Wildcrafting

No, this isn’t as adventurous as wild watering rafting, but for me it is far more interesting. So what is wildcrafting? Simply stated, wildcrafting is collecting plant materials from wild areas and using them for a variety of purposes. Mostly, the plant materials are used for teas, tinctures, salves, and ointments.

Last summer I was able to join a wildcrafting workshop at the Devonian gardens. Our instructor had arranged for us to take a foraging walk to collect and identify natural species. We collected plantain, dandelion leaves, and even the “lovely” stinging nettle. These are only a few of the plants to collect and use. The plant species of Alberta are too numerous to mention and much of what we know can be attributed to our First Nation peoples and those early settlers who relied on plant materials as cures for ailments. The instructor recommended a wonderful book, “The Boreal Herbal,” by D. Gray,  which I strongly suggest you find if you want to learn about native species or would like to try wildcrafting. This book has everything from plant descriptions to plant poetry. The recipes mostly include common ingredients, however, there are a couple that ask for bear fat. Personally, I am not in the habit of using or even trying to get fat from a bear (I like them too much). So this is an ingredient you might find a substitute for. On this note, my grandmother, Hilda Monteith, was given a recipe for exzema that included bear fat and poplar buds picked from trees in early spring. My mom called it, Bam Bud salve. While my mom claimed it cured her own eczema and was quite excited by it, I can’t say the bears were equally as happy about the salve.

This summer, I ventured into the bush around the Fox Creek area to collect materials. One thing I must stress is the importance of not causing harm to the plant species we harvest from. I never take too much from a tree or plant. I only take two of anything from the plants and trees. Two berries, two leaves, two branches and so forth. I ensure tree bark is never harmed as that would allow for infection. As much as possible I take from fallen logs, but am cognizant dead plant material on the forest floor has a purpose and is important for the process of decomposition. My collection this year was not extensive. I picked plantain, spruce pitch (sticky stuff!), and yarrow. I found some rose hips as well, but did not have a plan for them so I put them in the freezer. I intended to take only what I needed and had planned for. I would suggest you start with one recipe and make a list of the materials to collect. This way you won’t waste time and precious plant materials.

Once home, I decided to try using the heated method to infuse oils from plant materials. A photo is included and shows my crude method of using two pots as a double boiler. Direct heat on fresh plant materials can  easily ruin the infusion. This method also works faster than the sun infused method I described in another post. There are many recipes for salves, but I consulted The Boreal Herbal for an easy salve of beeswax, infused oil and vitamin e oil. The vitamin e oil acts as a preservative. More photos are included within this post.

My salve included, yarrow, plantain and Usnea lichen or Old Man’s Beard. Usnea is known to have antibiotic properties and the yarrow is a great astringent. Plantain leaves work well on insect bites and help to take down swelling. I thought the combination would be great for treating minor scrapes and cuts. As a note, it is difficult to determine how much of the medicinal components of the plant materials is actually derived in the oil, so caution is advised when using any herbal preparation.

I encourage you to put a little wildcrafting into practice. Not only is it wonderful to spend an afternoon foraging in the bush, but learning about the plants and trees that have grown around us for thousands of years is intriguing.

Usnea lichen, yarrow, plantain, and spruce pitch

 

The Abhorrent Slug Returns

Last fall, I discovered several of my young Hostas had Small holes in the leaves. It quickly became apparent it was due to slugs when the characteristic slime trails led to my darling Hostas. I knew then my battle with the slug was only beginning. I hate it when I am right about these things.

From experience, I know slugs don’t travel far in their lifetime. We have lived in our current location for ten years and I’ve noticed slugs around our little town, but not in our yard. They are fairly common pests. This is the first year they have visited our yard. It was inevitable the slimy little fiends would find our yard and sample the tasty little treats I so lovingly planted. I accepted my fate and went to battle this year.

Knowing they eat just about every green plant out there is not comforting. I did discover they don’t really care for herbs; probably the strong smell and taste. However, a gardener can’t live on herbs alone. This year my petunias and marigolds were reduced to leafless stems. Only plants in pots and those with thick, hardened leaves seemed to survive the slug onslaught.

The Internet is full of some of the most interesting ways to rid your yard of slugs. From leaving shallow pans of beer and milk with the purpose of drowning the beasties to leaving cornmeal which once ingested will swell and explode their tiny bellies; the Internet has it all. Years ago I collected them and promptly put them in a bucket with salt. Not the nicest way to exit this life so I decided they must have a quick death. My method of choice this year has been to squish them. Not a task I prefer, but it is quick. I really don’t want them to suffer from poison or methods, such as salt. You can try crushed egg shells or diatomaceous earth which they say slugs hate to cross as both elements are sharp. However, I have tried both and slugs truly don’t care nor seem deterred by them. Leaving out slug poison is not an option for me as I have cats and I worry they may ingest the poison. My method has reduced their population, but I am aware each slug can mate and lay up to 30 eggs. ( they each have male and female genitalia). I have killed at least 100 slugs so far and many of them have most likely laid eggs. So I await the next generation. The evening is a good time to find slugs as it is cooler and slugs are nocturnal.

As a means of prevention, I would suggest if you can find ways to clean up debris, rocks, or sticks in moist areas of your garden, it will help reduce their population. They really love moist areas in gardens. As well, slugs like to hide in dark areas during the day. Turn the earth frequently in theses areas as it may help destroy eggs or slugs who slumber away their days under clumps of soil.

If you do end up with an infestation, don’t panic. The key is diligent, daily control. Whatever method you choose, just do it regularly. Please share any methods you have tried and found success with.

 

Flower Pot Ideas

Every year, I like to try new things when designing my flower pots. I have a few favourite designs and have continued to use them year after year, but creating new “looks” is exciting as it is something fresh and how plants grow is not always predictable producing some surprising results.

Planning for my garden starts in the cold months of January, February and March. The search through magazines and online for new plants and trends is an activity I easily get lost in during those cold months. Truthfully, gazing at plants and creating how my pots will look is a remarkable stress reliever! There are a few things I start with when planning my pots. First I consider the colours I want. The last few years included hot pinks, yellows, whites, and purples, but this year I decided to change it up a bit. I usually try to keep the colours consistent in the back and front yards, but then I asked myself, “Why?”  This year I chose red, white, purple and yellow for the front and then pinks, yellows, lime green and purples for the back yard.

After deciding colours, I search for trends in plants. As stated above gardening magazines, the internet (Pinterest is full of container ideas) and gardening books are great places to get your ideas for planters. Taking note of planters I see in the city during the summer is another way to find the types of plants that will grow successfully in our area and to see which plant combinations work well together. I keep notes on  what I see and what is pleasing to the eye. While the common dracaena spike is lovely and will continue to be a cost effective addition that provides height in a planter, there are so many other choices. What has caught my attention are the purple hues of other dracaena varieties and assorted grasses in planters around the city. Against colours, such as red, pinks, and yellows these plants stand out. They offer height, but their multiple blades grow between leaves and flowers adding depth and interest. This year I selected two varieties. Because of their cost, I will bring them in to over winter. I am hoping they will be able to be divided as I would love to use them in other planter combinations next year. Another trend I observed is the use of lime green potato vine. That vibrant green really stands out against darker purples and hot pinks. I had to try some this year. However, I found they are quite sensitive to cold and wet weather. After a sneaky, late frost I ended up purchasing nine more. Lesson learned is all I can say.

It is also important to consider the type of foliage each plant will add to the container. I add Bidens, which has small and almost fern-like foliage, to pots with wide-leafed Geraniums. Contrasting foliage and choosing different colours of foliage adds interest to your pots.

In order to ensure successful plant growth, I also research the growth requirements for each plant to ensure they are compatible. I need to determine whether the plants require direct sunlight exposure or whether they can tolerate some shade. As well, when grouping the plants, you need to consider if they prefer plenty of water or if they can dry out between watering. In addition to growth requirements, it is critical to know how tall each plant will grow and the room they will need to spread. Having said this, I generally over plant or stuff my baskets and pots. They usually fill out faster and look full and lush from the beginning of spring to fall. Keep in mind the more plants in a container means the more fertilizer and water they will need.

