Archive for the ‘Permaculture’ Category

Russian comfrey

Russian comfrey

Comfrey: super-plant or overrated weed? Have you ever wondered why useful plants are usually delicate creatures, yet weeds just thrive, without any care at all, and pondered wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was such a thing as a useful weed? Comfrey is it.
comfrey roots

comfrey roots

A perennial herb, a member of the borage family, its deep tap roots mine the soil of nutrients, filling its leaves with minerals such as the holy trinity of plant food, nitrogen, and phosphorous and potassium, along with calcium and iron. It remains only to harvest it and make a comfrey “tea” (concentrate) to use as a plant food, use it as a mulch and even feed it to animals. Comfrey leaves contain more Nitrogen and Potassium/Potash (K) than farmyard manure or garden compost and more Phosphorus than farmyard manure. They have a low fibre content, so they readily decompose, producing comfrey tea and a relatively low carbon to nitrogen ratio so that they don’t rob the soil of nitrogen as they decompose (when laid on the surface or dug in).

If I plant it, will it spread like a weed? That depends on what variety of comfrey you have. Common comfrey Symphytum officinale, seeds freely and therefore may well become a problem. Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) on the other hand, produces very little viable seed, so conveniently stays where you put it. But it will always stay where you put it, as you’ll never dig it out without breaking off a little bit of root, which will re-grow, so choose the position of your comfrey patch with care. The Bocking 14 cultivar of Russian Comfrey was developed during the 1950s by Lawrence D Hills, founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now called Garden Organic) and is even richer in the useful minerals. The Bocking 4 cultivar was developed to be more suitable as animal fodder but I can’t source any in the UK or France and have only found Richters in Canada selling it.

How do I grow comfrey? Without seed, we propagate it from root cuttings. Simply plant your root cuttings just below the surface, water them in and wait comfrey patch new(you can mulch them with cardboard, as we’ve done here, see photo). One extra tip, use some anti-slug and snail strategies until the plants get up and going, as these gastropods really like comfrey (another of its uses to place cut leaves around plants as a slug barrier, as the slugs will go for the comfrey, in preference). If you’re starting off, I suggest that you buy no more than six plants. You’d be surprised how much leaf material you’ll be able to crop once the plants are established (leave them a year before you start cropping).

They might mine all these nutrients for you but they also appreciate being fed and are greedy for nitrogen when growing; they can cope with fresh (i.e., uncomposted) chicken manure, so we tend to clean our chicken house onto our nearby comfrey patch.

comfrey root cuttings

comfrey root cuttings

You’ll also then be able to propagate further plants by lifting one and divide the roots into offsets and cuttings (see photo: offsets at the top, cuttings below) and then plant these as you did with your original cuttings, and don’t forget to put one bit back in the hole where you lifted the original plant from.

When and how to cut comfrey? Use ordinary hedge trimming shears and chop it off 5cm (2 inches) above the ground.

cutting comfrey

cutting comfrey

Think about wearing gloves as the bristles can irritate your skin. Cut in spring, when the plants are around 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop. Once the plant is well established—I’d give the plant a year to settle in before you start harvesting leaves—cut every time the plant reaches 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop and you should get several cuts a season. At the end of summer, stop cutting, letting the plant grow on and build up its strength to see winter through.

comfrey in dustbin

comfrey in dustbin

How do I make comfrey tea?
Making comfrey tea – liquid concentrate. I think that the video explains all. This photo shows the plastic dustbin full of leaves which reduces to the goo in the video, don’t add water. Dilute to use, 20 water to 1 comfrey juice (by volume) when it’s thick and black or 10:1 if it’s thinner and brown in colour.

Do animals like comfrey? Whether fair or not, the spread of wild comfrey along roadside hedgerows is often attributed to gypsies that fed comfrey leaves to their horses as a tonic. It’s said that Russian comfrey was introduced into Britain specifically as a fodder plant. We’ve got an established comfrey patch. The chickens peck at it en passant, a sort of “Drive-Thru” eatery, and Bunny Lapine scoffs it, so I recently thought I try out our pigs and goats on it. Fellow NotDabbling writer Monica, told me that she planted comfrey some years ago, “but the sheep ate it all before it could get going and I lost it.” So it’s thumbs up from sheep. However, our pigs, who are free range, and so have a wide variety of stuff to snack on, didn’t seem desperately interested and, as for the goat, watch the second video for our scientific taste test and make your own mind up.

Comfrey as medicine? A vernacular English name for comfrey is “knitbone” and medieval herbalists called it “bone set”. It contains a substance called allantoin, which promotes healing in connective tissue. Effective as it is externally, don’t take it internally, as it contains alkaloids, which can cause liver damage in large quantities.

Thanks to the following books for their information: Comfrey for Gardeners published by and available from Garden Organic (Henry Doubleday Research Association); Flora Brittanica by Richard Mabey; The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates by Patrick Whitefield and Wikipedia.

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The farmers market in our town started its season the first Saturday in May.  It was a slow beginning, but things picked up nicely the second week.  Going to the market is an important part of our life.  We shop there, getting  local things we don’t produce our selves.  We also sell thing.  Our goal is to some day have our farm completely supporting us.  Being a vendor at the market is a big step toward achieving that goal.  I don’t know if we will ever sell enough at the market to have that be our only outlet, but being there connects us with the wider community and has helped us build customers who also come to the farm for things.

Last week at the market I was chatting with a customer and he asked about our farm.  “Was it a real farm?”  I described our place and what we do, 5 acres, goats, chickens, vegetables, etc.  He laughed and said “Oh, a hobby farm!”, then walked away.  That got my dander up a bit.  Later in the day I had the chance to talk with a “real” farmer.  They grow corn, soy beans, and hay on about 1000 acres.  He was worried because his wife’s job is a bit tenuous right now, and without it they couldn’t make it.  The price of corn has dropped and he is just covering expenses.  He said that he will probably only make a profit of $1.00 an acre this year.  That really got me thinking.  Last year was a pretty dismal year for us.  We only made it to market about half the time, and the egg production crashed over the winter.  But even with all of that we ended up with a net profit of about $250.00 per acre.  We also provided all of our eggs, most of our milk and milk products, more than half of the vegetables and fresh produce, and some of the meat for our family.  This year we should do considerably better than that.  So, who’s the hobby farmer?


We are not quite making a living from the farm, but it will be close this year.  If CC lost her job for some reason we could still pay the basic bills from farm income.  Insurance would be a worry, and we would discontinue some less important services (like cable and possibly our land line).  In the winter we may need to do some odd job things to supplement, but we could continue to live pretty much as we do now.  That makes tiny farms a viable option as we go forward.  There are some barriers to success.  There is very little equipment available that is scaled to this size farm.  There is no support from the government, researchers, banks, etc (that could be a good thing too.) Many of the current and pending farm and food related regulations don’t take tiny farms into account at all.  There are differences in what is done and how it is done and regulations aimed at large production models don’t fit the small farm. (I promised I would not dabble in politics here.  If you want more on that topic you can see my blog under the Food Safety Regulation topic.) Another barrier is attitude.  People don’t believe in small scale production.  Our model of civilization is built on the idea of growth.  You aren’t successful if your business isn’t bigger this year than it was last year.  Small farms have limits and don’t fit that way of doing business.  That is a really hard thing to overcome.


So, what do you think?  Are small (tiny) farms viable as a way of making a living as well as a way of having a life?

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Dove, love…

One holiday season as a single parent, I lacked money and only had enough for one “nice” gift for my daughter.  After some thought about what sort of present might be enjoyed throughout the year, that year I put up a bird feeding station, complete with mesh walkabout tray lower down the pole for the groundfeeder-sort of birds…all this set up right outside the picture window just by our kitchen/dining table.  I’d seen a lot of birds there passing by, and when we put food out, it attracted a lot of lovely “regulars,” especially doves.  Their tray was situated right about eye level for us when seated at the table inside, and it was so beautiful having so much winged life only a couple feet away.

This became a favorite place for my daughter and me to get up close and personal with our feathered friends…she’s loved birds ever since.

I especially loved the doves, and their nightly cooing.  Wild doves will always be a favorite part of my gardens.

Birds have always been a part of my life in some way.  Though I’ve had caged birds before…parakeet, cockatiel (briefly), canaries, finches, I prefer seeing them be able to fly or roam freely.

