, fire is often closest to the divine as it is a transformative agent. In the druid revival tradition, fire is associated with the stag, often depicted in a summer forest.

 

Water element from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Water is the element tied to the west, to the waning moon, the energy of fall and the dusk.  We find the water physically in rivers, lakes, oceans, springs, streams, storms, and even in our own bodies. The energy of water, manifesting metaphysically, offers us intuition, emotion, healing, wisdom, connection, particularly connection with nature and spirit, and flow. In the druid revival tradition, water is associated with the salmon of wisdom, originally coming from the Fenian cycle[4] of Irish mythology, where the salmon who lived in the well of wisdom ate nine hazelnuts and was later caught by Finn, who cooked the salmon and had the wisdom transferred to him.  We might then see the water as helping us have wisdom, which is the integration of the head/heart and subconscious/conscious mind.

 

What I’ve just shared are the meanings that are most common. But in AODA practice, we encourage druids to develop “wildcrafted” and ecoregional druidries. So a druid living in California might have a different interpretation of what these elements are on their landscape than one living in Pennsylvania.  In fact, my own elemental animal interpretations are different based on the dominant animals in my landscape and I tie each of my elements to sacred trees. Each druid can thus adapt these basic meanings and directions as they see fit for their own wildcrafted and ecoregional druidry.

The Three Aspects of Spirit and the Three Currents

Drawing upon the earlier writings of the Greek writer Empedocles who introduced the four elements to the Ancient Greek World, Aristotle added a 5th element, Aether (spirit) to the four classical elements. The original four elements were considered four states of matter with the fifth being a connection to the metaphysical (that which is beyond the physical).  In AODA, we recognize three aspects of spirit–above, below, and within.  This distinction is certainly present in the druid revival (for example, see Trilithon, volume 1 for a druid revival text on the telluric current).

 

Spirit Above: The Solar Current

The Solar current is the energy—physical and metaphysical—that comes from the sun, our ultimate source of life. The solar current is magically associated with things in the sky: the heavens and birds: hawks, eagles, and roosters. Additionally, I have found that certain plants also can draw and radiate solar energy quote effectively—Dandelion (dominant in the spring); St. John’s Wort (dominant in at midsummer), and goldenrod (dominant in the fall) are three such plants. For Land healing or other earth-based work, we can use these specific solar plants when we need to light up dark places (energetically) and focus the solar current’s healing light.

 

Solar energy, being directly tied to the sun, changes based on the position of the sun in the sky on a daily basis.  That is, solar energy is different at noon than it is at dusk, dawn, or midnight. It also changes based on where the sun is in the wheel of the year; the energy of the sun is different on June 21st, the summer solstice than it is on the Winter Solstice on Dec 21st.)

 

Connected to the sun are the other solar bodies in our solar system and more broadly in the celestial heavens. In the Druid Magic Handbook, John Michael Greer notes that other planets in the solar system directly reflect the energy of the sun, so astrological influences can help us understand the current manifestation of the solar current at various present moments.  This is all to say that solar energy is ever powerful, and ever-changing, in our lives.

 

Standing stone - bringing the solar into the telluric

Standing stone – bringing the solar into the telluric

We can see the solar current manifested differently in the world’s religions—Christianity, for example, is a very solar focused tradition.  When you look at pictures of saints or Jesus, they are often accompanied by rays of light from heaven, god’s light shining down, even the halo of light around the head of a saint or Jesus. Buddhism, likewise, focuses on achieving “higher levels” of consciousness and being—these are all solar in nature. Any time that you hear things about ascension, the light of the sun, and so on, that’s the solar energy being connected to and being drawn upon. Part of the allure of these traditions, in some cases, is the idea of escapism—since the material earth is problematic and imperfect, we can ascend and go to more perfect realms. The problem with some of this thinking is that it separates the living earth from all things sacred or holy—I firmly believe that part of the reason that such pillaging of the planet is happening is because of the emphasis in dominant world religions on solar aspects as divine and earthy aspects as not.  The earth, then, is seen only as a resource worth taking from.

 

Spirit Below: The Telluric Current

While the light of the sun comes down to earth, the Telluric current rises from the heat and energy of the earth itself. Ecologically, we have the molten core of the earth which drives the earth’s tectonic plates and thus, shapes the landmass on the surface. Tectonic plates and landmasses, along with the energy of the sun and the composition of the atmosphere, determine our climate[1]. The great soil web of life, which contains millions of organisms in a single teaspoon of rich soil[2], also supports all life. Thus, we can see the importance of the biological aspects of the earth in the larger patterns of life on this planet.

 

The telluric current’s name comes from “Tellus,” a name for the ancient Roman goddess of the earth. She was also known as “terra mater” or Mother earth; later, this was a word in Latin “telluric” meaning “land, territory or earth.” These ancient connections, then, are present in the name itself, where the earth and her energy were often personified and worshipped as divine.

 

This telluric energy starts at the center of the earth and rises up, through the layers of the stone and molten flows, through the groundwater and underwater aquifers, through the minerals and layers of fossils, and into the crust of the earth. It takes its shape from what is on the surface: plants, trees, roads, rivers, valleys, rivers, and so on. As Greer notes in the Druid Magic Handbook, it is powerfully affected by underground sources of water (aquifers); springs and wells that come up from the land have very strong concentrations of telluric energy. This helps explain both why sacred wells, throughout the ages, have been such an important part of spiritual traditions in many parts of the world–and why we can use spring water for healing and energizing purposes. This also explains why fracking, which taints the underground waters themselves, is so horrifically bad.

 

As RJ Stewart notes in Earthlight, it is from the currents of the earth that the nutrients flow from the living earth into our bodies, regenerating them. It is from the telluric that you can find the light of transformation and regeneration. The telluric represents the dark places in the world, the energy found in caves and deep in the depths of our souls. The telluric energy sometimes is about confronting the shadows within ourselves and realizing that those are part of us too. It is about lived experience—the act of being—rather than rationalizing and talking about. In Lines Upon the Landscape, Pennick and Devereux sum this up nicely when they write, “For us, the sense of traveling through a dark and elemental landscape, pregnant with magical and spiritual forces, is no longer experienced. We have separated ourselves from the land and live within our own abstractions” (246). Take a minute to think about the word “dark” – in modern Western culture, it is immediately associated with evil (showing our strong solar bias).  But darkness can be a place of rest, of quietude, of inner learning and knowing.

 

There are fewer traditions that work primarily with the telluric currents—the Underworld tradition (see R. J. Stewart’s line of books as an example) is one such tradition. Many forms of shamanism, where the practitioner is going down into the depths of the earth or their own consciousness to seek allies and assistance is also telluric in nature. These traditions are frequently concerned with transforming the here and now, and seeing the earth as sacred, understanding the sacred soil upon which life depends.  It’s also unfortunate because, throughout history, many telluric-based religions that were indigenous and earth-based were essentially wiped out by solar ones.

Elemental Wheel - Animals in the Druid Tradition (Artwork by yours truly, Dana O'Driscoll)

Elemental Wheel – Traditional Elemental Animals in the Druid Tradition (Artwork by yours truly, Dana O’Driscoll)

Spirit Within: Awakening the Lunar Current

A third current—the lunar current–can be created by consciously bringing the solar current and the telluric current together in union. As Greer writes in the Druid Magic Handbook “When the lunar current awakens in an individual, it awakens the inner sense and unfolds into enlightenment. When it awakens in the land, it brings healing, fertility, and plenty” (p. 30).

 

We can see ancient humans’ deep knowledge of the three currents and their interaction reflected in the ancient ley lines upon the landscape—for example in Cuzco, Peru, which means “navel of the earth” had at its center, the Inca Temple of the Sun. It was here in the Inca temple that the Coricancha (the emperor) sat at the heart of the temple; radiating the light of the sun outward from this temple like a sunburst was a large web of straight lines reaching into the countryside (Lines upon the Landscape, Pennick and Devereux, 251). On the other side of the world, we see the same principles at play in China, where the Chinese emperor sat on his throne in the center of the Imperial Palace (the “Purple Forbidden City”), centered on the imperial road and with gates leading outward to the four directions (Pennick and Devereux, 251). In these, and in other ancient civilizations, the rulers, associated with the sun or considering themselves as “sun gods” or “sons of heaven” radiated via these “transmission lines” to bring the solar energy down and radiate it outward to bless the manifestation of the telluric. In both cases, the ruler was the personal awakening that third current and sending it out for the bounty and health of the land.

 

The lunar current also helps us resolve the binary created by the telluric and solar currents—it shows us that unification is possible and art of awakening the lunar current can be part of our healing arts in magical practice. To return to our opening discussion of “energy”; the Nwyfre flows from the awakening of this third current, through the alchemical synthesis and transformation of the other two into the third.  We can see this unification present also in the works of Jung–the unconscious (represented by the telluric) and the conscious (represented by the solar) come into unison to create a more complete and whole person when unified (a process Jung calls individuation).

 

Adapting the Seven Element Framework to Your Practice

If you are drawn to this framework or are a member of AODA, you might find it helpful to start mapping out your own understanding of these elements in your life and in your local landscape and building a seven-element mandala of ideas, experiences, and themes.  You can do this in many ways and, over time, you can layer many different meanings and understandings into your elemental mandalas.  This practice can take time to understand and requires some interaction and observation with the earth around you.  You can use the attached graphic to the left (click on the graphic for a full-size version) to help you map out the different relationships if you’d like.

 

Seven Element Framework Graphical Representation

Here are some of the many ways you can think about building your own:

  • What local animals to you represent each of the seven elements?
  • What local herbs to you represent each of the seven elements?
  • What local trees to you represent each of the seven elements?
  • See if you can identify local features that mark the elements and directions where you live: a mountain to the north, a river to the west, and so on (this practice may also have you switching directions–e.g. if you live on the east coast, the largest body of water is to the east, not
  • the west!)
  • What emotions tie to each of these elements?
  • Can you develop a movement for each of these elements?
  • If you practice bardic arts, you might consider developing a poem, painting, carving, photograph, or any other practice
  • Can you make a physical representation of this framework on an altar or in your landscape?

 

As an example of how this might work, in the photos earlier in this article, I shared one such bardic/artistic representation of my own. Earlier this year, I was asked to create a set of large elemental banners for the upcoming MAGUS 2020 gathering, which is primarily an OBOD gathering, so they were looking for elemental four-quarter banners.  I was asked to do them with an herbal/plant theme. Thus, I spent some time sketching and meditating on what local herbs would be appropriate (and put them into the seven elemental framework, even though I was only painting the first four for the gathering!)  I came up with the following list of herbs based on my own understanding, observation, and attunement with the local region and made several shifts and revisions during the development process.  Here’s my list:

