Winterruhe: Bed Rest, Sleep Recovery and the Lost Art of Convalescence

Convalescence, Carl Larsson

Convalescence, Carl Larsson

“I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worth while.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

In January I set aside seven days for self-imposed bed rest. For seven days in a row I rested in bed for 12 hours a day. Most of that time was taken up by sleep (and the most amazingly vivid dreams I have had in a long time). The hours I was awake, I engaged in light reading (no screens allowed) or just letting my imagination wander. I was not sick or even particularly run down, but winter is long, cold and dark and I am tired. The ephemeral frenzy of spring, summer’s endless days and the steady thrum of the harvest season leave little time for lazy, Sunday lie-ins. From thaw-out to freeze-up I hit the ground running every day and during the growing seasons I average about six and a half hours of sleep a night, leaving me with a sleep debt to make up for. So I went to bed.

The Invalid, Louis Lang

The Invalid, Louis Lang

Historically, bed rest as a therapeutic treatment was an extended period of remaining supine, to recover from illness or exertion, or to gain general health benefits. It was something that you did even if you were generally well but wanted to increase vitality and vigour. Bed rest has an interesting and mixed history with Hippocrates recommending it to his patients as early as the 4th century. At its peak of practice in the 18- to early 1900’s, it was frequently prescribed for soldiers who suffered nerve damage after amputation in the American Civil War and the Great War. It was a popular treatment for patients with tuberculosis, and for those diagnosed with nervous exhaustion or ‘hysteria’, particularly in women (where the treatment was found to be unbearably oppressive and infantilizing for many, including Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote about a harrowing rest cure in the classic novella The Yellow Wallpaper.)

In its extreme form promoted by the American physician Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell (who treated both Woolf and Gilman), the ‘rest cure’ required complete recumbency 24 hours a day for weeks or even months on end, not even raising one’s head to eat or drink, or lifting one’s arms. Sewing, reading and writing were forbidden. Bed resters had nurses attending to all their physical needs.

Around this time, convalescent homes were also quite common. These facilities provided care for those who were no longer sick, but not yet fully recovered, with all the amenities needed to gradually return to health, usually by spending plenty of time outdoors in fresh, wholesome air, bathing in seawater or sunshine and resting in bed. This was similar to the traditional European spa therapy which follows a pattern of an early bed time, extended sleep, and an afternoon nap or rest.  Convalescence comes from the Latin word ‘convolescere’ which means ‘to grow fully strong’ and it was once considered a distinctly separate and essential stage of aftercare and recovery from illness. A form of bed rest is still prescribed today for complications during pregnancy, such as being at risk for pre-term labour, although there is some debate as to how beneficial this practice is.

While I can’t get on board with Dr. Mitchell’s bizarre techniques, I have been curious to explore the possible benefits of bed rest for sleep recovery after attending a class on Simple Cures for Chronic Conditions with Paul Bergner at the Green Nation’s Conference in 2014. There he talked about bed rest as just one part of the classical idea of a health regimen that also includes, “diet, exercise, rest, water, air, bodywork, and emotions.” In his own practice, Bergner has had success with, “prescriptions of 9.5-12 hours of bed rest a night, most often for three to seven days, but some times as long as three weeks.”

“Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?” ~ Maria Popova

Each night, an average adult requires 8-9 hours of sleep for optimal health, but most of us, especially women, incur a sleep debt, and get less than that, somewhere between 5.9 – 6.7 hours a night during the week. This sets us up for the effects of sleep debt: fatigue, irritability, insulin resistance, elevated cortisol levels, declines in cognitive ability, suppressed immune function, endocrine and hormone disruption, and increased risk of stroke and heart attacks. Sleep debt accumulates over time, making it more difficult to pay off with the odd nap or Sunday sleep-in. Sleep recovery is possible, but it can take time and requires some discipline. That’s where bed rest can play a beneficial role. An extended period of quiet, restful time in bed is often needed to help us get the hours of actual sleep we require to recover from sleep debt. Paul Bergner has observed that it can take 11-12 hours of bed rest to log enough hours actually asleep.

