On the sporadic nature of recent blog posts:

Who doesn’t get discouraged, or busy, or both? There’s solace in the fact that dormancy – the gathering in of energies and their conservation for an opportune moment – always breaks.

Monday, June 25, 2012

This Instant Harvest

Five minutes of harvesting from the yard.  What's in it?

Top (l to r):  red onion, basil, bee balm flowers, daylily bud, sage
Middle (l to r):  salad burnet, bronze fennel leaf, calendula petals, wood sorrel, spinach, borage flower, kale
Bottom (l to r):  royal oakleaf lettuce, 'Bright Lights' swiss chard

Earlier today I also harvested fava beans.  Here they are whole and shelled.  After peeling away the thick seed skins I also added these beautiful emerald fresh beans into the salad.

More and more I find myself understanding that my aim in gardening is not to grow plants but to grow systems.  With minimal effort, this salad appears -- a colorful play of greens wild and domesticated, flowers and herbs that return year after year, a brocade of the stitches that gather this particular space into a place.

For me this is what the EarthStoreHouse is, this mutual arising that feeds me, that is me.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Great Tangle

The garden looks messy, overcrowded, chaotic.  Weeds are running rampant.  What is planted is growing too thickly.  The gardener has clearly run away.  Time is in a tumult with spring, summer, and fall all entangled one with another.

  And isn't this just like nature.  In this bed are kales and cabbages that overwintered from last fall, grown now into teetering top-heavy treasuries of seed almost ready to spill.  Even now there are still delicious greens to be harvested from these plants long past the calendar's judgment of usefulness.  (And there are still bright yellow flowers to pluck for garlanding salads!) 

  Quietly tucked into the ground underneath and alternating with these behemoths are tomato seedlings.  As their roots settle in and reach out to knit into the soil, the leaves are lightly shaded by the sifting dapple of the kale seedpods blowing about overhead.  In a week I'll be harvesting all that seed and then chopping those kale trunks down to the ground (leaving roots to compost in place and feed the tomatoes), exposing my now-settled seedlings to the light they'll need to rocket up in turn.

  In front of the kale are fava beans all in a row, maybe the only hint of human hand here.  Now eighteen inches high, in early April they were curled up in hard, giant seeds in a paper packet, and in their place was a luxuriant bed of red nettles, downy soft green topped with a magenta crown.  Hardly an unpaying tenant to be evicted to gentrify the neighborhood, these greens deserved respect.  Everything is at home where it is.  Before planting my beans I did not "weed" the nettles, but rather "foraged" these wild edibles.  Or did I "harvest" them just as I would any planned crop?  In this crazy tangle of a bed, even terms lose their boundaries.  They were carefully cut back to keep the greens clean, and these were blanched and frozen for winter, when they will be mixed every once in a while with other greens or into soups.

My haul of nettles back in April.

  And at the front of the bed is spinach sown thickly.  Little by little, the patch is thinned for eating, and little by little these little ones remaining grow bigger and bigger.  Here there is some weeding to do, but if the weather's right (hot, sunny, and dry), the weeds can be laid out as a mulch right in place.  Make sure roots and leaves are all aligned in each handful, then lay the first bunch down.  Carefully lay the next one so its roots are on top of the first bunch's leaves, and continue.  The roots of each bunch will be temporarily prevented access to the ground's moisture by the preceding bunch's leaves and on a hot, sunny day will be crispy before sunset.

  But mostly I just eat the weeds.  First there were the red nettles, then chickweed, and now lamb's quarters is rocketing up.  These days when it's time to make dinner, I just walk out with a big steel bowl and pluck either tender top twelve inches of the larger plants or the whole smaller plants.  As I go I tug out the roots and let them die out in place to give more breathing space for the spinach, fava, and tomatoes.  In five minutes or less I easily have enough for a meal.  At a certain point they will likely get out of control.  Then I'll do a massive weed-forage-harvest and blanch them to store for the winter.  Frozen lamb's quarters cooked up is even better than frozen spinach.  It has a silky texture and a richer flavor that makes great saag paneer or other Indian curry dishes.

Another bed with lamb's quarters stitched through a dense brocade of onions, fava, kale, lettuce, burdock, and more.

  But then what?  Just as the lamb's quarters is hitting its stride, purslane seedlings are sprouting.  They will be a juicy crunchy summertime green and when there's too much, they can be pickled.  They in their turn will tangle through this food web.

Carrot seedlings rising up to meet falling bok choy seeds

  And just like the purslane sprouting at the feet of the lamb's quarters and the tomato seedling settling in under the tutelage of the kale, I'm thinking about what to plant among the spinaches and the favas.  Maybe in a few weeks I will direct-sow some basil seeds for a second summer crop, or perhaps spot in a few late plantings of peppers or eggplants.  Later in the summer as the tomatoes are really appearing in August or even as late as early September, maybe I'll try sowing turnips so that as summer crumbles under cooling weather, fall will already be rising up to meet in one great tangle.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Bonanza of Greens

Summer in March seems to have finally ended and left us back in a breezy Ohio Spring again...

...but not before those warm days spurred an amazing bonanza of greens in the garden!

 Share in the bounty!
Stop by
 EarthStoreHouse Project @ 270 East College Street, Oberlin, OH
 to pick up some fresh local greens grown sustainably without chemicals or fertilizers.
Come by the front porch on
3/27, Tuesday 3-5pm 
3/28, Wednesday 1-6pm 
3/29, Thursday 1-6 pm

This Spicy Greens Mix is perfect
  • for shredding up and adding as a vitamin-packed flavorful addition to salads
  • for steaming or stir-frying (great with sesame oil!)
  • for juicing to kickstart your day!

What's in it?

 Tat Soi
Turnip greens
Bok Choy greens
Chinese Cabbage
Hemerocallis leaves -- an earthy slightly spicy flavor
Garlic Mustard leaves -- super garlicky flavor
Baby Kale leaves (winterbor, redbor, lacinato)
Baby Savoy Cabbage leaves
Brassica florets -- like mini-mini broccolis!
Brassica flowers -- rich yellow blooms for a bright garnish

All that for only $8/lb!

What's been going on at EarthStoreHouse lately?

  • A group of OC Environmental Studies students is coming out weekly to learn sustainable gardening skills.

  • Marco is supervising a private reading in gardening to facilitate the inception of an OC-student-led community gardening project in Kentucky.

  • Every Friday this Spring OC students are gathering for the Exco course, "Zen/Gardening," an exploration of how Zen meditation and gardening can inform and enrich each other.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What is Wild: Cultivated is Wild

Where in the woods do blueberries array themselves in rows or fiddleheads over hundreds of acres crowd out any other green thing? Willows’ tender branches snap in storms and coast on the silver back of a stream until caught on a bank where they grow anew. Spores float on breezes that have no trailheads, their paths unblazed. Nuts are poached by frantic squirrels and forgotten until the magenta fist of an oak seedling punches into air. A maple samarra wings its way to the ground and a worm tugs at it with its hungry blind mouth until the seed is planted.

Foraging for wild food at some point becomes meaningless as everything becomes wedded in wildness. Bringing ramps and mushrooms into my little plot of earth, reveling in dandelions and burdock and curly dock where they deign to appear, the edges of this garden are beginning to blur. The woods are here too. When the distinction between crop and weed and wild food dims, another world appears.

In the clarity of a moment, my thoughts and the electric whirr of the lightbulb overhead and the vacuuming down the hall and the constant ebb and flood of my breath form one contiguous landscape. I am meditating with one other person in a conference room in a retirement community and the low-pile gray carpeting my knees rest on spreads to the lawn outside the window and to the pond edge and to the highway beyond the meadow and out into the wet late autumn woods exhaling their night of frost up into the damp close air and sipping in last night’s rainstorm.

What is the quarry, what is the invitation, in a unified world? Lettuce and dandelions, bok choy and turnips and garlic cress crowd a fruit tree’s feet. Dew-slicked ramp leaves are adorned with pale spring light under the sweetgum and the oak. Fiddlehead ferns luxuriate in summer shade. Chanterelles and shiitake erupt like thunderclouds in the humid faltering heat of September. Hazelnuts in their husks and squirrels chasing them fall in October.

