gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

It’s challenging enough, logistically, to leave one’s home to go traveling for three months (although at this point I’ve done that so many times in my life that I’m accustomed to it). But it takes it to a whole different level when you are invested in cultivating a particular piece of land.

In the spring, I was involved in caring for three different sites: our own home veggie garden, the community orchard down the street, and the new dye garden at Carolina Community Farm and Garden. And then — as you know, if you’ve been stopping by lately — we embarked on our epic tour of rural places in France, Bulgaria, Italy, and Finland. While we were away, the merciless southern sun baked this city in 100-110 F temperatures. I let go of any expectations of what I’d find when I came back.

Actually, I knew that the orchard would be in good hands. A number of folks in our community are committed to working there regularly. I got email updates over the summer of work parties that took place, with photos and all. Coming back, I find this lovely, lush green space — with much work to do in the future, yes, but a defined space starting to take shape…

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…with fruit, such as these figs, getting sweet and ripe.IMG_2341

Over at Carolina Community Farm and Garden, the capable manager Allie kept looking after the dye garden I planted in the spring. The dye plants fared remarkably well. Only the Black-eyed Susans really took a hit in the heat, and the Japanese indigo bed fell to a dodder infestation and had to be completely uprooted. The purple basil, madder root, lady’s bedstraw, marigolds, dyer’s chamomile, elecampane and hollyhock are all going strong. We’re now planning a dyeing demo for the students in a few weeks.

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What I didn’t expect was coming home to find our own raised beds actually producing and doing well:

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A guerrilla gardener friend had kept our garden watered and neatly maintained through the summer. We had fresh kale and basil ready to eat as soon as we got back home, and found a few interesting surprise additions, such as broad leaf plantain, sorrel, Red Thai roselle and narrow-leafed arugula thrown in. Thank you, Michael!

In other words, if you’re caring for a piece of land and have to leave town for three months… find your allies (and michaels) in the community!

We’re seven months into the One Year One Outfit challenge, and wow — I’m half impressed, half intimidated by the progress some of the other participants have already made towards their locally sourced wardrobes. I’m nowhere near having entire items of clothing finished at this point myself. But I will, I will…

Since finding locally grown organic cotton proved to be such a challenge, I decided to experiment this summer trying to make fiber out of something that grows wild in nature: the humble stinging nettle. Not that I’ll necessarily be using nettle fiber for my #1year1outfit wardrobe, but I wanted to get a sense of how it’s done.

Nettle, along with flax and hemp, used to be more important as fiber material for textiles than cotton in Europe; unlike cotton, they could be grown even in northern climates. Nettle fiber farming started in the 19th century, and during the World Wars, nettle was often promoted as a substitute for cotton.

Why is nettle fiber worth exploring for the organic, eco-textile minded folk? Consider:

  • whereas conventionally grown cotton requires intensive inputs, such as irrigation and weed killers, nettles grow everywhere, even in fairly poor soil, with zero effort from humans
  • many textiles are produced in Third World countries, whereas nettle is something that could be grown even in European and North American climates
  • regional production and processing of nettle would also involve less long-distance transport
  • nettle is a common weed that already grows everywhere, so why not make use of it?
  • it has many uses besides fiber, and many parts of the plant can be used (e.g. for food, tea, medicine, or dye), so the same piece of land can yield multiple benefits

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So, this summer, I did some initial research into how nettle is processed into fiber, and processed a small batch myself. You can find lots of different instructions online, but I found this video really clear and easy to follow. The basic steps are:

  1. collect nettles: preferably from August onwards, cutting the stalks near the ground and removing the leaves (wear gloves and long sleeves!)
  2. soak the nettle stalks (which is called retting): some sources say 1 week, others longer. You have to experiment. The idea is to break down the cellulose surrounding the fibers so the fibers can be extracted
  3. dry the nettles: you can do this in the sun out in the garden, or in a greenhouse or (as I did, being in Finland) in the sauna
  4. split the bigger stalks
  5. break the dried-up stalks by hand to separate the fine fibers from the woody pith
  6. spin the fibers into yarn

Full disclosure: my process was far from perfect, and there’s a lot of room for improvement. Most sources recommend waiting until August before harvesting the nettle, but I couldn’t wait that long so I harvested the first batch already on July 10th and the second one in late July. Also, the soaking was not very effective the first time around since I did it outdoors in a wheelbarrow filled with water, and it was an unusually cold July so the water was cold too. The stalks in the second batch were much taller, so I decided to soak them in the lake the way flax plants have traditionally been retted: held in place by the lake sedges and kept submerged by a few pieces of wood.

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This time, the retting seemed to work well, judging from the authentic, hmm, earthy smell when I pulled the plant matter out of the water one week later. Once the stalks had dried — which only took a couple of days in the sun and at night in a warm (not hot) sauna, I was able to extract some nice, soft and wispy fibers.

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Processing wild nettle like this, I found, is definitely labor-intensive and not for the impatient. I’d work for a long stretch extracting fiber manually from the stalks, and only end up with a small bundle of fibers to show for it. I had fun because I’m generally a persistent person and I was able to do it outside on lovely summer days. But I think it’s a task that would go fast, and be most efficient, when done together with a group of people.

Having said that: being able to figure it out, and hold in my hand my first fibers harvested from the wild, from the forest, has been one of the highlights of this summer.

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Nettle fiber does have a lot of potential in the eco-textile industry. Studies done in both Finland and Austria show that it’s entirely feasible to cultivate, harvest and process nettle on a larger scale too. Different fiber nettle clones were tested in the Austrian study in terms of their fiber yields and fiber quality. It was found that, through cultivation, the fiber content can be increased (from about 5% in wild nettles to 17% in cultivated fiber nettles). The extracted fibers can be spun into yarn, but need to be mixed with some other fiber, with a maximum 70% nettle content.

That’s what’s next for me: trying to spinning my nettle fibers. Let’s see if that works. More updates to come!

P.S. Just because I know some of you will be wondering… the only stings I got in this process were during the initial harvesting. Once the nettle stalks have been soaked and dried, the stinging hairs are gone. The fibers themselves are beautiful – light green to linen colored, and some of them very, very soft.

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be teaching a series of urban homesteading classes again this fall at Columbia Homestead Alliance. Columbia Homestead Alliance — or CHA, for short — is an emerging new organization committed to community resilience, skill-building, local food and self-reliance in my very own neighborhood of Five Points in Columbia, SC. In the spring, our Permaculture Design Course students helped to install some keyhole garden beds at their site, which they are developing into a demonstration site for urban permaculture and growing food in the city.

This year’s line-up of classes includes:

  • Canning & Preserving
  • Home Dairy 101
  • Not-so-hard Cheeses: Feta, Mozzarella, and Chevre
  • Home-made Body Care

The last two are new classes that I’m particularly looking forward to introducing. In all classes, we’ll be whipping up home-made goodness of some sort, with treats to take home, and all levels of experience (or none) are welcome.

To find more detailed class descriptions, and to sign up, go to the Classes page.

If you live in the Columbia area, I hope to see you there! If not, maybe there’s an organization near you that organizes classes and workshops in urban homesteading? I know of pretty awesome homesteading schools in Atlanta, California’s Bay Area, Portland OR, and Boston, for example.

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natural dyes

colorsoftheforestThe more natural dyeing I do, the more I fall in love with the colors I can achieve — or “discover,” I think, is a better word for it — this way. They’re subtle and soft, never harsh. It’s as if they have a story to tell. Those are the kinds of colors I’ve always gravitated towards anyway in my wardrobe and in my home… or, goodness, even in the design of this blog.

And now, when I look at the color palette from the last few days’ dye work at a Finnish lakeside cottage, I realize it’s a very familiar range. Where else have I seen the mossy greens, the purple browns, the soft yellows and greys? All around me, in fact. These yarns have captured the colors of the Nordic forests. The pine bark that goes from grey to a rich warm brown the higher up the trunk you go. The big ice-age rocks covered by grey moss and lichen. The soft, subdued pinks of heather blossoms. The rich range of greens on the forest floor. Fallen pine needles and cones in a range of browns and silvers. The vibrant yellows of chanterelles hidden underneath the grass, waiting to be discovered.

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As I hinted at in my blueberry post, I also tried dyeing with blueberries (yes, the actual berries this time). The end result was surprising. I had been expecting pink or purple, or maybe even blueish tones. But the yarn emerged from the vat smokey purple — a complex, shimmering grey or brown or purple, depending on the light and how you look at it. As it happens, this is one of my favorite colors and one I always get compliments for when I wear it. How appropriate that this is the color that my favorite berry makes on wool in the dyer’s magic pot!  IMG_2166

From left to right: tansy on alum mordant; tansy on rhubarb leaf mordant; juniper with iron afterbath; birch with iron afterbath; heather with iron afterbath; blueberry on alum mordant; blueberry on iron mordant.

This is the best part about the Scandinavian summer, if you ask me. Nothing beats eating the summer’s first handful of ripe wild blueberries fresh from the woods. When the sun is shining and the forest floor is blue with tiny blue berries, a self-confessed berry addict like me will easily spend an hour or two in the woods, just picking and eating, picking and eating, till my fingers are blue and purple.

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There’s been a lot of debate in the media about the so-called superfoods lately. In the Finnish media, nutritional experts have pointed out — and I agree — that it’s quite silly to spend a lot of money on imported goji berries when our domestic wild blueberry is just as packed with amazing nutrients, and is locally and freely available. In addition to vitamins, fiber, and minerals, blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant capacities of any fruit, including anthocyanins, which give the berries their characteristic shades of blue and purple. Blueberries may improve memory, lower blood pressure, protect eye health, and reduce the risk of heart disease. A couple of handfuls of these per day — that’s a health recommendation that I will happily follow!

When I return to the cottage with my little bucket heavy with the goods, I store some of the berries to be enjoyed with yogurt and granola for breakfast the next day. Blueberries can also be used for dyeing — more about that later! Today’s harvest, though, went into a berry pie that I make every single summer. The recipe is one that my mother found in a magazine, maybe in the 80s, and I want to share it with you today because it’s the perfect summery berry pie.

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You can use any mix of fresh berries you like. I always use at least some blueberries. The special ingredient in the filling is kermaviili, a Finnish low-fat 12% fermented sour cream, but since that’s not available in most places, it can be substituted with regular sour cream.

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The ultimate summer berry pie

Crust:

  • 150 g butter, softened
  • 1 dl (0.4 cups) sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1.5 dl (0.6 cups) flour
  • 1.5 dl (0.6 cups) whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder

Filling:

  • 2 dl (1.2 cups) kermaviili or regular sour cream
  • 1/2 dl (3.5 tbsp) sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla sugar
  • half a liter (1 pint) fresh berries of your choice (blueberries, currants, raspberries, strawberries)

For serving:

  • vanilla sauce (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200 C (390 F). Whisk the butter and sugar together in a bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the egg and the flours and baking powder. Mix until the consistency is even, then spread onto the bottom and sides of a buttered, 10- or 12-inch pie dish.

Pour the berries of your choice onto the crust (sprinkle with some sugar if they are a little tart).

Mix the filling ingredients together and pour on top of the berries. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Serve with vanilla sauce and enjoy!

This summer, I’m working on a permaculture design for the small farm that’s been in our family for almost 100 years and that now belongs to my aunt. This is where I spent all my childhood summers, so it’s quite a wonderful process working with and re-acquainting myself with this land. And, as you’ll see, it is here that one might find the seed of all that I document on Gather and Grow. My father’s generation, even us as kids, grew up taking many of the practices of self-sufficiency for granted: growing and gathering and preserving much of their food, repairing and reusing and making do, knowing how to make things by hand.

IMG_2049During my visits, my aunt and I have coffee and talk about the history of the farm and our family. She’s done a great job preserving many of the traditions of the farm — stories and customs, but also old keepsakes and artifacts from past generations. Kitchen utensils, butter churn, sleds, farming tools. Family photos. Or — what especially captures the interest of a fiber buff like me — old spinning and weaving tools that my grandmother and great-grandmother used, back when these fields grew flax for linen and sheep for wool and my great-grandmother was known as a prize-winning spinner. We even found an old hackling board from 1906, for processing flax, and balls of fine, hand-spun linen thread.

But the treasure I want to share with you today is something else: my grandmother’s notebook from when she went to a “farm wife school” in 1947! Watch out, Mother Earth News and Encyclopedia of Country Living — for this is the true compendium of what a self-sufficient smallholder would need to know, from starting a garden and propagating plants to building fences and making soap and caring for clothes and shoes. All meticulously noted down in elegant hand-writing and precise drawings and charts.

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It’s priceless, really. And all the more bittersweet because my grandmother, though still living, is steadily losing her memory. Keepsakes such as this notebook may be one of the few ways in which we can tap into what she once learned and what kept the family fed and clothed and sheltered for decades, even when times were hard.

I suppose Gather and Grow is my own, cyber-age version of a notebook like this?

Though I’ve been working with natural dyes for several years now, ironically I’ve never done it in the place whose native plants I know better than any other — in my Nordic country of origins, Finland. I learned this art in my adopted homeland, the States, and am more familiar with how the plants that grow there — or exotic dyes like indigo and brazilwood — behave in a dye pot than with the plants that lined my childhood paths through meadows and forests.

But now that I’m in Finland for an extended visit of several weeks, I’ve been able to heat up a big enamel pot borrowed from my aunt and fill it with the plants I’d recognize in my sleep. I’ve also been able to work in the most gorgeous outdoor dyeing studio you could imagine: my dad’s grilling shed, with a view of the lake.

I collected all the plants from our land, in some cases literally steps from where I put them into the pot. Blueberry (just the twigs for now, I’m going to try the berries themselves once they ripen in the woods)…nordicnaturals

White birch (Betula pendula) branches are most commonly gathered in the summer to make vihta, a bouquet of tender birch branches for the sauna. And although I collected mine for the dye bath, it turns out that boiling birch leaves gives off the exact same incredible fragrance as vihta in the sauna! Just breathing in the steam gets me so relaxed. The leaves make yellow to bright green dye; birch bark yields reddish shades.

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Heather (Calluna vulgaris) grows everywhere in these sandy-soiled pine forests. If you collect them just as the tiny pink buds are about to open, you’ll get a range of yellows on alum-mordanted yarn. The results may be different during a different season, or using just the branches.

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Juniper (Juniperus communis) has really sharp needles! You can collect the branches for dyeing, or later also the berries. I used the branches, but the color was a very light beige, not that remarkable.

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Lingonberry and lichen were also two new plants to try that grow plentifully around here. There are hundreds of varieties of lichen, of course. The ones I tried yielded an orange-brown color; same also for the lingonberry.

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Six skeins in about three days (all alum-mordanted wool — really lovely Finnsheep wool from Riihivilla). From left to right: lichen, juniper, heather, birch leaves, blueberry twigs, lingonberry twigs.

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Mild colors. It makes me wonder if these are the lukewarm Finnish temperament equivalents of the dramatic, strong hues of warmer places — South American cochineal or Indian indigo? Just kidding.. most plants around the world yield yellows and beiges. I’m going to keep experimenting. As I do so, I’m learning tons from some really impressive Finnish natural dyeing resources online (with English translations, much of the time, so worth checking out for non-Finns too):

From the sea to the mountains to the lake. I’ve made it to our family cottage by a small lake in Central Finland, and will be spending the next few weeks here. This is our family’s sanctuary, the place where we gather every summer, very close to the farm where my father was born and where my ancestors cultivated this land for hundreds of years. The roots go deep here.IMG_1856 It’s Finnish language immersion for my one-year-old daughter (who is having the time of her life, by the way). For me, it’s immersion in all the sensations and experiences that evoke memories of childhood summers spent in the Finnish countryside: the smell of birch leaves and freshly chopped wood and smoke coming from the sauna chimney; the flavors of new potatoes — just dug out of the ground — with butter and dill, and tiny wild strawberries warmed by the sun; the slow swaying of the tall trunks of pine trees, the nighttime birdsong (for it never really gets dark here this time of the year), the feeling of wet sand beneath my toes at the lake’s edge.IMG_1893 It is here that I get to embrace a more natural way of living — as in, literally close to nature — that’s not possible in my urban rental home in the US. Vast expanses of wild, uninhabited forest spread out from our doorstep. I spend most of the day walking barefoot on duff and rocks and grass. We practice nutrient cycling through composting and humanure. We drink water from the spring that’s on the property.lahde Often, we eat fish caught from the lake the same day, potatoes and salad harvested from the garden, and berries and mushrooms picked in the woods. (Full disclosure: my Dad’s new specialty, “salmon on the plank” below is not such fish. But it sure looked gorgeous in the evening sun and melted in the mouth.)IMG_1887

I have some projects in the works here that I’m really stoked to share with you soon. Stay tuned!

Things were buzzing at the Plattner Bee Museum.

Bees are amazing. The signs swinging in the pine trees at the museum conveyed that the ancient peoples knew this too. Though this may be a disastrous case of lost in translation — since I’m translating them from Italian, without really knowing Italian, and who knows who translated them into Italian in the first place — I can’t resist sharing a couple of them: “The tears of the god Ra are transformed into bees” (an Egyptian saying). “The bee is the spirit which becomes intoxicated with the pollen of knowledge” (an Indian sage — but which one?).

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Most of us know that bees have an astonishingly accurate inner GPS system that helps them to orient themselves as they fly. But did you know that they can also feel the Earth’s magnetic field, and that that helps them to keep track of time, as if they were carrying an inner watch as well? They can also “hear” sound — not with ears, but rather they feel the sound on their whole body, especially with their antennae and body hair. Add to that their ability to make honey, and wax for the best candles in the world, and the work they do in pollinating the plants that become our food… We human beings think of ourselves as beekeepers, but the bees are the real keepers. Which is why the news on the ever-worsening colony collapse disorder (CCD) is so disconcerting (one third of the honeybee population in the US along gone!).

Although the reasons behind the collapse are complex, I’ve heard more than one beekeeping teacher say that the modern ways of beekeeping, including factory-made honeycombs and sugar water feed, are interfering with the bees’ natural way of living and keeping themselves well.

This is partially why I think it’s valuable to learn about ancient beekeeping methods and implements. Among the museum’s display of all the different kinds of beehives that have been used over the centuries, I was most impressed by the ones below that have been woven like baskets — some with little windows even! With their organic shapes, they’re much more successful in mimicking the bees’ natural habitat — hollow trees — than the box-like hives that most beekeepers use today.

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The ancient beekeepers pulled out the honey out of them along with the honeycomb, and had to squeeze out the honey, destroying the honeycomb in the process. (The wax from the comb was used for making candles and canvas.) The invention of the honey extractor in the 1860s allowed the separation of liquid honey while leaving the wax comb intact. And that’s the method that’s still in use, although the modern extractors look a bit different than these antiquarian ones… The honeycombs are placed in the frame basket, and when the handle is rapidly turned, the centrifugal force makes the honey flow outwards and down the spout.

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The museum tour had a sweet ending, as you might expect: you can sample 17 different flavors of honey! Rosemary, coriander, acacia — or my favorite (hands down): the lavender honey. You can then go on to smell all the different kinds of honey and beeswax and bee pollen soaps. I could choose only one bar because I’m living out of one suitcase this summer, and we’re on to our next destination, but it’s a lovely purple-brown propolis soap. I’ll be carrying some of the work of this mountain’s bees with me even as I leave.

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One of my themes for this summer is to learn about the traditional ways of living in these rural places where I’m fortunate to spend my time. For when Dan and I get to build our little self-designed cob or strawbale house (and I say “when” rather than “if” because anything is possible if you believe in it enough, right?), we want to incorporate as many time-tested features for down-to-earth, resilient living as possible. So I’m on a mission to see how our ancestors did it.

No better place to start than the country houses on this mountain, where people survived demanding conditions: cold snowy winters and physical isolation on the mountain, which required a hefty dose of self-sufficiency and can-do attitude.

The oldest house still standing on the mountain — at least 500 years old — is the traditional farmhouse that now houses the Plattner Bee Museum. I’d been there once before, and remembered the beautiful thatched roof proudly peaking on a hill above the village of Wolfsgruben. But I remembered little about the house itself — apparently, I was too focused on sampling the different-flavored honeys and smelling the honey and beeswax soaps. Now it was time for another visit. plattner-17Until 1975, the last remaining members of the family — two strong, wiry elderly sisters — lived here, with no electricity or running water. They grew barley, rye and buckwheat and once a week made the trip barefoot to the nearest city to sell vegetables. The house is preserved as it was then, so it’s an excellent showcase of simple subsistence living on a mountain.

The house still has a traditional thatched roof made of rye straw, complemented with larch shingles. It doesn’t get much more local than that: the rye straw was from the house’s own fields, and the larch shingles from the larches that line the path up the hill. I imagine the stones for the stone walls were also dug up from the surrounding fields. I guess that would be the No. 1 house design tip if you built a house on a mountainside in the year 1500: keep your materials local.

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How did the inhabitants keep warm in the winter? First of all, here, as in traditional houses in many cultures, animals were kept on the bottom floor (where beekeeping implements are now on display). People lived on the second floor, benefiting from the warmth generated by the bodies of the animals, which rose upwards. Also, notice the small windows to minimize loss of heat.

plattner-6A second tip for keeping warm is spending most of the indoor time in the winters in the one room which could be heated, the Stube. It has a masonry oven, a beehive-shaped mound of bricks, which stores heat incredibly well and releases it slowly through the night. A wide shelf was built above the masonry oven — surely the coziest spot in the house on cold winter days and nights!plattner-2The fire was fed from outside in the hallway, so there would be no smoke coming into the Stube. The hallway, on the other hand, was so smoky that the walls are still pitch black — but this was on purpose, as that’s where meat was smoked and cured.

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In the warmth of the Stube, the evenings were spent working on crafts, such as spinning wool and twisting rope (below).plattner-5The kitchen, across the hallway, was wood-heated, of course. It has one of the most ingenious waste management systems I’ve seen: a chute underneath a window, which allows discarding compost waste directly onto the compost pile underneath — or possibly for the pigs which were kept directly below this window. Cooking water went the same way, down a little dent in the chute. No need for trash bins or compost hauling trips!

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What’s remarkable about these mountains of South Tirol is that much of the farming is still done using traditional methods and manual labor, because many of the mountainside fields are simply too steep for large machinery. Over these weeks of June, we’ve seen so many farmers, wearing their traditional blue aprons, cutting and bundling hay for their animals with scythes and rakes.

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Oh yes, and the house is now a bee museum. There were bees. And honey. And lots of learning about traditional beekeeping methods. More about that next time!

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