Archive for September 27th, 2010

My Favorite Herb Books

admin September 27th, 2010

The last two years have been an intensive exploration of medicinal plants at our farm – we started out with the general sense that beyond the medicinals we were already growing, we wanted to add more herb plants that were suited to our local environment.  We were responding to two things – first, local practitioners who struggled to find good sources of local herbs, and second, the fact that our wet soil supports many native wetland medicinals without requiring unusual inputs. 

We had always used herbs at our home for culinary and medicinal reasons, but we started out with a small number of  common herbs, and bought anything unusual.  I have an insatiable curiosity about plants though, and every time I bought something from somewhere else, I wondered if I could grow it. It turns out that I can in many cases.

The list of medicinals grown at our property began to increase.  And then I had something of a revelation – a friend of mine who is a nurse practitioner was complaining that she was telling her clients to go buy elderberry syrup at Walmart that was imported from China – because she didn’t have a reliable local source.  I thought “Lord knows, I can grow elderberries.” Our wet soil is ideal for them.  So I decided to plant more elderberries.  And in that process I began to seriously research wetland medicinals and the markets for them.

I have no interest in supplying the wholesale market, however.  Our farm, which is small scale and includes no tractor is not the place, I think to plant whole acres of any plant.  What I’d like to do it two things that bring good plant medicine to people. First, I’d like to work with both local practitioners and people who take charge of their own health to provide the plants they rely on.  With that goal in mind, we’ve spent much of the last two years not only exploring what we can grow, but also working to make sure that we produce the best quality dried material.  I think the difference between my herbs and the powdered capsules one buys at a drugstore are night and day – rather the difference between eating spinach and buying spinach capsules.

The other project I’d like to do is to make sure as many people as possible have a functional medicinal garden at their homes, to help them take advantage of the things they can do to serve their own health and also as a backup (as well as an alternative) to existing allopathic medicine.  Towards that goal, I plan to see herb plants from my home and possibly by mail.  There’s not nearly as much information out there on good herb gardening as I’d like there to be, and for beginners, wondering what to put in their gardens, or even more advanced players struggling to sort out which plants they should and can grow, it can be challenging.

Many medicinal plants are overharvested or endangered in the wild, and there are compelling reasons for people who rely on them to begin growing them for themselves.  There’s also a security to providing for your own basic needs.

A lot of people offer good guidelines for basic herb gardens – Susan Wittig Albert, the author of many wonderful mysteries about herbs has a lovely essay about what a basic  medicinal garden should look like that I think is just perfect.  What I’m hoping to do is more specialized – I’d like to offer a number of gardens that are directed to specific situations, along with basic ones.  A pregnancy and nursing garden, for example, or a garden for people with heart issues.  I’d also like to help people begin to customize their own herb gardens, with an eye towards the future and times where they may need to rely on them.

That’s how we began.  Our medicinal herbs included the general herbs that one wants for ordinary things – colds, digestive upsets, children’s ailments.  And gradually we began to get more specific.  Eric has a minor heart irregularity that he treats successfully with motherwort and hawthorn, so those were added to the garden.  The goats get an herbal wormer, and I added the ingredients for that to my garden.  Everyone in my family develops osteoarthritis sooner or later, so herbs for joint ailments went into the mix.  Now that we are thinking more about marekts and less just about our own needs the variety gets even greater – to my deep happiness, since I love playing with plants.

I have to say, I have more fun working the herbs than almost any kind of gardening I do – I’m not sure what it is, but I look forward to the days I get to go out into the herb beds even more than going out to the veggie gardens.  Maybe it is the sheer, huge diversity of medicinals – I don’t know what it is, but it is so much fun.

So where do you start if you want to learn to grow your own medicinals and use them?  The using end is pretty well covered in the book department, it is the growing that can be challenging to learn about. Those books aren’t nearly so plentiful or so famous – and yet, they are a central part of the project.  Herb books that start without any thought about where you will get  your herbs, or that recommend people rely mostly on remedies from far away, do us a disservice.

So let’s focus on the grower books – in most cases, the expert growers are people who are already growing great herbs for sale, so if you live near them you should consider taking advantage of their knowledge. I’ve included links to as many home sites as I can find.

I’ve been recommending Tammi Hartung’s wonderful _How to Grow 101 Herbs that Heal_ for some years as the primary reference I have on this subject, and it is a very good book.  One of the things I like about it is that it breaks down the herbs into the kinds of natural environments they like, and helps you group them – so plants that like to be near water or have wet feet are put together, plants that like alpine or mediterranean conditions are grouped together.  This is very helpful when people want to figure out what will grow naturally in their region.  The book has good sections on using the herbs, and a nice section on incorporating medicinal plants into your food, but the meat is the guide to growing. It is a great starter book on this subject.   My only caveat is that I’d like a little more detail about growing techniques.

If you want lots of details from the person in the US who knows the most about growing the widest variety of medicinals, you’ll want Rich Cech’s _The Medicinal Herb Grower Vol. 1_.  This book is probably best for someone who has already grasped the very basics, and it isn’t a plant-by-plant guide.  Cech started Horizon Herbs, the single best source of herb seeds in the US, and my suspicion is that Cech just knows too much about too many plants to give us herb-by-herb info.  Instead, he focuses on the general knowledge you need to figure out what plants need.  The book is incredibly useful an enlightening – his observation, for example, that woodland herbs often don’t like animal manures, and require leaf duff as fertilizer is wonderful.  The book is also fun to read in the same way his wonderful _Making Plant Medicine_ is – full of stories and illustrations with a comic touch. If I have any criticism, it is that the book is just a little disorganized for my taste – again, I think it would be a tough book for a beginner to sort through.  But the very fact that Cech offers his growing knowledge is so incredibly valuable to me that it seems churlish to criticize at all.

If you want to move up to the commercial scale, or are looking for an herb-by-herb guide that gets more specific than Hartung’s you might want to add Lee Sturdivant’s and Tim Blakley’s book _The Bootstrap Guide to Medicinal Herbs in the Garden, Field and Marketplace_ – Blakley wrote the grower guide, while Sturdivant covers the market.  The market information is some years out of date (published in 1998) and I think of limited utility anyway for many people, since Sturdivant didn’t go very far afield in his profiles of companies – nearly all are right near him and they represented a somewhat limited picture of growers.  But the meat is in the herb-by-herb growing information and that is valuable.  The emphasis is on high-return herbs and on farm-scale production, but there’s valuable information here for home growers as well.   

I had the opportunity to take a workshop with Dr. Jeanine Davis at the Monticello Harvest Festival (due to my speaking schedule and family obligations, this was the only workshop I got to take, but boy was it worth it) on growing woodland medicinals. Dr. Davis is an expert on medicinal herb farming, and provides support to a host of growers through Cooperative Extension.  Any of you who live close enough to N.C. state should definitely consider taking classes with her  – I learned a lot, and this is not new material for me.  She gave me excellent advice on practices for my climate as well.  Her website, linked above is a great resource, and so is her book, co-authored with Scott Persons, Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals. I’ve just finished reading it, and my immediate reaction was “where have you been all my life?”

There’s a lot of good information in Thomas DeBaggio’s _Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting and Root_ – the emphasis here is on propagation techniques, and that’s very valuable since so many herbs grow best from division or cutting.  This is not an organic book, and it isn’t necessarily the one I’d use to help people begin to grow out plants sustainably – he emphasize soilless mixes and heating mats and this is not an organic agriculture, but it is a very useful book.

Nancy and Michael Phillips’ _The Herbalist’s Way_ (formerly k nown as “The Village Herbalist, which I think is a much better title, frankly) is a great book.  Its focus isn’t on growing particularly, but on all the things one needs to do small farm herb growing and herbal practice, from recommending books to talking about credentials to many other things.  But the book contains a number of small farm profiles and a lot of information on growing, harvesting and drying herbs that is enormously valuable.  They have a section on appropriate technology for small farms and recommendations classed by region and environment that are very helpful. 

I hope this helps more people begin to get their own herb gardens up and running!


The Ark

admin September 27th, 2010

I don’t usually re-run pieces so soon, but we’re coming up soon on the annual reading of Parshat Noah at our shul, and I’m fond of this piece. In fact, I’m so fond of it that I’m actually turning it into a novel at the request of a publisher.  Since I have to write another book first, and officially I promised Eric I wouldn’t go straight into another book, it might be a bit before it is done, though.

If you aren’t Jewish, you may not realize that Jews read the entire Torah (the five books of Moses) every single year.  We’re about to finish the cycle – and we have an enormous party (Simchat Torah) to celebrate, and then get right up and start doing it again.  This cyclical, repetitious reading means that you have to go and find something new in every reading – and fortunately, there’s a lot to find. By rights I should be writing something new, but I’m a little under the gun right now, so you’ll have to bear with last year’s new.

We started six years ago, on these sixteen overgrown acres.  The house was falling down and had a resident skunk under the porch, the barn hadn’t housed anything but rats for 10 years, at least, and at first it seemed like a nature preserve for blackberries and multiflora roses.  Nearly everyone thought we were crazy to leave good jobs.  Nanny quit hers for good, after 28 years of pounding algebra into the heads of 12 year olds, and I took a job as a substitute teacher and drove a plow in the winter.  Back then, Jeff had just graduated community college,  and his girlfriend lived up this way, so he came too and gave his old man a hand, while living in an old trailer we bought at auction.

We scraped out a garden and started to grow, dusting off skills from both our childhoods.   I apologized to my own Dad in heaven for cussing so hard when he made me hoe beans.   Nanny and Jeff got up on the roof and put up new shingles so it didn’t leak anymore, and I fixed up the barn and put in a workshop.  And then we set to gathering in.  How come?  Well, with all the things that are coming this way – the rain and the floods, the drought and the heat, the hard times – it just seemed like someone ought to gather things in, before they all disappear.  I don’t know if it was Nanny or me who wanted it first – she jokes that she told me “G-d told me to tell you to build an ark.”  But I was thinking it too – how could you not, as so much is swept away?

First there were seeds, as we sat wondering what we’d all eat in the years to come.  We ordered from catalogs like Baker Creek and Fedco, and we joined Seed Savers.  The first year we planted a little of everything, and decided what we liked best, and preserved it.  There were hard choices – we couldn’t grow everything and still save seed, but we made them.  Later we got to be friends with the gal down the road, Amy and her two little ones, and since she had no time for gardening, she let us grow some of our seed crops in her yard, in trade for the vegetables.  She brings the boys down to visit the animals, and gives Jeff a ride to his job sometimes.

We planted an orchard, mostly old varieties, but some of the best of the new ones – nuts and apples, pears and peaches and some oddities like medlars and quinces and honeyberries.   We also transplanted some wild berries, and saved seeds from the wild apple trees and planted those to expand the possibilities.  After berrying one day,  I told Nanny she’d best start getting out her canning kettle to preserve them, and she told me that I’d better get my hairy old-man ass into the kitchen and start learning to can with her, if I didn’t want to have to bring a new wife into this ark.  I considered the new wife for a while, but decided I didn’t have time to find one, so I might as well go help out.  I  let Nanny see that I was considering it, though. 

Jeff and his girlfriend got us started with animals - they read about chickens  in an article, and so we got two old breeds – Dominiques and Silver-Laced Wyandottes.  They chicks lived behind the woodstove until we got sick of them, and I finally fixed up a space in the barn for them.  I’m not sure if the chickens or Jeff or her lease being up was what made Dinah decide to move in with Jeff, but now there are two of them in the trailer and coming up to eat.  We don’t mind, though, Dinah’s a nice girl, and a smart one – she’s getting Jeff more interested in the farm, and less in that computer game he plays.  She asked us recently if we’d consider letting her brother and his wife put a trailer on the back end of the land in exchange for them putting up sheep fence.  We’re thinking on it.  He’s a nice guy, Aaron, and a hard worker, and times have been hard for those in the construction business.

Well, by the time we’d gotten the seeds mostly down, we had gotten the sheep – we set them to clearing out the old orchard and eating down the grass.  They are an old, old breed, with horns and spots, and Dinah wanted to learn to spin the wool, and then taught Jeff and Nanny.  We bought a good ram and set to lambing, which began in a snowstorm in April, and continued until all of us were cranky and snappish for lack of sleep – but all the lambs survived and so did we.  We ate lamb stew that winter, and sold the rest to the neighbors.

Nanny always wanted a cow, and so she bought Nephila, our Milking Devon.  There’s no accounting for taste – I don’t like cows, and Nephila doesn’t much like me.  Me, I’ve still got my eye on two beautiful draft horses, a matched pair of American Creams just like that ones my Daddy had when I was a boy.  The man who is selling them is moving out – he’s losing everything, but he says he thinks he can get his stallion to get Marcy bred before he sells her.  That will leave me Matty, the gelding to learn to log with and hopefully, there will be a foal in the springtime. We need those horses.

 And then the next addition to our ark came, the one we didn’t really expect – Hamish and James came on home up from Atlanta, with their two little girls. Hammy had been unemployed for almost two years, and James was making the money with his nursing salary, but James’s hours were cut back and they were finding it harder and harder to get by.  Well, they lost the house, and now they’ve come up here, where it isn’t so hot and so dry.  Nanny and I are just through the moon to have the girls up here all the time – they take the bus down the long hill to school in the morning and come back and play with the animals in the afternoon.  Hamish is home with Nanny and has a plan for building a spring house and for setting up a small fiber business.  James is doing shifts at the hospital down the hill.

We bred Nephila, and we bought a Jersey/Dexter cross as well, because by now with three families up here on the hill, one cow’s milk wasn’t quite enough.  James learned to make cheese, and sells the raw milk we’ve got to spare down at the hospital to other nurses and doctors.  I don’t think its legal, but with all that’s going on, no one is watching anymore.  And we started grafting our own fruit and nut trees, and I sold them at the school sale and online.  I gave a lot of them away too – every kid that read 25 books got a tree to plant.  I figure the more people holding on to things, the harder it is to lose them.

Angelina was old enough to do 4-H, and she wanted an animal to take care of, so we got rabbits.  We chose silver foxes, which were endangered, and discovered they really did breed like rabbits.   Jeff looked at the latest spate of litters and said, “Dad, I don’t think they’re endangered anymore.”

Angie’s doing great with them – keeps records, sells them, and we use them for meat.  But now she’s set her heart on getting llamas – she wants to raise them for fiber and guard the sheep.  And we do have coyotes…  What can I say, but that I’m a sucker for my grandkids.

With only three of us on the land with regular jobs (Jeff got hired to do construction and laid off again, and started back at the community college to get his paramedic certification), money is tight.  The taxes are up, because revenues are down, and services, well, they might or might not happen.  The town used to contract with me to do the plowing, but now I’m mostly relying on private clients, and with no insurance, we just hope none of us get sick.  I planted some elderberries and roses for a good supply of vitamin C.

I took Angelina and Gracie out to help me dig holes on the hillside, back of the south pasture, for black walnut trees.  I told the girls that someday, they’d harvest nuts from these trees, and maybe build things from their wood.  Gracie asked “but where will you be, Grampa?”  I told her I’d be under the trees, helping them grow, and in the new barn they’ll build from them someday, when the old one finally rots away.  “I’ll be right here with you girls, on this ground, watching you take care of the trees I planted.”

Nanny’s mother has started getting forgetful, and we just got a call that she had a bad fall accident.  I think it is time to talk about bringing her out here, so Hammy and Jeff and I are building on a place for Louisa to live, with a ramp and a bathroom.   And we’re busier than bees.  Speaking of which, Hammy ordered two hives, and has started planting drifts of flowers and herbs to attract native pollinators – to make a sanctuary for them.

Speaking of sanctuaries, we’re keeping count of the insects and animals that we’re finding on our property – we know how hard it is for the wild things as it gets warmer and warmer.  And we’re planting new trees and new crops that might last out this century.  I think peaches will grow here now, and maybe pecans…  I wonder how many more years we’ll tap our maples?   I don’t pray that much – I’m not a very religious man, I guess, but when I do,  I pray for the maples and the girls.   I’ve stopped praying for rain though.

The rain came – and came and came –  and washed a lot of our crops away this year, down to three handsbreadths into the soil,  but fortunately, we’d never planted all our seed, and we never leave the ground bare, so there wasn’t too much erosion.  We lost some of the lambs to coyotes, and we got a llama for Angelina – and one for Grace, too, who may only be four but wasn’t going to be left out.  But mostly for the coyotes.  The flooding killed the furnace, so now we only have the wood stoves – but there’s plenty of wood on the property, and we’re coppicing now, so we don’t take too much off.   It was a hard year, but we’re still here. 

People ask me about it all the time – they see the sign down at the end of the road with what we’ve got for sale, or they hear me talking at an auction about why they should plant trees, and they ask about our lives.  By most standards, we’re very ordinary – every village used to be an ark in a lot of ways – they had their own varieties of vegetable and animals that were particular to their place.  I’m just doing what everyone did once – taking care of my own and a little more than my own. 

A neighbor down the road just asked if he could help us out in the garden in exchange for some produce – they aren’t doing so well there, no work at all.  I said sure, even though James’s hours are cut back and Nanny’s frantic with moving Louisa over.  The phone lines were out for three days, and Nanny couldn’t get in touch with her Mom or any of the folks who look in on her.  It is a frightful thing, but such things happen – so it is good that Louisa will be with us.  I’m talking with our same neighbor about making sure we look in on all the folks up this hill if the snow gets bad or the roads wash away or the power is out for more than a few days.

We’re harvesting nuts – the old hickories on the property and the new hazels.  And we’re waiting – the mail brought us news last - Shane has been let off stop-loss, and he’s not going to re-up.  And Mari’s pregnant, the one he met and married so far away, so they are coming back here!  They don’t want their baby to grow up in this world without family to help. 

They’ll be here later this afternoon – and we’re all of us out here in the pasture where we’ll plant the new vineyard and the nut trees, waiting – the cows and the sheep and the two llamas and their new little baby, the chickens and the geese, Marcy and Matty and their little colt Ararat, Louisa in her wheelchair, Hammy and Daniel with Angelina and Grace, Jeff and Dinah, Aaron and Lisa and their little boy, Jacob, and Nanny and me.  I guess we’ll have to go in soon, since it is starting to rain, but long as we can, we’ll be here waiting, and once we go in, the door will be open.