What The Plants Say

What The Plants Say

Tree, give up your secret. How can you be so satisfied? Why
don’t you need to change location, look for a better job, find
prettier scenery, or even want to get away from people?

Grass, you don’t care where you turn up. You appear running
wild in the oat field, out of a crack in a city street. You are
the first word in the vocabulary of the earth. How is it that you
are able to grow so near the lake without falling in? How can
you be so alert for the early frost, bend in the slightest breeze,
and yet be so hard to break that you are still there, quiet, green,
among the ruins of others?

Weed, it is you with your bad reputation that I love the most.
Teach me not to care what anyone has to say about me. Help me
to be in the world for no purpose at all except for the joy of
sunlight and rain. Keep me close to the edge where every wild
thing begins.

~ Tom Hennen,  from Darkness Sticks to Everything

Posted in poem, weeds | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Indoor Seed Starting Problem Solved


There are few things more glorious than a seedling emerging from the soil.

We’ve been starting seeds for decades with great success. We used to set up a low bench in front of a south-facing window and start a few tomatoes and peppers. That operation expanded. Soon we were also starting squash, cukes, eggplants, broccoli, even some flowers indoors. We got a little fancier about it each year, using warming mats, clear plastic sheeting, and grow lights; following all recommendations.

Each year we start seeds we’ve saved as well as seeds we buy from reputable companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Turtle Tree Seed. (You’re probably aware Monsanto owns the vast majority of seed companies including favorites such as Jung, Park Seeds, Stokes, and Wayside Garden. Burpee buys seeds from Monsanto subsidiary, Seminis. Even eco-friendly Seeds of Change is owned by the candy company Mars, Inc.).

We’ve tried all sorts of pots, from egg cartons to black plastic pots saved from nursery plants. One year we made little pots out of newspaper. It’s easy to do, but a few weeks of daily misting and the papers sprouted mold. That didn’t seem to hurt the seedlings at all, but our sinuses weren’t happy. 

Some seeds we start late in March, others not till mid-April. While wind, rain, and snow make our garden outdoor suited for only the earliest of plants, our little indoor plants flourish in cradles of dirt under benevolent artificial suns.

That is, until we bought online a huge supply of NK Seed Starter Pots sold by Plantation Products. An entire gross of multipacks.

Last spring we planted some seeds in these pots while using up other peat pots we’d bought locally. Quite a few seeds didn’t germinate, a first for us. We weren’t sure why. We thought that since NK pots are thicker and sturdier than other peat pots that we should water more or cover them longer, but none of those efforts worked. We ended up buying a few dozen tomato and pepper plants from a family not far from us. Disappointing.

This year we planted all our seeds in NK pots. Again, they were kept on warming mats under carefully calibrated grow lights. I imagined them awakening each day as I carefully tended (and yes, chatted with) those seeds. Instead we were shocked by a 95% non-germination rate. The few seedlings that emerged died within days. Okay, we thought. Let’s solve this. The pots are not too dry or wet, the light is not too low or high, the seeds are ones we saved or from reputable growers. What factors could be in play here?  We sterilized our seed starter potting soil (not a fun process) in case our soil harbored some evil dampening off virus, then replanted. Another week or so and again only a few seedlings emerged only to die.

It didn’t occur to us that the only variable was the pots themselves until we read a NYT article about a class of chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, the same ones that help pizza boxes stand up to moisture without breaking down. PFASs are now implicated in health problems including cancer.

I don’t know if the NK Seed Starter Pots contained PFASs, but we realized something about those pots must be toxic. Coincidentally, I found several of last year’s discarded pots outside our barn. They’d been lying there exposed to 12 months of rain, snow, and mud. They were not even remotely decomposed, simply discolored. That’s odd, because right on the package growers are told to “plant pot and all.” No way could roots get through those stiff, unyielding pots.

The NK Seed Starter Pots are, according to the packaging, “Biodegradable. Made from organic recycled materials. All Natural Fiber Seed Starter.”

I say that’s not possible.

I emailed the NK Lawn & Garden people. I asked what “organic recycled materials” are used to make these pots. I offered to send them the dozens of unused pots of theirs we still have in their packages so they could test them for toxins and pathogens.

