In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/2/2018

I had great plans for this week’s post.

I wanted to cover winter tubers which are great for foraging this late in the year. Unfortunately here in the mid-Atlantic we suffered from yet more rain this week. (While California burns, and then turns to mudslides in the rain… Remind me again how climate change isn’t “really” a thing?)

But I digress. Since localized flooding is occurring, I cannot dig up the roots this week. Heck, I can’t even find the plants in all the mud and silt and runoff. So instead, I will talk about a strategy for dealing with foraging disappointment: instead of hunting for the forage, bringing the forage to the hunter.

Meet Thelma and Jeff, my new hazelnuts (Corylus americana)!

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

(Sorry the photo is so blurry – my smart phone struggles to focus on objects that small!)

They are both cultivars of the American hazelnut: Thelma is a “Theta”, and Jeff is a “Jefferson”.

While American hazelnuts grow wild in this area, I have failed to find any in central MD. The last time I saw wild hazelnuts was last year, in West Virginia, while property hunting.  I didn’t know what they were at the time, but the plant’s features were so striking I took pictures for future identification.

Hazelnut Leaves

Hazelnut Leaves

Now I know what they were, and I’m very sorry not to have found any since.

Have I mentioned I LOVE hazelnuts?

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly involucre

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly leafy coverings

Ultimately, I hope to use hazelnut flour to replace almond flour in my non-grain recipes, because I worry about the environmental impacts of almond cultivation in California, where most of the commercial almond crop is produced. Not so concerned that I would go back to eating grains, mind you, because of the severe pain they cause my body; but concerned enough to try growing or foraging my own replacement with a crop native to this area.

Unfortunately, hazelnuts can take several years to start producing, and Thelma and Jeff were much smaller than I thought they would be. I have never ordered a tree or shrub from a catalog before, and while I knew they wouldn’t be full grown it didn’t really dawn on me that they would be, well, almost invisible to the naked eye.

I mean, seriously. If I hadn’t told you there were hazelnut shrubs in the wire cages in this photo, you would never have noticed them there.

Two planted hazelnuts

Two planted hazelnuts

Since it will take a while (maybe a long while) for these little guys to produce, my days of hunting wild hazelnuts are not over yet! Maybe I’ll find something next year … 2019 or bust!


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My New Earthing Shoes

Yes, I meant earthing, Earthling.

Since first learning about earthing in the book Head Strong, I’ve become a fan of going barefoot outside. Earthing – also known as grounding – promotes the idea that being in direct contact with the earth’s surface allows the planet’s negative charge to impact the body. Restoring this connection, which is often interrupted by our modern nature-free lifestyles, can supposedly bring about a wide array of health benefits.

If you do an internet search on the term “earthing”, the first search results are all for fancy gadgets to simulate that electric charge: while sleeping, while working on your computing, even while relaxing on your couch in front of the TV.

What about just, you know, being in direct contact with the earth?

I’m not going to spend a ton of money on a fancy earthing mat or any of the other “trending” earthing products, because that is not aligned with my values. I go barefoot primarily in my own yard, where I know exactly what has been sprayed on the grass (nothing for at least a year) and it’s relatively easy to dodge any “presents” from the neighbor’s dogs. Gardening barefoot has been my major source of earthing time. I have no evidence either way if earthing has impacted my health or mental well-being, but there are a lot of things we do (like taking vitamins) without *really* knowing if they make a difference.

Until it nearly killed me.

Well, I am exaggerating. Slightly. But it could have. You see, I got stung when I stepped on a honey bee.

In previous years, we’ve had few, if any, honey bees in our yard. But since we stopped spraying the grass to kill the “weeds”, and persistent wet weather had prevented mowing, clover was EVERYWHERE. Plus, I suspect someone in our area got a hive, because it went from ZERO honey bees last year, to honey bees everywhere this year. (Thank you, neighbor, whoever you are.)

Honey bee with clover

Mmmm, Clover!

It was great, all those extra pollinators buzzing around my yard. Until it wasn’t. I hadn’t been stung in over 30 years, and I’d completely forgotten how much it hurt. Plus when the sting is on the bottom of your foot, how do you hobble the 100+ feet back to your house to get help? I finally reached the house; my husband removed the stinger and applied ice, no big deal.

Then two days later, my foot swelled to the point where I couldn’t wear any shoes but flip-flops. As a result, I learned that you can in fact be allergic to bee stings without experiencing anaphylaxis. I thought those were the only two options – just a sting, or slow suffocating death as your airways swell shut. Nope, somewhere in between those two ends of the spectrum is me. Although if it had been multiple stings, or it had been near my face or neck, the story might have had a different ending. And apparently allergic reactions can worsen over time with repeated exposures, eventually reaching the anaphylaxis level.

Can you tell which foot was stung?

Can you tell which foot was stung?

Needless to say, I don’t garden barefoot anymore. Flip-flops or sloggers – and their thick rubber soles – protect me from wanton insects. And the static charge of the earth.

Enter: my new gardening shoes.

My New Earthing Shoes

My New Earthing Shoes

I had scoured the internet for ‘earthing shoes’ previously, without much luck. I wanted a shoe that didn’t keep the earth’s charge from reaching the wearer. This could be accomplished with an entirely leather shoe, perhaps, or with capacitive materials running through the sole to allow the charge to pass from earth to shoe to person. With a few exceptions, every shoe out there anymore has rubber or plastic soles. (Some men’s dress shoes for example … not gonna wear those while gardening though. Same for the “Dash Runamoc” shoe from softstarshoes.com – I am NOT wearing anything that pricey to garden!)

So I did what I always do when the marketplace fails to provide the product I want to buy. I made it myself. And by “I”, I mean myself with a lot of support from my husband who is better at leatherworking than I am. And by “a lot of support”, I mean he basically made them according to my instructions!

Apparently “barefoot running” is a thing, and provided a good starting point to fashion my own sandal. I used this site and this site as my main sources of inspiration. I thought I would be clever and use my favorite sandal to cut the pattern. After a shoe isn’t “really” the shape of a foot, it’s the shape of an object encasing a foot. Not so much – look at that weird shape.

Sandal tracing - terrible idea!

Sandal tracing – terrible idea!

So I stood on the paper and my husband traced around my actual foot. You can see the difference in the sandal shape (right) and my actual foot shape (left).

Tracings Compared (Foot, left; Sandal, right)

Tracings Compared (Foot, left; Sandal, right)

We (he) free-handed the holes between the toes, and the tabs on the sides to lace through. The leather is 4/5 ounce vegetable tanned cow. Yes, we are the kind of family that has hides laying around the house waiting to be fashioned into crafts!

Completed Earthing Shoe Pattern

Completed Earthing Shoe Pattern

The first attempt worked ok, only needing minor adjustments to better follow the shape of my toes. The second attempt was a substantial improvement, but you can see from the photo they are stiff and flat. The side flaps jut out awkwardly to the sides.

Shoes 1.0 ... Still Pretty Stiff

Shoes 1.0 … Still Pretty Stiff

The next step is getting the leather wet so it can mold to your feet. The challenge is, since this is untreated leather, it will always get floppy any time it gets wet, like in the dewy early morning (the only reasonable time to garden in the summer months), or following rain. Any time the shoes get wet from gardening, I just wear them until completely dry so they can re-mold to my feet. Once they are dry, they fit perfectly again!

Mmmm, Sexy Shoes!

Mmmm, Sexy Shoes!

An extra tab of leather behind the heel allows for a nice, snug fit that stays tight throughout my various gardening activities.

My only complaint is that the front of the sandal tends to fold under while I’m walking, especially if they have gotten wet. I might try a thicker leather in the future, or moving the lacing holes forward for more support. But that is a very minor issue, compared to being almost barefoot in my garden again. These shoes are super lightweight and easy to replace as they go through wear and tear. They are biodegradable too – no landfills for them once they do reach the end of their useful life.


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Foraging with Fox Haven, Week Ending 9/9/2018

This week, I had the opportunity to forage with a group, as part of a class offered through Fox Haven Farm & Retreat Center. They run a series of foraging classes throughout the year, and people can sign up for the entire series or just individual classes. I happened to learn about this past week’s class via a Facebook event – possibly the only good thing that has come from Facebook all year – and I had to sign up when I saw the class name: Pawpaw Haul!

Fox Haven is “a farm, non-profit ecological retreat, and learning center”. They practice organic gardening, offer retreats and classes on a variety of subjects, run an herb-specific CSA, and provide our local coop with produce. Most important for foraging, they participate in the “Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program” which allows them to leave land for native species in the local area. The land set aside for conserving natural resources is where we we spent the day hunting for fall wild edibles.

Thankfully, the blistering heat and humidity of the previous week had finally ended. The morning was cool and overcast, perfect for hiking through the woods. Lacey, the foraging instructor, led us to the area where the pawpaws (Asimina triloba) could be found. She taught us that if you shake the tree, any ripe fruit will fall to the ground. Unfortunately, this time the only fruit which fell was small and rock hard. The weird weather we’ve had all year may have been a factor in how small and late to ripen the fruit were. She said you can try roasting them if they are almost ripe to soften them up enough to eat, so we kept the handful we collected to try. I was particularly curious about this suggestion, since in Eating Appalachia they had specifically warned against overheating pawpaw when cooking; but Lacey said they had used that technique successfully at a local restaurant where she used to work.
Fox Haven Pawpaws

Fox Haven Pawpaws

Next on our class “to-find” list was autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). Autumn olive is a very invasive species, but it also provides food for wildlife and humans. The berries contain more of the antioxidant lycopene than tomatoes do, and the seeds are high in omega-3 essential fatty acids. The seeds are so large, compared to the overall fruit size, it is easiest just to eat them along with the flesh. One shrub can apparently produce almost eight pounds of fruit, which is good and bad: it’s a lot of food, but a lot of seeds that can be easily dispersed and allow the shrub to spread even further.
Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

I learned that each individual shrub tends to have its own flavor; some will bear more sour fruit, and some sweeter. You can harvest fruit from different plants for different uses. The first shrub we visited had very astringent fruit (like an unripe persimmon, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing that). The second shrub had berries so tart they made my mouth pucker. (That one was my favorite.) Since we were planning to make Autumn Olive Ketchup, we wanted sweet fruit. At the third shrub – the sweetest so far – it began to rain. We ended the gathering early due, and only ended up with about 1.5 cups of the berries.
We also harvested some goldenrod (Solidago spp.) for tea. Please note this beautiful yellow spray of flowers is NOT what is causing your fall allergies! Goldenrod often gets blamed for what is ragweed’s fault, because goldenrod is easier to identify. But the pollen too heavy to be spread by the wind, and needs insects like bees to carry it.
Goldenrod Flowers

Goldenrod Flowers

We went back to the farm for lunch early, hoping the rain would end so we could forage more in the early afternoon. We were supposed to go harvest spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries but the rain never let up so we remained trapped near the buildings. Dried ground spicebush can be used as a substituent for allspice in most recipes. However the oils in spicebush fruit go rancid quickly (even after drying), so it should be stored in the freezer for the longest useful life.
The other plant planned for harvest during the class was Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). The Jerusalem artichokes thankfully were in the garden near the buildings and barn where we tried waiting out the rain. Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes, are a member of the sunflower family with edible tubers. The tubers apparently form as nodules along the plants roots as they grow during the summer.
Feral Jerusalem Artichokes along a Roadside

Feral Jerusalem Artichokes along a Roadside

The tubers are very high in inulin, which is prebiotic fiber that feeds the intestinal flora and fauna.  This is another great example of a food that should be sampled in small quantities the first time, or maybe even several times. If you are unused to that level of inulin, it can result in a very “fragrant” experience. They are even sometimes jokingly referred to as “fartichokes”. The inulin can be reduced by roasting, cooking with lemon juice, or waiting until after several frosts to harvest the tubers. Or you can build up your tolerance gradually by increasing the amount of Jerusalem artichoke you eat over time. Don’t eat it the evening before anything important, like a major presentation at work, an interview, or any other time you have to be serious. Trust me on this one. I don’t care if you are a grown up; farts are funny.
However, the plants we dug up had no significant growth on their roots at all. We tucked them back into the mud, hoping they would grow more. Jerusalem artichokes are practically weeds, and any part of their tubers that get left in the ground results in even more Jerusalem artichokes the next year.
While we were in the garden, Lacey pointed out different herbs and invited us to pick a few to make infused vinegar. I chose yarrow (Achillea millefolium), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), and a few pieces of cayenne pepper(Capsicum anuum) for mine, and added goldenrod to it as well. I have no idea how it will turn out after a few weeks of steeping, but that is part of the adventure!
Herbal Infused Vinegar

Herbal Infused Vinegar

At the end of the class, we hadn’t harvested much to cook together! The small, unripe pawpaws were roasted at 350F, but they came out gray-fleshed and mushy looking. I wasn’t brave enough to try them! We also didn’t have Jerusalem artichokes to roast and sample with the autumn olive ketchup. Fortunately, another of the Fox Haven staff members had found some chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus) while on a separate trip, and he shared his find with our class.
Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

