Saturday, August 8, 2015

No Chemicals Need Apply

Two zucchinis harvested from my hugelkultur garden bed, proving that
you can have a very productive garden without any chemical inputs .

As most of you reading this post already know, our food system is in a mess today.  It seems like every single day I receive an email message asking me to sign a petition to stop corporate interests that are seeking to take over our food system, and I can't help but become increasingly frustrated with efforts to reduce our God-given right to determine for ourselves how and what we eat.

The issue of genetically modifying the very foods that we eat especially bothers me, because the pride in believing that human beings can just trump the wisdom of our Creator completely goes against the natural order of things.  Unlike traditional plant breeding, genetic engineering inherently changes the very fabric and foundations of life, and the consequences of those changes are often dire and end up out of control.  And even worse, it's all in the name of profits, environment and human beings be darned...

The very idea that we should spray poisons all over the food that we eat goes against the natural order of the world.  To me, such efforts are just more examples of where humans have sought control over something that they don't completely understand.  Nature, soil ecosystems, plants, and animals all have a complexity that does not conform to our simplified utilitarian view of how the world works.

Instead of seeking to understand how natural complex systems work and learning how to work with nature, we continue our command and control view that we must dominate over nature and fight and kill anything that seems to be harmful.  Never mind if that "harmful" thing (like a weed) is actually an adaptation to a changing environment or actually serves a purpose.  Never mind if they are actually taking advantage of a niche (such as unhealthy soil) and can work to heal it and bring up nutrients.

Now, I'm not saying that in some cases, drastic measures should not be taken, such as selectively using a (hopefully) minimally-harmful chemical treatment, to save a beloved tree from an invading pest.  However, when we do choose such chemical-based treatments, we need to weigh the pros and cons and the impacts of using such a method and perhaps consider how we got ourselves into such a predicament in the first place.  We should also consider whether we need to entirely change how we grow things.

I believe that, generally, when we find ourselves in need of controlling something or another, it is because something was out of balance in the first place.  In a healthy ecosystem (just as with a healthy body) where everything is in balance, there are many fewer opportunities for anything invasive to come in and take over, since all available niches are already in balance.

Quite often, when we have invasive species that come into an area, it is because there has been some disturbance and a niche has been opened up, allowing for something new to come in and become invasive.  For instance, in ecosystems, invasive plants often start out at roadside locations, where there have been issues of compacted soil and native plants are no longer thriving in that spot.  In other cases, human beings have purposely brought something new to an area, and then, Surprise! it escapes and now it's taking over everything.

In the case of agriculture, our obsession with growing large amounts of a single thing after a great deal of soil disturbances (tillage), absolutely leaves such a system vulnerable to attacks from pests who love to eat that particular thing.  You find yourself having to continually increase your level of toxicity to try to keep up with insect populations that continually become resistant to any of the chemical advancements on the market.  Since you have killed off nearly all of the beneficial soil microbes through the application of agricultural chemicals, and you now have soil that is nearly bankrupt of nutrition in the soil because your "fertilizers" only focus on a few select "nutrients" to "feed" the plants, you are left with crops that are dependent upon constant protection from pests through chemicals.

You also have "food" that is bankrupt of nutrition, and a boring monoculture of a landscape that no longer provides habitat for living things.  And, since such industrial conventional agricultural methods use certain chemicals that don't discriminate between the "harmful" and the beneficial insects, the pollinators that much of the food system is dependent upon are threatened and their numbers are plummeting.

Not to mention the fact that more and more of this global industrialized agriculture system is becoming centralized into just a handful of powerful multinational corporations, and does not respect the global environment that humanity and every other living creature on Earth depend upon to live.  Such as system certainly does not respect the power of people to have choice over what they eat and feed their families.

Man, what a circus that industrial agriculture has become!  For many reasons, we must stop this madness of control and monocultures that is threatening biodiversity and has greatly failed us in so many ways.

There is a Better Way
Much of this industrialized agriculture system evolved when we stopped growing and producing our own food and gave that responsibility over to someone else.  When we abdicate the production of our food over to other parties, we have many fewer opportunities to know how that food was produced.

With Big Food and Big Agriculture having such corporate control over the food system, we have two options to ensure a healthy and equitable food system: buy food from only producers that produce food with true sustainability in mind or to produce it ourselves.  By buying food from companies that we have no idea how it is being produced, we continue to feed the Big Food "monster" that makes profit from the destruction of the environment, destruction of our God-given right to healthy organic food, and the destruction of communities and lives around the world.

The truth is that if the majority of people in the world stopped giving money to these less-than-savory corporations in the first place, they would go out of business virtually over night.  What keeps those companies going (besides the bribery of our government officials) is that enough people are still buying their stuff.  While our powers to influence corrupted politicians that are deeply involved with special interests seem to be eroding today, we can help to stop them by how we spend and invest our money. If we instead support those companies and individual producers that are doing the right things for people and the environment, we are helping to steer the global food system in the right direction.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile now knows that I believe firmly in producing as much food as you can yourself, including growing your own fruits and vegetables.  Every single thing that you produce yourself is one less thing that feeds the corporatocracy that is aiming to control what we eat and use in our daily lives.  Just be sure that whatever seeds you plant also have come from reputable companies that truly have ecology and sustainability at heart.

In my own garden, I have never used any garden chemicals, and I have only ever employed organic pest control methods.  I have had few weed issues, since I employ permaculture growing techniques such as mulching and the use of cardboard to reduce the opportunity for weeds to take ahold.  The weeds that I have had are much easier to pull out than a traditionally tilled garden because of the mulching that I employ.