Finally, my choice of plants is really dependent upon whether I like what I see. If  I am not absolutely drawn to the colour, foliage shape or growth of a plant I won’t buy it. Planting containers is a highly personal choice and when you look at your planters or baskets you should feel overwhelmed with the beauty you have created and fostered.

I have added some photos of my planters under Pages. If you have any to share, please add them in comments and I will happily post yours.

It Worked!

Well, it worked! Last fall I wrote a post about yard clean up and mentioned how overwintering my pond plants was an issue. My pond is far too shallow and freezes over completely. I usually drain it as much as possibly to help preserve the liner.

Pond plants are not inexpensive. In fact they are usually $10+. So replacing them each year is costly. As well, when you purchase new plants each year, they usually are small and haven’t the benefit of a year or two of growth. My basement is not cool enough to store bulbs, nor do I want to deal with the humidity or possible insect issues that come with overwintering pond plants.  My idea was to dig a trench in a garden bed and sink a few pond plants into the trench. I buried them and added a layer of bark mulch on top. Once the ground was thawed, I started digging in. I have to be honest, I did not hold much hope that anything would survive, but you can’t imagine my excitement when I uncovered a green leaf; a very healthy green leaf. It was the Red Leaf Dock growing away under the soil.

I can’t report the cat tail or lily made it, but the dock did. It has given me hope that I don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars each year just stocking my pond with plants. However, the plant may have survived due to a very mild winter, but I fully intend to try my experiment again this Fall to see what else can survive.

A Day at the Greenhouse

What better way to spend a warm Spring afternoon than to spend it at a greenhouse with friends. I was invited by my teacher friend, Debbie, to join a group of fellow teachers making succulent terrariums. We travelled to a beautiful greenhouse just west of Wildwood, Alberta called Deb’s Greenhouse. The owner, Deb was so welcoming and what an extraordinary greenhouse she has. Such strong, healthy plants and so well organized. Having worked in a greenhouse before, I know what kind of hours and work that goes into this business.

We were given a selection of pots and containers to choose from and shown the succulent plant choices. Several items for a fairy garden were on hand, too. With full intention of making my own succulent fairy garden, we were offered the opportunity to make herb pots, too. Well, the lure of herbs was too much for me and I was drawn to the back of the greenhouse where the fragrant green beauties awaited me. It didn’t take me long to pick six herbs for my two pots. I was even surprised to find Cuban Oregano which I quickly snatched up. I plan to write a piece on this little, fragrant friend at a later date (okay, that later date will most likely be in the summer when I no longer have report cards knocking at my door).

As well, I have included photos below of some of the amazing succulent fairy and non-fairy terrariums made by the ladies I travelled with. The feature image above shows the succulent terrarium Debbie made. All of these ladies are so creative. Please check it out and let these creative endeavours of a warm Spring afternoon inspire you to make your own succulent garden.

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Heather’s creation for her bathroom. Colours well chosen.
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Laurie brought fairy garden pieces gifted to her to make her own garden. She planned this so well in such a short time.
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Twyla’s impressive pots. So impressive!

Thymus Vulgaris

Thyme has been a constant garden companion of mine for many years. A member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, thyme is a sun worshipper. Always place it in full sunlight if you want your plant to thrive. Thyme is easy to grow. It likes sandy soils with good drainage. I have had excellent results growing it in clay pots as the pots don’t hold water and tend to dry out quicker. Ensure roots aren’t left in ground that doesn’t dry. Your thyme won’t thrive in soggy soils. However, ensure your pots are large enough to accommodate growth as this little plant likes to spread.

Thyme can be started from seeds or cuttings. I have started from seeds and they germinate quickly. Be careful the seedlings aren’t too wet as they will suffer from damp off, a fungal disease where the seedling suddenly topples over. At this point, it is too late and it will most likely die. If you have started thyme or any other seedlings using grow lights indoors, it is best to have a fan in the room that operates at least 8 hours per day. This will help prevent any fungal growth. Starting from cuttings can begin indoors in the spring if you have kept a plant overwinter. Simply cut a few stems(not to the base of the plant), dip them in rooting powder, and place in damp soil. Roots will begin growing along the parts of the stem covered with soil. Repot the thyme cuttings into smaller individual pots once roots have substantial growth.