I think a lot about raising some chickens.  And some guineas, and a pair of peafowl, some ducks, maybe a pair of geese…?  The list fluctuates, but figures in largely to our Next Phase of homesteading beyond this one.  Most of those are nixed from this locale due to zoning regulations, though if we’re here long enough, we’ll likely take those regulations head-on, or “interpret them loosely.”  (Goodbye chicken…hello “Florida Ground Parrot”…ha!)

Part of my love of birds may be genetic.  My maternal Grandpa loved birds.  Some of my best memories (from guess where?) spent at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house were sitting with them during breaks or at the end of the day on the back porch, watching the birds go about their business.  There were mockingbirds, blue jays, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, varieties of woodpeckers, thrashers, all the varieties of sparrows and small songbirds, cardinals, bluebirds, robins, and the hummingbirds that came to sip from the heavy trumpet vines that engulfed the T-post at the near end of the clothesline.  Their songs were recognizable, too, and even if you couldn’t see them, you often knew they were there…the bobwhites, mourning doves, meadowlarks, redwinged blackbirds, crows, whippoorwills.

For some, birdwatching is a pleasant diversion, and for others,  a passionate obsession.  For my Grandpa, it was a part of his rural world (the one he chose after retirement), and he “knew” each bird whose territory he shared, and enjoyed their daily antics and personalities.  My grandparents seldom fed the birds.  They provided for them in different ways.  They would never disturb a nest, not even an abandoned one, and left different types of trees and shrubs intact because they knew which birds would be returning to rear their families there…and planted others they knew would be cover for bird feasts and fortresses.

Sitting there as a young girl with my Grandpa, swinging my bare feet back and forth from my perch on the hollow metal folding lawn chair, the plastic webbing crosshatching its design against the backs of my thighs, we were content without much conversation.  Grandpa never was much of a talker, but loved having us girls around and just being.  We spent a lot of time sitting on that back porch at dusk, in those flimsy lawn chairs.  It was there he taught me not to shy away from the dirt daubers (that look a lot like wasps, and that we pronounced “dirt-dobblers”) or granddaddy longlegs spiders.  And it was there I once asked him to tell me about his own father.

It turns out my great-grandpa was an interesting man, and one of the things he mentioned about him was that Great-Grandpa Wright kept pigeons.

Kept pigeons?  My interest was piqued.  Tell me more, Grandpa…

He spoke of his father with much tenderness and respect, and the details of the pigeon-raising are lost to me now, though I did listen intently.  It turns out he raised a lot of them.  I thought that was the coolest thing I’d heard…both my grandparents were beyond their animal-husbandry days and had downsized along the most simplistic lines, which I thought was a total waste of good land and B-O-R-I-N-G as a child.  They had once done some dairying (by hand) in bygone days, including working the fields and gardens with mules, and had chopped cotton for years in their own childhoods.  Obviously they had no nostalgia for those particulars left to extend into my own childhood.  Finding out that someone in my family had raised any sort of animal was sort an affirmation of my own interests.

It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I thought much about my forbear’s pigeon-raising, till I had a conversation with Jack about his mom and his childhood years in Havana.  It seems that despite her busy schedule as a nurse, his mother kept a lot of plants in the walled sideyard of their concrete-and-stucco home, but in addition to that, she kept birds.  I was trying to figure out what sort of birds they were, since Jack knew them as “palomas.”  He said she kept anywhere from 3 to 15 at any given time, and would use them as a meat bird in soup, especially when anyone would get sick with a cold.  They would sometimes lay eggs that would hatch, fledge, and become adults.  They were quiet, mostly white but sometimes bicolored, lovely, and had a soft song.

Sopa de Paloma is what he called the soup, and said a lot of people kept palomas in their backyards in Cuba to supplement their meals.  The soup would be made like a standard chicken soup of that area, simmering the carcass and meat with salt, garlic, onion, celery, spices, starchy vegetables like potatoes or malangas, sweet potato, calabaza/pumpkin, yuca, and green plantains.  He still swears this soup is more healing that most medicines 🙂

It turns out Palomas are pigeons, and his mom kept them in a long, divided rectangular cage raised off the ground about table-height.  They were shaded by the wall and the trees.  The droppings would fall through the wire bottom to the plants below, and there were nesting boxes within.  Everything worked simply and symbiotically, and was efficiently situated…permaculture before it was a term.  Each day when she was home, she would open the door and they’d free range around the walled yard among her plants till she put them back into the cage at the end of the day…she’d trimmed the flight feathers of one wing for each bird.

I asked Jack whether he was sure they were pigeons, or doves, since their description sounded more to me like doves, and this led us both to go online to try to determine what the difference between a pigeon and a dove might be.  It turns out they are basically different sizes of the same bird…the doves are the smaller sort and the pigeons are the larger.  That’s the short and dirty explanation, though I’m sure experts can go into better detail.  Their names in other countries are interchangeable, and they belong to the same “family.”

I’ve been pretty amazed at how Jack’s mom managed to grow so much for herself right in her own backyard, and doves/pigeons are no exception.  Jack and I began asking ourselves if this bird could be the exception to the “agricultural animal” umbrella term in our zoning exclusions, and if we might have some “pet” pigeons/doves for our own culinary use.

If we would be raising our own ducks, chickens, geese, why not our own dove/pigeons?

Well, it’s not a popular food these days, but that can’t be said for every area of the world, nor every era.  Most people think of pigeons being nasty city-dwelling disease-carriers, and if you’ve seen city pigeons, they do seem to “be what they eat.”  But perhaps therein lies the assumption that they’re unfit…clearly animals raised in natural ways or those in the wild are nutritionally and healthwise superior.  Can our tastes adjust to the “peasant foods” of our more rural ancestors, even to the degree where we’ll eat pigeon?  As we look for affordable options for the livestock portion of the homestead, could these be among other humble foods considered the poor man’s feast?  Pigeon, to me, sounds a lot more appealing than the proverbial “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie.”

Ask dove hunters..there’s not much more than a mouthful to be garnered from the cooked end product, but that doesn’t stop hunters every year from bringing them home and thoroughly enjoying them.  A pigeon is a bigger version of dove.  The meat is said to be dark and flavorful, and to some tastes this means ” gamey.”  This is often minimized by marinating, wrapping with a bacon or substitute bacon product, and grilling or cooking just till done.

Jack said in Cuba, homegrown pigeons are fed grains and allowed to free-range in vegetation, and housed in simple cages such as his mom’s.  He believes they were used for making rich soupstocks, utilized whole-carcass, meat and all. 

In some places in the world (including some places in the U.S.), young pigeons are harvested after having grown in all their feathers a few days before they’re able to fly, about day 25-30, and are considered a delicacy…squab.  At that stage they have only been fed crop-milk from their parents, and have not eaten independently.

I’m not advocating for or against raising pigeons and doves, but we certainly will be investigating this as a supplemental food source for ourselves, especially since Jack and I both seem to come from lineages that utilized these birds in former days.   We may very well decide to keep some and see how they do…Cuba’s a semi-tropical climate, as is ours, so I imagine they’d do fine here. 

I did find some recipes online for dove and pigeon, several of which sounded delicious…pigeon soup, pigeon pie, grilled, casseroled.  It appears to be a food that is considered a hearty “peasant food” in many cultures worldwide.

Inexpensive, easy to raise, beautiful to watch, and musical to listen to…

an asset to the backyard homesteader and larger rural farm alike? 

It’s a thought…

The only problem might be how to resist making every one of them a pet instead of dinner 🙂

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This weekend had some fine day time temps. Mid 50’s. Sunny. No wind. Very nice. Absolutely perfect, and almost spring like, for which to do work in the garden.
Your probably wondering what I planted since as most know I live in a quite southerly position of the U.S., but alas even in my climate zone it is to early to plant anything new out.
However beautiful temperatures like this allow me to get out and do the important but sometimes overlooked part of gardening: working my soil. No I am not tilling but I am building it up and adding more organic matter while I am doing other maintenance issues like cleaning up.

I know, I know your thinking this subject again (!) but I just have to bring it up because in my very recent past I have stumbled on two people….both “newer” gardeners….but both with some experience….that still don’t understand this very most important part of gardening. The part that is all work and not quite as much fun. They talked about low yields, bugs/diseases and the sore muscle factor of digging and working the soil….all by products of bad soil structure. Something that requires work, and lots of it in the beginning, but the payoff is supreme.
No matter how many plants you put in your garden, or how many different types you try, or even how many years in a row you do it….you will not be successful, or as successful, if you don’t improve your soil. Every year. It is a must. And no matter how you do it….you must do it.
As one person asked me “ I just need to get some fertilizer don’t you think?”
Though fertility is a need for plants…poor soil structure, especially in the organic garden, will influence your plants more. In my garden I do fertilize but I also build soil. Every year, all year and anytime I get a hold of something to do it with. Newspapers, hay, compost,manure, cardboard, leaves and on and on. I am always on the lookout for free or low cost supplies for this purpose. Building soil in and of itself will create fertility in the garden whether or not we add kelp or green sand, blood or bone meal—all much more expensive items. All those guys are good helpers, and yes sometimes needed, but an icky soil is an icky soil. Remember nature knows how to care for herself and she builds soil above and beyond anything else.

I have added a few pictures of some of my soil for you to see. I apologize since it is raining this morning as I took them. One of the photos has hay in it. I have been gardening in this spot with the hay for 3 years now. Lift the hay and even now in the winter there are bunches of worms and bugs working away while the hay protects the soil from erosion and weathering during extreme rains. You can see that the heavy layer of hay in this area is still quite thick and not broken down yet. The flakes, pulled off of the wet partially rotting bales in November, probably won’t finish composting until later this summer which is fine as it helps keep the bermuda grass that tries to creep into that area under control (I am slowly eradicating it but it has been an ongoing battle). I still have some bales lined up out of the picture that are slowly being moved around permanent plantings like my artichokes and berry plants. I work on it every time I get a chance.
My neighbor asked me what I could possibly grow this spring with it still like that and this is what I said: potatoes or tomato plants or squash or soybeans or sunflowers or a new row of asparagus. The list goes on and on. Really all I have to do is part the soil (I mean hay chunks) exactly where I will put the seed or plant and I am in business. And though while the plants grow they may need a boost of nitrogen ( blood meal, cottonseed meal, urine, manure, etc) to help while this stuff breaks down ,weed competition should be almost nil or at the most very easy to uproot. Oh by the way, any hay will work for this but less seedy is best. This is some alfalfa mix hay we had left over and so I should get not only soil building but some good organic nitrogen when it finishes decomposing.

The next picture is of the area that, since the end of the growing season last year, has not yet had any soil amending. Part of it did have peanuts grown and tilled in but not all of it. This is where the last of my leaves from the city composted down and you can see the soil is fabulous. Digging in it is no work at all…really. The work is easy and goes quickly here. Even though it is raining you can see the soil isn’t clumpy like wet clay but when it hasn’t rained it still does not need the same amount of watering as some areas not as improved. Quite a bonus really. My plants that grew here last year where fabulous and required just a bit of nitrogen since the leaves where not fully finished decomposing but where pretty maintenance free other than that. This area is nothing like it was when we dug (or should I say chipped) our first hole into it when we moved here almost 5 years ago. This area has been under serious cultivation for about 3 years also. Rotating into this area in the early spring will be my potatoes. I am going to try a technique I read about in an old Organic Gardening Magazine from the 70’s that should give me more pounds harvested and build my soil at the same time. The idea is to dig a trench(s), which I dug this weekend, put about a tablespoon or two of cottonseed meal in the bottom alternating with seed potatoes, then cover with sawdust. The potato is not placed directly on the cottonseed meal but alternated evenly potato,meal,potato,meal. The cottonseed meal will add the nitrogen the decomposing sawdust will steal from the surrounding area while it breaks down. I am hoping I will get nice clean potatoes that grow well. Supposedly the author’s yield was quite a bit better than he had experienced before he began with this technique and lowered his incidence of potato scab in addition. I have an abundance of sawdust from a local mill which will be a good opportunity to use a waste product that’s cheap to acquire. And of course as I mentioned I get a two for one deal: potatoes AND soil building with the same work. Leaves and hay will also work (add a bit of nitrogen with these also since they will steal it too) but as I mentioned the sawdust supposedly helps with scab which is a ph problem.

So, to sum up my post I just want to point out that soil building is a year round thing: springs, summer, fall or winter, but within just a few years you will see obvious differences in bugs, yields and your back.

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Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Gina 


Sorry for this poor photo, we have lots of snow!

In what could tentatively be called our front yard, about dead center, are two curious tree stumps. At some point in time, one of the former occupants of the land cut down the box elders for reasons unknown. In the years following the felling, the trees have sent up what biologist term “epicormic shoots”. The curious part is that someone very carefully tied all the shoots upward with twine.

Now I suppose the person could have just been tired of being smacked in the face by one of those branches as they mowed. Maybe they had plans to take the chainsaw to the shoots and thought tying them up would make the job easier. However, I personally like to imagine that these tangles of stems were purposely tied up as a woodland management technique known as coppicing.

Coppicing is an ancient forestry technique (still in practice) whereby a hardwood tree is cut down near the base during a dormant period (i.e. winter). Consequently, the following spring, the tree regenerates itself by throwing up shoots. In forestry terms these shoots are called the underwood of the tree and the stump is called the stool. Granted enough time to grow, this method allows a tree to be “divided” into many trees to harvest in succession over the following years. With good management practices, the underwood trees could live longer than the original tree would have without cutting. If the shoots are then cut in the dormant period, another round of shoots will be regenerated to take their place. Closely related, pollarding involves harvesting trees in a grazing area 6-7 feet above the ground in order to keep the shoots out of the animals’ reach. Eventually the trees grow new tops.

There are several benefits to coppicing a tree or creating a rotational forest of coppiced trees (known as a copse). The most obvious gain, from a sustainability point of view, is that by employing this technique to a felled tree, one can create a way to harvest a woodlot rotationally for firewood or poles for years to come. Some species are rather quick growers (e.g. willow) and can be harvested every 3-4 years. Ash, one of the best species to grow for firewood, can be harvested every 10 years. Others, such as oak, would not be as efficient in this area as it would require 50 years for the next harvest round, but it would be great for insuring future generational harvests.

Today coppicing is considered inefficient for large logging practices (too laborious they claim) and is now mainly used for creating pockets of biodiversity in a forest or for conservation of both flora and fauna. However, I believe that with the resurgence of wood burners as a resource for heating and cooking, coppicing could be a great sustainable way for small woodlot owners to use their habitat’s trees. Even if you live on a small urban/suburban lot, consider coppicing if you find you need to remove a tree (e.g. need for more light in the garden). Depending on the species, you may be able to harvest poles for fencing or a trellis in just a few years. It is simply a way to stretch that one tree into more firewood or building materials down the road.

This winter I plan to cut a few of the stems out of that box elder underwood . The ropes have created nice, straight poles. I hope to build a wattle fence around my garden and the shoots are now the perfect size or I can let them grow larger. Eventually, I want to remove some of the damaged trees from the woodlot on my property and encourage epicormic growth. My ultimate goal is to create a sustainable method of harvesting wood from my small property.

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Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by Gina

The big day after Christmas, I wandered down to the mailbox. The box was packed brim to the gills with the 2009 season’s seed catalogs. I excitedly gathered them up and ran back up to the house. ’Tis the season I’ve been waiting for since the first dark night of winter.

Now you may or may not have noticed here at the Dabbling blog, but we actually have structured weeks. One week is dedicated to food, another house and farm, one revolves around garden…this is not that week. If you haven’t noticed this pattern just chalk it up to us being a bunch of undisciplined abnormals who have a really hard time sticking to a syllabus. (Fortunately, we are quite flexible here!) Or maybe it’s just that most of our topics can easily fit into any of the broader categories.

This week, or the ’fifth” week of the month, we have declared to be craft week. This is not a good week for someone so incredibly uncrafty as myself (I covered this already!) I like to think I am okay in the food department and fair to good in the gardening and homesteading department, but that I come up empty in the craft department. So I have decided to think a little crafty in my own way which means I will be sneaking in a little seed and plant porn instead.

This time of the year I am full of thoughts about my upcoming goals. I am looking at my calendar, counting the days until I start seeds again. I am grateful for the returning sun. I write and draw up plans for the garden space and ponder what I want to plant and hopefully harvest. The other thing that floats between the garden rows in my mind is the fact I want to simplify my life…more. This means I will once again resolve not to spend, be thrifty, Reduce & Reuse, simplify, tread lightly, lower my carbon footprint, moe self-sfficiency…on and on. My general goals have been the same since about Y2K!

Last night I was looking through a few of the new catalogs and thinking about my mother’s birthday which is in a few short weeks. I want to make her something, but I have that problem with not even being able to cut cloth straight let alone sew it (this is on my skill goal list for 2009). Suddenly, my brain thoughts collided with what my eyes were looking at on the page in front of me: gourds! One of the varieties I spied was called a “snake gourd” and it literally looks like a coiled, twisty snake. How cool (remind me to tell you the story of my mom and the western garter snake I caught her at 13 someday)! Smiling, I put a little X next to it and added it to the seed list.

Do you make this same goal as me at the New Year? The one that claims you are going to handcraft all your gifts this year?

Well, if you are still learning how to be crafty (like me) or you are too busy to do totally homemade (like me) or lack talent in this area (like me) here are just a small sampling of simple gift ideas that I came up with straight out of one the seed catalogs:

*Art Gourds

*Think Outside the Typical Jam Box

  • Ground cherries
  • Sour cherries
  • Plum
  • Rhubarb
  • Edible Flowers
  • Kiwi
  • Fig tree
  • Roses


  • Lavender
  • Sage
  • Mints

Spices & Herbs

  • Lemon grass
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Chamomile


  • Peach Wine
  • Grapes
  • Dandelions



Wait a minute, I can’t plant a tree, harvest fruit and make jam by the end of the year. No, you’re right, however, thinking about future gifts from the garden will allow the time needed to get that tree to a point that it is fruiting and eventually the gift you dreamed up now just may become a tradition to give years down the road. Some, provided we are all blessed with a good growing season, you will be able to gift next winter if you plant them this spring. Many require a long growing season, so starting seeds early will really help out (e.g. some of the gourds are 120 days or more).

I have already penciled in some possible locations around my place for a kiwi vine and some of the gourds (also vines). If you are growing in a small space (or even a larger space that happens to also house livestock, thus making it a small space), think permaculturally. Where can I squeeze in a gift-bearing vine that is atypical to the rest of the garden. I bet you can find room (a shed wall, behind the garage, on a fence…). Think horizontally and go for one of the birdhouse gourd vines. I am also planting ground cherries to can for my mother-in-law who search high and lo at the farmers’ market this year and finally bought 1 pint for $8. They are easy to grow!

Despite the fact holiday fatigue set in a week ago for me, I am actually excited about my next year’s (or two or three) gifts. This New Year, I am once again looking at my goal to give all homemade gifts, however, I am challenging myself even further: I plan to grow most of the material.

Happy Seed Catalog Season, Everyone!

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Jack and I had to take an obligatory out-of-town trip to the doc’s yesterday, and afterward we had some time to linger in the area.  Fishing a crumpled piece of paper from the inner recesses of his wallet, he headed out to what he told me was “a farm someone told me about.”  I thought maybe he was meaning some neat little family-owned farmette with goats and chickens, which would have been great.

Instead, as we arrived,  I realized he had found a global sustainability Demonstration Farm called ECHO.  We were too late for the tours, and only got a glimpse of what lay behind the roped off areas shrouded by glorious stands of native trees and test clumps of bamboos.  But we did find the bookstore and reading room, and as soon as we walked in, I could just about hear the angels singing.  There in front of us, in a fairly small area, were walls and racks, floor to shoulder, of books on every subject any local sustainability or homesteading-minded  freaks like us  afficionados would swoon over…wooo hooo!!  I tried to maintain some dignity, but it was hard not to squeal at each new find. 

Thankfully, my husband is used to this tendency in me, and he was pretty excited himself, so we were like two kids in a candy store.  On the shelves were books specific to every sort of animal, no-till farming and management, agroforestry, unusual-to-us plants and fruits suited to our climate, reports on field trials of some particular ones, instructional DVDs, practical kits for things such as learning how to do your own tree grafting, top bar beehive books, instructionals for tropical/subtropical/arid&more climates, about 100 Storey Guides on every subject imaginable, cookbooks, plant-related crafts, actual seed packets…and the list could go on and on. 

We stayed an embarrassingly long time 😉

I love when we discover unexpected finds like this!

One of the things we were excited to note during our Book Glut Free-for-all was more than one book on the subject of a particular subtropical tree, Moringa oleifera.  Our hearts skipped a beat…this is a tree we had researched earlier in the year and, with some difficulty, finally found a supplier.  We went on a day trip a few months back just to purchase one — as an experiement.  We had run across mention of Moringa when looking for plants good for permaculture, and having seen something in print on the internet somewhere on this tree, had noted it was being used effectively as an animal forage plant — something we’re very interested in.  2007 had been a year of extended drought in our area of Florida, and because we’re aiming to have our own piece of land someday, we’d like to think outside the box as far as future sources of livestock feed supplementation.  Trees often fill the bill for that situation in other parts of the world, with plants such as poplar trees (the leaves in particular) doing extended duty as both windbreak and drought-tolerant fast-growing animal fodder.

The interesting thing about Moringa is its many other uses.  The more we read, the more we realized we’d love to see if this tree would thrive in our location.  Some of the many advantages it is reputed to have are:

1.  Fast growth.  About 7 full cuttings per year can be had from managed plots of mature plants.

2.  Its ability to incorporate into a permaculture plan — it makes a great partial shade plant under which to nurse other plants to maturity.

3.  Its leaves are edible for humans and  some animals alike, namely most livestock.  They can be eaten raw or cooked.  Incorporating them into the diets of beef and dairy cattle increases birth weights, milk production, and weight gain. It’s pictured below (the leaves at the top of the pic)

4.  It has traditional medicinal uses, and is being researched heavily.  It is utilized by relief workers in underserved areas of the world to address malnutrition, especially in expectant and nursing mothers and at-risk infants and small children.  It is heavily promoted in such areas as a critical and cheap native source of concentrated nutrition, and is regularly added to local foods to amp up the nutritive value.  (This is cost effective in comparison with having to purchase additional supplements) Unlike some other plants, Moringa has been well-received by the native residents as they are educated about its multiple uses, and it is being further incorporated worldwide into local cuisines.

5.  Its edible parts include not only the leaves, but also the pods, seeds, bark, and tips of new branches.

6.  It can be incorporated into the construction of living fences.

7.  It can be used as a green manure crop if tilled under at a young stage.

8.  It can be easily propagated from seeds and cuttings.

9.  Its seed powder can be used for effective and inexpensive water treatment.

10.  Fresh Moringa juice contains a naturally-occurring growth hormone which can increase plant yields 25-30% for many well-know crops.

11.  As a medicinal, there is anecdotal evidence of its use for treatment and alleviation of blood sugar issues, hypertension, cancer prevention and tumor shrinkage (and many more…)

We were delighted to see this plant being promoted, and to find more literature besides what we’d read on webpages on the internet.   Moringa is known worldwide by many different names, over 400 to be exact, as it’s been used through the milennia by many cultures.

Its leaves are easily dried and powdered, and the pods are said to have an asparagus-like taste when cooked. The flowers are not edible raw, but are incorporated into meals usually by frying or sauteeing, and are said to have a mild mushroom taste when cooked. The green leaf powder has been described as having a mild green flavor, sometimes tending toward bitterness depending on varying factors. It’s often used in soups, sauces, dips, noodles and flours. The fresh, attractive leaves are stripped of their stems and  used raw in salads or slaws, whole or chopped in entrees/egg dishes/vegetable dishes.

There is not a lot of documentation of Moringa’s use in the United States, but it is grown in some parts of California and Florida on a limited scale.  It is said to be hardy in areas that don’t have really hard freezes, and is adaptable to many colder areas if raised in a pot and kept indoors during the colder months.

In our short experience raising a single Moringa in a pot, it seems to be a pretty hardy plant, and doesn’t like a lot of wind. It also prefers some shading from direct sunlight.  It would be much more comfortable if planted in-ground, we think, here in our climate…we’ll do that as soon as we decide where we want it permanently. I’ve tasted the leaves, but have yet to cook with them. They are delicate-looking, but quite hardy, and should be harvested when they are green, but not yellow.  We have experimented with drying some of them, and they dry easily if left in a shady place simply exposed to the air. It only takes about three days for them to dry by themselves, after which time they can be rubbed across a screen to separate the small stems from the leaves that easily crush to powder.

Here are some internet links, all sorts, to learn more about Moringa, for those who might be interested:









Seed Swamp Reminder: Howling Hill is doing her annual seed swap, so stop in at her link (sidebar) to sign up and swap 🙂

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