October

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“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
~ L.M. Montgomery

My morning yoga begins in darkness, with a single lit candle. Sweet potatoes and squash are back on the menu. Cucumbers are out. Iced herbal teas and fruit shrubs are replaced by mugs of bone broth and steaming cups of chamomile, yarrow, ginger… warming, diffusive herbs that stimulate and move circulation to the periphery. The sound of geese on the river wakes me in my bedroom and I watch them fly in formation as they cut across the sky over my garden. All that is green is fading away as the alchemical dance between chlorophyll and sunlight slowly dissolves, leaving behind the arboreal fire and gold of the temperate zone. The crunch of cottonwood leaves beneath my feet releases a rich, spicy aroma and the taste of salicin in my mouth. The acorns and black walnuts are dropping, ready to be gathered.  The afternoon sunlight is the colour of dried goldenrod flowers, and the sunsets of rosehips.

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Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, It-Brings-the-Fall

It is Autumn in my part of the world, a magical, transformative season of celebration and descent, roots and woodsmoke. It is the time of fall fairs, harvest festivals and giving thanks. It is a time of setting aside the large agricultural tasks of the year and to lay in the last of the food from the fields. It is a time when darkness grows and the veil between this world and that thins. It is time for honouring our ancestors. It is time for feasting.

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O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou mayst rest
~William Blake

For the forager and wildcrafter there is still much to do, fruit and seeds to be gathered yet and root season only just begun. The early nights come as a blessing though. As much as I love summer, the endless days can seem a bit relentless when one works from sun up to sundown trying to capture all that the bright, short season has to offer. There is rest on the horizon and a folding inward to the long sleep of winter. My body is ready for it, longs for it like a lover’s embrace.
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Meanwhile, my fingers are stained with elderberry juice, nannyberries and black walnut hulls. Each day I pick the beggarticks seeds from my clothes and brush a twig or leaf from my hair. Every fair and golden day between now and freeze up will be lived fully and treated as the precious gift it is, in this world where there are Octobers.

viburnum

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
~Robert Frost


Petrie Island Plants

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11801694@N08/1214405740/in/photostream/

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11801694@N08/1214405740/in/photostream/

Well east of the city’s centre, beyond the government buildings, at the edge of deep suburbia, in the Ottawa river, lies one of the city’s most beautiful treasures. Sure Petrie Island has got a great, big sandy beach, beach volleyball leagues and Carivibe, but tucked away down a narrow spit of land is a part of the island that gets me really excited. Visit the quieter, western end of the island and you will discover a beautiful wetland and wilderness delight. A unique habitat, Petrie Island’s ecosystem is closer to the Carolinian forest of Southern Ontario, and includes many uncommon and rare species of plants that you won’t find elsewhere in the Ottawa region.

Last Sunday I led a plant walk hosted by the Petrie Island Nature Centre and we explored some of the edible and medicinal plants of the island.

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We found many of the usual suspects in flower like goldenrod, evening primrose and soapwort.

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It was a pleasure to see so many aquatic plants in such abundance. We nibbled on a few pickerel weed fruits (achenes) and I talked a little bit about arrowhead and the use of its tuber for food. As an urban forager I don’t have access to clean sources of water so I could only speak about these plants from what I have read and not from experience.

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The real highlight of the walk for me was finding groundnut growing profusely. This pea family plant has stunningly gorgeous and strongly scented flowers and produces an edible, starchy tuber that is high in protein. This ecosystem also supports an abundance of sweet gale, a sweetly aromatic, native plant.

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As a conservation area, it is not appropriate to forage or wildcraft here, but it is a wonderful place to come and observe and learn about the plants of Petrie Island. The Nature Centre has done an amazing job of posting informative signs of many of the plants all along the nature trails, including botanical names and edible and medicinal uses. Visit the centre itself for wonderful, interactive displays on the flora and fauna of the site.

