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homegrown herbal teas

Calming Homegrown Herbal Teas

Unless you have nerves of steel, this year has probably left you feeling a little more shaken than usual, a little too familiar with a clutch of anxiety around your chest. Navigating a rollercoaster of a global crisis, uncertainty, radical changes to those familiar routines that used to make us feel secure, most of us could use a little support to get back to our baseline.

After this year in particular, I swear by daily pots of calming, stress-reducing herbal teas. These are plants people have used for centuries to find calm and relieve anxiety. They have particular qualities that can communicate with our nervous system, flicking a switch in our brain towards ease, focus, energy, and relaxation.

In this post, I share my favorite recipe for an adaptogenic herbal tea, as well as 6 of my favorite soothing tea herbs to grow & drink.

 

Finding Your Allies

You don’t need an herbalist’s degree or complicated tools: common tea herbs such as chamomile, mint, tulsi, and lemon balm are all safe and easy to use.

Of course, even the most calming herbal tea is not going to be a cure-all. These herbs provide support, but they alone don’t make the stress go away unless they are complemented with more proactive forms of life management: a balanced diet, good sleep habits, exercise, turning to your community for support

growing herbs for tea in garden

Herbal teas are probably the first food group with which our family has become fully self-sufficient. Tea herbs grow throughout our garden and we harvest them at various points during the growing season, dehydrate them and store them in airtight jars. In the winter, the herbs dried and stored in jars and tins in our pantry will have the makings of many a comforting pot of tea. It’s a fun winter activity to pull these out and make up our own tea blends for the coming week.

homegrown herbal teas

Adaptogenic Herbal Tea

Here’s my favorite recipe for adaptogenic herbal tea for when you really, really need something grounding and calming.

Adaptogens are those particularly powerful herbs that help the body and mind adapt to a variety of stressors. I’ve found that this tea blend is really effective in soothing the nervous system. Combine in a tea pot and steep in hot water for 5-10 minutes, or as needed:

  • nettle
  • tulsi (holy basil)
  • oat straw
  • Ashwagandha
  • Shatavari

You’ll figure out proportions that you like over time. You can start with a teaspoon each of oat straw, Ashwagandha and Shatavari, and a tablespoon each of nettle and tulsi (unless you’re using whole dried leaves, in which case think of half a handful) per pot.

 

Six Calming Homegrown Herbal Teas

Chamomile

Gentle yet potent, chamomile is the ultimate bedtime tea. Its tiny, fragile flowers have properties that support the nervous and digestive systems. Long beloved by herbalists, chamomile is anti-inflammatory and has been used to treat colic, tension and muscle spasms. But it’s also the plant to turn to when you want a good night’s sleep. Sipped right before bedtime, chamomile tea is calming, eases stress, and promotes sleep. You can also prepare an herbal “tea” for your whole body by adding chamomile flowers to a warm bath.

 

Spearmint

Mints are refreshing and uplifting. So why is spearmint on this list of relaxing herbs? As it turns out, it’s an herb that has the capacity to both energize and calm down, depending on what the body needs. “It is a mild stimulant but also has relaxing properties, and so it’s perfect for blends for strengthening the nervous system, both calming and energizing at the same time,” writes Rosemary Gladstar in Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Milder and sweeter than peppermint, spearmint is a good herb for children, too.

lemon balm

Lemon balm

This is my favorite everyday tea. I love bright, citrusy scents, and lemon balm brings that into both my garden and my teas. If you crush one of those leaves with your fingers, you can immediately smell the uplifting fragrance of a fresh lemon. The volatile oils that give lemon balm this scent – citral and citronellal – happen to be calming to the nervous and digestive systems. Lemon balm has been used since medieval times to treat depression and anxiety. The plant is also is packed with polyphenols, which give it antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Some people find lemon balm too mild on its own, but they find that it makes a good base for tea blends, allowing stronger flavors such as mint, tulsi, or the nectary sweetness of red clover really shine.

homegrown lavender

Lavender 

You may be familiar with the heavenly aromatic lavender being used in essential oils or eye-pillows filled with lavender blossoms. But did you know that lavender can also be used for tea? Rather than brew an entire cup of straight lavender tea, I find it better to simply add a few lavender buds into a tea blend to promote relaxation.

 

Anise hyssop

Anise hyssop is another wonderfully aromatic herb. Although it belongs to the mint family, the soft leaves carry a distinct anise scent. You can use both the leaves and the tiny flowers in tea. Many people find the aroma of anise uplifting, and some Native American peoples used anise hyssop to treat depression.

tulsi (holy Basil)

Tulsi

Tulsi, or holy basil, is a true power plant. It’s native to India, where I’ve seen it potted in front of doorways, bringing good energies into the house. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, tulsi is called “the Queen of Herbs.” As an adaptogenic herb, it reduces stress and increases energy, helping both the body and the mind to ward off many kinds of stressors.

Tulsi is the tea of choice whenever you feel depleted or anxious: it restores vitality and vigor, and sooths the nervous system. It also has numerous other medicinal qualities, supporting respiratory health and relieving fever and headaches.

nettle soup

Stinging Nettle Soup

Tiny green shoots pushing out of the ground, braving the bare cold of early spring days, are our first clues that the land is awakening. Their emergence coincides with our own: our coming out after cozy months spent mostly indoors putting energy into our roots. Now it’s time to show up in the world again.

Some early greens and shoots have long since established their place at the table, and are sought out by foodies everywhere: asparagus, garlic scapes and pea shoots from the garden, and fiddleheads and ramps from the secret foraging spots of wild food enthusiasts.

But tucked away in the corners of your backyard, maybe even overtaking your garden beds, are seemingly humble edible spring greens that some call “weeds”. Stinging nettle, garlic mustard, chickweed, onion grass, purple deadnettle, wood sorrel, dandelion, and lambsquarters are some of the best known of them.