I used to grow thyme in my garden when living up in northern Alberta. I have tried it here in our community near Edmonton, Alberta (further south than where I used to live) without any luck. While my oregano thrives here, the thyme I try to overwinter does not. This year, I covered it with dried grass and filled a clay pot with the grass and covered the plant. It was covered with snow as well and was not located in a windy spot. However, I suspect I created a lovely home for mice to sleep away their winter in. Nonetheless, I will wait patiently until the ground has thawed and spring frosts have retreated from rays of the sun. And then, and only then, I will lift that clay pot and see if my thyme has endured the winter.

Common thyme or Thymus Vulgaris is a garden staple each year, but I usually buy one or two other varieties as I just can’t help myself. Too often, I find myself attracted to variegated varieties or others, such as lemon thyme whose smell I can’t resist. There are truly hundreds of varieties to choose from.

Thyme has many uses. I often throw fresh or dried thyme into soups or stews. Tiny leaves added to fish and salads offer bits of flavour. For years, thyme has stocked many medicinal shelves. Two parts of the essential oil, thymol and carvacrol, contribute to the flavour of the herb (The Uncommon Thyme: Thymus Vulgaris Rexford Talbert. By Rexford Talbert April/May1997,http://www.motherearthliving.com/plant-profile/the-uncommon-thyme.asps). They also are part of the healing properties of thyme. In one study thyme was found to inhibit bacterial growth, especially thyme in flower. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10492476). For myself, I find picking a few stems and rubbing on my arms or bare legs help keep away mosquitos.

Whatever herbs you decide to include in your garden, I hope one of them is thyme.

Where Oh Where Have I Been?

Well, you know what they say about good intentions…

I had every good intention of keeping up with my blog by writing at least once a month. I kept the writing flowing in September and October, but then report cards and Christmas hit. Not a good time to let those creative writing juices flow for a teacher.

Well, enough excuses. I do intend to add more articles on growing and using herbs and to write about my plans to begin wildcrafting  this summer. I have been growing and using herbs for many years, but using plants and materials from the bush is new for me. This is something I have been investigating the last couple of months in between Term One report cards, Christmas and Term Two report cards. Hey! The report cards are done and I am one happy lady. So now I can write about plants I love.

Please come back as those articles will be posted soon!

 

 

Slugs!!!!!

In my post on Hostas, I mentioned hostas could be bothered by slugs and I would write a post later on how I have battled slugs. I think I also mentioned I had never had problems with slugs eating my hostas. No sooner had I wrote that and I discovered slimy little trails in my hosta bed, which quickly explained why one of my younger hostas looked like swiss cheese. So I went out early one morning and voila! Slugs.

These are not creatures I love. While they do have a purpose, eating my hostas is not one of them. I take it as a personal offence when they sneak out at night, eat my plants and then find hiding spots. A little sneaky for me.

Years ago, I planted my very first vegetable garden in Fox Creek, Alberta. I was warned not to plant peas as they would only be eaten by slugs. I refused to believe such a small pest could wreak havoc in my garden. Wrong! They were everywhere and I quickly consulted my mom who recommended diatomaceous earth. I purchased some and spread it around the perimeter of the garden. I believe this helped to keep more slugs from coming in, but it didn’t control those already happily filling their bellies with my peas. A book I read suggested beer and this had some effect, but not enough. So my mom suggested I try salt. Well, I got up early every morning for 2 weeks to search under boards I had laid out on purpose the night before. I used tweezers to pick the slugs and put them in a bucket of salt. Not a nice death for them, but I was desperate. This worked! As I read further about them, I found slugs don’t really move far during their lifetime. So by reducing the population, they didn’t reproduce and the diatomaceous earth kept those wanting to stray into my garden at bay.

I disposed of the slugs I could find in my garden this fall and will now await spring when they will undoubtedly be in abundance. Once again I will battle the persistent slug and will most likely have plenty to update you with! Please share any ideas or practices you have to battle the slimy slug!