I was introduced to two new plants while I was there, showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense) and square-stemmed monkey flower (Mimulus ringens). I can’t wait to return to learn more about these plants and see what other surprises I find.

Here are two short (not great quality- sorry) videos I took of a few other plants on the island.


 


July in the Garden

July is winding down, a cooler month than usual, but there is a steady ripening toward fruition nonetheless. Work in the garden has slowed down somewhat. Not because there is less to do, just that there is more to do elsewhere. The time I do spend in the garden continues to surprise me. I love how my plans and the seeds I sow enter into relationship with whatever nature has in store for me. This spring-seeded clover seems to get along just fine with the volunteer plantain. Both are wonderful edible and medicinal plants.
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Plantain (Plantago major) likes to grow in heavy, compacted soil. I have plenty of that, which means I also have plenty of plantain. I gather a basket most visits and bring it home to infuse into oil and dry for tea. I’m so grateful for this exceedingly common and abundant plant.
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The other abundant volunteer this year has been the Queen Anne’s Lace, aka wild carrot (Daucus carota). A member of the umbelliferous Apiaceae family and the wild progenitor of carrots, this plant must be approached with extreme caution. Without proper ID skills it could be easy to confuse it with poison hemlock or water hemlock, two of the most deadly plants in North America. (The former famously killed Socrates). In fact, stories are told of how trained botanists have made this, their last, fatal mistake. Some foragers avoid the entire family altogether to stay safe. I don’t think this is necessary. Once you have the skills, it is not difficult to differentiate the plants, but I absolutely agree with herbalist Howie Brounstein who teaches his students to always “Be humble with the umbels!
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At the very least, one can always admire its stunning beauty.
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I have been gathering the flowers and using them in salted herbs, as a hydrosol and this week I’m experimenting with making a Queen Anne’s Cordial. It will be ready to taste in another couple of days and I’m excited to see how it turns out.
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The yarrow I planted last year has flowered and it is a delight to gather armfuls of this amazing, aromatic plant.
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I dried some for tea and I also made this hydrosol, rich in the blue essential oil azulene, a wonderful anti-inflammatory for the skin, reducing redness, swelling and irritation. A potent antioxidant, it protects the skin from damaging free radicals and rejuvenates skin cells.

yarrowhydrosol

From a distance, the garden appears full of mostly white flowers, but there are splashes of colour throughout. These ingredients went into something I’m making exclusively for the August CSA!
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I had a friend come and and give me a hand in the garden this week and we harvested the first of the garlic. There’s 10 lbs here and I figure I have about another 30 or 40 lbs to go. I’m pleased with how it looks so far. Now I just need to find some space to dry it all!
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What’s happening in your garden?


June in the Garden- Part Two

OatsI love planting oats as a cover crop, as they serve multiple functions in my garden. They condition the soil and suppress weeds, and the seed heads are gathered in the immature, ‘milky’ stage for medicine. Milky oats provide a rich, nourishing remedy that supports the nervous system, aiding all those feeling a little run ragged and worn out.

See that crop circle in the middle of the top picture? That’s where I forgot to rake the seeds into the soil when I first sowed them. They just sat on top of the soil and never germinated. Oops! I went back a week later and broadcast more seed into the circle making sure to rake them in well. The seeds germinated quickly, so that the circle is filled in now and caught up with the rest.Oats

ValerianThe valerian is blooming. I catch the scent each time I pass. I love the creamy-white flower heads. So do the pollinators! I started the valerian from seed last year and they’ve really taken off. I’ll harvest some of the roots for medicine this fall and replant the crowns. My hope is that valerian will be a fixture in my garden for many years to come.Valerian2

redcloverRed clover is a short-lived perennial that flowers in its second year. Seeded last year, this patch has grown in lush and thick. Another excellent cover crop, clover is also a nitrogen fixer, adding this essential fertilizer to the soil through a symbiotic relationship between rhizobia bacteria and the roots of nitrogen fixing plants. Medicinally, red clover is a nutritious herb high in vitamins and minerals. Traditionally it has been used to support the female reproductive system and balance hormones, as well as aiding in respiratory issues such as bronchitis and whooping cough and to treat skin conditions and swollen glands. I think the deer have been enjoying the clover too. I see evidence of grazing and areas of flattened clover where the deer have lain down in the patch. That’s ok, there’s plenty for all of us.