They replied the same day, offering to send different pots they produce.

Nothing can refund the time, money, and disappointment of having none of our own seedlings to transplant into the garden. No Dragon’s Egg cucumbers, Black Hungarian peppers, Rosita eggplant, Red Kuri squash, Jersey Devil tomatoes, or Cherokee Purple tomatoes.

Thank goodness the seeds I planted outdoors are up and growing heartily (so are the weeds). The peas are flowering and the broccoli is knee-high in places. Carrots, kale, chard, squash, rutabaga, cilantro, sunflowers, and corn are flourishing.

Next year we’ll go back to using old nursery pots we’ve saved. But if you’ve had problems germinating seeds indoors, consider peat pots as a possible villain.


Posted in gardening, seeds, spring | Tagged , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Bottle Tree is Planted!

Bottle trees are said to protect one’s home and garden. Folklore tells us the colorful glass lures harmful spirits into the bottles where they’re trapped until morning’s bright light de-demonizes them. Bottle trees are also alleged to make the harvest more bountiful and bring overall good luck.

I was thrilled when Sam offered to make a custom crafted bottle tree. I might have nagged him into it… .

He modeled the branches on an oak tree, angled upwards to ensure all those demon-catching bottles don’t fall off.


Meanwhile, I’ve been helping out by drinking wine. Well, I haven’t been able to drink all 30 bottles the tree can hold so I’ve collected bottles from others. (Thank you to my fellow drinkers.)

We’re still about eight bottles short of the goal, so I guess we’ll be popping a few more corks for art’s sake.

Being me, I don’t want to stop at simply inverting bottles on the branches. I’d also like to collect tiny clear or colored bottles with tight-fitting lids. (Save me some if you can!) I want to write poems or sayings on pieces of paper, then curl those papers into the little bottles, and hang them from the tree on strings. Perhaps that’ll lure benevolent spirits.

Without further ado, here it is.

bottle tree, Bit of Earth Farm,

Custom bottle tree by Sam Weldon.


Posted in art, tradition | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Rest in Peace Isabelle

izzy 7 Thanks to Claire’s wise care and tireless dedication


Isabelle has had 17 years of peaceful farm life

grazing on green pastures


and occasional garden snacks

izzy 5

raising calves until they were grown

izzy 4

giving us milk

izzy 6

and sharing her unique personality, always.

Hers was a presence that will not be forgotten.




Posted in cattle, gratitude | Tagged | 7 Comments

To Sunchoke Or Not To Sunchoke

Lovely, prolific, hardy.

Lovely, prolific, hardy.

Life is full of big decisions.

Profess your love or play it cool? Over easy or sunny side up? Argue or let it go? Leave everything behind for what might be the big break? Speak your mind or pretend it doesn’t matter?

There’s another big decision you might be making. Grow sunchokes or avoid sunchokes?

It doesn’t seem like such a big decision, but it is.

I was drawn into the sunchoke question a few years ago. I’d been reading about health problems linked to inflammation. It’s a scary list that includes asthma, allergies, arthritis, auto-immune disorders, osteoporosis, heart disease, depression, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. If that’s not enough, inflammation is also a key factor in skin aging and other outward signs of aging. There are all sorts of things you can do to combat inflammation. Things like being physically active, eating a Mediterranean diet, flossing daily, and getting adequate sleep (not easy for insomniacs like me). It also helps to include sources of inulin (not insulin!) in your diet.

Inulin is a soluable dietary fiber. It brims with naturally occuring oligosaccharide (linked sugars) that belong to the class of carbohydrates known as fructans. Unlike most carbs, inulin isn’t digestible. It ferments (a sort of intestinal home brew), boosting healthy intestinal micro flora but not your blood sugar.

A great source of inulin happens to be the sunchoke. In the world of inflammation prevention it’s called a prebiotic, basically an eager cruise director of healthy gut flora.

So I grew some.

I didn’t know at the time that the sunchoke is a member of the sunflower family. It is.

sunchokes 1

A huge, prolific member of that family. These plants are nearly 8 feet tall.

sunchokes 2

The few tubers I planted turned into a veritable forest, tall stalks topped with cheery yellow blossoms waving in the slightest breeze.

Sunchoke-related advice 

First off, these are powerfully prolific plants. Don’t grow them where you don’t want them to keep growing. If you’re afraid you’ll be screaming with sci-fi horror, “just make it stop,” then don’t plant them anywhere you can’t mow. Because mowing, maybe a few years of mowing, is really all that will stop them. (Unless you’re a Round-up sort of person. I’m pretty frustrated with you people for all sorts of reasons.)

Second, I haven’t seen anything written about this but sunchokes seem to have a very positive effect on the soil. I planted them in a section of our back garden that was mostly clay. A few years back we’d amended the soil with some well-seasoned cow poo contributed by our cattle pals, but it was still hard with broad orange streaks of clay. After two years of growing sunchokes, that same patch is loose, friable, and teeming with worms.

Third, these babies last all winter. You can harvest them through the holidays, into the last days of winter, maybe even into early spring if you’ve had heavy snow cover without a thaw. Right now it’s April and I’m digging up sunchokes. Most of them at this point aren’t for us, they’re cattle fodder, but still useful.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, these tubers are commonly known as Jerusalem artichokes. They’re not artichokes nor are they from Jerusalem. They’re also called by another name you should know: “fartichoke.” That’s because the tuber’s health-promoting insoluble fiber gives some people gas. Prolific, propulsive gas.

Still harvesting sunchokes in April.

Still harvesting sunchokes in April.

Tips for easier sunchoke digestion

Don’t harvest sunchokes until after the first hard frost. And then, harvest only what you need and use them while they’re still firm.  Sunchokes happily stay fresh and firm under the snow all winter so you can dig out a few as needed. (Unless the ground is frozen solid. We dug up more in March and early April than we did December to February.)

The first few times you eat them don’t eat too much. They’re tempting little devils when sliced thin and fried into Sunchoke Chips (or Paleo Fries.) Take a few bites and stop. Think of them like beans. If you don’t eat them often your gut may not have enough We Handle This Particular Fiber bacteria. Give your microbiota time to handle the challenge with small regular sunchoke doses.

Avoid eating them raw. There are lots of recipes telling you to add them to salads (just like jicama!) but don’t. Just don’t.

Make them into sunchoke pickles or naturally fermented sunchoke pickles. Apparently fermentation eases the digestion problem too.

Roast em!

Roast em!

Some culinary thoughts on the wonderful versatile sunchoke

Remember, don’t harvest until after a frost or two because cold sweetens the tubers.

Only harvest what you can use in the next day or two. Stored too long they get discolored and lose their firm texture.

Sunchokes are fascinatingly convoluted. No need to peel. Snap or cut them apart so you can clean all the crevices, then scrub with a brush meant for potatoes.

Sunchokes hide nicely in all sorts of dishes and seem to be trendy the last few years.

Sunchokes oxidize when exposed to air, just like apples or eggplant. To prevent this, use right after cutting or toss with an acid like lemon juice or red wine before cooking. There are a bunch of other fascinating tips for preparing sunchokes here — one of my favorites is a pointer about preventing sunchokes from turning gray when pureed or made into soup (their high iron content causes this to happen): again they suggest that you add a pinch of cream of tartar or an acidic liquid (like lemon juice) to the sunchoke cooking water.

They qualify as paleo as well as low carb by most reckonings.

Make them into soup, crisp them in a pan with prosciutto and mint, toss them with fettuccine, crust them on fish, serve them roasted with chicken, hide them in garlic mashed potatoes.

Sunchokes are great roasted. I like to cut them up along with onions, potatoes, mushrooms, and Brussels sprouts or cauliflower. Drizzle with good oil and roast in a hot oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Halfway through, toss in a handful or two of whole garlic cloves–making sure the cloves are covered by oil so they don’t burn. Yum.

They’re great in soups. Add a sunchoke or two to nearly any soup recipe, cook thoroughly, and enjoy.

Parboil them, then add them to other recipes. They’re particularly good in potato dishes, plus all that fiber counterbalances a potato’s high glycemic index (if you worry about such things).

