gather and grow

Homestead skill-building and simple living

Over the summer, I fulfilled a long-time dream of mine: I completed the Soil Food Web course (affiliate link) with Dr. Elaine Ingham, a soil microbiologist and a leading authority on regenerative agriculture. She had been on my radar ever since I first heard about her during my Permaculture Design Course in 2011. I thought that taking her Soil Food Web intensive course would not be possible for me for a while, given that a) it would likely involve traveling to someplace far away and that b) I have a small baby. But then I found out that her Soil Food Web course was being offered ONLINE. I was able to access Elaine’s incredible knowledge of soil from the comfort of my home, with the baby sleeping in the next room while I watched the lecture videos and participated in the webinars.

I took this course because I really wanted to deepen my understanding of soil. As a gardener, as a permaculturist, I know that the soil is everything. If your soil is not healthy… well, good luck trying to grow healthy, abundant plants in it. And so far, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t been systematic or fully informed in my efforts to build soil fertility: it’s been a bit improvised and hit or miss. The same goes for my compost piles, some of which turn out better than others. Even though I’ve had successes in my garden, I can’t say it’s because I really knew what was going on underneath the soil surface.

The second reason goes beyond just my garden. I’ve come to realize what an enormous role soil — a vast carbon sink, actually — can play globally in mitigating climate change. Soil carbon sequestration is presenting itself as a promising avenue for sequestering atmospheric carbon for long, long periods of time — something we all know must happen soon. I wanted to understand this better as well. So even though the Soil Food Web course was a commitment in terms of time and money, I viewed it as a long-term investment that will hopefully bear fruit, quite literally, in my future work.soil-2

The Soil Food Web course is a self-paced, 10-week online course divided into six units. Each unit ended with a live Q&A webinar with Elaine. She is a hard-nosed scientist, but able to present the information in an accessible way that makes it relevant to a wide audience: backyard gardeners, permaculturists, cattle ranchers and farmers, non-profit workers, students, climate activists. In the course of the 10 weeks, we dug deep into the matter of life in the soil and how to balance the soil biology and get all the right critters that help our plants grow better. We learned

  • how to identify species and make sense of soil lab analyses
  • how to create good habitat for diverse critters
  • how to balance the (all-important, if you ask Elaine) bacteria-fungi ratio
  • how to deal with compacted soil
  • how to make three kinds of compost and compost teas
  • and more

Whew! it was an information-packed experience. Now I’m looking forward to un-packing what I’ve learned, and putting it into practice. Good thing I have lifetime access to all of the lecture videos!

In my next post, I’m going to share some of what I learned that should also be useful to any of you interested in building soil in your backyards. Or wherever, actually.

If anyone is reading this and wishing you had been able to take the course too, the good news is that it is being offered again! The next course starts on September 15th. Click on the banner below for more information. Even if you’re not sure that you want to take the course, you can access great free resources such as some of Elaine’s introductory videos. This stuff is important. Check it out.


SFW banner

I have an announcement I’m really psyched about: I’m going to be teaching homesteading classes in my home city of Columbia, SC this fall! I decided to make it happen and now it is happening.

As of now, I have four classes coming up:

  • Canning & Preserving — Sunday, 14 Sept, 6-9pmhomesteading classes
  • Home Dairy 101 – Monday, 6 Oct, 6-9pm
  • Ferment! – Monday, 27 Oct, 6-8pm
  • Introduction to Natural Dyeing – Sunday, November 16, 2-5pm

For full class descriptions and to sign up, click the new Classes tab on the menu bar.

The classes will take place in a home setting, much like the traditional setting for learning these skills would have been — a group of people talking and working together around a big kitchen table. That’s the format I myself really appreciated when I was learning canning and cheese-making with Ruby Blume at the Institute of Urban Homesteading in California.

I don’t know which of these classes I’m looking forward to the most. Those of you who are regular readers of Gather and Grow know how irresistibly fun, how profoundly transformative I’ve found the process of learning to make more and more of what I need myself. Homesteading to me means, to paraphrase Shannon Hayes,

making the home a place of production rather than merely consumption.