 

Harvesting Nettles

The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a staple in my spring kitchen. I learned to forage for nettles back in my native Finland. When I moved to the United States, it was one of the familiar plants I still recognized. Later, I learned to use it not only for food, but also medicine, dye, and fiber.

harvesting stinging nettles

To harvest nettles, wear protective gloves (a pair of gardening gloves work well) and long sleeves. Using scissors, cut the top 4 inches straight into a bag or a basket. Only harvest young nettles that haven’t yet gone to seed.

Once back in your kitchen, separate the leaves from the stalks, and blanch in simmering water until wilted, up to 5 minutes.

stinging nettle leaves

That’s it! Now you have cooked greens you can use in any number of ways. They do not sting anymore at this point.

Stinging nettles, once blanched, are mild and remarkably spinach-like, making a perfect pairing for something rich and satisfying such as cheeses or potatoes. Here’s a full-flavored nettle soup that achieves just that.

If you find that you’re still hungry for more, try my nettle feta quiche recipe!

nettle soup

Nettle Soup Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 liters of fresh nettle tops (about half a large shopping bag)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 small onion or 2-3 shallots, chopped
  • ½ stalk of celery
  • 3 medium yellow potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 4 cups stock of your choice
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp dried thyme, or a couple of sprigs fresh thyme
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice

 

To serve:

  • a dollop of sour cream
  • fresh chives

Wash the nettles in a colander. Using protective gloves, cut leaves off of stems into a large stockpot with 2 inches of water. Bring water to a boil and blanch the nettle leaves under a lid for 3 minutes. Drain in a colander. You should end up with 3-4 cups of blanched nettles. When cooled, chop them up.

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat up the olive oil and butter. Add onions and celery and sauté for 5 minutes, until softened. Add potatoes, stock, bay leaf, nutmeg, thyme, and salt. Bring to a boil. Turn heat down and simmer for 5 minutes.

Add nettles to pot and enough water to cover them. Simmer for another 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Remove the bay leaf. Purée the soup with an immersion blender, or in batches in a food processor or blender. Add lemon juice, black pepper, and cream. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and some chopped fresh chives.

wild violet ice cream

Sweet Spring Foraging: Wild Violet Ice Cream

Wild violet blossoms are spring foraging at its sweetest — literally and metaphorically.

When we first arrived on our urban homestead three years ago, the common blue violet (Viola sororia) was among the first flowers that came up, creating a purple-hued carpet on the slope above our cottage. I remember sitting there in wonder, reveling in the fact that we’d finally found a place to put roots down in and to steward.

wild violet patch

Even now, when I see violets, I’m reminded of that sweet first spring of preparing our garden and falling in love with our new home.

Foraging wild violet is one of the markers of spring. The leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves are high in vitamin C and the flowers have antioxidant bioflavonoids. They’re also medicinal: they have anti-inflammatory and expectorant properties, among others.  Collecting violets is an almost meditative activity: plop yourself down amidst the violet-dotted ground and get lost in the picking, letting your fingers do the work and letting your mind go quiet.

The common blue violet is easy to identify because of the basal rosette of heart-shaped leaves and the little “tail” that the flower has at its back. Kids tend to really love collecting violets, and they make for some fun crafts, like making violet flower ice cubes, or violet flower syrup that turns purple and makes magical color-changing drinks. 

Better yet: use the syrup to make wild violet ice cream!

gathering wild violets

 

How to use wild violet

Here are some of the many delicious uses of violet flowers and leaves:

  • leaves and flowers in salads (try this wildcrafted spring salad by Meagan from Growing Up Herbal)
  • leaves sauteed or steamed
  • leaves added to soups
  • violet herbal tea
  • wild violet jelly
  • violet flower ice cubes
  • wild violet syrup (see below), added to desserts and  drinks
  • violet ice cream (see below)

wild violets

Wild violet ice cream

This ice cream is wild and sweet, just like the season of spring. The violet flowers add a delicate flavor that makes you think of a green spring meadow.

And because this recipe uses the “freeze and stir” method, you don’t need an ice cream maker! (I don’t have one myself.)

Start by making the violet flower syrup the day before making the ice cream.

 

violet flower syrup

Violet syrup

  • 2 cup of loosely packed violet blossoms
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup granulated cane sugar

Strip the violet petals off the top of the stem and place them in a non-reactive container, such as glass or stainless steel. Bring water to boil and pour over the blossoms. Cover and let sit at room temperature overnight, or up to 24 hours.

Place a heatproof bowl over a pot of water and pour the violets and the steeping water into the bowl. Add sugar. Cook on low heat until the syrup coats the back of a wooden spoon. Strain, let cool, then transfer into a glass jar.

 

To make ice cream:

  • 1 ¼ cups whole milk
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ cups heavy cream
  • 1 ½ tbsp of violet syrup (see above)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 egg yolks
  • pinch of salt
  • violet food color (optional)
  • fresh or candied violet blossoms (to serve)

Pour the cream, milk, and syrup into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add half the sugar. Heat over low heat, stirring occasionally. Take off heat and let cool.

Beat the egg yolks with the rest of the sugar with an electric mixer until the mixture thickens and is pale yellow in color. Add ½ cup of cream mixture and beat until the mixture gets runnier. Stir this mixture back into the cream mixture. Add food coloring (if using).

Return the pan to stove and cook over low heat, stirring continuously, for a few minutes until the custard thickens. Pour into a bread pan or another freezer-safe dish. Letting the mixture sit in a sink with some ice water helps to speed up the cooling process.

Place in the freezer for 45 minutes, then remove and stir with a spatula. Return to the freezer.

