Sunday, February 27, 2011

Herbal Ally Challenge #8: Starting Seeds

We are a short 3 weeks away from spring and with it comes the return of the green landscape for many. On this year long journey of getting to know your herbal ally, watching your ally's life cycle is a wonderful way to become intimately familiar with your ally.
While you may have your ally growing in your garden or nearby in the yard, woods or another wild area, do you really know what the sprouts of your ally look like? This challenge is a way to really get to know your ally from his birth.
Assignment 1:
If you are unsure about how to grow your ally, research through various resources to find out growing instructions. There are many wonderful books on growing plants out there and most seed packets will come with instructions on the best way to start your seeds.
The Medicinal Herb Grower - Volume I by Richo Cech  
Often herbal seed companies list great growing instructions. Try finding your herb at one of these sites:
If you haven't purchased your seeds yet, now's the time to do it! Thyme Garden, Horizon Herbs, Richters and Johnny's are all great sources to purchase your seeds. I have purchased from all in the past and have been happy with the results.
Assignment 2:
Start your seeds. You don't need an elaborate greenhouse or set up to get started, a simple clay pot will do. If you have compost, use that to fill your pot, if not either dig up some nice soil from your own garden or go to a local garden center and pick up a bag of compost mix. You may wish to mix that with sand, peat or other mediums based on your plant's needs.  
Watch for your seeds to sprout, which should happen in about 7-10 days or longer depending on your ally. As they start to sprout, pay attention to the size, shape, color and height of your sprouts. Sketch them daily in your notebook, observing any physical changes that occur over the course of days. Be sure to list:
1. size, color and shape of cotyledon leaves
2. size of emerging sprout
3. height of sprout
4. how many days it takes for true leaves to appear
5. what true leaves look like and how they differ or are the same as the mature leaves that appear later
6. list any similarities or differences to the plant as you know it as a mature plant
7. record anything that will remind you of what the sprout looks like so you can find it in the future
This exercise may take a few weeks or more to complete. Try to sketch it every day in the beginning as you notice changes and every 2-3 days as the plant grows larger and changes in appearance or starts to bloom.
Assignment 3:
If you have your ally growing in your yard, be sure to observe any growth that has occurred. If you have  newly emerging growth, compare and contrast this growth with your seedlings.

How are your previous challenges going? Have you tested your vinegar(s) and tincture(s) lately? They should be getting pretty strong now. We will be revisiting them soon!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Herbal Ally Challenge #7: Completed

Just so ya'll didn't think I was superwoman or anything, I fell behind in my own challenges, lol. I was still studying Nettle, I just didn't get a chance to make an oil until this week.

I chose the stove top method for making my oil this time round because the weather outside is still cool and unpredictable. I added a handful of dried nettle then covered with olive oil. I let the oil infuse on low heat for about 2 hours and when I strained off the oil and the nettles were crispy. Done!

This oil I placed next to our regular cooking oil and I will use it in our meals for the next few weeks as well as with the nettle vinegar as a salad dressing.

How did your oils turn out?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Urban Homesteaders Day of Action

I'm not even sure I can qualify myself as an Urban Homesteader but the recent debacle over the trademarking of the words 'urban homestead' and 'urban homesteading' has got my panties in a bunch and I don't even wear panties!

I grew up on a small farm outside of town...14 acres, a garden, orchard, chickens, cows, horses plus an occasional oddball animal such as a goat or pig. When I left home, I lived in Los Angeles a few years then moved back to the area and lived in a suburban home.

I started reading the Dervaes family blog around 2000 or so, I don't remember the exact year but it was early in the 2000's. I admired them and they inspired me to start living simply where I was and question everything I did. I installed an umbrella clothesline, mowed my lawn with a reel mower, started a small garden, collected water in rain barrels and much more.

I was recently divorced and I had a plan. I wanted to be self sufficient, including a fully paid off home. I managed to pay off my car and started applying those payments to my mortgage, essentially doubling my mortgage payments.

I ground wheat with the grain grinder I bought, learned to make soap, started sewing clothes, and heightened my interest in herbal medicine.

When Greg and I took the plunge and moved in together, we knew my tiny 900 square foot house just wouldn't cut it for our 5 kids. We found our current homestead which is 2 miles outside of town but next door to a subdivision now (which sprouted up after we moved here). Our urban homestead grew from a small town lot to 4.5 acres.

While the Dervaes were inspiring, I hardly feel they were the ones to coin the term urban homestead or urban homesteading since the term has been used for decades. Even if I had not stumbled across them years back, I would have ended up on this path at some point because it is in my nature. It really saddens me to think they are attacking the very people who were inspired by their work and supported their work (they have shamelessly taken donations for years now even before they became non-profit) and have spent so much of that donated money on a myriad of trademarks (they have around 19 registered trademarks to date) when they could have been using it to further the cause. In my eyes, this is not saving the names from big corporations, this is pure greed. They are turning their backs on the people who helped them get where they are today and I can't help but wonder how much their livelihood is going to be hurt because of this. I feel bad for them for putting themselves in this predicament and truly hope they can make good with it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Herbal Ally Challenge #7: Oil Infusions Part 1

This is our 3rd week of infusions. Oil infusions are great because they are extremely versatile. They can be used internally, externally, as is or turned into a salve. There are several ways to make oils: stove top, solar and crock pot. The important thing about making your oil is to be sure and strain off all plant material and water or your oil will go rancid quickly.
You can use many kinds of oils to make an infusion. Olive oil is a standard, all purpose base and works well as a massage oil, salve base or salad dressing. If you want to make an oil specifically for a massage oil, almond oil, apricot kernel oil and grapeseed oil are all lighter and work especially well for this task. Coconut oil is also a great base, especially if you will be using it in your hair. Be aware that coconut oil generally solidifies at temperatures cooler than 76 degrees fahrenheit. Don’t limit your oils to vegetable oils. Animal oils can be used as well: emu oil, lanolin, lard, tallow, butter and ghee are all excellent oils to use. 
Assignment 1:
Read a few different perspectives on tincture making:
Healing Wise by Susun Weed pages 271 - 273 (Similar version taken from Breast Cancer? Breast Health! can be found online here: )
Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech pages 81 - 86 (First part of Chapter 10)
The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook by James Green Chapter 17: Oil Infusion pages 193 - 200 (click to see online...3 pages are missing from this version but you can see most of this chapter)
Journal any thoughts you have on oil making. Write about why you think oil infusions will be a good mix with your herbal ally (or why not). 
Assignment 2:
Make an Oil Infusion from 3 different types of oils. Use 1 form of animal fat. You may wish to make more than one version of each oil to compare differences in methods. For instance, do 2 olive oils, one on the stove top, the other sitting in the sun.
To make an oil, place a handful of oil in the top of a double boiler. Pour enough oil to cover, bring the water below to a boil then turn down and gently heat for 2-3 hours. Turn off the heat and strain out the herbs from the oil by pouring it through a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Squeeze the cloth to get the final bits of oil out of the plants.
Pour your oil into a jar and cap it. After 48 hours, check to see if anything has settled to the bottom. Usually when using dried material, there will not be anything settling but when your plants are fresh, water can sometimes mix with the oil during the infusion process and will settle to the bottom. If this happens, you will want to strain off the oil from the sediment at the bottom as the sediment will cause the oil to go rancid. 
There are alternative methods for oil infusions. The basic premise of oil infusions is to heat the plant material at a level that the pores open and release the medicinal constituents but not so much that you cook the plant material. Any heat source is acceptable although a continuous heat source is best. 
Sun Method:
Fill a jar about 1/2 full of dried plant material in a jar and fill to the top with oil. Stir with a chopstick to get air bubbles out and put on the lid. Set jar outside in the sun for about 2 weeks. Bring inside and follow instructions for straining and settling.
Crock Pot Method:
If you are making a larger quantity of oil, you can heat it in a crock pot. Place the desired amount of herb and oil into the pot, set on low and let heat overnight. Follow instructions for straining and settling.
Assignment 3:
Make a list of ways you might use your oils. Think about what your herbal ally’s actions and come up as many ideas as possible. Try at least 2 of these uses this week and record your discoveries.
Ideas include: Hot oil treatment for your hair, massage oil, muscle rub, chest rub, salad dressing (combine with your herbal vinegar!), salve base (we will make salves later...)
Assignment 4: (Optional)
Obtain some essential oil of your herbal ally and compare the differences between their scents and strengths. When using as a muscle rub for instance, rub one part with the infused oil and another with the essential oil. Journal about the experience. (Note: do not ingest essential oils!)
How are your vinegars and tinctures doing? Be sure to check on them and taste them! Your vinegars may be getting strong enough to use by now. If they are, try them with your oil on a salad!
Next week we will be starting seeds of our herbal ally so we can watch them grow from sprouts. If you do not have any seeds, refer back to my seed starting post for sources of seeds. We will discuss other options next week but if you are wanting to start some indoors to watch from their sprouting stage (highly recommended) order some seeds!

Herbal Ally Challenge #6: Completed

"Nettles are so well known, that they need no description; they may be found by feeling, in the darkest night." 

This week brought us balmy days. The snow and ice started melting right away and hopeful, I struck out to my wild patches of nettles in search of life. Sure enough, I found 2 tiny plants, braving the colds to come alive. The babies were stocky, thick looking and extremely bristly as if bracing themselves against any cold that may come back in the future days of late winter and spring.

For my tincture, I chose to use Everclear as I'm not sure what I'll use it for yet. I'm sure I'll find plenty of uses for it and will probably even make a second tincture with the appropriate alcohol.

Richo has suggestions for making the leaf fresh and dried, the root fresh and the seeds dried. I have been unable to locate a source for dried seeds (other than for planting purposes) so I'll have to wait and harvest them this fall.

Roots should be harvested when they are dormant. Since the weather has improved considerably this week I'm hoping to be able to dig some roots and tincture them up soon.

According to Richo, dried nettles should be tinctured 1:5 (1 part nettles to 5 parts menstrum) in 50:50 alcohol/water. Not being a purest, I estimated 1/5 of the jar and added the appropriate amount of nettles, eyeballed a bit over 50% to account for the fact that Everclear is not 100% alcohol, added the Everclear then topped it off with filtered water. If I had been thinking ahead, I would have used some of the rainwater I have stored in bottles in the basement for soap making purposes or melted some of the remaining snow. 

I gave the jar a good shake and labeled it. I'll shake and check up on it every day for the next 3 weeks or so. Once a week I'll taste it and note the changes in flavor. 


I'm still drinking infusions. My latest stash of dried leaves are from Mountain Rose Herbs. They taste much better than my previous purchase from my local health food store which are from Frontier Herbs. They still don't compare to my own harvest though. Come on April so I can harvest them! I'm lucky enough to have access to a field of them at a local conservation area. They think I'm nuts to want to harvest them but welcome me doing it since they grow everywhere and don't like spraying (and I was crushed when I saw them spraying a section of them last year!)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

First Kids at Luna Farm

There's something special about the first kids born every year. Perhaps it's the anticipation that in just 2 short weeks I'll be collecting fresh milk again, or the playfulness that comes with kids, or the sweetness of their smell...whatever it is, one thing is for sure, SPRING is here!!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Herbal Ally Challenge #6: Tinctures Part 1

Last week we started our section on Alternative Infusions by starting a vinegar infusion. This week, we will continue with our Infusion lessons by tincturing our allies. We'll be using dried materials and later in the season, we'll add fresh tinctures to the mix so that we can compare them.

Before we get started, I wanted to say a bit about tincture making. Just as our lives can take many journeys, there is no one way to make a tincture. Some herbalists such as Susun Weed use only vodka to make their tinctures. This is the simplest way and a great way to start your journey in tincture making. I stuck with this method for years! Some herbalists such as Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir match their herbal tinctures to the remedies they'll provide. For instance, if making a tincture such as Blackberry that will be used mainly for the digestive system, she will tincture it in brandy because brandy is made from fruit which is good for the digestive system. Gin might be used to tincture herbs such as cleavers as it contains Juniper which is good for the kidneys, bladder and urinary system. Other herbalists such as Richo Cech use grain alcohol such as Everclear because they can control the water percentage based on the type of herbs being tinctured. I use this method most often now and if you are interested in learning more about it, I highly recommend buying Richo Cech's book Making Plant Medicine. This book is very informative and Richo has already done the trouble of researching a good deal of herbs and how they best break down when tinctured. If you cannot find your herb in this book, simply find another herb that has a similar chemical make up and follow the directions for that herb.  

Assignment 1:
Before you jump into making a tincture with your ally, think about what you'll be using this ally for. Is there an alcohol that would be most appropriate for your ally? Perhaps gin would be a good match for your Dandelion tinctures? While this is not necessary for making a good tincture, it is fun to think about. 

Read a few different perspectives on tincture making:
Homemade Medicine article on Herb Companion:

Healing Wise by Susun Weed pages 267-271 (Can be found online here:

Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech pages 9 - 52 but especially Chapter 3: Tincturing Made Easy pages 17 - 26 (you can see chapter 2 of this book here:

The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook by James Green Chapter 12: Tincturing by Maceration pages 146 - 156 (click to see online)

Assignment 2:
Start a tincture of your ally. If you are working with an ally such as dandelion that has several useable parts, make separate tinctures of each part.
To make a tincture, fill your jar about 1/5 full with your ally. Fill the jar full with brandy, gin, vodka or 3/4 full with grain alcohol (such as Everclear) and top off with filtered water. Cap and shake well. For more extracting power, dump the entire contents of the jar into a blender and blend for a few seconds. Let settle then pour back into the jar.

Shake daily for about 3-4 weeks. It is not necessary to strain off the plant material, the tincture will continue to strengthen over time, especially when tincturing roots, barks and seeds. 

Journal about your tincture making experience. Be sure to list the source of your herbs, parts used, alcohol used, proportions, etc. 

Optional: Make tinctures out of different alcohols to compare. Gin, brandy, whiskey, vodka and everclear all make great tinctures. Down the road we will explore wines. 

Assignment 3:
Observe the changes your tincture makes over the next 3 weeks as you shake it daily. Make note of any color changes and occasionally taste your tincture to see if you can taste a difference. Note any changes in your journal.

Assignment 4:
Are you still drinking infusions? (You may not want to depending on your ally but if it's a tonic herb, continue as long as you can.) If you are, can you feel any differences? Is your level of energy rising? Skin problems clearing up? Nails and hair getting stronger? Be sure to journal about any changes, subtle or otherwise. 

Herbal Ally Challenge #5: Completed

I always enjoy reading up on processes. Even though I've made vinegars, tinctures, oils, etc. for years, when I read another herbalist's perspective, I always learn something new. While reading James Green's The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook chapter on Vinegars, I learned vinegars used to be the menstrum of choice before Pharmaceuticals took over and started creating tinctures in alcohol so they could have longer shelf life.

I also learned that women used to apply herbal vinegars to their faces as a tonic and facial cleanser. I've long used vinegar as a hair rinse but never thought to try it on my face! I'll be trying that with some soon.

I shall be using my vinegar on foods mostly. It will be a base for my oil and vinegar salad dressings as well as sprinkled on beans and eggs (I love poached eggs with vinegar!) I'm sure I'll find other ways to play with my vinegar, perhaps as a facial tonic, a soother for sunburns and hives and to treat poison ivy. Who knows what this summer will bring!

How was your week with acetum making?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Herbal Ally Challenge #5: Vinegars Part 1

Over the next few weeks, we are going to work with our ally directly again. Since most of us are under snow and don’t have the ability to harvest fresh plant parts, we will be working with dried parts. Later in the year when our allies are growing, we’ll harvest them and compare the difference between dried and fresh.
This week, we will be starting a vinegar infusion. Over the next few weeks, we’ll also be infusing our allies in oils and alcohol.
You don’t need to make a whole lot of each, a couple ounces will do. With the vinegar and oil you might want to make more if you will be using it for consumption. Make enough that you can experiment with it and compare it later in the season with freshly made versions. 
Herbal Vinegars
Herbal Vinegars are a great way to extract minerals from your ally. Once a preferred form of medicine making, Herbal vinegars have sadly fallen by the wayside, giving way to alcohol tinctures and glycerin tinctures. The famous Four Thieves Vinegar was an official medicine in many countries’ pharmacopoeias. This vinegar was an infusion of a variety of herbs including cinnamon, clove, garlic, nutmeg, rosemary, rue, peppermint, sage, wormwood, calamus and camphor. 
Herbal vinegars can be used for salad dressings, a tablespoon at a time for combating digestive ailments (1 tablespoon 20 minutes before a meal can help you avoid indigestion and heart burn), a hair rinse (great for relieving dandruff, removing the last of the shampoo in the hair and making the hair shiny) and more. They are an excellent tonic for the entire digestive tract and can assist your body to regulate its acid/alkaline balance. Externally, they can be applied to the skin as a fomentation to soothe irritated, burned, itching or feverish skin. They are typically added 1:3 with water (1 part vinegar to 3 parts water). 
Vinegars are sometimes mixed with alcohol to enhance the preservation qualities but for simplicity sake, we are going to focus on making pure acetum infusions. Later, we will discuss converting our vinegar infusions into oxymels. 
Assignment 1:
Read more about vinegars here:
Suggested Reading
If you are able to get ahold of these books, read more about Herbal Vinegars. Check with your library’s loan system as they are often easy to find.
Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech, Chapter 6: Vinegar Extracts
The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual by James Green, Chapter 15: Vinegar Infusion
Folk Medicine by D.C. Jarvis
Assignment 2:
Start a Vinegar with your ally. Again, if you are working with an ally that has several useable parts, make separate vinegars for each part. 
To make a vinegar, fill a jar about 1/5 full with your ally. If you have a grinder (a coffee grinder dedicated to herbs works great), grind the herbs and return them to the jar. Heat up your acv until hot but not boiling and pour over the herbs and let sit for about 3 weeks in a dark cabinet. You can strain off your plant material or leave it in. The plant material can be eaten as is, added to salad dressings or mixed in with beans or other foods.

NOTE: If you are using an unpasteurized and/or organic acv, you may want to skip the heat part so you don't kill the good bacteria in the vinegar. 
Assignment 3:
Write down your own thoughts about making a herbal vinegar out of your ally. List how you will most likely use your vinegar and what your vinegared ally will be useful for. 

Herbal Ally Challenge #4: Impressions Completed

This has been a crazy week, I apologize for the lateness of this post and the next challenge! We've had way too many snow days this week and it threw my entire schedule off.

I've had an enjoyable time playing around with different mediums to create my impressions of nettle this week. I decided to only do my art work on the right side pages and leave the left side blank for writing in for the next challenges so I could have the art work to look at in between the writing to sort of break it up a bit.

Besides working on the impressions this week I continued with my infusions. I have an order in to Mountain Rose for more nettles which should arrive in 2 more days. In light of the snow, I don't think we'll be seeing any live nettles here for quite awhile much to my dismay!

How did your impressions turn out? Share a few of your favorites!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Winter Wonderland

We haven't had a winter this beautiful in years! I've been outside 3 different times these past few days photographing the beautiful scenery.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Tree Year - February

February is blasting in with a doozy of an ice storm. While I hate the damage the ice can do to the trees, I love the look of everything covered in ice. A few years ago, the ice storm we had took out the top of our cedar. I hope he weathers this one better. 

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