I have a very productive home garden (as you can see in the picture above, the zucchinis that I have been harvesting from my new hugelkultur garden bed are huge!) with reduced work and reduced need for water.  I try to employ gardening techniques that work with nature and not against it, and I do not grow things in long rows of the same thing that would attract pests that love to eat that specific thing.

I understand that growing crops on a much larger scale is probably more of a challenge than a home-scale garden.  However, I know that many growers are now producing crops and other products using ecological methods such as biodynamic agriculture, organics, and large-scale permaculture, and finding a lot of success.  The idea that we must grow industrial farms to "feed the world" is utter nonsense, and a cultural belief that must be changed.

Perhaps we also need to change our view that we need just a few main food commodities to a view that supports a much more diversified diet that is more seasonally-based.  It really wasn't that long ago that traditional farming incorporated a variety of crops, and it was much more friendly to existing alongside local wildlife and other parts of nature.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

You Can Have Your Flowers and Eat Them Too!

Calendula blossoms in a salad.  Edible flowers are a great way to add some extra nutrition and vibrant color to your recipes.

Flowers can be very beautiful and help to attract pollinators, but to actually eat them?  This is indeed uncharted territory for many of us.  The idea of eating flowers was new to me until I started a garden three seasons ago. After all, how often do you see edible flowers for sale at the supermarket?  Never, really...

As it turns out, many flowers are quite edible, and many of those colorful blooms even have health benefits such as providing vitamins, minerals, and healing phytonutrients.

While the idea of eating flowers may sound a little strange, their consumption may not actually be that foreign to us, as many of us have enjoyed the benefits of herbal flower blossoms like lavender and chamomile that can be used in herbal teas and are very healing to the body.  Dandelion blossoms are also a well-known edible flower with many healing benefits.

My latest experiment with edible flowers has been to eat some of the calendula blossoms growing in my garden in salads.  After growing calendula for a couple of seasons and then using the flowers to make homemade lotions and salves, I decided to try eating them recently after learning how they can help to reduce inflammation in the body, help to heal the digestive tract, and have a number of other health benefits. 

Other ways to consume calendula blossoms are in teas and added to soups and stews.  They can be eaten both fresh and dried.  I found that the best way to eat them fresh has been to eat them with homemade raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing, but you may find your own favorite way to consume them. 

Be aware that although many flowers are edible and healthy for you, some of them are not edible and can actually be toxic, so it’s important to do some research to learn which ones you can consume and which ones to stay away from. 

It’s also very important to eat only those flowers that have not been sprayed with chemicals, are not harvested growing along roadsides, and to start out slowly to ensure that you do not have any adverse reactions to consuming flowers before consuming them in larger quantities.

For more information about edible flowers and which ones are safe to eat, this is a great resource to start with.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hugelkultur Garden Update

Our hugelkultur bed has really started to take off lately!

In this bed, we have three tomato plants that are starting to grow tomatoes, three zucchini plants that already have zucchini growing (I harvested my first one late last week, and man was it a huge zucchini!), two pie pumpkin plants with vines that are now vigorously growing, some Swiss chard, a couple of sunflowers, and a few herbs, including holy basil.

There are still ants living in the bed, but I decided to just let them be since we are getting quite a bit of growth, and I am pretty satisfied with that alone.

I have let a few weeds grow in the bed to help keep the soil in place.  If they start going to seed, I will attend to that, but in the mean time, they have actually been helpful to this point with holding the soil down.  Thus far, I haven't had a ton of weeds anyway since it is more of a raised bed style garden.

I am monitoring the plants in this bed to see if it needs watering.  Since one of the benefits of a hugelkultur bed is that very little watering is required, I am keeping an eye on it, but am not currently watering it.  I haven't really watered it much since I first planted in the bed, actually.

Since we have been blessed with a good amount of rainfall this year (and my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone in a drought-stricken area right now), I haven't really needed to water my garden beds much anyway, but with this one in particular, I am experimenting with how long I can go without watering it.  Hopefully the rest of the season, but we shall see...

The most exciting recent development in this bed is that one of my dwarf sunflowers has finally started to bloom.  This is the first year that I have grown sunflowers, so I can't wait until all of them start to flower.  My goals with them are to help attract pollinators as well as to bring some beauty to the garden.

The other day, I took a picture of that sunflower just before it was going to bloom:

And then afterward:

What a beauty!  Quite often, it is the most simple things that are the most beautiful, just as our Creator made them.

For those who are not familiar with hugelkultur-style gardening, it is essentially burying woody materials such as logs and twigs in soil and then growing plants on top of that mound.  These gardens are very productive, and because they contain wood, they soak up water like a sponge.  This gives us a big advantage for growing things in a way that dramatically conserves water.

I hope that using water-saving growing techniques like hugelkultr will become much more commonplace, since water resources have been predicted to become much more limited in the future.

This garden bed should become even more productive with each passing year as the wood continues to break down.

To learn more about how I built my hugelkultur garden bed and to see what the bed looked like before everything started growing so vigorously in it, check out this post that I wrote back in May.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Joy of Summer Berries and Other Edible Wild Plants

We were given a lovely gift from one of the former owners of our house when we bought it over two years ago.  Well, it wasn't exactly an intentional gift- it came with our yard.  We bought our house during the winter when the yard was covered with snow and all of its plants were taking their winter nap.  We didn't even know it would live with alongside us.  Once the spring came, we realized what this plant was: a mulberry bush, and once June rolled around, I tasted mulberries for the first time.

I grew up as a city girl, and so I really never had much exposure to edible plants that lived around me.  Even if we did have mulberry bushes in our neighborhood, I would never have known it.

It's only as I've gotten older that I have learned so much about the value of the world of plants, including herbs and edible wild plants.  Sometimes, due to my Western World conditioning, I still question whether some of these things are safe, even if I've learned that they absolutely are.

I believe that this questioning comes down to how disconnected we are from the natural world around us, and how we are conditioned to believe that only things that have come from a store or a lab really have value or are safe.  We are led to believe that we'd better not do anything with nature or it might kill us.  We have been taught to fear the beautiful and good things that God has created for us.

I'm not saying that we should just throw caution to the wind and eat absolutely every plant out there, but I do think that we need to get back to the roots of our ancestors and learn about the value of wild plants for both medicine and food.

So back to my mulberry bush...  After tasting them and doing a little bit of research, I found out that not only do mulberries taste delicious, they also have many health benefits.  I would love to put that benefits of helping to retain one's natural hair color to the test!

I have harvested about two and a half quarts full of berries so far, and I'm not done yet.  They have all gone into the freezer so that I can use them after the berry harvest has ended.

I have decided to share the berries with the birds and primarily harvest what I can reach from the ground.  The birds need food too!

Now to find some mulberry recipes!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Establishing My New Hugelkultur Garden Bed

Hugelkultur is a term that very few Americans are familiar with.  It is a strange, foreign-sounding word, a gardening method that has been utilized for many years in Europe.  This gardening method is very innovative, but also very natural at the same time.   Hugelkultur is basically burying woody materials in soil, such as logs and twigs, and then growing plants on top of that to create awesome and productive garden beds.

We had an oak tree that was trimmed last fall in our backyard, and so I was excited to put those logs to good use for my garden.  Extra logs sitting around… garden waiting for awesomeness… “What an excellent opportunity,” I thought to myself!  Since my keyhole bed garden was newly established last year and it didn’t produce as much as I would have liked yet, I decided to just convert it into a hugelkultur keyhole raised bed garden.

How It Works
The woody materials in a hugelkultur bed soak up water like a sponge and then the wood also enriches the garden bed as it breaks down.  This dramatically reduces the need for watering and fertilizing your garden.  Hugelkultur is yet another way to “compost in place” (straw bale gardening is another method of doing this as well, which I have written about in the past) and to create productive gardens with reduced work.  From what I have read, once a hugelkultur bed is established, you should not need to water it very often, and it remains productive for many years!

You can dig a ditch where your garden bed will be and then cover your woody materials with the soil from the digging process, if you desire more of a traditional flat garden bed look.  The second method is to place the woody materials directly on top of the ground and cover the wood with soil that you have brought in from elsewhere, and you will end up with a mound-shaped garden bed.   You can also place woody materials into the bottom of a traditional raised bed (such as those built out of wood), and cover the rest of the raised bed with soil for the same effect. 

The advantage of building the bed above ground using the mound style is that you increase the surface area of growing space: instead of just growing along the ground as in a flat garden bed, you can grow on the sides as well as the top, to utilize garden space more efficiently.  The disadvantage of the mound style hugelkultur bed is that it definitely has a more non-traditional garden bed look to it, which some people and neighborhoods do not prefer.  Since I am ultimately in favor of sustainable food production over aesthetics, I prefer the mound style and that is what I chose when building my own bed.  I also had no desire to dig a big ditch either, so this method seemed at least a little bit easier to me.  I have tried to “beautify” the bed a bit by placing fencing around it and a single layer of bricks around the base.  My next door neighbor still seems skeptical, however…

There is debate among hugelkultur enthusiasts concerning whether or not burying wood in your garden bed utilizes a great deal of nitrogen and takes it from growing plants since the wood is a large source of carbon.   Therefore, you would need to add some nitrogen-rich materials like composted manure back to compensate and bring the soil back into balance.  Others claim that it will not draw that much nitrogen out the soil, especially if you use woody materials that have had a chance to rot for awhile.

Being new to the entire hugelkultur growing method and taking the middle ground of the nitrogen debate, I decided to add some compost, potting soil that contained some organic fertilizer (which does contain some nitrogen), and some spent coffee grounds (thanks to my local neighborhood coffee shop!) on top of the purchased topsoil that I covered the logs with.

Please note that not all types of wood are amenable to hugelkultur.  Some tree species prevent other plants from growing, such as Black Walnut, and others contain resins that my resist breaking down such as many coniferous trees.  I would recommend doing some research to determine whether the wood that you would like to use will work.  The tree that was trimmed in my yard is an oak tree, which is useful for hugelkultur, so that is what I used.

Some Examples
To get a better idea of what hugelkultur is all about, here is a great video that was produced by Paul Wheaton, one of the Big Kahunas of permaculture.  The video discusses what hugelkultur is and shows a number of real examples of how it works:

For comparison of bed styles, here is a video produced by someone who used the hugelkultur technique in traditional raised beds:

And, here is a video that shows one person’s experience with establishing hugelkultur beds, and the productivity that resulted from them within the first growing season:

Making My Own Bed (With Help)
Admittedly, I couldn’t have built my hugelkultur bed by myself.  Most of the logs were just way too heavy for me to lift myself, so I was grateful when my husband and my brother-in-law agreed to help place them in the keyhole bed.  Then, my husband and I bought many, many bags of topsoil from one our local garden centers, brought them home, and added them on top of the logs.  Believe me, if you ever decide to build a huguelkultur bed, this is not a one-person job!  Get help… Bribe friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. with produce from your garden if you must, but I repeat, do not do this one by yourself!

Then, once all of the logs and twigs were covered with soil, compost, and coffee grounds as much as I could, I planted quite a few transplants.  Due to all of the growing space available in the mound, I even ran out of transplants, so I also planted some seeds.  I have read that it is important to plant plants and seeds as soon as you can once you build your hugelkultur bed so that you can give your plants a head start in establishing themselves before weeds have a chance to establish first.  Some people even recommend placing a layer of straw (not hay- hay has seeds!) directly on top of the hugelkultur bed to cover the soil in order to help control weeds and help to hold the soil in place if you have a vertical hugelkultur mound.  Unfortunately, I did not have any straw, and money was limited, so I did not do this, but it would probably be a good idea if you can manage it for your own hugelkultur bed.

My Hugelkultur Feedback So Far
Watering:  I have watered the bed several times once things were planted last week, and it has also rained for several days since.  I am hoping that I will not have to water it much from now on, but I will be monitoring it to see how things go.

Plant Survival:  A few of the very small transplants have not survived since planting them, but they may not have survived anyway no matter where I had planted them.  Fortunately, I have planted many different plants and generally a few of each plant between my main garden area, my herb spiral, and this new hugelkultur bed, so I’m not terribly worried about a couple of plants that don’t make it.  Usually plenty of other things make it in my garden even if a few things don’t!  My four zucchini plants are holding strong, however!  I will probably have lots of zucchini to give away.

Soil erosion:  The bed has experience a little bit of the soil moving downward vertically since there is not much to hold it in place yet until the plants take root.  If I had the opportunity to place straw on the bed prior to planting, I would do that next time.  Mulch and/or brush prior to planting would also have probably decreased this effect so I will keep that in mind for next year if it is needed.

Ants:  My yard does have quite a bit of ant activity going on (including Carpenter Ants), and so I will be closely monitoring the bed for ants.  I did find one spot within two days of planting in the bed where there must have been a nest of small ants.  Not sure what to do, I looked up natural ant killers, and found this solution that uses borax (note the cautions listed in the article, however).   I put this on the area where the ants were, and within a day there was no more evidence of the ants there.  I will keep monitoring to see if any more ants appear in the mound.  I cannot give advice regarding termites and hugelkultur beds, so I recommend doing your research first, and if you have a problem with termites, you may need to try a different gardening method.

I am hoping that my new hugelkultur bed will be super-productive.  Only time will tell, but it should be fun to see how things go.  Hugelkultur beds are supposed to become more productive as the wood continues to break down with each passing season.

Building the Bed in Pictures…

My keyhole bed garden from last year that I used to create my
new hugelkultur garden bed.

The wood is now in place…

Covering the wood with soil…

The new hugelkultur bed, covered with soil and planted.  There is 
now a fence built with chicken wire around it, as well as 
some bricks at the base to serve as a decorative border 
and deterrent to rabbits to dig underneath the fence.   Now, we wait!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

How to Make Your Very Own Reishi Mushroom Tincture

Red Reishi Mushroom growing in the wild, photo courtesy of Vik Nanda,

For those who are really interested in herbs and superfoods as I am, the other worldly looking Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is considered to be one of the most powerful adaptogenic herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine.  Rare in nature and once reserved for Chinese royalty, this “Mushroom of Immortality” is now cultivated commercially and widely available for “the rest of us.”

Adaptogenic herbs (check out my post on Holy Basil to learn about another great adaptogenic herb that is easy to grow in your own garden) are a special class of herbs that help to bring overall balance and restoration to the body and help to combat the physical and emotional effects of stress.  They are especially effective at helping to support the immune system.  Reishi is one of the best herbs in this class and is well worth learning about. 

For those who are not familiar with Reishi or other medicinal mushrooms, world-renown mycologist (a scientist who studies fungi, for those who are unfamiliar with the term) Paul Stamets is probably one of the best folks to learn from.  He wrote an article about Reishi in the Huffington Post, and it’s well worth a read.  So is this article from Dr. Joseph Mercola describing the benefits of mushrooms for health, including Reishi mushrooms. 

For all of you gardeners out there, Paul Stamets’ site, Fungi Perfecti, is a great resource for those looking to cultivate mushrooms on their own, along with a plethora of other resources for all things fungi. 

I dream of someday cultivating my very own patch of Reishi in my own backyard.  For now, I enjoy drinking Reishi tea almost every morning with organically cultivated Reishi that I purchase from a reputable herb vendor online, and I recently made my own dual extraction tincture from some that I already had at home.  Using organically cultivated or sustainably sourced Reishi from a clean source is especially important, since mushrooms tend to soak up toxins such as heavy metals.  While that “soaking up” is super great to help detoxify our bodies, that is not so great if you are using medicinal mushrooms from polluted sources to help your body heal or to just stay healthy.

A Dual What?
What is a dual extraction tincture, you ask?  Well, for certain herbs and medicinal mushrooms like Reishi, there are a variety of medicinal properties that you need to employ several methods to extract as many of those properties as possible.  For Reishi, the immune system supporting properties, such as beta-glucans and polysaccharides, there are certain properties that are extractable through boiling the Reishi in hot water (this method is called a decoction in the herbal world), and the most powerful adaptogenic and liver protecting properties are only extractable through an alcohol extraction method. 

