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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!

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!

buckwheat pancakes

Garden-to-table Buckwheat

This weekend, we had homegrown buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. We ate them about 20 feet from the garden bed where said buckwheat grew. The buckwheat checks all the boxes for me: gluten-free, locally sourced and hands down delicious, with a distinctive nutty flavor.

To most urban gardeners, growing grains might seem like it’s outside their wheelhouse. After all, when we think of growing grains, we think of hundreds of acres of farmland extending to the horizon. But Small-Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon inspired me to try growing small patches of grains myself. I decided to start with buckwheat, a plant I’m already familiar with, as I’ve grown it as a cover crop many times.

I dedicated one long bed (about 4 x 20 feet) for growing buckwheat in our urban garden.

Homegrown buckwheat really is a fantastic beginner’s grain. It is nutritious and so friggin’ easy to grow:

  • Buckwheat doesn’t need rich soil — in fact it seems to do better in poor soil!
  • It barely requires irrigation
  • Buckwheat has few disease or pest problems
  • Like other pseudo-cereals, such as quinoa and amaranth, buckwheat has a favorable nutrient profile, forming a complete protein
  • It’s gluten-free!

buckwheat growing in garden

Growing buckwheat

Buckwheat is a remarkably resilient plant that not only tolerates, but in fact thrives in poor soils. Once established, it grows even if you ignore it, as long as it gets some rain from time to time.

Buckwheat prefers cool temperatures, but is frost-tender. That makes it somewhat tricky to figure out an optimal time window for planting buckwheat, which has a sow-to-harvest time of 10-15 weeks. Here in the South, the best time to plant buckwheat is actually mid-August. That way, the buckwheat gets to grow during the cooler fall weeks, but can still be harvested before the first frost, which here in Asheville, NC, comes in late October.

 

Harvesting buckwheat

Harvesting the homegrown buckwheat groats is quite easy. I say this after unsuccessfully trying to harvest enough lambsquarter seed to make a quinoa-like meal… In comparison with those nearly invisible, tiny seeds, the buckwheat groats seem bulky and easy to extract.

buckwheat ready for harvest

harvesting buckwheat 

When grown on an urban garden scale, buckwheat is best harvested by hand. One option is to walk through the buckwheat patch whenever you need some, simply stripping the dark brown grains off the stalk with your fingers until you have a cupful.

To harvest an entire bed of buckwheat at once, cut the buckwheat down with a scythe or sickle mower, tie the plants into bundles, and let them dry protected from rain. I brought mine into our sunroom. Chickens and (other) birds also seem to love buckwheat, so if a few plants are left behind it will all get eaten eventually.

When the stalks are completely dry, thresh them inside sacks or old pillowcases. What you’ll have at this point is lovely, homegrown buckwheat groats, but with a fair amount of plant matter and leaves in the mix.

winnowing buckwheat

 

Processing Buckwheat

This is the part that can be a bit challenging and time-consuming. Take your time. You may have to try a few different methods to figure out what works for you, as I did.

The next step is to separate out the chaff from your buckwheat groats. If you’re in the small minority of modern folks who have winnowing skills and a decent winnowing basket, it’ll be a breeze. Otherwise, you may have to try a few different setups. I had the most success with a fan set up next to a shallow tray. I placed a couple of cups of buckwheat on the tray and grabbed a handful and let go, grab a handful and let go, on repeat. All the dry leaves and other chaff flies off because it’s very light. Ideally what ends up on the tray eventually is just the buckwheat groats.

Here’s another setup I tried: using one of my Excalibur dehydrator trays as a tray. The perforated silicone is ideal for letting tiny pieces of chaff to fall through, but catching the buckwheat.

winnowing buckwheat

After winnowing, you have yourself a nice batch of wholesome buckwheat groats.

homegrown buckwheat

You could grind them into flour as they are, but the taste is better if you remove the dark brown hulls.

  1. First lightly toast the groats, or put them in a hot oven for a short while. It’s well worth the effort, as it helps the hulls to separate easily.
  2. Grind the toasted groats to remove the hull. You can use a blender or a food processor, but I had the most success with a good old-fashioned food mill. The hulls just shattered off (all over the table, as you can see…). The resulting coarsely ground buckwheat will still have some bits of hulls in it, but they can easily be sifted out with a flour sifter at the end.

processing buckwheat

Now you can grind the groats into flour. If you don’t have a grain mill, a food processor or blender will also work.

grinding flour

 

Here’s the pancake recipe I used to make ours. Some people like to use 50% buckwheat flour and 50% all-purpose wheat flour, and that works great. But in my opinion it’s not necessary to cut the buckwheat with wheat — the buckwheat’s flavor is not overwhelming at all. Even my daughter, who usually demands “ordinary pancakes” (as opposed to her mom’s experiments), gobbled them up enthusiastically.

 

Gluten-free Buckwheat Pancakes

  • 1.5 cups buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 3 Tbsp salted butter, melted
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • butter (for the pan)

Set a well-seasoned cast iron pan on medium heat. Mix the dry ingredients together well. Mix the melted butter together with the syrup, eggs, and buttermilk separately, and add to the dry ingredients. Mix until the batter is well blended and there are no more dry lumps.

Melt a dollop of butter on the heated pan and ladle the batter onto the pan in desired sizes.

rotational grazing for chickens

Rotational Grazing with Backyard Chickens

Rotational grazing — rotating animals across pastures — is a common practice in large-scale sustainable farming. Put simply, it means subdividing a pasture area into smaller paddocks with fencing, and moving the grazing animals from one paddock to another on a specific timeline. The idea is to create a strategic disturbance for limited periods of time.

On large diversified farms, multi-species rotational grazing sees the animals moved in succession: for example, first cattle, then sheep, followed by poultry, and maybe pigs at the end. Rotating animals in this way is beneficial for both animal and pasture health: pasture paddocks get to rest and regenerate when the animals are in other paddocks, and the animals always get access to diverse, fresh, good-quality forage plants.

But what does rotational grazing look like in the urban or suburban backyard, and with a single species — in our case, chickens?

We don’t have acres and acres of pasture. What we do have on our 1/3 acre is a vegetable garden, young food forest areas with perennials, and some grassy areas. Still, we’ve found ways to move our chickens through the landscape in ways that help to optimize their health, and integrate them into our garden management system. I’m sharing some of what we’ve learned in case it’s useful to others.

 

Managing chickens in the urban garden

Chickens are great foragers (though some breeds have a stronger foraging instinct than others). Access to diverse landscapes with plenty of greens, bugs, grains and seeds provides them with a healthy, varied diet. And the eggs we harvest are much more nutritious as a result: pastured chicken eggs have twice the vitamin E, more omega-3 fatty acids, and a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids as compared to eggs from commercial chicken operations.

fresh chicken eggs

The ground in the chicken run quickly becomes dusty, compacted, and devoid of any greenery, which is also a sign that chickens shouldn’t be kept confined to the same area for too long. They are so happy when they get to explore new ground, to kick and scratch good garden soil and take some dirt baths in it.

At the same time, chickens can be destructive if left to their own devices in a vegetable garden. Like any gardener, I’ve had moments of heartbreak when a less-than-perfect fencing setup allowed the chickens to rip apart carefully tended young seedlings.

In a nutshell: you want some combination of free range and smart fencing.

For rotational grazing of backyard chickens, we create designated fenced-in “paddocks” in the specific spot where we need their scratching, pest control and fertilization services. We have two primary ways for doing so: 1) a chicken tractor and 2) movable fencing.

 

Chicken tractor

A chicken tractor is any simple outdoor enclosure that’s lightweight enough to be moved around. We built ours out of 2 x 4’s, PVC pipe, and chicken wire, but there are tons of designs out there for building a chicken tractor that works for you.

The chicken tractor is particularly handy for getting to narrow spots. Here the chickens are foraging and doing weed control in between rows of young currant bushes. Bringing the chickens through here every couple of weeks is all we’ve needed to keep the weeds from taking over.

chicken tractor

 

Temporary fencing

Whenever we want to let the chickens forage on a larger area, or clean up a particular garden bed after it’s been harvested, we use 3-foot wire fencing to create a “paddock” in any shape we want. Some people use electric poultry netting. On hot summer days, we use shade cloth over the fenced-in area to help keep the chickens cool — as well as to discourage the most mischievous of them from trying to fly out.

chickens in garden

No-till Garden bed prep sequence

My favorite way to integrate the chickens into our no-till garden is recruiting them to do the cleanup after a particular bed is harvested. This is roughly the sequence:

        1. Harvest food + pull out any large stalks or vines that chickens are not likely to eat.
        2. Create a fenced perimeter around the bed and bring in chickens (yes, I carry them one by one from the chicken run) to forage and scratch
        3. Move chickens to another area and rake off any remaining plant debris
        4. Aerate the soil with a pitchfork or a broadfork
        5. Spread a 1″ layer of compost
        6. Plant next crop or cover crop

One caveat: our setup is not perfect. My preference would have been to have fully free-range chickens with access to all areas of the garden (except the annual vegetable beds, which they would quickly rip through). Alas, we don’t have a perimeter fence, and all of our neighbors have large dogs, so it hasn’t been possible. So we always need to have some kind of protection around the chickens.

naturally dyed yarn

Colors from the Garden: Growing Natural Dyes

How would you like to be able to grow not just food and herbs, but also dye plants? To have non-toxic, natural dye pigments for dyeing textiles, wool yarns, or even children’s art supplies and soaps? Here are some resources for planning — and planting — a beautiful natural dye garden.

If you have a garden, chances are that there are already some plants there you could dye with. Some of the most common garden plants can be used as dyes since they release pigment when simmered in hot water:

    • marigold
    • Black-eyed Susan
    • coreopsis
    • tansy
    • purple basil
    • fennel
    • marjoram
    • onion (skins)

Even if you don’t, many so-called weeds — plants that grow wild by the roadside or in wild patches — make great dyes:

    • stinging nettle
    • pokeweed
    • goldenrod
    • yarrow

You could easily get started with these plants.

But if you’re really drawn to the idea of über-local, non-chemical colors on your textiles, and if you have access to garden space, I encourage you to create a designated dye garden. You get to participate in the process of choosing your plants/colors, growing and tending them through a growing season, and then experimenting with different combinations, plant parts, time of harvest, and the various mordants and afterbaths that help to modify your colors. You’ll be one step closer to a truly ecologically mindful wardrobe.

 

dye plants from the natural dye garden

Planning Your Natural Dye Garden

Choose a site that gets good sun, ideally at least 6 hours a day. Decide on the shape of your dye garden area. It’s better to start small the first year, and then expand later if you find that you can manage what you have so far.

Many dye plants tolerate poor soils, but they’ll be more productive in rich soil. Prepare the soil as you would a vegetable garden bed: remove any plant debris and the sod, then dig deeply to loosen the soil. Work in compost, aged manure, or other organic matter to improve soil structure and drainage.

Then the fun begins: what plants — what colors — will you grow? Take a look at the list of common garden plants above: many of them are incredibly attractive as they bloom in the summer, and provide nectar for pollinators. Even if you just plant marigolds, Black-eyed Susans, zinnias, and purple basil, you’ll have a striking flower bed all summer long, and can harvest colors ranging from sunny yellows to sweet pinks at the end of the season.

zinnias in dye garden

But besides these plants, there are some that are usually specifically grown as dye plants — and for a reason: they have unusually strong and colorfast pigments:

  • madder root (reds)
  • Japanese indigo (blues)
  • woad (blues)
  • weld (yellows)

You’ll probably have to source the seeds or the plants from a specialist seed company or nursery (see Resources below). But it’ll be worth it.

 

My Dye Garden

For me, choosing the location for my dye garden was easy. On one side of our property is our neighbors’ retaining wall, built out of railroad ties that likely contain creosote. I’ve done enough research on creosote to not want to grow anything edible near them. So I turned that entire strip, behind and surrounding our greenhouse, into a dye garden.

 

natural dye garden in summer

In designing my dye garden, I started with a handful of dye plants that both look gorgeous in the garden, and make strong dyes: marigold (for yellow), weld (for yellow), madder root (for red and orange), Japanese indigo (for blues) and zinnia (for beige to light yellow).

In future years, I can easily expand and add new plants. Elsewhere in the garden, I also grow purple basil (for pink), fennel (for green/yellow), and stinging nettles (for green/yellow).

Here are a couple of my favorite dye plants that made their way into my dye garden plan without any hesitation.

Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) is, like the name indicates, a source of blue color. It has pretty pink flowers in the summer and the leaves can be harvested for the loveliest blues — not quite the strong dark blue of real indigo, but a strong dye nevertheless.

Space the plants about 10 inches apart. You can harvest the leaves several times in the course of the growing season.

