gather and grow

Homestead skill-building and simple living

I’ve alluded to this in a previous post, but I’m beyond excited now to be able to reveal what a couple of local permaculturists and myself have been scheming lately:

We are organizing a full, 72-hour Permaculture Design Course in Columbia, South Carolina, in Spring 2015!

PDC Columbia posterThis is going to be the first-ever Permaculture Design Course in Columbia, and only the second one in the entire state. We’ve nailed down most of the logistics and are now moving forward with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

I am one of the three co-facilitators in this course, along with Nick Tittle of Surplus Permaculture who has taught PDCs for several years in Southeast Asia and the US, and Matt Kip who has been pioneering permaculture in the Midlands of South Carolina and has a deep understanding of its applicability to this specific bioregion. Together, we’re bringing in both global and local perspectives to this course. It will involve classroom instruction as well as hands-on projects, interactive group exercises, site visits to budding permaculture sites on urban backyard, farm, and community orchard scales — and of course, a final design project through which the participants will earn the internationally recognized Permaculture Design Certificate. The course meets every other weekend starting March 21, and our hope is that the weekend format will accommodate those who wouldn’t be able to do a residential course because of work or family commitments.

If you’ve spent any time reading through Gather and Grow posts, you probably know that my own permaculture course a few years ago changed forever the way I look at the world around me and at myself in it. It’s been a long-term, not-that-secret dream of mine to be able to pass that experience, and the invaluable design toolkit of permaculture, on to others. I take my dreams seriously… So one of them becoming a reality is something I want to pause for — and then shout out loud:

Come join us!! Check the website for details and registration!! Join us in helping to create an abundant future for all!

butter-6I must confess I haven’t read the book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter that inspired the title of today’s post. But it sprung to mind when I was walking home from the bakery with a still-warm bread in a paper bag warming me in the crisp November air, on my way home to make butter. I thought, when you live five minutes’ walk from a fabulous artisanal bakery, and have access to local cream — well, in my book, it’s just fine to buy the bread and make the butter.

One of the unexpected delights of teaching homesteading classes is seeing what it is that gets the class participants really excited. At my Home Dairy class, in spite of major contenders such as yogurt and lemon ricotta cheese, the big hit was making butter. I suppose it’s the fact that I had the class try the human-powered mason jar shaking method. The collective process of taking turns shaking a sloshing mason jar full of cream, stopping to see how solid it was getting, shaking it some more, passing it on to the next person until all of a sudden it turned into butter, brought childlike giddiness and excitement out in us. Several of the participants contacted me afterwards telling me they’d already tried making butter on their own several times. One of them invited me to teach spinning to kids at a local community center, and since only one person could try the spinning wheel at a time, to keep small hands busy he had them make butter.

And no wonder. For me, freshly whipped, just slightly salted homemade butter is like the proverbial heirloom tomato — once you’ve tasted it, the store-bought kind will never be good enough for you again. Even though I don’t make butter as regularly as, say, yogurt, the days when I do, a toasted slice of bread feels like the food of kings in our house.

If you’ve never made butter before, here’s how.


Let 1 pint of heavy cream come to room temperature. Pour into a food processor and begin to whip the cream until it separates into butter and buttermilk (this should take a few minutes). If you want to try the human-powered alternative method, pour the cream into a quart-size mason jar with a marble inside the jar, and shake vigorously until butter and buttermilk separate.

Once you’ve reached this stage following either method, drain off the buttermilk with the help of a strainer. Put the butter in a small bowl and start to run cold water over it until the water in the bowl is clear. At this point, you can add salt if you wish — about 1/4 teaspoon.

Now put the butter on a cutting board and begin pressing with either a spatula or your own clean hands. Press the remaining liquid out of it, turning it over and kneading it like a dough. When there’s no more liquid coming out, your butter is ready. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, or in a butter crock in room temperature. Enjoy!


Dyeing with plant colors has been a solitary craft for me until now. I taught myself through books and online tutorials, and then went on to learn more at the great school of trial and error during many, many sessions of stirring dye pots at home. Both the hard work and the thrills of new colors have been mine alone…

dyemarathon…until now. My friend Barbara and I got together for a weekend dyeing extravaganza at my place. Barbara is a skilled spinner, textile artist, angora rabbit owner and book maker, and has studied natural dyeing before at the John C. Campbell Folk School. She had a dye kit from Carol Leigh’s Hillcreek Fiber Studio she had ordered some time ago, and suggested that we get together to do all the dyes in the box — all seven of them: brazilwood, logwood, cutch, osage orange, madder root, cochineal, and indigo. You can guess that she didn’t need to twist my arm. Especially as three of those dyes — cutch, osage orange, and cochineal — were ones I had not tried before.

Saturday and Sunday were a mad circus of enormous simmering pots, billowing clouds of unspun fiber of different kinds, careful weighing and measuring, checking temperatures, pulling out colors — some expected and some unexpected — out of the vats, spinning and carding while waiting, splashing and rinsing and hanging to dry. We did the dyeing mostly outside in my backyard using hot plates, and using the laundry line and an old screen door to dry the finished yarns, unspun fibers, and silk cloth. I’m stunned by how much I still learn every single time I do dyeing work. The difference that all these variables make: time, temperature, modifying mineral salts, quality of fiber, even the water we use!

dyemarathon-2dyemarathon-3Of course, everything took longer than we had expected, especially since most fibers needed to be mordanted as well. So we didn’t get to cochineal and indigo yet, but you’ve got to leave something for later, right? In any case, I’m sure there are more fiber fests to come. Our new friend Caroline stopped by to check out what we were doing, and shared beautiful images from her shibori dyeing course in Japan that made me want to learn so much more about that unique technique.

This morning, I stepped outside to a perfect fall day in my backyard and to the radiant colors drying in the crisp air. This moment always makes it all worthwhile:


From left: brazilwood with chrome mordant, brazilwood with alum mordant, brazilwood-dyed silk (two different durations of dyeing), logwood with iron afterbath, madder root with chrome and alum mordants, osage orange with alum and chrome mordants.

We have home-grown shiitake mushrooms! They are amazing and delicious, and they just keep coming! And you can grow them indoors, even on the kitchen countertop where you can admire their rapid growth and pluck them straight into your cooking pot.

It couldn’t have been easier to grow them, either. I got a shiitake fruiting block from Mushroom Mountain, the source of good quality mushroom spawn and mushroom growing supplies here in South Carolina. The process is super simple: submerge the entire block in water for a few hours, put it on a plate and cover with a humidity tent, and keep misting it twice a day. Within a couple of days, eager brown knobs start to push out of the block, and in just one more day, you have your first generous harvest of full-fledged, fresh, velvety shiitake.

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We have been both cooking with the shiitake and drying them for later use. A good excuse to pull out all my best recipes with shiitake — and to discover, or invent, others. The first shiitake harvest inspired me to try to recreate the dish that knocked my socks off at the Laughing Seed Cafe in Asheville last weekend: a shiitake pot pie with a mashed potato “crust” — an autumn comfort food if I ever saw one. I’m usually not good at inventing recipes, but I declare this one a success, and include the recipe below. The flourless “crust” is made with mashed potatoes and turnips. The filling is adapted from a corn and mushroom ragout recipe in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.


Even as the first harvest is exhausted, the fun is not over. You can let the block rest for two weeks and then start the process all over again, for up to four times. So there will be more to come.

Some of my favorite resources for growing — and eating! — shiitake:

Shiitake pot pie with a flourless crustshiitake-5

Mashed potato “crust”:

  • 1 lb Yukon or Russet potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1 lb turnips or other root vegetable
  • 3 tbsp salted butter
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • salt and freshly ground pepper


  • 1/4 onion, sliced
  • 10 garlic cloves: 2 peeled, 8 unpeeled
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 large bell pepper, roasted
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes
  • 3 cups of corn kernels, fresh or frozen and thawed
  • 6 oz shiitake mushrooms
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 8 sage leaves, chopped
  • 1 tbsp parsley, chopped

Prepare the mashed potatoes: add potatoes into boiling water with 1 tsp of salt. Cook until tender, about 15-20 minutes. While they are boiling, melt butter in a small saucepan, add milk, and bring almost to boiling. Drain the potatoes and mash them together with the milk-butter mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Heat up 2 cups of water along with the sliced onion, the peeled garlic, shiitake stems, and 1/2 tsp salt, and simmer for 25 minutes. Heat a bit of oil on a skillet over medium heat, add the unpeeled garlic and cooked until the garlic skins are crispy and charred, and the insides soft. Peel and mash with a fork. Sear the tomatoes in the same pan, mush with the back of a wooden spoon. Add the tomatoes into the stock.

Heat oven to 375 F. Heat 1 1/2 tbsp oil in a wide skillet over high heat. Add mushroom and saute for 4-5 minutes. Set aside. Return the same pan to heat and add another tbsp of oil. Then add the diced onion, mashed roasted garlic, corn, and the sage leaves, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and pepper. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Finally, strain the stock into the pan and simmer for 5 minutes.

Assemble the pot pie: spread half of the mashed potatoes on the bottom of a cast iron pan or a pie pan, then pour the filling on top of it, and finally top the filling with the remaining half of mashed potatoes. Brush with a beaten egg if you wish. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the top is golden in color. Let cool for a few minutes before serving.


As I mentioned in my previous post, I attended a workshop on spinning flax at the Fiber Fair this past weekend. I had spun flax before, but it’s a craft quite different from spinning wool, and I wanted some guidance from an experienced teacher. The workshop also covered the growing and processing of flax, which I’ve been wanting to learn about. Our instructor, Cassie Dickson, is a masterful spinner and weaver who specializes in weaving coverlets and processing the flax plant into linen cloth.

No wonder linen is such a prized textile, and used to be even more so in the past: it’s a lot of work! Traditionally, it would have taken about three months to grow the flax, then another month to ret it — soaking and rotting the flax stems, which loosens the fibers — and then perhaps yet another month to process the fibers by drying the stems, crushing them with the wooden blades of a flax break, combing and finally spinning the fibers. The weaving and sewing of clothes might have taken the rest of the year. So we’re talking about one full year of work towards a new set of linen clothes. How’s that to make you appreciate your wardrobe and take good care of it?


Crushing the flax stem between the blades of a traditional wooden flax break

The crushing of flax, in particular, is pretty hard physical work. And yet, at the same time, so satisfying: as the woody outer layer breaks up into small bits, underneath one begins to find long, straight, blond fibers. These are then scraped, or “scutched,” using a scutching board, which Cassie demonstrates here:


Lastly, the fibers are combed using an old tool called a hackle — a pretty violent-looking one, don’t you agree? Some of us actually got our fingers scraped by the nails.


Combing the bundle of flax fiber on a hackle.

This final combing step separates the long line flax from the short, tangled fibers, called tow. Tow can still be spun, but it will be more rough, so it’s good for ropes and other everyday items. Incidentally, some of the idioms of the English language derive from this almost-forgotten terminology of flax-processing: a “tow-headed child” meant a child with hair as blond as the tow, whereas “to get one’s hackles up” — well, judging from the look of the look of the hackle, not a pleasant state to be in.

Lastly, we learned to dress a distaff, a vertical stick onto which the flax fiber is carefully wrapped and which keeps it neat for easy spinning, and practiced spinning flax with a cup of water in our laps to create even, smooth thread.

A friend of mine told me a couple of years ago when I first got into spinning: “You do know, don’t you, where all of this is going to take you? You do realize that you are inevitably going to have to learn weaving on a loom as well?” I didn’t see it then, but I think she was right. Seeing Cassie’s beautiful woven handwork, as well as these vintage linen handkerchiefs, nudged my crafter’s heart in such a way that there probably is no other way but to venture into that world as well.


Some Flax-to-linen resources:

  • Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich
  • The Big Book of Flax by Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf
  • the Hermitage in Pennsylvania, the community of Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf and their flax supply store — great source of flax seeds
  • The Wool Gatherers: a source for beautiful quality strick flax, plans for making flax processing tools, and resources, including a fantastic “Flax Cam” — a photographic diary of a flax field

In addition to the delights that usually lure us to Asheville for a long weekend — the hiking trails along the Blue Ridge, the permaculture and natural building scene, and the abundance of farm-to-table restaurants — this time there was something else: the Southeast Animal Fiber Fair in the small town of Fletcher, just outside of Asheville.

This fair is where the knitters, crocheters, spinners, weavers, dye artists, felters, tattlers, fiber farmers, and designers of the Southeast gather every fall for four days of workshops, animal shows, contests, and just plain old browsing and admiring of iridescent yarns, fluffy balls of wool and roving, fiber crafts of every sort you can imagine, shiny wooden spinning wheels and looms and… It was enough to make a first-timer like me wide-eyed and a little dizzy. I spent an entire morning touring the vendor booths and the animal shows. In the afternoon, I attended a workshop on “Flax Plant to Linen Thread” — but more on that later: it was so perfectly in the spirit of “gather and grow” that it deserves a post of its own.

At this fair, one could see the entire journey that fiber makes, from the furry or woolly animal…


…to the bags of sheared fiber…fiberfair-4

…to the magical things we do to transform, and play with, that fiber…fiberfair-2

… and finally, to the craft and art that then renders those locks and strands into beautiful things for us to wear and decorate our homes with:


I came back with some lovely, regionally grown fiber to spin this winter: alpaca from Waxhaw, NC, and merino wool from Morgantown, NC. I am transitioning more and more to using fibers and dyes that are from my region, that is, my fibershed, the Southeastern United States. Nothing feels better than being able to talk and work directly with the farmers who raised the animals whose wool becomes the clothes that keep me and my family warm. It makes sense to me in just the same way that trying to eat locally grown food does. One day, I hope to raise my own fiber flock — maybe Icelandic sheep and Pygora goats? — but until then, I want to work with fiber suppliers from my region.

As for dyes, there are so many that I can grow or forage myself. Right now, there’s another harvest of marigold waiting to be picked just outside my front door, and a packet of nettle seeds waiting to be planted for the spring. In fact, natural dyeing was the one thing I would have liked to see more of at the fair. To me, those soft, fluffy fleeces of real, warm-bodied farm animals that you can touch, raised by people you can talk to, in all their earthiness are at the heart of what I call “slow fashion.” To bring synthetic dyes — characteristic of the world of “fast fashion” — into the picture just seems off somehow… when there’s a rainbow spectrum’s worth of color spread out all around: non-toxic, free of cost, ours for the taking.

Marigolds and I share a name. But that’s not the only reason why I like them. They are a great flower to plant along the edges of veggie beds because they have pest-deterring properties. They also bloom all summer long and well into the fall — apparently even bursting out in a wild explosion of yellow and orange in October. But marigold is also a potent dye plant. The flower petals yield shades varying from greeny yellow to gold and orange, while the plant tops give greeny yellow and olive green shades.


Actually, I had almost packed my dyeing pots away for a while after the previous week’s dyeing extravaganza… but then all those bright, dye-potent petals dotting my own garden were just too much to pass by. So into the pot they went, followed by some lovely, soft wool roving I had around for some late autumn spinning.


Once rinsed and dried, the fibers ranged from light buttery yellow to bright canary yellow. I intentionally tried to get uneven results — even leaving some bits of the roving unmordanted — because this will give the yarn more life as I spin it in combinations of lighter and brighter shades of yellow.


As it turns out, spinning yarn is one of the easiest crafts to work on while keeping a baby entertained. Aava is utterly mesmerized by the movement of the spinning wheel — round and round it goes — and will contentedly watch me spin for a long, long time. Which is in her interest (not that she knows it) because this yarn will hopefully turn into something that will keep her warm this winter.

There’s much that’s been happening and evolving over here. Preparing for and teaching homesteading classes, plotting a permaculture venture with a couple of friends that I hope to be able to share with you in the near future, crafting, cooking good food, planning a trip to Asheville next week, getting ready to welcome the winter. And making sure that a certain five-month-old is healthy and happy and well-fed and well-loved. On some days, that is my one achievement. And I think that is as it should be.

But on days that I do get something else done, this is what I’ve been up to:



… the potatoes we planted in potato bags on our stoop shot up in a few days, almost faster than we could hill them up and keep unrolling the edge of the bag up. If they grow as well as they did last time, that’ll a lot of calories per square foot.



… these friendly birds fly above my little one’s crib (that’s her perspective in the photo). I modeled the mobile on something I saw online, though I now can’t seem to find where that was. But I’ll tell you that it was a lot of fun to make. All that was needed was felt, cotton balls, fishing line, and an old clothes hanger.



… starting this winter’s first knitting project and reading Courtney White’s inspiring Grass, Soil, Hope about carbon sequestration in soils.



… Fermentation station! Sauerkraut and kimchi jars — a sure sign of fall.



… A blog crush – Green Kitchen Stories – has gotten me more excited about cooking than I have been for a while. Actually, I got completely tired of my cooking repertoire while I was pregnant, and have been looking for new sources of inspiration ever since. Well, here it is. I want to cook my way through their entire recipe index!! Starting with Vegetarian Pho from their newest cookbook (see recipe here, with a chance to win the cookbook) and the Fat Almond Pancake for breakfast today. An almond version of the oven pancake I grew up eating — that’s how you win this girl over!