To learn more about why dual extraction is important for medicinal mushrooms like Reishi, check out Daniel Vitalis’ article on the subject here.

While there certainly are a number of high-quality commercial sources for obtaining Reishi dual extraction tinctures, many of them are rather costly, and for most folks who don’t have a lot of extra cash to spend on herbal remedies but would still like to experience the health benefits that such remedies have to offer, making your own might be the best way to go.  And that, Dear Readers, is just what I recently did in the Day by Day Homesteading kitchen.

How I Made a Dual Extraction Reishi Tincture (and You Can Too!)
For such powerful herbal medicine, making a dual extraction Reishi tincture is actually fairly simple.  It just requires some time and patience to complete the entire process.  From what I have heard, the longer that you let the alcohol tincture infuse, the more the alcohol will continue to extract the medicinal components of the mushroom.  I have even heard of some medicinal mushroom alcohol tinctures that were extracted over a period of two years!  I didn’t wait that long, but I did wait and let mine extract in alcohol for about six months. 

For those who would like information about how to make a basic herbal alcohol tincture from leafy plant parts, such as from Holy Basil leaves, check out this post.


 1.  Place some Reishi slices in a glass jar and pour enough 80 to 100-proof alcohol such as vodka (I prefer organic whenever possible) to cover them by a couple of inches.

The organic vodka and Reishi mushroom slices that I used to make
the alcohol portion of the tincture.

2.  Screw on the lid of the jar and shake the contents to begin the alcohol infusion process.

Infusing the Reishi slices in vodka.

3.  Let your jar sit for a minimum of 4-6 weeks, but in the case of a medicinal mushroom such as Reishi, the longer that you can let it infuse the more potent that your extract will become.  As I mentioned above, I let my Reishi infuse in alcohol for about six months. 

Shaking the contents regularly is important to assist with the infusion of the medicinal properties of the herb into the alcohol.  For most herbal tinctures, shaking every day is standard, but generally, that is for only 4-6 weeks.  A couple of times a week should be sufficient if you are going to let your Reishi alcohol tincture infuse for a much longer period of time.

4.  When you have decided to stop infusing the Reishi in alcohol, strain off the Reishi slices, but don’t discard them yet!  You can use the very same Reishi slices to prepare your Reishi hot water decoction (used to extract medicinal properties from woody or fibrous plant materials), since the water decoction method will extract different properties from the Reishi than alcohol does.

The Reishi alcohol tincture after infusing for about six months.

Straining off the Reishi slices from the alcohol tincture.

 5.  After you have strained off the Reishi slices/pieces from the alcohol tincture, measure an equal amount of filtered water (I used spring water) to use for making your Reishi decoction.  When your Reishi dual extraction tincture is complete, you should end up with a ratio of 1:1 alcohol tincture of decoction that is mixed together.

Measuring a volume of spring water equal to the amount of liquid alcohol tincture
in preparation for making a Reishi decoction.

6.  Make the decoction by simmering the Reishi in water on low heat for 25 to 45 minutes, and then strain off the Reishi pieces from the liquid.   For an even stronger decoction, you could also simmer the Reishi in water for 20 to 30 minutes, and then pour the Reishi slices + decoction into a quart jar and let it sit overnight, or for a good part of a day (6-8 hours should be good).

Making the Reishi decoction.

7.  After you have strained off your Reishi slices from your decoction, let the liquid cool fully or strain off the Reishi after letting your decoction sit for 6-8 hours.  You will now have two different liquids: a Reishi alcohol tincture and a Reishi decoction. 

In the picture below, the jar on the left has the alcohol tincture, and the right has the decoction.  Note the different colors between the two extractions and that some of the water volume for the decoction had decreased to less than the original volume, leaving a slightly greater ratio of alcohol to water decoction.  This should not be a big deal, but you might try adding slightly more water prior to making the decoction to end up with a closer ratio of 1:1 in your completed dual extraction tincture.

The Reishi alcohol tincture (left) and the Reishi decoction (right) prior
to mixing them together to complete the dual extraction tincture process.

 8.  Pour the decoction into the jar with the alcohol tincture, and mix together well.  A wooden spoon works great for this.  You now have a Reishi dual extraction tincture!

The finished Reishi dual extraction tincture!  Yay!

9.  Be sure to label what your tincture is and when it was made.   Pieces of recycled brown paper bags labeled with permanent marker work great and are an inexpensive option. 

Store your tincture in a cool dark place away from direct sunlight, and your tincture should stay good for a year or much longer.  Here is a great article that discusses Reishi dual extraction tinctures and suggestions for dosage.

Congratulate yourself that you have made a powerful herbal adaptogenic remedy that did not cost you an arm and a leg!

As always, be sure to check with your health practitioner to determine if Reishi supplements or tinctures are a good fit for you and your current health situation.

Monday, March 9, 2015

New to Seed Starting? Check Out These 16 Tips to Help You Get Started!

For those of you who are new to gardening, or just need a refresher, I wrote a post in February of 2014 about how to start seeds.  Although I am pretty committed to new content in my posts, I thought that I would run this post again this year since it contains so much helpful information, especially to those who aren't sure where to start with this process.


