finding balance: wild cultivations

backberries, hemlock, weeds, farmthistle blooms, weeds, farm, thistlesamaranth, weeds, farmbindweed, morning glory, weeds, farmdock, weeds, farmlamb's quarter, weeds, edible weeds, farmThis week, in the back of my mushy brain, hot from long hours in warm weather weeding, weeding, weeding, this was my recurring thought, “why not go into the edible/medicinal weed business????”

I mean, seriously, these plants GROW! They clearly are the top in their class and need no help from us to flourish.

And not only are they really the best at growing vigorously, they are the best at harnessing nutrients and making them available to us. That whole thing about the narrowing of our food system to those forty or so vegetables you will find at our market booth or at the supermarket brings with it a two-fold problem, the first being this limited variety of foods we now eat.  But the other, more serious problem is that in the process of really cultivating these certain crops from spindly, wild, weeds into the nice, big, tasty vegetables we eat today, we lost, in comparison, the amount of nutrition we get from doing the right thing and eating all of our veggies.

I, for one, don’t get too hung up on this.  The fact is, we are where we are in history, and we can’t go back, we can only go forward.  That is what we try to do here on the farm.  And I also know from our own experience that not all of the wild edibles we have played around with eating can qualify as much more than survival food.  They just aren’t that exciting.  Still, I appreciate the wisdom of “weeds”, and have come to love and use many of them for both their taste and their nutritive/healing properties.  That strong, earthy taste you get from nettles and lamb’s quarters (bottom photo) is the taste, literally, of earth.  Those plants are just made of minerals.

And much like the vegetables we grow, which I see as both the best tasting foods for our plates and as important elements of our heath and well-being (hello my delicious daily vitamins!), some weeds are like this times one hundred.

Take the weeds I put in a jar of vinegar many weeks ago, to have on hand as a potent calcium supplement.  Most of these things I was weeding out of my landscape beds already, like yellow dock, plantain, red clover, dandelion, and burdock.  Others were from my herb garden, all of them planted last fall, so just itching to be put to use–Japanese mugwort, comfrey, wormwood.  I threw in some raspberry leaf.  I was given the idea by a friend, and it seemed like such a good use for these plentiful plants.

What ended up as a surprise, though, was that this vinegar, which I made to use medicinally ended up tasting amazing.  It is absolutely delicious.   We use it to make all of our salad dressings now.  Who knew, right?!

So as I weeded the seemingly monstrous invasion of some kind of amaranth in a section of one our fields this week, my joke was that the weed business was, truly, the business to be in.  And joke, though it was, we are almost ready to harvest one of the only other wild edibles besides nettles that we bring to market next week, its relative, lamb’s quarters.  It is, right now, a love/hate relationship.

Still, this subject has always fascinated me.  One of our goals on this farm is to nourish our land so that it can produce the most nourishing food possible.  But that the wild edible plants–the weeds–will always have be more nourishing fascinates me.  It also, thankfully, gives me a chance to pause and appreciate that in this somewhat constant glitch in of our system, the weeds, I can see the amazing beauty and design that is the natural world.  It reminds me that we, as land stewards and sustainable farmers, can utilize and mimic it, even if it is something we can’t fully recreate.

Because, in the end, we weeded like crazy this week.  We have our own agenda, and as pretty as those bindweed flowers are, that we have let them bloom is not great.  That they are climbing up our sweet, modern apple trees is not great.  They are not welcome here, on this farm.  At least in our fields.

And the agricultural mind has to feel this way, has to do this, even if we, on this farm, aim more for balance than anything.   The shifting and shaping of things towards our will is a part of farming.  We are amplifying what we what from any given piece of land, in terms of yield, by a lot.  We are doing the dictating.

So, some weeds, yes, we will take and use.  This is an area that I really do want to learn as much as I can about.  But, good lord, some of these weeds, though I appreciate them for their tenacity, their demise is the first thing I think about when I wake up.  There is much weeding to be done, always, at this time of year.  We have to work more than it seems like we have time to right now to get where we need to be.

But soon, the tiny plants we’ve put in the ground will be the vigorously growing ones, blooming.  And then, producing, wildly!  That they need a little help from us now is just part of the bargain we’ve struck with them.  The agreement of cultivation.  Of growing food.  And this has its own sense of beauty and design, even if its one best kept to by some really hard work on our part.  We keep our end of the bargain sewed to the seams of our dirty pants, our well worn, tired, and exhausted bodies, and our scratched and soar hands.  It evens out in the end, and I think this approach is a good balance for our times.  It’s our kind of growing wild.

moving forward in a circle

into the unknownWe are one week away from the start of our summer farmer’s market season.  We have been so steadily putting one foot in front of the other this spring, getting ready for this stretch of the year, these next 20-30 weeks or so, our “main” season here on the farm, and now that it is just one week away, of course, we are feeling not steady at all but instead just rushed, rushed, rushed.  Those gooseberries I wrote about that never got weeded are nearly giving me nightmares, they have all but disappeared underneath the bindweed.  And the strawberry patches we hope to be harvesting from in the next few weeks are playing hide and seek in some knee high grass. 

Oh, the adventures of it all!

We are fairly used to this routine by now, seven years in, but that doesn’t mean we can always control our feelings of ineptitude when we encounter, even repeatedly, the sheer force of the wild world.  With a leftover sore throat caught from the children, today I feel it overtime.  Today, I dream about the many hired hands we could use if only we could afford to hire them.  I dream of a week straight of childcare so that I can get ahead.  I dream of the sleepy feel of winter. 

So silly!

Life on the farm truly is about routines and cycles, and as such is fairly predictable, at least in general, even if it is not in the particular.  Those things change every season, and are always a mystery we have to watch unfold as we go.  But the cycle remains the same. 

Every year, at least once at this time of year, we will feel overwhelmed.  Some years it is the weather, the waiting for the land to dry.  Some years, it is the planting and keeping things going in the ground on schedule.  Some years it is the money and do we have enough right now when we spend it the most. 

And this year, I swear, it is the weeds. 

I walk the farm with the babe of a boy on my hip and worry about getting some air to our perennial fruits.  And I can’t seem to catch up.  And everywhere I look I see another thistle or burdock or hemlock plant that needs to be knocked down before it blooms.  I sigh and let the one rainy day in this month, today, comfort me with rest while I make the lists that will keep us moving forward.

Then, tomorrow, I will set out again, one step at a time, moving towards this unattainable goal of getting to all those weeds.  With or without reaching it, just like every year, I know that soon the summer will fully set in and we will be back in the swing of it all.  We always “catch up” eventually.  We always move from this kind of busy to the harvesting kind of busy, all fun and full, hearts raised and beating hard, out in the sun while it lasts.

The farm is always moving, both in a forward-upward motion, as well as in a circle.  Kind of like life.  The path it takes always leads somewhere good, even though it is not always right on target or 100% predictable.  We start a farming season in all possibility, all hope.  Then, inevitably, we get a bit waylaid for a while in the weeds, until we emerge and find that once again, everything is again.  Even more than okay.  We find that just like every year, it is bursting in greatness.  We find ourselves swimming in the river on hot summer afternoons, staying up late not just working but playing by the bonfire, wishing on twinkling stars.  We find ourselves blissfully breathing easy again, while the land provides, ever abundantly.

I could almost say that it happens with or without us, and that would almost be true.  The earth provides.  It cycles, on and on, ever and always.  But we did, and do, a lot in order to receive this fecundity year after year.  This, we must always remember, no matter what kind of spring craze we are feeling. 

This, we must remember, no matter if we feel a bit like we are still at the bottom of the staircase of the year.  Because all of us, most likely, have been doing the work we need to do, moving forward on the journey, even when we are at that point when we can’t exactly see it.  Perhaps a few steps more forward, even with a blindfold on, will lead us up and into the light.

A bit more of summer

Summer is going, going, gone now.

It has actually been very warm still, but there is no getting around the colder nights and mornings, nor that early sunset, inching in every day.  For us, late summer and early fall are wonderful times of the year.  Everything is planted except the fava beans and garlic.  This is huge since the farmer has been planting something every week, either in flats or the ground, since January.  It is freeing in its finality–it is too late to plant much else.  Weeding is still work to be done, but it is also the time of year when (hopefully) the summer crops have been weeded and grown into their spaces so we don’t have to worry about them too much–just don’t tell the few hidden bean plantings that they missed out on weed free living this summer, it happens.  The harvest has reached its highest point and that is always a happy place for us farmers to reach.  September and October–harvest season–are truly the most abundant on the farm.  And we get to relax a bit and enjoy the perfect weather this time of year brings.  We went on our annual August camping trip to a sweet, magic, wonderful, tucked away lake; we are soaking up the sun while it lasts, hitting the river as often as the days are warm, wondering each time if it will be the last swim of the year.  Heading to the beach.   I celebrated birthday number thirty-six last month, and now, in less that two weeks we get to celebrate our harvest baby’s second birthday just a day after the farmer grows a year older too.

Life, the seasons, keeping the beat.

I can’t believe I haven’t gotten anything written here in over a month.  I am continually torn between hating the computer and appreciating it for being the only place I get to do one of the things I love the most.  Thirty-six gives me that feeling–in the smallest sense, but still–of life slipping away.  I’ve been prioritizing a bit in my mind.  Trying to put back in the things that have been missing.  The computer is a giant time suck and I wish that it weren’t so I could get on and use this space as my little creative outlet without all the distractions.  Wishful thinking, perhaps.

Today, I just wanted to share a bit of our last days of summer, to try to get back in the groove over here.  Photos of the farm in all its fall glory to come; and soon, it will be time to start talking about our plans for next year.  But right now, I need to go process tomatillos, and later today, apples.  Our girl developed a fever through the night, so tea and stories for her when she rouses.  All signs point to the change of the seasons.  In fact, looking out the window, I see that beautiful overcast gray which would seem oppressive until you live here and learn to love it because it wraps around you and the landscape like a blanket.  The wind is blowing, it is chill.

Summer, like all things, can only stay a while before changing into something else.  Life is continually transforming.

Through the bee’s eyes

So much depnds on how you look at it; on whether the sweet and beautiful children we adore are bickering with one another or are creating the most breathtaking drawings, forts, and stories, on whether or not we have a few extra bucks to buy some yarn with or other such fun purchase or we are staring at the checkbook wondering how to cover all those bills.  I am always in awe of this phenomenon.  One day this house can seem like it will never see order again and the farm will appear covered in weeds when the next, perhaps with the fresh eyes of a new day to view it all with, it will rival Eden in all its glory.  It all depends on the lens we are using.

As we gear up for one of our annual CSA open farms, we can’t help but think of “all” that needs to be done before the party.  This is the kind of event that immedietly brings out the worst sort of glasses for us to wear, not a hint of rose shading to help ease the glare that comes from certain areas of the farm (not to mention the house which is in mid-bedroom-switcheroo anyways).  All that seemed possible to keep up with in spring has reached its hey day, meaning that in those areas I didn’t make it to, the weeds I so desperately wanted to knock back have once again gone to seed. 

With just a few days in the midst of what is still a pretty busy time on the farm, I know that things are going to look mostly the same on Sunday as they do today.  We used to go crazy trying to whip this place into shape for such events–and we still do make this an opportunity to take care of certain things that we have been meaning to get to, things on the farm that get pushed to the side in favor of planting and weeding and harvesting the food crops–but I have also come to realize that it matters so much less than I used to worry it did.  The fun of these events is the getting together, the beautiful countryside, the spectacular view and warm summer evenings.  Sharing the growing space with the folks who eat from it.

So, like the bees and other wild critters who thoroughly enjoy not only the wild areas we intentionally create as homes for them and as buffers from our neighbors’ conventionally managed farm fields , but also the wild areas we meant to tend to that are now covered in thistles gone to seed, I will try to enjoy it all too.  The farmer doesn’t even want me to mess with those thistles anyways, he loves how many bees feed from their pretty purple flowers.   My take on it is a little different.  I figure since we provide a lot of bee forage from other plants on this farm, this one–so prickly and poking when it finds its way into the vegetable beds–I am going to try to get rid of, at least on this side of the property.  But since that didn’t happen this year, I am trying to look at it as I have in other years.  Positively.

Through the right lens, everything is as it should be.  The tale of this farm, this year, when you come to visit, is the tale of another year of living here, many things coming more and more to look like our vision of the farm, as well as many, many things that fell by the wayside.  It was a year with a new baby in tow, with three busy big kids to tend to, and lots of farming to be done.  All in all, what you see means good things happened.   It means time for the kids, for play, for summmer!  It means lots of food grown for our community.  And it has made a lot of bees very, very happy too.  Through their eyes, this place is a thing of beauty.  And when I look at it with my heart, that is what I see too.

Through their eyes

A few weeks ago, while we were all outside playing and I was snapping endless photos in my attempt to learn how to really make use of this great camera we have, the boys asked if they could take some pictures.  Luca has his own camera, and he shares it with Olorin some, but they wanted to use the big camera so bad!  And so, with much trepidation and an anxiously beating heart, I let them each take a few pictures with it, while I followed them around the farm and stayed close, but not to close, to make sure that the camera was treated with care.

We are lucky to have a pretty nice camera, a generous gift from Grandpa.  If something happened to it, we certainly couldn’t replace it, and that would be a bummer because I attribute half of the decency of the photos I take for the blog to the camera (the other half to finally learning to take a decent shot now that the better photographer is too busy farming).  It was nice to see that the boys naturally had a good sense of composition already.  Here’s a look at the farm through their eyes.

We have so many of these old White Oaks on the property.  The whole place must have been a grove at one time, only thinned out after they had grown, because they are all so perpendicular.  None had the chance to round out on the top and look beautiful like a lone oak can.  Now, without the support of one another close by, they look kind of gangly and awkward to me, but I have come to love them with time (I wrote about it here).  I have always especially loved the way they can capture the sky.  We have photographed them against the sunset or the night sky many times.  The boys must see this in them too.  They captured this bright blue autumn sky with these two.

They also snapped a photo of their play tree, and along with it, our view to the East: a big grass seed field (I could really think of 101 other ways to use this land).  But not to digress, if you look closely, you can see Mt. Hood in the distance, Luca’s dream mountain and where he asks to go every other week or so come winter in hopes of snowboarding.  Here and there, beauty…in between, not so much.

And although they did show just what a lot of this farm is made up of–WEEDS!…

there is also a whole lot of FOOD!  Even now, as we enter into winter!  There is so much more than in our first two years of growing year round; and with so much getting covered this weekend in anticipation of the coming cold (and snow maybe??), we really hope, and plan, to keep all of this food alive this year.

And of course, this farm is nothing if not their home.  Their place to explore and play, to feel the love from the land and the family living on it…to grow into themselves.