In the wide expanse of fallow lawn in a vacant Cleveland lot transforming itself into an urban garden I walk carefully through the unmowed grass bowed down by its own weight into breaking waves of green, searching without any particular goal. Wild mustard, burdock, garlic cress, chickweed all brocade, minutely, green with green. To my surprise some two hundred feet from the nearest of the few vegetable beds started in this space, the pale chartreuse of romaine lettuces brooding like chicks in a nest half-hides among the luxurious unruliness of a field forgotten. Little lettuces whose barely serrated leaves point to tougher times, primped descendants of dandelions and thistles, you can hold your own too. What bolted head of yesteryear rocketed up into downy parachuted seeds that blew out this way? When there is just one world to live in what else is a missed crop and an unkept field but a bounty of food? When myself and the other volunteers are done out here we’re going to share lunch together. I twist off some of the romaine heads from out of the grass, but I leave some behind to rocket into next year.

My neighbor keeps a tidy garden, spacing her spinach seeds out just right and planting her tomatoes precisely. I admire her constancy and her determination that always bear abundant fruit. She and her husband buy half a pig each year and use every part, bemoaning that unfortunately Ohio doesn’t allow the sale of blood or else she would make blood sausages too. Because she found herself too busy this year, she graciously let me use her vegetable beds rich with years of laid-in manure and compost. Partly because I also became too busy but also because I am trying to plant the woods inside me, the beds have been a far cry from her Austrian precision. In late spring, around seedlings carefully transplanted, lamb’s quarters erupted everywhere in a near never-ending harvest, while bok choy and Chinese cabbage and tat soi and collards grew more patiently. In the fall, I sowed seeds thickly and took the gnarled trees of bolted and seeded Chinese cabbages from the spring and waved them like magic wands over the beds. The result was a thick mess of greens growing in a tangled carpet. When crops grow like weeds they suppress weeds. But what is a weed when chickweed is a great addition to a salad or sautéed greens? My neighbor, her neighbor, a friend down the street, and my household have all been pulling our dinners from here. Are we thinning the crops? Weeding? Gardening? Foraging?

What both fallow field and chaotic garden resist is ready commodification. It’s not necessarily easy to forecast yields in the woods, from a vacant lot, or out of the thick pandemonium of broadcast seeds. (Though I did in fact sell a nice bounty of vegetables to my friends and neighborhood just before Thanksgiving to adorn their tables.) But perhaps this is a sign of health in the garden, that it resists the imposition of a steady income on its unruly life. Did we emerge out of hunting and gathering and walk into plowed fields of wheat and rice and maize, granaries lorded over by pharaohs and priests, markets and fairs and beggars and hunger, supermarkets and food banks? Maybe its time to walk back into the woods and see what we find there…

… and then carry the woods out: brocade vacant lots with radishes, stitch lamb’s quarters into flower borders, weft ramps into the warp of a backyard thicket, thicket raspberries through the order of an orchard.

Note: For more on the idea of natural farming, the work of Masanobu Fukuoka (The One-Straw Revolution) forms one potently wild and inspiring strand. Another strand emerges as the idea of the “food forest” or “forest garden” espoused by the permaculture movement, in particular through the work of Australian permaculturist Geoff Lawton (watch this video of him explaining food forests), and in North America by David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier in their encyclopedic Edible Forest Gardens, a guide for northern temperate climates.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What is Wild: Wild is Cultivated

In the spring I held back some of the tender red-streaked bulbs of ramps with their flopping shining leaves and planted them in my backyard in the shade of the mammoth oak and maple and tulip trees likely a hundred years old by now. In the fall I returned to the secret spot I pilgrim to each spring and collected the ridged matte-black seeds from their papery covers, crushed one and breathed in the pungent oniony aroma to make sure, then went back home and seeded a small area underneath the watchful oak.

In one valley a village prides itself on its special preparation of pickles using some of the herbs of its woods for seasoning. Over the ridge whose road is impassable in the dead of winter, another village makes a bread whose unique flavor is said to come from the air, that is the yeast floating in the air, of just that valley. Festivals are held: young ones learn by the side of elders; travelers come to appreciate what can only be had right here; stories are told that embed practicalities within the fantastic, kneading knowledge and myth together.

All through the Appalachians ramps have been collected, a welcome herald of spring and a tonic, by the small communities living on the precipice of impossibility in hollows and glades along the folding laps of these ancient grandmotherly mountains. What has changed in the past few years is precisely that someone like myself, a horticulturist and ex-New Yorker moved to the country with an appreciation for the concept of local foods, discovered ramps too. Globalism has not only connected Kansas to Bangalore but New York City to the Catskills, Washington, DC to the hollows of West Virginia, and Cleveland to the woods a half-hour from my house in Oberlin. What once was a special spring treat among isolated communities has become a favorite of upscale chefs in the urban hubs of the east. Consequently, alarms have been sounding that ramps may become scarcer and scarcer as demand rises.

One can enter the woods like a thief: scour the vaults and only see money in those shining green leaves. But then there are no woods, only a transitive space, a means to an end. When the woods enter the forager, she becomes the highest expression of the woods and plants them with each footstep.

When I happen upon a ramp clump, I only ever thin the clump, making space for more plants to grow. And now I also plant a few and collect and scatter seeds and cultivate them, in the woods and in my yard -- which is also the woods.

What is wild here was also once cultivated. Bitter dandelion, fat cheerful scalloped leaves of Creeping Charlie zippering along through my vegetable beds, thick plantain leaves once called “white man’s footprint” for their habit of hitching rides in Puritan pockets and black pantaloons, brash all-too-common orange daylilies sprouting out of every crack: all these arrived here carried with intention, feeding the stomach or nursing the body.

From every direction, here emerges. Even before Europeans arrived, maize traveled and arrived here. Paw paw trees were set out in orchards through the great eastern woods all the way to Lake Eerie.

Thus, our weeds were our great-great-grandmothers’ comfort and herbarium. What does it say of us that, because they did so well without need of our tending, they devolved in our minds into nuisances and pests, baubles and background?

If on the one hand ramps’ scarcity calls for cultivation, then weeds’ ubiquity calls for their usage: dandelion leaves and roots for tonic and tea; creeping Charlie for colds; plantain to thicken the blood of a wound; daylilies for shoots, flowers, and roots.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What is WIld: Interlude

“Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise” by W.S. Merwin

When it is not yet day

I am walking on centuries of dead chestnut leaves

In a place without grief

Though the oriole

Out of another life warns me

That I am awake

In the dark while the rain fell

The gold chanterelles pushed through a sleep that was not mine

Waking me

So that I came up the mountain to find them

Where they appear it seems I have been before

I recognize their haunts as though remembering

Another life

Where else am I walking even now

Looking for me

What is Wild: WIld is WIld (continued)

Ramps, fiddleheads, puffballs, chanterelles, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, juneberries, cornelian cherries, bird cherries, paw paws, dandelions, burdock, chickweed, wild onion, wild chamomile, wild mustard, cattails.

To walk into a wood or across a meadow piled high with grasses, thickets, and flowers waving in the wind in search is to accept the invitation. In search of what?

The first step is to see everything. The second is to make friends with                 . The third is to harvest, to entangle with, to incorporate. The fourth is to be grateful. The fifth is to realize that once the wood has been entered one never leaves it.

When foraging for the hidden, there can be a shift in consciousness such that nothing is hidden. The forager who drives twenty miles to the secluded glade and returns home satisfied with her bag of treasure finds the very same thing growing out of the crack in the flagstones outside her back steps. Who can spend an afternoon plucking the fresh green shoots of cattail out of the redolent spring muck of a wetland and on the drive home not see the cattails suddenly in every ditch by every roadside? Tart sumac buds crowd the slopes of highways everywhere with their velvety carmine red. In every unnamed urban space some food is growing. Daylily buds swarm my town’s summer curbs in all directions. Knotweed looms thick and heavy in waste places where humans once were but moved on.

Now the places that have had no name, these empty places lacunae of our collective lives, are named. When we enter the empty woods and fill them with the virtue of food unlocked by our looking, we exit the woods only to find that no place is empty and the glittering plenitude of the woods extends forever: roadside ditch, backyard lawn, urban curb, highway shoulders. And how could a forager possibly look away now? There is no space not worthy of care when food is there. What toxins flow into that ditch? What herbicide is sprayed on that curb?

Wild is wild everywhere and our reverence for the cathedral silence of the woods can extend to every orphaned place when we see that food, life, sustenance is there.