Japanese indigo plant

Madder root (Rubia tinctorum) is an age-old dye plant (pigment from it was found on cloth in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb!) for reds, ochres and oranges. As the name suggest, you harvest the dye from the root. Madder roots have to be minimum 3 years old before you can harvest a strong red dye from them. Madder is a sprawling, vigorous plant that will spread, so it’s best if you either give it plenty of space, or plant it inside a raised bed box to confine the roots. Other than that, it’s one of the easiest plants to grow: you can virtually ignore it and it will thrive.

madder plant

 

My 6-year-old is now old enough that we can work on dye projects together. We play witches, stirring potions in big pots and magically creating colors. I promised her that if we get a range of colors on wool yarn, I’ll knit her a rainbow hat and mittens with colors from the garden.

dyeing textiles with natural dyes

So far we’ve got blue from Japanese indigo, yellow from marigold, green from marigold with iron afterbath, and pink from purple basil… We’re well on our way!

Resources

Books on natural dyeing:

Online suppliers of dye plant seeds and starts:

DIY herbal medicine, tinctures

Simple Herbal Remedies from the Garden

Making your own herbal medicine may seem daunting at first if you’re new to it. Medicine tends to seen as the domain of specialists.

But there’s a lot that you can do with a basic DIY herbal medicine skillset. Most garden plants with medicinal properties — familiar plants like chamomile, red clover, yarrow, mint, or garlic — are absolutely safe and hard to go wrong with. Just find a reliable, go-to resource that you consult before making or taking herbal medicines.

I’ve had Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide pulled out from the bookshelf all summer long. Whenever I’ve noticed something ready to harvest in the garden, I’ve checked out what she has to say about that particular plant, and tried to find a time to process it into a tincture, a tea, or a salve. Other books I use regularly are Herbal Healing for Women (also by Rosemary Gladstar) and Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine.

 

Disclaimer

I’m not formally trained as an herbalist. I’m a gardener, a cook, and a maker, and my herbal medicine making has evolved pretty organically as a result of learning to use plants. Many simple medicine-making practices have become a part of my routine — making herbal teas, putting chewed-up yarrow leaves on wounds to stop bleeding, or resorting to elderberry, honey, thyme and garlic to keep the winter colds away. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert. But again, see above: there’s a lot you can do with a basic skillset and common, safe garden plants.

 

The magic of herbal medicine-making

Crafting herbal medicines is a great activity to do with kids. This summer, my six-year-old has accompanied me to harvest blossoms and leaves into a colander, fill up the dehydrator, or put herbs to infuse in oil, vinegar or brandy on the windowsill. I call it our “witch magic” and that’s enough to get her fully engaged in the process.

Because making tinctures, vinegars, and oils feels a little bit like being witches or alchemists: we’re mixing potions with fresh herbs and leaves and, after a few weeks of those jewel-toned jars steeping on a sunny windowsill, the solvents inside have become potent with the plants’ power. It’s like magic: transforming one thing into another. Who doesn’t love that?

Below are five safe and simple remedies using common garden plants.

calendula oil, DIY herbal medicine

 

Calendula lotion

Calendula is an all-purpose healing plant for various skin problems, such as cuts and rashes. In a family that’s into gardening and adventures, we get cuts and scrapes a lot! I’ve made calendula salve before, but Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs also has a recipe for a luxurious moisturizer that uses calendula flowers, olive oil, beeswax, and lavender essential oil. Whipping up oils, beeswax and essential oil in a blender until it thickens and becomes opaque is one of those alchemist moments that both kids and grownups love.

 

DIY herbal medicine

Herbal teas

Making tea out of herbs is a simple process of harvesting leaves, steeping them in hot water, straining, and enjoying. I use herbal teas primarily for their mental health benefits: they help to soothe anxiety and stress (not that any of us have any reason to soothe those this year!).

Good tea herbs with calming, anxiety-reducing properties are chamomile, tulsi (holy basil), lemon balm, anise hyssop, spearmint, and lavender.

thyme honey

Thyme honey

I love using thyme in cooking, but it’s also traditionally valued as a cold and cough remedy. Just pop a few of its fresh leaves onto your tongue and you’ll see why: it has an almost menthol-like freshness to it.

