What’s Happening in the Wild Garden this Fall?


We’ve been in the farmhouse for three months now and are settling into a full and busy routine.  I like to start at least a few days each week with an early morning perambulation of the property, a kind of beating of the bounds while the sun comes up. In this quiet, peaceful hour I watch the goldenrod fill the fields in a wave of lemon yellow and then fade away. I pass the hawthorns ripening and make a mental note to come back with my harvest basket. Rounding the corner to the far field I come upon a deer and a family of wild turkeys. The deer lifts and swings its head to look at me. I pause, have a moment with the deer, and continue on my way.  It feels necessary to continually move my body through this landscape that sustains and nourishes me and to get to know it as intimately as I can. 


I gather wild food and medicine plants here (obviously not near discarded tires!). I work my 1/2 acre plot.  My plate fills again and again with the delicious, organic vegetables that the Just Food Farmers produce. In the farmhouse baskets of wild apples are waiting to be turned into juice and sauce. The canner and steam juicer are taking turns putting in hours on the stove. In the apothecary there are big gaps in the shelves where I store the empty mason jars. Each day more jars are filled with the season’s harvest. 

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer says that we are bound to the earth by a covenant of reciprocity that is rooted in gratitude and responsibility.  Each day I look for opportunities to joyfully fulfil these obligations.

Apples! 015

As the summer winds down and the days shorten I’m also looking ahead to fall activities.  I’m making plans for next year’s growing season. I have a new series of workshops to offer and lots of products in the apothecary to share with you. Please read on to find out what’s happening in the Wild Garden over the next few months!

Fall Wild Food and Herb CSA
The Fall CSA is open for registration. From October to December each box will be filled with products handcrafted from local, organic plants to support you through the changing season and prepare you for winter, including elderberry syrup, immune boosting mushrooms, digestive bitters and more. For more information or to sign up visit here.

Apothecary 101: Herbal Medicine Making Series
There are a variety of ways to work with the healing properties of plants from the most primal, ancient act of adding herbs to hot water, to today’s quick and convenient tinctures dropped on the tongue. Choosing your solvent, your herbs and how to administer them is a skill you can spend a lifetime mastering. These workshops are designed to both get you started and deepen your experience of the theory and practice of herbal medicine making!

September 16th, 6-8pm The Universal Solvent: Water-based herbal extracts 
Steeping and decocting herbs into water is the foundation and simplest form of plant healing that can bring about the most profound and transformative effects in the body. This workshop will explore internal and external uses of nourishing herbal infusions, soaks, baths, sitz baths, poultices, compresses and washes.

October 21st, 6-8pm Sweet & Sour Medicine Part I: Herbal honey, syrup, electuaries
Sweet remedies are calming, soothing, nourishing and building and they help the medicine go down!

November 4th, 6-8pm Sweet & Sour Medicine Part II: Vinegar, oxymels, switchels and shrubs
Vinegar-based remedies have been used since ancient times to promote health and well-being.

December 2nd, 6-8pm Healing Oils and Soothing Salves 
Herb infused oils and salves protect and heal the integumentary system and ease the aches and pains of musculoskeletal injuries.

For more information or to sign up visit here.  These workshops are free (+ $5 materials fee) to CSA members during the months for which they are subscribed.

I will also be teaching Materia Medica II and Western Herbal Energetics at the International Academy Health Education Centre this fall.

If you live in Ottawa you can now order select Wild Garden Products online through Savour Ottawa and pick them up at the Parkdale Fieldhouse.

And finally, the original date for the Petrie Island plant walk got rained out and will be now be taking place this Sunday the 20th at 1 pm.



Two Evenings in August

August 6
I linger in the apothecary. I’ve hung the boneset and spread the raspberry leaves to dry. There is more work downstairs in the kitchen yet, but I surrender a few precious moments to gaze out the window and watch the last of the dusky peach drain out of the sky and give way to the deepening blue.

The farmhouse is quiet and I am winding down the day, taking a final pass with the broom, corralling various bits of whatever plant matter is constantly under foot. A quick review of the forecast and the bottomless ‘to do’ list gives shape to tomorrow.

