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April 2017

Capturing Spring Beauty-Sweet Violets

Life’s smallest details are often the most intriguing. A soft smile. The taking of one’s hand into another. Homemade cards and baking from scratch—all minor details in the grandeur of a single life, yet vitally important as expressions of love, support, and togetherness. Although small, these are the treasures most remembered.

The expressions of nature are much the same. Understanding the need for minute details, Mother Nature offers up some wonderful helpers within her rhythmic cycles. Before the trees first turned green and the dandelions graced every nook and cranny in great proliferation, I met with the humble violet. Knowing very little, but having an affinity for the name of such a delicate flower, I’ve been soaking up these violets and all they can teach me.

This recipe for Spring Tonic Honey from The Nerdy Farm Wife was perfect for an early afternoon wildcrafting adventure. Incorporating my two favorite colors, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to prolong the beauty of those small, purple-blue blossoms in a tasty, healthful treat laced with golden dandelion petals. At times as I was gathering, I had to remind myself not to become rushed. As I plucked the flowers from their stems and dropped them into my mason jar, I focused on the very essence of each flower’s being. It took quite some time to fill. Each moment I brought myself back to the meditative practice of giving thanks for the plants and my presence with them, I was enhancing my bond with the violets.

I believe we are drawn to specific plants for many reasons, even if they are unclear. I’ve always enjoyed the word “violet,” feeling its beauty roll off my tongue. After reading about the violet’s properties I feel even more confident that this is a special plant for me. Being a mucilaginous plant (one that coats bodily tissues with soothing, moistening agents when infused and consumed) makes violet a plant ally for naturally dry constitutions. Violets are neither an antidepressant nor a nervine, but in all their smallness lies a mighty power to lift spirits and bring cheerfulness to the heart.

Perhaps it’s the way these lovely plants send out their runners and spread fluidly throughout the yard that brings a smile to my face. Or maybe it is their comradery with the dandelions that complements their cool colors that makes me appreciate their presence. Since the end of February they have become more and more abundant. Now that we are approaching the first of May the violet blooms are beginning to fade. However, they will continue unrolling their heart-shaped leaves throughout the summer. If you can recognize the sweet violet without the flower, the leaves are a great addition to salads and make some delicious tea. (Here is a detailed illustration of the sweet violet.)

Violets truly bring a lot to the table—even in their smallness. They don’t ask for much and provide a gentle happiness for those of us who adore them. Their sweetness will surely be enjoyed in the floral scented honey on my shelf. Yet, even when that is gone, their small gift in the early spring will live on until next February. My heart will certainly be searching for something beautiful to melt off the winter chill by then again.

 

Garden Design: Things to Think About

Creating a garden is truly a work of art. Placing one’s hopes within tiny seeds and leaving their fate in the hands of Mother Nature is a beautiful act of faith. And a great way to practice taking responsibility for one’s own health. The process of garden building is fun and can be as creative as the gardener allows it to be.

The design and organizational structure of your garden is completely up to you. Once you’ve chosen what type of plants you’d like to grow 
you are ready to plan the garden of your dreams! This is one of my favorite parts because I can see my ideas coming together. Proper planning will allow you to be the most efficient when it comes time to getting in the dirt. The following considerations aren’t the only ways to go about designing a garden. However, they have been beneficial for me in creating some very aesthetically pleasing and deliciously productive garden plots in years past.

Starting a garden is much like beginning a jigsaw puzzle. The major difference is that you don’t have an image to go off of when putting the pieces together. You get to create that image and you’ll want to start with the border. Being as precise as possible (maybe to the half-foot or so) will help you determining how many plants can fit within your given space later down the road. Take out a tape measure and figure out how long and wide your planting space will be. This is also a good time to determine what kind of border you will have around your garden. Will it be fenced? Will you have a natural edge, or will it simply end and grass begin?

Now that you have a border you can really have some fun arranging and rearranging the plants you’ve picked to grow in your space. There remains a great deal to consider when determining where to place your plants. The sun, the surface of your growing space, and your plant’s needs all play a role in the positioning of your plants in the garden. Despite all of this, infinite possibilities remain!

