How to Make Dandelion Wine (and any other you can think of!)

“Honey, you want to harvest these dandelions before I mow?” my husband called out.  Why, I didn’t even know the dandelions were here yet, and there they were in lovely carpets of gold; their lion manes of spring feeding the bees and dotting the yard with color.  I love dandelions.

Using my thumbnail, I simply pop off the tops of the flowers.  Like a little bee myself, I flit from flower to flower.  I filled a quart jar and a half and still left some in the garden beds for the honey gatherers.  The next thing you want to do is to pour the golden flowers into a paper bag and leave it on the porch on its side.  This allows the stragglers to escape.  No one wants ant wine.

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Wine is, in its essence, fermented sweet tea or juice with yeast that feeds off the sugars turning it into a delightful and medicinal drink.

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Bring flowers, one peeled orange, and 16 cups (1 gallon) of water to boil.  Turn off heat and cover with lid and let sit for 15 minutes.

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Strain into a gallon container used for wine making.  Leave a few inches headspace. You will have some tea left over.  Add 4 cups of sugar (I prefer organic, unbleached, raw sugar) and 2 cups of brown sugar (molasses is what makes it brown).  Stir to dissolve.

Dandelions taste particularly good with orange and caramel notes.  I like to add orange extract and butterscotch extracts when making dandelion jelly.  In this case, we are using fresh orange and brown sugar to create those notes.

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Let cool to 90 degrees then add 1/4 teaspoon of white wine yeast.  Stir.  Replace lid and carboy.  Pour a smidge of vodka into carboy to specified lines.  Let sit in a cool corner and bubble away.  It will bubble (the yeast is eating the sugar) for 10 days to 3 weeks depending on what kind of wine you are making.

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When the bubbling stops then it is time to siphon the wine (all but the bottom 1/2 inch of sediment) into super clean bottles.  Place in root cellar for 6 months to a year or more.

You can use any fruit or herb to make wine.  If there is enough juice and sugars in the fruit (like in grapes) then you just add yeast to the juice.  Most things will be made into a strong tea like the above recipe as well as my chokecherry wine and rosehip/lavender mead.  Have fun and experiment.  Use 4-8 cups of sugar.  Use 1/4 or 1/5 of a teaspoon of wine yeast, red or white.

My chokecherry wine was pretty dang strong after a year, but after two years, lord it was smooth, and I highly wished that I hadn’t given away all of the bottles!

The Sparrow Lofts

Amongst the branches of the miniature dome, they sing.  I watch them flitting in and out of their hogan happily, busily.  Some groups fly en masse to the bowl of bird seed in the front yard, another group will chat and catch up on the fence line, and yet another seem to be busy within the home, perhaps preparing for new babies or maybe they just got out of a town meeting.

I can hear them clearly through the thick, glass paned windows, and as the dawn breaks they begin to chant and chirp the loveliest, loudest songs to the sun.  As I approach them on my way to the hen house, they fly up in a tornado of song and air.  Exhilarating.

I shake my head when I see giant black trash bags of branches and yard clipping sitting in militant lines by garbage cans waiting to go to the dump.  Such a waste.  There they will never decompose.  Here on our urban farm, we throw them into a pile.  A large, haphazard pile (away from the eyes of the zoning lady down the street) behind a six foot fence.  An eyesore?  They are branches, for gods sake.  Make use of them.  They can be used for kindling or firewood or you can just let them be.  We thought we would get a wood chipper and attend to them but the sparrows had another idea.  As we threw the neatly clipped branches and larger weeds over the fence, blindly knocking leaves and clots of dirt into our eyes, they all landed in a great pile.  The sparrows dive in and out perfect holes.  A housekeeper I had said I ought to get rid of the mounds of wood because they invite mice.  So we dubbed it the “Mouse House.”  Haven’t seen any mice in there.  They are too busy in the chicken coop.  The mound gently settles each year and begins to decompose and we add more on.  Nature makes use of all things, they do not throw things blindly into a landfill to suffocate the land.

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Look at all the birds on the fence line and in the branches! Hundreds of voices come from this back yard pile!

The birds have created such a lovely haven out of those branches, carefully shaping them into lofts for hundreds of sparrows.  And their uplifting songs and antics please me as I watch them.  They make me laugh and smile.  Such a gift to be amongst nature and all of its inhabitants.

(Tip: create a place next to your compost piles for items that break down slowly.)

How to Make Raised Garden Beds Easily and On the Cheap

I pour myself more sludge (strong coffee) as I write, the world encompassed in white, me not trying not to fall under SAD (seasonal affective disorder), knowing in a few weeks I will be planting those first seeds.

I told you that I was going to move the garden to the backyard because zoning had come by last fall and given me a warning post-garden to clean up my front yard into fancy neighborhood status.  I thought it would be easier to grow grass and flowers in the front yard and fence off a 25×25 designated garden in the back yard.  Enter large puppy, large expense for fencing, and here I am back in the front yard.

The weeds last year were incredible.  I have never seen lamb’s quarters ten feet tall!  I have never experienced mallow whose roots may actually tickle the top of Australia.  I was humbled.  This year I know we will still have weeds (they are medicine and food, but they do like to take over the world some…) but this year I will be a little better prepared.  Even though my crops did great in their sandy, never-been-gardened spaces I did want to amend the soil.  Did I mention on the cheap?  Because I never have as much extra money for gardening as I think I will!

This first-of-several beds coming this spring is a combination of everything I have learned over the years.  It is part Hugelkultur, part Permaculture, part straw bale gardening, part raised bed, part ingenious way to use what I have on hand.

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First I laid down sheets of cardboard.  Cardboard will break down within one season but it will help immensely in keeping weeds down.  I sure wish I hadn’t sent all that cardboard to recycling!  I would have layered on a few extra sheets of cardboard if I had it.

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I thought of large stones.  I thought of cinder blocks.  I thought of 2x4s.  I checked the bank account, and went into the back yard to see what I could find!  I have large limbs from the dying Elm tree that were ready for firewood.  We have lots of wood right now and these are so beautiful with the bark still on them.  They were easy to place in an 18×4 rectangle (with the help of my husband) to create a frame.

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Then two to three inch slabs of straw went on top of that.  The straw will suppress more weeds, will create an airy environment for the seedlings, will break down and become mulch and amendments, and helps fill the space so I didn’t have to buy so much garden soil.

Next went on pails of finished compost.  It never fails to amaze me that a banana peel in six months becomes dirt.  That scraps, and straw, and grass clippings, and chicken straw, and everything I put out there turns into rich, dark compost.  I won’t have enough for all the beds I am planning on putting in but I can purchase mushroom compost pretty cheap once I run out of my own.  It is only for this year.  From here on out my own compost will act as fertilizer in spring and fall sprinkled on the beds.  I won’t need quite as much.

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Then went on five bags of organic gardening soil.  I wanted to get it spread on the new bed now because it will have a few weeks to settle into the straw.  I want to make sure I don’t lose seeds in the settling soil!  We will know in a few weeks if I need more soil.

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The tiny trees I planted are in the tomato cages.  They will be watered regularly by being in the garden bed.  Once they grow nice and tall in as many years and begin to shade the patch, the patch can move.  Gardening is as much about flexibility as it is growing food.  Nature will work with you.  The main idea is to improve the soil and to create as many perennials so that each year we have more and more food and we are helping the soil regain health.

Done!  Now, the straw will try to sprout but the grasses easily pull out.  If a weed makes it through eight inches of cardboard, straw, and soil, it, too, will be easy to pull out.  At the end of the season I will pour some leaves, straw from the chicken coop, etc on top, and blend it in come spring.

*Side note- the empty soil bags will be set around perennial herbs and bushes with straw or wood chips placed over.  Weeds will not get through them!

Grab another cup of coffee, Folks, and hang in there.  We are almost back in the garden…

 

Farmgirl Gardening Series Week 9 (weeds, water, and radishes galore!)

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Well we barely kept it watered this week, didn’t thin the carrots, and the weeds are moving in, but just like housework, the garden work will wait for us!

The plants are now getting big enough that we can wield a hoe to combat blankets of overnight weeds.  There is still some hand weeding involved too.  Try to do one area each day.  Some weeds will try to look like a vegetable.  Take care not to weed out your corn!  Crab grass looks like corn when it’s coming up.  Corn has more rounded leaves.  If in doubt, leave it, you can figure it out in a few days!

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Some of the wild roses had to come out to make room for the green beans!

We hand water.  20 seconds in a four foot span is 2 inches of water.  Ideal for proper growth.  It will be nearly dry tomorrow!  While hand watering you can also see which seeds didn’t germinate (I don’t think I will buy that brand of seeds that I got from the garden center again, none of them came up) and see what weeds are sneaking in, how many rabbits visited, what bugs are there (hello cricket!  goodbye red ants!), and how everything is coming along.  We have found that this is the most economical and environmentally friendly way to water.  You use far less.  Drip systems, just like sprinkler systems break, get holes in them, and waste water.  Hand watering puts you in control and only things get watered that need it and how much they need it.

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We did receive a pleasant surprise!  Lisa sprouted a sweet potato in her kitchen.  She gave me the orb with its lovely shoots cascading everywhere.  I very nearly kept it in the shop as a house plant, it was so beautiful!  I separated the shoots and planted them along the trellis.  Sweet potatoes are not easy and not commonly grown in Colorado but it was worth a shot!  The beautiful leaves and stems shriveled as the roots took hold.  Low and behold, there are the leaves coming back!

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This week Maryjane and I just enjoyed the garden.  That is what is it there for.  Sit and relax.  Right now we have radishes coming out of our ears because I get to missing them so much that I get crazy planting and every single seed germinates, I swear, and then after a few dozen radishes, we are done.  That is when they really start growing!

Here is our favorite way to eat them: Butter crackers, place sliced radishes on top, sprinkle with smoked salt.  Delicious!

Our garden is doing pretty fine this year.  This week we will thin plants and cheer the corn on.  They need to be knee high by 4th of July!

Stinging Nettles (wild food and medicine)

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You might view your weeds a little differently if I told you that they contain ten times more nutrition, vitamins, and minerals than conventional greens, or that you might never have to buy spinach again, or that you can heal all sorts of things from cancer to hay fever with wild greens.  You might think twice about getting the weed killer out!  Those weeds, Friends, are food and medicine.

Yesterday when I arrived at my shop a beautiful box was waiting for me.  A gift beyond measure.  A new dress?  A cup of coffee?  Candies?  No, stinging nettles.  A whole box of discarded weeds.  She was only too happy to drop them off at my shop.  Gold, people, gold.

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Stinging nettles are used widely in Europe as a wild green.  Once they are cooked or dried the stingers are inactive.  In pasta or soup, they add a powerful supply of minerals and are a free source of greens.  If you don’t have any growing in the pasture you can go to Tagawa, or other garden store, and order a plant.  For $4 I have one growing on my third floor balcony.  A great supply of allergy medicine.  Yes, allergy medicine.  Nothing stops allergies faster than stinging nettles.

The other reason I have it in a pot is because it will spread like a runaway toddler.  It does have stingers, bitty fiberglass barbs that irritate the skin, so wear gloves when harvesting.  Dry a good part in a paper bag with holes in it for three weeks.  This will provide tea to stop allergies quickly and keep you in nettles over the winter.

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Fresh nettles can be eaten.  I use a sandwich bag or the like to protect my fingers as I cut up the greens.  Today they will join the beans that were cooking all night in the crock pot.  Beans, bacon, cream, onions, and nettles with homemade bread.  A delicious lunch, I must say.

And friends, don’t forget to eat curly dock, yellow dock, sunflower leaves, dandelions, lamb’s quarters, and purslane.  Delicious and healthy!

Harvesting From the Marsh (or one’s back yard)

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It was the first really warm day yesterday.  Beautiful.  The birds sang and the sun shone truly bright and comforting as I found my way through the foot high brush in the marsh.  Water snaked its way through patches as the large, old willow tree, in all its knowledge of history past hundred years or so, drank steadily and protected the greenery beneath.  Plantain has sprung up.  Used to heal wounds and also as food, it is a welcome sight.  Dandelions grow tall and bush-like, tantalizing me with its toothed leaves and delicious flavors highlighted by the sunny yellow flowers.  Dock rose up in long slender arms and invited me to have some.  It is a powerful blood cleanser, anti-cancer, and healing to the liver, but one wouldn’t know by its mild bite and delicious addition to meals.  Lamb’s Quarters showed shyly between wild grasses.

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Wild strawberry leaves sit between plantain leaves and take me to memories past.  A walk in the woods with my best friend some twenty-four years ago but really a day ago it seems.  We walked and dreamed.  Seventeen years old and filled with hope and certainty that our friendship would stand the tests of time.  We walked without shirts on, unbidden and wild and innocence, in dappled sunlight we walked in carefree youth and joy.  We agreed to meet ten years from the date with our families and walk this way again.  August 11, 2001 came and went as did 2011 and I only wish her great joy and blessings on her path in her own woods.  Strawberries will make a luxurious addition to our salads.

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We walked further, accidentally frightened frogs, and came across the pond.  Looking up into another ancient willow sat four birds.  Large owls sat in statue.  The husband, wife, and two infants, large and downy, flew one by one.  A gift for this fine day of free food and soulful walking.  How great is nature to provide vast amounts of food for us.  Free for the taking, ten times more nutritious than cultivated greens.  Cleansing, and filling, and healing.

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Try wild greens on mixed salad.  Or top pizza before baking.  Roast with potatoes and garlic.  Sauté with bacon and mushrooms.  Make into a smoothie.  Indulge.  Wild greens are actually milder than spinach.  There are many ways to prepare it.  In gratitude is the best way.

Dock has tasty greens.  Harvest the root in fall to make detoxifying extracts.

Dock has tasty greens. Harvest the root in fall to make detoxifying extracts.

Lamb's quarters are found in many back yards proving that weeds can be delicious!

Lamb’s quarters are found in many back yards proving that weeds can be delicious!

Dandelion flowers can be made into jelly or fritters and the greens sautéed, roasted, or eaten fresh.  The roots can be used to make immunity boosting extracts.

Dandelion flowers can be made into jelly or fritters and the greens sautéed, roasted, or eaten fresh. The roots can be used to make immunity boosting extracts.

Cut herbs like plantain with a sharp knife and only take up to one third of what you find.  Be grateful.  It makes the food more nutritious and healing.

Cut herbs like plantain with a sharp knife and only take up to one third of what you find. Be grateful. It makes the food more nutritious and healing.

Owl in tree.

Owl in tree.

Watching owls take flight.

Watching owls take flight.

Rainstorm moving in.

Rainstorm moving in.

To Mulch or Not to Mulch

…That is the question.  Shakespearian cliché, I know, but gardening brings out the drama in me.  Oh, whoa is me, doth that weeds?  Crap.  I thought I just killed thy evil heads a fortnight ago.

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I mulched the potatoes as I placed hills over them, keeping their little round orbs out of sunlight.  Green potatoes not being the most appealing, or healthiest, and covered them with straw.  I haven’t had to weed them a bit.  They keep snug in their golden carpet.

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I looked at the carrots and didn’t want to mulch between every single feathery stem.  I didn’t know if all the seeds had come up yet in other beds and didn’t want to smother new seedlings.  However, as you can see, I have lost the row to the pumpkins as the purslane and everything else has decided that compost and daily waterings are divine and they have taken up the property.  Mulching around pumpkins would be very smart indeed.

Combined with the trenching technique I told you I was going to try, I think I have a fine idea for next year’s garden.  (I know, I know, it’s September, why on earth am I planning next year’s garden?….It’s just what I do, can’t help it.  My heart doth lie in the beauty of the flower’s face, in its tines of leafy elegance, and in its delicious enslavement of promises of food.  I think on it all year.)

The trenching technique works great.  I planted some things in a two inch trench.  It is incredibly dry here and we are not at risk of fungal diseases or overwatering.  I simply fill the trench with water in two seconds to the top, and it soaks down into the roots, no run off.  The wind just hits its tops as the plants try to grow and they are strong by time they get out of the trench.  The roots are kept in a bit of shelter and are so easily watered.  Now, if I mulch around the trenches, I will cut down on work, water, and weeds (my nemesis).

Tis beautiful to plan, and so beautiful to behold, the garden’s ever changing beauty and demure, as well as its challenge and careful planning.  I say mulch!

Weed Farmer (and Eater)

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Beneath the mounds of snow lay sweet foods of nature, that didn’t even need to be planted by human hands.  The once glistening cool snow in all its glittery wonder, bringing us comfort and thoughts of outdoor play, is now muddy, mussed snow, with patches of melting ice.  Not as pretty of a sight, but sign that Spring will be upon us any day now.

In the summer we dine on fresh vegetables, directly off the stalk, or chosen carefully off of a farmer’s table at market.  A dash of salt is all that is needed, a leaf of fresh basil finishes sliced, juicy tomatoes.  It does not take much to elevate summer fare.  Brushed with sweet butter and lime on a grill accompanied by a cold beer and surrounded by friends, corn is at its very best.  We eat fresh, we play hard, summer is great for food.

Autumn brings us the harvest.  Warming dishes of soups and heartier fare sneaks onto the table once again as we reenter the kitchen, less sweat and happy to be home.  Winter brings heavier fare as nature would intend.  Even if it is not terribly cold outdoors, our bodies instinctively know to eat up and get through the winter.  Pastas, canned foods, frozen foods, cheese, cream laden soups.

lamb's quarters (Lamb’s Quarters)

And then Spring beckons, bringing her own fare.  Dandelions bob their cheery heads, dancing in the still cool breeze.  Lamb’s quarters make a break and attempt their control of the garden.  Their sweet leaves begging for dressing.  Very small sunflower leaves, furry and nutty.  Wild onions, wild garlic, mallow leaves….Spring brings her own picnic basket.

Often folks are so busy clearing all these out to make room for plants that barely survive the climate.  Grass is not as tasty, I assure you.  It is easier, you know, to just go pick the weeds and bring them into the kitchen!

mallow (Mallow)

The greens are tonic, meaning they help the body detoxify and clear out all the heavy foods we put into the body and the excess weight to keep warm.  Greens cleanse the blood stream, help fight free radicals, balance the thyroid, improve digestion, heal up ulcers, and give bursts of energy.  And that is just home grown greens!  Wild greens, like dandelions, have ten times more nutrition than garden greens.  Calcium, magnesium, iron….and great, refreshing taste.

I grow baby greens in pots in the house, so I simply take a handful of lettuce, baby chard, baby kale, and small dandelion leaves, lamb’s quarter leaves, mallow leaves, etc and throw them in a big cereal bowl with pumpkin seeds, and drizzles of sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.  Or perhaps I will go with a really great infused olive oil and fresh sea salt.  Just a touch of sugar.  Just a few pine nuts.  The combinations are endless.

dandelion leaf (Dandelion Leaf)

Soon, I will look out the window and shades of sweet green will be crossing the yard, sneaking a stretch to grab some sunlight, and then jumping into my salad bowl.