  • Air/East/Spring Equinox: Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).  Dandelion is excellent for east because she grows in the spring, she has a yellow flower, she is a dominant plant upon the landscape offering food and medicine, and when she goes into seed, she “takes to the air”.
  • Fire/South/Summer Solstice: Monarda / Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) Monarda here in this region blooms a firey red, bright pink, or light purple in the heat of the summer, usually throughout July.  This medicinal herb is also a very spicy plant–if you eat a leaf, you will have a spicy sensation.  It also helps fight illness and is a native plant here.  I could think of no better plant for fire/south because of both when monarda blooms and monarda’s firey physical nature.
  • Water/West/Fall Equinox: Cattail (Typha latifolia).  Cattail is another native plant here in our bioregion, and a very important one from an ecological perspective, as it helps cleanse and keep our waterways clear.  Like the other plants here, Cattail is a perennial plant, but it is most dominant in the fall as it grows its seed head (which is where it gets the name “cattail”.  Cattail is a water cleansing and water-loving plant often found on the edges of lakes and swamps.  It was perfect for the west!
  • Earth/North/Winter Solstice: Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).  Wintergreen is another native perennial plant here, and while it has its green, waxy, and minty-tasting leaves year-round, by the winter solstice it is producing bright red berries that are flavorful and delicious.  Wintergreen stays green through the winter months.
  • Spirit Above:  Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  Milkweed offers such abundance, including four separate harvests for food, during the year, that I think it’s an excellent plant for spirit above.  Part of this is that it has a “spirit” quality as it slowly opens its pods as the season progresses and releases the delightful seed fluffs to the wind.  On a beautiful fall day here, you will see thousands of them in the air, offering a very ethereal quality. It has an enduring nature–there is some form of milkweed always on our landscape, whether it be the beautiful golden pods in the deep winter months to the shoots in the spring.
  • Spirit Below. Ghost pipe (monotropa uniflora).  Another plant imbued with spirit, ghost pipe is a parasitic plant that feeds on dead plant matter (and thus, does not have chlorophyll, giving it a “ghostly” appearance).  Part of why I selected this plant for spirit below is that has tremendous medicinal virtues associated with grounding–this plant is often used for people who need to come back from a bad experience (mental, alcohol/drug-induced or otherwise) and it helps them bring their way back to a place of stability–in a way that no other plant does.  It also has an enduring nature; even through all seasons
  • Spirit within. Sage (Salvia officinalis).  The uses of sage for spiritual purposes can be found in many cultures worldwide (it truly may be a “global” herb as far as spiritual practices are concerned).  Sages are found throughout the world, and certainly, here in my own ecosystem, where they are perennial, easy to grow, and abundant.  Sage has a long history of spiritual use in the druid tradition, and certainly, it burns beautifully, connecting matter with spirit, and serving as a connecting herb.  It has the quality of bringing mind, body, and spirit into the same place.

This is only one set of interpretations of the seven-element system, but I hope this example shows you how you might adapt this system to your own local ecosystem and understanding.  Next week, we’ll continue with the adaptations and work with the seven-element system, as I’ll further illustrate these concepts and how they can work together for land blessing and other kinds of rituals!

 

[1] Ruddiman, William F., ed. Tectonic uplift and climate change. Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.

[2] ch, Jeff, and Wayne Lewis. Teaming with microbes. Workman Publishing Company, 2010.

[3] Habashi, Fathi. “Zoroaster and the theory of four elements.” Bulletin for the History of Chemistry 25, no. 2 (2000): 109-115.

[4] Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “Fenian Cycle.” The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain (2017): 1-5.

 

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part II: Preserving and Preparing Sacred Plant Medicine October 21, 2018

The moonlight shines through the window in my kitchen as I carefully use a mortar and pestle to grind dried herbs for making tea.  Candlelight softly illuminates the space, and I have my recipe book with me, ensuring that I record everything that I’m doing for future use. Magic is in the air; working in a sacred space at a sacred time on the Fall Equinox ensures that these medicines will be potent, effective, and magical. On the counter, I’ve already finished my fresh New England Aster flower tincture; this keeps my lungs in good health and helps me manage my chronic asthma without pharmaceuticals. A pot of olive oil is infusing with herbs is on the stove; I am getting ready to add beeswax and pour it off into small jars.  This healing salve will be for friends and family as Yule gifts.  The kitchen is bursting with good things and healing energy.

 

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

In last week’s post, we explored some different ways to interact with and harvest plants: an animistic worldview that recognizes and honors plant spirits, planting and harvesting by the signs, and preparing for harvest through offerings.  In this week’s post, we’ll talk through different ways to preserve and prepare sacred plant medicine– so let’s get started!

 

An Herbal Sacred Grove

Before beginning your plant preparations, I would suggest setting up a sacred space (what we druids call a Sacred Grove). You can create a sacred space in which to prepare your sacred plant medicine. I offered details for one way of doing this in my earlier post on Hawthorn tincture creating.  You could also do so using an existing grove ritual (from OBOD, AODA, etc) or by creating your own.  I love to do this and I have found that it really adds to the magic and power of my plant preparations. For sacred plant crafting, I typically use a modified version of AODA’s solitary grove opening, including the Sphere of Protection.  The Sphere of Protection is highly adaptable, drawing upon the four elements and the solar, telluric, and lunar currents (three realms of spirit).  For plant medicine, I will use something like this (depending on the plants I’m working with at that time):

  • East/Air – New England Aster
  • South/Fire- Sassafras
  • West/Water – Hawthorn
  • North/Earth – Reishi Mushroom
  • Spirit Below/Telluric Current – Comfrey
  • Spirit Above/Solar Current – Goldenrod
  • Spirit Within/Lunar Current – Reishi

So my opening might look something like this:

  • Declare the intent of the ceremony
  • Declare peace in the quarters (part of the druid tradition)
  • Druid’s prayer / Druid’s prayer for peace (part of the druid tradition)
  • Sphere of protection; sealing the space
  • Offering to the spirits of the plants

Once the grove is open, I can begin my plant preparations, recognizing the sacredness and magic in this work.

If you plan on continuing to do sacred herbalism, I would suggest developing your own version of your sacred grove opening.  It can be dedicated to certain plants or activities, be done in a special room at a special time, etc.  The important thing is to make it matter for you!

 

Garbling

Once you have harvested a plant, you should engage in what is known as “garbling.” Garbling has both mundane and magical qualities.  On the mundane level, this basically means going though the plant material, cleaning it, removing bugs or soiled parts, and making sure you don’t have parts of other plants (like blades of grass) in there. As part of the garbling process, if you are drying your plants, you will want to remove any thick stems–this can prevent plants from drying thoroughly.  On the magical level, this process lends your energy to the plants you’ve harvested.  Feel their energy, attune with them, and do a bit of energy exchange with the plants you harvested.