Laundry. Harvest and tincture oats in am. Gather sumac. Pull garlic. Garble mugwort. Make batch of lotion bars. Strain horsetail vinegar. Prepare tincture for A. Mix smoking blend for B. Send comfrey oil to C. Start 2nd ferment of kefir. Prep Saturday’s plant walk. Send in membership to the National Farmer’s Union. Advertise fall workshops. Update the books. Keep the records. Pay the bills. Dishes. Dishes. Dishes.

And always the sweeping.
FarminJune 007

August 29
I enter the sitting room closing the French doors behind me, shrinking my world and my cares to the four book-lined walls and the open windows that let in late summer night air and a chorus of crickets. Underneath there is the ever present thrum of traffic, the busy 6 lane road nearby a constant reminder of this farm’s urban setting.

The farm exists right at the boundary of city and country, in the feral, edge spaces between the two. ‘Burbs and big box stores flank my east and west. To the south is corn & soy farmland, and two parallel roads built atop sandy ridges left behind by an ancient sea, cutting into a remarkable bog/boreal ecosystem. To the north are small, scrappy woods, the highway, the river.

The traffic noise fades from my mind as I settle into my chair, cup of tea at hand. The old reading lamp casts a warm, mellow glow and suddenly I am overcome with anticipation. Reading in the evening! How long has it been? I pause for a moment, acutely aware of what this signifies. Another shift in the light. Shortening days and lengthening nights. An exhale. A wider sliver of opening that will take me slowly from the work of sun-drenched, blue-sky days into that season of butter light, wet leaves, warming spices, hot broths, slow cooked apples and finally to snow hushed rest.

But tonight it’s a few precious moments stolen from a busy harvest schedule to read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It’s been a months long wait for this book on hold at the library. I’m so thrilled to finally have it in my hands I’m almost too excited to read.

But then I begin and am caught up in the words.

“The question of goldenrod and asters was of course just emblematic of what I really wanted to know. It was an architecture of relationships, of connections that I yearned to understand. I wanted to see the shimmering threads that hold it all together. And I wanted to know why we love the world, why the most ordinary scrap of meadow can rocks us back on our heels in awe.”
~Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer.
goldenrod 007

Summer Happenings in the Wild Garden

The solstice is past. Already morning light streaming into the bedroom comes in just a just a touch later now. The nightly light show of June’s fireflies gives way to the cicadas starting to drone their high note of summer. The days shimmer with the kind of heat and haze that makes afternoon siestas in the hammock mandatory. It’s the time of year when words like ‘verdant’ and ‘lush’ are an understatement. My life in particular has become downright bucolic recently.

My partner Andrew and I have had the amazing fortune of renting the house on the Just Food property where my 1/2 acre garden is located. We moved in at the beginning of June and a month and a half later we are unpacked and in awe of our new living arrangements.

Farmhouse 003Being here is a dream come true. My commute to the garden has shrunk from 12 km to .5 km. I am surrounded by 150 beautiful acres of fields, forests and streams right outside my back door. (This pic was taken through my sunglasses. You can just make out the roof line of the house to the right of the barn.)FarmhouseField

I have a porch and a big front yard with a hammock under two shady trees.hammock 002 The kitchen is bright and cheerful. (This was taken around 6:00 am just as the first rays of sun came into the kitchen.)ElderBlooms 021 The living room is cosy.FarminJune 018 Farmhouse 009 Farmhouse 008 The bedroom is a simple haven of peace and tranquillity.FarmhouseBedroom I have an outdoor laundry line!!! The compost is right outside the kitchen door. Sometimes I see deer walking across the yard. Deer 002

I love what the place has to offer in terms of my workspace and flow. My apothecary is three times bigger and so much better organized because of the extra space.ApothecaryFarmhouse 015moving 033 There is more room for workshop and class space. I can offer longer, more in depth classes that have both an outdoor and indoor component, which means classes are not limited by weather and participants can gather and process plants on site all in the same class.ClassSpaceThe house is very accessible by public transit and there is a stop less than a minute away on a major route that can take you downtown in about 20 minutes. The post office, grocery store and library are a 5 minute bike ride away.

I’m so thrilled to have this space to steward, respect and care for, for as long as I am here. This feels like the proverbial next chapter in my life and for the Wild Garden, and I am excited to see how the story continues to unfold.

And as always, for those of you who have followed me on this journey, for a little or a long time, I am grateful. Every encouraging word and helpful tidbit of feedback bolsters my heart. I am honoured by each CSA member, student and class participant with the opportunity to share my love of the plants and to spend yet another day dedicated to work and study that brings me joy. Thank you for sharing in this, and if you’re in the neighbourhood, do come and stop by the farm to say ‘hi!’

The Just Food Farm Stand launches in two weeks on July 26th. This year it will run on Sundays up until Thanksgiving from 10 am to 3 pm. You’ll have a fantastic selection of local, organic veggies, honey, ferments, herbs, teas and more! We just started a Facebook page here, where you can stay up to date on our special events and what we have on offer each week.

This year’s weed walks have been very popular, selling out quickly. I looked at my schedule and managed to squeeze in an extra date. There are only four spots left for this one!

The Explorations in Plant Healing classes have been such a delight to host. Imagine spending an entire day immersed in and experiencing one plant in depth. The combination of field botany, nature awareness, theory and practice had one participant comment, “Thank you, Amber, for another wonderful session in the Exploration in Plant Healing series last weekend. I enjoy every part of the experience, especially the outdoors foraging on the farm and later making medicine together in the farmhouse. I also appreciate the attention we give our focus plant through reflections and researching the Materia Medica. It’s a magical place to be for the day!”

Spots are filling up in for the Foraging Families class coming up in August. This will be a fun-filled day of learning about wild plants, playing games and exploring the outdoors.

The Summer CSA is in full swing. I love planning for and preparing the boxes each month. And I’m already looking ahead to the fall anticipating wild crab apple butter, all things goldenrod, sticky New England Aster flowers, elderberry syrup, delicious dandelion…

Register for the Fall CSA here.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer and taking time to enjoy the wild and weedy things!

Foraging Safety and Human Fallibility

The May/June issue of Edible Ottawa goes wild with some great articles. Scott ‘The Mushroom Man’ Perrie of Valley Wild Edibles, talks about his passion for fungi and his new mushroom inoculation project ‘Fungus Among us’. The amazing work of Hidden Harvest is featured. And some of our best local farms are highlighted as well. It’s out now and I highly recommend you get your free copy today!
EdibleOttawa 003The Wild Garden even makes a brief appearance and I’m still floored to be in such illustrious company!

Flip to the back of the magazine and you’ll find a gorgeous spread of some common, wild edible foods that can be found in our area. I love the illustrations by Julia Kuo!

A quick glance at the spread when I picked up my copy, however, revealed a few mistakes. I feel the need to point them out, not to nitpick, but for safety reasons (incorrect identification of plants used for food and/or medicine can lead to serious harm), because my name is on it and I need people to know that I know what I’m talking about (most of the time!) and because I think this is a great cautionary example for foragers and wildcrafters of all skill levels, but especially beginners.
EdibleOttawa 001
The first rule of foraging/wildcrafting is always have a 100% positive ID before harvesting. The best way to get this ID is by spending A LOT of time observing plants in a variety of habitats, in different growing conditions, in all their growth stages, in all four seasons and reference at least 3 different sources (field guides, local floras, an expert, or trusted online sources). Don’t rely on just one source for an ID and don’t believe everything you read or hear.

The reality is, mistakes happen and humans are fallible. Herban legends get passed on untested from one foraging book to another until everyone vehemently asserts that common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) must be boiled in multiple changes of water before it can be consumed. (This is actually not necessary.) Talk about eating black nightshade and some people will look at you and wonder how managed to survive such a deadly meal. They’ve confused Solanum nigrum, S. americanum, S. ptychanthum, S. douglasii and other closely allied species with deadly nightshade (Atropa belladona) or bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). I was once told by an experienced herbalist that sumac is not used for medicine and is best harvested in the fall. (It has an exceptionally long history of use as medicine and is one of my favourite astringents. It’s best gathered around here in late July to early August.) Older foraging books often list multiple species of ferns as edible but we now know that many of them have carcinogenic compounds and high amounts of thiaminase, which breaks down thiamine and prevents the body from absorbing this important B vitamin. So now most foragers stick with the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). But even then there are exceptions.

There are some great forums on Facebook that discuss wild edible foods and medicinal plants (I especially like Ancestral Plants run by Arthur Haines). In these groups you have access to some of the best experts in the field (literally) who spend time and energy providing quality information for free. But there are also complete beginners making stab in the dark guesses, and everyone in between. Misinformation abounds on social media and it can be overwhelming to sort through it all.