My next step is thinking about the sun. In the past, the gardens I’ve designed had zero shade. This is great for cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, but not so good for leafy vegetables that need a break from the hot summer sun. This year my garden is surrounded by tall cedars on every side except to the south. I’m having to consider the pattern of the sun a great deal more to ensure I don’t block any low growing plants (like sweet potatoes) with taller bushier plants (tomatoes and peppers). Making a chart of your plants with the categories: full-sun, partial-sun, and full-shade is helpful to have handy when planning out your garden.

Next, you’ll have to think about the earth. You may want to consider the following questions. What is the surface of your plot like? Is it flat or sloped? Is the soil rocky, sandy, or clay-bogged? In my second year of gardening I made the mistake of switching the direction of my garden rows so they flowed down the slight slope of the land. Several of my plants were washed away as the rain ran down the hill. Thinking about the natural characteristics of the land and how you can work with it is a valuable lesson. It’s safe to say that my rows followed suit going against the rain in the years to come.

My favorite consideration is companion planting. Knowing who is a friend of who can change the flavor and the amount produced of such allies. It can even lessen the amount of time you spend ridding pests from the garden. A general guide for this is to think about what foods pair well together on your dinner plate. Those will often pair well together in the garden, too. Tomatoes and basil, for example. There’s a ton of information out there on what works well together and what to avoid. It is definitely worth looking into when planning your garden.

Next to actually being out in the garden, this is my favorite step. I do it every year because it’s fun to imagine new possibilities. So pull out some graph paper, grab a ruler and a big eraser and get to work. The best teacher I’ve had is experience. There’s always something to learn, and the very best part is that what doesn’t work out or needs to be modified can easily be changed the following year. The only way to really fail when it comes to gardening is to stop trying. There isn’t any fun to be found in that approach anyway.

Minimizing the Use of Plastic Grocery Bags

Most people make their life goal changes and resolutions for improvement in January, but I like to wait until April when my soul comes alive with anticipation for the bright, colorful months ahead. The opportunity to celebrate another Earth Day—a day I only half-jokingly profess as the most important day of the year—is the perfect time for setting new “green” goals and getting creative with how I can cultivate a greater Earth-consciousness in my daily routines.

A change I’ve wanted for several years without success is to eliminate the plastic grocery bag. It seems so simple, yet time and time again, I walk out of the store with ten more grocery bags to stuff in the already overflowing collection in the kitchen. I leave the store feeling guilty and thinking, “You know better than this. Get yourself some reusable bags and don’t go to the store without them.” But then I get home and don’t think of my advice to myself again until I’m in the checkout lanes again.

I’m needing a little push in the right direction. A surefire way to motivate myself toward any environmental change is taking a look at facts. A reminder of just how terrible a practice is for Mother Earth is the perfect spark to get my fire for environmental stewardship burning again. Naturally, what I found was heart wrenching.

It is estimated that 100 billion plastic bags are used for shopping in the U.S. each year. This costs some $4 billion for retailers to have their names placed on bags so we might become walking advertisements. Only between 1 and 3% of those consumed are recycled. And for the most part, my grocery bags end up in the trash acting as small trash bags themselves.

Furthermore, plastic bags are derived from petroleum products. This means their production causes air pollution and uses energy that could be focused elsewhere. The polyethylene used to create these convenient shopping pals likes to stick around long after their convenience is spent. For polyethylene to break down we must wait 1000 years. But even then, plastic bags aren’t completely gone. This is because they photodegrade instead of biodegrading. They breakdown smaller and smaller until their tiny, toxic bits spread through soil and waterways waiting for an unknowing creator to ingest it.

Often plastic bags cause problems for animals before even reaching the tiny, broken-down, toxic bit stage. Somewhere close to a million seabirds and mammals die from ingesting plastic bags or the bags wrap around their intestines leading to a miserably painful death.

I can’t seem to let go of that image—an animal dying from the inside out because I needed the convenience of a plastic bag to carry my consumer goods home. I won’t shift the percentage alone, but that won’t stop me from joining the only 5% of U.S. shoppers who use reusable shopping bags. Maybe the self-reminding research will encourage you, too.

There are plenty of ways to get your hands on some reusable grocery bags. I found some lovely ones here. You could also pick some up in the grocery store or make your own from old T-Shirts or other materials. However you go about it, be sure to enjoy the feeling of “less” you are creating. Less plastic bag waste. Less energy used to create them. Fewer animals suffering a harsh, unnatural end to life. And less cluttered up grocery bags in your home. Sounds like a major gain for me!

The Basics of Incorporating Herbs into Your Everyday Life

When you study plant medicine you realize that you, and only you, are responsible for the health of your body, mind, and spirit. This truth cannot be denied upon discovering the bountiful nourishment our earth freely offers to the grateful soul. Just take a look at the persistent dandelion. Every part of this plant can be used as medicine, and they can be found just about anywhere. Open your eyes to the worth of that which we’ve been trained for generations to deem only a “weed,” and you will see that some of our most powerful tools for sustainable health have been planted in your own front yard.

Luckily you don’t have to be an avid herb farmer or medicine maker to benefit from the use of plant medicine (although doing these things are highly recommended to get the most health benefits). There are many ways to incorporate the use of herbs into your daily life, as well as many ways to get your hands on herbal ingredients. The best thing to do is start small when it comes to adding a new practice to your life. Don’t do too much. You will become overwhelmed, and may wish to give up.

There are three main ways to “take” herbs as a medicine. Tea, tincture, and capsules all offer various benefits to the human body when taken regularly, or as appointed by an herbalist or naturopathic doctor. Some herbs work better as a tea than others, while some are more effective when taken as a tincture. Each herb differs on how it can best be placed within the body. Here I’ll run through the basics of each option. A little self-study and experimentation, and you will surely find out what would work best for you, too.

Teas are tasty and effective preparations for numerous medicinal herbs. One of my favorite things about drinking tea to support health is that making time for tea can be a very meditative, relaxing process. Teas are infused (or decocted—when making root teas) with the medicinal properties of the plant. On a daily basis, teas can be consumed hot or cold to support proper bodily functions and immune health. Tea can also be helpful in shortening the stay of coughs, colds, and congestion. A favorite tea recipe of mine is one that can be made from plants I can grow right here at home. I first discovered it on the Herbal Academy’s blog where they’ve given it the name Weed’s Tea. It’s a simple, gentle recipe to support overall health and well-being. Perfect for daily consumption!

Tinctures are concentrated herbal extracts that are held in a solvent—generally an alcohol. They are typically made from dried or fresh plant parts. Because they are so strong you only take a minute amount at a time. Typically prepared in dropper bottles, you can mix a dropper full of your tincture into warm water, juice, or another drink of choice. You can also take them directly if you can withstand their potency. Tinctures are typically taken several times throughout the day, and are great for short durations. Tinctures are easy to whip up right in your kitchen for a highly effective homemade remedy.

Capsules, or herbal pills, are another way to add herbs into your daily life. This is much like a supplement at a store. However, when you craft your own herbal capsules, you will know exactly what is going into them. You can purchase vegetable capsules through various herbal stores (I get mine here) along with powdered forms of herbs. You can also make them without the capsules by simply mixing dried herbs with water and honey (or maple syrup).

  It’s also possible to get a great deal of medicinal herbs in the food you eat every day. It is a bit more difficult to coordinate and ensure that you will be getting certain quantities of specific herbs this way. But it is still a very good habit to get into—preparing foods rich in herbal fare. There are several herbal recipes books available today that can help you add medicinal herbs into your daily meal plan.

My tried and true one-stop-shop for herbal ingredients, teas, and tools has been Mountain Rose Herbs for the past two years. I trust them to have the highest quality of herbs, and they surpass my expectations in being an eco-friendly supplier. Although I desire to grow and maintain my own supply of herbs for crafting and medicine making, I’m grateful for such a company in empowering me to deepen my understanding of medicinal herbs.

The most important thing about taking strides to be more responsible for your own health is that you continue to try. Maybe start with one tea that you will drink every day. It could be one tea that contains one herb. That one herb may be great for sustaining every day health. Starting and upholding that one little habit might be all it takes to lead you into new, healthful changes. It’s not about giving up things in life you enjoy. It’s about getting to know the plants that can transform your health through one or all of the ways I just mentioned. It’s about training yourself to enjoy these plants, even the most bitter of them! And of course, being thankful for the gifts they have to share.

Crafting a Materia Medica: Creating Space

The green has really been popping these days, and its making me antsy! I’ve been waiting and waiting to get my hands in the earth and to see the fruits of my labors in the form of strong, flowering plants. I’m ecstatic knowing that time has finally come. Gardening surely has a way of teaching patience, for which I am grateful—no matter how dreary those dormant months can make me feel. Nevertheless, after having my nose in an herb book all winter, I’m ready to start applying that book knowledge out in the field.

That being said, it seems counter-intuitive to share about my latest endeavors. I’m putting together a binder full of herb and medicinal plant details for my own self-study. This practice is known as creating a materia medica. I first read about materia medicas on the Herbal Academy’s blog. Unfortunately, I was a month too late to sign up for their free course in how to put one together. But that shouldn’t deter anyone. I’m starting one for myself now-in the midst of planting season. Oh, what I would do with just one more hour each day!

A materia medica is not specific to herbalism, yet for my use of the term it simply means “healing materials.”(1) Many herb books from the past use this term in their titles. Plant after plant, it details as much information as the author can learn and collect. They often go over the history of the plant, the many names gifted to that plant over the years, its chemical constituents, how to identify it, and so on. It is a very in-depth and organized work.

Someone (like me) that has a natural curiosity about the wonders of the plants around them and around the world, might be interested in putting one of these materia medicas together for their own personal use. Taking the time to create such a collection requires true dedication to growing one’s plant knowledge. To become a member of the American Herbalists Guild (an organization with mission supporting clinical herbalism as a profession) one must have a working knowledge of 150 various plants. Creating your own materia medica would be a great way to begin down that road.

You can easily find all the information you need to complete the materia medica online or in books. Those places are great areas to start searching for more information. Yet, what they lack is the plant themselves. Spending time among the plants you are studying is the only way to forge a relationship with them. And that relationship is the base for any healing work.

So, to begin my studies I am collecting supplies and creating space. I need those herb books and online references. I need assistance in determining how to setup my organized studies. I need a field guide. I don’t want to get two or three herbs in and realize I missed something big. A little beforehand research will put me on the right track. But what I also need (more than any other component mentioned) is to set aside time to be with the plants.

I am a do-er. I like to be actively seeing my product evolve. And I can certainly have many tasks on my herbal studies checklist that requires me to be actively doing something. Yet, this sitting and being with the plants, studying their characteristics, and enjoying their presence is vital. It is the basis for all that stems from my desire to know more and more. To be able to share more and more. I must create a space that allows me to cultivate this relationship. I must take that time.

Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon I have a date with the plants. It’s a date that can’t be broken. I set aside this time to visit with what is available to me. Right now that is violets, the dandelions, and the plantain. And quite honestly those three alone should give me more than enough to contemplate this growing season. Those that know herbs well suggest even choosing just one herb to study in a years’ time. This is a process that shouldn’t be rushed. I want to know the plant inside and out. And I want this to be a lifelong work of art. I want to understand the root of each plant, not just the surface level. I want a true friend rather than a nice acquaintance.

Despite all the work that springtime brings, there really isn’t a better time to get started building my own materia medica than right now. As I fall into this thinking that there is so much to do, it is soothing to know the plants will be there calling me to sit a spell. To enjoy this space we share together. Like a child eagerly heading outside to play with friends, I take my notebook and pencils and settle in for bit. I’ll be able to learn directly from the plants as they pop up and offer what they have for us once again. And the best herbalists know that a more perfect teacher does not exist.

  1. This reference is taken directly from the Herbal Academy article titled What is a Materia Medica