Weeds into Fertilizer

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Nettlemania continues here at Homegrown Evolution.
It is raining which means even more nettles are on their way! My plants have set seed and there are tiny nettle plants popping up all over the place.
But I want to tell you about my latest nettle experiment. I am going to ferment nettles into a liquid fertilizer. I placed a bunch of whole nettle plants into a large plastic trash can. I am going to stir the mixture everyday for a few minutes to add oxygen into the system. The oxygen will feed bacteria that will break down the nettle and I guess produce some good byproducts in the process. After three weeks I will use the final brew as a liquid fertilizer for my garden. I will try to take pictures while it ferments to share with you. Supposedly this will not only add nitrogen but also valuable trace minerals to my soil. While the stirring adds oxygen, overall this is an anaerobic process. The plants are sitting in stagnant water most of the time and apparently get quite stinky. But I have learned that stinky things, when applied in the garden, are often very good things. Cleaning the chicken coop always produces a good product for the garden.
Nettles, like comfrey, are good at taking up minerals and other nutrients from the soil. Nettles are rich in iron, silica, calcium, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. These are all things that plants need for healthy growth. This makes nettles useful for making your own fertilizer. They can accumulate nutrients and minerals in their biomass. When they break down in a compost pile, or in this case in the water, they release the nutrients. Many of these elements can be difficult for other plants to access in the soil. Nettles just happen to be very good at taking up nutrients from relatively poor soil.
The point here is let your weeds rot in water and you get a nice fertilizer. This is better than water into wine as far as I’m concerned. Which reminds me that I want to try making dandelion wine this spring….
So many of the plants that people consider weeds, like dandelion and nettle, are nutritious and medicinal plants. My favorite part is that they are easy to grow and don’t need good soil, need no fertilizer and don’t require watering. Perfect.

Urban Chicken Classes

Homegrown Neighbor here:

If you are in L.A. come check out my Intro to Urban Chickens class this Saturday at The Learning Garden in Venice. More info at our Chicken Enthusiasts site. The class is just $10 and if you have never been to The Learning Garden it is a real treat. It is one of my favorite gardens in our fair metropolis. The class is at 10:30 am and will be followed by a general meeting of local chicken enthusiasts.
If you aren’t local but want to learn about chickens there are of course many resources out there. And if you already have chickens maybe you can share your knowledge in your community. I know that I certainly wish I new more when I got started. But its live and learn.
Sadly, not all the chickens lived. But the hens helped me to meet my fellow urban homesteading neighbors…… and the rest is history.
The chickens helped us to create community in our neighborhood so now we are helping others to use poultry to promote neighborly public relations and local food.
In the photo above Peckerella and banties Lita and Debbie eat an over ripe persimmon. Okay, Peckerella got most of it, but the banties stood up for themselves and stole a few bites.

More Nettle Love: Nettle Infusion

Mrs. Homegrown here:

It’s nettle appreciation week here at Homegrown Evolution. Inspired by Homegrown Neighbor’s post, I thought I’d throw in my own two cents about nettles.

First, it’s one of my favorite plants. Its nutritional profile is outstanding. In fact, it’s one of the most nutritionally dense foods available. It’s a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamins, chlorophyll–the things your body might be lacking after a long winter, or a period stress and poor eating. For this reason it’s long been treasured as a spring tonic.

The most straightforward way to take advantage of these nutritional benefits is to eat nettles as a green, but as our neighbor mentions, they don’t make great eating. They’re not bad, just bland. It’s funny how such a prickly plant is so aggressively mild when all is said and done. That’s part of its charm and mystery. When I harvest it in the wild, usually from tall stands of tough, mean plants, I really feel like I’m hunting or doing combat of some sort. The older nettles get, the more intimidating they become. Though I wear long pants and sleeves and rubber dishwashing gloves when I go into battle, I never escape unscathed. But stings are just part of the process, a price I pay gladly.

I recommend you check out the website of Susun Weed, an herbalist. Reading there, I learned that infusions make more of the plant nutrients available than regular tea, so now we put one ounce of dried nettle (an ounce is quite a lot–a cup if it’s chopped, half a jar or more if the leaves are whole) in a quart jar, fill the jar with boiling water and let it sit 4-8 hours before drinking. The resulting brew is stronger tasting than ordinary nettle tea, but not unpleasant at all. It’s our house energy drink.

Nettle Harvest

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Stinging nettle- Urtica dioica is a both a beloved and hated plant. Yes, it does sting. The stem and leaf edges are covered in stinging hairs. It can be rather painful. But it has been used as a food and medicine plant dating back at least to ancient Rome. Interestingly, if you sting an inflamed or painful area of the body with nettle, it has been shown to decrease the pain.
Mr. Homegrown has also written about nettles on the blog here.
Nettle is considered anti-inflammatory and is a diuretic. It has been used to cleanse and build the blood, treat prostate problems, to promote healthy menstruation, to reduce arthritis pain and even to treat hair loss. I have always taken nettle when I feel a little anemic and weak. It has a mild taste that is easily blended with other herbs for tea. My favorite pick me up is a teaspoon of dried nettle with a teaspoon of jasmine green tea.
Nettle is nutritious, if not delicious. If I were lost in the woods or just trying to find something to eat here on the streets of L.A., I would be happy to find nettles. Luckily, nettle thrives in both locations. It reseeds readily, making it an annoying weed if you don’t know how to make use of it.
I found a weedy nettle patch while hiking one day. I dug up a little bit and put it, roots and all, in my backpack. I transplanted it into my front yard when I got home. The nettle grew and set seed. So now I have a nice big nettle patch in my front yard.
The nettle patch has grown so lushly that it stings me every time I walk to my car. It borders the entire driveway. I’m kind of immune to the little stings at this point. I hardly even notice it. But a friend of mine got stung rather badly the other day as I forgot to warn him about the weeds. So I realized it was time to harvest.
I put on latex gloves, got my kitchen shears and a brown paper bag. I discovered that nettle can sting you right through a latex glove. And my wrists were stung quite severely. But oh well. I was so excited about harvesting I just plunged my arm into the deep green patch and started cutting.
I cut the plants off near ground level and carefully placed them in my paper bag.
Then I closed the paper bag and hung it inside near a sunny window to dry. If you live in a humid climate or need it to dry quickly, I recommend setting your oven at a very low temperature, like 200 degrees and placing the bag in it for half an hour.
It will take about two weeks for your nettles to dry on their own. Check periodically to make sure they are drying properly and not getting moldy. Once they are dry, the sting is gone. You can safely strip the leaves from the stems and store in a jar in your pantry. Make some tea and enjoy. Stinging nettle is a tonic for almost anything that may ail you.

Passport to Survival

One of the dusty corners of the Homegrown Evolution reference library holds two examples of a book genre I always look out for: the Mormon survival manual. As far as I can tell, these tomes assume we’re, “in the last days,” a period for which the Latter Day Saints hierarchy suggests keeping a two year supply of food for your household. Having just seen the grim Cormac McCarthy/Viggo Mortensen vehicle “The Road” and not wanting to have to resort to cannibalism (those folks at the Wal-Mart sure don’t look appetizing!), I cracked open my Mormon survival books starting with Esther Dickey’s Passport to Survival.

The astonishing thing about the 110 recipes in Dickey’s book is that they make use, almost exclusively, of only four ingredients: wheat, salt, honey and powdered milk. This makes Passport to Survival one of the most unusual cookbooks ever written. From these easily stored and inexpensive raw materials Dickey makes everything from tacos to ice cream. The fake meat that forms the centerpiece of her suggested meals is made by extracting gluten from flour and then making seitan. Your greens come from sprouting wheat. Here’s a few recipes and meals:

“#26. Mock Tater Tots

1/4 cup dry milk
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup thick starch #14a

Combine, and drop mixture from a teaspoon onto a cookie sheet Bake until brown. (Make tater tots miniature size).”

Ever resourceful, Dickey’s thick starch is the leftover water made from extracting the gluten from the wheat.

“#83. Soft Ice Cream (Emergency Flavor)

1 cup dry milk
3 cups water
3 tbs.honey

Mix, put in shallow tray, and freeze solid. Break in small chunks and beat with electric mixer, bender or juicer. Serve in miniature cones made from dough #51.”

Dickey whips up some lavish meals for the bunker, again, with just flour, salt, honey and powdered milk:

“Tuesday supper: “Hors d’oeuvres #27, green cream soup #70 and #73, thin sticks #9, wheatburgers #36, oven-cracked wheat #46d, soft ice cream #83 with caramel syrup #84, barber pole sticks #90, cold milk.”

“Monday dinner: green drink #73, emergency stew #20, noodles #27, bread sticks #38, criss-cross cookies #91.”

Dickey slept outdoors into her 90s and passed away in 2008. From her obituary,

“Nobody could say Esther had not practiced what she preached. As a young couple, Russell and Esther lived in a campground for more than two months, baking bread with a reflector oven. In her own east Multnomah County backyard, she once comfortably lived in a 15-by-4-by-6-foot cave, as an experiment. She once pushed a loaded two-wheeled metal cart to Oxbow Park along the Sandy River to live in a campsite by the river for several days.

There was one notable Thanksgiving with gluten drumsticks.”

I have the 1969 edition of Passport to Survival that I picked up on Amazon. There’s a more recent edition written by two of her daughters, but I haven’t seen it.

Should you be inspired to try your hand at wheat gluten cookin’, here’s some step by step instructions on making your own seitan from scratch on the Forkable blog.

Update 1/15/2010: I was just thumbing through my copy of the 1980 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and found a page devoted to Mormon survival manuals including a review of Passport to Survival. The review even included the same photo I chose for this post. This proves that:

1. The Whole Earth crew invented the internets.

2. There’s nothing I can blog about that the Whole Earth folks didn’t already cover. I owe them a tremendous debt and continue to admire their work each time I open my old copy of the catalog.