They’re also not easily detected (by taste) if you want to toss them into a recipe. Thoroughly boil a few sunchokes, whirl them in the blender, and you’ve got a puree you can add to everything from smoothies to pancakes.

Resist the urge to impose sunchoke-heavy dishes on unaware diners, although it’s tempting when you’ve required to bring something to that company potluck you dread. Well, unless you really wanted to change jobs.

Sunchokes fit in nearly every recipe.

Sunchokes fit in nearly every recipe.

Posted in eating, gardening, kitchen arts | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Early Spring Walk

The skies are a lovely mottled blue gray. It’s cold enough for a coat and scarf. But I’m glad to be out, breathing more deeply and gratefully than I do indoors. Everywhere I look I see something beautiful.

Tiny flowers emerging around last autumn’s leaves.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

Bracket fungus (conk) on a tree, forming a perfect awning over woodpecker holes.


Convoluted paths in the dirt. We think these were routes tunneled by mice under the snow, now impressions left on the ground after spring’s thaw.


Buds everywhere.


A Cooper’s hawk coasting on air currents folds its wings and plummets groundward in a glorious swoop that spells doom for a tiny mouse. It reminds me how cosmologist Brian Swimme teaches that neither creature would be what they are without the other. The hawk’s sharp eyesight, speed, and precision are honed by it’s prey’s keen awareness, ability to freeze in place, skill at burrowing and dodging. The pressure of hunger and the urge to survive work together to create distinctive species.


Only a few days, and the bulbs that were barely emerging


are now forming blooms.


After our walk Winston eyes the porch. He’s missed barking at the delivery person but because it’s spring the door is open and that means he can growl quietly at the package left behind. Ah, the joy.

Posted in spring | 8 Comments

Global Village Construction Set

It’s possible to plant 50 trees in one afternoon.

To press 5,000 bricks from the dirt beneath your feet in one day.

To build an affordable tractor in six days.

It’s possible thanks to the members of Open Source Ecology (OSE). They aren’t armchair visionaries. These engineers, farmers, and developers are dedicated to making communities sustainable and self-reliant. They’re taking on scarcity and inequality with open source enthusiasm

OSE got its start when Marcin Jakubowski’s tractor broke.  Well, lets back up a little. After Jakubowski earned a PhD in the physics of fusion energy, he bought a farm in Missouri where he grew fruit trees and raised goats. One day his tractor broke. He didn’t have the hands-on experience to fix it himself. But he hauled out some can-do attitude along with his welder and torch. He realized a tractor is simply a box with wheels, each powered by hydraulic motors.  So he bolted together square steel tubing to make one from scratch. It worked.

This inspired him to look beyond pricey, commercially made machines. He began to come up with versions that were hardy, low cost, and constructed out of locally sourced or repurposed materials. His posted designs generated lots of enthusiasm and input. Participants began showing up to help build prototyles on project days, becoming OSE collaborators.

The idea evolved. They considered what it takes to build independent, sustainable communities that support farming, construction, small manufacturing,  and power generation. They came up with a list of the 50 machines most important for modern life including a hay baler, bakery oven, laser cutter, drill press, solar concentrator, and truck.  Low cost, industrial strength, DIY versions of these machines became known as the Global Village Construction Set.  The motors, parts, and other fittings of these machines are designed to be interchangeable. All the 3D designs, schematics, and instructional videos are posted on the OSE Wiki.

On average, constructing these machines costs about eight times less than comparable machines made by industrial manufacturers. As Jakubowski explained in his recent TED talk, “Our goal is a repository of published design so clear, so complete, that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit. ..The implications are significant: a greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chains, and a newly relevant DIY Maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity.”

So often hope seems abstract.  This is tangible hope, made of steel. It puts independence and equality in reach for people in both the developed and developing world.  Welding never seemed so inspiring.

This post is originally from Laura’s author blog where you can find hundreds of posts about mindfulness, learning, creativity, sustainability, and more.  

Posted in community, DIY, global, great turning, optimism, real wealth, self-reliance, shift, simple living, sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment