Sunday, May 23, 2010

Healing power of herbs! Urban Wild Foods Recipe 2: Stinging Nettle Tea

Well, we thought we'd celebrate our successful seedling sale by ordering a special treat of Indian food. Very tasty, but about an hour after eating I broke out in itchy red hives! Upon reading about the possible causes of hives, I found out they are related to allegies (food allergies, seasonal allegies), stress, and various other factors. Connection to restaurant food with examples such as Indian food, Thai food or Chinese food, are common due to the MSG which is often used at these establishments. I should have known - MSG is not only usually hidden in the spice blends, but also in the red and yellow dyes which are sometimes used to colour the curries, etc. MSG is so prevalent in most processed foods that I basically need to stay away from anything with suspect labelling (MSG is hidden under various names and guises), not that I mind as we try to eat a fresh local seasonal diet when we're at home - but it makes going to restaurants treacherous sometimes.

So I tried a few home remedies to deal with the itchy hives - baking soda poultices (short-term relief), homeopathic gel for bites (not effective), and then I drank the miraculous stinging nettle tea. Within about half an hour of taking one strong cup of this tea all the itching subsided and swelling/redness was greatly reduced! It's actually interesting that this healing action is similar to the homeopathic approach - which may seem counterintuitive to some people - that of using a plant which causes a reaction in the body to heal the same condition. For example, the nettle plant can causes red, stinging itching welts (similar to hives) when it's picked without caution. However, taking nettle internally (as tea) over time can build an immunity to this stinging, and drinking nettle tea can also heal hives. In homeopathic medicine there are many such examples, e.g. apis (made from the body of the honeybee) is the main healing remedy for bee stings. Also, I remember seeing this same principle in action while I was working at the Algonquin Tea Company up near Ottawa. If one observes a plant and our reactions to a plant closely, it is possible to give a well-educated guess at it's healing properties. We were washing the dirt off of a massive pile of astragalus root that had just been harvested. While we were cleaning the astragalus root it caused our noses to run and eyes to water - and it turns out that astragalus root is an amazing plant which has been used for centuries in healing colds, flu and breathing problems. Interesting! We only need to take the time to observe plants, understand them and learn from them - the plants will teach us.

Back to the nettle plant - I am so fortunate to have this wonderous plant growing in our woodland section at the back of the yard. Nettle has many healing properties, including being a blood purifier (which means it helps to heal inflammation, eczema, arthritis, etc by tackling these conditions internally). Many herbal sources recommend to take a strong nettle infusion for a week, at least 2 times per year (generally best in spring when it's freshly available) to help with this blood purification. Nettle is also rich in iron, minerals, calcium (increasing bone density) etc etc. It can be made into a soup (cream of nettle is nice), added into sauces or steamed. I made a nettle-kopita last year that we are still talking about. Definitely need to do that again!

But to keep things really simple, the wild food recipe for this weekend is an easy one - nettle tea. Here is how to make a strong healing infusion, which can be taken hot, cool or as iced tea.

May 23: Nettle Tea
Steep 1 large handful of fresh nettle leaves in 2 cups of water that has just boiled. Let steep for at least 30 minutes. This creates a strong medicinal infusion. Sweeten if desired with honey or organic sugar. Drink 1-2 cups nettle tea per day for one week, as a spring blood purification tonic. The root of nettle is also very potent, if not more so than then leaves, so harvest this carefully if you have access to some fresh plants. Root can be made into a tincture (steeped in an alcohol base), or a decoction (boiled in water like a strong earthy tea).

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Don't forget the pies

24 lovely organic pies baked for the seedling, apple-rhubarb, sour cherry, five fruit (with wild harvest mulberry & blueberry), butter pecan, and vegan mud pie...mmmmmm

We'll have our fruit pies and sourdough breads available each Tuesday from 3:30-6 pm at the Fertile Ground CSA vegetable pick up on Guelph St (between Moore & DeKay) just around the corner from us! From June-October.

8th Annual Seedling Sale!

