The Druid's Garden

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

Urban Homesteading in a Rental House: Late Winter/Spring Updates! March 5, 2017

Last year, I explored the idea of “growing where you are planted.” At this stage in my journey, I am working towards living my spiritual principles through permaculture practice within the bounds of a rental house within walkable distance to my workplace. Last year, I shared some general tips for how to do this kind of work, as it is a situation that so many of us find ourselves in at the present time. Even with seemingly “limited” options as befitting a renter, much opportunity abounds! I thought I’d share a few of the projects I’ve been working on in the last few months and give a general “update” about where things are. (Note: next week I’ll return to the conclusion of the “Slowing down” series!)

 

Food Forest Project: Planning and Soil Preparation

This year, I’m undertaking a new gardening adventure with a good friend of mine to start a food forest using permaculture principles on some land she has access to. This land is about 5 minutes out of our town and is on old pasture land. We expect this to be an “incubator” project for a larger project we are starting to plan for the coming months and years. But for now, we are engaging in some serious work to grow plants and design a welcoming and sacred space.

Some of our plans for the space...

Some of our plans for the space…

We are using permaculture design principles for the entire project, and we are designing not for the short term, but to bring healthy soil fertility and to engage in people care, earth care, and fair share. At this point, we’ve done our basemapping and planning the food forest over the last few months, and now we are in the process of starting seeds and preparing the soil. I hope to share some of that garden planning/basemapping work on the blog as we work to develop this site further.

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil...

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil…

On the matter of soil preparation, we are incredibly lucky to have access to animals at the farm, specifically, a pig. We put Saavik, the pig, along with her goat and chicken friends in the area where we will be planting. Saavik is doing an incredible job in turning the soil and digging up the roots. This is a very large area, and we weren’t sure how we were going to get the whole thing done in time to plant (we have a grand vision!) But giving the animals a go at the land over the last part of winter and early spring means that they will have done most of the work for us, tilling it up, eating the grasses and roots and grubs, and creating beautiful manure. I have never seen a pig at work before–she is absolutely incredible.  The entire pasture will have no grass and we will have the opportunity to rake up whatever is left, put in our paths, use a garden fork to address any soil compaction, and plant.

Go pig, go!

Go Saavik, go!

Seed Starting for Gardens

This past weekend, my friend and I recently started the first of the annual seeds for the food forest. We are up splitting the seeds that we need to start–I’m working on all of the herbs and she’s working on the veggies; most of the perennials will need to be purchased or sourced some other way. We are using my light system, and my friend also is working to setup her own light system modeled after mine.  We hope the two light systems will allow us to have enough plants both for my refugia garden as well as for our project here. I can’t tell you how much I love starting and caring for seeds! Already, the little sprouts are beginning to show. You can start seeds in just about any space if you have soil and light. The key is figuring out where to plant them afterward!

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Maple / Hickory / Walnut Trees and Syrup

There is something about the magic of the early spring that is truly unlike any other period of time. One of my favorite activities has been, for years, to tap maple trees and make maple syrup. The problem was that I didn’t have the evaporating system like the group of us had in Michigan nor did I have access to abundant trees. But, in permaculture design, the problem is the solution, and I started looking around to see what I could do…and so I decided to pursue “urban” maple sugaring.

A tree tapped in my backyard!

A tree tapped in my backyard!

It began with a single maple tree in my backyard, which I tapped a few weeks ago in early February. I wanted to drink the sap from the tree, which is nutritious, delicious, and very rejuvenating. A careful review of my lease showed no violation if I tapped them (I mean, do landlords really think about whether or not you can tap a tree? Likely not!) I tapped one of the trees and made an offering and the sap just started dripping out! All that wassailing we did is already paying off!

 

I inquired about tapping a few walnut and hickory trees at the garden site and we decided to do so. Then I tapped a second maple in the yard and the tree offered a half gallon or more of sap most days….this was getting to be a little too much to drink!

 

I realized that doing a “mini” sugaring setup would not be too difficult on my porch (you can’t evaporate that much maple sap indoors or everything will get sticky). I had purchased a very high-quality burner for a different project at a yard sale last summer for $3. I poured the sap into a large stainless steel pot and checked it every hour.  In one weekend, I manged to boil down 4 gallons of maple sap, adding more as the pot began getting down further until all four gallons were reduced in the pot.  Yes, it is true.  You can make small amounts of maple syrup in a rental house!

Turning sap into sugar!

Turning sap into sugar!

What I found is that with this small of a scale, I really needed to pay close attention to the syrup as it gets near finishing.  I burned the first batch (so sad) but the 2nd batch came out just beautifully!

Finishing off Maple Syrup

Finishing off Maple Syrup

A Triad of Composting

I am delighted to have a triad of composting activity happening at my rental house, which is allowing me to re-use a good deal of the waste I would otherwise produce. The first thing I have, where the bulk of my food scraps go, is my outdoor compost tumbler. I brought the tumbler with me from my homestead. For brown matter, I typically add fall leaves or shredded up newspaper–it works like a charm, even if it gets only afternoon light. At this point, I’ve produced about 20 or so gallons of finished compost that has mostly gone to my refugia garden and to my friend’s land.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.  One composts down while one is filled.

The second method I’m using to compost is my vermicompost bin. After messing around with a prototype five-gallon bucket vermicompost system for about 9 months now (which went through several iterations), I am back to the tried and true bin system. I had hoped the bucket system would take up less space, but what I found is that the five-gallon buckets couldn’t handle much compost at all,  because the worm population was small, it took longer, and the worms didn’t seem as happy.

Vermicompost bin system

Vermicompost bin system

The third method, which I shared a few months ago, is the compost toilet. that is, composting my own human waste and urine. This is working out splendidly, and I’m delighted to no longer need to flush the toilet (it has become a nice book stand!).  I’ve really started to enjoy “making deposits” and cycling my nutrients.  I’ve been experimenting with different materials, and am finding that a combination of sawdust, mulch (free from tree work), and shredded office paper and/or leaves are the perfect combination to hold in liquids and cover up solid waste. All of these materials are fairly easy to come by and are yet another way to turn waste into a resource!

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Growing Community

My friend and I are also starting to bring permaculture into the community by starting the Indiana PA Permaculture Guild.  I’m very excited to see how this new endeavor goes, and if it has anything like the success of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup, we will be able to do a lot of good in our community. Our first meeting is just around the Spring Equinox–a good time to begin anew. The goal of this project is to bring people together to learn about permaculture, teach each other new skills, and grow as a community.  I’ll share more as this initiative gets further underway 🙂

 

Refugia Garden and Seed Scattering

I started a refugia garden a year ago on my parents’ land and shared some of my earlier plans and results. Last year, this garden allowed me to grow some herbs for healing purposes as well as start a “seed bank” for healing the wild lands and bringing back key native medicinals to our ecosystem here. I’ve delighted in doing this work, and have created seed balls from a number of the seeds in this garden and have given them to many friends to help spread.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

One of the kind of humorous challenges of last year was that the refugia garden was “squashed”; my parents had thrown compost in the spot the year before, and the squash seeds sprouted at some point in June. I live about an hour from my parents, and I was travelling for a few weeks and didn’t make it out to check on the garden. I came back to find my garden literally covered in squash I hadn’t planted! The squash were doing well, so I tried cutting back the leaves to make sure the other plants had gotten light, and then I just let them be. Most of my medicinal plants did fine, but I lost a few key ones as part of the garden being squashed.  And so I am starting those plants from seed again this year (and enjoying a number of squash dishes this winter!)

Squash happens...

Squash happens…

A few weekends ago, my parents and I were driving past many of the abandoned strip mines and boney dumps in this area. As we drove and stopped in various places, I threw out a number of seed balls and spread other kinds of native wildflower seeds to help those lands heal. The mining companies are required to replant the landscape, but their idea of replanting is some basic grasses, vetches, and red pines.  And there is very little actual soil–most of it is slate and refuse from the dumps. I hope the seed balls themselves will allow for some new plants to take root and the compost and clay help build topsoil. We’ll see!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Magic seed balls ready for tossing!

The Walking Commute

I must say that I really enjoy walking everywhere–especially when my car is recently giving me trouble or during the big snowstorms.  Walking allows me to slow down, to take in nature on my walk.  For example, there is a bramble patch, several wild hedges, and a small stream on my walk to campus. It also allows me time for slowing down and decompressing at the end of the day on campus. This is one of the main benefits to living in town–the ability to walk to the bank, to get some tea, to hang out or see a jazz band, to visit friends, and more.  I didn’t realize how much I depended on my car until I could set it aside!

Campus after my "birthday" snow :)

Campus after my “birthday” snow 🙂

So these are some of the current practices I’ve got going on and some of the plans for this year.  I’m hoping to hear from some of you–tell me what you are planning, dreaming, and working to bring forth this year!

 

I hope this demonstrates that you really can “grow where you are planted” and even if that growth doesn’t include land of your own, there are still a lot of wonderful things you can do to live in line with the earth.  The best thing of all is that everything I’ve outlined above is manageable and enjoyable!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

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Wild Food Recipes: Maple Candied Violets and Honeyed Violets May 11, 2015

Once again, the beautiful, purple-blue sweet violets are dotting the landscape.  Where I live, they are in full bloom and will remain that way for the next few weeks. Last year I shared a traditional candied violet recipe with egg white as well as instructions for harvesting….this year, I wanted to share two recipes for violets both using sustainable, local ingredients: honey and maple syrup.  As a reminder, with any wild food foraging, please abide by ethical and safety guidelines (see my two-part series of posts on wild food foraging here and here).

Violets!

Violets!

Honeyed Violets

Honeyed violets are so simple to make and so wonderful. They also make a great gift! All that you do is gather up a bunch of violets, wash them, and then dry them and stick them in a jar full of local honey (maybe even from your own beehives!) To make the violets, stuff them in the jar and add honey. The violets will all float to the surface and stay that way (which is fine as long as they are fully coated in honey). They will also slowly fade their color over time, but that’s just more violety goodness going into the honey. I have found that violets preserved this way last six months or more!

 

The alternative recipe is to dry out the violets first then add them to the honey–I have a jar of dried honeyed violets that is over a year old and still good. I enjoy having honeyed violets with my tea–I add a teaspoon of honeyed violets to a cup of warm tea!

Honeyed violets from last year!

Honeyed violets from last year!

 

Candied Violets with Maple Syrup

I decided to take the traditional “candied violets” recipe that uses sugar water or egg white and sugar and give it a locally-produced spin.  Enter: maple-sugar coated violets!  For this recipe, you can start with either maple syrup or maple sugar (again, you can produce this yourself in the early spring!)

For either version, start by picking some lovely fresh violets.

Bowl of violets

Bowl of violets

Wash your violets….

Washing your violets (gently!)

Washing your violets (gently!)

….and then let them dry.

Violets drying out on a paper towel

Violets drying out on a paper towel

Now, get a small saucepan. Either add maple syrup to the saucepan OR dissolve a few tablespoons of maple sugar in the saucepan with hot water (I did the second, but either works as effectively).  For maple sugar, I added 3 tbsp of maple sugar and 2 tbsp of water and dissolved it.

Maple sugar!

Maple sugar!

Syrup or sugar syrup!

Syrup or sugar syrup ready for violets.

Then, add your violets.

Violets in syrup

Violets in syrup

After they are coated, you can pull them out one by one, laying them on some waxed paper or parchment paper to dry.

Using a fork to get violets out one by one

Using a fork to get violets out one by one

The less maple they have on them, the longer they take to dry.  I also chose to sprinkle my violets with a little extra maple sugar.

Violets on parchment

Violets on parchment – some of these had too much sugar (see the pools of it?)  That much sugar takes longer to dry.

Place your violets somewhere where they can spend the next two to three days drying.  Once they are dry, they will shrivel up a bit, but otherwise retain their color wonderfully.

Dried violets

Dried violets

I like to sit these on the table during meals as a little additional treat.

Violets in bowl!

Violets in bowl!

You can also grind them up and use them as sustainable sprinkles on cookies, cakes, and ice cream.

 

I love how sustainable these two violet recipes are–I made both with honey and maple sugar produced right here on my homestead.

 

The Process of Tapping Trees and Making Maple Syrup – A Blessing from the Maple Trees March 15, 2013

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

This time of year, something magical happens to the maple trees. When the temperatures drop below freezing at night and then goes above freezing during the day, the maple sap runs.  In South-East Michigan, this usually occurs in late February and throughout March. Maple sap, of course, becomes Maple syrup or Maple sugar depending on how far down you want to boil it.  A group of us, including some grove members, are tapping trees and learning about this process this year.

Maple is a sacred tree, and the Native Americans were the first to tap it and discover its incredible sap. The sap, and the syrup that results from the boiling of sap, is the lifeblood of the maple tree. In taking part of that lifeblood into ourselves, we receive the blessing of the maple tree. Partaking of such a sacred thing should be done with reverence and respect (and thanking the trees for their offering, of course!)  The process of making syrup also has links to alchemy, and truly, I see it as one of joining opposite elements–we have the cold of the sap and the wet of the snow, the application of heat and flame, and the required persistence and diligence–and the resulting amazing syrup, which tastes like liquid gold and stores for many months!

The process of making Maple syrup is not difficult, but it is very time consuming. I’m going to walk through the process step by step.  Ours is a very small-scale, home operation, not a large commercial operation.  It can be done with a minimum of equipment and an investment of time.

Equipment:

To tap trees, you’ll need some equipment including:

  • Tree taps
  • Small buckets for collecting sap (ours are 1 gallon each)
  • Storage tanks / bins for sap (ours are 40 gallons each)
  • A drill (electric or hand-cranked)
  • A source of heat (we are using hardwoods from dead trees)
  • An evaporating pan to boil off syrup (this process should be done outside)
  • Measuring stick for measuring the evaporation rate of the sap
  • Screens/straining equipment for filtering out impurities

A few other things also help:

  • A secondary heat source and sap boiling apparatus (does not have to be large), this substantially speeds up the process
  • A group of friends (because many hands make light work and this is how we build community)
  • Several 5-gallon buckets (we used these to transport sap from the tree buckets to our storage tanks)
  • Something to take sap home in, assuming your site is not at your property–we’ve been using pressure canners with locking lids)

 

The Process

1.  Identify maple trees of an appropriate variety and age.  Sugar maples work best for tapping (hence the name) but all sorts of maples can be tapped (including box elder, red maple, etc.). We’ve tapped all sugar maples for our syrup making, as they have the highest sugar content (and high sugar content equals less work). The first step in our process is to tie a bright-colored strip around each tree so that we can clearly identify the trees.  You can do this work at any time in the year, but its a lot harder in the winter if you aren’t that familiar with tree identification.

Trees tapped with buckets

Trees tapped with buckets

2.  Tap your trees when the time is right. When the weather will be above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, go ahead and tap your trees. Tree taps also usually have a little bucket holder so you can place your buckets.  We tapped about 50 trees, which is quite a lot, but there were about 8 of us and we all wanted lots of maple syrup.

Running sap!

Running sap!

3.  Collect sap. We collected sap each day in the evenings until we had about 40 gallons (and 40 gallons will make 1 gallon of maple syrup).  This evening collection took us three days when we were starting out because the sap ran slow, but quickly, we were collecting more sap than we could boil in a day!  Depending on the size of your buckets, it may actually be that the sap is flowing so well that you need to empty them twice a day.  If the sun is shining brightly and its warm, the sap will flow quickly! Since our trees are spread across about a 4 acre area, we used the 5 gallon buckets and the larger bins to transport sap to our boiling area.  We find that many hands make light work of this process.

I should also add here that the sap, in its unaltered form, is an amazing beverage.  We fill our water bottles up with it and drink it and its so good.  Its just slightly sweet at this stage.  If you want it sweeter, you can boil it for an hour or so, and then it takes on a very mapley quality but still is not too sweet.   We’ll be using some of this for our grove’s upcoming Spring Equinox celebration!

Sap in storage bin.

Sap in storage bin full of syrup (yes, it freezes at night sometimes!  That’s ok!)

4.  Boil off the excess water.  Our setup for evaporating off the excess water involves a 24″ x 24″ evaporator pan (which was custom made by a neighbor) and an old stove that has the lid cut out of it.  The pan, then, sits directly on the heat from the fire.  We lay the pan right on the stove, stoke the fires, and boil the sap down all day.  As the sap boils down, we add more and keep track of the evaporation process.  This allows us to have a sense of how many gallons of sap we’ve added and how much resulting syrup we will get.

We found that anything we can do to maintain a good boil is worth doing. You can see in the photo below that we are also using the stove to heat up/dry out our wood which keeps things hotter.  After a few days, we got smart and brought out a second little stove and pre-heated our sap on that stove before adding it to the evaporating pan so that the sap wouldn’t cool when we added more.  This probably made us 20% more efficient.  As a complete aside, we also built ourselves a temporary rocket stove for heating up food :).

Boiling sap to make syrup!

Boiling sap to make syrup!

Setup with wood pile nearby

Setup with wood pile nearby; wood is covered with a tarp to prevent excess moisture buildup

 

5.  Boiling at home, part 1.  Our rule of thumb has been that we boil as long as we can, and the syrup takes on an amber quality over time.  We boil till the evening and it gets dark, and then at that point, we take it home to finish it off. As the syrup boils down, you’ll see that it will take on an amber quality.  This was the syrup as I started to boil it down in my pressure canner.  You want to boil it down about halfway where it needs to go one evening, then pour it into jars and let the jars sit. All the debris from the trees and outside will settle to the bottom after 12 hours or so.  You pour the good syrup off, then boil it down until you are happy with the thickness.  If you boil it too much, it will crystalize and turn to sugar (and then you have maple candy!)

Finishing syrup

Finishing syrup

Straining the syrup

Straining the syrup

 

6.  Enjoy your syrup! The last step, of course, is to eat it.  We’ve found that our syrup, using hardwoods to boil it down outside, takes on a different quality than the syrups you purchase from larger operations.  Our syrup has a woody/smoky flavor to it that is so incredibly good, and so incredibly hard to describe.

Liquid gold- the finished syrup

Liquid gold- the finished syrup

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing into this process–its so much fun, and despite the long hours and heavy lifting, the results are 100% worth it!  Commune with the trees, eat some pancakes and maple syrup, and enjoy the Spring Equinox that is almost upon us!