The Woodland Understory

“The plants have enough spirit to transform our limited vision.”

Rosemary Gladstar

Included in our many diverse habitats, Strawberry Moon Farm treasures 3.5 acres of established woodlands. These wooded acres are my favorite places to explore. In the months of autumn, winter, and early spring, when the woods are not so dense with growing things and I am not so busy in the garden, I walk amongst the trees almost daily. Though 3.5 acres isn’t a huge forest, it’s enough that I can get a little bit lost in them if I’m trying. It’s enough that I can find myself completely surrounded by beings older than myself. Over the years I have learned how to identify most of the tree and plant species on the land. I’ve been delighted and amazed to find that many of them produce incredible foods, medicines, and other useful supplies. These woods have given me peace, insight, and sustenance. It is time for me to give something back to the woods. I intend to give them back their understory.

What Is The Woodland Understory?

When most people think of the woods, they think about the tall trees. But woodlands are made of many layers, and each layer is vital to the health of the whole. The word understory refers to the lower growing shrubs, brambles, herbs, and vines that grow beneath the tall canopy of the forest. This low layer of vegetation is often the most neglected, most damaged, and most threatened. Although some people plant new trees after old growth has been cleared, rarely does anyone come back to re-establish the native understory layer once those new trees have grown enough to form a canopy that can cover them. Invasive plants take over, and this precious habitat for native herbs is quickly filled by more aggressive species. Because of this, many of our native woodland plants are now threatened or endangered.

I am very excited to announce our newest project, to restore the woodland understory with native plants at Strawberry Moon Farm!

Project Details and Grant Funding

This week, I had the great privilege of signing the papers for my second grant award from National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS has been an invaluable partner to this farm, and in addition to funding our wetland reforestation project, they have also provided information, ideas, encouragement, and guidance. One of the ecology goals NRCS works towards is reducing the spread of invasive woodland understory plants, so they sometimes pay farmers to remove invasive plants such as Asian Bush Honeysuckle from their woods and hedgerows. The funding I received will help me in my endeavor to clear most of the honeysuckle from my woods and prepare the understory for replanting with native plants.

Money from these grants is often used to purchase herbicides to make sure the invasive plants are fully dead with no hope of return. I remain deeply committed to organic and least-harm land management methods, and I have been very up front about that with NRCS. We have agreed on an approach that uses no chemicals or sprays of any kind. It will be a more prolonged, labor-intensive approach, but I’m up for the task. My plan is to cut the bushes down to ground level, attempt to uproot as many trunks as possible, and then continuously mow over any re-sprouts so that they can no longer grow large or produce seeds. Some of the grant money I receive will be used to purchase new seeds and plants to give the understory new life after this transition. The seed of an idea for this project is one of the reasons why I joined the United Plant Savers and enrolled in the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine last year. Both of these organizations value the native herbs of Eastern North America, and I am learning as much as I can about these important plant allies in hopes of establishing thriving populations of them on this land.

Bloodroot In Bloom
Bloodroot, a precious native woodland herb

Thoughts About Invasive Plants

I’m grateful to the honeysuckle for stepping in to hold the soil together and perform the alchemical magic of photosynthesis. Perhaps no other plant could have done so without help. Human beings are meant to be part of nature after all, and wild spaces often struggle in our absence. But now that I’m here to step into the role of human being of this ecosystem, I am turning my attention to restoring balance in the woodland understory.

The land I live on was lushly forested and well managed by indigenous people such as the Miami, Lenape, Kaskasia, and Kickapoo tribes prior to colonization. When settlers pushed north from Kentucky to stake their claim on what is now Johnson County, Indiana, what they found was mostly forested swampland. They didn’t stop to consider how they might live in harmony with that kind of landscape, or what it could offer them. Instead, they made quick work of cutting down all the trees and burning everything in sight. They assumed such destruction was necessary in order to create open fields for the crops they were accustomed to farming. Perhaps it did not occur to them that people were already thriving on this richly forested land before they arrived, or that it was already the picture of abundance. Thriving forests require human management, and people had put a lot of work into those old forests that they thoughtlessly cleared.

Speaking as a person who works with this land every day, I can tell you with certainty that it still wants to be forested swampland. If I stop mowing a patch of ground and leave it to its own devices, it will be thick with baby trees within a year. The trees that grow up on their own are a result of whatever seeds blow in, and are not necessarily the most desirable species or even a very diverse mixture of species. One of the gifts human beings bring to the forest is the gift of creativity. We can look at a damaged field and think, “What if a great oak tree grew here, 50 years from now?” Humans have the power to imagine all the creatures that could raise families in the branches of that oak tree that does not exist yet, and all those that could gather acorns from below, and all the small plants that could grow in its shade. We have the power to plant seeds, to water them, to nurse them through their tender times until they are strong. And we have the skill to guard them against other plants and creatures that would snuff them out before they reach their full potential.

I used to be hesitant to weed out any plant from my garden. After all, every plant has special gifts, and no plants are bad or useless. However, I have grown to be more comfortable in performing my role as a human being of the ecosystem. I see now that removing one plant can be an act of care for another plant. To do so is to be a steward. Careful selection can bring beautiful growth.

I hope this project will bring forth something beautiful and new and ancient. It will take several years to complete, and I’ll update you from time to time on my progress. Wish me luck, and stay tuned!

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If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy these other posts about our woods and ecological restoration projects:
Farming The Wetland
The Food In The Forest
Life in the Flood Plain
Farming the Woodland

A Spark of Encouragement

Although my new garden expansion hasn’t been as successful this year as I hoped it would be, my two-year-old garden shines. Every day it greets me with a new lovely surprise. Some of you may remember my herb-loving snake friend from last year. She raised two littles in the garden last summer, and this year they have returned. She has grown to twice her previous size, shed her skin (I kept it), and this splendid little team has deftly handled my once-insurmountable vole problem. No more tunnels in the garden, no more root crops destroyed, no more seedlings uprooted! I want to throw a parade in her honor.

Garter Snake in the Herb Spiral
This is a photo from last year. She hasn’t allowed an updated portrait.

In my entire gardening career, I have never successfully grown eggplants. I have tried almost every single year at every single garden. This year is the year! My plants are loaded with beautiful striped heirloom Antigua Eggplants. I don’t expect I’ll harvest enough to sell at the market because I didn’t do a market-sized planting, but it’s enough to impart some much-needed encouragement, and hopefully a good seed crop so I can grow these again next summer.

Antigua Eggplant, Heirloom Eggplant Ripening
Antigua Eggplant, heirloom variety

Another plant I’ve always struggled to grow is winter squash. Squash Bugs seem to follow me wherever I go, and they win every single battle. This year I’m seeing much better success in the cucurbits I’ve planted, even the ones growing in the boggy soil of the new garden expansion. But by far the winner is this butternut squash, that I did not even plant, but which sprang up from the compost pile as if by magic. My most fervent wish this year was for a bountiful squash harvest. Squashes like the butternut make up the basis of my diet during the winter, and organic squash can be quite costly at the supermarket. The garden must have heard me, because just look at this beauty! Yet another good reason to tend a compost pile.

Volunteer Butternut Squash

My next joyful surprise came by way of a friend. Earlier this spring, she offered to share some yellow turmeric roots that she had grown in her garden. I previously dabbled a little bit in growing turmeric and ginger with mild success, but I hadn’t received a substantial harvest. Buoyed by the sight of her abundant turmeric treasure, I planted the starts she gave me. So far, it’s a roaring success. The plants have already outgrown two pots, and one of them blossomed last week. Check out this beautiful bloom! Turmeric is considered a medicinal plant due to the chemical component curcumin, but I feel like this flower is a different kind of medicine for the soul.

Lastly but not leastly, I have grown an absolute jungle of Thai Red Roselle Hibiscus! The fleshy red calyces can be made into delicious tangy beverages and jams. Most of these are second generation plants, grown from seed I saved from my 5 plants last year. I also planted some from a different seed source to compare, but there was no observable difference in the plants.

**Note that not every species of hibiscus is edible. The type discussed here is Hibiscus sabdariffa.

I hope you’re finding your own sparks of encouragement this summer!

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The Season Of Getting Real

This is my third summer living life as a full-time farmer and gardener. In that time, the seasons have begun to take on on new meanings for me. Autumn is the season when I rest and regroup after the harvest is in and the market season has ended. Winter is the season of dreams, when I organize my seeds and plan for the new season. Spring is the season of hope and faith, when I plant my seeds and imagine their harvests. But summer? Summer is the season of the reality check.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed right now by too many zucchini or too many weeds or too many bugs or too many plants that didn’t work out, give yourself a moment of peace and a deep breath. You are not alone. There is something precious in this moment, this experience, this lesson. If your garden didn’t thrive this year, that doesn’t mean your effort was wasted. Maybe you learned something new about your garden, or about yourself, that will help you go farther next time. The compost and mulches you applied will improve the soil and bless your next-year garden with a huge head start, and any weeds that grew tall will photosynthesize abundantly and contribute unseen benefits to the great web of life.

In contrast to the modern trend of broadcasting our shiniest moments, I believe it’s more important than ever to share our struggles. So many people feel alone with their setbacks in the face of the ever-growing feed of other people’s triumphs. More often than not, the messy hard work that went into producing the dazzling success we admire doesn’t make the editor’s cut. To me, that messy hard work is the most beautiful part. It’s the part that means you’re learning. It means the garden is growing you.

Whether you’re harvesting bushels of ripe tomatoes this summer or a sticky mess of hard lessons, take a moment to reflect upon your experiences so far. Write notes about it, and revisit your own writings from time to time, so you can continue to learn and grow and evolve. The lessons of summer are ripe for the picking.

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Sunflower Pesto

One of my favorite microgreens is the sunflower. I can’t get enough of the nutty, buttery, slightly piney taste of sunflower microgreens, and they’re a joy to grow. This particular microgreen will happily thrive in natural light, and asks only for a window with medium sun. I grow mine on homemade shelves in a west-facing window. They are a reliable crop year-round, and loaded with nutritional benefits.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with new recipes for my microgreens. In particular, I’ve been looking for ways to feed them to my friends and family who might not be as keen to chow down on plain greens as I am. One of my most successful attempts so far has been this recipe for Sunflower Pesto.

In addition to being my favorite microgreen variety, sunflower is a wonderful native food plant. I love incorporating its many edible parts into my cooking. I also grow plenty of sunflowers outdoors where all creatures great and small can enjoy their blooms. This recipe uses three sunflower products: the greens, the seeds, and the seed oil.

Ingredients

1 box (1/2 pint) Sunflower Microgreens
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup hulled sunflower seeds
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil, or Organic Cold-Pressed Sunflower Oil
1/2 – 1 cup goat cheese crumbles, or a vegan cheese substitute of your choice
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
1-3 medium sized garlic cloves, according to your taste preferences
Salt & Pepper To Taste. As a guideline for most palates, try 1/4 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper.

Instructions

Add all ingredients to a food processor, and process until nearly smooth. Pause to scrape down the sides of the food processor container if you notice ingredients sticking to the sides near the top.

Serving Suggestions

This pesto is delicious in all the ways I’ve tried it. You can use it in any recipe you currently enjoy that calls for pesto. Here are a few suggestions:
* As a spread for sandwiches
* As a pasta sauce, or combined with a creamy pasta sauce
* Mixed into the dressing for potato salads
* Slathered on roasted corn on the cob
* Tossed with grilled zucchini
* As a dip for your favorite raw veggies.

Notes

Sunflower Oil: If you can’t find cold-pressed organic sunflower oil, then I recommend using extra virgin olive oil instead. The inexpensive sunflower oil commonly sold in grocery stores is heavily processed with chemical solvents, and I don’t personally consider it to be a healthy choice. Of course, feel free to choose the olive oil anyway, for its excellent flavor, health benefits, and higher likelihood of already existing in your pantry.

Cheese Portions: If you are serving this recipe to people who are not eager greens-eaters, then I definitely recommend including the full cup of cheese. If you enjoy fresh green flavors and are looking for a healthier option, then reduce the cheese to 1/2 cup.

Vegan Substitutions: To make this recipe vegan, substitute the vegan cheese of your choice for the goat cheese crumbles. I really enjoy nutritional yeast as an affordable and easy substitute for cheese in pesto recipes. I also love this vegan mozzarella recipe from Avocadoes & Ales. There are numerous store-bought vegan cheese preparations available now, which is a wonderful convenience for those who choose to limit or eliminate dairy in their diet. If you’re going with one of these pre-made options, I suggest choosing one of the soft vegan cheeses rather than shreds or slices.

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Growth and Constraints on the Farm

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Masanobu Fukuoka, “The One-Straw Revolution”

As I write this, I find myself in July. The sky is dark, the air is thick with humidity, and the clouds have spent days flirting with rain without releasing any meaningful amount of water. Where have the months gone? I’ve been working in a daze since January, on a quest for growth. I spent my entire annual operating farm budget by May. Growth takes money as well as time, it turns out. Returns on my investment are still in dreams rather than in reality, but the dream persists, and so do I.

It is my deeply held belief that constraints are a healthy and necessary part of life. If I had unlimited resources, I wouldn’t be motivated to tap into my creativity for new ideas and solutions. If I never failed at anything, I would never learn to adapt. Life is constantly challenging us and in rising to meet these challenges, we become more of ourselves, approaching that which we were always meant to be.

four straw bales fit into the prius hatchback

Last year, my biggest constraint was garden space. I couldn’t grow enough produce to keep my market stand full. Some days I sold out, and some days the produce I brought to market was not the type people wanted to buy that day. I took notes. Bringing more types of items to the market seemed to be the key to success. So as soon as last year’s market season ended, I went to work expanding my garden. I nearly tripled my growing area. I built new fences and shoveled compost and topsoil and wood chips. I hauled many prius-loads of straw (the prius seats four bales of straw per load). No, I don’t need a truck. I do need to find a more local source of straw.

I raised enough plants from seed in my guest bedroom to fill all this space and more. I planted them all. I got really strong. I’ve never done crossfit, but from what I’ve seen, I think it must be inspired by farm life.

The spring rains came. And they stayed. I had purchased 200 new trees to add to my floodplain, and I never got to plant them because that land never drained. My new garden space, although not in the floodplain and on the same high level with my established and thriving garden, appears to suffer from a high water table. My 152 tomato plants, 158 pepper plants, and assorted other lovingly grown-from-seed plants all wilted. Every day I visited them, told them I loved them, and begged them to live. I did whatever I could for them.

June arrived, and it was dry! Every day I tested the soil in my new garden with a moisture meter. Does it need water yet? Still no. The meter continued to read “very wet” for weeks after the last rain. Finally, the moisture meter produced “average” water readings. The plants began to recover! A few plants had already perished, but the vast majority rallied, and are now looking green and growing again. The crop, if any, will be late. Late crops are not worth much money. People are excited to buy the first ripe tomato in July, but by September they’ve had their fill. Timing is everything, almost.

All this trouble with the water table will be resolved by next year’s planting. I’ll bring in more topsoil, more compost, more wood chips. The garden beds will grow taller, and plants will have more distance from the groundwater. We will reach equilibrium. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. Meanwhile, I still have all the vegetables I can produce in my established garden. I have huge coolers full of kale and collard greens and microgreens and fresh herbs at every market. And I am resourceful.

Sometimes, it takes a friend to remind you of who you are. My friends reminded me that I am more than just one thing. Included in that collection of things I am are an artist and a craftsperson. I’ve always loved making things. In preschool, my favorite toy was wood, nails, and a hammer. (Yes, they used to let children play with real nails and hammers at preschool!) Throughout my school years I was an active participant in 4-H, and I tried nearly every craft project in the catalog. In 2008, I started my first business, and it was photography. Eureka, the farm stand doesn’t have to be limited to only vegetables! The universe provided me with a huge burst of creative energy, and I started bringing my creations to market. I made tie dye textiles and beeswax candles and matted art prints. Jewelry and candlesticks are currently in the works. I’m having so much fun with this and you, my dear community, have been very supportive of this effort. Thank you. It will be a year before I can try again for that first July tomato, but a new candle can be ready in 24 hours.

The kale is always turning over a new leaf, and here comes the rain.

Blue curly Scotch kale growing in a raised garden bed

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Grilled Cheese with Sunflower Microgreens

Shortly after I left the big city, I realized that fresh salad ingredients were a little harder to come by in my new rural home. In the warm months I could rely on my garden, but what about the winter months? Leafy greens are the foundation of my own personal food pyramid, so I was highly motivated to find a solution to this problem. My quest led me to the library, where I found Peter Burke’s book, “Year Round Indoor Salad Gardening”. This is a book about growing microgreens on a window sill all year long. I got right on it and immediately planted all my windows, and I’ve been growing these delicious tiny greens ever since. Although my initial need was for winter greens, I grow these even in the summers because they are so delicious and reliable. The seeds can be purchased in large quantities from Johnny’s or The Sprout House, and they store well in airtight containers in my unheated basement. When the pandemic hit and grocery stores got crazy and my budget approached zero, I stayed home and sprouted my stash. Last year, I built shelving in my windows to increase my growing area to begin selling these delicious tiny harvests at my local farmers market. These greens have brought so much joy to my life. Whether you grow your own or purchase them at the market, this recipe brings a healthy twist to an indulgent childhood favorite recipe: the grilled cheese sandwich.

This recipe may work with other types of microgreens, but sunflower sprouts are my favorite. Unlike some of the more delicate types of microgreens, sunflowers hold up well to a bit of heat. Their succulent texture and nutty green flavor complements the melted cheese in a wonderful way, each encouraging the other to be even more of what we already love about it. And if you enjoy grilled cheese sandwiches often, adding microgreens to something you’re already making is a great way to give your meal a quick and easy nutrient boost.

Ingredients

– 1/2 box sunflower microgreens (about one big handful)
– 2 slices sandwich bread of your choice
– 1.5 slices white cheddar cheese, or enough to cover bread in a single layer
– 1.5 slices colby jack cheese, or enough to cover bread in a single layer
– Mayonnaise

Recipe

Place your pan on the stovetop and preheat it as you normally would for grilled cheese. Preheating is different depending on the type of pan you use. For example, if you have a nonstick pan with Teflon coating, you really shouldn’t preheat it at all. I use a cast iron griddle, which takes preheating very well. I preheat my cast iron griddle on medium heat for a few minutes, until a drop of water sprinkled on the pan sizzles. Cast iron conducts heat very well, so the pan can become hotter than other types of pans on a lower burner setting. If you are using a stainless steel pan, you might want to preheat the pan for a shorter amount of time, but on medium-high heat. You probably already know how to use your own pan.

While the pan is preheating, spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on each slice of bread. This mayonnaise layer is going to be the outside of the sandwich. I do this instead of melting a big chunk of butter in the pan. This way you get the good stuff right where you want it. Mayonnaise makes a lovely crispy textured bread when grilled.

Next, gather your sunflower greens and roughly chop them into bite sized pieces.

When the pan is ready, place one slice of bread mayo-side-down onto the skillet. Lay a slice of cheese (or a slice and a half, depending on the size of your bread) on top. Next, lay your microgreens on top of the cheese layer. At this time, your sandwich should look something like this:

a slice of bread topped with a slice of cheese topped with chopped sunflower microgreens sits in a cast iron skillet

Cover the greens with another slice (or slice and a half) of cheese, and then top it all off with the final slice of bread mayo-side-up. Stay and watch as the sandwich cooks. When you start to see the bottom layer of cheese soften, carefully check the underside of the bottom slice of bread. If it looks crispy and golden, then it’s time to flip. Slide a spatula underneath the sandwich, and carefully steady the top side while you flip the sandwich over. Allow the other slice of bread to become crispy and the rest of the cheese to melt.

Slice the completed sandwich into your preferred shape and enjoy with a green salad or a hot cup of tomato soup.

Troubleshooting

When I was first learning to make grilled cheese sandwiches, I had trouble getting it just right. It seemed like the bread would burn before the cheese melted. If this is happening to you, try turning down the heat. For example, if you’re cooking on medium high, try the medium setting. Another thing you can do is to remove the sandwich from the skillet when the bread is done, even if the cheese isn’t melted yet. You can finish melting the cheese in the oven.

Further Reading

For more information about microgreens, check out these other posts:
A Micro-Farm for Microgreens
Two Summer Dips: Recipes Featuring Microgreens!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.

Two Summer Dips: Recipes Featuring Microgreens!

After a perfect sunny Saturday at the farmers market, Sunday is a day for cooking up all the veggies we brought home. For me, that means the veggies I brought but didn’t sell. For you, perhaps it means the veggies you purchased. This week I find myself with an abundance of microgreens. Normally I enjoy my microgreens in simple preparations that really let their flavor shine. I sprinkle them on top of scrambled eggs, baked potatoes, sandwiches, and soups. I make salads with them, or add them to big leafy salads combined with other greens. Today, I was in the mood for something a little more celebratory for the family Father’s Day Barbecue. Mediterranean flavors were calling to me, and the basil in my garden needed a little trim. I came up with two variations on a fresh-flavored summer dip featuring pea tendrils and buckwheat microgreens.

Mediterranean Microgreens Bruschetta

This version is heart-healthy, vegan, and completely delicious. Enjoy!

Ingredients:
1 box buckwheat microgreens (1/2 pint)
1 box pea tendrils (1/2 pint)
1 bunch fresh basil leaves (1 cup, gently packed)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 12oz jar roasted red peppers, drained
1 14.5oz jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained

Add buckwheat microgreens, pea tendrils, and fresh basil leaves to a food processor and pulse a few times to roughly chop and combine. Add artichokes and red peppers to the food processor. Pulse again until ingredients are uniformly chopped and combined.

Add salt, black pepper, and extra virgin olive oil to taste if desired. Serve atop toasted baguette slices or on your favorite crackers.

Creamy Microgreens and Artichoke Dip

Creamy Microgreens Dip

This dip is a little more indulgent than the bruschetta, and perfect for a celebration. It feels like a treat, but is secretly packed with nutrients!


Ingredients:
1 box buckwheat microgreens (1/2 pint)
1 box pea tendrils (1/2 pint)
1 bunch fresh basil leaves (1 cup, gently packed)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 12oz jar roasted red peppers, drained
1 14.5oz jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained
1 package unflavored cream cheese
5oz Parmesan Cheese, grated

Add buckwheat microgreens, pea tendrils, and fresh basil leaves to a food processor and pulse a few times to roughly chop and combine. Add artichokes and red peppers to the food processor. Pulse again until ingredients are uniformly chopped and combined. Add cream cheese and parmesan and pulse just enough to combine the ingredients.

Add salt and black pepper to taste if desired. Serve cold or warm with tortilla chips, or spread on a sandwich with your favorite vegetable fillings.

Further Reading

You may also enjoy some of my other articles about microgreens:
A Micro-Farm for Microgreens
Two Summer Dips: Recipes Featuring Microgreens!

A Personal Note About Artichokes

Both of these recipes also feature artichoke hearts. Artichokes are a special food in my family. My parents lived in California at the beginning of their marriage, before I existed. They lived in one of the regions where most of the country’s artichokes are farmed, and they learned to love this edible flower bud. It became a family tradition that endured even after they moved to Indiana, where artichokes are less common. I grew up loving them and I’ve tried time after time to grow them in my garden, even though that is challenging here. I’m getting better at it, and I continue to try every year, though I’ve never succeeded. Maybe this year will be the year I get to harvest a fresh artichoke from my garden. I hope so. Meanwhile, I buy them once in a while. They’re available from most grocery stores in cans and jars, and sometimes you can find them frozen or even fresh. During both two years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I attended the annual Castroville Artichoke Festival. I once took third place in an artichoke eating contest (which is all about strategy rather than stomach capacity). I always dressed up for the occasion.

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Amphibians On The Farm

Teeny tiny baby toads have emerged on our farm this week. I’m not sure how many there are (dozens, hundreds?) but there are more than I’ve ever seen. Members of the new generation are currently smaller than garden peas.

That huge boulder on the right of this picture? A small piece of driveway gravel. The giant shellbark hickory shell on the left? Just a little acorn.

Frogs and toads are some of the most delicate members of our ecosystem when it comes to herbicide and pesticide exposure. One study from the University of Pittsburgh found that even at low levels, the common herbicide Roundup® killed 71% of tadpoles, and at normal use levels, the same herbicide killed 79% of all frogs within a day. Because we are an organic farm, herbicides like these have not been used on this land since my husband and I purchased it in 2015. The transformation has been significant and astonishing. After three years, the fireflies returned to our fields in breathtaking numbers. The gathering of butterflies and birds has been more gradual, but the steady increase each year has been noteworthy. After five years I started to notice more reptiles and amphibians. A snake took up residence in my garden, then it raised offspring there. Frog and toad sightings have gradually become more common, and my issues with other pests (insects, voles, etc) are significantly declining as their predators increase. A full seven years after transitioning this farm to organic and regenerative methods, this toad population boom has arrived. The ecosystem is balancing.

Not only are the tiny little toads adorable, they are true garden allies. They eat insects and garden pests like slugs, beetles, and flies. They don’t harm plants, and they don’t bite (they don’t even have teeth).

So what can you do to increase the population of frogs and toads in your garden? First of all, adopt an organic approach to land management, and stop spraying herbicides and pesticides. You can also create a toad habitat in your garden, which should include water, shelter, and native plants. Birds&Blooms offers a detailed guide to creating your own toad habitat. I find that my toads enjoy hanging out in a less formal toad habitat (my potted planters and seedling trays).

Check out this cute little chamomile seedling


Thank you for taking the time to consider the needs and wellbeing of these important amphibian neighbors. I wish you a bountiful summer!

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The Joy of Beeing

A few years ago, I decided to become a beekeeper. I read every book and article I could find on the topic. I joined a beekeeping club and attended meetings for a full year before purchasing any bees. I attended Indiana Bee School. I made decisions about the type of hive I would use, and how many hives I would start with. I built two top bar hives from scratch. I researched all the kinds of bees (there are several “races” of honeybee within the species Apis mellifera), and studied their characteristics. I still found myself rather unprepared for this undertaking, and I made mistakes. I am sure I will make more mistakes, but I will not make the same mistake twice. That is the learning process.

A couple years ago, my bees absconded (left). I decided not to bring in more bees right away, to focus on other farm projects. At last, it is time for bees again!

Note: You may notice from the pictures that my hives look a little different than the rectangular stacking hive boxes you are accustomed to seeing. I use a type of hive called a Top Bar Hive. It’s a really accessible style of hive that is easy to build and customize, fun to work in, and lends itself well to natural beekeeping practices. I built these hives and all their accessories myself on a small budget. If you’re interested in exploring this style of beekeeping for yourself, I recommend Les Crowder’s book “Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health”.

Soaking top bars in boiling water to clean them

To prepare my old hives for new bees, I cleaned all the hive equipment with boiling water and a scrub brush. Bees are very sensitive to chemicals, so it’s not a good idea to use any cleaning solutions on bee hive equipment, even natural ones. Boiling water is the safest and best option. The hot water removes old wax and propolis very effectively, and provides some degree of sanitation. Bees can get sick just like people do, so it’s nice to offer them a clean home. Plus, people might eat some of the honey they make inside the hive.

After cleaning, I repaired any loose or damaged parts, then gave the exterior of both hives a fresh coat of paint. Paint or other weatherproof coating is needed on the outside of the hive, because those outer surfaces may be exposed to rain, and may rot. It is neither necessary nor recommended to paint the inside of the hive. I also built brand new lids for both hives, since the old ones had fallen into disrepair.

Sugar Board

Once the hives were clean and placed into their permanent location, I filled a homemade sugar board for each hive. This is basically just a giant sugar cube. It’s something I normally place inside the hive for winter, just in case they run out of honey. It’s not usual to offer this to them in the spring, but there were some cold days in the forecast when they would not be able to leave the hive, and I didn’t want them to go hungry. They won’t eat the sugar if they have honey available. Note: it’s not recommended to feed bees honey that they didn’t make, or that didn’t come from your own apiary. Commercial honey could make them sick.

Installing a package of bees into a top bar hive

Bees can come in two different ways: packages and nucs. Nuc is short for nucleus hive, and it consists of a small family of related bees with some comb that they’ve made and some honey and eggs that they’ve stored. I would prefer to purchase nucs instead of packages to start my hives, because there are many more local, small farm businesses who offer their bees that way. However, nucs are always made of rectangular frames that only fit into Langstroth style bee hives (the rectangular box kind). The rectangular frames will not fit into my half-hexagonal shaped hive boxes, so I must always purchase packages. Although they’re not ideal, I’ve had pretty good luck with package bees in the past. You can see the package pictured above, it’s a small wooden box with screens covering the largest sides. Inside the package, there’s a can of sugar syrup for the bees to eat during transport, a tiny box that holds one queen bee, and three pounds of worker bees.

Queen Cage Inside Hive

To transfer the bees into the hive, I partially open the hive for their access by removing three bars (top bar hives have bars instead of frames). I place the queen bee in her little box inside the hive (there’s a tiny cork to remove first, so she can eventually get free), and then set the box upside-down with the opening facing the inside of the hive to encourage the bees to go in after her. Some people shake the box so that the bees fall into the hive, but I don’t like to do this. The bees usually find their own way. If they don’t figure it out, I’ll come back later and shake them into the hive. The hive does need to be closed (with the lid on) in time for sunset or inclement weather, for their safety.

Once bees are in the hive, there’s nothing forcing them to stay. You hope they like the hive you made for them, you hope they like you, and you hope they like their queen. If they don’t like it, they can leave. This is one major lesson of beekeeping: bees are free. Bees choose what’s best for their colony. Bees will live in your hive only if they feel like it’s a good deal for them. That’s one of the reasons why I put so much work into making the hive a welcoming place, nice and clean with good smells and a candy buffet.

Two top bar hives

Once the bees were all in, I closed up the hives and placed the lids on securely. Bees fly in and out freely through the entrance holes even when the hive is “closed” with the lid on top.

sugar syrup

Honeybees need a lot of energy to build wax combs where they can store honey and raise their babies. I’m not a big proponent of feeding my bees sugar, but I do always offer it to them during times of stress, like when they are first moving in or when there aren’t a lot of flowers blooming. Sugar isn’t the healthiest food for them, but it’s better than going hungry. I tried out an herbal bee tea recipe from Mountain Rose Herbs as the base for my sugar syrup. I offered both the herb-infused sugar syrup and plain sugar syrup, and it really seems like the bees prefer the herbal infusion.

After the bees had been in their hive for about a week, I opened the hive to inspect their progress. I’m happy to report that both hives are thriving! They have made very different design decisions. Hive #1 really went wild with the sugar board, and built an amazing amount of wax combs that are all white. They built their combs starting in the back, next to the sugar block. Hive #2 didn’t use much of the sugar, and they have built a smaller but still respectable amount of wax combs that are bright orange and located in the expected place, near the entrance. I look forward to all the lessons these bees will teach me in the days, weeks, months, and hopefully years to come!

bee keeper in bee suit

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10 Essential Winter Chores for the Farmer and Gardener

Winter may be the “off-season”, but I find I’ve been working long hours anyway. Maybe not as many hours as in summer, when every chore seems an urgent matter of pure survival. Winter work has more of a squirrel feeling. It’s a kind of preparation for the busy time when I know I will have no more free minutes to learn new skills, prepare new ground, or build new structures. Winter sculpts the bones for the growing season.

1. Winter is a time for building projects

construction projects

My hens are in desperate need of a new coop. It’s not so much that their current coop is bad, it’s just that it’s in the wrong place and too big to move. The new coop is smaller, more agile, and best of all- built in a nice shady place where the girls can chill out, instead of over the sunniest spot in the garden.

2. Winter is a time for preparing new gardens

new market garden

I’ve been busy preparing a large chunk of my back field for expanded vegetable production. There’s more work yet to do, but the foundation has been laid for a promising harvest.

3. Winter is a time to cut and stack wood

Trees die and they fall down. Limbs break during storms. Sometimes when this happens in the right place, I leave the logs on the ground so they can provide habitat for wild creatures. But all too often they fall on the driveway, on the garden, or another inconvenient place. These logs need to be cut, stacked, and put away to dry. We don’t have a wood stove in our home yet, but we hope to add one in the future. Meanwhile, we enjoy using some of the wood for bonfires and craft projects.

4. Winter is a time to prepare for next year’s market stand.

tomato crates

From the dry and boring work of insurance policy comparison to the more fun and creative design projects, I would never have time to work on these things during market season. I am especially excited about these custom tomato crates that I designed and built for multipurpose use. They’re sturdy enough to take into the field at picking time, shallow enough to hold exactly one layer of tomatoes (no bruising), they stack neatly for easy transport, and they’re pretty enough to use as a part of the display in the booth.

5. Winter is a time to grow.

seedling nursery

I’ll fill and refill this indoor seedling nursery multiple times during the winter, as the earliest crops are planted outside and the later crops begin to grow into their space. I’m growing vegetables for the market garden, new test crops to evaluate for the future, and all kinds of herbs and native plants. This work starts in December or January, when I load up my refrigerator with trays of seeds for cold stratification, and continues until June when the last crops are planted outside.

6. Winter is a time to lay the foundation.

bean trellis

In this new edible landscaping garden, I not only built a strong foundation at the soil level with local compost, reclaimed cardboard (as a biodegradable weed blocker), and free local wood chips. I also built a vertical foundation for vining plants using naturally fallen branches gathered from the tree line. That means less wood for me to chop and stack, more opportunities to grow beautiful food (like scarlet runner beans), and less waste and consumerism all around.

7. Winter is a time for tradition.

three rutgers

My grandpa always grew Rutgers tomatoes in his garden, and these incredibly delicious heirloom tomatoes inspired me to become a gardener myself, and influenced my path as an open pollinated vegetable grower. The Rutgers tomato was introduced in 1934, as a joint effort between Rutgers University and Campbell Soup. It was a favorite tomato variety in victory gardens and large tomato farms alike, and was widely grown for many years. This heirloom variety fell out of favor somewhere along the way, displaced by newer hybrids. Seeds called Rutgers are still available, though they aren’t all the same. I am growing plants from a variety of sources this year, hoping to find some that taste just like my grandpa’s. If nature cooperates with my plans, I hope to grow enough Rutgers tomatoes for the farmer’s market this coming summer.

8. Winter is a time for reflection.

I keep a detailed garden journal where I record my inputs, work efforts, harvests, weather, and observations. Winter is a good time to review what worked and what didn’t, which varieties are worth scaling up for the market, which varieties won’t be planted here again, and which varieties may deserve another try in a different part of the garden. Notes are absolutely essential for a gardener or farmer, especially one with her hand in so many different pies.

9. Winter is a time to learn new skills.

stack of books

I read stacks on stacks of books. Winter is a great time to wrap up in a warm blanket and learn new things. But not all learning comes from books, and it’s important to remember that we can also learn from our friends, neighbors, and relatives by helping each other out. Offer to help a friend inspect a bee hive, work together to can tomatoes, weed the bean patch, or pick walnuts. You’ll learn something local and new while strengthening relationships and building community. I helped a friend with a controlled burn this winter, and it was very educational as well as incandescent fun.

10. Winter is a time to train.

Don’t forget to maintain your physical fitness over winter. Get outside and take a walk as often as you can. Practice yoga, strength training, or your favorite sport. I know from personal experience that if I begin the gardening or farming season out of shape, I’m likely to end it in injury. Taking good care of your mind and body over winter is a sound investment.

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