 

Drying Plants

Plants need to be very dry if they are to stay fresh and preserved over a period of time or if you are going to use them in an herbal preparation. One of my favorite tools is a portable herb air drying rack. Its a mesh column with tiers where you can lay many fresh herbs.  If you hang this up in your house or porch, your herbs can be dried in a matter of days and not use any fossil fuels.  Other options include an electric dehydrator (sometimes necessary in places or times of high humidity).  If using a dehydrator, make sure you keep it on the lowest (herb) setting. Solar dehydrators (such as this design here) are another good option.  The oven is not a good option for most plants for drying, particularly leaf and flower parts; the oven starts out about 100 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than you want for your plants and you will likely burn them. You can use the oven to “finish off” already mostly dry material, however.

 

If you feel your plants and they still feel soft or cool, they are likely not yet dried enough for proper storage.  This is particularly a problem in high humidity areas. You might finish them off for 10 min in the oven at the lowest setting to make sure they are super dry.  Then place them in a mason jar (which has an excellent lid that won’t allow any bugs, dust, etc, inside and place them in a cool, dark place.

 

Typically, drying directly in the sun is not a good idea.  The sun destroys many of the volatile oils, which is where a lot of medicinal content is held in the plants.  So air dry them, but never in direct sunlight. (This is also why you store plants in a cool, dark space–because sunlight is damaging to the longevity and potency of dried herbs and tinctures). You can use the sun’s energy for other kinds of preparations, however!

 

Specific Plant Preparations: Teas, Tinctures, Oils, and Salves

 

Healing Plant Tea (Infusion or Decoction)

If you are drying plants and storing them, you are already ready to make tea. Tea is best used for working on the internal systems of the body; the gut and GI system can hugely benefit from healing teas.  For teas, I usually grind up my plant matter a bit further (in a mortar and pestle, or cut them up further with herb scissors).  This is done so that the water has more spaces and opportunities to extract the plant matter. There are two kinds of herbal teas that you can make: infusions or decotions; the kind you make depends on the plant matter you are working with.

 

Infusions are created when boiling water is poured over plant matter and allowed to sit for 5-20 or so minutes (what we typically know as ‘tea’ using a tea bag).  This method is best for leafy plant matter and flowers.  When you make an infusion, make sure to cover the tea so that you are not losing the volatile essential oils through the steam (that’s often where the most concentrated medicine is).  The longer you let the tea sit, the stronger it will be, and for medicinal teas, 10-15 minutes is a good amount of time.  You can use tea strainers or purchase single use tea bags that can be sealed or tied.  I prefer the metal tea strainers as I make a lot of tea and don’t want the tea bag paper to go to waste.  Good plants for infusion teas include: mints, rosemary, lavender, monarda, lemon balm, chamomile, catnip, nettle, and more.

 

Decoctions are created when you boil your plant matter, with a lid, in the water, again for 10-20 minutes.  These are best for roots, barks, nuts, and other tough woody plant matter as it takes more time to extract the medicine from roots and woody material.  A hard boil of a plant would destroy leafy bits and flowers, so if you are combining woody bits or roots with flowers, add your flowers after you are done boiling and allow them to sit (again with the lid on) for 10 or so minutes before drinking your tea.  Plants for decoction: sassafras root, wild cherry bark, echinacea root, yellow dock root, etc.

 

You can also add the energy of the sun and/or the moon to your tea:

Sunlight and solar tea!

Sunlight and solar tea!

Lunar tea: A great way to bring the energy of the moon.  For infusions, pour boiling water over your plant material and allow it to sit in a jar with a lid in the moonlight.  For decoctions, boil your plant matter and add to a mason jar with a lid.  Let it sit overnight in the moonlight. Drink the next day and enjoy the energy of the moon.

 

Solar tea:  Some days, the sun is hot enough to do its own infusion of leafy or flower plant material.  Place your material in a large mason jar (I like to use the half-gallon mason jars) and sit it in the sun.  If you want to make your tea stronger, consider putting your jar on a reflective surface (like in a big stainless steel bowl) to increase the heat.  For decoctions, I like to soak my plant matter in advance in the sun (in a pot or jar) and then do the final boil.

 

Finally, you can make a ritual out of drinking your tea: perhaps it’s what you drink each morning when you rise, or each evening as you are getting ready for meditation.  I like to make my tea and then walk out on our land here, communing with the plants both within the tea and without!

 

Healing Plant Tincture (Alcohol, Vinegar, and Glycerine)

Tinctures are potent extracts that turn the plant medicine into a more easily accessible form by the body, and are used for an extremely wide range of uses (daily strengthening, cleansing, supporting a healthy fever, gut issues, etc). Tincturing can be a fairly complex and involved process if you want it to be (I wrote about it in much greater depth on my herbalism blog), but we are going to use a simple folk method here.  A tincture suspends healing plant matter in a menstra (in our case, alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine) which makes the medicinal properties more readily available and also preserves them for a period of time (for vinegar and glycerine, about a year; for high proof alcohol, indefinitely).

 

Alcohol tinctures. Your goal for most plant matter is to have at least 25% alcohol for preservation purposes. Start by chopping your fresh or dried plant matter finely.  If you are using fresh plant matter, you will want to start with a higher proof alcohol (as the plants add some additional water). You can use a “neutral” spirit; vodka is a typical choice for most herbalists.  An 80 proof vodka is 40% alcohol, so even if your plant material has a bit of water in it, you should still be above 25% alcohol when you are finished. Place your chopped plant matter into a jar, and weigh it down with a smooth, clean stone that you have scrubbed well in advance.  You can do this without the stone, but the stone really helps keep all of the plant matter submerged, which prevents mold and other issues.  Pour your alcohol over it and store in a cool, dark place for one moon cycle.  Strain your material, and enjoy!  Tinctures can be sweetened with honey or maple syrup to make them taste a bit better (or just take them in a glass of water).

 

Glycerine tinctures (glycerites). Glycerites have a shelf life about a year, and often taste a lot better than alcoholic preparations.  They are also very good for children or people who cannot have alcohol (such as those in recovery). Purchase some vegetable glycerine (in the USA, if you find “USP Glycyerine” the USP stands for the United States Pharmacopeia, which means it is a pure and standard formula). Water the glycerine down by 50% and add your plant matter, usually dried (or water it down less if you are using fresh).  Give it all a good shake and let it sit for one moon cycle (but not more), shaking it at least once a day.  Strain and enjoy.

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Vinegar tinctures. Vinegars are best for food-based material that you want to build into your cooking and consumption regularly and can be a great addition to an herbal medicine cabinet. For example, my father needed to have regular hawthorn in his diet and he enjoyed eating vinegar and oil on his salad, so I prepared him a hawthorn-infused apple cider vinegar that he could use each day with his meal.  Vinegar tinctures are made similar to the others–start with a high quality vinegar, preferably organic.  Chop up your plant matter finely and add it to your jar.  Let the plants infuse in the jar for one moon cycle, strain, and enjoy.  One more common vingear based preparation you may have heard of is “Fire Cider“; it is a vinegar-based tincture of ginger, onions, garlic, horseradish, and herbs that is used for healing purposes.

 

Some Plants for tincturing: Monarda (bee balm, antimicrobial), Nettle (anti-histamine, adrenal support), Goldenrod (anti-histamine, anti-inflammatory), Culinary Herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano – good for the vinegar infusion), Chickweed, Wild Yam.

 

Healing Plant Infused Oil

Infused oils are topically used primarily for wounds/stings/bug bites, for joint/muscle issues, or for varicose veins and other skin issues. Herbalists have a multitude of ways to make an infused plant oil, and I will share two of the most simple ways. Start by thoroughly drying your plant matter (see instructions above) and chopping it finely; if you are in a hurry, at least “wilt” your plant material for 12 or so hours by letting it sit on the counter before using it. Choose a good quality oil, I most often use organic olive oil as it is readily available.  Coconut oil is another good choice, but only if you will be keeping it in a temperature controlled environment due to its low melt point.  Otherwise, at some point, your infused oil may be solid or liquid (and this is even more important if you plan on making it into salve).

 

Pour the oil over the plant matter, making sure the plant matter is thoroughly saturated.  Leave in a sunny window or on the porch on warm days for one week, then drain and store in a cool, dark place for use.

 

Alternatively, you can use a double boiler on a low setting and infuse the oil for 12-24 hours.  Ensure the oil doesn’t get too hot–if your plant leaves turn brown and crispy, you likely made it too warm and boiled away the medicine. Thoroughly strain your oil with a small strainer or cheesecloth, and store in a cool, dark place for further use.

Infusing plants

Infusing plants

Make sure your oil is completely strained; small bits of plant matter can make it spoil much faster.  Also make sure there are no water bubbles in it; they will appear on the bottom and look like little clear or brownish bubbles. These will also make the infused oil spoil much, much faster.

 

Healing Salve

To make a salve from infused oil, begin by placing your strained oil into a double boiler and heating it up.  Add approximately 3 tbsp of beeswax (shaved or grated finely) per cup of infused oil.  As the oil heats up, the beeswax will melt. You can add less beeswax for a more liquid salve or more beeswax for a harder salve.

 

To test the consistency of your salve, place a spoon in the freezer and then pull it out and put a few drops of your salve on the spoon to see its consistency.  When you are happy with the consistency, you can add any additional essential oils (in small quantities; I like to add sweet orange or rosemary oil to make it smell nice).  Pour your salves into small jars or tins. Let them cool and then label appropriately.

 

Plants that work well for salve (in any combination): Plantain (skin healing, drawing), Calendula (skin healing), Comfrey (wound closing), St. John’s Wort (inflammation), Ground Ivy (skin healing, drawing), Chickweed (skin healing), Goldenrod (inflammation).

 

Conclusion

The world of plant medicine and herbalism represents a lifetime of study–but the best way to learn is to start doing it!  Next week, in our final post in this series, we talk about making herbal flower/leaf essences and working deeply with the spirit of plants. Blessings!

 

A Beltane Blessing: Recipe for Sacred Herbal Offering Blend April 29, 2018

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Offerings to the land, spirits, and/or diety are a common stable in many traditions, druidry being no exception. Many opportunities present themselves and having something you carry with you can be built into your regular druid practice (and kept within, say, a crane bag).  Some years ago, I wrote about sustainable offerings and the kinds of offerings you can leave as part of a regular spiritual practice. These offerings might be home-grown herbs (as in the case of today’s post), home-brewed alcohol, small blessed stones, home baked bread or cakes, small shells, even your own nitrogen-rich urine.  I think the important thing with any offering is that it truly puts no strain on the ecosystem–but rather, is a true blessing.

 

In the spirit of this idea of sustainable and sacred offerings, in today’s post, I’ll share the recipe for one of my own sacred herbal blends that I often carry with me and use for leaving small offerings—in nooks of trees, on stones, in an offering bowl, as an offering as part of ritual, and so on. This kind of offering blend is a perfect thing to make at Beltane, as the energy of Beltane is full of vitality and life, of healing and blessing. Using the energy of Beltane to mix and bless these herbs brings that energy to the land and spirits throughout the year.

 

Sustainability and Suitability of Offerings

The key to leaving any offering is that it won’t damage the ecosystem or cause it harm–either in the leaving of said offering or in its creation. This means you have to take some serious care and consideration to develop an offering blend that gives back rather than takes. In the case of the herbal offerings I’m talking about today, it is critical that you leave only materials that will naturally break down and that will not spread any seeds that do not belong in the ecosystem.

 

Towards that end, I take two precautions with the herbal blend presented here. First, I use only leaf matter and flower matter (harvested long before the formation of seeds). Second, I bake the plant matter at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, killing off anything that might be present in the plant matter so that it is harmless and safe to leave (and bonus: it makes the house smell great!)

 

An alternative, another kind of herbal offering entirely, which I’ve talked about in some of my wildtending posts, is to intentionally leave seeds that are rare and in need of replanting–but that’s a different kind of thing–you can read more about that in this post. That is certainly another kind of herbal offering that you can leave.

 

An Introduction to the Herbs

A blend of herbs....

A blend of herbs….

For my blend, I wanted to use a combination of tobacco leaves and flowers (home grown), lavender flowers, rose petals, and  .  You can use any number of herbs you can grow yourself or buy organically: I like flowers a lot, as well as aromatic herbs for a nice smell (mints, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sages, etc).  Here are the herbs from this specific blend:

 

Nicotiana Rustica, or Wild Tobacco. Each year, I grow Nicotiana Rustica, which is an old form of tobacco known as “Aztec Tobacco” or “Wild Tobacco.”  I’ve grown it successfully in a garden as well as in smaller pots in a windowsill. It is super easy to grow and grows prolifically.  It will self seed if you allow it to.  Wild Tobacco is not a kind of tobacco used for smoking as it has up to nine times the concentration of nicotine compared to a traditional tobacco grown for smoking (although in some parts of South America, Shamans use it as part of entheogenic mixtures). I have found that this particular strain of tobacco is well received by the spirits of the land and they are joyful in receiving it. This variety is native to North America, but is usually not cultivated because it is too potent for the common misuses of tobacco today. By growing this plant myself, and, by being a non-smoker, I am cultivating a sacred relationship with a plant that has long been used as an offering here on the land in North America–and a plant that is often well received when given in reverence and respect to the spirits and the land. I feel, in some way, that I am reclaiming a relationship with this tobacco plant, returning it to its sacred, rather than its mundane and abused, purpose. It is still early in the year, and you can readily get seeds for this variety–so consider cultivating some!

 

I like to gather the flowers as they bud–each little stalk will produce a new flower and drop it regularly, much like common mullein. I will typically gather up most of the flowers and later, seed pods (to share the seeds).  And I will cut the stalks and allow the leaves to naturally dry (they slowly turn brown). I save the stalks for use in smudge sticks that are specifically created as “offering” and “blessing” sticks.  Both the dried leaves and stalks smoulder nicely.

 

In this blend, the wild tobacco represents an offering to the land that is sincere and represents a desire for continuing a sacred relationship with the land.

 

Nicotiana Rustica

Nicotiana Rustica

Rose / Rosa spp (flowers/petals): My second ingredient in this blend is rose petals–they produce a beautiful smell and color, and make the blend really delightful. However, they have a more important purpose, and that purpose is protective and healing in nature. Rose, medicinally speaking, helps heal the heart and also has thorns which offer protection. I gather rose petals around Lughnassadh each year (or earlier, depending on the specific species).  Rose is under the dominion of Venus.

 

Lavender (Lavandula spp) Lavender flowers are a third ingredient that comes in my sacred offering blend (and occasionally, lavender stalks and leaves, although I usually save these for smudge stick making as well).  Lavender, which is a Mercury herb, has been used for millenia for purification and warding purposes–and that’s exactly what it is used for in this blend.

 

Elder (flower, Sambuccus Canadensis; Sambuccus Spp.). I have written pretty extensively about elder in an earlier post, so you can find complete information on Elder in that post.  In this blend, I gather Elderflower (right around or on the Summer Solstice).  I turn much of this elder into Elderflower cordial and tea but save some of it for my sacred offering blend. Elder offers a connection to the realm of spirit and for bringing good energy into the land through the connection with the summer solstice and solar current.

 

These are the four plants I commonly use in my blend, but as I said above, you can use any plant that speaks to you and that you’ve developed a relationship with. Here are some ideas:

 

  • Conifers: Eastern White Cedar, White Pine, Eastern Hemlock (needles), Spruces, etc. Other tree leaves would also be fine!
  • Herbs (leaf, flower, stem): Mints, Lemon Balm, Oregano, Marjoram, Basil, Thyme (if you are unable to grow them, you can buy organic blends at the grocery store or fresh at a farmer’s market, and dry them and blend them)
  • Flowers: Any flower petal that you can dry (avoiding any seeds)

 

The key to any blend is that you think about the magical purpose and energy behind each herb/plant/tree as well as your own relationship with it. This is a great way to begin to cultivate relationships with certain plants for certain purposes as well. If you “grow your offerings” this season, by the end of the year when you are ready to make such a blend, you’ll have spent a full season with that plant. If the plant is a perennial or you save some of the seeds, then your relationship with that plant deepens over the years. For example, I’ve been growing Nicotiana Rustica for about 8 years now, and each year, as I save the seeds and replant them, and share them with friends, my relationship with this plant deepens–and the power of the offering I give also deepens.

 

To me, every part of the cultivating and harvesting of this sacred blend is, in fact, part of the sacred relationship I am cultivating with nature. By tending the plants, or finding them carefully in the wilds, I can continue to build a specific blend that honors the land our deepens our relationship.

 

Magical Crafting and Making the Blend

The good news about a sacred offering blend is there is no right or wrong way to blend it. I would suggest, in fact, that your intuition (rather than measuring select ingredients) goes further than a specific recipe. However, I do have some suggestions to follow:

 

Select a sacred time. In my case, I decided to make this blend on the full moon closest to Beltane. This draws both on the power of the moon and the energy of the sun.

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Open a sacred grove. In the druid revival tradition, this would include calling in the sacred animals, calling in the elements, blessing/purifying with the elements, saying the druid’s prayer, establishing a protective sphere or circle.

 

Cut your Herbs (if necessary). Many home grown herbs are not in very small pieces, so I find it is useful to cut them. I do this with a pair of scissors.

Cutting tobacco leaf

Cutting tobacco leaf

Blend Your Herbs. Gather your herbs together and blend them. I find that using a clockwise motion while I chant or sing helps bless them and brings some of my own energy into the mixture.

Blending the herbs

Blending the herbs

Bless Your Herbs. You might use a simple blessing to empower the herbs further with sacred intent. I used an elemental blessing, drawing upon the energies already called and simply moving each elemental bowl clockwise above the herbal blend.

 

Store Your Blend. Depending on what you are going to do next, you might put your herbal blend in a mason jar to keep it airtight. The last batch I blended was primarily for gifts, so I instead put them in little bags with labels and also filled up my own offering bag again.

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Close Your Sacred Space. Close your sacred space once your magical crafting is complete!

 

How to Use Herbal Offerings

There’s not really a wrong way to use an herbal offering, but I can give you some ideas of how I’ve used these.

 

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Land Healing Purposes. When I see land in need of healing–an abandoned lot, a tree that has been cut down, a recently poisoned lawn, I will leave a pinch of the offering. This is just to let the land know that I am here, I honor it, and I am present. I have left these pinches near cut Christmas trees during the  holiday season–again, as a space holding gesture.

 

Land Blessing Purposes. When I’m interacting with the land, I will leave a pinch. For example, if I’m camping out somewhere, when I first arrive and again when I leave, I will leave a pinch of the offering. If I’m hiking, I will leave some as a I walk at a few points.

 

Ritual Offering Purposes. Because I always honor the land and the spirits of the land as a primary part of my own ritual work, I use this blend as an offering to the land.

 

You can do a lot of things with this sacred blend–or another like it! I wish you a blessed Beltane–and happy magical crafting!

 

Making Seed Balls and Scattering Seeds for Wildtending January 22, 2016

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

This is the last post (for a while) in my series on wildtending. In the last month, we’ve explored the philosophy of wildtending as a sacred action, explored the refugia garden principle, I shared my own refugia garden preparation and design, and finally, we are ready to start scattering the seeds!  Perhaps these seeds were gathered from the wilds, given as a gift from a friend, or perhaps, they were gathered from a refugia garden.  Wherever you get them, now is the time to begin to scatter these amazing little balls packed with life, love, and magic.

 

Seed balls were invented by Fukuokoa and described in the permaculture classic, One Straw Revolution.  They have a number of benefits over other methods for scattering seeds.  First, and foremost, they are easy to throw and toss into spaces you can’t reach.  A lot guerilla gardeners  use them in urban spaces as part of rewilding activities.  Similarly, I have found it so much easier to have a bag of seed balls with me and begin tossing them, seeing where they land and if they can grow.  I also like them because you can imbue them with some magic (even using some of the earlier energy methods I described with minor modification). They also give the seeds a bit of nutrition to help grow, and the ball itself creates a little platform for growth of the seed as the clay and compost spreads out and as the ball breaks down. There are two downsides–first, roots and larger nuts need separate treatment (obviously; I usually plant these directly by hand), and second, the seed balls can be a bit heavier than tiny bags of just seeds. But I have found them to be extremely useful to have in my foraging bag or crane bag when I’m out and about in the world!  So here we go–Let’s roll up our sleeves, find a few friends, and make some seed balls!

 

Designing Seed Balls

There are three pieces to seed balls: seeds, clay, and compost as well as some simple tools to work with.  We’ll talk about each of these in turn.  A bit part of making seed balls is ethical sourcing–if done right, you shouldn’t have to buy anything (or much of anything).

 

Get Some Seeds

The first step is to get some seeds. Deciding what to put into a seed ball depends on what you have access to (like in my case, see below) but also what you want to spread–see my first post in this series for suggestions of endangered and at-risk medicinal plants, for starters. You can spread whatever seeds your ecosystem needs–I’m focusing my energies right now on medicinal plants and tree seeds. You can gather these in the wild when they are in abundance or you can start growing the key plants in a “refugia garden” as I described in a recent post. Or you can find them in…other ways. Since my garden is still in process, I was in the search for seeds this summer. In my last post, I gave some lists of potential plants for different ecosystems–check out this list for more ideas about seeds to spread, but I would strongly suggest studying up on your ecosystem and thinking about where you might share these balls.  Searching out seeds is a longer-term process, something to keep in your mind for the upcoming season!

 

Aster seeds drying!

Aster seeds drying!

Despite the fact that I didn’t find hardly any New England Aster or a few other key plants, like Blue Vervain and Echinacea upon my return to the northern Appalachians, I stumbled across a native plant garden at a local park. And, even more delightfully, they had just trimmed the garden back for the fall, and there was a pile of plants there just going to seed in a pile waiting to be carted off…and so…well, I helped myself. This gave me a wonderful set of seeds–here are a bunch of the aster seeds drying. I also found an abundance of milkweed, boneset, and swamp milkweed to round out my stash.  Perfect!

 

I decided, given my delightful treasure trove of full-sun seeds, to make a set of seedballs geared toward medicinal, hard to find perennial plants that grow in full sun.

 

Finding Your Clay

Now in his book, Fukuokoa used a local clay, “red clay” and there’s been some discussion in various permie forums on whether or not “red clay” is necessary.  No, it is not–any LOCAL clay will do. Please, please, please don’t go buy clay unless you have none in your local ecosystem (and chances are, you do). In most places on the planet, clay will be part of your natural subsoil and its just a matter of finding some.  Look when people are digging holes into the subsoil, look at eroding banks of rivers after flooding, look at new construction–you will see it.  Its heavy, retains water, and is sticky. The reason I say don’t buy any clay is because its very fossil fuel intensive to ship due to its weight. In PA and in Michigan, when you dig down, you can easily find clay. I prefer to dig mine out of banks by streams or the side of the road. I knew of a wonderful bank by a forest stream, so I went on a hike to get some.

Clay bank in stream

Clay bank in stream

I used my hori hori to dig my clay; the hori hori is a Japanese garden tool and is my favorite foraging tool. To dig your clay, literally any little trowel or shovel will do. Since I’m digging it from a soft bank, I primarily took clay  from the bottom of the bank where it already had spilled over to prevent further erosion. I used a doubled plastic shopping bag to put the clay in. After digging, I put it in my bag and lugged it 1/2 mile back up the mountain :).  Of course, not a week later, I saw a bunch of clay deposits on the side of a back country road, having been dug up from last year’s plowing.  Ah well!

Digging the clay

Digging the clay

I pretty much got as much clay as I could carry up the mountain all that way, or about 25 lbs. The recipe I’m going to give you is based on simle ratios, so however much you get is fine.

 

Other Supplies You’ll Need

Before you set about making your seed balls, you will need some other supplies.  I should also mention that seed ball making is VERY MESSY and should, at all possible, be done outside or in like a dusty garage or something.

Compost: In addition to clay and seeds, you’ll need some sifted and finished compost or top soil (something seed free). Chicken-created compost, as is any home compost or worm castings. Any rich soil will do. If you think you have unwanted seeds in the soil that you don’t want to spread, you can bake the compost at 350 degrees for 10 minutes (but this may kill off other microbial life, so be warned).

A large plastic bucket is necessary for mixing. A 5 gallon bucket works well.

A bucket of water for cleaning your hands and adding water to the mix. If its cold outside, make it warm water!

An old towel is also a good idea for cleaning your hands.

A small tarp or large garbage bag.  This will be for sorting out your clay, adding your seeds, and so on.

A few friends. Good friends make seed ball making fun!

 

The Process

The process is simple enough, and I took photographs of each step to help you along. The first thing you want to do is to make sure your compost and your clay is free of debris, woody material, leaves, or stones. Since my clay was wild clay, we had some sorting to do. It was a little wet, but that was fine. It could have been a little dry as well. If your clay is super wet, you might want to lay it out for a few days to dry out a bit before starting. The key is finding that “just right” texture that is more on the dry side than the soupy side.  Most clay you dig right out of the earth will be the perfect consistency.

Sorting the clay

Sorting the clay

We took out the big lumps, sticks, and rocks.

 

Next, you’ll want to measure your clay. You want to use a ratio of about 2 parts clay to 1 part compost–enough to form nice balls. Part of this will depend on the kind of clay you have (and if it is pure or has anything else in it, like a little bit of sand). We used a flowerpot to measure out or clay (2 parts clay).

Measuring clay

Measuring clay into the bucket

We added our finished compost (1 part) and mixed the clay carefully.

Mixing the clay and compost

Mixing the clay and compost – good to get your hands in the soil!

After mixing, we tested the seed balls to see if they stuck together.  Sometimes, you might need to add a bit of water, depending on how moist the clay was. We added about 1 cup of water to our bucket and then checked to see if it formed a ball. If it forms a nice ball, its ready to go.

Testing the seed ball

Testing the seed ball

 

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

At this point, we found that its helpful to spread the material out on the tarp/plastic bag so that you can get an even amount of seeds in each ball.  After spreading out our mixture,  we have begun to add aster seeds.  You pretty much add as much seed as you like–the balls that we’ve made this time and in the past generally had a lot of seeds!

Spreading out material and beginning to add seeds

Spreading out material and beginning to add seeds

We added a lot of seeds–in this batch, it was what I could find: blue vervain, pleurisy root/swamp milkweed, blue vervain, milkweed, and some stinging nettle.

Our lovely seeds spread out!

Our lovely seeds spread out! The milkweed puffs don’t seem to matter (and in fact, seem to give the balls strength).  Neither do bits of dried plant matter, etc.

Once the seeds were spread out, we mixed everything together and began forming our seed balls.

 

There are a few strategies to make the balls–one that Paul showed us was to roll out a long “worm” (ok, it totally looks like a turd) and then break off smaller bits, forming them into balls.

Forming balls

Forming balls

We made a good number of balls–probably 120+ with the mixture we had made.

Making seed balls together!

Making seed balls together!

Drying your balls

Since its winter here and the weather is generally quite chilly in January, I ended up laying my balls on my seed starting rack that I just put up. It is near a heat register, which allowed them to dry quite quickly. I put them down on some paper bags I had cut up.

Seed balls drying out!

Seed balls drying out!

Blessing your seed balls

Of course, no magic seed ball would be complete without a blessing.  So many things you can do for this, and I think any blessing you give will help set your intentions for the seeds to grow. A few ideas:

  1. A nice blessing oil that you can use to touch each seed ball saying a small prayer
  2. An elemental blessing (four elements) or three druid elements blessing
  3. Put them in the center of your circle during a druid holiday.  I’ll be blessing my most recent batch at Imbolc in a week or so.
  4. You can make these on a full moon, on a holiday (Samhuinn or Yule being a good example) for added effect.

 

Scattering Your Seeds

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

Scattering the seeds is a huge part of the fun.  I like to make extra and give them as gifts to those who would appreciate them–then the seeds can go even further.

 

The easiest way of scattering them is just tossing them wherever you want them to grow.  Remember that some seeds need a cold period (cold stratification) so tossing them even in the wintertime isn’t a bad idea!

 

The sky is the limit in terms of these seeds. Make yourself a little bag, take it with you where you go, and have fun!  With each toss, you regenerate the land, bless the land, and scatter abundance.

 

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!

 

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

Elderflowers!

Elderflowers!

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

 

Medicinal Benefits of Elderflower

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

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

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

Harvesting and Preparing Elderflowers

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

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

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

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

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

 

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

 

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

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

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

Ready to take inside!

Ready to take inside!

 

Elderflower Infused Honey

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

Freshly harvseted honey for infusing!

Freshly harvested honey for infusing!

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

Pouring honey

Pouring honey

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

Stirring and pouring

Stirring and pouring

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

Elder infusing next to some hawthorn flowers

Elder infusing next to a hawthorn flower glycerate

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

 

Elderflower Cordial

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

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

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

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

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

Added lemons and zest

Added lemons and zest

Mixed in elderflower!

Mixed in elderflower!

Put a lid on it and wait 24 hours.

Infusing elderflower....

Infusing elderflower….

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

Straining Elder Cordial

Straining Elder Cordial

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

 

Honeyed Elderflower and Lemon Tea

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

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

 

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

 

Size and Shape of the plot

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

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

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

 

All Organic and Biointensive

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

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

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

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

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

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

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

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

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

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

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

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

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

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

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

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

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

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

Compost

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

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

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

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

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

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

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

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

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

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

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

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

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

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

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

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

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

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

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

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

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

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

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

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

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!