And that is really really exciting to me. And the best part is that anyone can learn these skills. It’s an exhilarating thought, isn’t it — that YOU can be a confident home canner, a cheesemeister, a sauerkraut connoisseur, a maker of artisan textiles. There’s so much room for creativity and exploration: that first jar of jam, that first ball of curds, is just the beginning.

My search for the perfect yogurt incubator is over.

wonderbag1Meet Wonderbag, a portable slow cooker. It made its puffy, boldly colorful appearance at our house after I saw it in action at a friend’s place. I love it. The Wonderbag is a heat-retention cooker: you can bring any slow-cook recipe to a boil on a stove, then pop it inside the bag where it continues to cook because of the bag’s foam insulation. No plugs or gas involved — in other words, less fossil fuel use per every meal! And because of the same insulating capacity, the bag can be used for any project that requires maintaining a steady temperature, such as yogurt, which needs to be kept at about 110 F for a few hours. I don’t have a gas oven with a pilot light I could use, so in the past, I’ve used a plastic camping cooler filled with hot water. But that’s a little bit of a hassle and splashing around in the kitchen, and heating the water for it and monitoring the temperature is yet another thing to think about while and after making the yogurt itself. But now, with the Wonderbag, I made my yogurt batch, stuck the jars inside the bag, and ta-da — a few hours later the yogurt was done.wonderbag2

Plus, the Wonderbag company is cool in more ways than one (and no, I don’t have any kind of an affiliation with them, I just think they are a pretty fantastic enterprise). For every Wonderbag purchased in the US, one is donated to a family in Africa. If saving water, fuel, and time is energy-efficient and time-efficient in my kitchen in the affluent US, you can imagine that it can be utterly life-changing in many a kitchen in Africa. Less firewood used means less deforestation and less time spent (usually by women and girls) walking long distances to haul firewood. That, in turn, means better chances for those girls to get an education instead, and less risk of assault or rape while foraging for wood. Lastly, the Wonderbag helps to reduce health risks related to coal ovens, smoke and fire. How’s that for a social, economic and ecological impact of a single product? No wonder that Wonderbag founder Sarah Collins was named a Top 10 finalist for “Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs” by Fortune Magazine.

I can’t wait to try the Wonderbag for other things — oatmeal, stews, vegetable stocks etc. If you end up getting one, let me know how you’re using it!

When I harvested elderberries back in July to make elderberry syrup,  I thought it would stay stored in the kitchen cabinet until the winter cold and flu season… Ha! Sure enough, just a couple of weeks later, all three of us were down with a fairly convincing cold that didn’t seem to waste time asking what season it was. So classic. So out comes that bottle of elderberry syrup. Am I glad that I spent that evening on the riverbank climbing trees and fighting with the birds over the juiciest, ripest berries!elderberry-2

Elderberry syrup is a potent natural remedy for sore throats and other cold and flu symptoms. The berries of the elder tree (Sambucus) have anti-viral, immune-boosting properties and are high in vitamins A, B, and C. The syrup is really easy to make and it’s one of the best-tasting herbal syrups out there. I followed, once again, Rosemary Gladstar’s recipe in Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, using fresh berries. But dried elderberries work as well. Simmered in water with ginger and cloves and steeped in honey, they turn into a luxuriously deep-red and sweet-tasting remedy. You can either take this syrup preventatively to ward off the cold or, if the sniffles and the cough already got you, to speed recovery.elderberry

Here are a few different recipes for elderberry syrup if you don’t have Rosemary’s book:

(Just to be clear, since I mentioned all three of us being sick: this syrup cannot be given to an infant under 1 year of age because it has honey in it. I’m hoping my baby gets some of the healing properties through breast milk… Or, in the very least, gets some of the benefit because her mama, who IS taking the syrup, is feeling a little less sick and therefore a little more energetic. Yes?)

For a few years now, I’ve been either harvesting dye plants from the wild, or ordering them online. But this year was the inaugural year of my own dye garden. I dedicated one raised bed to plants that yield blue color: woad and Japanese indigo. The woad, sadly, got overtaken by the neighboring, overenthusiastic ground cherries during the weeks when I was out of town… but the Japanese indigo grew very well, and I ended up with a good harvest of its leaves. I spent a late summer afternoon extracting the dye, holding my breath till I got to the last step of the process: would it work?

It totally did.


I must say that growing the dye yourself takes the incredible satisfaction of giving fibers magical new colors to a whole new level. To be able to look at that sweet blue color and say, “I grew that!” …

Dyeing with Japanese indigo (and woad, for which the process is quite similar) is also a relatively sustainable choice. The fibers don’t need to be mordanted, which means no potentially hazardous metals in waste water. Secondly, neither the plant material nor the fibers need to be boiled at high temperatures, so the process requires less fuel/energy than most other kinds of dyeing.

Japanese indigo seeds can be hard to find. I got mine here.japaneseindigo-8japaneseindigo-2japaneseindigo-3japaneseindigo-4japaneseindigo-6japaneseindigo-7

Here are the steps, in brief (I followed the recipes in Harvesting Color and The Dyer’s Garden):

1. Harvest Japanese indigo at the height of summer, when a leaf turns blue if bruised. Remove leaves and put them into large jars or other heatproof container with a lid. Cover the leaves with warm water and place inside of a larger pot, also filled with water, so that the water in the pot partially covers the jar. Heat water to 160-170 F and keep it at that temperature for 2-3 hours. Do not overheat!

2. Strain the dye liquid into a bowl and squeeze liquid out of the leaves as well. Discard the leaves. Pre-wet your fibers in the warm water that’s already in your pot.

3. Add baking soda (a tablespoon per a pound of Japanese indigo).

4. Pour dye liquid from one bowl to another to oxidize it for about 8-10 minutes. Then add a tablespoon of Spectralite and wait until the liquid turns yellowish green.

5. Carefully submerge your fibers for 10 minutes or longer.

6. Carefully remove the fibers and marvel as they turn from yellow-green to blue when they come into contact with air.




During this summer’s stay at the Finnish capital and my former home city, I decided to chart the terrain of organic and local food in Helsinki. I wanted to see how much the scene had evolved since the time when I lived there in 2004, when luomu (“organic food”) and lähiruoka (“local food”) were still fairly marginal concepts. Of course, the farmer’s markets were there — but they had always been, without making a thing out of the “local” in what they sold.

Ten years later, the visibility of organic and local — and what it signals, namely the interest in where one’s food comes from and how it is produced — is of a different order entirely (although still lagging behind some other European cities). New classy restaurants, cute neighborhood stores and artisanal ice cream shops that are popping up here and there increasingly highlight the ethics and values that guide their selection of products and ingredients. Particularly if you live in Helsinki  — or, if passing through, find other ways to access a kitchen such as booking a place to stay through Airbnb like we did — it’s pretty easy to eat a mostly organic and partially local diet; see the links here and here. But the following might be useful for a short-term visitor as well.


Restaurants and cafés


organichelsinki-2Silvoplee, with its bright green and orange decor, is my favorite among Helsinki’s vegetarian restaurants. The food is about 55% raw and 65% organic, and made with seasonal and local ingredients whenever possible. I’m not exactly a raw food fanatic, but Silvoplee’s plate is so flavorful and satisfying that it could feasibly turn me into one. The restaurant works on a buffet concept where you pay by weight, so you can get a plate for 10 euros or less — although chances are you’ll end up piling up more because everything looks so tasty! My favorites were the cashew pate and the buckwheat porridge with date sauce for dessert. Adjacent to the restaurant is a smoothie bar serving smoothies, green juices, and raw chocolate treats.

Toinen linja 7 (in Hakaniemi/Kallio)



Traditional Finnish food with a twist, drawing on organic and local ingredients when possible and favoring small farmers. Juuri means “root,” which signals both the restaurant’s rootedness in the soil and traditions of the region, and its use of many root vegetables – the traditional Finnish staple. Juuri’s specialties are sapas, or Finnish tapas — bite-sized dishes that allow you to sample various different chapters of Finnish culinary history in a single meal. The sapas menu includes things like trout sausage with roe and horseradish, egg cheese with lemon, thyme and birch sap, and cabbage pie with kohlrabi.

Korkeavuorenkatu 27



Innovative Finnish food made primarily with ingredients from Finnish producers. Pricier than the other two, so save this one for a special dinner — or skip it entirely if you’re traveling on a budget.

Vironkatu 8


Image source:

Image source:

Johan & Nyström

This is the Helsinki branch of the Swedish cafe & coffee roasters serving fair trade and “direct trade” coffee, working directly with specific coffee farmers. The coffee is roasted slowly by hand. They’re pretty serious about their tea as well, and the lovely location of the cafe by the water in the Katajanokka area makes the experience of sipping your chosen beverage all the more pleasant.

Kanavaranta 7 C





Ekolo sells organic and vegetarian foods, superfoods, non-toxic cosmetics and cleaning products and baby care products both online and at their store in Hakaniemi.

Porthaninkatu 1



Eat & Joy Maatilatori

The attractive store at Mannerheimintie has closed, but Eat & Joy still has two branches in the suburb of Kannelmäki and in the neighboring city of Vantaa. Check the website for details.


Anton & Anton

A different kind of a neighborhood grocery store, with three locations in downtown Helsinki. Anton & Anton’s goal has been to offer an alternative to soul-less supermarkets, bringing local and seasonal food, good customer service, and a sense of community back into the city. In their own words, Anton & Anton “sells fresh seasonal food whose origin we know. Food that we can keep on our shelves and offer onto your table with a good conscience and for a good reason. We value and support the important work of farm producers and believe that the production chain of food should be transparent.”

Kapteeninkatu 26; Mariankatu 18; Museokatu 19


Outdoor farmers’ markets

 The two biggest farmers’ markets are Kauppatori by the harbor and Hakaniementori in Hakaniemi (both open Monday through Saturday). This is where the farmers from the surrounding countryside were selling their produce long before local food was hip. You’ll also find artisans selling their wares, from basketry and leather work to yarns and souvenirs. Of the two, Kauppatori is more touristy.


Hakaniemi Indoor farmers’ market

Check out especially Satumarja, a store selling a wide variety of fresh organic food products, and Lentävä lehmä, a cheese store specializing in cheeses from small Finnish cheese producers.

Hakaniemi tram/metro stop


And for a sweet Fi(n)nish:

3 Kaverin Jäätelö Ice Cream

3 Kaveria (Three Buddies) make their ice cream based on traditional Italian recipes, but using Finnish cream and berries from Finland’s forests. Widely available at supermarkets. Flavors include dark and light coffee, blackcurrant and orange, and my favorite, blueberry cardamom.

I’m returning to these pages after a sweet baby-rocking, diaper-changing, road-tripping, berry-picking, ice cream eating, swimming and sauna-going kind of a summer. In honor of this new beginning (of sorts), I’ve done some sprucing up and re-organizing here on the blog. I hope you like the new look!

During this brief blogging sabbatical, I gathered ideas and inspiration into my metaphorical basket that I look forward to sharing with you in the weeks and months to come. And many new plans and projects are underway here on our southeastern urban homestead, which you will no doubt hear about as well.

My commitment to living the homesteading life in the context of a rented urban home — for the time being at least — has been renewed. Partially it’s the workshop at Paradise Lot in July that showed me how much can be grown within the constraints of a small urban lot. And partially it’s witnessing some other very cool folks choosing to embrace the small rental home setting and making the most of it. Whereas many of us dream of getting out of the suburbs to the ideal farm somewhere in the countryside, Nick and Kirsten of Milkwood did the opposite: they moved from the amazing permaculture farm they’ve been developing in very rural Australia to a rental home near Sydney. But they had their reasons for it, and I’m excited to see what they go on to do with their new space. What do they have to say about establishing food gardens when the landlord may or may not be on board? “Asking forgiveness trumps asking permission. Every time.”  That’s the spirit, I say!

I agree with them: the homesteading life is about skills. While our stay at our current place may be transitory, Dan and I are building homesteading skills as if we had already arrived on the homestead of our dreams. More on that later.

And now, some of the highlights of this summer:

summer-6Harvest from the garden after a six-week absence! Thank you, drip irrigation system! Thank you, helpful neighbors!

summer-4Taking dips in cool lake waters in some of the places I love most.

summer-3A meal entirely from the land: chanterelles from the forest, potatoes and salad from the garden, berries from the forest and the garden, water from the spring. Instead of a 100-mile diet, it’s a quarter mile diet!

summer-2Every night is a sauna night at my family’s summer place.

generationsGenerations together.

When someone like myself who is

a) a permaculture nut
b) a berry lover
c) a big fan of Eric Toensmeier’s books (especially Perennial Vegetables, and Edible Forest Gardens co-authored with Dave Jacke)

finds out that there is going to be

a) a day-long permaculture garden design workshop
b) combined with a berry tasting (!!)
c) taught by Eric and his co-grower Jonathan Bates in Western Massachusetts the very same weekend I happen to be in the area visiting friends…

…well, clearly, I was meant to be there.

Some of you may have heard of the urban property in Holyoke, MA, known as Paradise Lot,” now documented in Eric and Jonathan’s book of the same name. The book’s subtitle more or less says it all: “Two plant geeks, one-tenth of an acre and the making of an edible garden oasis in the city.” Eric and Jonathan moved to the property in 2004 and, in ten years, have transformed a barren city lot with “terrible soil” (in their words) into a thriving urban backyard garden with over 40 species of fruit and 70 other perennial plants, a passive solar greenhouse, an aquaponics system, chickens and other micro-livestock, and a tropical garden (in Massachusetts!).

paradiselot-6At the workshop, Eric and Jonathan walked us slowly through every part of the garden and we discussed the garden design and the plants while sampling juicy berries and pawpaw fruit. Their knowledge of plants — and all other aspects of ecological design — is really phenomenal: they could rattle off, with their eyes closed, the English and Latin name of any plant on the property, as well as the plant’s family, habitat, needs and uses.

So, you may ask:

How is it possible to grow tropical plants like fig, citrus, avocado, guavas, and bananas in Massachusetts?

The answer is: by creating a number of different microclimates, simply by drawing on permaculture design principles of relative positioning in terms of sun/shade/wind.

Take a look at Paradise Lot’s greenhouse below. It’s entirely off-grid: there’s no heating system other than the power of the sun. But it’s built as a “tight house”: the north wall (on the right) is fully insulated with rigid foam board, while the south side (on the left) has three layers of plastic to let in the sun but keep out the cold. In addition, the aquaponics system in the greenhouse (blue barrels) has three black tanks of water with 800 gallons of water in them, creating thermal mass as the tanks get warm during the day. All this, plus the thoughtful positioning to maximize solar exposure, means that it never gets colder than 25 F in the greenhouse, even when the New England winters get down to -12 F outside. On a sunny day in January, it can get up to 85 F inside. So many hardy varieties of tropical plants do very well, even through the winter. paradiselotThe front yard is another spot where Eric and Jonathan have been able to create a near-subtropical (zone 7) microclimate, thanks to the south-facing aspect and the driveways which accumulate heat all day long. The plants here include taro, pomegranates, muscadine grape, sweet potato, and hardy banana.paradiselot-5Eric and Jonathan’s focus and passion is really perennial edible plants. But there are also some annual vegetable beds, as well as non-edible plants that fulfill other functions such as attracting pollinators or providing nutrients for the edibles. Below, Eric is standing next to a bed of cow pea greens (apparently a delicious and easy summer green) while pointing out the Korean pig plant, the hot spot for all the beneficial insects coming to the property.paradiselot-8I came back with a head full of ideas and inspiration — and a belly full of berries. In addition to familiar berries such as blueberries and several varieties of currants, the offerings included new (to many of us) discoveries such as goumis, gooseberries, juneberries, or black raspberries. It didn’t take us long to develop a taste for them, as the photo below reveals.paradiselot-3paradiselot-9P.S. Eric is almost finished with his new book, due to be released in February 2015. It’s about “carbon farming,” growing food with this kind of focus on perennials and no-till systems while also sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere in the process. That’s a win-win, in my opinion. Read the book preview here — this is one to look out for!

summerpasturesI am going to be taking a hiatus from regular posting for a few weeks. My husband, our newborn daughter and I are spending most of the summer on extended visits to our families, so I will be away from my home/homestead and therefore less likely to pursue the kinds of things I write about here. The other reason is that I want to be able to focus fully on this time with my loved ones – in particular, this little girl who is experiencing her first summer. It’s possible I might not even have much to write about unless I want to turn Gather & Grow into a mommy blog… Which is not my intention, but who knows what parenthood will do to me!

Once I get back into posting regularly, though, I hope you’ll find the next installment of Gather & Grow to be worth the wait!

In the meantime: may your summer pastures be green, your swimming waters cool and sweet, and your blackberry bushes not too thorny!

If this were a normal summer, I’d be using our doorstep herbal garden all summer long and take my sweet time in harvesting and processing the herbs. But this summer we are going to be away for several weeks visiting our families. So, I had an herbal extravaganza this past weekend, gathering as much of our herbs as I could and putting them to a good use… In fact, no fewer than five different uses! I want to share these projects to remind fellow urban gardeners who have limited space that even a modest container herb garden like ours can yield beverages, spices, food, medicine and cosmetics.herbs1. Tea

Nothing says summer like an herbal iced tea, especially here in the South where, on particularly sultry days, as the ceiling fans lazily move the hot air around (we don’t use AC), a mason jar of cool refreshing tea travels with me as I go about my day. As far as beverages go, this one is hard to beat, especially if you get to pick the ingredients fresh at your doorstep. Mint is the classic herb for this purpose, of course; I like to add in some lemon balm as well. This is the easiest of all herbal preparations: pick, rinse, boil water, steep herbs, strain, cool, add sweetener if desired.herbs-3herbs22. Dried herbs

Now is also the time for me to pick and dry herbs to be used in the winter months — for cooking, for tea, and for medicinal purposes. Although little bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling are aesthetically more pleasing, this time I used the dehydrator to dry a lot of herbs at once and quickly. In a matter of hours, a bouquet of sage, oregano, lemon balm, mint, basil and marjoram is ready to be packed into little jars for the coming year.herbs-4herbs-73. Pesto

Note to self: next year, plant still more basil! Five or ten times as much. Even a sizeable plant really does get reduced to a few spoonfuls when you make pesto! (They’re tasty spoonfuls, though.) The food processor is a wonderful, wonderful invention, but when I have the time, I prefer to grind the pesto by hand. That’s when you get to watch the slow transformation of fresh leaves into sauce, and smell the aromas — some of my favorite ones: garlic, pine nuts, basil, parmesan and olive oil — in the process.

herbs3herbs-64. Medicinal honey

Last winter, I made a thyme syrup to help with a persistent cough. This time, I used honey as a base, since it not only extracts the healing properties of thyme, but also has beneficial enzymes of its own. The recipe I used is in Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, and it simply involves gently warming honey to 100 F, adding fresh thyme leaves, and keeping the jar in a warm place for a couple of weeks after that.IMG_1891IMG_20095. Medicinal salve

Lastly, I made a calendula salve. Calendula is an all-purpose healing plant for various skin problems, such as cuts and rashes, and I will be using this salve to treat and prevent diaper rash in our little one. This recipe, too, comes from Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, and uses calendula flowers, olive oil, beeswax, and lavender essential oil. Come autumn, I intend to get more intensively into herbal medicine and will likely be writing about that here, so if that interests you, you’ll want to stop by.



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