Sleeping Woman, Carl Vilhelm Holsøe

Sleeping Woman, Carl Vilhelm Holsøe

So how did my week of bed rest go? The first night I slept for nearly 14 hours! From the second night on I had long, vivid and detailed dreams that I remembered easily the following day. After the third day, I started waking up in the middle of the night for about an hour or two. I mostly read until I fell back asleep for another few hours. Interestingly, this matches what historians have identified as a ‘segmented sleep’ or ‘second sleep’ pattern.

In pre-industrial, oil lamp and candlelit times, people stayed in bed for up to 14 hours a night, mostly during the winter months, falling asleep shortly after dusk, sleeping for about 4 – 5 hours, waking for an hour or two, and then sleeping for another few hours. Instead of stressful tossing and turning, all sorts of pleasant and relaxed activities happened during these wakeful hours in the middle of the night, including reading, writing, praying, contemplative thinking, spending time with family members, snacking, having sex (the time between first and second sleep supposedly being quite fertile) and occasionally even visiting neighbours. Now that’s a winter sleep strategy I can get on board with!

As I learn more about plants and the natural world, become more aware of the seasons and all their subtle, nuanced shifts and cycles, and connect more intimately with the ecosystems I inhabit, I am increasingly drawn to feed, move and rest my body using nature’s rhythms as a model. I am also a bit more suspicious of modern expectations around our waking, resting and sleeping hours, especially when those expectations push us toward being 24 hour consumers of goods, entertainment, artificial lighting and such. Frankly, the last place I want to be at 2 am on a Tuesday in January, is in the fluorescent-lit, frozen food section of some all-night supermarket.

“People can accept you sick or well. What’s lacking is patience for the convalescent.” ~Alain de Botton

However, in a culture founded on a Protestant work ethic, that values extreme productivity, progress and the accumulation of wealth and goods, concepts like second sleeps, convalescence and bed rest are dismissed as impractical or impossible in the face of daily demands and responsibilities. We especially see this in pharmaceutical advertising. “Pop a pill and get back to work!” is the stoic battle cry that precedes many a congested, sneezy, drippy, achy, run-down worker’s contagious day at the office. Moms are encouraged to power through’ their sick days with medication to keep going. Masking symptoms so we can ignore them and get on with life is the expected approach to all that ails us. Personally, I have a hard time finding much of value or common sense in that approach, and I fear the consequences when we diminish our capacity for deeply restorative rest.

There is a term in German botany and zoology called Winterruhe (pronounced sorta like: vin-ter ruh-ah), which means ‘winter quiet’ or ‘winter rest’. It is a state of reduced activity in plants and certain warm-blooded animals. It’s different from the true hibernation that occurs in some mammals, in that metabolism and core temperature do not drop as much and there are periods of eating and movement during this time. Call it ‘hibernation light’ if you will. I love the idea of Winterruhe and its reduced activity, and I am drawn to the possibility of incorporating something like it into my life. It feels like the perfect balance to summer’s long, joyful, but ultimately exhausting days of hard, physical labour and I definitely want to structure more Winterrhue into my seasonal routine. I think a week of bed rest in January will be an annual event, perhaps with shorter periods of bed rest spread out over the year. And knowing how important sleep is to my health and vitality, I’m going to be more disciplined about getting enough of it.

Now, midway between the gradually lengthening days of Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, I am grateful for the darkness that has afforded me the time to convalesce, to grow strong, to rest and pay off my sleep debt. I’m looking forward to the sun’s increasing warmth, the stirring of the soil as life returns to the land, and all the activity that comes with that awakening. Soon my days will be long, full and busy again. But, until then, there’s still time for a few more naps and extended sleeps!

Old Man Sleeping, Gysis Nikolaos

Old Man Sleeping, Gysis Nikolaos


Allen C, Glasziou P, Del Mar C. “Bed rest: a potentially harmful treatment needs more careful evaluation”. The Lancet 1999.

Alexander, K. “Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You”. Slumberwise May 2013

Bergner, Paul. “Sleep debt: pathophysiology and natural therapeutics”. Medical Herbalism A Journal for the Clinical Practitioner 2003.

Breus, Michael J. Ph.D. “Can You Ever Really Catch-up on Sleep?” Psychology Today November 2013

The Family Health Guide. “Repaying Your Sleep Debt”. Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Health Medical School 2007.

Stiles, Anne. “The Rest Cure, 1873-1925.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.

Thomas, Carolyn. “Convalescence: The Forgotten Phase of Illness Recovery”. Heart Sisters June 2014

“Winterruhe.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Date accessed (01/02/ 2016).

Personal notes from Green Nations Conference 2014, “Simple Cures for Chronic Conditions” presented by Paul Bergner

What’s Happening in the Wild Garden this Winter?

Some of the winter reading list.

The yarn and crochet hooks are out, there’s a stack of books on the coffee table, and the teapot and cozy are getting multiple daily uses. It must be winter! I relish the short, cold, dark days of winter as a quieter time of rest, reflection and reading. But I’m not completely in hibernation mode here. I’m balancing the downtime with activities, plans and playing in the apothecary. And I have a few things on offer, whether you too are hibernating in your home or getting outdoors to enjoy the winter wonderland!


Conifers in winter.

Evergreen Exploration
This Saturday I’m looking forward to heading to Williamsburg, Ontario to teach a class on conifers. The kind folks at Element Studios will be the hosts and it should be a great way to spend a winter’s afternoon. There’s still some spots open and tickets are available here.

Monthly Herbal Box
I’m getting February’s herbal box put together and spots for it are filling up fast. If you are interested in learning about herbs that can support the urinary system, and having remedies on hand that may help uncomplicated UTIs or swollen prostates, this box is for you. February’s class will explore this theme further. Show your kidneys some love!


Brewing up evergreen tea over a fire for a kids class.

March Break Nature Camp
Finally, I’m super excited about a meeting I just had with my good friends from Roots 2 Fruits, with whom I will be teaming up to offer a March Break Nature Camp. We’re still in the early planning stages, but what I can tell you is that it will run during the days from March 14 to 18th for kids ages 7-12. Activities will include nature connection and awareness exercises, bushcraft skills like shelter building, animal tracking and fire making and of course edible and medicinal plant ID and use (and games, lots of fun games!). We will be working out all the details in the next week or so, but if you have kids that might be interested, feel free to send me an email if you want to get on a contact list.

I hope everyone is staying warm and cozy!

My wildcrafting buddy.

Out and about with my wildcrafting buddy. It’s not all just naps and books!


Introducing Sliding Scale Pricing

Sunset on larches.

Sunset on larches.

I believe that herbal medicine is the people’s medicine and that it should be as accessible as possible to all. And while I hope to craft a modest livelihood for myself out of my love and passion for plants, that is gentle on (and ideally regenerative for) the earth, I also just really want to share and celebrate the gifts of our wild and wonderful herbal allies with as many people as possible.

To help further that goal, two summers ago I introduced sliding scale pricing when selling my products at the farmgate stand, craft shows and markets. I feel it has been successful and though it sometimes takes a little bit of explaining to people who aren’t familiar with the system, folks are generally quite appreciative and positive once they understand how it works.

I have been wanting to add sliding scale pricing to my herbal boxes and workshops for a while but needed to take some time to sit down and work the numbers. I finally had a chance to do that and I am very happy to start offering sliding scale prices (sliding scales on monthly boxes are effective immediately and will be introduced for workshops in January 2016).

Sunrise walk in autumn.

Sunrise walk in autumn.