Honey makes a great base for a thyme syrup, since it not only extracts the healing properties of thyme, but also has beneficial enzymes of its own. Thyme honey is the simplest natural remedy to make: gently warm honey to 100 F, add it to a jar half full of fresh thyme leaves and flowers, and keep the jar in a warm place for a couple of weeks to steep. You can take it straight or mixed in herbal tea, where it adds its own healing properties to the tea.

elderberries for DIY herbal medicine

Elderberry cold syrup

Elderberry syrup is a potent natural remedy for sore throats and other cold and flu symptoms. The berries of the elder tree (Sambucus) have anti-viral, immune-boosting properties and are high in vitamins A, B, and C. The syrup is really easy to make and it’s one of the best-tasting herbal syrups out there. You can use either fresh or dried elderberries. Simmered in water with ginger and cloves and steeped in honey, they turn into a luxuriously deep-red and sweet-tasting remedy. You can either take this syrup preventatively to ward off the cold or, if the sniffles and the cough already got you, to speed recovery.

Here are a few different recipes for elderberry syrup:

 

Tinctures

Tinctures — concentrated liquid extracts of herbs — are one step up in the herbal medicine making game, though still easy to make. They take a few weeks to steep, and you also want to take care in choosing the proper solvent. The most potent tinctures use 80 to 100 proof alcohol like vodka or brandy; for children or adults who don’t want to use alcohol, you can use vegetable glycerin or apple cider vinegar instead. The amount taken daily is very small, 1 to 2 teaspoons per day. That’s a dropperful, taken straight or mixed into a water or a beverage.

(Sometime I wonder if I make tinctures just because all those little bottles look so darn cute in my herbal home apothecary…)

herbal medicine cabinet at home

Basic instructions for making tinctures:

Chop the herbs fine and put them in a clean glass jar. Pour in either 80 to 100 proof alcohol, vinegar, or vegetable glycerin, enough to cover the herbs by a couple of inches. Put the jar in a sunny spot and let soak for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain and store in a clean bottle or jar. Take as directed either by the dropperful or diluted in tea or water. A tincture will keep for 1 year if you used vinegar, 2-3 years in case of glycerin, and several years with alcohol.

Good beginner’s herbs to make tinctures with: echinacea, cinnamon, tulsi, yarrrow, St. John’s wort, dandelion, burdock, and valerian.

urban permaculture homestead

Urban Homestead Garden Tour

Welcome to the inaugural video garden tour of our urban homestead!

Friends and family both far and near have asked me for a while to post a video tour of the garden. Here it is at last!

On the video, I share how we transformed a 1/3-acre urban lot with compacted soil and grass into a diverse edible landscape of vegetables, fruit, berries, medicinals and dye plants over the last 2 years.

So make yourself a glass of iced tea (or something) and imagine you are coming on a stroll along with me.

 

Our garden is designed using the design principles of permaculture. I will probably do a full post about the design process some day [edit March 2021: here it is]; in the meantime, below is the design drawing/map that might also help you to orient yourself as you go along (the greenhouse, which you see on the video, is not in the drawing since it was a later addition).

And if you’re curious about how we built good garden soil in our first two years, check out these posts on sheet-mulching and no-till gardening.

urban permaculture homestead design

Here are some of the features of our homestead, two and a half years in:

  • about 1,000 sq. ft. fenced annual vegetable garden
  • an 8×6 ft mini-greenhouse
  • a small dye garden for plant-based dyes
  • three young “food forest” areas with fruit tree guilds, shrubs, and edible and beneficial understory plants
  • chicken area and systems for rotating chickens through the gardens
  • culinary and medicinal herbs
  • blackberry and raspberry trellises

Questions? Let me know in the comments below!

harvesting salad greens

Advice for New Gardeners

 

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

— Audrey Hepburn

Starting out gardening can feel overwhelming. “Where do I start? There’s so much information out there and so much I don’t know. I can’t tell a cucumber seedling from a pepper seedling. I don’t know the Latin names of vegetables.” I know all too well how that feels. I wasn’t always a gardener. I didn’t always know how to do this. This is why I have a word or two of advice for new gardeners.

I now grow food on a third-acre lot. But this is where I started, about 10 years ago:

small balcony container garden

 

And because I remember being a new gardener, I know that gardening absolutely can be learned.

If you want practical tips, like finding planting calendars or choosing vegetables that grow fast or provide maximum calories, scroll to the bottom of this post. But what I want to offer first is some advice about the beginning gardener’s mindset. For along with good compost and non-GMO seeds, you also need some patience, self-compassion, and a good dose of humor.