I have corrected errors in the notes people have taken on plant walks with me. Somewhere in the transmission from my mouth to their paper, details got lost or confused. Not to mention that on plant walks I can’t always provide every single detail about every plant we discuss. I may leave out the odd contraindication (don’t drink red clover if you’re on blood thinners), confuse my scientific names (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum has been changed to Leucanthemum vulgare and maybe I forgot that) or even (shocking!) misidentify a plant. (A homeschool child once pointed out to me that the tree without leaves couldn’t possibly be a maple because it had last year’s linden seeds still attached to a branch. Oops!)

My point is, mistakes happen and when it comes to foraging and wildcrafting those mistakes have the potential to be harmful (Thankfully, most of the time, they are not). Wherever you are on your journey of working with wild plants, it is essential to cross-reference, double and triple check and be absolutely certain you have that 100% positive ID. Don’t rely on a single source of information. Don’t believe everything you read, especially if it’s on the internet. And don’t believe me. While I go to great lengths to ensure that the information I provide is as accurate as possible, it’s still important cross-reference that with other sources. I’ve been at this for nearly a decade now. I have a knack for plant ID and I’ve taught myself some pretty solid botany skills, but in so many ways I still think of myself as a beginner. I’m still learning, making discoveries and yes, making mistakes. And sometimes beautiful spreads in excellent magazines are printed with my words, but things get a little mixed up in the layout.

If you make sure to take responsibility for the wild plants you touch and put in your mouth, do your research and observe the plants closely and frequently, your foraging experience will be safe, healthy and a lot of fun!

Check out these sources for more information on safety and foraging guidelines:


Musings for Earth Day, or The Post in Which I Put Too Many Words in Parentheses, or tl;dr

Meadow willow (Salix petiolaris)

Meadow willow (Salix petiolaris)

I’ve had so many ideas for blog posts  in the last few weeks. I wanted to do another winter botany post, but then the snow melted. I thought about a post on early spring botany and how to ID seedlings and some plants by their cotyledon leaves. (Baby plants are sooo cute!) I’ve taken pictures of the plants that are up and growing in my neighbourhood. I want to show you what’s happening in the garden at the farm. Every day I find something that I’d love to share. (A lot of that sharing happens on my Facebook and Twitter pages.) As a new growing season begins, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with the plants and my environment. As Earth Day approaches, it feels right to attempt putting some of these thoughts into words.

2014 coppice stool

2014 coppice stool

Late winter and early spring in the garden has become a time of gathering medicinal bark and coppicing wood. Last year was my first attempt at coppicing the meadow willow that grows at the edge of my plot. This year I was back again, coppicing more. Oh my gosh. You guys! I have fallen completely and madly in love with this ancient practice (and its associated activities such as wattle fencing and hedgelaying). Like, I would marry coppicing if I could. Like, I’m seriously contemplating a coppice apprenticeship some day.  Like, if I believed in time traversing reincarnation, I would want to be reborn as a 17th century coppicing/hedgelaying dude in Wales or the Midlands or something. (“Mornin’ guvnah. Off to the copse to lay down some hawthorn pleachers. Cheerio!”  Except, people probably didn’t say things like ‘guvnah’ and ‘cheerio’ in the 1600’s did they? They probably said things like ‘sooth’ and ‘prithee’. I’m mixing up Marlowe and My Fair Lady.) Anyway, I am awed by the regenerative power in the root systems of these plants and their ability to send out new growth, and that when the top growth gets cut back, a corresponding mass of roots also dies back, building soil. I am fascinated by the fact that coppicing can keep trees healthy century after century, long beyond their natural lifespans. I am delighted that the products of this management technique include medicine, fuel and building materials that are sustainable, non-toxic and completely biodegradable.

New growth of willow rods from last year's coppice.

New growth of willow rods from last year’s coppice.

My partner called me while I was working with the willow in my garden the other week. “I AM SO HAPPY RIGHT NOW!”, I all-capsed at him, when he asked how I was doing. And I was. With wind and sun on my face, feeling the smooth bark under my hands, the scent of fresh cut wood in my nose and listening to the birds chirping their spring songs, I was full to bursting.