 

 

Fall Clean Up: The Dirty Deed

Ahhh…Fall. How I love to hate you. This is such a confusing time for gardeners. Or maybe it’s just me. At one moment the Fall colours overwhelm me and are spectacular against a crisp, blue sky and then utter desolation fills me as the knowledge I am saying goodbye to some of the plants I have watched grow throughout the season. This sounds a bit dramatic, however, the habit of checking plants daily and taking in their beauty is one that is hard to break. While I love the colours, sights and smells of Fall, the impending departure of plants can be so very difficult.

Now I am not sure if you caught that in the last paragraph, but I did say “some plants.” I do have many perennials that I simply say, “‘See you later,” and wait for them to go dormant knowing they will be there in the Spring to greet me again. It isn’t as hard to say goodbye to them. Sadly, in our climate the annuals are only around until I absolutely have to pull them. So begins the nastiest job I can think of: Fall clean up.

With me I hope and pray we will get a killing frost and I will then look out the window on a dreary day to see blacken, wilted leaves. YES! I can pull them without too much guilt. This year, I wasn’t so lucky. Apparently the petunias and even the Canna Lilies survived the first frost making my job of pulling them even harder. I usually begin with my pots and every year I curse myself for having 32 pots. Why do I need 32 pots??? A question I will leave to another day for sure. I had every intention of pulling the Canna Lilies, cleaning and drying the tubers and storing them in my basement along with the water plants. However, I have discovered my basement is far too warm and I would likely end up with mushy, rotted tubers. So I decided I needed to try a shorter variety of Canna Lily next year and added the entire plants to my compost. The pond plants were harder as they cost so much and it seems like such a waste. Not only is our basement not cool enough, creating a pond to store the pond plants was not an option. I do not want the humidity issues this could create and nor do we have a lot of space. So I have tried an experiment and likely it will not work, but the plants would have been thrown out otherwise. I dug a trench in one of my flowerbeds and after cutting the tops of the pond plants, I sank each pot into the trench. After covering them with soil, I added a shredded bark mulch on top. I will await Spring and update then on their survival.

The pond is quite shallow so must be emptied, which my wonderful husband does so kindly every year. I don’t bother cleaning it all out and scrubbing it down in the Fall as the winter will only bring more debris. It is much easier to clean in Spring and set up the pump then. Why do a job twice? All the pumps were pulled, drained and scrubbed down. I keep those in a dry spot throughout the winter.

After a few frosts I finally and grudgingly pulled my petunias and snapdragons in the front bed. This bed is about 30 feet long and approximately 2 feet wide. Yes, I know I should be using metric, but I consider myself to be part of that generation where the metric system was brought into Canada during our formative elementary years and hence many of us can “speak” two measurements. I digress…….After pulling the annuals, I had my husband mow over the plants and then empty the mulched leaves and flowers back onto the bed. Why waste the nutrients? Since I don’t use pesticides of any sort, I feel quite comfortable adding this rich source of plant matter to my flowerbed. Being the soil was a bit wet, I decided to leave it until Spring. A decision I will most likely regret when the rush of Spring planting begins.

Now to my beloved hydrangea! Last year due to an injury, I was unable to cover a beautiful hydrangea shrub and lost most of it to winter kill. I was determined not to have the same thing happen this year after replacing the lost bush. I have built a stake frame around the hydrangea and wrapped burlap around the stakes creating a screen around it. I wasn’t finished and decided adding shredded bark mulch inside the little screen and thus covering the hydrangea would add further protection. I intend to cover it with snow as soon as there is enough. So the yard is cleaned up, trees watered in one last time and the hose drained. It ends.

I love the way Fall creeps up on us and exits with a final wave of colour and delightful scents. And at the same time I dread saying farewell to some of the plants that I have nurtured and visited on lazy summer days. I take many photos of my flowers, not as a means to show off my growing prowess, but as memories I visit on those deeply cold days of January and February. The flowers in those photos stir summer memories and encourage me to plan for next year’s beauties that will once again fill my soul with awe.