While Lacey sliced and sauteed the mushrooms, we made a small batch of Autumn Olive Ketchup since we weren’t able to gather enough berries for a full batch. The recipe we used was similar to this one although we used ground spicebush that Lacey had gathered a previous year in place of the allspice. The mushrooms were delicious dipped in the “ketchup”. And yes, the flavor and texture of the mushrooms eerily resembles chicken.
I really enjoyed the class, despite the disappointing harvest. It was a very different experience to go into the woods with other people, rather than my usual solitary excursions. It would have been nice to find more edibles, and at one point, Lacey mentioned that if we were only eating what we could forage, today would have been a day that we went hungry.
However, I think there is a different mindset between a class and foraging for survival. The only things we tried to forage were the specific items we were looking for as part of the class: pawpaws, autumn olive, goldenrod, spicebush, and Jerusalem artichokes. If we really focused on survival, on the other hand, we would have harvested everything we found, such as dandelion greens, chickory, and the earliest hickory nuts. Additionally, if this had been our only food, we also wouldn’t have let the rain discourage us because hunger is a powerful motivator!


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Complete Organic Fail

Well, I shouldn’t say “fail”. But using COF – “Complete Organic Fertilizer” – didn’t exactly go according to plan!

So Beautiful, So Unwanted

So Beautiful, So Unwanted

As I mentioned a few months ago, this year I opted for a more proactive approach to my garden’s health. Rather than waiting for pests and disease to strike, and then doctoring the plants to restore their vitality, I am trying instead (or more correctly, in addition) to fertilize my garden on a consistent basis.

I used the “complete organic fertilizer” recipe from Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts. Here is a copy of the recipe online. Problem was, not all the ingredients were available in my local DIY hardware stores. I had to order bat guano and cottonseed meal from Amazon. And the box of cottonseed meal was really small. And I am trying to purchase less if I can, or purchase locally if I must buy something. I mean, is eating from your own garden really “local” if you had garden amendments shipped to you from Amazon?

I called the local feed stores to see if anyone had seed meal. Seed meal is what remains after squeezing oil out of the seeds; the leftovers get fed to livestock. Buying seed meal bulk is more cost effective, if you can find it.

I couldn’t find it.

Everyone I called knew what I was talking about, but nobody still carried seed meal. Finally on the third try, the voice on the other end said, “You might try the farmer’s coop in town.”

(I guess this area still counts as the “country” if there is a farmer’s cooperative located downtown.)

Sure enough, they had seed meal in 50 lb bags, for less than $30. Versus the $50 for a 20 lb bag from Amazon. Flax seed meal, to be exact. Like you open the bag, inhale, and it smells exactly like the flax seed meal you buy at the grocery store. I don’t think it’s “graded” for human consumption though.

I schlepped the bag home, whipped up a fresh batch of COF, side-dressed my veggies and kicked back with a cocktail to await the amazing results of a healthy garden.

What I got was … flax. Everywhere.

Flax Says Hi

Flax Says Hi

I checked the label on the bag. According to the label, rather than flax seed meal, it was ground flax. Apparently viable seeds lingered in the mix, and flax loves the growing conditions I’d carefully cultivated for the vegetable garden. I mean seriously. I learned that flax might as well be a weed, it grows so vigorously in locations it isn’t wanted.

Flax Seedlings Everywhere

Flax Seedlings Everywhere

Other things I learned from this experience:

Flax seedlings can be turned under like a green mulch. Sometimes that’s the only way to combat them.

Flax seedlings are edible raw, and make a nice garnish on salad or fried eggs. Yes, really. Don’t judge.

Mmmm Flax Garnish

Mmmm Flax Garnish

I also learned that when you give up on weeding all the flax, and just let them grow, the flowers bloom a beautiful blue. Also, you can harvest the seeds … yay, just what I want, more flax seeds! But flax seeds are edible by both humans and livestock (isn’t that what got me into this mess?). I might even have a few friends crazy enough to process the flax plants for fiber, although apparently if you let the plants mature for a good seed harvest, the fiber will be very coarse.

And most importantly, yes – your garden really does perform better with regular fertilizer. I know that should be obvious, but it took me eight years to really grok this.

Will I keep applying COF, despite the hassle? I think so, although maybe I will rename it to “Complete Organic Flax”!


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Learning From Nature, Week Ending 7/29/2018

I fear the time is coming – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon (within our lifetimes) – when increasing numbers of us will have to grow increasing quantities of our own food.

Supermarket shelves are fully stocked at the moment, but just one major weather event massively disrupts distribution chains … and lately, “once in a century”-strength storms occur with increasing frequency.

More and more food crops which underpin grocery items are grown overseas, subjecting the supply to possible disruption by global political events that we cannot control.

Gas prices continue to creep higher, with the resulting ripple effect at every level of the industrial food production system.

And how many of us are already living paycheck-to-paycheck? Where will we get food if we lose our jobs, especially with grocery prices on the rise?

More of us need to start gardening, with all the associated painful learning curves. Taking clues from nature can help us understand planting cycles and environmental effects that impact both wild plants and their domesticated cousins; paying attention to nature can help shorten the learning curve. Here are a few examples from late July in central Maryland.

The wild amaranth (also known as pigweed, Amaranthus spp.) growing between my backyard and the farmer’s field has already grown to four and a half feet tall. The top of the plant reaches my chest!

Wild Amaranth

Wild Amaranth

The Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) I planted this year, by contrast, is a foot and a half tall at best. It should be seven to eight feet tall when full grown; I don’t think it’s going to make it!

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Lesson? The two plants photographed experience similar growing conditions – they are separated by around 60 feet. Maybe the soil is better closer to the field, but I doubt it. Most likely, I waited too late to plant. In 2019, I will try a month earlier and see how it goes.

My blackberries, while productive, have started looking worse for the wear. The leaves are turning yellow and brown, developing spots, and even falling off altogether. What on earth have I done wrong?

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

And then I realized wild blackberries look just as awful!

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Probably some environmental factor is impacting the wild and domestic varieties equally. Perhaps they are succumbing to an unseen infection following weeks of soaking wet weather, followed by weeks of excruciating heat and aridity, followed by another week of damp. Or – maybe it’s just what blackberries endure in mid-summer, having sunk all their energy into growing this year’s fruit and next year’s canes at the same time.

The last three examples all concern the timing of fall garden planning. In central Maryland, we are lucky to have a relatively long growing season. In my location, average date of last frost is April 15; average date of first frost is October 15. That’s six months (only counting half of April and October); plus at LEAST another month on either side (eight total) if you grow frost-hardy crops and use season extenders. (A twelve month garden is still my ultimate goal.) While no one wants to dwell in the garden in summer’s heat and humidity, now is definitely the time for planting fall crops!

The earliest Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) flowers have already started setting seed.  If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me! Now is the earliest opportunity to plant carrots for harvest later this year.

Queen Anne's Lace Seeds

Queen Anne’s Lace Seeds

Field mustard (Brassica rapa) has also gone to seed, although conditions aren’t quite ready yet for the seed to disperse. Still, we can determine that soon we should plant Brassica crops like radishes, turnips, kale, cabbages, collards, and kohlrabi.

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Last but not least, wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) has bolted and flowered – it no longer even resembles lettuce as it towers over neighboring plants.

Wild Lettuce Flowers

Wild Lettuce Flowers

In a few more weeks we should begin planting lettuce … assuming we haven’t already … because we’ve been suffering without home grown lettuce in our salads since everything in the garden long since bolted … I mean, just saying.

Also, a correction to some previous posts. Twice I have identified local weeds as upland cress (Barbarea verna), when they were actually the closely related yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). (Which is sometimes called winter cress, just to keep things confusing.) I have corrected the ID in both posts: Weed Walk, Week Ending April 8 and Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27. Whatever it’s called, it’s still super tasty!


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Berry Grateful

Welcome to my new series: how to suck at gardening and still feed your family!

One of the greatest disappointments we face when producing our own food is a scrawny, mangled harvest.

Mangled berries are still edible!

Mangled berries are still edible!

It’s important to keep trying, and not let your spoils, well, spoil.

Those mangled berries are edible, so use them! They are great in shakes, fruit leather, jams and syrups.


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Garden FAIL

You guys … I think I need a new blog. Or maybe a new series on this blog.

“How to totally suck at gardening and still feed your family.”

potato_fail

About half my potato plants are dead. And they were growing so beautifully too! *sobs*

I planted the seed potatoes in a 12″ deep, 4′ x 4′ garden box (with metal wire mesh across the bottom to keep the voles out), and hilled dirt around the stems as they grew. And then I added more and more soil as the plants got taller and taller. We eventually added a second 12″ tier to the box, and kept adding dirt. Potato tubers actually form on the stems, so the more stem you bury, the more potatoes. Right? Right!

Well, unless in the process of adding dirt, you damaged the stems, and then when you piled on more dirt, it compacted everything around the original injury, and then it RAINED LIKE NOAH’S FLOOD, crushing the dirt further and rotting the poor potato stems.

At least, that is what I guess happened. It could also be bacterial wilt due to the very wet conditions over the past few weeks. Or some other mysterious potato affliction I have never even heard of.

Yeah, I think I have mastered “how to suck at gardening”. Now, if only I can figure out the “and still feed your family” part!