Stinging Nettles and Cat Allergies

Facebookers have already seen these pics. Kitty, being a fast moving black hole, is very hard to photograph.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Sorry this is sort of rambling, but context is everything.

Our friend Anne, of the pea-eating-Chihuahua fame, and the chicken-sitting-on-kitten fame, and various other fames, is a frequent animal rescuer. She came over to our house maybe 2 weeks ago with a pet carrier. She said, “Someone dropped this off at my house at 1:00 AM last night, but I have to go to work. Can you take care of it?” Inside the carrier was a tiny black scrap of fur, a three week old kitten.

Thus she launched her evil plan. We took care of the creature on work days, until she came to pick it up, until we got so used to it that we missed it when it wasn’t around. You see, she knew that no one could bottle feed a creature like that (teeny wittle paws!) and not go soft in the head and want to keep it forever and always.


So it looks like we’ve got ourselves a cat, maybe. We’d planned on getting a dog ever since our beloved dobie passed on, but the universe works in strange ways, and it sent us a cat.

However, there’s a fly in the ointment. I’m allergic to cats. I grew up with a cat, but developed this allergy later, which always seemed stupid and unreasonable. So I’ve decided to ignore it.

There’s precedent for this. I also grew up with dogs, and yet later developed an allergy to them, too. I ignored this for our dog Spike, because I wanted a dog more than anything else in the world. At first, I broke out in hives every time he licked me, but it went away. I’m trusting the same thing is going to happen here with the kitten.

I mean, come on! Were we going to put this on Craig’s List?

I know it might sound nuts, but it’s going pretty well. The allergies seem to have peaked and declined. I had a couple of bad days, with a constantly running nose and weals all over my chest from the kitty’s claws, but that’s over. Now I sneeze once in a while. I have one weal on my chest. It’s been ten days of close co-habitation with the kitten. I’m its primary caretaker, and it likes to sleep under my chin.

One thing that may be helping is that I’m drinking lots of extra strong nettle tea, sometimes adding licorice to the brew. Both herbs are supposed to be good for allergies. Andrew Weil recommends taking capsules of freeze dried nettle extract instead of antihistamines for seasonal allergies (See his Natural Health, Natural Medicine. Here’s a Google Books link.)

Do nettles really work for allergies? I don’t know. It may be all in my head–but you know what? I’m all for the placebo effect. That’s not a negative term in my book at all. Self-healing is the best healing.

Nettles are also really good for you, being full of minerals and green goodness–so there’s no reason not to try. They’re also free for the gathering in most places.

I make nettle tea the Susun Weed way. We cover this in Making It, actually:

  • Put one ounce of dried herb in a quart jar. That’s a lot, really, about a cup.
  • If you have fresh nettles, just stuff a jar full (the stingers will vanish in the hot water)
  • If you have it, you can add a piece of licorice root or a bit of ground root. This sweetens the tea, albeit in a weird, licorice sort of way, and the licorice itself may help
  • Fill the jar with boiling water
  • Let it sit 4-8 hours to get incredibly strong
  • Strain to a new jar
  • Drink it iced, room temp or gently reheated. Try to drink that quart over the course of the day.
  • Don’t keep it around, because it will lose its potency after a day. Pour it on your plants and make a fresh batch.

Kitten facts for those interested:

Kitten is genderless for now. We took he/she to the vet, and the vet was genuinely puzzled. Tricky kitty! We have to wait for more certainty.

Kitten is about 5 weeks old. He/she was more in the 3 week old range when we took the above pics.

Kitten’s name might be Nyx. Or Woad. Or Woadnyx.

Kitten came off the street but miraculously arrived with no fleas, eye or ear infections, nothing. He/she is healthy and well adjusted, and likes all people.

Kitten is entirely black, and of solid alley cat stock. The eyes have faded to grey from blue this week, but there’s no telling final color. I suspect he/she is always going to look like a scruffy Halloween cat.

Kitten was half blind and sleepy at the start of this, but now is gaining mad skilz by the day and is a holy terror, but still pretty darn cute. He/she has been threatening this post as I write, showing a cat’s instinctive affinity for computer keyboards.

The cute thing is all an act. Hail to our feline overlord! Photo credit: Anne Hars

Natural Dyeing with Woad

Earlier in the month while the boys stayed at home with Eric, I attended a French General workshop on dyeing with woad (Isatis tinctoria). Woad (from the Brassicaceae family, a cousin to broccoli & cauliflower) has been cultivated in Europe since ancient times. Woad was prized by Napoleon and used to dye his army’s uniforms. At one time, the production of woad was the cornerstone of the economy of the south of France.

Indigo on the left. Woad on the right.
To formulate the dye, the plant was cultivated and the leaves picked in the first year. The leaves are crushed and, originally, left to ferment in a vat for over a year. The pH of the vat was maintained with the urine of the male work force. The woad industry of the past supported what I imagine to be a coveted job of drinking beer & urinating. The fermented leaves were then dried into woad ball that were later pounded into a powder used for dyeing. During the elaborate cultivation and processing of the woad, it is impossible to tell if the work will yield a successful dye or in what shade. The nuanced formulation of woad dye fell out of favor with the advent of synthetic dyes.
Diluted ammonia took the place of urine to maintain the pH of the dye vats I used. Denise Lambert from Bleu de Lectoure in the south of France lead the workshop on woad. In Toulouse, she grows and harvests acres of the plant in France and manufactures the dye. The formulation of a consistent woad pigment took Denise Lambert five years of research and experimentation.
Denise demonstrated on how to slowly lower garments into the dye vats, careful to avoid air bubbles which would cause the fabric to dye unevenly, then she pulled out the material. As air hit the garment, the color changed from yellow to green to the ubiquitous blue of woad. Watching the oxidation happen so rapidly was almost like magic.
I presoaked my garments for dyeing in water, then joined the rest of the group in a day long woad dye fest, learning the technique, returning to the vats to achieve desired shades, then setting the dye by immersing the garments in water & hanging them to dry.
Stopping only for a delicious catered lunch, I quickly returning to the vats as the woad dye slowly started to loose it’s ability to transfer pigment. The sun moved very far west and the dyeing came to a close; I returned with the group to French General to celebrate with a glass of Lillet and great conversation.

The Meng sisters at French General plan to hold another Woad Workshop on September 24, 2011. I highly recommend attending. Class size is limited. I know my curiosity to dye with natural pigments has been sparked. I look forward to learning more.
More pictures of the workshop at Ramshackle Solid.

Till vs. No-Till

A 3-D view of tilling in Russia c1915

My post on lasagna gardening, which linked to a brief article by horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott seems to have opened a can of worms, so to speak.  Two issues came up in the comments on my post: the wisdom of using cardboard in a lasagna mulch and the pros and cons of double digging/tilling. Let’s address them in separate blog posts, beginning here with double digging/tilling.

There are some very persuasive arguments in favor of a no-till, leave the soil alone approach. Chalker-Scott in the comments section of her post on lasagna gardening says,

. . . double digging (the equivalent of tilling in agriculture) disrupts natural soil building. No-till agriculture is increasingly preferred as being more protective of the soil ecosystem. I think the same philosophy could be applied to home gardens as well. You’re right, you can boost production with a more aggressive approach to soil amendment – a similar argument is often made in conventional agriculture (compared to organic agriculture) to till, use excessive fertilizers, pesticides, etc. I guess it depends on how you regard the soil – as a medium for growing vegetables or as an ecosystem (and I’m not being judgmental). It’s a philosophical choice.

No-till agriculture advocates argue that tilling oxidizes organic matter leading to a loss in soil fertility and the creation of carbon dioxide which, in turn, leads to global warming. A case can also be made that tilling creates a soil “crust” that interferes with water penetration. And tilling disrupts mycelial networks and other soil organisms that, research has shown, form important symbiotic relationships with plant roots. 

But what about heavily compacted soils? How do you turn a lawn or driveway into a garden? It’s in these cases that I, in the past, have used double digging.

Double digging proponents would argue that the practice should be distinguished from tilling in that, unlike tilling, you don’t invert the soil structure as much when you double dig. Double digging keeps the same soil profile while loosening heavy compaction. Double-digging advocates distance themselves from the use of roto-tilling machines which invert deeper layers of soil with surface layers that contain more organic matter.

But there are alternatives to double digging and tilling that will break up compacted soils. Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch turned a former construction parking lot into a productive edible landscape without double digging or tilling. Kleinrock used what I’d call a kind of toolkit of de-compaction strategies:

  • The application of a thick mulch (Chalker-Scott suggests a minimum of 12 inches). It’s surprising how many earthworms start doing the tilling for you with a thick mulch layer.
  • Planting soil busting cover crops with thick tap roots like Daikon radish
  • The use of a broadfork or deep spader
Peaceful Valley’s “Deep Spader”
A broadfork in action

Broadforks and deep spaders get air and water into compacted soils without the damage tilling can do. Unfortunately broadforks and deep spaders are very expensive (around $200) and heavy. The deep spader Kleinrock used came from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply. I’ve tried it and it works nicely, though it’s still hard labor. If you knew how to weld you could probably make a home brew deep spader or broadfork. I’ve also successfully used a regular, inexpensive garden spading fork in moderately compacted soils.

This is clearly a topic on which reasonable people can disagree, but the no-till folks seem to have the upper hand in terms of the science. As with all gardening problems, though, context is king. Environmental factors and economic issues (those expensive broadforks) intersect in our urban gardens in complex ways. You have to make up your own mind. I’d say if you’re going to double-dig do it only as a last resort and after considering all the alternatives. While, under some circumstances, I might double-dig I would never till with a roto-tiller or invert soil structure with a shovel. But after seeing the dramatic improvement in soil at the Huntington Ranch in less than a year, I’m more inclined to try de-compaction alternatives. You could also just build raised beds and import better soil (though that strategy gets expensive).

I’ve created a poll on the right side of this blog on which you can cast a vote on tilling vs. not-tilling vs. double digging. And consider leaving a comment–I’m interested in what readers think about this complex issue.

Paleofuture Farming

From the awesome Paleofuture blog, which chronicles what folks thought the future would look like, a few notions of future farming.

Apparently, this anticipated future (which more or less came to pass) involved “lounge chair gardening.”

And, of course, factory farming:


To the generation that came up with these ideas I’ll just say that I hope the dinosaur juice that keeps those factory farms humming holds out. Personally, I’m not counting on gardening from the comfort of that hovering lounge chair while I oversee my hydroponic skyscraper operation (architects still seem to be in love with vertical farming schemes). My inner crank tells me that we might just might have get our hands dirty again. But, I have to admit, that top photo does approximate what it looks like to create Root Simple blog posts.

Root Simple and LA Bread Bakers at Artisinal LA

This Saturday Kelly and I will be joining a panel discussion on urban homesteading along with our good friends Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms and goat keepers and cheese makers Gloria Putnam and Stephen Rucidel. The panel will take place at Artisinal LA on Saturday April 16th at 2 pm in Santa Monica.

I will also be taking part in a bread baking demo along with the LA Bread Bakers the same day at 1 pm.

More information at artisinalla.com.

Lasagna Gardening Simplified

First popularized back in the 1970s, “lasagna gardening” involves piling up thick layers of cardboard and uncomposted kitchen scraps on top of (sometimes) double-dug soil. The practice is touted as a way of removing lawns and improving soil with little work.

Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Urban Horticulturist at Washington State University, proposes a vastly simpler version of lasagna gardening.  Chalker-Scott suggests skipping the double digging, cardboard and kitchen scraps. The double digging disrupts soil texture, the cardboard interferes with water penetration (I know this from experience) and the kitchen scraps create a plant nutrient overload. Instead Chalker-Scott suggests simply a very thick layer of mulch–12 inches.

Mulch is often free, as many cities give it away, and it does wonders for the soil. Mulch, in fact, breaks down into soil, retains moisture and creates habitat for earthworms.

Read more in Chalker-Scott’s post, “Is lasagna gardening really worth the effort.

California poppy tea

 
Mrs. Homegrown here:


Where we live, this is the poppy time of year. California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are blooming all over our neighborhood, and most especially in our yard. I have to admit I have a mercenary attitude toward plants, my main thought on meeting one being, “What can you do for me?” California poppies, lovely as they are, have become more interesting to me since I’ve started consuming them. Now, don’t get concerned (or intrigued): the Root Simple compound has not turned into an opium den. California poppies are not part of the famous Papaver somniferum species, and they can’t get you high, nor are they addictive. However, they can help you relax.



I’m all for using plants that grow readily in your yard or general area, rather than trying to coax more exotic species along. There are many herbs that can be used to make relaxing teas (valerian, catnip, linden, chamomile, etc.), but this one intrigues me because it’s essentially a weed where I live. If it doesn’t grow readily where you live, I’d encourage you to investigate other herbs which grow more easily in your area. 

But for those of you who can grow California poppies easily, I’ll just say that I’ve been making tea with fresh California poppy foliage this year and must report that I really like it. I like it so much that I’m drying plants so I have a store to last me through the summer and fall, and may make a tincture of it, too. 

It makes a soothing tea. I find it useful in two types of situations: first, when I have a nagging tension headache–the kind that comes about when you’re cranky, and can’t find any way to de-crankify, because your head hurts so damned much. I find that this tea de-tangles my brain enough that the headache goes away. The second situation I take it in is when I’m really tired but am resisting going to bed for whatever reason.

What do experts say?

There’s lots of somewhat conflicting information about the California poppy on the Internets, and even my herb books at home say different things about its properties. Overall I think all sources do agree that it does have sedative quantities and that it won’t hurt you. In fact, in Europe, it’s often used as a component in sedatives for children. Taking that as a starting point, I’m trusting my own evaluation of its effect in regard to me. Everyone reacts a little differently to herbs, and everyone has different needs, so I’d encourage you to try it and see what you think.

In Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Michael Moore says its a “…surprisingly effective herb for use with anxiety” and “When used as a sedative, it promotes relaxation and genial lethargy.”  He notes it has some mild analgesic effects in higher doses.

One thing he does address is the question as to whether drinking this tea would make you test positive on a drug test. His answer is that though the plant does not contain the same alkaloids found in opiates, it contains alkaloids that are similar enough that they might create a false positive on an urine test. I’ve also heard firm opinions from other sources that it absolutely will or will not show up.

California Native Americans use Eschscholzia in their own way. According to Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, the Chumash made a poultice of the pods to stop breast milk. For them, this was (is) the plant’s primary use. Secondary uses include using the root for toothache and a decoction of the flowers to kill lice.

How to use:
 
You can make tea with any of the above-ground parts of the plant: leaves, stems and flowers. You can use these parts fresh or dried. I’ve been using fresh so far. I just stuff my tea basket with fresh leaves, pour hot water over them and let it steep a good long time–maybe 10 minutes. I put a saucer over the top of the cup to help keep the tea warm. The long soak ensures a stronger, more potent brew, obviously.

All the sources I’ve read note that this tea is unpleasantly bitter. I’ve not found that to be so, but my palette may be affected by Erik’s ongoing fascination with bitter Italian greens. Sometimes I throw some mint in with it just to liven up the flavor, but I honestly don’t find it unpleasant straight.

(ETA: Coming back in September to add to this post. Now that summer is almost over, I can say that the plants get more bitter as they get older and the weather gets hotter. It’s the first flush of growth that’s most palatable.)

In terms of dosage, all I can say is that the more of the tea you drink, and the stronger you brew it, the more pronounced will be the effects. If I just want a bedtime brew, analogous to chamomile, I’d just make a cup of tea as I’d make any cup of tea. If I have a headache, I’ll make a small pot of tea (2-3 cups) and brew it strong and sip it until I feel better.