Hydrangea cage in progress
Hydrangea cage in progress
Mulched snapdragons and petunias
Mulched snapdragons and petunias

 

Electuaries….What are they???

This summer I had the opportunity to take a wild crafting workshop at the Devonian Botanical Gardens just outside of Edmonton, Alberta. If you haven’t visited the gardens, please do. They are an incredible resource for those in love with gardening and for those who are just beginning their gardening journey. You can easily spend the day there or, like me, take a workshop or one of the many courses they have to offer. So much to do!

The wild crafting workshop was to be five hours long, but could have easily been so much longer. Our instructor was very knowledgable and had so much to share. One of the little gems I came away with, was making electuaries. Simply, electuaries are herbs or plants mixed with honey. To make an electuary, you need to use “real” honey as I call it. No, seriously, you need unpasteurized honey as it contains nutrients and the “good” bacteria that fight bacterial, viral and fungal infections. For years, raw honey has been used on wounds and to fight illness and has shown great healing properties. When I feel a sore throat coming on, I take my raw honey by teaspoon and have found my sore throat does not last as long. Pasteurizing heats up the honey and kills the good and bad bacteria. Sometimes, if not rarely, raw honey can grow the botulism bacteria (nasty stuff that will make you very ill). This is why it isn’t recommended to feed babies raw honey. For most adults, this is not an issue. The benefits for me of raw, unpasteurized honey outweigh the risk of coming into contact with the botulism bacteria. I have consumed raw honey for many years and keep the practice of storing my honey in the fridge. Although I have read many articles suggesting refrigeration is not necessary.

If you can get organic, unpasteurized honey, good. However, I am still on the fence about organic honey. Really, how do they track where the bees go to get nectar? What are those bees really up to? I do know organic bee keepers, do not use pesticides around or within their hives. This is good! So organic may be more about good housekeeping practices with hives. Enough about the honey- just use unpasteurized honey if you can.

So how do electuaries help us and why the heck would I want to make one? Well, the recipe we were given helps to build a strong immune system. With the benefits derived from the plants working with the antibacterial and antiviral properties of honey, the electuary is meant to help fight illness in the early stages. I have always preached about the benefits of using herbs as medicinal agents, however, the little skeptic that resides inside of me cries out for PROOF! So I need to see it to believe it. But, hey, why not try it? What can it hurt?

With the electuary recipe I was given, you add minced garlic, ginger, fresh thyme leaves (believe me you need a lot of thyme leaves), and you can also add rose hips which are high in vitamin C. I did not have rose hips and I understand the seeds are somewhat hard to digest, so I opted out of adding them to my electuary. I could give you exact amounts, but truthfully I just added according to my taste. I did use organic garlic and ginger and the thyme came from my garden (I DO NOT use pesticides on my plants- not necessary). I also think if you are making a product to promote a healthy immune system, you really need to use organic products as much as possible. Why give the body another chemical to process that it does not recognize and which could possibly harm the cells in your body?  Seems rather contrary to what the electuary is intended to do.

Making the electuary is really quite simple. Mince the garlic and ginger and then strip the leaves off the thyme- Ta-Daa!  This preparation is what seemed to take the longest. Heat the honey just so it becomes liquid on a very low heat. You don’t want to kill those good bacteria smiling back at you in the cooking pot. Add the garlic, ginger and thyme to the honey, stir and then pour into clean jam jars. You can even sterilize the jam jars by boiling in water and removing them using tongs (kitchen utensil). Not only do you not want to burn yourself when removing the hot jars from the boiling water, touching the jars will undo your efforts to prevent contamination of the jars. I didn’t bother with it and feel confident all is well with my electuary. See my photo below for the materials I used.

The directions for using the electuary is to let it sit for a month prior to using and then take one teaspoon daily just before cold and flu season starts up. So I have started this regime and will report in the spring on my impressions of how the electuary worked. As I said I need proof it works and hopefully I will maintain good health throughout the year. Hope you are able to try it!

Simple ingredients: garlic, ginger, and thyme
Simple ingredients: garlic, ginger, and thyme
The final product.
The final product.

Note: You can strain the garlic, ginger or thyme out of the honey, but I prefer to leave it in.