Tag Archives: permaculture



spring! by localista featuring a straw hat

Dear Reader:

The snow is gently retreating from my northern lawn. The first brave shoots of daffodils have pushed up beside the front steps. And I am planning and plotting my garden–when I’m not interviewing subjects for my newspaper articles or working on my novella or making homemade granola, that is.

Granola is easy: just throw 3 cups of whole oats, some flax seeds, some chopped walnuts, some cocoa powder, some cinnamon, a dash of salt in a bowl. Mix in two tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 cup of local maple syrup (I love the darker syrup, a little smokey-flavored from the old-fashioned wood-fired pan-reducing process. The syrup I use is made out in an open-sided shed on a wooded property overlooking the White Mountains off in the distance.Thank you Dana Masse of Shady Mountain Syrup Company in Parsonsfield, Maine!)

I put the mixture on a greased pan and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes on 350 degrees, stirring every ten minutes or so. Once cool, add seeds and dried fruits of your choice. This week’s addition of dried cherries from Cornerstone Country Market was SO good with the light cocoa flavor of the oats.I highly recommend both the cherries and Cornerstone.

Garden plans: I’ve convinced Hubby to move his horseshoe pits to a different location which will make room for up to SEVEN more boxes in a mostly-sunny spot just shy of the septic field. That would bring my count up to sixteen 4ft. square boxes. If I can ever figure out the perfect soil to put in them, I should be able to grow lots of greens, peppers, cucumbers, and herbs. Maybe even some cherry tomatoes. But I’m giving up on regular slicing or sauce tomatoes. These I will simply purchase at the farmer’s market or my CSA (reminder to self: fill out CSA form!).

We’ll see how the apple tree guild area fared over the winter. I looked at it a little bit yesterday, and the hay and compost and leaves didn’t break down as much as I’d hoped. The remedy will be to top it off with some composted manure and maybe plant some legumes this spring to turn in. I will plant the apple tree this spring, regardless. It is time for that guild. A guild is a grouping of plants that complement each other. This is a permaculture principle. In this case, an apple tree ringed with daffodils and/or garlic, some legumes, maybe some dandelions to bring up nutrients from the deeper soil, some comfrey to work as a natural mulch, etc. I found this idea in a book called Gaia’s Garden. Click HERE to see the apple guild page. I’ll be researching crab apples as I’d like to make more crab apple jelly.

Last project: hugelkultur. I pronounce this hoogle-cool-tour but I don’t know if that is correct. You could say hoogle-culture. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can take old logs and branches and blowdowns, pile them up, cover them with soil, and plant on it. Click the link to read more. The idea is that as the wood breaks down, it retains moisture, reducing the need to water, and contains plenty of nutrients to support plant growth. I’d like to do this behind the raised beds, where the south-facing slope of the hugulkulture bed would catch the sun nicely. I’m thinking blueberries and potatoes, but I don’t know if those two plants make good companions. Will do more research.

What are your garden plans for this growing season? Are you itching to get out there with your shovel or trowel? Remember, food doesn’t get more local than your own back yard. Even if you set up a few containers and plant lettuce and some herbs, you are giving yourself a wonderful gift of homegrown food, a fun hobby, time outside in the fresh air and sunshine, and a science experiment all rolled into one. Enjoy your week, Dear Readers.

Straw Bale Sprouts

Straw Bale Sprouts

Dear Reader:

An update on how the straw bale garden is coming along. Following Joel Karsten’s instructions, I have been watering and fertilizing the two rows for about nine days. (Was keeping track and now realize I’ve thrown away my paper!) I’m a little concerned that all these sprouts are bursting up out of the straw, making my bales look like long, rectangular Chia Pets!

Hopefully this is a good sign that the fertilizer is doing its job; however, I’m wondering if this burgeoning hay won’t choke out tomato plants when I get them settled in to their warm and cozy home in a week or so. I’m waiting until Memorial Day Weekend–the traditional start of Maine gardening.

Up-slope in front of straw bale

Evidence is mounting that the fertilizer is also seeping through the bale and into the surrounding lawn. Above shows the decrepit state of my “lawn” on the upward side of the slight slope on which I plunked the straw bales. Pretty sparse and horrible, right?

Now, here is what the grass looks like on the downward slope where the run-off from my watering goes.

Between the Bales

These are not retouched photos! Can you believe the difference? I’m still wondering what to do about my leach-lawn. Maybe putting down some compost, some grass seeds, some fertilizer, some straw and a bunch of watering would make it look like a typical suburban plot of lawn. I could add a round “wildflower” plot perhaps, as I’ve read that wildflowers typically have more surface-loving root systems. The dandelions rioting out there certainly aren’t short-rooted, though. They are doing their very best to bring nutrients up to the surface with their long taproots. I should help them out, don’t you think? I also have some lime in my garage stash. The wouldn’t hurt either as the soil acidity if probably high from all the pine trees.

Crab Apple Tree Guild

I began planting a mini “apple tree guild” around my flowering crab as an experiment. In the inner circle, I stuck bulbs of MOFGA garlic that I will harvest as scapes, or green garlic. Then I transplanted two cuttings from a comfrey plant. Comfrey is a good “living composter.” You can cut the leaves off and compost them in place to provide nutrients to the soil. Comfrey is also known as “knit-bone” and has been used for hundreds of years to help heal bruises and bones. (As always, check with a trained herbalist before dosing yourself with anything!). I also transplanted a dandelion as they bring nutrients up from the deeper soil. In a week or so, I hope to plant some fava beans as nitrogen accumulators and some pretty nasturtiums. In the fall, I’ll put a ring of daffodils around the drip-line to discourage foraging creatures from getting into my guild.

If all goes well, I hope to plant a couple of medium-sized apple trees out front and create similar guilds. I want a good crab-apple for making jelly and maybe a regular apple for pies. I do need to research this as they should flower at the same time for cross-pollination.

Mystery Shrub

The mystery shrub on the north corner of my house is no longer a mystery. It is Kerria japonica. This is a double-flower variety I picked up as a very small perennial plant at a sidewalk sale in front of the beverage store/redemption center in Waterboro about seven years ago. It has grown to nice proportions and I can divide it easily to many spots around the yard beneath the trees. It seems to do quite well even in very sporadic dappled shade.

How is your garden journey going so far this spring? Do tell…Outside the Box.

Where the Wild Things Are

Wild Thing?

Dear Reader:

Seven years ago, my house did not exist and the lot on which it now sits was covered in forest–mostly a bunch of tall, scraggly pines with an understory of small hardwood trees and saplings, ferns, and ground-cover plants. A developer cleared a small portion of the lot and built the house. Weeks later, we moved in and began the process of creating order from the wilderness, albeit on a really small scale.

Wild Bee

We have a one-acre lot. Over the course of seven years, I’ve created several perennial garden beds. Last year we installed four raised garden boxes for growing vegetables. We’ve cleared out a few dead or dying pine trees. I’ve lopped off encroaching alders and blackberry brambles. We’ve piled up fallen branches and created huge brush piles. Last summer we chipped two brush piles and now have a nice supply of mulch for the garden beds.

The front lawn covers the septic field. A strip of lawn in back of the house is maybe twenty feet wide. Outside the lawn is forest. In between lawn and forest, we have something interesting ecologically and aesthetically. We have edge. And edge is where the wild things are.

An ecological edge is where two environments intersect, creating an area that is more diverse than either of those environments. (Hemenway, Toby. GAIA’S GARDEN: A GUIDE TO HOMESCALE PERMACULTURE, pg. 7) In my case, the edge is the area between forest and lawn. Lawn is basically an artificially created prairie, and when rigorously maintained is also a monoculture. My lawn is not quite a monoculture–it is now mostly clover and dandelions and other opportunistic weeds that thrive in soils that are not rich enough to support wide swaths of perfect, lush, green grass. In other words, Mother Nature is trying to heal the wound that is my lawn.

Hemenway writes,“When humans make a clearing, nature leaps in, working furiously to rebuild an intact humus and fungal layer, harvest energy, and reconstruct all the cycles and connections that have been severed. A thicket of fast-growing pioneer plants, packing a lot of biomass into a small space, is a very effective way to do this.”

Basically, a forest environment is self-regulating and self-stabilizing. Nutrients are taken, used, and released by one species to be taken, used, and released by another species. Sunlight is filtered through the upper story trees which capture the energy. Smaller understory plants grow in the humus created by falling leaves and branches of the upper story. Beetles, fungi, etc. break down the fallen leaves to create the humus. Of course, I’m oversimplifying the process, but the point is, things in a forest environment are fairly stable even as changes take place incrementally. Eventually, the pine trees give way to hardwoods, for instance. But when we come in with chainsaws and bulldozers, things change too fast. Suddenly, sunlight reaches newly bared ground, and the edge explodes in a biological frenzy. Weeds, shrubs, vines and other quick-growing plants take advantage of the sudden bounty of sunlight. Nature goes wild!