 

It takes time, and that’s okay.

When I planted the first garden of my adult life — patio containers for some salad greens and herbs — I read in one of my gardening books that gardening involves a steep learning curve. To be precise, it said, it takes 10 years to learn how to garden. You can’t speed-date nature. You learn simply by experience, by making mistakes. There will always be a new unexpected challenge each year: a summer of nothing but rain, late frosts, a new pest, a new crop.

I remember despairing. Ten years! That’s too long! (Patience was not one of my virtues then and still isn’t.) I felt embarrassed about all that I didn’t know, I felt that I should be further along, and yes, I was wondering about all those Latin names.

But now that I’ve been gardening almost a decade, I can say that confidence in gardening really comes simply from doing it over and over again, year after year. You make mistakes and learn from them. But. It. Is. All. Worth. It. That feeling when you make your first meal entirely from homegrown ingredients, or grow your first perfect artichoke or braid of garlic — you can’t buy that in a grocery store produce aisle. In fact, a lot of the food you will go on to grow will also be food that you simply cannot buy in a grocery store.

Whether this is your Year 1 of gardening, or Year 10, there’s only one way to become a better gardener: to garden today, and the next day, and the day after that.

 

Start small.

You don’t need to have a lot of land to garden. You don’t need to own land to garden. And no, you don’t need to plant a jaw-dropping food forest your first year.

Start with some potted herbs, or salad greens on the windowsill. If you do have a backyard, build a couple of 4×8 raised bed boxes and start with that. The following year, you can add some blueberries in half wine barrel containers and try your hand at double-digging or sheet mulching.

small urban permaculture garden

As one of my permaculture teachers, Marisha Auerbach, puts it: Start small, and then roll over the edges. If you take on too much all at once, you’ll only become discouraged if you can’t maintain it all, and you might give up. Take on what you can manage, and then expand.

 

Invest in good soil.

To grow healthy, nutrient-dense, delicious vegetables and fruits, you need good soil. This is the one part where I wouldn’t recommend skimping.

You can build good soil on a low budget over time; my two favorite ways of building good garden soil are sheet mulching and no-till gardening. But both of these take time. If you want to fast-forward things, invest in a bulk order of compost (by the cubic yard) from the best source you can find locally, and mix the compost with your existing soil to fill up raised bed frames or to establish beds. Start a home compost pile to grow your own soil fertility going forward.

 

Grow foods you actually like to eat.

If you don’t like kohlrabi, don’t grow kohlrabi. If pesto on a summer day is what makes you happy, plant as much basil as you can fit in. You get my point.

 

You don’t have to know everything.

You don’t have to read every gardening book on the planet. Find your 2-4 go-to resources that are like a couple of good friends you can turn to. (See my suggestions below.)

If a specific problem comes up, you can always find help on Google or Youtube.

Don’t fret about all that you don’t know yet. It will come. If you fall in love with gardening the way most people do, you will find yourself gravitating towards your garden beds, checking on the seedlings. You don’t need to memorize the Latin names of the different vegetable families. Over time, you’ll start to notice that turnip seedlings look exactly like broccoli and kale seedlings, and beets and Swiss chard look similar too, and so do carrots and Queen Anne’s lace. Over time, the family tree of plants will become familiar to you because the characters in it pop out of the soil every year to greet you, like old friends.

borage flower

 

Dear new gardener,

We don’t know what lies ahead. But I’m willing to wager that 5 years or 15 years from now, you will not regret learning how to garden. Enjoy this time of apprenticing and growing. Put your hands in the dirt, be curious, and have fun.

And now…

 

My top resources for the new gardener

Online trainings and inspiration:

My go-to gardening books:

Other resources:

Fall Garden Checklist

When the harvest season winds down and the abundance of the late summer and early fall has been brought in, it’s the time to put the garden to bed. Here’s a fall gardening checklist to help you prepare your garden for the winter and for optimal vigor in the spring.

