Thursday, March 31, 2011

Growing Food Without a Plow

Ever since I was a wee child, we have had gardens. Not every year, though. We'd have them for a couple of years and then need a couple more years to sufficiently forget about things like weeds with taproots, bugs, blossom-end rot, dragging heavy hoses, gnats, and vine borers. Growing vegetables is a lot of work.

I may have mentioned that in my high school yearbook, the 10-year prediction listed for me was, "still trying to find ways to get out of work." It took me about 5 of those years to figure out that it isn't a bad thing to find easier ways to do things. I choose to believe it was written as a compliment.

This explains my love of wildcrafting or foraging. How much easier is it to take the colander out into the yard and pick nutritious wild greens, than it is to clear space in the garden, plant, weed, protect from roving bunnies and groundhogs, water....? Well, you get my drift. Over the past 20 years I've studied and worked to identify and taste the wild vegetables, fruits and roots that can be eaten in place of the ones most often domesticated and grown commercially or in the backyard. Many of them are either escaped from colonial gardens or are feral cousins of something we eat everyday. Some of them just proved to be too much trouble for the average Joe. For instance, the current grain craze, quinoa is closely related to lambsquarters.

In the meantime, after moving to the farm several years ago, I set about adding edibility to the landscape here. Hardy figs, currants, and elderberries were some of the first plants to go in. Bob caught the bug and added some sweet cherries, pears, and hazelnuts (we have wild cherries and tons of black walnuts in the woods naturally) and sugar maples. I keep adding - Jerusalem artichokes, serviceberry, gooseberries, horseradish, blueberries, and finally this week persimmon and sour cherries, with some goji berries still on the way. This is my goal, you see. Lots of food bearing, perennial plants that require very little work or attention.

At the same time, in addition to all the wild herbal medicines growing here, we've gradually added lots and lots of perennials that have taken and are colonizing. On the acreage here, there are many different miniature environs - a meadow, woods, swamp, and typical "yard". If it can survive our zone, we have a place for it.

The point of this post is really to try to remind people that as they choose plants, whether they be for vast acreage or a potted shrub to guard their urban doorway, try to choose something that earns its way wither by providing food or medicine. Beauty is valuable too, but it feels like at this time we should be more utilitarian until we are feeling more secure. It feels good to me to know that there is food everywhere I look outside, and it requires no work.

Sure, I'll throw in some tomatoes, peppers, beans, and cukes this summer. Mostly I'll purchase my veggies from a farmers market. Still I really encourage everyone to learn ONE wild edible this year. Just one.

Here are some good options to learn: garlic mustard, chickweed, violet leaves, violets, mustards, cresses, dandelion, black raspberries, wineberries, and lambsquarters. There are many many more, but that could give you something to think about if you've never tried anything wild.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

busy day breakfast (or lunch, or dinner...)

I'm kind of addicted to this at the moment, and could eat it 3 times a day. My sister and I joined a gym recently and try to get there early each day so it doesn't eat into our days too much (we don't need any excuses not to go). When we get back, I'm hungry, and this has been a great healthy breakfast. I'd like to add that although we both have lots of weight to lose, we are more focused on getting more fit and gaining strength and stamina. Stronger bones is part of the plan, too.
So here we go...
The ingredients are any flavor of Greek yogurt, some granola or cereal (I'm liking the Kashi Crunch flavors), and some nuts.I am passionately in love with Chobani Greek yogurt because they don't use any HFCS or aspartame and it is very difficult to find a yogurt that doesn't include one or the other. Additionally, they donate a percentage of their profits to worldwide charities and I can get behind that :-). Kashi has a lot of great ingredients in their cereal too.The yogurt goes into the bowl first (sort of the way mashed potatoes go on a plate before the gravy, etc...), then the cereal, and then sprinkle with some nuts.The yogurt has 140 calories, 1/2 C of the cereal is 100 calories, and the nuts probably add another 40 or 50 calories. So we're making a satisfying, delicious bowl of goodness for 300 calories! Lots of my friends make their own yogurt and granola, and that's great. I do not, and really like the convenience of this - almost a guilty pleasure! It keeps me going until lunch and feels sort of like I had an ice cream sundae for breakfast.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mourning Gloria, by Susan Wittig Albert