Dyeing with plants is a lot like magic: you can never really know what colors, what shades exactly will emerge from your dye vat. There are always so many variables — down to the source of the water you use and the minerals in the soil where your particular dye plant grew. For me, it’s that very unpredictability that keeps me hooked to the craft.


This is the kind of magic I practiced this week. I did some dye work in preparation for tomorrow’s Homesteading Festival in Williamston where I will be demonstrating spinning and natural dyeing, as I did last year. Of the three dye plants I used, one came from my garden, the second one from the grocery store, and the third from the online supplier. Yarrow, turmeric, and fusticwood — can you guess which is which? What I didn’t expect is how nicely the colors would all work together: the rich ochres and oranges, the dandelion yellows, the sage greens and pale mint greens are like bright fallen leaves on the forest floor. A perfect fall palette.


I harvested the yarrow from the garden and prepared the dye bath in my outdoor dyeing studio, i.e. our backyard patio. I love to work there because it’s well ventilated — obviously — and I can get the water I use straight from our rain barrels and conveniently dump the used dye plant materials into the compost nearby. The yarrow dye results were more pale than I expected, possibly because I didn’t rinse the yarns after mordanting and so the mordant consumed some of the dye. As I said, the magic lies in the unpredictability.


Turmeric, on the other hand — look at that! Such bold color! All this without any mordanting or heating of the fibers. I simply left the skeins of yarn soaking in the pot of water and turmeric (and yes, that’s the regular turmeric powder you can get at the grocery store) in the sun for a few hours. Strong stuff.


Top row: fusticwood on alum-mordanted yarn with an iron afterbath

Middle row: yarrow on alum-mordanted yarn only; on the same yarn but with an iron afterbath; turmeric on alum-mordanted yarn

Bottom row: fusticwood on chrome-mordanted yarn; fusticwood on alum-mordanted yarn

If you are in upstate South Carolina, come to the Homesteading Festival tomorrow! Admission and classes are free. I’m going to be demonstrating dyeing with Japanese indigo; but I’m also hoping to catch some of the other classes offered — especially Gouda cheese making from sheep’s milk, mushroom growing, and creating food meadows.

As I mentioned in a post this summer, learning about, crafting, and using herbal medicine is something I am slowly incorporating into the way we do things as a family. The more I learn about the amazing properties of the plants around us, the more it seems like a waste NOT to make use of them — not only in food and dyeing, but also in alleviating various ailments. As a child of two doctors, I am no stranger to conventional medicine and, in fact, for a long time harbored a bit of a suspicion towards natural treatments. But I’ve come to think that both approaches have their place. And something that herbal medicine has going for it that is quite a plus, especially in this country, is that it can be if not completely free, extremely low-cost.

This summer, I moved from salves and syrups to poultices and tinctures. Tinctures! I have to ask myself sometimes if I make them just for the health benefits, or perhaps because they are so easy to make… apothecary2

… or because of the jewel tones of the little jars as the tinctures are being steeped on a sunny windowsill…apothecary3

… or because all those little glass bottles are so darn cute all lined up together?


Introducing our home apothecary! My old little writing desk has occupied a corner of our dining room, somewhat forgotten and purposeless, ever since I got myself a bigger work desk. But now it has found its new purpose. I keep my salves, syrups, tinctures, essential oils and dried herbs for tea in the top compartment of the desk for easy access. The drawers below contain supplies for future medicine-making, such as beeswax, glycerin, aloe, oils, cheesecloth, and more of said darn cute bottles.

Basic instructions for making tinctures:

Chop the herbs fine and put them in a clean glass jar. Pour in either 80 to 100 proof alcohol, vinegar, or vegetable glycerin (which is what I used), enough to cover the herbs by a couple of inches. Put the jar in a sunny spot and let soak for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain and store in a clean bottle or jar. Take as directed either by the dropperful or diluted in tea or water. A tincture will keep for 1 year if you used vinegar, 2-3 years in case of glycerin, and several years with alcohol.

Good beginner’s herbs to make tinctures with: echinacea, cinnamon, tulsi, yarrrow, St. John’s wort, dandelion, burdock, valerian.

Needless to say, consult a reliable resource before either making or taking herbal medicine. My go-to sources are Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs, Herbal Healing for Women (also by Rosemary Gladstar) and Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine.


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