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.

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.

Thistle Blooms

In the last four years that we have lived here on this property, the summer’s have  brought with them hordes of this nasty, prickly weed.  The first few years, it was hard to squat and work in the veggie field without getting poked, and if we tried to work in our regular, thin gardening gloves, we were constantly wincing through our weedings.  Each year has gotten better, with fewer and fewer of these beasts in the main field that we have been working since the beginning, and virtually none in our lower field which is just too fertile for thistles.  Our one pasture, which had the largest patch of thistle and queen anne’s lace where the previous owner’s horses spent a lot time, is finally recovering thanks to the beauty of goats in just such cases.  And the ground we tried to work for the last two years but decided not to grow on again was luckily mostly covered back up with grasses and queen anne’s lace.  All in all, we have so many fewer thistles this year that this in itself is enough to be happy about.

But there is this patch where we had last year’s burn pile, covered in purple flowers right now, and a new field where we have potatoes growing where all the weeding is prickly and a pain…not to mention the rogue thistle, here and there.  We have been pretty diligent with what thistle’s we have, keeping most of them from flowering.  But this one patch is all in bloom.  And this year, this actually makes us a little happy.

The thing is, we can’t help but notice how many of the things that we classify as weeds are just the things we have that are covered with bees.  And since we haven’t taken much time to specifically plant a season’s worth of bee food flowering plants on our property, we find a small bit of joy in seeing how our sometimes “wild” farm really is benefiting the “wild” creatures that find refuge here. Granted, many of the bees on our property traveled here from a large honey bee keeper just up the road.  Still, we now have large populations of native mason and bumble bees.  Early in the spring, they cover the dandelion flowers, then a bit later our flowering cherry trees, then on to the orchard trees.  Then later,  the lamb’s ear (which I almost classify as a weed) is covered.  Having a lot of ground clover in the lawn that we do cut helps a bunch too, and they love the mint, blackberries, and raspberries too.

But right now, they love the thistle flowers.  Later when these seed heads dry up, these same flowers will be covered with birds.  Now, we love and revere and worry about the bees tremendously, but we like the birds quite a lot too, so this is another benefit to be found in one of nature’s most unfriendly weeds.  And all of this is above and beyond the real reason these thistles are here anyways…to improve the disturbed and less than fertile soil they have taken root on.  In these lights, seeing all these purple heads can’t be too bad.  We have suffered through the worst of it already as we slowly turn bad soil to good all over this misused old farm.  Even as we continually refine how we are going to make a good living off of this land, we never lose sight of the underlying reason we are even living out here on this piece of ground in the first place:  to build a healthy, natural ecosystem for us and the wildlings to thrive on and enjoy.  The thistles are as much helpers in this journey as they are headaches.  As with most things, really, there is more good in them than bad, more beauty than we at first imagine.