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Flowers on the Equinox

Happy Fall Equinox! We are celebrating doubly because the evening temperatures fell below 70 a few nights ago. Unlike homes up North which are shut up all winter, homes in Florida are shut up tight all summer because we all have the AC running (if we’re lucky). Once the night time temps fall below 72 or so, the windows can be opened and the AC turned off most of the fall through the late spring. Throwing open the curtains and opening the windows set off a flurry of cleaning. While I was looking out the front window, I spotted a ripe butternut squash that got completely missed!

surprise squash

We only had about six weeks of truly hot weather, but that was enough to see the changes that the cooler temperatures are bringing already. The butternut squash, luffa, and birdhouse gourds have started putting out new fruits again. The cutleaf coneflower, which I despaired about all summer, is finally blooming. The cutleaf coneflower, monarda, and tropical sage are making quite a display right now.

native bed september

As Ginny Stibolt reminded us recently, I don’t put out “bird feeders”. I plant gardens. My mostly-natives bed has half gone to seed but I’m resisting the urge to deadhead. Those seeds will feed migratory birds and the rest will reseed the garden for the spring. The beach sunflower is unstoppable, filling all of the gaps in the natives bed. The small yellow flowers brings clouds of bees, flies, and wasps every sunny day. I also don’t put out hummingbird feeders full of sugar water. I plant lots of firebush instead (red flowers in the background) which blooms for eight months straight and keeps the hummingbirds coming back every day.

native bed 2

Growing comfrey here is a struggle. I have three comfrey patches established but this one, the only one that doesn’t benefit from at least some shade during the day, died back to the ground in July. It’s rapidly recovering with the changing season.

reviving comfrey

The sunchokes are also flowering! It’s interesting that the sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosa) and the beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis) attract different pollinators. The sunchokes attract a lot more beetles than bees so far. It’ll be interesting to see what the 8 ft tall swamp sunflowers (Helianthus augustifolia) attract once they bloom.

jerusalem artichokes

I am one of the rare people who wishes summer would last forever. I don’t like cold weather. My favorite seasons are Spring and early Summer. I still do my best to live in the cycle of the seasons, to not resist the changes happening around me. So I will embrace fewer mosquitoes, ripe persimmons, cane boils, and scarf weather, and plant my winter garden.

Chinese Herbs Update

I walked around the garden the other day specifically to check on my test plantings of Chinese herbs. I have so many now! The test plantings over the past couple years have given me a much clearer picture of what will thrive here and what won’t. There are just so many plants to try, still.

ashwagandha

Ashwagandha grows very well here. This fall I will dig my first roots and find out what the average yield/plant will be. The ashwagandha also attracts leaf-footed bugs like crazy but they don’t seem to hurt it. This weekend I’ll be harvesting berries from the strongest-looking plants. Now that I know it grows well, I have to find a buyer.

mugwort

I am in the middle of take my third cutting of this stand of mugwort since I planted it exactly a year ago. So, three cuttings a year seems to be pretty darn good return on a plant that requires no irrigation or fertilizer once established. The investment on this crop is time and labor- the dried mugwort has to age for three years before I grind and sift it into floss for moxa.

platycodon

See the delicate purple flower in the middle of all those weeds? That’s Platycodon grandiflorus, jie geng, and it’s taken me a while to figure out how it wants to grow. Jie geng doesn’t like to be messed with around the roots, it wants water, and prefers dappled shade. The roots are surprisingly sturdy- several times these plants have died back to the ground and then come up again, undaunted. I’m looking forward to digging up these roots in the fall.

new herbs

These are two precious new additions to my trial herb beds- Alpinia katsumadai (the seeds of which are Cao Dou Kou) and Cucurma Wenyujin (Wen yu jin). Recently I visited Tom Wood, a noted ginger taxonomist, breeder, and collector, and he sold me both of these- he was using them for flower breeding! The ginger, galangal, and turmeric are growing so well that I’m sure these will grow well, too. I found this interesting article on the confusion in cucurma botanical medicines. Once I find a good place I’ll be ordering the last of the cucurmas- Zedoary.

astragalus

This is the final experiment for this year, and possibly the last experimental crop on this property… by Spring we’ll have enough of the farm cleared that I can start planting out there. This is Astragalus (huang qi) which I bought from Mountain Gardens in July. Astragalus is a sought-after herb right now and I have high hopes that it will like our deep sandy soil.

Other successes: Acyranthes bidentata (niu xi), Eclipta prostrata (bringhraj), Belamcanda chinensis (she gan)

On Rejecting Consumerism

On Friday we went to our brand-new Hobby Lobby on our way to dinner. I was going to a party the next night and I thought I needed a prop for the party. I was in a hurry, as usual. We found a few things that would work but they were well more than I wanted to spend on a party prop. So we found some sale flyers, and lo! We found that these pieces were 50% off, so they felt like a good deal. So we took the two things to the cash register and gave the tired and disinterested but polite cashier an amount of money that nearly equaled one entire day’s wages for me, and then waited patiently while the cashier inefficiently wrapped the things and we started to hurry on to dinner.

And then I stopped.

I stood in the fluorescent-lit entryway, sparkling clean and faintly stinking of overpriced scented candles, and looked at the other overpriced, ugly, unnecessary crap artistically arranged around me. I looked at the crap I had just traded nearly a day’s wages for, the amount of money that would buy most of a week’s food for our family, and realized they were both ugly and cheaply made.

And I kinda lost it. I should’ve just turned right around and returned the crap to the disinterested but polite cashier, but my husband and son, recognizing that my ethics were kicking in, hustled me out of the store and into the car while I cussed and railed against what I had just done.

There is nothing of beauty in that store. There is nothing of art, nothing made by artists. That place is full of cheap, throwaway crap made by factory workers to imitate things of beauty, things of art, and then priced just high enough to convince people it has value. Hobby Lobby is selling a cheap copy of style, a cheap copy of art. These things are made by poor women in foreign factories because we have become unwilling to pay real artists for art. Instead we buy piles of easy crap, we fill up our homes with disposable trash that has no artistry and no lasting value. And here I was, snowed by the illusion of needing to buy something I didn’t have time to make because I was earning wages, and then trading my wages for worthless crap. So the crap sits in my living room, still in its bags with the receipt, waiting for me to reclaim my hard-earned money and a small measure of self-respect.

What goes for food should go for everything we consume, everything we trade our wages for: Buy the best you can, even if that means you can consume relatively little of it. We must be willing to discern the difference between things of value and things of non-value, whether those things be food or vases or paintings, to reject the empty consumerism we all say we abhor.

Pear Cider Experiment

Sometimes a food project is the result of a confluence of events. Event #1- Several years ago, I tasted a sparkling dry pear mead. It was the best mead I’ve ever tasted, before or since. Event #2- Watching farmers struggle to sell their sand pears every summer for several years. Event #3- Reading a couple of articles about artisan cider making and how the majority of heritage apples were for cider making and preserves, not necessarily eating fresh, and thinking about how the local sand pears are so much better for cooking than eating fresh. Event #4- My husband brings home 20# of pears from a friends’ tree, and then we went and picked up 20 more. And we didn’t even have to pick them! Event #5- A facebook plea for brewing equipment results in a loan of a 5-gallon carboy and airlock.

cider2

So after reading every website on the internet about making pear cider, it was time to dive in. My husband bought yeast, yeast nutrient, campden tablets, a large food-quality bucket and a straining bag at the local brewing store. Then we just had to figure out how to grind and press the pears.
cider1I dithered about this process for a couple weeks, trying to find the best way to press the pears without a cider press. One evening I peeked at the baskets of pears ripening and saw some soft spots and a few fruit flies. So that evening the kids and I cut up 40 pounds of pears and used my meat grinder to puree the pears. It worked really well.
cider3After tipping the ground pears into the straining bag, the kids and I took turns squeezing the bag against a broiler pan over the bucket. Then my husband came home and had a great idea- he placed a heavy cutting board over the straining bag, and sat on it! It worked perfectly. We got a little over 2 gallons of juice from 40# of pears. Then we added the yeast nutrient, a campden tablet to sterilize the raw pear juice, and put the lid tightly on the bucket for 24 hours.

The next evening I started the yeast, added the yeast to the pear juice, and put the mixture in the carboy with the airlock. Our yeast is supposed to work well with high ambient temperatures, so we put the carboy in the laundry room next to the deep freeze. Now, we wait! If this turns out well, then hopefully we can put this batch in bottles and fill the carboy again before the end of pear season.

Have you ever brewed anything alcoholic from scratch? What did you tackle first? How did it turn out?

Fukuoka and Local Food

fukuokaI just finished reading The Natural Way of Farming by Masanobu Fukuoka. I will be pondering this philosophy- for it is a new philosophy, and the source of much of permaculture- for a long time. The final chapters of the book about what the author considers natural health, natural farming, and a natural diet, and how the three are really one cycle, and can’t be separated. Much of the final chapter is devoted to what the author considers a “natural diet”- not just eating foods free of modern processing, but only eating foods grown in Japan and each in their proper season. There is no regard for whether a food is native to Japan or not- for instance, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, potatoes, kidney beans, and peanuts are all from the Americas- only that it will grow in Japan.

This is an outlook on local food and a land-based healthy diet that any 21st century locavore will instantly recognize. I am more aware than most of where the plants I am growing for food come from but “local foods” for me are the foods that grow here, no matter where their place of origin. I will gladly try any plant from any continent if it produces food, and as far as I’m concerned, the food produced by that plant is now local. So what would our diets include if we were to follow Fukuoka’s diet advice? Beans. Sweet potatoes. Pecans. Rice. Corn. Peanuts. Cane sugar. Honey. Sorghum molasses. Greens and cruciferous vegetables in the winter and spring, nightshades and cucurbits in the summer and fall. A wide variety of fruit from temperate to tropical but mostly persimmons, pears, oranges, and blueberries. A totally balanced diet, with plenty of variety. I think more shocking would be the foods that we take for granted but don’t actually grow here, like wheat. Oats. Asparagus. Coffee. Dates. Almonds.

I hope that others reading this book don’t think that Fukuoka is recommending that the diet he espouses is for everyone, or even anyone outside of Japan. That’s missing the point entirely. The guiding principle is to eat what grows where you live. I know in my gut that this is the future, “locavore” diets will be the only diet, and I am sincerely thankful to live in a place where food can be easily grown year-round.

Welcome to the Jungle

So I’ve been locked out of my blog for two weeks due to a virus scare and I don’t even know where to start. With luck I will own two beautiful acres for my farm by the end of the month. The trip to North Carolina was amazing. And I came home to a jungle. A wonderful, verdant jungle.

house2

This was my yard when I got home. Take a look at the same shot in 2013 and 2012. I’ve been reading The Natural Way of Farming and came back to see everything in a slightly new way.

forest garden1No longer is the crabgrass my enemy. Nature is perfect. The crabgrass is growing there without planting, therefore the crabgrass is growing in its perfect place. The crabgrass is there for a reason. It’s my job to try to understand why the crabgrass is growing there, and why I want to remove it, and what will happen if I do. This philosophy demands a certain flexibility of mind to be able to question all of the preconceived judgments that man places on the natural world. It’s heavy.

If you’re in the area, I’ll be talking about stacking functions and other permaculture ideas with a bunch of other local permaculture geeks (including David Goodman from Florida Survival Gardening) at the next Grow Gainesville meeting Monday August 18th. If you’re interested, check it out here.

Calm the Shen Truffles

Leaving tomorrow for the NC Herb Association conference Wild Herb Weekend in Valle Crucis, NC! So excited! I’m going for the medicinal herb growers track, but when I saw the cooking competition I knew I had to enter.

best foods contest

One of the farmers at the market grows shiitakes and other medicinal mushrooms. He sells reishi mushroom powder for people to put into capsules themselves, which is significantly less expensive and higher quality than the pills in the health food store. Capsules are popular because reishi mushrooms are bitter and tough. In Chinese medicine, reishi mushrooms “nourish the heart and strengthen qi and blood to treat Heart and Spleen deficiencies that manifest in insomnia, forgetfulness, fatigue, listlessness and poor appetite.”

truffles2

I thought dark chocolate would be an unexpected combination with the bitter reishi mushrooms and what better way to combine them than decadent truffles! I asked one of the licensed acupuncturists at my office to help me find a gentle formula based on reishi that also had flavors that wouldn’t overwhelm chocolate. It didn’t take us long to find a simple formula.

truffles4

This will be a tough recipe to replicate unless you have access to a Chinese herbal dispensary, but you can make these truffles with just reishi mushroom powder. If you’re local, cultivated reishi powder is available from Southeast Mushroom at both the Alachua County Farmers Market and the Downtown Farmers Market. This was my first time making truffles but they’re so easy. Don’t skimp on the quality of the chocolate!

truffles1

Calm the Shen Truffles

7 oz 70% chocolate
2/3 c organic heavy cream
1 tbl sorghum molasses
6 grams ling zhi (reishi mushroom) powder
3 grams each: dang gui (angelica root), bai shao (white peony root), suan zao ren (zizyphus seed), and long yan rou (dried longan fruit)
cocoa powder, for rolling

Put the reishi powder and the rest of the herbs into a clean electric coffee grinder and grind until it’s a coarse powder. Measure out two heaping teaspoons and set aside.

Heat the cream and sorghum molasses in a small pan until almost boiling. Chop the chocolate and put into a small heatproof bowl. Pour the hot cream mixture over the chocolate and beat gently until the chocolate is smooth. Let cool for 5 minutes in the bowl. Add the powdered herbs and beat again.

Line an 8×8 pan with parchment paper. Scrape the chocolate mixture into the lined pan. Cover tightly. Set aside someplace cool for three hours. When the chocolate is set up, use a small scoop or two small spoons to form small balls. Roll the balls in cocoa powder and place then on a plate. Let them sit at least an hour to set up. Store in the fridge if necessary.

Simple Balsamic Long Beans

long beansSo I have a bit of a confession to make. I don’t like green beans. I know, I know… I’m a mom who’s basically spent half her life telling children to eat their vegetables and I write a whole blog encouraging people to try local vegetables. Here I am, revealing my own inconsistencies. But green beans are gross! Apparently this particular bias is inherited- my father also doesn’t like green beans so I probably didn’t eat them much growing up. Canned green beans will actually make me gag. Erk. So of course I’ve never grown green beans or Chinese long beans (Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis) even though I know the Chinese long beans grow well here in our humid summers. I did buy Chinese long beans at the farmers market once. If I remember correctly I either boiled or steamed them. They were tough and chewy and no one really liked them, so I never bought them again.

So over the weekend our next-door neighbor brought over a big bunch of long beans from his garden! I will never refuse free homegrown produce, ever. This time I did a bit more research before cooking. I have tried various preparations of green beans to see if they make this common vegetable more palatable. The only way I have found that green beans are actually pretty darn good are the spicy blistered green beans on some Chinese buffets. Little did I know that this Sichuan-region preparation is traditionally made with Chinese long beans! But we were having chicken and potatoes, and I didn’t think Sichuan pepper and chiles would blend well, so I used the traditional cooking method with new flavors. They turned out delicious! 

long beans2

This recipe is so good, not even a blurry photo will keep me from sharing it.

Simple Balsamic Long Beans

This cooking method will work best if you have a large wok and a gas stove. I have neither of those, so I made them in batches in a large non-stick skillet over the highest heat my electric stove can do. Be patient, it’s worth it.

1 lb Chinese long beans
1-2 tbl sunflower oil, or any other oil suitable for high heat
Salt
Good balsamic vinegar- I used Mission Fig flavored balsamic vinegar, but any quality balsamic will work

Rinse your long beans well and dry them on a towel. You want them absolutely dry. Cut into thirds. Heat a wok or other large pan over high heat. When it’s really hot, add 1 tsp of oil and immediately add the green beans one handful at a time until the pan is full but all the beans are in one layer. Toss vigorously to get them all coated in oil, and then let the beans cook on one side for a full minute. The beans should be darkly blistered and brown. Keep tossing and pausing until the beans are well browned and totally wilted. Dump onto a plate. Repeat until all beans are cooked. Let the pan get really hot again. Dump all of the beans back in the wok, dress liberally with salt, and then pour about 2 tbl of balsamic vinegar in. Lift the pan off the heat and toss furiously until the vinegar has slightly thickened and the beans are coated. Pour onto a plate and serve immediately. Add more salt and vinegar if necessary.

The Springstead Vision

food forest 2 years

Two years ago this was sand and ratty boxwood hedges.

So here’s what’s in my heart.

Imagine a forest. It’s a forest full of birds and insects and fruit and flowers. Every tree is full of powerful medicine, growing more powerful as the years go by and the soil life builds. Dotted throughout the trees are stands of plants with powerful roots, and when they’re dug up for their medicine, the rest of the plant goes back into the soil. Fallen trees are everywhere, food for the fungi that add to the soil that add to the roots that add to the bees that add to the fruits that add to the fungi… and it all feeds the medicine.

What is in my heart, my vision, is an agroforestry farm focused on medicinal trees with integrated medicinal roots, culinary fruit production for direct sales, and medicinal fungi, designed with permaculture principles. This is not a new idea.

This is a challenging vision to bring forth. The roadblocks seem overwhelming. How do I get there? Trees are a long-term investment, though I have some ideas for generating cash in the short-term. This seems like an unexplored niche- there are farms raising annual medicinal herb crops but no one seems to be farming tree crops or subtropical perennials for wholesale production. Wholesale production of medicinal herbs requires organic certification, processing equipment, and putting down roots in a big way. Time to start gathering more hard data and take this course again. More research for me. Looks like this might be a good place to start!

It’s Official

I have started my first business.

The Articles of Organization for SPRINGSTEAD HERBS, LLC were filed electronically on July 10, 2014, as verified by this email.

I have wanted to start an herb business for almost 20 years. In the beginning I envisioned opening an apothecary shop, but I had young children and needed rent money more than dreams. Opening a business was too risky. Now I’m following in my husband’s footsteps opening my own business while working full time, and then slowly building the business until it’s making enough money to quit my outside work. It’s low-risk and if I can be patient, I will acquire no debt.

Today I go to open a bank account, buy a domain name, and start a Poppyswap account. And I need a logo. This fall I will have my first crop of medicinal herbs for sale, luffas, homemade bitters, and tea blends. Eeeee!

Suggestions? Advice?

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