Thursday, April 28, 2011

So, I asked my neighbor for a pot...


We have a neighborhood yahoo group that we use for everything from finding a lost cat to fighting the use of Round-up at our neighborhood park. Just this week I posted a request for honey bee swarms and a piano. I can't say enough great things about the group or this neighborhood!

So, a while back I posted my need for a large stock pot in which to brew natural dyes. I got a response from a neighbor I had never met but I had certainly noticed her house before. She often puts out a pair of scissors on a string in the middle of her blooming front yard Lavender enticing passersby to cut some some flowers for themselves. The kids and I had gathered lavender with those scissors in the past and always looked forward to the next year when we could harvest more amongst the buzzing honey bees.

She said she had an old canning pot she wasn't using anymore and that it might be just the thing for me. I walked down to her house to meet her and check out the pot. A couple of hours later I walked back home with my new pot in hand. She and I had gotten into a conversation about her travels around the world. She had recently returned from Uzbekistan where she had seen some beautiful work with natural dyes. She had purchased a few things that were just stunning. You can see the variation in color from one plant dye batch to the next. It was inspiring to say the least.


I had just pruned the Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) in the front yard and knew it was a dye plant (one of 25 here at the ol' homestead). I had some undyed wool yarn and a couple of thrift shop shirts I had bought to wear in the garden. One was striped with pink and purple and the other was white. After mordanting them with alum I put them in a bath of Toyon leaves and twigs. I was pleased with the results. The striped shirt caught the eye of a friend who now wears it. The peach shirt I wear in the garden and the yarn awaits a project.


A couple of days ago I had decided to write about this and needed to call that neighbor with the pot to ask if it was Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan she told me about. Then, she appeared at the door bearing a bucket of snails. How nice!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Easter Eggs with Plant Dyes


Here is our latest round of Easter eggs dyed with plants. We made two dye baths of onion skins. One pot was with yellow onion skins and the other was with red onion skins. This time we used flowers AND leaves for our prints and were quite happy with this results! The flowers themselves gave off a color of their own.

One of the kids used the small white flower of his beloved Wild Onion (Allium triquetrum) which is white. The print it made was a gorgeous deep yellow. On the other side of his egg he used part of an Oxalis leaf to make a heart print. It also left some yellow color. Japanese Maple leaf leaves leave a color of their own as well as Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium).

For the actual process go to my April 2010 entry and you will find it there.


It's fun to unwrap the eggs to see what chemical reaction the plant has made with the dye bath. Some leaves give color like this Buckeye leaf print while others just leave a resist print.


Our favorite looks like a flower print in blue. The flower itself was white with a purple center. The leaf print is Wormwood.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Weeding Our Neighbor's Garden, Part 2 (Chickweed)


Chickweed (Stellaria media) is delicious and plentiful in the backyards of our neighborhood. When we can't keep up with it we feed it to our chickens and ducks who love it. It comes up on its own in the garden beds and is easy to identify. The stem when gently broken and pulled apart has a little 'string' inside. When the plant blooms the flower looks like a little star. Hence the name Stellaria.


My favorite Spring tonic! Chickweed is highly nutritious and contains gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid. I have made a salad of only chickweed and dressing much to my taste buds' delight. It tastes just like a spinach salad without the funny feel on your teeth. I have read about large quantities causing stomach upset but I've sure never experienced it. Lately I've been making pesto out of it. Because the flavor is so mild I add Cilantro to spice it up a bit. Just combine garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper with your herbs in a blender. That's it. I make big batches in wide mouth jars and then freeze it. We've been eating pesto all winter this way. We put it on everything! We put in on toast, sandwiches, tamales, pasta, rice dishes, meat loaf, anything that needs a little extra flavor.


I'm not the only one around here who's hooked on Chickweed pesto on toast topped with a backyard egg!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Weeding Our Neighbor's Garden, Part 1 (Calendula)

Our friends who happen to live behind us (see very first blog entry) have a 'weed' problem in their vegetable garden. We need Calendula for our homemade salves, lotions and lip balms but have a hard time growing it. What does one thing have to do with the other? Everything. Each year as the rains fall in our gardens we all get edible, useful and medicinal plants without even trying.

For a hundred years or so our two houses have been here and our backyards have been joined. Over that span of time much of our topsoil has been washed by rain into our friend's backyard down slope . We are left with clay soil filled with river-rolled pebbles (and lots of broken glass). Many years of compost has now been added to our soil but it has a long way to go to match the silty soil next door. With the two different soil types we get different types of weeds.


I've planted Calendula officinalis (pot marigold) in our garden over the years and it grows but doesn't thrive. Next door, no one plants the smaller, wilder Calendula arvensis (field marigold) and it happily grows everywhere without effort.

Each year before they pull it out to give their veggies some room I go over with my basket and harvest. This year I had help. The kids happily dove into the process. At first there was talk of spiders and bees and ladybugs and then eventually silence. They were engrossed. "Snip, snip", "buzzzzzz.....".

As we were finishing up our friend came home with his little daughter. She saw us and quickly grabbed her big plastic 'trick or treat' jack o' lantern and began filling it with the small orange flowers. Her Dad pitched in saying, "You remember that oil you like? It comes from these flowers". Then, with baskets brimming with color we finished the harvest. "Look! The sun is in our baskets!" one of them said. Sure enough. They glowed like they were lit from within. Our hands sticky and smelling of warm Calendula we headed back to the house to prep the flowers for drying.




We then laid the flowers out on trays for drying in the greenhouse. We really just needed them wilted and not completely dried. Because we were putting them directly into olive oil and not storing them for use at a later time we just needed a lot of the moisture out to keep the oil from spoiling. The warmth of the greenhouse had them ready in no time.

We got out a big Mason jar and packed it with our flowers. Olive oil was poured over the flowers so that it covered about a half an inch above the flower level. We checked it later and the flowers had absorbed the oil so we had to top it off. I keep the jar in the side of our old oven where I store my cast iron pans. That way it gets warm from the pilot light in the other side and I can check it each day when I get out a pan. In June the kids and I will strain out the flowers and make our favorite Calendula Healing Salve. They put it on all of their bumps and scratches. One of the girls uses it for her eczema. I've given it to friends with babies and they swear it's the instant cure for diaper rash. I use it every night on my lips before bed. Its magic.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Greenhouse Heads Toward Completion


In search of a salvaged door for the new greenhouse we went back to Recycletown at the Sonoma County Dump in Petaluma. Nothing caught our eye in the door section so we headed over to the windows again. After measuring and brainstorming we found a skinny window that matched the ones we had already installed. My husband decided to make a door out of that window and voila! We had our greenhouse door. The window in the lower right corner of the picture above is the one we took home that day.


Framed with more Redwood water tank wood and fitted with a Victorian era knob and latch found in an old farm's garbage pit the door came out perfect!

Fitted with re-purposed plexiglass from our friend Sylvia's printmaking studio and stained glass left over from a prior project the greenhouse is getting closer to completion. Leaded glass windows left over from my parents' house remodel join the 'new' door. The only thing actually new about the greenhouse is the polycarbonate roofing, Univent, nails, screws and the roof cap.


One rainy and windy day last month I spent some time sowing seeds in the new greenhouse. It was warm and dry inside. The beautiful colors of the wood and glass brought 'a tear to me eye!'. I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be at that moment. That is one good feeling!


Those seeds have now been transplanted and the extras have been doled out to friends.

Some went to their new home across town in a bicycle basket and some were carried to neighbors on foot. The greenhouse is doing its job and doing it well!