Harvest the last of…

  • basil for pesto
  • herbs for herbal teas
  • tomatoes, okra, sweet potatoes, squashes and pumpkins

harvesting basil

Clear and Cut back

  • Clean up any remaining dead plant matter and compost it, unless it is diseased.
  • Cut back herbs and perennial vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb. It helps them to grow with new vigor in the spring.
  • Cut runners from strawberries, and top-dress them with compost.
  • Cut old fruiting canes of raspberry and blackberry.

chickens clearing the garden

Amend and cover the soil

  • Dig in amendments such as compost, manure, bone meal, kelp, or rock dust. They will have all winter to break down and enrich your soil.
  • Rake leaves and mulch garden beds with them. A thick layer of mulch helps to regulate the soil temperature, protects your crops from freezing, and adds organic matter into the soil.
  • Alternatively, leave the leaves where they are – it’s free fertilizer for your lawn, and an all-around good thing to do.

 

Cover crop

  • Plant a winter-hardy cover crop such as rye, vetch or Austrian winter pea. Cover crops help to prevent erosion, as all those tiny roots hold the soil in place; they aerate the soil and break up compacted lumps; they increase the level of organic matter in the soil. A leguminous cover crop such as vetch or peas adds nitrogen to the soil. Grasses, such as rye, improves the structure of compacted soil.

cover crop 

Protect your plants

  • Take cold-sensitive house plants and potted tropical plants indoors
  • Protect young trees and shrubs from deer, rabbits etc.
  • Prepare to protect overwintering vegetables with row covers. Mulch all the frost-sensitive plants with straw or leaves to protect them from frost.

chickens in the garden

Plant

We get to plant some, too, in the fall! Fall is the time to plant:

  • Garlic, shallots, and leeks (mulch generously to cover them well)
  • Flower bulbs (daffodil, crocus, tulip etc.) that will surprise you with their color in the spring

planting garlic

With these simple measures, your garden will wake up with the return of the spring, rested under cozy blankets of organic matter and replenished by amendments and cover crops.

gardener's hands

Play in the Dirt: The Potent Antidepressant Called Gardening

 

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.

           – John Muir

 

Could gardening act as a a kind of anti-depressant? I’m thinking of a dear friend who’s going through a divorce and a lot of exhausting relationship drama. She has a place where it all dissolves and falls away. Her apartment building has a few raised bed boxes for the residents, and this year she got one of them to grow some vegetables. There, sitting on the edge of her garden box and trellising the tender peas, pulling the weeds around the carrots and checking on the broccoli florets, she says, her mind is at ease, no matter what is going on.

Ask any gardener, and they will tell you something similar. The garden is their happy place — the place that de-stresses and relaxes them, chases away the blues, and puts them in the “flow” mode of just enjoying the present moment.

In a lovely essay, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks writes:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

 

One explanation for the happy gardener

Now scientific studies are starting to bring to light a fascinating explanation for the healing, even euphoric effect of gardening. The secret, it seems, lies in the soil itself. Gardening increases our exposure to beneficial micro-organisms that live in the soil, some of which have anti-depressant qualities. Researchers have been particularly interested in Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless microbe that can be found in soil and water. Initial studies suggest that the immune response to M. vaccae triggers the release of serotonin in our brain. Serotonin is our bodies’ “happy chemical” that reduces stress and contributes to a sense of well-being.

children's garden book
Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal, from “Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt” by Kate Messner.

 

But no single microbe is a miracle cure. More likely, says Daphne Miller, M.D., it’s the exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms that is healing for our immune and nervous systems.

 

Why we need a diversity of microbial exposure

Unfortunately, exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms is exactly what’s lacking in our microbe-phobic, over-sanitized modern lives. We’re killing the microbial diversity that we’ve evolved with and seem to need for our well-being. Asthma and allergy, for example, are lower in farming communities than in urban areas, as farm children get exposed to a diversity of bacterial species through their interaction with animals and farm dirt. These very bacterial and fungal organisms promote a healthy immunological response.  

As Maya Sherat-Klein writes in The Dirt Cure, “It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world, the very things we thought we needed to control and even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health.”

So go ahead. Get your hands in the dirt and let your kids play in it too. Glove-free digging, handling compost, saying hello to the occasional earthworm — and above all, eating the fresh, not-obsessively-scrubbed garden produce — may be one of the best things you can do for your health. Unlike with pharmaceutical anti-depressants, gardening has no side effects. Warning: it may be highly addictive though!

I think it’s an addiction we can say yes to. Not only can gardening act as an anti-depressant, but it results in fresh, healthy, nutritious food, which also tends to correlate with overall well-being.