You can also tincture the plant, fresh or dry, in alcohol, and take it in that form. This isn’t the place for a tincture how-to, but if you already know how, Moore says: Dried plant tincture: 1:5,  50% alcohol; Fresh 1: 2; Both 30-60 drops, up to 4x a day, for anxiety. 

I’ve heard that the root can be held against a sore tooth–in places other than the Chumash source–but I don’t know if it works. Some sources I’ve read use the root as well as the above ground parts for tea, but I’ve not tried it. I’ve decided that the root must have slightly different properties than the foliage and haven’t stirred myself to investigate those yet. 


Growing California poppy: 

If you live where this plant is native, all you have to do is throw some seed around your yard in the fall, and the plants will magically appear after the winter rains. There is no special care or soil prep to be done. You don’t even have to bury the seed. The plants will thrive on their own until the summer heat and dryness kills them. Before they go, though, they will spread seed and more plants will appear the next year on their own. I’m not so sure how you’d grow it in other climates, but I assume you’d toss the seed around after the last chance of frost. If anyone has experience growing California poppy in other climes, please let us know what you do.

Nanny state precautions:

You should maybe not drink a lot of this and then drive, or operate drill presses, table saws, curling irons, etc. You probably should not mix this with prescription drugs without consulting your physician, especially if you’re on sedative drugs. If you’re pregnant or breast feeding, you know the usual drill–consult your practitioner. And anyway, that part about drying up milk might be of concern. Finally, California poppies are protected by state law. It’s illegal to pick them except in your own yard.

Dry Farming

Jethro Tull–the agriculturalist not the rock flutist

According to a 2010 report by Ceres “Water Risk in the Municipal Bond Market,” Los Angeles ranks number one in water supply risk. But we’re not alone. Many other US cities including Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas also face a future of water insecurity.

Due to these water risks we’d all do well to consider ways to grow edibles without supplemental irrigation. This may sound absurd at first, but I’ll note that in our garden we’ve discovered, quite by accident, that many plants such as prickly pear cactus, cherry tomatoes, cardoon and pomegranates will do just fine in a climate where it doesn’t rain for six months out of the year.  Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch proved that you can grow chard in Southern California with almost no irrigation through a hot summer (the chard thrived in the Ranch’s food forest under almost complete shade).

As an avid gardener in a dry climate I certainly use a lot of water for my vegetables. Most modern vegetables are adapted to copious watering. But this was not always the case. A classic book Dry Farming by John Andreas Widtsoe, first published in 1911 and available as a free download in Google Books, describes how many farmers got along without the modern conveniences of supplemental irrigation.

A dry farmed wheat and alfalfa field in Wyoming from Dry Farming

Other than the advice to till frequently (tilling, among other things, destroys beneficial fungal networks), Dry Farming has some good tips:

  • Maintain soil fertility 
  • Plant deeply
  • Plant varieties adapted to dry farming
  • Know when to plant
  • Pay attention to soil structure

The main takeaway for us home gardeners will be the development of drought tolerant veggies. Native Seed Search is a good start, but seed saving will be the ultimate solution. We’re simply going to have to breed drought tolerance back into our water hungry vegetables. Combined with passive water collection techniques such as sunken rather than raised beds, those of us in arid climates can grow a surprising amount of food with a lot less water.

Clarification: dry farming is not growing during the rainy season (which is called “rainfed agriculture”). Dry farming uses strategies to store water in the soil during the rainy season and then grow during the dry part of the year. Though controversial, dry farming traditionally involves tilling.  It also requires much greater spacing of plants. For more information see the website of the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative.

No Need to Knead

The Los Angeles Bread Bakers held their debut demonstration today thanks to the folks at Good. As you can see from the picture above some serious bakers showed up.

Teresa Sitz and Mark Stambler

Teresa Sitz demonstrated her wild yeast no-knead bread. You can read her recipe over on the LABB Facebook page.

Wild yeast breads have a number of advantages over breads made with commercial yeast. Due to higher acidity they keep longer and have a tangy, more complex flavor. Some say they are better for you. I love the magic of creating bread with just flour, water and salt.

Thanks again to Teresa and Mark Stambler for sharing their expertise.