16 Tips for the Seed-Starting Newbie

Three of my seed packets that I plan to use this season.  I particularly like Botanical Interests seeds due to their large selection of Certified Organic and heirloom varieties.
I’ll admit it: I am a Seed Starting Newbie.  I did start some seeds last year to kick off my first gardening season.  However, without much prior knowledge about how to start seeds, I probably made many, many mistakes.  Most of the seeds that I started indoors last spring simply did not make it, likely because I didn’t really know what I was doing.  I was super excited to start my first garden last year, and I probably went a little gung-ho (okay, probably a lot, actually…).  Essentially, I just forged ahead without studying up on the best methods to approach seed starting.  Fortunately, I had also purchased a lot of starter plants in the spring, so I still had quite a successful garden last year despite my poor seed-starting experience.
This year, I am no longer completely new to gardening, but I still have a lot to learn when it comes to starting seeds and having greater success with it.  With that said, I decided to do a little bit of research this past week on the topic.  To increase my knowledge, I attended a free seminar at my favorite local garden center last Saturday, and I also did some reading from a number of gardening books that I own.  

In case you’re like me and you need to learn some best practices for starting your seeds, the following tips should be really helpful.  I know that I will now have a much greater knowledge base going into this year’s growing season, and I hope that many more of my little baby plants will live long enough to make it into my garden.   These tips are not meant to be an all-inclusive class on seed starting, so I recommend that you learn as much as you can about it on your own as well.  This information should be a great start for the beginner, however.

1.  Buying Seeds and Seed Sources.  Seeds can be purchased from individual seed companies online, through seed catalogues, or found at garden centers and home improvement stores.  The newest developed varieties, rare or unusual varieties, and certified organic seed tend to be sold at higher prices.  Other great sources for seeds are from friends, family members, or neighbors who have extra seeds that they saved from their garden last year, seed swap events, and from seed libraries

Although it can be very tempting to buy a large amount of different seeds, it is recommended that you do not buy more seeds than you plan to use within two to three years.  Within each seed is a living plant embryo that needs to remain alive until germination occurs, so the fresher the seed, the better the chances are that the seed embryo will still be alive and will germinate. 

The best thing to do if you have leftover seeds from the current season is to store them in an airtight container in a cool space; a refrigerator is ideal.  You can add a packet of silica gel or a teaspoon of powdered milk in a piece of facial tissue or paper towel to absorb any moisture that is present in the container. 

2.  Read Your Seed Packets.  Seed packets contain a lot of valuable information about the growing requirements of the particular plants that you want to grow, including how long it takes the seed to germinate, the seed sowing depth, and when to start growing the seeds inside to get them ready for outdoor planting.

3.  Test the Germination Rates of Your Older Seeds.  If you have seeds that are more than a year old, you should perform a “germination test” to determine how viable the seeds are because they become less viable over time. 

  • Place 10 of your seeds on a moist paper towel, and place a second paper towel directly on top of your “seedy” paper towel to sandwich the seeds in between.  
  • Roll the paper towel up, place it in a plastic bag, a glass container, or a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid, and set in a warm place such as on top of your refrigerator or on top of your hot water heater.  
  • Some seeds do better germinating with more light, and some do best germinating in darker conditions, so do some research about which conditions are best for your seeds.
  • Check your seeds every two or three days to see if they have sprouted.  Once they have sprouted, determine how many actual seeds have germinated and then multiply that number by 10.  That is your germination rate.   A germination rate of less than 70% is a poor germination rate.  You can probably still use them, but you’ll need to sow your seeds more thickly to compensate for their less-efficient germination rate.
You can also use this process of pre-sprouting on your seeds to avoid some of the risks that naturally go with sprouting seeds in a soil mix, and it can also speed up the germination process.  If you choose to use this seed sprouting method, be sure to transplant them right away into small pots with potting soil as soon as they have sprouted.

4.  Growing Medium.  It is recommended that special seed starting mixtures be used for starting seeds.  These mixtures typically are made of vermiculite and peat, and do not contain any actual soil.  These mixes have several advantages for seeds starting, including a sterile environment, they are free of weed seeds, and they have a texture and “porosity” that is ideal for seed germination and developing seedlings.

Put whatever containers that you are using into a solid tray, fill them with the seed starting mixture, and water them before planting any seeds.  The seed starting mix should settle down into the container somewhat, so you will likely need to add more mix, water again, and repeat the process until the containers are nearly full.

5.  Containers.  Seeds should be started in small individual containers.  You can use divided containers with a single seedling/cell.  If you sow many seeds in a large container, you may run into issues with roots growing into one another that can be easily injured when the plants are transplanted.  “Cell flats,” plastic sheets with many small seeding compartments can be used to start seeds, as well as small individual plastic pots.  Any container that you use to start seeds must have drainage holes.

  • You can reuse plastic seed starting containers, but they should be cleaned very well prior to use or you could risk infecting your new seedlings with pathogens from the last time they were used.  The seed starting containers can be easily sterilized by first washing your pots and flats in water with a mild dish detergent and then soaking the cleaned containers in a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water or other disinfectant for 30 minutes and then rinsing well.   Let the containers dry before you use them for your plants.
  • Many different types of fiber pots are available for planting directly into your garden, including those made from peat, cow manure, and shredded wood.  Some gardeners even make their own pots out of newspaper.  These types of pots are especially useful for growing those plants with delicate roots that are easily damaged during transplanting, such as cucumbers and squash.
  • Plastic domes that go over the seedling trays help to let light in, keep moisture from escaping, and can help to retain heat for the developing roots of the seedlings.  The domes should be removed when the seedlings are tall enough to touch the top.
  • Sphagnum moss can help to prevent fungal growth problems in your seed starting containers, due to the moss’ acidity.  You can put some Sphagnum moss in between the individual rows of your seed flat to help prevent damping off.

6.  Sowing your seeds for germination.  The seed packet should contain directions about how best to sow the seeds that you want to plant. 
  • A good rule of thumb is to plant a seed four times as deep as its width (give enough room so that three seeds could be placed directly above it).
  • Label which seeds you planted and where using purchased tags, wooden craft sticks, or strips from plastic jugs.  Permanent marker works well when writing on the labels and will not easily wear off under wet conditions.
  • Some seeds need light to germinate.  Check the seed packet or do some research to find out if your seeds do.  After sowing the seeds, cover them thinly with vermiculite.   Vermiculite is porous enough to allow light through, but will help to keep your seeding medium moist, which is very important for seed germination.
  • Some seeds need to be in the dark to germinate:  Keep those seeds in dark plastic bags or keep them covered with several layers of newspaper until they germinate.
  • If using older seeds, plant two or more seeds/cell to ensure greater germination success.  Once the seedlings develop their true leaves, cut off all of the seedlings except the strongest one at the soil level with scissors.  If you try to pull them apart, you are likely to damage some roots.
  • Make sure that when sowing your seeds, your growing medium is filled to the top of the seed starting container. If there is a significant amount of space between the top of the growing medium and the top of the container, there will not be enough air flow getting to the seeds, and your seedlings may have problems with damping off. 

7.  Temperature.  While most seeds that are planted in the garden need warm conditions to sprout, some seeds actually need exposure to moist, cold conditions in order to sprout.  Some seeds need to go through such conditions because they have a natural dormancy protection that keeps them from sprouting during the cold winter months.   As spring comes with its freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycles, this dormancy protection is broken down and allows the seed to germinate.  Generally, if it’s a tree, shrub, or wildflower, chances are that the seeds need to be stratified. 

For gardeners, the process of stratification mimics nature’s process of breaking this type of seed dormancy: 
            1.  In a clean plastic container, place a layer of moistened growing mix and scatter a layer of dormant seeds on top.
            2.  Cover with more of the moist soil mix, making sure that the layer of seeds that you are scattering is thick enough to find them when you are done with the stratification process.
            3.  Cover your container with a tight-fitting lid and put it in your refrigerator. Make sure that the container is well covered to prevent moisture evaporation.  Different seeds need different amounts of time in the refrigerator.  Do some research about the seeds you are trying to sprout, including from seed catalogs.   
            4.  Once your seeds are sown and placed in the refrigerator, keep them in there for about a week.  
            5.  After a week in the refrigerator, let the seeds sit out at room temperature for 1-2 days, and then put them into the freezer for another 7 days.  Ideally, you would alternate between the refrigerator and the freezer a minimum of two times.  Some seeds have a normal dormancy requirement plus a tough seed coat, so the warm-up period in between satisfies this requirement.

8.  Keep Their Feet Warm (or The Seedling Sauna).  Wouldn’t you know it, saunas aren’t just for people!  Most of your germinating seedlings do best in a warm environment (approximately 70 degrees F), and an electric heating mat placed directly beneath your seedling tray will provide them with the most optimal temperature for quicker growth and the development of healthy roots.  The temperature of your growing medium can actually be about five degrees cooler than a room’s air temperature, so providing that bit of extra warmth will help to keep your germinating seedlings nice and cozy. 

Bottom heat also helps to prevent “damping off,” when seedlings die due to pathogens that can develop at the surface of your seed starting mix.  Electric heat mats are available at garden centers as well as through mail and internet suppliers.  You should provide heat to your seeds and seedlings consistently until your seedlings can be transplanted into small pots. 

Also, don’t plug your heat mat into your lighting timer if you have one!  Consistently warm temperatures are key!  

9.  Light.  Special “grow lights” that provide specific ranges of light required for plant growth can be used to grow seedlings once they have germinated, but using standard fixtures with “cool white” fluorescent light bulbs will also give the plants adequate light and are inexpensive.   If you seek a more visually-pleasing level of light where you are starting your plants, you can use a combination of cool white and daylight spectrum light bulbs.

  • Keep the lights between 2-4 inches away from the top of the seedlings.  A 2-inch distance is the most ideal. 
  • Growing seedlings need 12-16 hours of light per day, as well as a period of darkness each night for proper growth.  The use of timers can be helpful to keep up with the daily light requirements of your seedlings.
  • Lights used for your growing plants can be hung from the ceiling or ceiling beams with chains (dog chains are a great resource to use for this purpose).  Adjust and raise the lights on the chains as the plants grow.  

10.  Water.  As they develop, your seeds and developing seedlings should be misted with a spray bottle until they are transplanted into pots.  Do not use a watering can to water your seedlings at this stage, as this will make conditions too wet for them and can create “damping off,” or fungal problems for your developing plants.

  • Once you have planted the seeds in the cells, put your plastic dome on, if you are using one.  The dome will help to keep the humidity in.  Do not put your seed-starting tray by a window with the dome lid on, because it will make conditions too hot for the seedlings.  Essentially, this will “cook” your plants. 
  • To water the seeds under the dome, lift up the dome and mist it.  After your seeds germinate, remove the dome.
  • After putting your seedlings under your grow light, continue to water them gently using a mister or water bottle.  
  • Once you transplant your seedlings to pots containing potting soil, you can start to use a watering can.  Try to water them only from the bottom of the plant at this point, as water on the leaves of plants can lead to the development of fungal diseases. 

11.  Location, Location, Location!  Windowsills are not the best place for starting seeds.   They can be especially cold and drafty, particularly at night, and can have very hot temperatures during the day.   This translates to too many extreme temperature fluctuations, when what seedlings actually need for development are very consistent warm temperatures.  Excess heat exposure during the day can also quickly dry out the growing medium, and this can kill your seedlings.  

In general, the sunlight coming through a window is going to be much weaker than artificial lights that you can provide to your plants.  Since the light coming in through a window comes in from the sides and not from above, your plants can develop bent stems instead of straight ones.

The best conditions to start seeds are where they will be away from heavy traffic, pets, cold drafts, excessive heat, and where you don’t mind a few spills of water, fertilizer, or potting mixture every now and then.  If your plants have adequate bottom heat, such as the warmth supplied by a heat mat, air temperatures above 60 degrees F work fine.  Be sure to leave enough room for the seedlings as they grow.

12.  Transplanting After Germination.  After your seedlings have outgrown their seed-starting container, you can transplant them into pots containing regular potting soil.  Some well-suited containers to transplant these seedlings into are peat or other compostable pots, since you can plant them directly into your garden’s soil when they are big enough.  Alternatively, plastic cups with holes in the bottom to provide for drainage also are an option.

When transplanting your seedlings, carefully scoop out the seedling’s root mass (you can use a spoon or plant tag for extra support as needed) and lift them out.  Avoid holding your seedlings by the stem; they can be easily damaged.  Instead, carefully hold the plant by a leaf or by the root mass, and gently transfer the seedling to its new container.

13.  Getting the Timing Right.  Check seed packets for the number of days until harvest to allow the plants to ripen before the first frost arrives in your area.  Based upon that information, you can determine when you need to start the seeds indoors to get them ready for planting.  Many long-season vegetables have to be started inside in early spring, as well as many annual flowers that will bloom during the summer.  Smaller plants will typically transition more easily to the garden than larger plants will, so don’t worry about growing huge plants to transplant.

Altering the temperature and water conditions can alter how fast the seedlings grow.  Less water and cooler temperatures will slow down growth.  Moving them to a cooler place might also give you some extra time, as much as a week in some cases.  Just be careful that you don’t let your seedlings get too dry, or they could be stunted or killed.

Below are seed starting time suggestions for various vegetables and herbs:

Weeks Until Transplant Time
Brussels Sprouts
Chinese Cabbage

14.  Thin Your Seedlings.  If you have sown more than one seed in your seed starting container (this is likely if you have sown older seeds and would like to have greater assurance of successful seed germination), you may very well end up with more than one seedling growing from the same spot.  While it is great that you actually had successful germination of your seeds, only one seedling should be kept.  This is because if more than one seedling grows in the same spot, they will compete with one another for resources like light, space, nutrients, and water as they grow.  

If you end up with more than one seedling in a spot, you should choose to keep the seedling that is growing the most vigorously, because that is the one that is the most likely to survive from that point forward.  Cut off the extra seedlings at the soil level with a pair of small scissors at the ground level.  Do not pull out the extra seedlings, or you risk damaging the fragile developing roots of the seedling that you do want to keep.      

15.  When It’s Time for your Seedlings to Play Outside.  Plants started indoors will not be used to outdoor conditions (such as full wind, sun, and fluctuating temperatures), so they need a period of “hardening off” before they will do well outside all of the time.  If your plants aren’t given an opportunity to get used to being outside, they could get scorched by the wind or sun, and can die.

About two weeks prior to planting, move them outside for longer and longer periods every day.

           1.)  Put them outside for a few hours in the shade during the warmest part of the day that is protected from the wind.

            2.)  Leave the plants out a little longer each day, and expose them to increasing amounts of direct sunshine.
            3.)  At the end of two weeks, the seedlings can be planted outside in a sunny area unless there is the possibility of freezing temperatures in the forecast.
            4.)  Set out the seedlings in your garden once they have been hardened off. Transplant your plants during a cloudy day or late afternoon after the peak of the sun to avoid having your plants get sunburned.  Row covers or other types of plant protectors can help plants by reducing wind and temperature fluctuations.

If you do plant your seedlings in compostable pots, make sure that you trim the pots so that no part of the pot remains above the soil surface.   Any part of the pot remaining above the soil surface could wick water away from the root zone once exposed to drying air. 

Cut or tear holes in the bottom of the pots to allow the plant’s roots to spread out into the surrounding garden soil. 

16.  Do not fertilize your seeds during germination.  During the germination period, seedlings have access to all of the nutrients that they need from inside the seed itself.  By giving fertilizer to germinating seedlings, you will essentially be providing them with something that they aren’t likely to use, and you run the risk of developing algae growth.  Algae can thrive in the warm and moist conditions present within your seed-starting medium.  

Once your seeds have sprouted, the extra nutrients present in fertilizers are very helpful to your seedlings as they develop.  However, do not add any fertilizer until you have transplanted your seedlings from the seed-starting container into larger containers for further growth.

A calendula blossom, grown in my herb spiral last year.  Behind the flower are 
brown seed pods from my Sweet Basil plants.

Man, that was a very long post!  If you are still reading this, you are rockin' awesome!  In all seriousness, I wanted to provide you a good amount of information that will hopefully help you as you get your seeds started this year.  I wish you the very best in your seed starting endeavors this season!