We held our annual seedling sale today - and despite the drizzle and grey weather we were amazed by the fantastic crowds that showed up! Again, we were sold out in two hours, more than 2000 seedlings, baked goods (all 24 pies) and all! Speaks well of the huge interest in this community for a resurgence of the desire to grow food for ourselves, and not just that but heirloom and organic food. This is by far our favourite event of the year, and it's the 8th season we've held this sale. A huge thank you to our trusty volunteers Mike, Julia, Beth, Jana and Dave; our talented vendors/organic farmers Angie, Taarini and Sarah; and of course to all the wonderful customers who braved the rain to attend this sale and make is such a grand success! We only wish we would have had more time to talk to each of you - we wish everyone all the best for this gardening season ahead! Please come again next year - always the Saturday of the May long weekend. Next year we'll try to have fair trade organic coffee available for the early birds who waited patiently in line until we were ready to start our sale :)

And...please stay tuned for more details about our first annual fall harvest festival, which we hope to host here around the September equinox - including beekeeping demonstrations and a fall honey harvest celebration (with our beekeeping friend Sarah), preseves & pickle tasting, tasty fresh pies, wood-fired oven demonstrations, and some live bluegrass music in the backyard...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Urban wild food foraging tips, AND Urban Wild Foods Recipe 1: Lilac-Violet Jelly

Urban homesteading is about being productive on the homefront, but, since we urban homesteaders live on properties with much more limited growing space than on a rural acreage good basic urban homesteading skills should also include a basic knowledge of wild edibles. It's amazing what is available when you start looking - when you take into account roots, shoots, berries, fruit, leaves, flowers, herbs, nuts, even bark and sap - these highly nutritive edibles are abundant in urban spaces, usually vastly overlooked, underappreciated, and generally forgotten. These wild foods can usually be eaten fresh on their own, added to salads, or steamed, dehydrated, made into wines, teas, syrups, jams, ferments, sauces, vinegars, flavoured honeys, baked into breads, added to desserts, and so much more...

Wild foods we can harvest include plants some people write-off as problematic "weeds" (such as dandelion, nettles, lambsquarters, burdock, wood sorrel, shepherds purse, purslane/portulaca, wild grape, etc); woodland type edibles that may grow in city parks or unruly wild spaces (such as wild leeks/ramps, puffball mushrooms, fiddleheads, wild asparagus, or wild ginger); medicinal herbs that grow abundantly in our urban spaces, often sending hardy runners up through cracks in the sidewalk or slowly overtaking the lawn (such as wild fennel, yarrow, chamomile, plantain, mullein, tansy); edible wild flowers (such as red clover, rose, violet, lilac); wild fruits and berries from abandoned or long forgotten trees (such as crab apples, pears, service berries, mulberries, wild raspberries, wild strawberries); nuts (acorns, chestnuts, even the much maligned black walnut); and sap for syrup from trees such as maple (Norway and Manitoba maple too, birch, black walnut)!

My plan for the summer to fall season is to harvest at least one new wild edible each week, and create a simple recipe using it. We already make a habit of eating wild foods from around our property - dandelion fritters, cream of nettle soup, wild grape dolmades, johnny-jump-ups to garnish desserts, and I've even made one cake with black walnuts (though it took hours to crack open enough walnuts to flavour it!). I hope to branch out a little more this season, and write about it here. I've already missed wild leek season, and although fiddleheads are currently at prime picking I am not a huge fan having had a bad culinary experience a few years ago being served undercooked fiddleheads (take note - it's very important to properly identify the plant, and know how it is properly prepared - case in point, fiddleheads need to be boiled in several changes of water, not just lightly steamed like asparagus, or they will cause great gastro-intestinal upset!)

So, a few quick reminders about ethical wild harvesting:
a) properly identify the plant using a reputable plant ID book or going with someone who is knowledgeable
b) know when to pick the plant (when is it at it's peak?), and what parts are edible
c) know how to properly prepare the plant (can it be eaten raw, does it need cooking)
d) do not over-harvest (generally the rule is to pick no more than 1/4-1/3 of a plant so it continues to thrive and grow back next season)
e) do not harvest endangered plants
f) pick in areas that are not chemically sprayed, not near traffic exhaust (e.g. right beside roadways), or near dog-walking areas
g) bring proper tools and clothes for harvesting (e.g. pruners, gloves for nettle)
h) general respect and care for the plant and the property you are harvesting from goes a long way - especially in urban areas you will be noticed while you are foraging/picking, always best to ask first if you are interested in harvesting on someone else's property!