I noticed this effect most dramatically in two places on my lot. Some of the old pine trees in back of the house were dying off. It seems pretty obvious to me that this land was once cleared pasture. Farmers don’t build rock walls through forest, after all. These pines must have been the first seedlings to spring up, crowding each other and crowding out the brambles and weeds. Now they are towering columns bristling with broken-off lower branches and creating a thick canopy of upper branches that manage to get some sunlight way up there. Their life-cycle nearing completion, they begin dying and falling, allowing the hardwood saplings to gather the resulting sunlight and to grow. Left alone, eventually this would be a hardwood forest of maples and oaks and beeches.

In the meantime, we don’t want old pine trees to fall on our heads, so we cull the dead and dying which creates, you guessed it, edge. The ground is now covered in blackberry brambles and other colonizers. Left alone, the edge out there would soon be impassible. This spring, I cut down blackberry stems as wide as my thumb and as tall as the top of my head. Already new suckers have shot up from the undisturbed roots.

This is life on the edge, baby. If I don’t figure out how to take advantage of this vibrant area, planting it with fruit trees and shrubs and berry bushes and ground covers, Mother Nature will continue to plant for me. A few blackberries might be a good thing. Yards of blackberry thicket? Not so much.

Yellow Flower Carpet

Last summer I inadvertently created another edge–this one behind my garden boxes. Cutting down the one big pine out front, clearing a spot for the boxes, putting a nice layer of mulch all around the veggie area, I left a nice strip of previously-shaded ground between the garden and the oak and maple saplings that guard the the older pine stands. To my delight, a miniature wildflower field grew up there this spring (a welcome change from those ubiquitous blackberries). Over there is a carpet of yellow flowers and over here a bunch of pretty, light-green grass.

Clover and Chives

I threw some chives into a bare spot last summer, and this summer waving purple heads of clover nod with the waving purple heads of those chives. Monarch butterflies flit and feed on both clover and chives, creating a pretty backdrop to my garden boxes. Wild blueberries have spread and flowered in the corner near the compost bin. Deeper in the shadows of the pines, delicate pink ladyslippers hang on sturdy, green stalks.


Buttercups are blooming on my lawn. The manual push-mower didn’t chop them as efficiently as the old gas-powered mower, and I kinda like seeing them nodding out there in the breeze.

Wild strawberries have taken over the rock wall that was shaded by that old pine in previous years. Were the seeds lying dormant there all these years? I’m waiting for the rosa rugosas to bloom among the tumbled rocks of the old fieldstone wall.

This red flower (a wild columbine, maybe?) popped up near the strawberries. Ground-covers surprised me with tiny pink or white blossoms. I’m ashamed that I don’t even know what these wildflowers are called. Perhaps a guidebook is in order. And a sketchpad.

I confess: I’m loving the edge. The trick will be preserving the best of the edge while using it to create a sustainable, functional, aesthetically-pleasing landscape around my home. In the meantime, the arugula in the garden box has provided me with an overabundance of salad greens and is now flowering and going to seed. Next year, I’ll plant the first row one week and the second row a week or so later so I can have a continuous supply instead of one big crop. The peas and kale are up and growing. I’ve planted tomatoes and brussels sprouts and peppers. A rogue red leaf lettuce and a rogue kale plant popped up in a garden box, and I’m just letting them do their thing.

Even the the “square” garden boxes have a wild side, I guess.

A Porcupine, A Turtle, and A Dragonfly

June 3 2009 019Dear Reader:

A porcupine, a turtle, and a dragonfly went into a bar . . .

Oops, wrong characters, wrong story. Let me try that again: A porcupine, a turtle, and a dragonfly crossed paths with me yesterday, and I was reminded once again why I enjoy living here in my rural subdivision despite the dirt roads and scrub-brush and towering half-dead pine trees and the somewhat marshy, shallow lake. This place is a regular wildlife refuge! In my six years here I’ve seen deer, moose, skunks, racoons, snapping turtles, painted turtles, pileated woodpeckers, blue herons, loons, and a fox. Some people claim to have spotted black bears. Red-winged blackbirds abound in the cattail marsh up the lake aways. Bass and pickerel haunt the water. Three winters in a row we had an owl hooting in the pine just in back of our house. I’ve seen dragonflies in every shape, size, and color among the yellow waterlillies and purple pickerelweed lining the shore.

But yesterday was notable for the sheer variety of creature sightings. Watching the porcupine try his hardest to get out of the road, into the brush, and under an overhanging rock, I wondered if maybe a quilly mating season was underway. Waddling across the road must be an effort for these stout, short creatures who carry an arsenal of daggers everywhere they travel, and I imagine it must take some strong incentive–food or sex–to tempt them from one weedy ditch to the other.

The painted turtle, thank goodness, was on the side of the road and not in the middle where I might have run her over. As I passed, she stopped, craned her neck, and took a good look right back at me before going on her merry way. Where was she going, so far from the water? I’ve seen tribes of them sunning their shells on the dead, bleached tree stumps up at the far end of the lake but never in the road. Was she looking for a good spot to lay her eggs? Hunting frogs in the swampy depression at the foot of the wooded hill? Do turtles even eat frogs?

After a long day of community activities and square-foot garden planting, I sat down in the late afternoon to drink a cup of coffee on my front steps, and there on the cement walkway was the first dragonfly of summer! He was an unremarkable color with a single pair of wings, but he was a reminder of the hot, sunny days just ahead. Dragonflies are beneficial insects, along with ladybugs and bumblebees and many more.

Sipping my coffee and contemplating my winged companion (could it be that the myth of faeries was inspired by these delicate, winged creatures?), I began to think about the web of life and how we are all part of a vast ecosystem that connects such varied creatures as porcupines, turtles, dragonflies, and people. There are the creatures we don’t even see–the underground insects, the beetles beneath the bark of a tree, dust mites, bacteria. Everything works together, sometimes coming unbalanced but then righting itself again sooner or later.

The kind of landscaping and gardening we do can either fit into this ecosystem or work against it. A fairly new approach to designing human habitats is permaculture. Permaculture design is based on the idea that everything works together and has multiple purposes. Everything is connected, so the idea is to take advantage of those connections to create beauty, function, and usefulness. For example, when you raise a few chickens in your backyard garden, you can feed your kitchen scraps and weeds to the cluckers (waste management), harvest the eggs (food), and use the resulting manure as compost for future gardens (soil building). The chickens will also hunt for insects that might otherwise harm your plants (pest control).

Another example of permaculture design is the concept of garden guilds. A guild is a plant community where each plant benefits from the other. Native American peoples developed a plant guild that is known as the Three Sisters. Corn, pole beans, and squash are planted together. The corn acts as a trellis for the beans, the beans (a legume) help add nitrogen to the soil for greater fertility, and the squash acts as a natural mulch to keep down the weeds that might steal nutrients from all the plants.

Another guild is an apple-tree guild. I learned about this one in an awesome book called GAIA’S GARDEN: A GUIDE TO HOME-SCALE PERMACULTURE. I took this book out of the library and decided to buy it about five sentences into the introduction. It has not just theory but also practical suggestions and guidelines for using permaculture principles in your home landscape.

The apple guild is definitely one I am going to try. I was already planning on installing a couple of apple trees into my landscape, but now I will also plant a ring of daffodils at the distance where the trees branches will end at full-growth. The bulbs will inhibit the growth of grass beneath the tree, so there will be less competition for nutrients and less need to fertilize. Deer and gophers do not like to eat daffodils, so planting them at the edge will keep those creatures from damaging the tree. Within the circle of bulbs can be flowers and herbs that attract beneficial insect pollinators like bees, or that can be used for food or medicine by humans. The author of the book, Toby Hemenway, mentions things like yarrow, comfrey, dandelion, clover, and fava beans. Some of these also work as mulch plants and nutrient-adders. Everything works together, making less work and headache for the gardener while also creating a beautiful environment that mimics what Mother Nature does. You don’t see entire fields of corn growing up spontaneously, but you do see tiny understory plants growing beneath trees in the wild.

A flicker of blue outside my window just caught my attention. A jay is making a call at my garden boxes. Guess I’ll go see if any of the new tomatoes and peppers need a drink. Maybe I’ll scooch down for a look at the teeny-tiny ants that have colonized my lawn and think about the interconnectedness of nature. Or maybe I’ll just make myself a cup of coffee and read some more of Hemenway’s book.

Have you ever practiced companion planting in your gardens? What animals or insects have you observed recently? Share you experiences, join the circle, celebrate connectedness right here . . . Outside the Box.

Permaculture and the Suburban Homestead

Homemade Composter

Homemade Composter

Dear Reader:

This week while the Democrats and Republicans are fighting it out over whether or not photos depicting the treatment of captured enemy combatants should or should not be released to the world at large, I am focusing my attention on something more important . . . the front lawn.

I am not talking about the front lawn of the White House. My own front lawn. I can’t do much about what happens in the Beltway. My opinion about water-boarding is a, well, drop in the proverbial bucket. My own front lawn, however, is my domain. Here I have some (but not total) control over what stays and what goes, what is planted and what is cut down, what I will grow and what I will not. I am responsible for this little patch of earth I call home, at least for the weeks and months and years I will live here. I am the mistress of flower beds, the queen of garden boxes, the final arbiter of the rotting pine tree’s fate . . .

So why am I so giddy with this dubious power? Today the tree came down. THE tree. The tall, skinny, half-rotted, dead-branched, nine-tenths limbless white pine which towered eighty feet into the air, thirty feet from my house for the past six years. It’s double-trunked cousin keeled over in a wind and rain storm a couple years ago, luckily falling parallel to the house rather than on top of it. The shallow root system couldn’t handle the moist, soft earth and the steady wind blowing east to west. We watched it fall from the basement window figuring we’d be safest down there. I’ve also watched a white pine break off one third of the way up its trunk and fall on my car. Let me tell you, witnessing one of these giants as it crashes to the ground is awe-inspiring. And scary as all get-out.

Now, to be completely honest, I’m feeling a little sad about that tree. It was a micro-ecosystem in and of itself. A chipmunk had a nest inside the soft, damp, splintery, rotted core of the trunk. Acrobatic nuthatches clambered up and down, upside down and rightside up, hunting insects. (Probably the big, black carpenter ants that streamed out of that tree seconds after it hit the ground.) Crows landed on the top brances in the early morning sometimes. Bluejays hopped warily along the ground beneath it, snapping up stray birdseed from the feeder. The tree reminded me a little of those Ents, the tree gods in the LORD OF THE RINGS, the way it towered and overlooked the deciduous beech trees winter, spring, summer, and fall.

I guess with power comes a certain responsibility, and with decisions, guilt. I’ll live with it because with the loss of the lone pine (and a couple of smaller sapling beeches beside it) I finally have a spot in my yard sunny enough to grow a veggie garden.

I didn’t always want to be a gardener. I grew up watching my parents work in our vegetable plots summer after long summer hour. I was conscripted into pulling a few weeds every now and then and snarled at the horseflies. I snapped my share of beans and shelled dishes of peas. The hiss of my mother’s pressure cooker was a constant for a couple of weeks every summer as she canned the green and wax beans.

We ate this bounty all year–fresh during those hot months and frozen or canned all winter and spring. It looked like way too much work to me. Aside from one summer when I planted yellow summer squash next to my dad’s zuccini plants, I had no plans to take up the garden hoe when I married and bought my own home. Even when I moved into my current home six years ago, I planned on supporting local agriculture by frequenting produce stands and voting with my shopping dollars at the Hannaford store by buying organic produce (never mind that it was shipped here from Mexico or California.) A mostly shaded lot didn’t seem like a problem back then. I could have a few flower beds near the house, maybe a couple potted tomatoes for fun, but a backyard vegetable garden was not even a blip on my radar . . .

Until I began to read books like Michael Pollan’s OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA and Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE. I learned about our food system and its dependence on oil products and overland trucking inputs. I heard people talk about “locavores” and “slow food” and “sustainability.” These books led me to such topics as Oil Depletion, Hubber’s Curve, and suburban homesteading. All of a sudden, I realized I was living an unsustainable lifestyle, in a suburban-style neighborhood, with trees shading all of my lawn except where the septic leach-field lay, and if I even wanted to start growing my own food, I’d have a real tough time doing it. Nevertheless, I took my spade in hand and got to work digging up a garden plot just outside the septic area.

It was good exercise last summer. The birds sang. The insects hummed. I sweated. I had only a few more rows to double-dig when I decided to actually watch the shadows and the sun. To my dismay, I discovered the big pine not only threatened to crash down upon me in the winter and spring, but it also managed to shade my garden area until 10 AM. By 2 PM, the sun was behind the chummy, communal clump of the pines on the back side of my lot, leaving me with barely four hours of sun, in the very hottest part of the day. Not the best growing conditions. I was too discouraged, even, to try, and so the garden plot went to grass, and the grass went to seed, and I despaired over the winter of ever growing food on my own front lawn.

More reading. More learning. An article about agro-forestry in an old MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine caught my attention. I decided to see what kinds of things could be grown in a forest-like setting. Nut trees. Mushrooms. Some types of weeds and herbs good for medicine and/or plant dyes. This was all interesting, but on my small one-acre lot, growing these sorts of products would be recreational at best, and it didn’t answer the more basic problem of actual food. I couldn’t see feeding my family a diet consisting solely of walnuts and shiitake mushrooms. See here for info about growing mushrooms. Even with some foraged dandelion greens and fiddleheads in the spring and wild berries in the summer, we’d be hard pressed to survive.

Somewhere along the line I heard this word “permaculture,” and like most new words and ideas, you hear it once and then it seems to pop up everywhere. What exactly is permaculture, you ask? Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. (see the Permaculture Institute of Australia website here from which this definition was taken for even more great information.)

Permaculture design around your home takes into consideration many factors and systems and attempts to integrate them into a harmonious whole–everything working together for maximum sustainability. A trained permaculturalist can come to your home and draft out a system for your property. Individuals can also take permaculture classes in order to design their own plans. Even trying a few permaculture practices on a very small scale can a be step in the right direction–for instance, catching rainwater from your roof or planting some parsley in the perennial flower beds. At it’s most extreme, permaculture systems incorporate sunrooms for off-season growing and for heating, ponds, rainwater cachement systems, composting tiolets, greywater recycling, animals for pest reduction and for fertilizer production (think chickens, scratching for bugs and pooping nutrients back into the lawn).

I’m beginning to look at my wooded, one-acre suburban plot in a whole new way, trying to figure out how I can combine the trees with the food-producing areas with the recreational areas with the shelter areas with the pollinator habitat areas. Did you know bumblebees like tall grasses? I didn’t, but now that I do, I’m wondering where I can grow some taller grasses for these busy, bumbly little carriers of pollen. In place of the beech saplings and the three dead or dying trees out front, I will plant a couple varieties of dwarf apples. Maybe deeper into the woods where some pines fell of their own free will, I can find a good spot for a nut tree. Can I grow vining crops up the trunks of trees along the edge? Can I find a spot for some Jerusalem Artichokes? Can high-bush blueberries serve as foundation shrubs? Should I create a mini-pond somewhere? What is better, turning table scraps and lawn litter into compost or using it as mulch?

All these questions to explore! All these experiments to try! I should be able to stave off boredom for years to come. So here’s my question for the week: What have you done around your property that combines systems–say, of food production plus recreation or beautification plus energy savings? Have you had good luck growing certain food plants in shaded or semi-shaded areas? Have you ever worked with your local officials to change zoning rules to allow small-animal husbandry or bee-keeping? Write a comment to share with other readers. We’d love to hear from you . . . Outside the Box.

ps: There are people out there who have been homesteading in the suburbs or the city for years. One of the best, most exciting examples is the Jules Dervaes family in California. Their Path To Freedom initiative is a remarkable example of what can be done on a very small plot of land. Check out this video. I promise, you will be amazed and inspired!

NOT Your Grandmother’s Dandelion Greens

0162Dear Reader:

When I was young, I’d watch my grandmother head outside with her little, sharp knife and a bowl to dig dandelion greens for our noon “dinner.” Served alongside boiled potatoes, some green beans canned the previous summer, and some sort of meat, the dandelions would be forked up into individual bowls, slathered with butter, doused in apple-cider vinegar, and sprinkled with salt and pepper.

As a kid, I didn’t really care about dandelion greens one way or another. I’d been taught to eat my vegetables and to clean my plate. I do remember the inevitable crunching grittiness between my teeth when a sly bit of sand managed to cling to some furled bit of greenery despite a vigorous soaking and rinsing. Sometimes the greens were bitter. Sometimes not so much. Now I know it probably depended on how far along in the season we were. The newer, the more tender and sweet. The older, the tougher and more bitter.

Dandelions were part of the world of my grandparents–right along with the compost pile beside the garden, the raspberry patch out back, my grandfather’s old John Deere coverups hanging on the hallway coatrack, ice cream for dessert, and my grandmother’s office area cluttered with the paraphenalia of her freelance newspaper reporting gig.

So, the other day when I went out to inspect the perennial beds, I noticed these pretty little dandelion plants growing nearby. In a fit of nostalgia (and thinking about all the great nutrients in these naturally-grown, non-chemicalized, FREE greens) I ran inside for a sharp, little knife and cut a couple of bunches to cook up for my lunch. Since I was just recovering from a bout of upset stomach, the thought of butter and vinegar didn’t do it for me, so I came up with my own recipe for a healthy noon dinner.

First, I put the greens into a large bowl, filled the bowl with water, and let the greens soak. While they were in their bath, I boiled some rice pasta and drained it. I lifted the greens out of the bowl and poured the water and grit out, rinsed the greens with running water from the tap, and put them into a flat skillet with just a little bit of water to boil/steam them.

009In another skillet, I poured about two tablespoons of olive oil and put it on low heat. I peeled a large clove of garlic, cut it into three pieces and cooked the garlic in the oil for a few minutes to infuse the oil with flavor, taking care not to burn the garlic. I removed the garlic with a spoon, leaving just the oil, and then I drained the greens which were then tender and bright green. I chopped the greens into bite-sized pieces on a cutting board, threw the pasta and dandelions into the oil, and tossed everything together with a little bit of sea salt. Voila! NOT my grandmother’s dandelion greens!

010The flavor of this dish was very mild. I may try it again with chopped garlic I will leave in the oil, maybe some grape tomatoes cut into halves, even a few muchrooms perhaps. It would be good with parmesan cheese sprinkled on top, I imagine.

Or, I may just boil up a mess-a-dandelions and pour on the old vinegar. Sometimes you just can’t improve on perfection.

In any case, foraging for food is as old as humanity itself. There is nothing more local than gathering a bunch of wild greens. (Of course, if you have sprayed your lawn with chemical fertilizers and/or herbicides or have any other reason to think your dandelions might not be completely safe . . . do not eat them! If you have any question, contact your cooperative extension or other knowledgeable person in your area. Just because I eat weeds, doesn’t mean you have to!)

It seems to me that people used to know how to do this, to go out into the wild and find nutritious food to eat. Wild berries, the bark of certain trees for medicinal purposes, mushrooms, greens, and who knows what else! I’m certain my grandparents retained some of this knowledge. But something happened from that Depression-era generation and the next. I guess food became industrialized and convenient (though it’s hard to imagine anything more convenient than cutting dandelions out of your front lawn at noontime.) Maybe it was just the idea of modernity, of progress. There were those Kennedy years, those space-travel years that gave the world Tang to drink!

I like what is happening now. I see signs of a return to the old ways. Books are published about preserving food without canning or freezing, incorporating old-fashioned lacto-fermentation methods. (PRESERVING FOOD WITHOUT CANNING OR FREEZING by The Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont. ISBN: 1-890132-10-1.

There is the Slow Food movement. There is the Permaculture movement. Every week it seems there is an article in a newspaper or a story on the news about a farmer’s market opening up, or a community garden going in, or a go-local movement afoot. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to search out some pre-WWII cookbooks, perhaps, or ferret some old-fashioned cooking/preserving tools at antique stores and ask the elders how to use them. I’m searching for one of those heavy metal meat grinders that screw onto the edge of your table, for example.

We can have a slower-paced life with a more personal connection to the food we eat. We can find like-minded people in our communities and share our discoveries, successes, and failures. We need to stop for a minute and imagine what we want our world to look like, to feel like, and then we need to chose those ways that will best bring our vision to reality. We won’t always agree, and that’s okay. But a little respectful debate is much healthier than simply accepting what the powers-that-be shove on us. At least, that’s what I’m thinking . . . Outside the Box.

Quick Note: Farming In The City

Dear Reader:

While following links from blog to blog and website to website this morning, I came across this great 30 minute video about a husband and wife who are farming in the city of Portland, Oregon. A few years ago, they began to read about permaculture–the practice of incorporating sustainability into every aspect of our lives–and then about peak oil. In response, they started teaching others about permaculture and peak oil, began working with the city council to create a task force which will investigate the possible affects of peak oil on the city and the best solutions for dealing with those issues, and have created a mini-farm on their less than 2-acre lot in the middle of the city. I highly recommend spending 30 minutes to view this video. It’s inspiring on so many levels. Click here to view the video.