Living Proof

Yesterday at Rivoli Park Labyrinth, I met up with a riotous party of plants, insects, and birds.

The park, which formed on a vacant lot thanks to community organizer Lisa Boyles, has gotten overgrown this rainy summer—but it is also a haven for life.

"Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects during this dry part of the summer when they don’t have many options. Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves, bees and other insects drink the nectar, and predatory insects, such as the Green Lacewing, come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey, such as aphids" according to Chiot's Run. (Click photo for more.)

“Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects… Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves… and predatory insects come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey,” according to Chiot’s Run. (Click photo for more.)

Some plants we call weeds and others we call ornamentals. Some we consider natives, wildflowers, edibles, or another elevated status. Some we designate as invasive, others as desirable.

What I realized yesterday: These divisions are more important to humans than the rest of nature, which seeks its own balance.

The plants called “weeds” are the ones we pull out. Still, the grasshoppers, bees, and spiders find food and shelter on plants of all stripes. They are the epitome of nonjudgment, our guides in an insectile anti-labeling initiative.

Friendly pollinator

Friendly pollinator

So often I am quick to judge something good or bad.

Just now I went to strike that sentence, gauging it too trite! As testament to my new commitment to allowing things to be messy and imperfect, I am leaving it there.

Lisa and I talked about this very thing: In my writing, I declared my intent to finish my book while letting go of the need for it to be “perfect, balanced, and comprehensive.” Lisa swept her arm toward the “weedy” labyrinth and said, “Here’s living proof that a project doesn’t have to be perfect—just look at it!”

What I saw: voluptuous plants abuzz with happy pollinators. Abundant living entities in ongoing conversation, all encircling the glorious hibiscus at the center. The idea of perfection doesn’t really apply when we’re partnering with life, does it? So it can be with writing.

I told Lisa that the labyrinth didn’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution to the community. Uh, hello. Maybe I should write that down and stick it on my computer monitor.

Repeat after me: We don’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution!

Adventures in Worm Composting

A reader asked whether any of my multiple worm bins have overwintered outdoors. The answer is yes. Well, kind of.

Let me give you an overview of the worm farming situation here. I’m not great at raising worms, although it’s supposed to be foolproof. (I refer all questions to Castaway Compost, my go-to for all things vermicompost. Check out my Farm Indiana piece on Keith O’Dell, pirate worm composter.)

1. My first experience was with my Garden Tower. I discovered too late that I stuffed the center tube too full, too fast. This tube is where the worms are supposed to eat their jolly way through my food scraps all summer long, and theoretically survive the winter. In the compacted medium, let’s just say they did not thrive one iota. (This year I’m being more more judicious with my feedings.)

2. Then I started a store-bought dealie with four layers. I am still only on the second layer almost a year later. I can’t figure out how to get my wigglers to eat and reproduce very fast. And I’m not sure when to harvest the castings. But I haven’t completely killed anyone off yet—that I know of.

Here’s a top view of my Sunleaves bin. I used coconut coir as the bedding. This was before I added the second layer, using shredded office paper as the bedding.

My storebought worm bin, which stays in the basement year-round.

My store-bought worm bin, which stays in the basement year-round.

3. My third foray is indeed a year-round outdoor “bin”—more of a pit, really. We used a book called The Complete Compost Gardening Guide as our inspiration for this project. The idea is to have a covered hole in which to compost food and yard waste, convenient to your kitchen door. So, last fall we dug a rectangular pit about 18 inches deep. (I use the word “we” loosely on this digging bit.)

I forgot to document the digging and building phases.

Unfortunately I forgot to document the digging and building phases.

We started off by putting shredded leaves from our yard (and the neighbors’) into the pit, without adding any worms. We cover all our garden beds with the same stuff.

Affixing hardware to the lid, which I believe was cobbled together from old pallets.

Judy affixing hardware to the lid, which I believe was cobbled together from old pallets.

At the time I did not have a paper shredder that worked, so I geeked out on hand shredding things for a while. I just really like the idea of worms eating stuff like phone books and toilet paper rolls!

A very patient friend spent an evening helping me create paper bedding to add to the shredded leaves. Worm farming = big fun for all!

A very patient friend spent an October evening helping me tear up paper to add to the shredded leaves. Worm farming = big fun for all!

We added the shreds to the leaves along with some vegetable scraps for worms to munch on.

Creating a nice buffet and bed for the wigglers.

Creating a nice buffet and bed for the wigglers.

The next step was to moisten everything well. Worms do not like dry places.

Mixing and moistening

Mixing and moistening. I must not have had any rainwater.

The book said something about worms appreciating the channels in corrugated cardboard, so I added some wet strips of cardboard. It also said they go crazy for cornmeal or wheat flour. We had a bag of flour that a mouse had chewed through, so I sprinkled some of that on top. Then it was Wiggler Time.

The dark stuff is a handful of bedding and worms from the indoor bin.

The dark stuff is a handful of bedding and worms from the indoor bin.

After that, we just tossed our kitchen scraps on top, crushing egg shells as best we could with a hoe. We did it all winter long, except when the lid was frozen shut or buried under snow.

Then this spring, someone suggested spreading some soil on top and giving the worms a break from new food. I did that, and later added a layer of shredded paper. (Our Christmas gift to ourselves was a whiz-bang shredder. Total Geekdom.)

Shredded paper as mentioned in my previous post!

Shredded paper, as detailed in my previous post

Now you can see, a few months later, that the stuff is well on its way to becoming a sweet soil amendment. Worms are still in there. (Whether they’re the original worms or their offspring or some random opportunists, I can’t say. But I think I can claim this as an overwintering victory.)

Lots of brown eggshells still showing. What can I say, I eat a lot of eggs.

Lots of brown eggshells still showing. What can I say, I eat a lot of eggs.

I recently pulled the bulk of the material to one side to begin adding another round of food scraps. The experiment continues…

There’s still a fourth bin to talk about, also outside, which is new this summer. But that might be for another day. Let me see how it works out first!

Thar be worms in that thar bin (unless they've perished in the heat).

Thar be worms in that thar bin (unless they’ve perished in the heat).

Fomenting the Ferment

Fermentation on Wheels rolled into town over the weekend. Tara Whitsitt has been driving her mobile fermentation lab cross country since October 2013. As soon as I heard she was coming to Indy, I knew I had to make it to one of her events.

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Tara’s mission is to initiate more people into the wonderful world of fermented foods (like sourdough breads, kefir, sauerkraut, wine, and kombucha). So far her tricked-out bus has traveled over 12,000 miles to share the love.

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Saturday she did a fermentation workshop, which I hear was fabulous. Sunday evening, Seven Steeples Urban Farm (see my earlier blog post about them here) hosted a potluck and culture exchange. That’s where we met Tara and her beautiful kitty.

Tara's cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

Tara’s cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

We had a terrific meal together that included loads of fermented drinks and veggies, some from the pros: Joshua Henson of Fermenti Artisan brought cultured ramps and daikon radishes, along with water kefir lemonade and a bunch of other delicious stuff. There was also a popular fermented drink called beer.

After we ate, it was time to check out the bus.

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

“I really want to spur the movement of getting back in the kitchen and doing things with our own hands instead of relying on other people to do it for us,” Tara told us.

All across the country, she’s been partnering with farmers and homesteaders to turn local harvests into something out-of-this-world delicious. People give her their home-canned peaches, for example, and bushels of chili peppers. She dried the chilis and used them in kim chee, and they are also a key ingredient in her peach-habanero mead.

Peach habanero wine-in-the-making

Peach habanero mead-in-the-making, with blackberry mead at left

We sampled kombucha, miso, and a mysterious drink of Tibetan origin called “jun.” (Instead of the black tea and sugar that make up kombucha, jun favors green tea and honey.)

We sniffed three types of sourdough starter, each with a different backstory. For example, the Alaskan sourdough came from a person in Portland whose great-grandmother had made it in the 1900s in Alaska. White flour and milk were the original ingredients, and that’s what Tara feeds it to this day. The starter is a key ingredient in creamy sourdough hotcakes favored by Alaskans.

No wonder she calls her starter cultures “heirloom” cultures: They’re completely different from something purchased online, typically made in laboratories.

Eating food from a starter passed down for generations is like wrapping your grandmother’s Afghan around you. Versus a Kmart coverlet. One is imbued with love and history. The other with factory threads and who-know-what labor injustice.

IMG_4728I wish I could say I had something terribly cool to swap with Tara, but she wasn’t all that keen on my dairy kefir grains (of unknown origin: a friend of a friend gave them to me). So, I purchased a rye starter that hails from Brooklyn. As we speak, I’ve got sourdough rye bread dough fermenting on the counter. I’m using Tara’s instructions and recipe: Fingers crossed!

The Miracle of Seeds

I’ve been thinking about how tenacious life is, encapsulated in a tiny seed. Some seeds I plant, but others sprout all on their own.

I’m probably the only person on my block who gives a cheer when she sees these coming up.

Lamb's quarters

Lamb’s quarters

These are lamb’s quarters, considered a weed, but deliberately planted two years ago in my garden. This is the second year they will have reseeded, and I can’t wait to taste them again when they get a little bigger. (They’re terrific fried crispy in my cast-iron skillet, with a couple eggs cracked over them. And incredibly energizing, as all edible weeds are.)

Here is part of another patch of self-sowing plants that are on their third (or fourth?) year of growing freely in my garden: arugula.

Arugula volunteers in leaf mulch

Arugula “volunteers” in leaf mulch

I wasn’t sure they would come up this year because I mulched so heavily last fall with shredded leaves. But lo: I pull away the top layer and find them rooted right in the leaf mold.

Miracles like these show up all the time, if we know to look.

“There is no way to re-enchant our lives in a disenchanted culture except by becoming renegades from that culture and planting the seeds for a new one.”

Thomas Moore, author and psychotherapist

Perhaps growing food for people in need would fall under this “renegade” notion? Here is a seedling started by a southern Indiana farmer and planted by a volunteer for the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

Cabbage seedling planted by a volunteer at a food bank garden

Cabbage seedling planted by a volunteer at a food bank garden

And one more: Late last fall I blogged about starting Austrian winter peas and my happiness at their growth in cold weather. They are generally not grown for a pea harvest, but intended as a cover crop with benefits—pea shoots are sweet and tender.

They didn’t do much during the winter, but this spring they are the healthiest of plants in my garden. I have snipped them nearly every day as salad and smoothie additions, and they are growing as fast as I can cut!

Austrian winter peas in spring

Austrian winter peas in spring

With seeds on my mind, no wonder this statement in a new mother’s Facebook post snagged my attention:

“I did not know until I got pregnant that the first organ to develop is the heart. It’s as if a heart seed gets planted and from the heart grows the human.”

Laura Henderson, founder of Growing Places Indy

Miraculous.

The Ground Rules

Meet “renegade researcher” Nance Klehm. She’s on a mission to transform our thinking about waste—and to transform our waste into healthy soil.

Reader_Nance_Klehm_3174

Nance Klehm

I first met Nance at last October’s Radical Mycology Convergence, which she hosted on her rural land in Illinois. She divides her time between rural and urban—growing native trees, plants, and mushrooms on her land, and nurturing innovative community projects in Chicago.

As a fifth generation horticulturist, she has a passion for working in partnership with nature and enjoying the abundance that results. She has worked on graywater systems, humanure, and soil fertility for years, both in the U.S. and abroad. She was even invited to Haiti to assist with composting toilets after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

She works on composting policy at the state and local level, and teaches “Composting 401” to people who really want to get down and dirty.

“When people say, ‘what’s possible?’ I’ve done it,” she told me. “I have photographs and data and anecdotal experience from living in Chicago for 25 years.” She envisions a widespread scale-up of composting efforts that would shift how cities handle sanitation.

Nancy removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Nance removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Recently she was the featured guest on the Root Simple Podcast, talking about her work with community bioremediation in Chicago.

The project, called The Ground Rules, has multiple community-run soil centers working on bioremediation. Urban soils are often contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. Klehm and her volunteers are addressing this problem by diverting waste into compost.

By bicycle and truck, they pick up discards from restaurants and businesses: uneaten food, vegetable trimmings, and paper towels, for example. Nearby soil centers are where they convert this “slop” into a high-powered soil amendment.

"It's crazy fun to work with food slop," says Nancy.

“It’s crazy fun to work with food slop,” Nance says.

The waste is kept local, put to work in service of the longterm goal of remediating the soil. Bacteria in the compost help to break down inorganic chemicals. The teams also use plants and fungi to help with this goal. So, four biological kingdoms—animal, bacterial, fungal, and plant—partner in this vision.

Here’s a great video about the project:

The Ground Rules from nance klehm on Vimeo.

Nance has a book due out this fall, based on her conversations with others invested in the life of the soil. (Note: It isn’t only farmers who care about the ground under our feet!)

Currently she’s writing a manual for others interested in community bioremediation. She blends practical, technical information with anecdotes from the soil centers, because they are all different. Each site has its own issues and challenges. Nance says the social component of this work is the trickiest part, so it’s important to address that along with the how-to aspect.

She’s running a crowdfunding campaign to support this important work. Any small amount helps.

And of course, if you’re in Chicago, consider volunteering. If you want to hang with fun and funky folks while learning a whole bucketload about advanced composting, she would welcome you, I’m sure!

Update: For more on The Ground Rules project, check out my Acres USA profile of Nance Klehm.

Peas and the Possible

“The Possible’s slow fuse is lit

By the Imagination.”

—Emily Dickinson

Austrian winter peas planted in my garden

Austrian winter peas planted in my garden

We have already had snow and single digit wind chills here. Yet these Austrian winter peas, planted very late, still grow.

My friend Dawn gave me a couple generous handfuls of seed to play with. I’d never heard of this hardy cover crop that doubles as a tasty wintertime salad green. But Mother Earth News had the full scoop on  planting Austrian winter peas. So somewhere between transplanting herbs and cooking up harvest stews, I threw those seeds in the ground.

I’m so glad I did!

This is the time of year when nighttime slams down on us pretty hard. A time for diving deep and dreaming. Those tender sprouts remind me that sweet tendrils of possibility can thrive in this liminal space.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in a space of unknowing. Allowing guidance to emerge organically, and playing with a deeper trust than I’ve ever had before.

And I love walking out my back door and seeing my little crop. If I never get to eat the shoots, I’ll be perfectly happy just with the view.

Thanks to Yes Magazine‘s Winter 2015 issue for the stunning Dickinson quote.

Expanding the Medicine Chest with Herbs

Last week I spent a sunny afternoon working an herb garden while learning more about the uses of medicinal herbs. My friend Greg Monzel is a community herbalist who’s helped many (including me) with natural medicines that he grows, gathers, and prepares. Another friend, Dawn Ryan, also helped with Greg’s culinary herb garden in exchange for several transplants.

We started with homemade herbal tea in the kitchen, where Greg’s son charmed the socks off us.

Ready for action

Ready for action

Since moving to this property, Greg’s had all his herbs in the “back 40.” Our goal was to help transplant culinary herbs to a kitchen garden right outside the back door.

To the back 40, with Greg's dog Timber eager to show us the way.

To the back 40, with Greg’s dog Timber eager to show us the way.

His ingenious plan: to keep a slight trench running the length of the bed, starting near the hose and slanting slightly toward the opposite end. With cornstalks laid in as slowly-decomposing organic matter, the trench will allow for ease of watering. Prepping the bed was our first task.

Planting cilantro in front of the trench

Planting cilantro in front of the trench

Then, over lunch of butternut squash soup and salad straight out of the garden, we talked about medicinal herbs. Greg produced a book called The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook, which included a list of the most useful herbs. I realized I already have several of these in my garden, though I only actively use one. (We have a passionflower growing up our fence. I cut the vines in fall to dry into a calming tea. That’s after we—and the bumblebees—enjoy the blooms all summer.)

A maypop planted along our fence, one of many plantings inspired by permaculture

Passionflower in summer. We thought we were growing it  for its fruit, but for me, it’s all about the tea!

And did you know that many culinary herbs also have medicinal function? Greg gave the example of sage: It dries up things like colds and post-nasal drip. This makes me happy to host three large sage “bushes,” which we periodically snip for seasoning and smudging.

Later, after we’d dug up and moved sage, lavender, thyme, parsley, and the like, it was time to make our selections from Greg’s herbs. I chose creeping thyme, feverfew, valerian, motherwort, pennyroyal, spearmint, yarrow, and a lovely wild mint that has been going strong for a couple generations now. Greg’s Dad first brought it into his garden, and Greg took starts of it, and now is giving starts away.

Herbalist and son showing us medicinal herbs

Herbalist and son showing us medicinal herbs

That’s the way of gardeners, isn’t it? In fact, the day reminded me an awful lot of hanging out with my Dad in his garden on a fall day. He’d divide plants and offer them to me and any of my friends who expressed the slightest interest.

Dawn and I worked together the next day, figuring out where to tuck in our new babies, giving them a good start. It felt great to expand the resilience of my home medicine chest, especially in such good company. And maybe someday soon I will have starts to give away myself.

diggin