DaisiesThese cheerful ox-eye daisies were kind enough to volunteer in my garden this year and I was happy to leave them to flower. I’ve been gathering them and drying them for tea and infusing them into oil to make a wonderful smelling massage oil for sore muscles.

FullPondRemember the freshly dug pond from last post? Well, we got 85 mm of rain in 24 hrs this week, which was more than enough to fill it up. I haven’t had time to seal it with bentonite clay yet, so this water will eventually drain, but it leaves me optimistic about the water harvesting potential of this feature in the garden.

YHAThe other exciting thing happening in the garden this summer is the Young Herbalist Apprenticeship program I am running for a small group of 8 and 9 year olds. The 7 of us meet every Wednesday morning for herbal learning, work and play. On this morning the group learned the patterns of the pea family.

It’s such a joy to spend time with children in the garden, exploring and discovering the wonders of the plant world together.

I can’t wait to see what July brings!


June in the Garden- Part One

The days are long and full. I wake up with the sun and am in bed not too long after the last vestige of light has left the sky. As much as possible, I try to let the weather dictate the rhythm of my days. Overcast days are perfect for putting transplants in the ground. Bright sunshine in the morning calls me out into the fields to harvest clover and daisies. Rainy days mean catching up on household chores and emails.

June feels like a speedy month to me and I’m looking forward to a few blistering hot July days when it’s just too sweltering to move and everything slows down to a crawl. In the meantime here’s a look at what’s happening in the garden right now

scytheI’m finding my scythe to be an essential tool in the garden. I use it to control plant growth and create my own mulch. Plus, I’m totally prepared for the next peasant uprising! (It was custom made for me, from here.)

elderyberryI planted elderberries in this section last year and three balsam poplar trees this spring. Eventually this area will become a shade garden for woodland plants. The growth around the bushes was starting to take over so I scythed the weeds down and applied compost to the base of the trees.elderberrycompostTo keep the weeds under control going forward I sheet mulched the whole 80 foot stretch that marks the boundary of the future woodland shade garden with cardboard and straw.sheetmulchAs well as suppressing weeds the mulch should remove the need for additional irrigation.
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I’m underplanting the elders and poplars with a variety of herbs. First I open up a hole in the cardboard…
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…and dig down into the soil making room for the seedling. I may or may not add a little extra compost to the hole.
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Then I replace the cardboard and straw and move onto the next one. This is Japanese catnip. I also planted sweet Annie and sage in here.
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pondbeforeThis is the wettest spot on my half acre. It’s flooded with spring thaw well into May and gets pretty boggy after a hard rain. They’re hard to spot in this pic, but I planted two alder trees here and will plant two more in the fall. They love the wet, are nitrogen fixers, coppice well and provide wonderful medicine from their bark and leaves. I’ve had a water feature in mind for this site since last year, but never found the time to get the project started. Fortunately I was able to recruit coerce my guy into spending his one day off a week digging a big hole in the ground. He’s really the best!
pondbefore2He used the dug soil to create a berm behind the alders. I’ll get the berm planted with a variety of things and my hope is that it will act as a sun trap, creating a nice warm microclimate for some more sensitive species.
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By late afternoon he dug all the way down to the water level! The next step will be to seal it bentonite clay and wait for a rain to fill it up. I’m so thrilled to be getting this water feature established. Ideally the pond will provide habitat for a variety of beneficial species, further reduce irrigation needs and create microclimates. I can’t wait!
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Up next: What’s growing in the garden and what I’m harvesting.


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