Arboretum and Stinging Nettle Tea

For some reason I woke up in a terrible mood today. I'm still not sure why, but the late-morning trip we took to the Como Arboretum helped a bit.

The weather was still distressingly un-spring-like when we got home, but the nettles at the side of the house were getting out of hand (I swear they grow an inch a day sometimes...), so when the husband announced he was going to go out and build some potato boxes, I decided today was the day to clip back the nettle patch and brew up some tea.

Nettles might seem like just an annoying weed, but they actually have a wide variety of uses. They're high in many vitamins (including vitamin C) and in protein, act as a diuretic, and young nettles especially are generally good for the kidneys, skin, and hair. You can cook them up like spinach, put them in soups, make nettle syrups, or just steam them and use them in salads. They can even be used to make a yellowish dye, or for their fibers (when they're a bit larger than this.) This batch I intend to put to dual purpose -- to freeze in ice cube trays to include in soups and stocks for extra nutrition and to add to teas and use topically for my hair.

Since I was picking them half to use and half to keep them from getting out of control like they did last year, I ended up gathering way too many. I added about half of them to my tea jar and poured two kettles of boiling water on top, then set them out in the sun to steep. I'll bring the jar in later and keep them steeping overnight (this method was suggested to me by a local herbalist last summer) and then strain and freeze or use.


Tired, but satisfied

I wasn't anticipating being able to get out into the garden at all this weekend -- we had another conference on Saturday, and then it was supposed to storm from Saturday afternoon through Monday morning, but Sunday ended up being unexpectedly nice out most of the day. I started early (or early for me on a weekend, anyway) and got out there by ten, and kept going straight through until almost five.

Now, I'm a pretty lazy person, and as such our whole yard has started off the gardening season in severe disarray. Somewhere around June last year I just lost my steam (the 90 degree temps, constant rain, swarms of mosquitoes, aggressively evil hive of yellow jackets living next to my back door, and sweltering humidity may have had something to do with that...last summer sucked) and the weeds launched an offensive that had to be seen to be believed. Between the 8' stinging nettles, lamb's quarters trees growing in my strawberry bed, and grassy things with a 4' diameter, there was no coming back. By the end of the summer I was so thoroughly disillusioned that I neglected to do the fall cleanup I should have done, and as a result we started off the year with overgrown, yucky garden beds. I was afraid it would be a solid month of drudgery before I'd be able to even plant anything, let alone have the yard look okay, but we've only put in about 11-12 hours of total work so far and we're in pretty good shape. Last week we overhauled all three raised beds from last year and did some general cleanup; this week we ripped out the sod for another bed, cleaned up three of the six sections of narrow garden on the other side of the sidewalk, raked a ton of dead grass out of the yard, and laid down an insane quantity of mulch. I didn't plant as much as I wanted to, but did at least get some peas and onions in the ground.

But, you know, as disheartening as it can be sometimes when you just can't seem to keep up, there's something rejuvenating about getting out there and putting in the physical labor. I'm going to be sore as hell tomorrow, but it's really uplifting to not be able to turn over a trowelful of dirt in my garden without exposing fat, happy earthworms; it's wonderful to feel and smell healthy, loose, rich soil and know that I'm maintaining something amazing that supports layer upon layer of life, into which I can stick a pathetically tiny seed and end up with huge carrots or onions or beans or marigolds or a hundred other things. It's rewarding to see my chives and valerian coming back and to know soon there will be big clumsy bumblebees and colorful butterflies flitting from flower to flower, that soon I'll be able to walk out after an afternoon storm and watch the evening sun refract through the droplets on the lamb's ear and catnip and bounce off my bottle border and cast little rainbows.

This year I'm growing things I haven't grown before, many of which are heirlooms or plants you don't find at the grocery store or most garden centers. And when I'm out there up to my elbows in soil, sending spiders and beetles scurrying, feeling the wind and the sun, I feel like I'm growing a connection to the past as much as I'm sowing vegetables or herbs. Those Amish tomatoes, that quinoa, those currants and gooseberries, the indigo and hyssop and feverfew -- people have been growing these things for far longer than I've been alive. And I feel like in a time and place where people just grow...grass...we've lost a vital appreciation for how amazing these other things we've found and cultivated and encouraged are. There are things in my garden that will prevent migraines. How many trips to the doctor do people make trying to figure out a way to do that? There are things in my garden that are substitutes for sugar. There's a plant that makes a natural insecticide, several that treat anxiety, and by this point more than ten that make delicious teas. Even the weeds that grow in my yard are useful -- I can eat the dandelions and lamb's quarters; the nettles are great for the kidneys and incredibly nutritious to boot; the catnip and yarrow are beautiful and medicinal. The "garbage" from weeding and cleanup can become new soil, or feed the chickens. I can even make wine out of some of it, like the dandelions or the pea-pods left over when I'm done eating our spring peas. Our old broken-down stump grows a profusion of mushrooms; even our compost pile is inevitably full of potatoes and tomatoes by the end of the summer. I don't work hard enough to earn the kind of bounty that's presented to me as if it were the most inevitable thing in the world, as if it were nothing at all.

Two weeks ago it was winter, the kind of winter I wouldn't want to spend much time outside in. And tonight it will storm like crazy again, with wind and pouring rain and maybe hail. And yet I'll go outside tomorrow morning and the trees will be budding and the birds will be singing as if nothing had happened at all, and I'll remember again with relief how small and unimportant I am to a world that can bounce back from extremes that would send me diving for cover, and think that as much as I neglect things and fail and screw up, as much as humanity in general screws up, odds are a million years from now all of this will still be out there thriving, living and growing and dying and living again, as if I'd never existed at all.

And I can't tell you how happy that makes me.


First harvest of the year...

Somewhat improbably, we had our first harvest of the year today!

Last winter was unusually snowy, so the carrots we'd planned to dig in early winter were buried before we could get to them. Turns out they overwintered, as we dug up a good-sized pile today. About half weren't any good anymore and went to the worms or the compost pile, but this is what was left over. We also ended up with a bunch of leeks, though the rabbits got to them earlier this week, so David replanted the roots along with some dubious carrots, and we'll see what we get! This is definitely making me reconsider the viability of overwintering crops in Minnesota, or at the very least using row-covers and mulch and planning to harvest through December at least, particularly as we slacked off last fall and didn't mulch, cover, or otherwise protect anything at all.

It's very grey out, in that dingy early-spring kind of way -- very little color has come back to the landscape, and everything's still half-buried under last year's dried grass, rotted vegetable material, or faded mulch. But we were determined to get into the yard and get some work done today, and it turns out if you look close enough, spring is starting to show itself. The chives are coming up...

The currants are budding...

And one of the buckets in which I had snapdragons planted last year is full of life.

In fact, several of the planters have tiny little interesting things starting to come up.

All this was so inspiring to see that we spent about four hours working today and managed to get all three of our current 4' x 8' raised beds ready for planting. We didn't get any onion sets or peas in the ground today, but we have onions that self-seeded last year and are coming up by themselves, and we can start planting anytime this week.

This year we'll be tearing out at least 100 more square feet of grass in the backyard for a few more 4' x 8' beds, continuing to plant the strip of garden along the sidewalk that's probably about 2.5' x 60', planting something in the 10' x 10' patch behind the shed, and tearing out grass in the front yard so I can expand my herb garden! I am going to be so sore tomorrow from the work we did today, but it doesn't matter -- I'm just glad to be able to get started!


Thinking about goals.

I've written up my goal list for this year three or four times and not been happy with it -- maybe my first goal ought to be to decide on goals!

In the past two years, we've begun gardening, planted lots of perennial fruit plants (more on the fruit later), and ripped out much of our grass to create growing space and a permeable patio area. We've learned to can just about everything cannable (including milk and meat), dry food for later use, make basic cheese and yogurt, make candy, slaughter chickens, and bake all our own bread. We've set up a full-room pantry and begun stocking it with staples, built a vermicompost bin, and gotten two compost piles going. So I feel like we're making some good progress, but we're getting to the point where adding to our skill-set is more of a challenge.

Things we're working on now that could use some improvement:
-Cooking vegetables -- particularly greens. Both of us approach this as if they're likely to explode if we do it wrong, which is kind of silly. After all, the worst that could happen is they could turn into unbearably disgusting green slime, right?
-Trapping with snares
-Crocheting (Which I finally seem to have gotten the hang of, as of last night! Woohoo!)
-Sewing (I can do repairs and sew a straight seam fairly well, but patterns and cutting pieces out always seems to end in disaster)
-Cheese-making (As in branching out beyond ricotta and feta)
-Canning (As in planning for canning, which even though it rhymes is actually the hard part in this era of grocery-store food on demand. This is a great post on this topic.)

Things we're not working on yet that I'd really like to learn:
-Using our greywater in the garden
-Shooting (I'm a decent shot in archery, but I'd like to learn to hunt in general, if I can ever afford to do so.)
-Soap-making (Seems easy, but I can't find lye anywhere local!)
-Knitting (Because I should be making all of our socks by now. For shame, Angela!)
-Keeping chickens for eggs and meat (I've had them before, but there's a lot of planning and city approval and such to deal with to have them here.)
-Keeping rabbits for meat (The fact that we refer to the neighborhood bunnies as "Dinner" and "Lunchable" depending on their size suggests we won't have a problem with this.)

Projects that are started and not finished because I need to get off my rear and stop being lazy:
-Rain barrels
-Pulling out some of the shrubs our predecessors unfortunately left us with, including the evergreen that seems to be entirely composed of bird poop and ugly.
-Tearing out more grass so we can plant more useful/attractive/interesting things.
-Putting up the clothesline (though I have switched from using the dryer to hanging things up inside, most of the time).

Of these, I think this year we can manage to finish the unfinished projects and figure out at least a couple on the "like to learn" list. Seed-starting and crocheting were both on that list until very recently, so we are making some progress. The trick with a lot of this is finding cheap or free ways to learn the skills, since we have very little funding to put toward them. I'd love to get more skill shares going in the area to barter some of that, but I'm not really sure where to start. (I always end up feeling like we don't have anything to barter in return for learning the things we don't know, since what we do know is so basic.) I tried to get in touch with a local Transition Towns group, but they never responded, so I think they may be defunct. I will have to do some more digging to see what I can find.