gather and grow

Homestead skill-building and simple living

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.

As I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, one of this year’s projects on our urban homestead is perfecting our thermal composting method.

We’ve built some nice compost piles, hubs and I. And then there are those that we weren’t paying proper attention to, that we forgot to turn, that didn’t have the right proportions of woody and green materials, that never got quite hot enough. Yet as I learned in Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web course this summer, the right timing, the right temperatures, the right moisture are not tangential factors if you want to make good compost; they’re essential. And of course you want to make good compost if you’re going to do it. If you make bad compost — say, you let your compost go anaerobic — all you’re doing is creating an ideal habitat for the kinds of micro-organisms that make your plants sick. Properly made thermal compost really goes through all the right stages, making it a good habitat for the right kinds of soil life — the critters that, in turn, help your plants to grow.

So we’re going to do it right this time.

“Right” in the composting context means “right for the needs of your particular soil and what you want to grow.”

And so we need to learn to make two different kinds of compost, depending on our soil needs: fungal compost that encourages the growth of fungi in the soil, and bacterial compost that invites friendly bacteria. Some plants prefer more fungal-dominated soils, others prefer to have their roots surrounded by a bacterial-dominated environment. If you’re growing annual vegetables, or grass for grazing animals, you’ll want a more bacterial soil and therefore more bacterial-dominated compost. If you’re growing shrubs, vines, bushes, and trees — or plants like strawberries, whose natural ecosystem is a forest — you’ll want more fungi. Green = bacterial; woody = fungal. (You know how a pile of wood chips that’s been sitting for a while starts to develop those fine white strands of fungi? That’s a good rule of thumb: fungi love woody stuff.)

Therefore, to make a fungal compost, you simply put in more “woody” materials than “green” materials. Even though we’re using our compost for vegetables, many soil problems are due to not enough fungi in the soil. So the compost we built today is optimized for fungi.

Here’s my simple cheat sheet for the ratios for both kinds of compost. Feel free to print it, tape it to your composting bin, or save it to your handheld device if that’s what you’ll have in your back pocket when building compost!bacterial compost-1

A word on materials: when building a compost pile, you want to be able to make use of as many freely available, local materials as possible — the kinds of materials that might be labeled “waste” and thrown away, if you didn’t have your Golden Compost Goggles on. But you do, right? What a great opportunity to get to know your locale and start noticing streams of free resources! Keep your eyes peeled for things like cardboard boxes by the curb, piles of leaves that neighbors are throwing away, coffee grounds that your friendly Starbucks barista is going to just scoop for you for free. To give you some ideas, here’s what we built our latest pile with, with sources and costs:


  • woodchips (free: call your local arborist or city tree service — and you might just wake up to this sight on the right)
  • shredded cardboard (free: find anywhere)
  • dried leaves (free: from our yard)
  • straw (free since we already had it around for mulching)
  • shredded paper (free: from my office)


  • green grass clippings (free: from our yard, neighbor’s yard, and a vacant lot nearby)
  • kitchen scraps (free: from our kitchen)
  • coffee grounds (free: go to any Starbucks and just ask!)

High nitrogen materials:

  • horse manure ($ 10 for a trunkful from a local horse owner)
  • chicken manure (this time we paid $8 for a bag, but when we had chickens it was free)
  • alfalfa (about $18 per bale at the feed and seed store)


Here it is! All of this got piled into our Geobin compost bin according to the ratios of fungal compost above. I used masking tape to make little marks on the outside of the bin to guide us in keeping the right percentages — although it’s not necessary to be scientifically accurate about it. Just guesstimate and relax.

Now the fun begins: watching the compost thermometer closely for the next few days.

Composting dos and don’ts:

  • Monitor the temperature closely. Your pile temperature should go to 131 F/55 C for a full 3 days. When it has done so, it’s time to turn the pile. Then let it get hot again, and again turn the pile. Don’t let the temperature get higher than 155-160 F, or your beneficial organisms will be killed.
  • Make the pile at least 1 meter tall and 1,5 meters wide.
  • Bury your kitchen waste deep, otherwise you’ll have critter problems.
  • Aeration of the compost pile is critical! Make sure your composting container has some airflow. You don’t want your pile to go anaerobic!
  • Water the pile as you build it, and as you turn it. The moisture content should be such that the compost feels like a dry sponge.
  • Don’t let your compost pile get saturated with water. If it’s going to rain, cover it with a tarp, a sheet of cardboard, or something like that.
  • If your compost smells bad, it is bad. Do a troubleshoot.
  • The color of good compost should be deep, rich brown – not black!
  • Use manure from animals raised organically, otherwise it may contain pathogens.
  • The compost is ready when it reaches ambient temperature that no longer goes up when you turn the pile.


Our wood chip supplier is delayed and, as a result, so is our soil building project. In the meantime, I’ve gotten busy indoors instead — with cheese-making. After many years of making ricotta, feta and mozzarella at home, I have finally moved on to hard cheeses. These days, it’s cheddar, parmesan, and gorgonzola in progress at various stages around the kitchen: culturing, waiting, draining, being pressed, ripening.

Moving on to hard cheeses involves a bit of a commitment in terms of more specialized equipment that’s not necessary for soft cheeses. Two, in particular, may turn out to be big investments: a ripening refrigerator (unless you’re lucky enough to have a cellar with just the right temperature and humidity) and a cheese press. I wanted to see if I could manage to keep things low-cost; I want to be able to assure participants in my cheese-making classes that this does not have to be an expensive endeavor. For the refrigerator, I scored a small wine refrigerator off of Craigslist (yay! it’s beautiful) and keep a small bowl filled with water at the bottom for humidity. For the press, I researched all kinds of fancy pricey cheese presses available online, but when I realized that the basic idea is really very simple, I ended up making it myself — for a fraction of the cost.

For all of you aspiring cheese-makers out there, today I share with you my super-simple design for a cheese press. I sought inspiration from Home Dairy with Ashley English, as well as from here and here, but ended up doing something different from all of them. Above all, I would not suggest using PVC pipes as cheese molds or hoops! They, like anything else that comes into contact with your food, should be food-grade plastic (or metal).

Once you’ve assembled all the materials, you can put this press together in half an hour. Especially if you make sure that the holes you drill in the boards are well aligned (ahem).

DIY Cheese Press


  • 2 wooden boards, about 1 inch thick (mine are about 11 x 15 inches)
  • 2 18-inch galvanized pipes, 1/2 inch inside diameter
  • 2 galvanized floor flanges to fit the pipes
  • 1 aluminum pie pan (or a stainless steel drip pan from a cheese supply store)
  • Mason jar with lid (this will function as the pusher)
  • weight-lifting plates (a total of 50 lbs)
  • cheese molds or “hoops” and followers (from a cheese supply store)

Using a 7/8 inch drill bit, drill a hole for the pipe at each end of your first board, one inch from the edge and equidistant from the two other edges. Next, place the undrilled board underneath the drilled one and make a guide mark with your drill bit through the holes to make holes at the exact same spot. Attach the pipes to the flanges and slide them through the holes in the bottom board. Cut out a pouring spout in the aluminum pie pan.IMG_3058IMG_3060

When ready to press cheese curds, place the aluminum drip pan at the center of the bottom board. Place cheese mold holding the curds, with the follower on top of the curds, at the center of the drip pan. Place the mason jar on top of the follower. Then slowly slide the top board over the pipes to rest on top of the jar. Add the amount of weights specified in the recipe on top of the top board.

Cost breakdown:

  • wooden boards, mason jar: free
  • galvanized pipes and flanges, from the hardwood store: $ 28
  • weight plates (used on Craigslist): $ 22
  • pie pan: $ 2 for 3

Total: $ 52

(If you have some of these, such as weight-lifting plates, lying around the house, the cost will be even lower. You will also need cheese molds or hoops and followers, but I have not included them since I would have had to get them anyway.)

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?)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 216 other followers

%d bloggers like this: