Garden Updates

Elderberries ripeThis week there were a few exciting new developments in the garden. We harvested our very first elderberries—maybe a whole half cup of them! Earlier in the summer, I was worried about whether something was wrong with the elder flowers, and perhaps there was, but eventually they created a spotty bunch of green berries. I must admit, I hadn’t gone by the bush for several days, but when I went out the other day, they were purple. I ate one that was quite sweet, but Margy tasted a sour one, not as ripe. Elderberry harvest 2019Not enough to make elderberry syrup, or really much of anything, but enough to be enthused about future possibilities. Margy and I will have to celebrate with a berry eating ritual.

Another new development: I saw a few catkins on our hazelnut bushes! I hadn’t known to expect them, but when I  looked it up, I learned that these are the male part of the plant’s reproductive system. They will stay on the plant through the fall and winter, and then in very early spring they start lengthening and unfurling.  When the female flowers open at the tips of branches, they pollenate. Hazelnut catkinsThere are only a few catkins right now, but they are a harbinger of future crops of hazelnuts. In my last batch of pesto, I used hazelnuts from the Food Coop to add to basil, parsley, chives and garlic from the garden, plus olive oil and lemon of course. So we can’t quite do it only from our garden, but maybe more and more.

I also processed oregano and thyme that had been drying in the basement herb dryer for longer than they needed to be, and did another batch of frozen chives, and frozen kale for the winter. Our harvest is limited more by my own energy than by the earth energy.

If anyone local would like oregano or thyme or chives, please let me know—they are flourishing in the garden still, and I’d be happy to share—also lemon balm, comfrey, and dill. They have all been very enthusiastic.

Plants are amazing

Comfrey

Comfrey Plant in our Orchard

Last night, I watched (again) the documentary, What Plants Talk About. Did you know that plants change their chemistry based on the environmental stressors they experience? So, for example, if a certain caterpillar is munching on their leaves, they can release chemicals into the air, scents, that attract the insect predator of that caterpillar.  Or they might offer nectars that shift the scent of the bug itself, and that scent attracts predators. They also share nutrients with their child plants and other tree species in a forest.

This got me thinking about our human use of plants for healing. We benefit from their chemical wizardry and can use their medicines for our own challenges. Over thousands of years of human “prehistory” and “history,” we learned the benefits of so many various plants in our environment. A body of knowledge has accumulated for the medicinal use of herbs.

Plant medicines can also be used to help other plants. Michael Phillips, in the book Holistic Orchard, recommends making fermented teas of comfrey, horsetail, stinging nettles, and/or garlic scapes to use as a foliar spray to help orchard trees during the summer.  Comfrey provides large amounts of calcium. Horsetail has natural silica which helps the plant cuticle defense against certain summer fungi.  Nettles are a tonic of overall nutrition with trace minerals, vitamins, nitrogen, calcium, and potassium. They also have silica, with levels skyrocketing when seeds formation is just beginning, so that is a great time to use it. Garlic helps to carry other nutrients.

It just so happens that I was in the orchard last week, thinking I needed to trim back the comfrey because it was getting too big.  Then I noticed that the nettles in Sylvia’s herb garden were flowering, maybe starting to form seeds. (We’d rather that they didn’t spread nettles everywhere.) And lo and behold, the garlic plants had formed scapes. So maybe it was time to make some herbal tea. (We don’t have any horsetail, sadly.)

Comfrey Nettles Garlic brewTo make the fermented tea, you use a five-gallon bucket.  Cut plant leaves into the bucket and loosely pack them in.  Then, pour a kettle of boiling water over the leaves to get things started, and add unchlorinated water to fill it to the top. I used water from our rain barrels. Then “let sit for seven to ten days somewhere outside, loosely covered to prevent significant evaporation. This fermentation period makes the constituents that much more bioavailable for foliar absorption.” It gets pretty smelly with sulfur compounds–that’s how it is supposed to smell. You strain it when you use it. Once brewed, you dilute it, using about a cup of the tea per gallon of spray.

So I made the tea on July 6. It is likely ready to use about now, though I went ahead and added two cups to the spray formula I did on July 9th.  Having such a small orchard, I might not be able to use all of the tea in a timely way, so I figured that partially brewed tea would add something beneficial in any case. I will add whatever I don’t use to the compost pile.

A few other thoughts were brewing in my mind after watching What Plants Talk About. If you think about how plants change their chemicals to fit their environmental stressors, you have to conclude that the medicines in the plants might be changing day by day, hour by hour. So when you harvest that plant, and in what condition you harvest it, might make all the difference in the world about whether that plant has the medicine you need. And perhaps that is the source of the “old wives’ tales” about when and how to pick various medicinal herbs. When the moon is full, or first thing in the morning? (By the way, I think that old wives’ tales are often the source of much hidden wisdom.)

If I were a young person just starting out as a scientist herbalist, I would want to ponder how we might experiment and cooperate with plants to create particular medicines that we need. We’d have to start by understanding and measuring the differences in their chemical composition under various conditions. Try to better understand why the old herbalists knew the best times for picking. That might take a while. But then, once we better understood these marvelous beings, maybe we could learn to communicate back and forth with them, and then, perhaps we could invite them to create new medicines for the diseases we face in these times. What a line of research that would be!

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles 

Herbal Gifts

St. John's Wort DriedToday I finished the harvest of St. John’s Wort–all from plants that grew up wild in our yard, or down the street from our home.  I had cut the flowers with a little bit of plant attached, back when they were in full bloom, in early July.  I dried some of it in tied bunches hanging in the garage, and some of it in loose bunches on an extra window screen laid flat in the basement. (Take note: I definitely preferred the screen method for later processing ease.)

So today, I spread out some paper on the kitchen table, and put all the bunches onto it.  Then I sat and rubbed the leaves & flowers off the stems, stem by stem.  I was listening to podcasts about healing and self-care, which somehow seemed appropriate to the task.  Two hours later, I was still at it, and then I listened to a few short podcasts from an old friend, Lee Ann Hopkins, with whom I recently reconnected on Facebook.  I am not much of a podcast listener, (I usually like to read instead) but working with my hands in these herbs while listening to uplifting messages seemed just right.  The purpose of Lee Ann’s website, Hooray Weeklyis “to encourage and lift up individuals and communities in this time of resistance and change, both collectively and personally.”  She is a kindred spirit still.

It seems particularly apt since St. John’s Wort is an herbal remedy for depression and other mood difficulties, along with several other uses.  According to WebMD,

St. John’s wort is most commonly used for “the blues” or depression and symptoms that sometimes go along with mood such as nervousness, tiredness, poor appetite, and trouble sleeping. There is some strong scientific evidence that it is effective for mild to moderate depression. St. John’s wort is also used for symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and mood changes.

If you are interested, there is a lot more information on that website.

With the cruelty and destruction we observe every day in the wider world around us, those of us who are sensitive to it can find ourselves very weary and down-hearted, heavy burdened by it all.  Isn’t it amazing that nature offers these bright yellow flowers in the midst of high summer, to bring with us into the long dark of winter?

St. John's Wort drying

St. John’s Wort plant freshly cut, hung to dry.

Curanderismo

Open My Eyes left

[Open My Eyes by Catalina Salinas]

If there is a thread running through these days in New Mexico, perhaps it would be the book, Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya.  My friend Virginia Marie had told me before my trip about an event we could attend related to the book, so I got a digital copy and read it on the plane on my way here.  It is about a young boy growing up in rural new Mexico around the time of World War Two, and his relationship with the curandera Ultima who came to live with his family when he was seven.  A curandera is a traditional healer in the Mexican (and New Mexican) tradition.

The National Hispanic Cultural Center, has a special exhibit on visual interpretations of the book.  The event we attended included a talk by Toñita Gonzales, curandera and educator, and Dr. Eliseo Torres, author and scholar of Curanderismo at the University of New Mexico.  Virginia Marie is herself a curandera, as well as an Episcopal priest.  The talk began with a ritual to honor the four directions and the Creator and the Mother Earth.

Curanderismo includes the use of herbs for healing, and many other modalities.  It works in conjunction with western medicine, though for many years was viewed with suspicion, as most traditional healing methods have been viewed. It includes making a relationship with plants, treating them with honor and respect for their power to heal us. Ultima would always say a prayer to the plants before she dug them up for use in healing.  I think about the plants I have been getting to know back in Maine.

Back at Virginia Marie’s home, we also watched the movie that was made from the book.  Today, she will do a healing session with me, though in reality, this whole time has been a healing ceremony.

Open My Eyes right

[Open My Eyes by Catalina Salinas]

Permablitz!

We just found out that we were chosen to be a Permablitz site this season, on June 24!  Permablitzes are organized by the Resilience Hub in Portland, and as described on their website:

Permablitzes are essentially the mother of all work parties, permaculture-style.  With permablitz events we tap into our own local “barn raising” ethos to help each other install edible landscapes, renewable energy, water collection systems and more all in one day.

Our hopes are to install several rain barrels, create a frog pond and a fire circle, maybe help with our bittersweet control, and do more soil enhancements and aeration.  We think of these as structural components of our garden, and it is also suggested by permaculture experts to do any earth shaping projects near the start of your work–the frog pond is in that category.   Also, depending on where we are in our planting process, we might get help with sheet mulching and plantings for our cherry tree guilds, and Sylvia’s herb garden.  Our friend Sylvia, who helped us plant our cherry trees, has studied herbal healing.  She doesn’t have land where she lives, so we invited her to create an herb garden here at our home.  We are so excited about this collaboration!

I have been to several Permablitz work parties over the last few years, and while there is a great benefit to hosting a Permablitz, there is also a lot of benefit to participating as a worker. Along with the joy of helping someone’s garden grow, I have learned a little more each time about the principles of permaculture, about strategies for water collection, about soil health, about growing gardens in general, about ideas for edible landscapes that I might never have heard about.  It is also a lovely way to meet folks who care about the earth, and our relationship to it.  So if you will be in Portland on June 24th, you are invited to come to our  Permablitz.  When the event is posted with all the details, I’ll share it.

Permaculture Design, Phase OneThis is a section of our evolving Permaculture Design for our yard.  (It didn’t really work to try to put the whole design into one photo, so this is of the half of the yard nearest the house.) I had started this design by measuring everything in our yard and putting them on grid paper–the grids equate to 3 feet square.  Then we had lots more input with our Intro to Permaculture Design class, and a conversation afterward with the leaders, Heather and Julie.

Last weekend, I went back to the original, and filled in some trees that were already on our land, and then began adding the design elements that are among our first steps in the plan.  I added color!  I haven’t drawn in all of our future ideas.  We are growing our garden slowly, so that we can learn what we need to learn as we go, and not take on more than we can handle right now.  (I am thinking of taking this design and making copies on which to draw our speculations for future ideas.)  I also haven’t yet drawn in Sylvia’ herb garden, which will be near the ornamental cherries, but she hasn’t determined the configuration yet.

I love the design part of the process, and while I sit in the back yard, I am always getting new ideas about where future plants might go.  Blueberries, hazelnuts, apple trees… and then I step back and breathe, and let myself go slow, and enjoy.  Because every step of this process has been such a joy!