What is sliding scale pricing and how does it work?

Sliding scale pricing provides a service or product with multiple price points. These price points are set to make the service or product accessible to people with different levels of income, so that financial resources need not be a barrier to a person’s ability to access a product or service. Community members can chose the price point that best reflects their ability pay for a product or service, based on their individual circumstances.

The Price Points

When choosing my three price points, I spent time figuring out what my costs are for each product and service I offer and approximately how many working hours are required to develop and produce my products and services. I calculated the amount per hour I need to earn a living wage, that also allows me to make ethical choices as a consumer, including sustaining the business, plus a little extra for an expendable income (books are my weakness!)* I combined my costs and hourly wage together to determine the true cost of my products and services. This price covers the cost of materials and 100% of my time. I have chosen two additional price points that cover the costs of materials but only 60% and 30% of my time respectively.

Obviously I need to recover my costs, but for those with limited financial resources, I am happy to gift my time to make my products and services more accessible across a wider ranger of income levels.

*a living wage is the minimum income sufficient for [people] to pay for the basic necessities of life (food, housing, transportation), so they can live with dignity and participate as active citizens in our society. Source:

How to chose which price point to pay?

This is the tricky part. Sliding scale pricing requires trust, openness and honest reflection of an individual’s ability to pay for a product or service. Determining one’s ability to pay can be challenging and there are different systems to help one decide where one falls on the scale. For example, some businesses ask for income verification, while others may ask that you reflect on how much of your income is spent on necessities versus entertainment, hobbies or vacations. In researching and reflecting on my own needs, values and desire to offer a sliding scale, I came across the work of Alexis J. Cunningfolk and her sliding scale system. She discusses the difference between hardship and sacrifice as one way of determining where to pay on the scale.

If paying for a class, product, or service would be difficult, but not detrimental, it qualifies as a sacrifice. You might have to cut back on other spending in your life (such as going out to dinner, buying coffee, or a new outfit), but this will not have a long term harmful impact on your life. It is a sacred sacrifice in order to pursue something you are called to do. If, however, paying for a class, product, or service would lead to a harmful impact on your life, such as not being able to put food on the table, pay rent, or pay for your transportation to get to work, then you are dealing with hardship. Folks coming from a space of hardship typically qualify for the lower end of the sliding scale… Please be mindful that if you purchase a price at the lowest end of the scale when you can truthfully afford the higher ticket prices, you are limiting access to those who truly need the gift of financial flexibility. Being honest with yourself and your financial situation when engaging with sliding scale practices grows strong and sustainable communities.

Alexis also developed a handy infographic to help people determine where they best fall on the scale. (Click to enlarge image.) While this approach may not exactly capture everyone’s individual circumstances, I think it’s a helpful starting place when choosing which price to pay.


I would also like to add that there are many people who have a lower than average income, but for reasons of ethics, social justice and commitment to the environment, they may pay a premium price for consumer goods that support their values. While on the surface it may look like they can easily afford to pay high-end prices for things like local, organic food, fair trade items, or humanely raised meat for example, in reality they may already be making significant financial sacrifices in other areas in order to do so. For these folks, I feel that the middle or lower end of the scale would be appropriate choices here.

When offering sliding scale prices at markets some people express surprise that anyone would pay the true cost of a product when a reduced price is available, but I have found over and over again, most people are willing to pay what they can honestly afford.

We live in a world where so much of the production and consumption of goods causes misery and suffering to others. My hope is that I can offer something of value to the community, that provides a more accessible (admittedly small, but heartfelt) alternative to participating in an economic system the necessitates the profligate use of precious resources and concentrates wealth and power to the few, at the expense of the health and well-being of the many.

If you are interested in purchasing some of the products or services that the Wild Garden has to offer, I invite you to to use the sliding scale. And if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment below!

Herbally yours,

Amber Westfall


Frost on hawthorn

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

RSS Feed Subscribe to RSS Feed