Reflecting on this later, I wondered why? What is it about this activity that brings me so much cup-runneth-over joy? In fact, I sometimes wonder how it is that I find myself, fresh out of youth at 39 and utterly enamoured and obsessed with the photosynthesising set. Is this weird? (Maybe.) Am I crazy? (Probably.)

New growth of willow rods from last year's coppice.

New growth of willow rods from last year’s coppice.

The other day I re-watched a video of myself from  two summers ago. I thought I might use it for some promotional material I am working on, but I decided not to post it. Olivier Asselin did a wonderful job on the video, and I think I mostly made sense, but there was one moment that I felt, I guess, a little embarrassed about. I talked about my wish to devote the rest of my life to the plants, in a big-eyed, overly earnest sort of way and well, in a world of hipster irony and cynicism, big-eyed earnestness does not play well.  Watching myself, I felt self-conscious and silly and shy. But I remembered that moment in the interview and I remembered that the emotion felt too big to put into proper words. I knew there was something more that I wanted to express, but couldn’t quite get out.

In the video I talked about my year of not buying anything new in 2008. (You know, in that era of the aughts where people were doing all sorts of year-long challenges to make the world a better place?) I talked about how that year introduced me to some pretty scary realities in the world, like the fact that we’ve used up all of the cheap, easy to get fossil fuels and the energy return on what’s invested is rapidly diminishing. I understood more about how the burning of those fuels contributes to a changing climate and how our resource management strategy seems to be: extract whatever the earth has got, at the expense of our flora, fauna, lakes, rivers, oceans, forests, air and most importantly at the expense of the lives of the most marginalised populations in the world, not to mention our children and our future. I learned a little bit about how the economy is like one big Ponzi scheme, money is loaned into existence and the whole system rests on the ridiculous belief that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible and desirable. (There’s a good summary of the issues here.)

As these realities sunk in, I got scared, depressed, zealous, horrified, indignant, judgemental, self-righteous, green, crunchy, granola, active, involved, engaged, really into permaculture, radical homemaking, self-reliant homesteading, prepping, gardening, canning… It was quite a year! And I found the plants. Or they found me. I’m still not sure. All I know is that suddenly they were everywhere and I wanted to know everything I could about them. I wanted, in the most earnest, big-eyed way possible, to devote the rest of my life to the study and stewardship of the plants.  Suddenly, it was the most obvious and sensible response to all the information I was taking in, which had completely shaken up my world view.  So I pulled up my sleeves and got to work creating a practical (and IMO, beautiful) antidote to the bleak and resource depleted world we seem to be on track for leaving to future generations.



The drought in California weighs heavily on my mind these days, (one of among many). It is staggering to comprehend that this is a state that for over 14,000 years was forest gardened and fire-stick farmed by hunter-gatherers to such abundance that it allowed for the highest population density in North America at the time. (Anderson, M. Kat (2006). Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge And the Management of California’s Natural Resources.) In less than 500 years ‘civilised’ humans have managed to drain it nearly dry.

My heart gets heavy and so darn sad when I think about things like this and the only thing I want to do in the face of it all, is find ways to live in the world that might lead to a  more balanced, co-creative, regenerative, closed-loop relationship with my habitat. (Lofty ideal I know, but the heart wants what the heart wants.)

My first attempt at a brush fence!

My first attempt at a brush fence! Laid 25 ft in a couple of hours.

And now I know why something like coppicing makes me so happy and why I feel so compelled to forest garden, wield a scythe, wildcraft, compost, work with plants and share what knowledge I can. It makes sense, down to my very marrow, to maintain these ancient practices into the future. It feels right and sane and essential to engage in work that can meet basic needs, while at the same time manage and sustain a thriving, diverse ecosystem for hundreds if not thousands of years, without exploiting or violating the rights of others.  It fills me with hope.  (Plus there’s the added bonus of actually getting to live out my childhood pioneer girl fantasies, straight out of a Willa Cather novel. I’m living the dream!) (And goodness please don’t think that I don’t value other types of work and pursuits. There are many important, necessary, noble professions out there, as well as many dedicated people in jobs they may/or may not love, but contribute so much in other areas of their lives. Most of us do the best we can to the capacity we are able. This just happens to be my story. It’s the only one I know.)

So, I don’t have plans to do anything special or different on Earth Day, but I know that my hands will be busy with some kind of ancient future work.

Brush fence from coppiced willow.

Practising with brush fencing before I try my hand at wattle fencing.



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