From seed to seed

spring, farm, farm life, pride, ego, letting goThe world around me is fully greening up now. It is a beautiful sight, all plant growth expanding, even though, as always, the wild plants and perennials take off infinitely faster than the wee little cultivated seedlings and transplants we have tucked into the fields ourselves. They are growing, certainly, but it is like watching the pot, so to speak. It is slow compared to our desire, and slow compared to the explosion of grass and weed that is so full of force and life in the spring by comparison.

Still, we have a good harvest coming in, the last push of the overwintered plants in the field are making florets now, giving us a whole other crop to eat, and the greenhouse bridges the gap by growing food fast enough while we wait for that same speed to issue forth out of doors. All green food, in spring, all great food. Spinach, lettuce, kale, turnip greens, and arugula. And wild harvests galore, because so much of the early spring weed growth is meant to be eaten, it’s true. Nettles, dandelion, wild mustard. I am making herbal vinegars with all these plants I need to pull up anyway, a nice way to hold onto all the goodness these wildings want to give away right now, even if they are growing in all the wrong places. Like we do, the earth and I, we are dancing together the dance of the season. Even the onions, right now, are green. And the garlic, too.

But it isn’t as easy to find that same green-ness in ourselves, not always, as we age, as life adds layer upon layer to our skin. I found myself in tears yesterday, in the wash station with this week’s spinach, because my oldest child is almost thirteen years old. That is only five years, by the books, five years, and there you have it, a childhood. And I know, I know, that it isn’t really left much, already, not truly even five years more. This slayed me, for some reason, out of the blue, while I worked, because his childhood is one of the most important things to me in the world.

It is so hard, this parenting gig, and I have done so many great things as a mother and so many things I wish I could take back. I started out thinking I would do everything right. I didn’t accept at all, on the outset, that life and love would be perfectly human, and that I too, must be.

But I know better than to let the sadness, the worry, wash me away, so I came inside and gave this young boy, on his way to young man, a hug. I let go. Letting go is all that we can do. Over and over and over again, the only way to keep moving forward. I have faith, too. That is just as important.

I never expect the earth to hold on to last season. I know, each spring, that we are on a new ride. Sure, I have lessons learned, I have new ideas, but that doesn’t mean it will be perfect this time round. And yet, I know, too, that I can just as surely count on things to grow, for food to be produced. The earth provides, every year, again and again, without any trace of growing older, without any hint of defeat. Without worry or weight, things just follow through, as best they can, from seed to seed.

So, must we.



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.

a bowl full of sunshine~lessons from the wild.

sunshine in a bowlplaying with flowersGrumbly to the bone the other day, I prodded myself and my small people out the door in hopes of letting the fresh air breath light into my bad mood and make everything okay again.  Or most everything.  My own lack of gratitude for a perfectly wonderful day and my hope to recapture it out in the sun pails in comparison to the weight and worry of those experiencing very real challenges and trials, as it does face to face with tragedy on the scale of marathons and countries and the whole hurting human race.

But those things I could manage to control, I knew, might be helped by some time outside.  And because I am easily influenced by the natural world towards happiness, and because a quick glance around my day to day life always serves to remind me just how small my own sometimes frustrations are, we quickly felt up for trying something new and something fun~dandelion jelly.

I have been keen this spring, more than ever, to pay attention to some of the weeds out here on the farm that can be useful.  This drive is mostly prompted by my slowly gathering desire to make more of our own medicines, but the truth is, spring weeds are often also great to eat.  The stinging nettle has been a part of our spring diet since a neighbor went out into the woods with Andre the very first spring of our marriage and collected some with him, returning back to our little mountain cabin to prepare them for dinner, much to my pregnant mind’s skepticism. Now, so many years down the road, they are a regular part of our business harvests too, and one of our top sellers.  We even start crave them come early spring, and we make batches and batches of pesto with them, both to eat and to freeze, while we also try to dry enough of them to make a wonderfully nourishing tea to drink throughout the year.  We love them.

But besides nettles, this spring I am noticing that cleavers grow like crazy out here too, and can be a healthful addition to smoothies or juiced and used to soothe the skin in case of injury, and made into a tincture for the lymphatic system.  Wild violets spring up and while they last, they add their cheer to our now lettuce based spring salads.  Plus they are one of the first sweet treats we can just go outside and nibble on, slowly inching us closer to the even sweeter and more snacky snap pea and  strawberry season.

But of course, the most ubiquitous of all these weeds to be so long revered and used is the dandelion.  Eat the leaves early, before flowering, and they can stimulate a body grown slow and weary from winter.  Use the flowers for jelly and wine to capture something sweet and pleasurable.  And if you go the mile, you can harvest the roots and they will do a fine job of helping heal you from the inside.  Always a delight for children, with seed heads that are wish makers extraordinaire–these are a friendly plant.

As we gathered a basket full of these flower heads and then sat in the grass and painstakingly but leisurely pulled off just the petals for making the jelly, the smallest among us dig in nearby dirt, unearthing salamanders and earthworms and giggles, while the older boys sat chatting with their mama about the simplest but sweetest of things.  In that moment, I could already taste this jelly in my mouth, this jelly that tastes like almost nothing at all.  It is simple and sweet, like spring.  Like our days.

I am so lucky.

These often maligned flowers really did brighten my spirits in both the playing with them like I would were I a child again, and in the slow, peaceful work they brought me, side by side my own children on a sunny spring day.  But mostly, they did this through the reminder that even weeds can have a purpose too.

Right now, in spring, this theme is still a pleasant one to take meaning from, and I see it touching some of my closest friends who are also like making metaphors.  One friend posted a picture of a thistle sprouting up on her farm and hearkened it to a symbol of perseverance.  Another friend’s daughter brought her a bouquet of these same wonderful yellow flowers alongside a bouquet of tulips and gave her pause to consider the beauty in all people.  And the herbalists amongst my crowd, of course, fully appreciate the deeper wisdom of weed culture.  Like I find comfort in a bowl full of sunshine, I find comfort in finding meaning, and I find even more comfort in seeing that this meaning is out there, rising from the earth, finding us all.

Come summer, we will be knee deep in weeds that will temper the growth of the plants we are purposefully cultivating in our fields if we don’t take the time to get rid of them.  They will inevitably take on a different, less pleasing meaning then.  But right now, in all their wild glory, they remind me that I have the blessing to be at ease.  That really, I have the duty to enjoy it all.  That this is the only proper response to a moment offered to you from this universe that is not wrought with hardship, not burdened or traumatized by forces outside your control.  That by being in joy if I can, I am being most sympathetic to those who can not.

Take your joy and do not be ashamed of it, because it is your moment.  Find your care and concern for the world at large and those you know who need it–and yourself when it is your turn–from the deepest part of your joy.  Then, abandon to the dandelions your more trivial concerns.  This way, the weight of your worries can find their most realistic proportions weighed against the more strangling weeds that come into this world.   We all have things to grumble about, and we are all legitimately and honestly free to experience them, but the perspective of weeds is this–most things are not as bad as they may appear.

If we are not ourselves in the darkness of a deadly nightshade patch, then we should try to find our own surroundings as pretty as we can.  We should take comfort in knowing that most everything around us in this world is useful and good and full of light, and then move forward from that point, that understanding.  There is solace to be found such.  There is, as this Wendell Berry poem so often comforts me with, peace to be found in these lessons of the wild.  And there is, if you can look closely, sunshine amongst the weeds.

be in joy

Moment of Bliss

The rain has been relentless this week.  Our bottom field is flooded all the way to the river again, the third time this year.  This is seasonally wet ground, so the flood doesn’t do any harm for now since we don’t expect these fields to be dry until sometime in May.  Still, a full fledged flooding of the river to our ground usually only happens once a season, so it feels like something!  In fact, we are breaking rainfall records for March, so the feeling of too much rain isn’t just a “spring in the Pacific Northwest”  kind of grumble.  There has been A LOT of rain this week!

In spite of the somewhat oppressive feeling of the weather in general over here, though, I still find myself outside in a break from the wet, harvesting parsley for market tomorrow and breathing in such fresh, fresh air, thinking about how absolutely beautiful it is out.  Happy to be breathing, bathed in the smell of the cut herb, intoxicated by a tree full of cherry blossoms overhead, thrilled at the wildness of the patch of baby parsley’s all gone to seed and perennialized–my favorite kind of garden.

The children are climbing trees while the baby giggles from below.  I have my favorite hot pink gardening gloves on that were picked up on the cheap by the farmer for me and aren’t nearly the best we have on hand, but do the job and bring a smile to my face at the same time and are much easier to keep as a pair than his millions of left handed ones on the porch with no match!

And then we walk to the main field, grab some rutabagas for dinner with a lazy, old black dog and spry, young black cat following us, the two most favorite companions of our small boy right now, so he is laughing at them as I hold him in one arm, the harvest in the other.

Did I mention the air is so fresh?

And I am just so in love with it all–this farm, these kids and their father, this wild and precious life.

Sometimes it is impossible to live your dream and I don’t think we all get the chance.   And I really do know full well that at any moment I might lose the chance I have been given.  But there are these moments, and I just can’t believe the simple happiness of it all.

At Market this Week: Nettles!

There are a few items we choose to bring to market that we wild harvest from our property because they are delicious(most importantly) , super nutritious (like out of this world nutritious), and also (very kindly) fill seasonal growing gaps for us.  We do “cultivate” these wildings, clearing the areas where they grow or maintaining stands of them specifically for harvest, and we are always thankful to have such an abundance of them when we do.  In the early spring, when our over wintered vegetables are well harvested and new plantings are young, we are blessed with fresh growing nettles, perfect for nettle pesto and just in time to start getting the farmer’s body ready to battle pollen season.  In the summer, we harvest lamb’s quarters, a non-bitter tasting green that thrives in warm weather when our spinach has called it quits until fall and the kale has reached its height of “summer” flavor (not at all as sweet as in the colder months).

We never harvest a ton of these, but they are always a hit.  Some people already know how good they are for you and appreciate the chance to eat these nutritional powerhouses.  Other customers love their taste and will request them again and again.  We enjoy them in their season, and making nettle pesto is something we do every year.  It was the first recipe we tried the first time we ate nettles, back in the wilds of Colorado, with the encouragement of an old friend who not only gave us a taste for wild harvested weeds and king boletes, but also inadvertantly planted the seeds of our future–he had just returned to Colorado from the Pacific Northwest where he was working on a farm and we had many lively conversations with him about farming and this neck of the woods.

I was hesitant then, but the pesto was delicious and didn’t sting a bit.  We love it so much that we rarely make anything else with our nettles, aside from drying them for  tea.  But they really can  be used like any other cooking green, braised and finished with a bit of lemon juice or rice wine vinegar, or added to soups or sauteed and tossed with pasta.  But this is important–they must be cooked!  Between the soaking and washing we give them, and some cooking, even a light steaming, they will be sting free; but handling them out of the bag from our market stand with your hands will give you small stings.  We just dump them from the bag into the pan and steam them until they wilt, then cool them and proceed to make our pesto.  This blanching preserves their nice bright green color too.

We have always been fascinated by the high levels of nutrients in wild plants, so much higher than those cultivated by humans, even plants cultivated with as much love and care and attention to soil health as we give our plants.  This is one of the reasons we really attempt to mimic nature as much as is possible, keeping it as our growing model in as is applicable to our very human endeavor.  Nettles are really high in many minerals, including iron, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, and nettles are often used to help with anemia.  I personally use them as a general blood builder and as a concentrated source of minerals during pregnancy and while nursing (though please speak with your health care provider before using if you are pregnant or nursing!) and for the kids.  They help lesson your bodies immune response to allergens, and the farmer uses them in the early spring to help prevent or lessen his immune response to pollens later in the season.

This nettle season, encouraged by a friend and our own gut feeling, we are going to try to eat nettles even more than we normally do.  They are recommended to help protect the body from radiation, and just in case we are coming into contact with more unfriendly radiation than we want, we will be trying out some different ways to cook nettles this year. Either way, we feel extra thankful to have such an abundance of this healthful and tasty green this spring.  Head out to the woods and wild forage some for yourself if you are feeling adventurous, or if you want to keep it simple, stop by our market booth at The Market this month and grab a bag.  Either way, enjoy the tastes of spring both wild and tame!