May 19 - Lilac Jelly
Today's experiment was a lilac jelly, made with a cup of fresh lilac blossoms (plus a few wild violet blossoms and lavender leaves thrown in), 1/4 cup local honey, about 1/8 cup lemon juice, 1 cup water and 1 package of pectin. Follow directions for cooking jelly as listed on the pectin package. So simple, and this turned into a gorgeous pinky-purple jelly that has a mild delicate flowery flavour. It would be very nice on light crackers or a crumpet with afternoon tea! This could also be made into a syrup and added to sparkling water for a sweet refreshing early summer drink.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Permaculture design workshop

We had our friend Tracie Seedhouse (of Earthchild Designs) come to lead an "intro to permaculture design" workshop this weekend. Tracie has offered this inspiring introduction to permaculture here at Little City Farm four times, and with each session I still learn so much. In particular, having participants each work on their own designs for their home property (or community garden plot, etc) using the permaculture ideas just learned, puts these ideas into real practice and generates beautiful sketches, visionary designs, and hopefully successful outcomes!

Permaculture (from "permanent culture" and "permanent agriculture") is a whole lifestyle and way of thinking, on more than just the level of garden design or agriculture, but can also be applied to architectural design, social relationships, community based initiatives, even financial institutions (I have read about credit unions based on permaculture principles). Permaculture in many ways is not a new way of thinking, but getting back to older more traditional methods - observing nature, learning to minimize waste, creating systems that are self-reliant, using small and slow solutions to problems, etc. The term permaculture, and system of thinking developed under this banner, originated in Australia in the 1970s with Bill Mollison and later, David Holmgren. Now there are countless permaculture institutes, schools, courses, books, resources, and initiatives happening around the globe, each with their own take on the idea based on their own situation, climate, and other variables. It's an exciting way of thinking, and tries to keep in mind the principles of "fair share", "earth care" and "people care".

David Holmgren's 12 design principles

These restatements of the principles of permaculture appear in Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability; also see;

1. Observe and interact - By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
2. Catch and store energy - By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
3. Obtain a yield - Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback - We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
5. Use and value renewable resources and services - Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.
6. Produce no waste - By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
7. Design from patterns to details - By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
8. Integrate rather than segregate - By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
9. Use small and slow solutions - Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
10. Use and value diversity - Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
11. Use edges and value the marginal - The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
12. Creatively use and respond to change - We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Little City Farm featured in May/June Natural Life Magazine!

We're so pleased to have an article telling a little of our story in the most recent Natural Life Magazine (May/June 2010 issue). I wrote this article a few months ago and pitched it Wendy Priesnitz (the editor), in hopes that it would fit with their mandate. They had just published a story about the transition town movement, which aligns very well with urban homesteading principles, and so she was happy to include our story! I wanted to inspire others to see urban homesteading as a viable option for those of us living in cities but seeking a more sustainable way of living - and along with the article have also included ten suggestions on how to get your own urban homestead started. Check it out:

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Transplanting seedlings

We're upto our elbows in seedlings now - tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, cukes, basil, marigolds, etc, etc! We counted over 1100 seedlings that are now filling the greenhouse shelves and slats we've set out across the entire raised bed floor area - basically soaking up any sunny space we can squeeze them into. And, more waiting in the house, still under grow lights but ready for transplanting. It was 52C in the greenhouse today, even though it was cool enough outdoors to need a jacket and hat (and they are predicting a light frost tonight). It's amazing how quickly the sun warms the greenhouse and how long the warmth is held - we need to watch that seedlings don't dry out, and remember to open the vents and door during the daytime.

It's been a little crazy around here, trying to get everything transplanted this weekened as we wanted to give the plants at least a week to adjust to their new containers and then some time to harden off before they are sold during our May 22 seedling sale. Luckily, my parents were visiting and so dad was on plant labelling duty while my mom single-handedly transplanted about 500 tomatoes into larger pots! My parents were happy to participate in our farm life - helping feed the hens and collecting the eggs, plus weeding the herb garden and picking fresh salad greens from the coldframe, brought back memories of growing up on a self-sufficient farm in the 1950s for my mom. As it's now May 9, the seedlings have just less than 2 weeks left to grow and prepare for their move to the outdoor gardens around this city! Yes, we'll soon be passing off all these babies we've been tending so carefully since February to their new summer homes...

and, p.s. the fig tree has sprouted it's first fig! Unbelievable! They told us we'd be eating our own figs by the second year.