This is the scene outside my kitchen window today (at just past noon, 18 hours before the Spring Equinox, at about 40 degrees north, between Philadelphia and Allentown PA.) You can see for yourself why gardeners get so worked up about southern exposure!
What are we looking at?
This is my backyard, a few days after a snow storm. The left side of the image is South. By the angles of the shadows from the tree, the clothesline, and the line support, you can see how far we are from the sun being directly overhead at noon (it gets closest at the Summer Solstice- as I said, this is the Spring Equinox).
That greenish patch to the left of the tree is where the sun has warmed and melted the snow and ice we've been chopping away at for the past few days.
Any structure that faces South and doesn't have anything in its way will get more sun and more heat during the Winter months, because the sun is angled so sharply from the South. This is reversed in the Southern Hemisphere!
This means, for example, if I built a low wall or cold frame on the right side of the lawn, it'd get lots of sun and not be shaded by the neighbor's fence, making it an ideal place to grow cool weather crops.
I wonder if my landlord would mind me building out there...
Barnheart: The incurable longing for a farm of one's own- Jenna Woginrich
("Farm" may be too specific a descriptor, exactly. Some suffer the want of livestock and acreage and twice daily chores and tractors, some simply the want of a just-picked vegetable for tonight's dinner.)
Jenna explains, "It’s a dreamer’s disease: a mix of hope, determination, and grit... Barnheart is a condition that needs smells and touch and crisp air to heal."
Hello, my name is Paula and I have Barnheart.
My dreams lie more towards small things, gardens and little houses, rather than things with legs. But yes, I have Barnheart. Tonight I went outside with my homemade digestif to put my bare feet on the grass and look for the moon and I realized- that's it. I'm stricken with this chronic condition.
I wanted to share a book that started me on this path. Really, I think those of us with Barnheart are born with the potential for it and when events and life intervene to separate us from our soul's desire (or whatever you want to call it), Barnheart arises.
I can point to one specific moment, one specific book that unlocked the barn door, if you'll pardon the pun. From the Ground Up by Amy Stewart- the same Amy Stewart of The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants- wrote a memoir in 2001 about her first garden in a coastal California cottage. It follows one year of trials, learning, tourists, weeds, and finally, the importance of forget-me-nots.
When I first read this, I was fresh out of college and full of half formed dreams. Like me, Amy wasn't settled yet. She only gardened at this bungalow for a year before she and her husband moved on, and in many ways that was one of the books most important lessons for me- impermanence is OK. Leave it better for the next person, and love it while you're there. I've put in gardens everywhere I've lived since.
You never know what's coming, but a garden makes you hope for the future. I'm not living my dream yet but I can still have my bit of earth (The Secret Garden may have been part of my Barn building, come to think of it.) And although I dream of a sweet cottage garden, Amy helps remind me that gardening is a dynamic process of growth and death and war on a small scale, and it's so worth it.
I've read this book yearly for about 10 years now, and I never get tired of it. Often I pull it out in late Winter and enjoy the utter lack of Winter that Amy experienced in California. In a few hours I can experience her entire growing calender from moving in to moving out, while the weather in PA calls for a total halt of outdoor activities.
I think every garden I've started has been in memory of this book and it's testament to life. I see myself in her learning and her mistakes. One day I'll live in the permanent garden, the one that comes after this story. But for now I keep starting from the ground up, too.
Today I started a project I’ve been dreading, and it really wasn’t all that bad! I love it when that happens.
Plantago is a super common lawn and garden ‘weed’, commonly known as Plantain. But not like the banana! It comes in 2 types around here, P. major or the Broad Leaf variety, and P. lanceolata or Narrow Leaf. Believe me, you’ve seen this plant.
P. lanceolata has an annoying little stalk with a cone-shaped head on it, which produces tiny flowers. This stalk is very tough and very flexible- it bends double when the lawnmower pushes on it, and springs back up once the blades are past. Hence, it is a bane for ‘perfect lawn’ people.
P. major also has a stalk, but this one produces flowers along the length of it. Last year I cultivated this wild plant in my garden, weeding around certain plants and encouraging them to grow big and lush. This year the flower stalks were huge- some grew 6 inches long or more.
After they flowered, they started producing seeds. The seed pods started out small and green, and as they matured turned a dusky purple. Once most of the stalk was purple, I harvested it near the ground. Many of the stalks were beginning to turn brown where they joined the leaves at the basal rosette when I harvested.
The stalks were left to dry on a sheet of paper to catch seeds, then I stripped them into a jar. I just stuck the stalk upside down in a jar, pinched the end of it with my fingers and pulled to ‘strip’ off the seeds and their husks.
This is where the project sat for the last few months. There was a lot of husks and chaff in the jar, and I don’t have seed screens. How was I going to separate them?
Finally today, I sat down with some tools. In the end, this is what worked the best- and it was easy too!
First, a spoonful of seeds and husks went into a wire strainer with a large-ish mesh. That was over a metal bowl, and I shook it to separate the loose seeds. Then that spoonful went into a mortar. I used a clay one with grooves and a wooden pestle. A few turns and lots of seeds had been broken out of their pods, so it all went back into the strainer. Another grind or two and the strainer was full of empty seed husks, which I threw out.
A spoonful at a time, the seeds were sifted into the metal bowl, along with a considerable amount of chaff. Then came the fun part.
I took the bowl outside, shook it to settle the seeds and bring the chaff to the top, and very gently blew on the bowl. The chaff puffed up and blew away. I took a deep breath and blew in a steady stream, turning the bowl and disturbing the seeds, which curved up the sides of the bowl and fell back in. I got lots of chaff on my glasses and in my hair but it wasn’t in the bowl anymore!
I got a little carried away and ended up blowing too hard and losing some of the seeds. Next time, I’ll remember to stay very gentle and let it take a little longer, and maybe use a deeper bowl.
But now I have a half pint jar of Plantain seeds ready for eating! I’m going to sprinkle them on things like poppy seeds, and make a gomaiso-like blend with toasted Milk Thistle and Nettle and something else, maybe Thyme. Dulse would be good but I’m out… I read somewhere that these seeds are very high in B vitamins so I want to do some more research, but I’m pleased with my harvest.
Last week I was lucky enough to take a tour of the Highlands Mansion gardens and wild areas with members of the Pennypack Farm Herb Study Group, led by forager Sarah Murray. Sarah lived for over 20 years in France, and developed an interest from her former husband François Couplan, a renowned expert on the edible plants of the world.
We met in the evening and, knowing we had limited light, tried to get as much in as we could even though we could stop every few feet in just the tended CSA beds to find wonderful edibles! Right away Sarah pointed out Evening Primrose with her precious flowers and edible leaves, growing all by herself near the garden gate, and a lush hedgerow of Mugwort that led us to a discussion of Mugwort cake in Korean culture. Interesting note: Mugwort looks like Feverfew when it's young.
Lamb's Quarters was standing near the Basil rows, and Sarah explained she much prefers to call it by another common name, Wild Spinach, since that makes people more likely to try it! It's a relative of Quinoa, and the seeds can be used in the same way. A distinguishing feature is a white bloom, or powder, on the very young leaves. And yes, it tastes like spinach.
Wild Carrot IS Queen Anne's Lace! I didn't know that! She's a biennial, so the first year has low growing, ferny, carrot-like leaves and tiny carrot-like taproots that smell STRONGLY of carrot. In the second year, the flower stalk shoots up into the familiar white umbrel with the dark drop in the center. She has hairy stems and very aromatic seeds, unlike Wild Hemlock, a potential look-alike that is VERY TOXIC but has no smell (seeds, roots or otherwise) and no hairs.
We came upon Velvet Leaf, a relative of Marshmallow that I wasn't familiar with before. It develops a fun pod with edible seeds that taste a little like green peppers. The leaves are also edible, and lend an interesting texture to a pesto.
There was plenty of Red Clover all over the CSA beds as well, and we discussed the white chevron on the leaves that marks the medicinal plants.
Next, we found Galinsoga, a weed I have seen many times and one that Sarah didn't have a common name for. It makes a nice salad green and has edible flowers, too.
Finally, we searched out a patch of Ground Ivy that Sarah had scouted earlier. It's great for allergic sinus issues, but tonight we were going to make Ground Ivy Chips!
After it got too dark, we went back to one of our fellow walker's homes for snacks. We had a nice salad with all sorts of greens and flowers, a superb pesto and the chips, with some crackers and a fantastic tea of Hibiscus, Cinnamon, Stevia and Nettles.
More Foraged Plants from Fellow Walker Hilarie
Ground Ivy Chips:
Dressing - 2 tbs balsamic vinegar, pinch of salt, pinch of garlic powder, olive oil.
Mix ingredients in that order, then coat the washed and stemmed leaves
Place the leaves one-by-one on a lightly oiled cookie sheet, smoothing out so they are open and flat.
Place in oven preheated to 400º, and leave in exactly 3 minutes.
Remove leaves from sheet immediately and enjoy!
Garlic Mustard leaves, Velvetleaf leaves, and any other aromatic leaves work well (Basil, Parsley, Cilantro, etc.).
Soak 1 cup raw almonds overnight and remove the skins.
Place them in a food processor, and add the leaves, washed and stemmed (about 2-3 cups) and salt. You can also add fresh garlic for flavor.
Add 2-3 tbs coconut oil and blend. Add water or coconut milk to obtain a smooth texture.
What a lovely morning! (By that I mean hot, muggy, buggy and hot.)
Truly, though, I really love living in a temperate climate. Our summers are very hot and VERY humid, our winters cold and wet (last January we had a windy day that was 12 degrees, and a night that was 9. Couldn't even breathe!)
But that's just it. I love the changes, the shifts, the adjusting. Going outside after a thunderstorm wouldn't feel so clean and fresh if it weren't for the humid day that led up to it. The crisp, cool, dry mornings of Autumn are best enjoyed after the baking we just endured for the last several months. So even though I would love to see a night time temperature in the 60's, I relish this heat knowing that I won't have it soon enough.
My Tomatoes are relishing this heat too, as are the Chamomile and Red Clover blooms. There's a St. John's Wort oil just beginning it's second solar infusion to make it double strength, the single Calendula plant is giving out flowers one at a time, and the Dill and Cilantro have started to flower.
I love this time of year.
Landscapes are just so visual!
I have been struggling with this prompt for weeks. For one thing, I don't have many pictures of my own; I'm building a collection as I begin to blog more and develop an online presence for myself but there's not much too it yet. For another thing, I feel like I ALMOST live in my dream landscape, yet the 'not quite' is a constant reminder of of how much work I have to do yet, how far I have to go, so I've been avoiding facing that a little.
Today, I read in a newsletter that "We keep thinking that once we get to that next place, we'll be able to exhale. But the truth is, We never really arrive. We just get where we want to go, and then there's another place to go. And as the Buddhists say: there is no there, only here." This is both reassuring and frustrating! I want to get to live in my dream landscape, but will I every actually be satisfied?
For me, the physical world where I live is very, very important to my daily happiness and satisfaction. Right now I am a renter, and will be for the foreseeable future. I have very little control over the landscape around my house- there's a golf course, and a maintenance crew. This definitely has advantages, like getting a new roof without even asking! But I also can't grow much of anything outside- between the groundhogs and the maintenance guys, everything I've planted has disappeared.
However, it is pretty at my house. It's not too formal, yet the grounds are well cared for and there are trees everywhere. In considering this writing prompt, I realized trees are an absolute must have. So is grass, and hills, and water, and rather untouched nature. Rocks, deserts, extremes of height or sharpness or distance don't draw me as much as wondering what's around that bend, what's the story with that old barn or house, how can all those shades of green exist in the same patch of forest?
So I put together a Pinterest board to showcase what draws me, what I love to see no matter how many times it's been painted and displayed in small town art galleries. My favorite landscapes are pretty, at least to my eye, and working on this prompt has shown me how much I crave pretty in my world. Eventually I'll have my own home where I can make all my own decisions, but even now I wake up most days and just let the beauty around my home soothe my soul, and I will have to find a way to continue that in my future.
Workday Weeds is an ongoing project to introduce our common, everyday medicinal "weed" herbs. Hang out with these hard-working herbs and get to know your ground-level medicine better!
Dandelion is such a dear, dear friend.
I know, sacrilege, right??
Really, though, this is an amazing plant. The root makes a fantastic liver tonic. The leaves, a kidney tonic. Notice, those two things go together- build up the strength of the liver and kidneys and you'll purify your blood, which will remove junk from circulating to every cell in your body and bring all sorts of goodies to them, since of course you'll also be digesting and assimilating better!
Folk knowledge says you can use the sap from the flower stems to kill warts, and to make henna-like tattoos. The flowers make a mean wine, and I've read they fritter up nicely too- I have yet to try that but will update when I do. Henriette Kress says the flowers bring joy, which is a lovely gift, and that flower syrup tastes nutty and of vanilla. She also says some other pretty great things about this hardy survivor (as do her commentors!):
The second thing is that where the roots meet the rosette of leaves, the plant produces a dark purple color indicative of oxalic acid. When harvesting, I always remove that bit to prevent unnecessary buildup.