One of the very pleasant aspects of my so-called job manifested last week with the arrival of #19 of the China Bayles mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert - Mourning Gloria.
Susan sent me a preview copy of her book, due out in early April.The book arrived here on the 14th. The deadline for the May/June issue of The Essential Herbal was the 15th, on which day my email inbox is generally flooded with 90% of the contents of the upcoming issue. I finished the book yesterday - that should tell you something right there. It sucked me in from the first page, and if there hadn't been so many critical activities going on here I would have read straight through to the end.
In this adventure, China manages to weave her own interest in psychoactive plants with a mystery that unfolds in ways you just do not see coming. Circumstances surrounding a shocking death are nearly missed, but their discovery puts several others in jeopardy.
The recipes for all the tempting herbal dishes discussed in the book are great too!
I always hate when a good book ends because I know I'll miss the characters. This time it was bittersweet because the magazine was nagging at me pretty seriously. So.. til next time, China!
You can read

Check it out! If you haven't read any of the other 18 China Bayles mysteries, dive right in.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Holy Basil – The Incomparable One

Holy Basil – The Incomparable One
by Tina Sams

This article ran in the Nov/Dec '10 issue of The Essential Herbal, and I was sure that I'd added it to the blog, but apparently it was a note on the Facebook business page but not blogged. If you know how much I love holy basil, you'll know that I don't mind repeating myself here one little bit!

“Oh Narada, wherever Tulsi grows there is no misery. She is the holiest of the holy. Wherever the breeze blows her fragrance there is purity. Vishnu showers blessing on those who worship and grow Tulsi. Tulsi is sacred because Brahma resides in the roots, Vishnu resides in the stems and leaves and Rudra resides in the flowering tops.”

(Padmapurana (24.2) Lord Shiva tells the sage Narada of Tulsi’s power)
The Essential Herbal Yahoo group had a discussion 5 or 6 years that led me to an herb that has become the very first herb I reach for in almost any situation. Oddly enough, the conversation on the group was about weight loss and how stress hormones increase belly fat. I started doing some research in order to discuss the topic, and stumbled across Holy Basil, a plant that had somehow found its way into my garden that year. What luck! I immediately started a tincture.

 Holy Basil goes by many names – Ocimum sanctum and O. tenuiflorum, Sacred Basil, Tulsi, and Tulasi, it comes in a green leaved variety (Sri or Lakshmi) and a purple variety (Krishna) as well as another green leaved variety that is used in Thai cooking. While it is a basil, the first two are rarely used in cooking.

In India, Tulsi has been considered a sacred herb for at least 3000 years. The benefits ascribed to this herb are nearly unbelievable, however testing is being conducted and it is proving to be an extremely valuable and health-giving plant.

Going back to my own experience with it… I made the tincture and didn’t really do much with it for a while. Later that fall, my terminally ill brother moved in with me while waiting for a liver transplant. It was an extremely difficult time, and I was completely unable to get a grip on my emotions. I went to a counselor who was hell-bent on giving me anti-depressants, but I declined. Shortly thereafter, I remembered the holy basil tincture and took about 50 drops. Within an hour, I could feel a complete shift in the way I was looking at the situation, and it enabled me to function fairly well. The next “trial” would be on my tax-guy sweetheart. It made a huge difference in the way he got through tax season that year. It was amazing.

So just what does this miracle herb do? It is primarily classified as an adaptogen, reducing stress and the way our bodies react to stress, strengthening the immune system, and is a neuro-protector that works as an anti-depressant. That just scratches the surface, however. Components in holy basil work similarly to aspirin on inflammation and aches and pains, fevers, colds, and flu. It neutralizes free radicals and protects healthy cells from radiation. It is useful for stomach problems and ulcers, as well as heart disease. It has blood-thinning properties as well as reducing blood sugar. In fact, according to Deepak Chopra, M.D. Founder of The Chopra Center, “In a recent study of forty patients with non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) people taking two and one-half grams of dried Tulsi leaf powder every morning showed significant reductions in their blood glucose levels first thing in the morning as well as after their meals. In addition to lower glucose levels, they also had a mild reduction in their cholesterol levels.”

A cup of the tea works very well as a preventive or on mild illness, while I use the tincture almost exclusively because it is just very convenient. A tea blend that I make (Cuppa Happy) is truly wonderful. For the past 4 or 5 years I’ve been singing the praises of this herb. My local herb farmer (Kathy Musser at Cloverleaf Herb Farm) grew an entire flat of baby plants in the Lakshmi and Krishna varieties for me to tincture and dry for teas this year, and teased me about how many of her customers told her I’d sent them for it.

They are growing beautifully, and I tend them lovingly each day, treating them with the reverence that they deserve!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Meltdown? My recollection of TMI

I will admit that it is starting to fade. It's been over 30 years and I was just a kid looking back, working in a job that was way outside my comfort zone. Lets just say that if it had ever occurred to me that they would hire me, I would never have gone to the interview just to appease my mother. Before 911 came to town, County Control and County Emergency Management departments shared the sub-basement at the courthouse in downtown Lancaster. I learned during the following 11 months that it takes a special kind of person to stay on the phone with victims of violent crimes, or to be involved in the most horribly intimate moments of strangers' lives on a daily basis, and it isn't me.

3rd shift can be boring in a job like that once the bars are all closed. We usually had 3 people on the police side of the room, and 2 others across the room working fire and ambulance. One slow night, I pulled out one of the procedure books. There were all kinds of worst case scenarios and little bits of information on what we should do. I recall reading that if, when answering one of the phones, the party on the other end said something like... "an ill wind blows from an island three miles north" it would mean an emergency on 3 Mile Island. There wasn't much about what was to be done after getting the call.

So the night that they actually did call, I guess they didn't have the procedure book handy because they didn't use the secret code. We believed them anyway. We were short-handed that night, and I think the 4 of us were playing cards. I can't remember exactly what time it was, but it seems like it was around 5 or 6. There was quite a bit of time left on the shift for everyone to freak out before shift change at 8. The accident had happened 2 or 3 hours earlier, but they didn't call for a couple of hours... I'm thinking they were too busy. The head of Emergency Management was in a car heading north for a meeting that day, and (before cell phones) when we requested many, many times that he find a phone and call in, he refused, demanding that we switch to a less popular radio channel and tell him what was going on. See a pattern developing here? Nobody seemed capable of following procedure. It wasn't that they didn't want to, it was that they didn't know it existed. We were all so complacent.

I remember answering phones for the next 2 hours. People reporting in that they were going on vacation, could the police keep an eye out? Sure... no problem. It was eerie, and I couldn't say a thing to anyone - not the policemen that were calling in that they were now on duty, not the people who thought they heard something funny on the scanner, nobody. I wanted to tell them to all run! There was an unspoken agreement that we would stay calm and quiet until we knew something real. At 8 o'clock, I went home and didn't tell my roommate before going to sleep. At 10 o'clock, the person in charge of Emergency Management called me and woke me. Was I SURE that nobody had called earlier. I reminded him (?!?) that all means of communication in to base were taped 24/7 and he could easily pull the tapes from the night before. Now they were saying that they'd called, but we hadn't responded in any way - not that it made one smidgen of difference. When I woke up later that afternoon, I told my roommate. It was on the news shortly afterward, but the news didn't resemble what I knew. The local college was starting to empty as parents came to pick up their kids. They were smart.

For the next week or 10 days, I would go to work each shift and shared the space now with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We had a red telephone in our office with no dial. You picked it up, and it went right to the White House. They all wore little glass dosimeters. Every day when I was not at work the television news would reassure me that the containment was holding and we were safe. Every night I would return to work to find that was not the case - nobody really knew, but the local news station wasn't about to tell us that. They just kept blathering away.

It wasn't that they were withholding information exactly. It was because it was very, very difficult to obtain any real idea of what was going on in there.

I hope that all these years later Japan has better means of reading the situation, but it wouldn't surprise me if they didn't. It was an enormous shock to me at the time to learn that our best and brightest didn't have any idea of what to do during TMI, but now I know how it is. We build and hope for the best - or at least that it will work until we aren't around to worry about it anymore.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

free issue of herb magazine - The Essential Herbal

Every year or two we put up a new magazine for you to read at no charge. Although TEH is a print mag, when one sells out, we occasionally put it on-line. It has only taken me about 6 years to realize that the March/April issue is always the one that sells out first, so it would seem that every year about this time people are eager to dive into herbs, gardening, and getting outside and doing things for themselves. Whether it be food, foraging, medicine making, pleasure and beauty, or any of the myriad other uses of herbs that might be their own particular interest, there's something inside The Essential Herbal Magazine.
So here's the link:
We would be thrilled if you would share this issue of the magazine and the link provided with any of your friends or groups who are interested in herbs. Spread it around. It's completely free, so enjoy it!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The earth is waking here

Got outside and wandered around the area nearest the house yesterday. At this time of year it is easy to feel like there is nothing out there, but if you slow down and look closely, it can be surprisingly thrilling! The hydrangea blossoms from last summer have withstood some amazing winds during this winter. As fragile and delicate as these appear, they have toughed out several days of 40 and 50 mph gusts. Perhaps I should find a way to use them for roofing shingles, because they seem better able to handle the wind....
I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit of garlic growing along the fence. Some of it didn't get harvested last year, so it looks as though we'll find out what second year bulbs are like.
Some of the walkways have been mulched, and they grow colonies of this fungus. It reminds me of brass bells, or maybe cliffside dwellings. I'm sure that they are very important in the lives of the fae.
The cutting celery was a huge surprise. The bunnies liked it very much last summer, and I didn't get much. In fact I suspected that it was gone. Pulling back a little debris in the garden, there it was! Can the bunnies be far behind?
One of the tiny field cresses. It has the laciest rosette, and in the chill of pre-spring it has a burgundy cast. Soon tiny stalks of white flowers will rise followed by coin shaped seed pods that will rattle in the wind.
I think this is baby cleavers. This early in the spring, my plant sense is a little cob-webbed and it takes a few weeks before I really recognize my old friends.
The chives! How strong and insistent they are as they shove their way through the grassy mat they left behind in the fall. The current cover of The Essential Herbal is from this very patch, taken last April. It won't be long before the glorious pink blossoms will host the recently awakened bees.
Athough this looks like some sort of mosslike growth, it is the beginning of the chamomile patch. The entire area is this glowing chartreuse, a very unusual shade of green in nature - at least here.
Ah.... the luscious, soft, fuzzy, and oh so fragrant first leaves of the anise hyssop. One of about 100 plants that I hope to soon transplant into their own patch. I dried the leaves last summer and was sold out by October!
There was a lot more, but these were the most exciting to me.
When I see this stuff, I can't help but notice that there is a sort of equivalent sap rising in me as the spring approaches. I'm ready to be done with this hibernation.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Marching on...

I woke up this morning to a dusting of snow. It was quite a surprise. That's when I realized it is spring here - because the snow was shocking. That, and the fact that next weekend begins DST here! I LOVE the extra hour of light in the evening! It brings me out of my hermitage and I wake up to become social again.
We got in the last items from our shopping trip to NY. The cinnamon boxes were my favorite purchase. They are beautiful and highly fragrant. If you've been following my adventures of trying to make herb bowls, you'll know that these are the ultimate success!
We got some lightweight cotton totes too.
So now we have all kinds of fun items - magazines, books, dvds, kits for making soaps or balms and salves, dried wild-crafted herbs, tinctures, henna paste, carved wooden boxes, soaps, lotion bars, herbie implements, seed kits, seed-saving kits, magnetic poetry...
... all KINDS of cool herbalicious stuff!
Come look around at and get a little taste of spring yourself!
So free shipping offer for domestic orders over $100 just keeps looking better and better, doesn't it? And that includes subscriptions or renewals too!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

TEH button for your site or blog ?

Do you have an herb related site or blog? Are you a fan of The Essential Herbal? Do you subscribe, write for the magazine or advertise in it?Would you like to help get the word out? Lots of you already have links on your sites, but we thought it would be good to give you a little something back! Choose one of these buttons and let me know.I'll send you your very own special link to use with the button! You may resize the buttons to fit the spot you'd like to use them. Please write to me at and we'll get you all set.