Continue to check the cream mixture every 30 minutes or so, stirring each time. Repeat for 3-4 hours, or until frozen. Use fresh violet flowers to garnish the bowls of ice cream just before serving.

wild violet ice cream

 

urban permaculture homestead

Our Homestead Story & Design

Just after New Year’s in 2018, we returned to the Carolinas after almost two years away. We’d spent six months in California for my ecological landscaper training, over a year in India for Dan’s research, and some family time in between in Finland and Boston. We’d always been quite nomadic, but that amount of shifting was a bit much even for us. At that point, I wanted nothing more than to put down roots, to be in one place, to find our home & homestead.

Within one month of our return to the States, we got our offer accepted on a blue cottage, on a double lot, in Asheville.

As I often tell friends, it was love at first sight. The cottage was small, but we’re used to living in small spaces. It was a well-loved house, one that felt like a home. We loved the wood stove, the French doors that opened out into the sunroom, and the little details like the kitchen countertops with fossils embedded in them.

Humble beginnings

The yard wasn’t much to write home about. It was a mossy, weedy lawn, with a couple of diseased cherry trees and a tangle of invasive vines and privet to the north and east, where the lot borders a large wooded area with a small creek running at the bottom. There was an abandoned chicken coop surrounded by a chain-link fence. The soil was compacted and clayey.

But I saw the potential right away. Almost one third of an acre of mostly open land! I saw before my eyes a future edible landscape overflowing with fruits, nuts, berries, vegetables, herbs, medicinals, dye plants, flowers, mushrooms. A space that would feed us and and our friends and community.

I drew my first, quick and dirty, back-of-the-napkin design for the garden the night when our offer was accepted. Being the diligent permaculture designer that I am, I knew that we would first wait and observe the land for a while before making any big design decisions. That first sketch was just getting all my wild dreams out on paper. Funnily enough, when I look back on it, a lot of those early design-on-the-fly ideas were goods ones that we ended up implementing.

We are homesteading on Cherokee land.

 

First year on the land: Building soil

The only things we planted in the first year were the vegetable garden and the blueberry patch, as it was easy to figure out the best site for those two right away. We put the garden on the eastern slope that gets full sun, and  planted the blueberries in the acidic soil after an arborist cut down the one pine tree that shaded the yard.

simple garden fence

But our main goal for the first year was just to build soil. I knew from my years of permaculture & regenerative farming learning that healthy soil is the starting point for a healthy farm or garden ecosystem. Porous, crumbly, dark soil rich in humus (soil organic matter) and teeming with soil microbes, worms and other critters. Even though it meant delaying the planting of my dream food forest, it was worth it to invest the time and improve the soil.

We double-dug the garden in the fenced-in area, and brought in tons of compost and soil amendments based on the soil test. We’ve been practicing no-till gardening ever since and are really happy with the results.

broad forking
Broad-forking the garden beds

Outside of the fenced-in garden area, while started building the soil by

  • sheet mulching
  • growing a cover crop over the sheet mulch
  • the following year, we did one more layer of sheet mulch
  • and, in general, adding to the land wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of compost, mulch, and woodchips we get for free from the arborist

sheet mulching

urban garden cover cropping

sheet mulching

We welcomed our first chicks that first spring.

baby chick

As they grew fast, we had to quickly build a chicken run. We re-painted the old chicken coop and built the run out of reclaimed wood.

chicken run

This was the garden our first summer here.

permaculture garden

 

Design concept

In spring 2019, o­­­ne year in, I finalized the homestead landscape design and we finally planted our first fruit trees and other perennials.

I used Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier to go through the most diligent design process I’ve ever done. After months of site research and playing with layers of tracing paper, I formulated a design concept:

Concentric circles of earthworks and plantings surround and protect — like the rings of a tree — the heartwood that is the home and its outdoor social and private zones. These earthworks and plantings capture water, sunlight, and carbon, and turn them into an urban edible abundance of fresh berries, fruit, vegetables, and herbs where we can go foraging year-round. The outermost rings of perennials enclose a rich mosaic of annuals and perennials, creating a lush, secluded sanctuary nestled by the creekside woodland.

urban homestead in development

Some of the other things we did to create structure and meet the design goals:

  • A swale along the eastern side of the property (top of property), planted with perennial edibles: elderberry, hazelnut, autumn olive, goumi, and Nanking cherry. These perennials double as an edible privacy hedge.
  • Terraced beds on the steepest slopes to capture water, stop erosion, and make use of those spaces as growing space
  • Gravel pathways to the cottage and wood chip pathways and flagstones everywhere else
  • Raspberry trellises
  • We added the greenhouse in Fall 2019 and the sauna in Fall 2020

That first year also saw the completion of the backyard guesthouse/studio. We didn’t build it ourselves — we hired awesome local tiny house builders to do it — but we were very involved in the design and the building process.

urban homestead garden

Full homestead design

Now presenting: our up-to-date edible landscape design! Most of these fruit trees and shrubs are already in the landscape. We’re adding a few more this year: grapes, more gooseberries and currants, trentberries, huckleberries and silverberries… and maybe a few more things… If you’re a plant addict like me, you understand.

urban permaculture homestead design

This is Hidden Creek Homestead (there IS a hidden creek, but that’s another story…) …an ongoing labor of love. I’d love to hear any questions or responses in the comments if you have them!

Mending: A Simple yet Radical Slow Fashion Skillset

In Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ma Ingalls has a weekly rhythm of work: “Wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, mend on Wednesday, churn on Thursday, clean on Friday, bake on Saturday, rest on Sunday.”

How many of us still have a mending day? How many of us are still in the habit of mending clothes?

It’s the very antithesis of the 21st-century consumerist mindset, isn’t it? We’ve normalized thinking about clothes as a disposable. We’ve normalized updating our wardrobes once a year, if not once a season. If a garment has one defect on it, we tend to give up on it and toss it — something our grandparents and the people before them would have considered obscenely wasteful.

 

Making Slow Fashion Affordable, Even Thrifty

It’s easy to equate “slow fashion” with buying expensive designer clothing labeled as “sustainable” or “organic.” But at the core of a slow fashion wardrobe is something much less glamorous: the habits and skills of taking good care of your clothes, and fixing what we already have so we can use it again and again. In other words, mending our clothes.

It starts with investing in the best quality you can afford. It starts with choosing natural fibers: cotton, linen, wool, silk, hemp. It starts with properly caring for your clothing: wash cold, line dry, and air out woolens in sunlight instead of washing. (Download Fibershed’s free Clothing Guide for more info.)

But when the inevitable happens and your garment has some wear or tear…  that’s where mending comes in. Think about it: if you have these 4 skills in your toolkit, you can extend the usefulness of your favorite pieces of clothing for a long, long time:

  • Replace a button
  • Darn a sock
  • Patch a tear
  • Fix a running stitch in a knitted garment

 

A Mending Mindset

If you need some inspiration to get you started on your mending journey, check out Katrina Rodabaugh’s Mending Matters. Not only is it full of easy-to-follow tutorials for visible patches and other cool ways to mend clothing; it’s also an insightful reflection on the mindset of mending what we own and taking responsibility for what we use — what Rodabaugh calls “mendfulness.”

When we mend, we’re not only mending clothing, Rodabaugh says. We’re mending our personal relationship to fashion.

Mending helps us to understand better how clothing is constructed. It makes us think more about where our fiber and our clothes come from.

Mending is a form of activism. It’s a choice that allows us to step off the fast fashion treadmill of buy, buy, buy and slow down our consumption. But mending is also inherently satisfying. Anyone can learn to do these basic repairs.

As Rodabaugh writes,

Fixing the clothes I already own empowers me in self-reliance, helps me understand the value of the garment and its construction, and pushes me to commit to keeping my clothing in wearable condition for as long as possible. I think this might be the opportunity for the most radical act: honoring what we already own… We need to accept mending as a natural aspect of owning clothing. Fibers fray, fabrics break down, knees tear, and cuffs wear thin. If we can start to shift our view of this from imperfect to inevitable, we might start to see the value in quality fibers, French seams, and well-fitted garments.

 

It can be that simple. Clothes break down. We mend them. Here are four basic mending skills we should have all empower ourselves with:

 

Sew a button

sewing a button

I confess that replacing buttons is one of those tasks I tend to put off indefinitely. But once I actually pick up the garment with the missing button and do it, I feel pretty silly, because it takes all of 5 minutes to sew a button. What took me so long?

If you’re new to sewing a button, see tutorial here.

 

Darn a sock

darning a sock

In her knitting basket next to her rocking chair, my grandmother always kept an old wooden cooking spoon, perfect size for holding a sock while darning it. Just like Ma Ingalls, my grandmother simply took it as a given that as clothes wear and tear, you fix them. Now, when I need to darn a sock, I first go to get a large wooden spoon. Any other implement that gives you a comfortable, wide platform to sew your stitches over works too.

If you’re new to darning a sock, see tutorial here.

 

Patch a tearmending

There are so many patching techniques, each one more beautiful and inventive than the other. Lately, I’ve been partial to the visible patches that I learned from Mending Matters, especially the hand-stitched patch technique called sashiko (right). How clever: you don’t have to try to hide a patch, instead you can use it to embellish your garment and make it more unique.

I move fast and am clumsy, so I break and tear things more often than I’d like to admit. I tore my favorite jeans on some wire fencing while chasing after a runaway chicken. The initial patch I attempted didn’t work. The jeans got pushed in the back of my closet for months until I finally tried the sashiko mend — and now they’re my favorite jeans again!

If you’re new to patching or darning tears on fabric, see tutorial here.

 

Catch a dropped stitch in a knitted garment

If a single yarn wears or breaks in a knitted item of clothing, the entire thing will start coming apart. The sooner you can catch it, the better.

I couldn’t really find a suitable tutorial for this one. If you can find the two ends of a broken yarn, try to go in there and tie them back together, then add enough stitches with similar-colored yarn to patch whatever hole has already formed. Understanding knitting, and how to catch a dropped stitch while knitting, definitely helps.

 

* * *

When we mend, a piece of clothing may get fixed. But the most important work is the work we do on ourselves: patching our urge for easy consumption and disposable, learning to honor what we already have, reminding ourselves that we have the skills to fix things that are broken.

cardigan from sheep wool

Sheep to Sweater, Part II

This is the second part in a two-part series about the process of making a knitted garment out of raw sheep’s fleece. Read Part I here. In this part, we focus on spinning and knitting raw wool.

 

My sheep-to-sweater project is complete! Actually, it became a cardigan, but “sheep to sweater” sounds better, don’t you think?

I’m one of those people who are always cold. Layers, two pairs of socks, huddling close to the wood stove all winter long — you get the picture. I’ve long been dreaming of a long wool cardigan, long enough to cover my waist and bum. I tried to find one second-hand on ThredUp, where I buy most of my clothes, but guess what: it’s nearly impossible to find one that is 100% wool. And I’ve made a commitment to transition out of using synthetic fibers, for many reasons.

So, logically, I called up Sebette, a local sheep farmer I know.

With this cardigan, I’ll never be cold again. Not only is it 100% wool and thick the way hand-spun garments often are, but the wool retains some of its natural lanolin, which insulates and even repels moisture. (Actually that was sort of unintended. Washing the wool is meant to remove the lanolin, but my washing process was not perfect — I didn’t get the water quite scalding hot enough. As a result, I now have an extra warm cardigan.)

 

Spinning the wool

All through the long winter evenings, I spun wool. Spinning is a meditative “flow” activity if there ever was one: the motion of the wheel literally pulls the fiber, pulling you along. You can focus on the craft yet at the same time let your mind wander a bit, in a way that is soothing and relaxing.

spinning wool

spinning wool

Spinning is definitely a craft that must be practiced and learned. (It took me about 3 weeks to get the hang of it when I started 9 years ago.) But once you do, you get into a rhythm with the wheel, you develop an instinctive feel for when to keep your grip tight or relaxed, when to go fast or slow.

If you’re new to spinning but curious to get started, here’s a comprehensive “How to Get Started with Spinning” resource.

Each strand of the yarn is spun separately, and then the individual strands are plied together to make the final yarn. I spun a two-ply yarn. The cardigan pattern called for sport weight yarn; I actually spun extrafine most of the time, but the strands bloom a bit when they are plied, and the end result was sport- to worsted weight most of the time, with some thick-and-thin bits that I happen to like.

This was my first time spinning Cormo sheep wool. Cormo is a breed developed in Tasmania, a cross between Corriedale and Merino. I’d heard spinners and knitters get excited about Cormo wool before, and now I know why: the wool has softness, luster and a well-defined crimp that gives it elasticity.

 

carding wool

Knitting the cardigan

The knitting pattern I chose is Naima cardigan by Ankestrick (Ravelry link). It’s knitted from the top down, with eyelet rows that go all the way down, as well as pockets, which allowed me to learn a couple of new techniques.

When you and you alone are responsible for all the steps (except for raising the sheep), you begin to realize the value of solid preparatory work. Your knitting is only as good as your spinning. Your spinning is only as good as your carding. And your carding won’t be good unless you took good care in the preceding steps, skirting and washing the wool.

 

The final product

Here, at long last, is my Snow Flurry cardigan, named after the sheep whose wool I used.

cardigan from sheep wool

cardigan from sheep wool

The cardigan has that live, handspun look I happen to love. And it is so. warm.

Since this is slow fashion, I had a lot of time to think. As I scoured, sorted, carded, spun and knit this wool, I thought about the fact that this is how clothing used to be made — how much labor and time went into a single garment, and how much value was placed on that garment as a result. I imagine that our forebears would have perhaps just one warm woolen item like this every winter, and that they cared for it accordingly. A far cry from the present fast fashion culture of buy-wear-toss.

One thing you can be sure of, now that I’ve definitely put 100+ hours into this garment: I will care for it well.

winter foraging

What to Forage in Winter

Winter may not seem a promising time to go foraging. The quiet bareness feels magical, to be sure, but not exactly abundant. Many of the wild animals are hibernating. Plants have either died back or their growth has slowed down radically in response to the diminishing light. What could you possibly find that might be of edible or medicinal use for humans?

Yet a winter forager who knows where to look can fill a basket and even make a meal from the forest. Evergreen trees, with their fragrant needles, are still standing strong. Some berries and rose hips hang on to the plants through the ice and snow. Winter is a great time to dig for roots, such as dandelion or burdock. In more temperate regions, like where I live (zone 7a), a few mushrooms persist and the hardiest of wild greens will brave the crisp, cold air.

 

The Basics of Safe and Responsible Foraging

  • Be 100% positive of plant identification. Get a good plant identification book that’s specific to your region. Even better, learn from a real, knowledgeable human.
  • Consume only a small amount of a plant if it’s your first time trying it.
  • Only take what you can reasonably use. Always leave some for birds and animals, which have a harder time finding food in winter. Be aware of which plants are especially vulnerable to overharvesting. As a general rule, “leave more than you take.”
  • Always avoid gathering wild foods in polluted, contaminated, or sprayed areas.

foraging pine needles

 

What to Bring for Winter Foraging:

  • warm winter gear and good boots
  • pocket knife or hand pruners
  • trowel or hori hori (for digging roots)
  • basket, and bags for keeping your gathered goods separate
  • a thermos with your favorite hot beverage (optional, but highly recommended — such a comfort when the cold starts to get to you)
  • a plant or mushroom identification guide for your region if these species are new to you

 

 

9 Edibles and Medicinals to Harvest in Winter

 

Conifer needles

The needles of evergreen conifers are among the easiest things to identify, and grow widely in a range of climates. Most conifers are edible; the only one that’s toxic is the yew tree. Be sure to harvest only from mature trees and clip small branches.

I’ve had a love affair with evergreens for a few winters now. Their soothing and uplifting fragrances make me swoon. I bring evergreens into my home, even after the holidays, I use them in bath salts, and add drops of Balsam fir essence into the water bucket in our barrel sauna.

Conifer needles are actually at their most flavorful and fragrant in the winter, making them a great go-to winter foraging crop.

pine needles in winter

The simplest way to use conifer needles is in tea. Pine needles are my favorite for this purpose. They are a great source of vitamins C and A, and have anti-inflammatory properties. They are especially good for any respiratory ailments. This pine needle syrup can be used either as a cough syrup, or as an addition to sparkling water to make a sweet, foresty drink.

All parts of the pine tree are edible, actually. My grandmother survived on bread made out of pine bark flour during WWII. (I very much doubt she would recommend it for a culinary standpoint, but the point is that it pine bark is edible and will sustain you.) See below for uses for pine resin!

 

juniper berries

Juniper berries

Juniper berries are a real treasure of the winter foraging foray. The dried, ground berries are most commonly used as a seasoning. They are a classic ingredient in many delectable dishes, and can also be used as a medicinal tea.

 

Rose hips

Rose hips are the small, red to orange colored, berry-sized balls left on the rose bush stems in the winter. All roses produce rose hips, although those of Rosa rugosa are the tastiest. These tart fruits are very high in vitamin C, and can be used for jellies, jams, syrups, or even as a seasoning. In my childhood, I would eat rose hip jam with my viili (a yogurt-like Finnish fermented dairy product) for breakfast almost religiously. So this one’s close to my heart.

rose hips

Burdock root

As long as the ground hasn’t frozen solid, you can dig for edible roots of burdock, dandelion, chicory, or Jerusalem artichoke. This is where a good digging tool, such as a garden trowel or the Japanese hori hori, is your best friend.

Burdock is a vigorous plant that thrives across the continent and is easy to identify, thanks to the large, heart-shaped, almost rhubarb-like leaves and the brown burrs that stick to your clothing. In its first year, burdock doesn’t have a stem, only a basal rosette of leaves that stays close to the ground. The aboveground plant part usually dies back in winter, so it’s best to identify and mark your burdock patch in the summer or fall. The root remains viable even after the aboveground part dies.

Burdock root contains inulin, which supports the gut microbiome and thereby improves digestive health.  Here are some of the ways to use it:

  • steamed gobo, Japanese-style condiment: wash and scrub burdock roots and peel off any bits that are particularly tough. Grate. Steam for 3-5 minutes and serve with toasted sesame oil.
  • make a tea with chopped burdock root (fresh or dried)
  • use as a base for root beer (recipe in Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide
  • make a tincture
  • make pickled burdock root.
burdock and dandelion roots
Burdock roots (on the left) and dandelion roots (on the right)

Dandelion root

Dandelions are easy to identify. Almost everyone can recognize a dandelion, and it has no poisonous look-alikes.

In the winter, we harvest dandelion’s roots, a bitter root with excellent medicinal qualities. One of the best uses for dandelion roots is roasting and grinding them to use as coffee substitute. Here’s the long and short of it: Clean the roots, then chop small and spread on a baking sheet. Bake in a 400F oven for 30 minutes or until dry and crispy, but not burned. Grind in a coffee grinder and use as you would use coffee in a French press.

 

Hardy greens

Unless you have year-round snow, some hardy greens are an option for winter foraging. Chickweed, purple deadnettle and onion grass make my favorite “yard pesto” which I can make even in the winter if we get those stretches of warm days that invite the greens to reach towards the sun. Stinging nettles are also exceptionally hardy.

chickweed and nettle

Turkey tail mushroom

Most mushrooms get “mushy” if they freeze. Turkey tail mushroom is an exception. This mushroom is too tough to eat, but is valued for its medicinal properties. They grow in large clusters on fallen logs or standing dead trees, and are quite easy to recognize because of the the leathery feel and stripes that can be quite colorful, ranging from reddish brown to gray-blue or even almost black.

Turkey tails can be made into a tincture or decoction with immune-boosting properties.

turkey tail mushroom

 

Black walnut

Black walnuts drop in our region all through the fall and are best foraged then, but technically you can still find them in winter. They are a tough nut to crack. I have the luxury of a local nuttery where I take mine to be de-hulled and cracked, and then I sort them at home. But once that’s done, you’re looking at a fabulous, local source of good fats and proteins.

My friend Annina created this recipe for a black walnut chocolate crunch bar.  That’s right: a chocolate treat made with wild ingredients from the forest!

hands holding black walnuts

Pine resin

Pine resin is the sticky, amber-colored goo that pine trees secrete to close any wounds on their bark. Over time, large globs form that are easy to harvest. Friendly tip: use an old pocket knife that’s dedicated to this purpose, as pine resin is just about the stickiest substance imaginable. Alternatively, wipe down your tool with alcohol to remove the resin.

Pine resin is a medicinal rather than an edible. It has antiseptic and anti-bacterial properties, and can be used as survival first aid (forest aid?) to treat wounds or stop bleeding. You can also use it for other glue-like purposes, and as a highly flammable substance, it makes excellent kindling.

pine resin

I’d love to hear from you — what other things do you forage in winter in your region?

garden planning

4 Steps to Planning Your Vegetable Garden

It’s January — so logically the best time to start planning this year’s garden! This is the time of year when seed catalogs start hitting the mailbox… and gardeners actually have some time to sit, dream, and plan.

I remember being really overwhelmed with this task when I was a beginning gardener. There were so many things to take into consideration: timing, soil needs, sunlight and shade… what to put where and when? Now I have my process down pat, I know what resources I need along the way, and I can really relax and have fun with it. So I want to share those steps and resources with you — because everyone deserves to do this with as much fun and ease as possible.

There are some fancy digital tools available (see this post about free online garden planners if that’s your jam). I have nothing against digital design tools — I use them all the time in my landscape design work — but when it comes to the season-to-season annual veggie planning, I prefer to keep it low-tech because I think much better with pencil and paper. Also, I bring my plans to the garden with me all the time, and streaks of dirt look a lot more poetic on paper than they do on a device.

Ready? Let’s go.

1. Decide what you want to grow

Start by deciding what you want to plant. Cue flipping through seed catalogs, drooling at all the pictures of bodacious vegetables and the varieties with fun, playful names, and making a list. Here are my favorite, non-GMO seed companies that I’ve been ordering from over the years:

Each year, I plant maybe 70% reliable oldie-but-goodie varieties that I know to be successful and that I love to eat, and 30% new and exciting varieties that I’m drawn to because of a funny name or distinct appearance or description in the seed catalog. I mean, who doesn’t want to try out Avalanche white beets or Glass Gem corn or Minnesota Midget cantaloupe or Dragon Tongue bush snap beans?

Decide your priorities: What do you hope to get out of your garden this year? Are you aiming for year-round plantings? If so, put emphasis on winter crops — summer is easy but winter takes some extra planning. Or maybe you really want to can a year’s worth of tomato sauce and ketchup in the late summer and will focus on tomatoes this year.

garden planning

2. Gather your tools and resources

Planning tools:

 

3. Draw a Map of Your Garden

Draw a schematic bird’s eye view map of your garden area. It’s helpful to draw it to scale, but not necessary. I’m meticulous about drawing to scale when it comes to landscape design work, but my annual garden plan maps are as quick-and-dirty as they come, and they’ve done the job.

schematic garden map

  1. draw beds, pathways, and any permanent features such as fences and perennial plants in ink
  2. include directions (which way is south?), mark shade from buildings or trees
  3. OPTIONAL: photocopy a bunch so you don’t have to make another one next year
  4. make one for spring and one for fall
  5. hold on to past seasons’ maps! They come in handy in future crop rotation planning.

 

4. Decide what goes where

Now the actual planning process begins. It’s a bit like doing a puzzle, or a game of musical chairs. Essentially, you need to decide which crop goes where on your map. Here are the factors you will need to consider for each crop:

  • how much space it will need (consult your spacing chart)
  • how much time does it require, from seeding to harvest
  • height/shading: plant tall things in the north of the garden
  • sun requirements: do you have shadier spots in the garden? If so, check out the list of vegetables that can grow in shade
  • what companion plants help the crop to thrive
  • crop rotation! it’s important not to plant the same crop in the same bed year after year. This is for two reasons: First, plants in the same plant family tend to get the same soil-borne pests and diseases. Secondly, different crops and different nutrient requirements: some crops such as tomatoes, brassicas and corn are “heavy feeders” while others, such as beans and peas, fix nutrients in the soil.

Then it starts to come together. Write or draw everything with a pencil first — you’re going to have to erase and tweak things. Finalize with ink only when you’re completely happy with your arrangement.

For example, your crop rotation requirements might suggest tomatoes in bed 1 and potatoes in bed 2, but then you consult the companion planting resource and remember that tomatoes and potatoes are attacked by the same blight and would be best planted further apart. So you erase and seek an alternative location for one of those crops.

Here’s one way to approach this:

  1. Start with the crops that require the longest time to harvest, OR have the strictest site needs, OR require the most space: tomatoes, melons winter squashes, big brassicas
  2. Next, place crops of medium pickiness: kale, roots, peas
  3. Lastly, put the “almost anywhere” crops in the remaining spaces: lettuce, most herbs, chard, spinach

Over time, this process gets easier: you start to develop an intuitive sense of roughly how widely to space vegetables, a memory of what vegetables are good companions for each other, and how to plan the succession to make the most of available space.

summer garden

Now you have a garden plan! The next step is just around the corner: pulling out your seedling trays, seeding mix, and seed packets to plant the very first, hardy spring crops — and before you know it, you’ll be in a buzzing, vibrant garden on a warm day and eating the fruits of your labor.

Happy planning & planting!

sheep at a farm

Sheep to Sweater, Part I

This is the first in a series of posts about the entire process making a knitted garment out of a raw sheep’s fleece. In this first part, we’ll focus on processing raw wool: skirting, scouring, sorting, and carding to get the fiber ready for spinning. If it sounds like a lengthy process, that’s because it is. But it’s not undoable. This is slow fashion in action: exploring alternatives to unsustainable fast fashion, one item of clothing at a time.

sheep at a farm

The best of sweaters begin this way — with a visit to a sheep farmer and her sheep.

I met farmer Sebette and her flock of Cormo sheep earlier this year through my carbon farm planning work and our regional Fibershed affiliate, Local Cloth. As the temperatures began to drop and we were looking at a winter of mostly staying at home, I decided it was time for another sheep-to-sweater project. So my daughter and I headed over to Wooly Ridge Farm to visit Sebette and her sheep, and came back with a fluffy 5.4 lb bag of white wool from a small Cormo sheep named Snow Flurry.

raw unwashed wool

The name tag on the wool is a reminder that this wool comes from a living, breathing, warm animal whose heartbeat, along with the grasses on the pasture, made this wool grow. Here and there among these finely crimped, soft fibers are little bits of grass, seeds, and burrs that tell the story of this sheep’s wanderings in the pasture.  And this entire billowing mass of wool still carries the smell of the animal and the barnyard. There’s nothing like working with raw wool to fully feel our fibers’ and clothing’s connection to land.

 

First step in Processing Raw Wool: Skirting the Fleece

The first step is called skirting the fleece: going through the entire fleece and cutting off the dirtiest bits. As you see in the picture above, the raw fleece has a fair amount of dirt on it. Take the entire raw fleece and lay it on the floor or a table, and cut out all the very dirty wool on the edges of the fleece. The underside of the sheep is obviously going to have the most dirt and crud. This is where you should also remove as much plant matter — seeds, bits of grass, burrs — as you can. Use the sharpest scissors you have!

 

Washing/Scouring the Wool

The goal of scouring the wool is to remove both the remaining dirt and the lanolin, the natural wax that’s on the wool. You could of course opt for spinning in the grease, which is much less work and results in a very natural-looking and semi-waterproof garment. But most people prefer to spin scoured wool.

To wash the wool, you first have to separate the fleece into smaller bits and bag them in mesh bags to contain the wool. I’ve used small squares of tulle, made into little bundles closed with rubber bands, as well as larger mesh bags with zippers that I also use for dyeing. The smaller bags are more tedious and time-consuming to prepare, but result in cleaner wool.

Now, for the washing part. This guide to washing the wool is among the most thorough and at the same time easiest to follow, in my opinion.

Here are the key points to keep in mind:

  • To remove the lanolin, the water must be hot hot hot — 140 to 160 F — for the entire soaking time
  • You must not agitate the wool at all while it’s in hot water, otherwise it gets felted. Drastically changing the water temperature will also cause felting.
  • Optional: you can pre-soak the wool before washing to remove more of the dirt. Soak for up to 24 hours in cold water, then drain.
  • Soap: There are special scouring soaps; otherwise you can use regular dishwash detergent, provided that it cuts grease. How much to use? The internet gives maddeningly varying answers. I did a few squirts of dishwashing detergent following the Woolery’s guideline, “enough to make the water feel slippery.”
  • Scouring time: 30 minutes. If the wool is very dirty, do two rounds of washing.

One option is to use a washing machine to soak and spin the wool. Note: you absolutely can’t let the washing machine wash, i.e. agitate, the wool, otherwise it will felt. You fill the tub first with hot water, then add detergent, and then carefully lower down the wool to soak for 30 minutes. Then spin.

Your second option is soaking the wool in a bathtub or a sink (scrubbed clean, of course). This makes it much easier to manage the temperature of the water. Keep big pots of extra hot water simmering on the stove in case your water heater doesn’t make it hot enough. Again, the washing water has to be minimum 140 F to remove the lanolin, and must stay that hot until the end of the 30 minutes soaking period — otherwise the lanolin might get re-absorbed into the wool.

Let the wool sit in the hot, soapy water for 30 minutes. Then gently squeeze out the hot water out.

Rinse: fill the tub again with hot water — this time the water doesn’t have to be quite as hot. Gently lower the wool in again and let sit for 30 minutes, then drain. If the water is very soapy,  do a second rinse.

Gently squeeze the water out of the wool bundles again and lay them out to drain and dry. An old door or window screen, or hardware cloth laid on top of a drying rack works well.

washing raw wool

When most of the water has drained, I move the wool bundles onto a towel, and when they’ve dried some more, take them out of the mesh bags.

 

Carding the Woolcarding wool

One of the most labor-intensive parts of processing raw wool is now done!

When the wool is completely dry, you can begin carding or combing the wool. This is where you achieve those fluffy, light rolls of wool that are easy to spin because the fibers are all aligned.

I use hand carders. A carding machine is amazing if you’re more of a pro — but if that’s the case, you probably already have one.

The key to carding, in my experience, is to do small amounts at a time. It’s tempting to stuff the hand carder with all the wool you can fit… but the result won’t be as smooth. Slow and steady — remember, this is slow fashion! You might as well brew a cup and light a fire and take your time. Carding is one of those activities that involve repetitive movements, just like knitting, and can feel incredibly relaxing and soothing because you’re fully absorbed in slowly and methodically doing just one thing, over and over again.

carding wool

Because you really need to see it in action, here’s a video tutorial of carding with hand carders.

Now you’re ready to start spinning! To be continued, in Sheep to Sweater Part II!

 

 

 

 

brown paper wrapped gifts

Handmade Holiday Gift Ideas

Each year, I think I’m going to be too busy to craft handmade gifts for the holidays. And each year, I end up doing it anyway. For those of us who take the DIY route, the question always creeps up in September, October, or at the latest in November: “What to make this year?” Here are 12 of my favorite handmade gift ideas from past years. There’s something for everyone and for all skill levels: knitting, crochet, sewing, body care, jewelry, and food gifts.

 

Lavender sachets for the linen closet

This is a quick knit from More Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson, a sweet book full of handmade gift ideas. These pyramid-shaped sachets take just over an hour each to knit, and are filled with oh-so-fragrant lavender buds to protect linens, yarns, and hand-knits from moths.

 

Pointy elf hat

…also from More Last-Minute Knitted Gifts. A couple of years ago, I knitted one for each of my nephews, nieces and godchildren. That may sound like a lot, but these are incredibly fast and satisfying to knit, especially when working with bulky yarns in lovely bright colors.

 

knitted wool socks

Wool socks

A couple of years ago, I made a pair for just about everyone in the family. The pattern — “Rye” by Tin Can Knits — is available for free on Ravelry, and just lovely to make.

 

firewood carrier

Firewood carrier

I made this firewood carrying tote a couple of years ago for Dan, and we’ve been carrying our firewood in style ever since. I actually used a canvas painting drop cloth that we already had, so the only material I had to buy was a 3/4″ wooden dowel from the hardware store! You’ll want to use canvas or other similarly sturdy fabric for this one. See tutorial here.

 

vanilla brown sugar body scrub

Vanilla brown sugar body scrub

…for pampering a loved one. I followed this recipe, but used dark brown sugar instead of light.

lavender massage oil

Lavender massage oil

This massage oil is really quick and easy to make, and will definitely be a welcome gift — especially with calming lavender, which is perfect for relaxing massages. This would make a sweet gift for a friend, or for your sweetheart for future date nights. It can also be used as body oil after a warm bath.

  • 4 oz grapeseed or almond oil (or combination)
  • 1.5 oz dried lavender blossoms
  • 5-10 drops lavender essential oil

Put the lavender buds in a jar and pour oil over them. Close the lid and let sit on a warm windowsill for 2-3 weeks. (To accelerate the process, you can gently warm the mixture in a double boiler for about 1 hour.) Strain the buds from the oil and add the essential oil. Bottle and store in a cool, dark place. Adding a sprig or two of dried lavender to the bottle adds a nice touch.

 

diy beeswax candles

Handmade beeswax candles

You knew this one was coming, right? I make candles every fall and they make a gift that I love to give — and people seem to love to receive. I have a full tutorial for you, for making both taper candles and pillar candles, here.

 

DIY bird's nest necklace

Bird’s Nest necklace

I made these for my nieces, but I ended up liking them so much that I kept a couple for myself! See tutorial here.

 

 

home-made granola

Jar of home-made granola

— with recipe attached so that the lucky recipient won’t be forced to come knocking on your door when the goods run out.

 

knitted fingerless mitts

Fingerless mitts

for the outdoorsy, wood-chopping kinda guys in my life (Ravelry link)

 

DIY pine cone key rings

Pine cone key chains

After all of these knitting projects, here’s a crochet craft for you! These little woolen pine cones turned out so sweet. There are several patterns available on Ravelry — I ended up going with this one, as it has 6 different size options. The stitch pattern is easy to memorize and you can soon whip out one in an hour or so. I made key chains, but these would also make lovely Christmas tree ornaments.

 

DIY laptop sleeve

Sleeve for laptop, tablet, or journal

by Maya Donenfeld — see the free tutorial here.