I am amazed at the tenacity this plant shows. Have you seen where she grows?? Out of solid walls, in stones, places where there's barely any soil. And with that cheerful bright yellow smile, at the same time! This tells me something about the strength of her medicine. She gives deep, foundational support to those livers and kidneys, digging way down to anchor their strength and draw up their energy and light.
All in all, though, I love my dandelions and carefully weed around them in my garden. Try it!
I've been trying to remember to notice what my garden sounds like.
My garden is new, outside against the building where my business rents space. I told my landlady I was going to put a few plants in, and, well, I tilled it all up and went a little crazy! So I imagine I would hear the sounds of traffic on the road, the noise of the small carwash across the street, occasional doors or voices belonging to others in the building, maybe a car as it pulls into our parking lot or my voice saying Hi to someone walking past.
But in this past week, I haven't yet remembered to listen. I don't think this is an example of a favorite lesson I learned from one of my teachers: "Forgetfulness is a form of Resistance!" I think it's because I'm so noisy!
When I'm in the garden, I'm constantly talking to myself and the plants, and I honestly couldn't tell you if it's out loud our not. I'm planting, or weeding, or planning. I'm checking out all the plants, since they're ALL new, and asking them what they need or how are they doing, congratulating them on not getting run over by errant parkers yet, imagining them grown up and filled in and beautiful, checking to see if seeds have sprouted or if that's just more grass popping up. There's a constant dialogue going on between Me, Myself, and the Garden. What needs water? Did the tomatoes get too much? What am I going to do with that bare space? How much more can I fit in? Did I make a mistake planting that there? There's so much grass! When I go back inside, the first thing I notice is the quiet- not only in my ears, but in my mind.
My garden is an active, creative space for me. It's not restful, contemplative, or meditative. There's nowhere to sit down, to just watch, or to just listen. Realizing this, I now want to put in a wind or water feature, something small to hold people's attention instead of just walking past and glancing down at some plants in the dirt. Maybe then I'll stand still long enough to hear what the Garden has to say to Me.
I am at a friend's house, watching their dogs while they vacation. Just as I was getting going this morning, I heard the first drops of a spring shower begin outside, so I opened the guest bedroom window wide and propped my elbows up on the windowsill.
Right outside the window is an unknown tree, at least 30 feet high with red tipped leaves. Behind it is an even taller evergreen, with bright green tips, and nestled between them is a white flowering Dogwood with pink and red Azaleas underneath. Down to the right I see the tops of the Rhodos, more evergreens, a red Japanese Maple, and what looks like a forest of foliage. From this vantage I feel like I'm in a treehouse, high above the canopy.
When I first opened my computer to record this peace (like the pun?!) the light patter of rain had slowed, and the leaves were shaking off their dampness. Now a spring cloudburst has opened up in earnest, with the farthest trees shrouded in mist and the road noise accompanied by the hiss of water on tires. The air through the window feels cool and like water itself as it pours over my skin. A breeze will help move rain to the roots of these trees, and I am so pleased my new garden is getting watered much more gently than my hose can.
Thunder! Far away and echo-y, I thought it was a truck at first, but now we have fat, fast rain pouring straight down. Not quite "get-me-a-bar-of-soap" fast, but another crack of thunder almost brings the rain to that pace. Now the near trees look misty in the rain.. Oops, there are tiny water drops on my laptop screen.
I imagine that many of the drivers swishing by on the other side of those trees see only wet, annoyance, or maybe a touch of relief that the pollen is washing off their cars. True, wet roads can be slippery, as can wet flowers that have fallen to the pavement, and people need to take more care in the rain. But what a shame that more people can't spend ten or twenty minutes with the magic of this spring shower, and feel the plants drink up this rain like the finest champagne, waiting to stretch closer to the sun with their new life, and listen to the thunder and the birds and how sound changes as the rain changes, and watch the air itself change too. This really is magic.
Fun Fact: I'm an herbalist and a movement coach. Not a doctor, or a pharmacist, and not pretending to be one on TV.
This is a public space, so my writing reflects my experiences and I try to stay general enough so it might relate to you. This does not constitute medical advice, and I encourage you to discuss concerns with your doctor. Remember, however, that the final say in your wellness decisions are always yours- you have the power to choose, you are the boss of you.
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This website is provided for educational and informational purposes only and is not medical, mental health or healthcare advice. The information presented here is not intended to diagnose, treat, heal, cure or prevent any illness, medical condition or mental or emotional condition. Working with us is not a guarantee of any results. Paula Billig owns all copyrights to the materials presented here unless otherwise noted.