The Native Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) : Tiny Berries of Joy

Indiana has a native wild strawberry, but it’s not the one you think it is.

Long before I had a farm or even a garden, my friends and I sometimes snacked on little red berries that grew very commonly in unsprayed lawns and open fields. These little red berries were round, covered in protruding bumps, white on the inside, and almost totally flavorless. Despite their lack of flavor, it was fun to pick them and eat them. We were told that these berries were wild strawberries, and so we believed. However, it turns out that the red berries we gathered were not strawberries at all. We had been fooled by the mock strawberry!

Do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any new plant. Mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

This strawberry misconception is very widespread. The true native strawberry is wildly delicious, but many people dismiss it because they’ve been tricked by the mock strawberry. Mock strawberry is a much more common plant in this area, even though it isn’t native here. In fact, I’ve never seen a native strawberry in the wild. That is a fact I sincerely hope to change by planting many strawberry seeds and helping you to do the same! These plants are easy to grow, and with a little work and a bit of luck, we could be all swimming in jam in just two summers.

Before we go any further, let’s distinguish these two very different (but similar looking) plants.

Mock StrawberryNative Wild Strawberry
Scientific NameDuchesnea indica (formerly Potentilla indica)Fragaria virginiana
Native RangeSouth AsiaAll over North America, including Indiana
Leaf DescriptionStrawberry Shaped, No RunnersStrawberry Shaped, With Runners
Flower DescriptionYellowWhite
Fruit DescriptionUsually blueberry sized.

Red outside, round shape, white inside.

Small raised bumps all over the fruit.

Little to no smell, bland or unpleasant flavor.

Not a strawberry at all.
Usually raspberry sized.

Red outside, strawberry shaped, mostly red inside.

Indentations all over the fruit, each one containing a tiny seed.

Smells like a strawberry, tastes like a strawberry.

Is a strawberry.
Mock Strawberry, Duchesnea indica, formerly Potentilla indica
Mock Strawberry (Duchesnea indica). Notice how there are bumps all over it instead of indentations? Notice also how it is round and not shaped like a strawberry.
Fragaria virginiana, Native Wild Strawberry
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) in flower. Note that the flowers here are white, whereas mock strawberry flowers are yellow.
Fragaria virginiana (Wild Strawberry) berries in a bowl
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) fruit. See the indentations where the seeds go? There are tiny yellow seeds in the hollow cavities around the outside of the fruit. There are no bumps protruding from the fruit like there are on the mock strawberry.

The Native Wild Strawberry : Uses

Now that we have cleared the good name of this admirable plant, let’s learn more about it. The native wild strawberry can be used as you would use any strawberry. The fruits are smaller than store-bought strawberries, and are closer in size to a large raspberry. Although the fruit is small, it’s very flavorful, and I’ve never seen anybody turn up their nose at a raspberry because it wasn’t as large as an apple. Since my strawberry patch is young, I haven’t yet harvested large enough quantities of berries to make pies, jams, or wine from them. In fact, they rarely even make it to the kitchen, because I eagerly eat them all straight off the plant while I’m working in the garden. This is a berry that needs no enhancement, but I believe it would work exceptionally well in any strawberry recipe.

I’m aware of some edible and medicinal uses for strawberry leaves, but I won’t write about that here because I haven’t tried it yet myself. You can read more about that from Livestrong if you’re interested.

The Native Wild Strawberry : Cultivation Instructions

Fragaria virginiana is easy to grow, but it does need a little extra care in the seed-to-seedling stage. To start, the seeds require sixty days of cold stratification. Don’t let that scare you away! It sounds fancy, but you can definitely do it. One simple way is by storing the moistened, planted seeds in a refrigerator for two months. For more detailed instructions, check out my full article about cold stratification. After you bring your planted seeds out of the refrigerator, they may begin germinating very quickly. However, germination may be staggered such that some of the seeds take much longer to germinate than others. Don’t give up on them. Put them under grow lights as soon as they begin to emerge. Water gently, either by bottom watering or using a very fine mister. That part is really important, and I’m speaking from experience. These plants are so tiny when they first sprout that they can easily be crushed by a strong stream of water from a regular spray bottle or a hose or a faucet. I prefer to start my strawberry seeds right about now, in January. Then they can be moved out of the fridge and into the warm germination area in March, and planted outside in May.

Once your plants have grown to a robust size and the weather has warmed, you can begin hardening them off by gradually acclimating them to life outdoors. Use the same process as you would for tomatoes or any other garden plant. I like to wait until after the danger of frost has passed to plant my strawberries in the garden, even though strawberry plants are frost hardy.

I planted my strawberries in a raised bed in full sun, because I really wanted to get them off to a great start. They very quickly filled the bed and overflowed into the walkways. This coming spring, I plan to divide my two year old patch and try establishing some of these strawberries in the wilder spaces of my farm. I have read that they can grow along the woodland edge, that they tolerate quite a bit of shade, and that they don’t mind damp soil. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if they carpeted the whole farm. Could one possibly have too many strawberries?

The Native Woodland Strawberry

It’s worth mentioning that there is another native strawberry called the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca). Fragaria vesca is the same species that is sometimes called the Alpine strawberry. There are several subspecies of Fragaria vesca, and not all are native to Indiana. The two subspecies that are native are Fragaria vesca ssp. americana and Fragaria vesca ssp. vesca. I haven’t yet found a source for seeds or plant starts for these native subspecies. However, I grew alpine strawberries in my very first garden, and they were lovely. I don’t know what subspecies mine were, but I think they were European. In any case, my alpine strawberries grew very well in sunny garden soil and that they did not spread or produce runners. The berries were small like the wild strawberry, and similarly delicious. If I ever find seeds or plant starts for one of our native woodland strawberries, I will jump at the chance to grow them on my farm.

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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

For Further Reading

The Strawberry Moon
Starting Seeds With Cold Stratification
Native Plants for the Woodland Edge

The Year of Joy

Dear friends, welcome to this glorious new year! We survived. We made it this far. There is some really good stuff on the horizon. Yes, there will also be challenges to face, limits to test, and burdens to bear; there always are. But the sun is going to shine. Plants are going to grow. Birds are going to sing! And this year, my resolution is joy.

Joy As A Business Plan

Is joy a relevant goal for a farm? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to prioritize expansion, efficiency, financial solvency, or automation? I don’t think so. I believe crops grow better when they’re loved. I believe the land flourishes when the farmer is intimately connected to it: heart, soul, mind, and body. I believe joy flows when work is given freely from the heart, when the soul fulfills its highest purpose, when the mind follows the spark of inspiration, and when the body is engaged in the service of all of the above. So really, this year is about purposeful work, authenticity, and creativity. I am really looking forward to this year.

This joy year will look different than the year of growth I just concluded. My choice last year was to go all-in, to work as hard as I possibly could, and to try everything. I expanded my market vegetable garden, added new product offerings, signed up for even more farmers markets, tried some festivals, craft fairs, event hosting, and public speaking engagements. I needed that year to help me find my direction forward, and I truly loved every experience. But since I can’t find joy while consistently falling behind on my chores despite working as hard as I possibly can all of the time, I’ll have to be more selective with my commitments this year. I will be ruthless with my nos, so that my yeses can really shine.

The Shining Yeses of Joy

More Farming

I’m spending this year with my land. I’m planting trees, cutting down honeysuckles, growing gardens, and spreading mulch like it’s going out of style. I’m also slowing down enough to pick berries, snuggle my chickens, sing to my bees, and walk in my woods. Land-based work is the foundation of this whole project. It’s the reason for everything else I am doing. And what am I doing it for, if I don’t allow myself to enjoy it? Enjoy… en-joy… in joy.

More Writing

I write this blog, I write frequent short pieces on multiple social media platforms, and I am slowly working on a book. I may write another in-person talk. I have a deep passion for the work I am doing on this land, and so much gratitude for the lessons I have learned from it. It brings me great joy to share some of that with you, and to connect with you through our shared love of this beautiful planet. More of all of that, please!

More Art

One of my grand epiphanies from 2022 was about inviting my complete self to this project, and not just one narrow definition of myself. I still primarily identify as a farmer, but I’m also many other things. This lifestyle really fuels my creative side, and I am bursting with ideas for nature-inspired art. Also, this path I have chosen is really difficult, and I must bring everything I am to the table if I hope to succeed.

The Making of Room

In order to make room for more joy, I need to do less of a few things. I need to spend less time at off-farm events. I need to spend less time selling, planning, and managing. I need to streamline some of the behind-the-scenes business tasks so that I can spend most of my time doing my most essential work.

In order to achieve this, I must be really selective about the events that I do attend. I will still be at the farmers market selling my vegetables, but I can’t do as many markets as I did last year. I’m working on some new projects that I hope will help everyone stay connected and maintain access to all their favorite stuff, like a CSA, a mailing list, a calendar, and an online shop.

To compensate for spending less time at events, I’ll add in a sprinkling of (hopefully) highly impactful events. The Ohio Pawpaw Festival was especially kind to me last year, so I plan to be there again. I may also try a few other festivals.

Conclusion

Joy is not an easy path. In fact, I think this is the most challenging resolution I have ever made! There will be some real obstacles to achieving joy this year: a bear market economy on the rocks with a twist of recession, a lingering whiff of pandemic, and all the other challenges life inevitably throws our way. But those are just more reasons why we need to seek out the joy. Prioritize it. Embody it. Choose it.

I invite you to join me in this year of joy. Engage in your heart’s work. Follow your soul’s highest calling. And indulge your mind when it feels the spark of inspiration. Imagine all the wonders that could emerge as a result! Every soul contains a myriad of beautiful gifts. Let’s shower the world with ours together in 2023.

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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Starting Seeds With Cold Stratification

Most of the usual garden veggies (such as tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce) can be sown directly into warm, moist potting mix in the spring, and they will germinate and begin growing within a couple of weeks. However, many of the wilder plants such as native plants and medicinal herbs require special pre-treatment before they will begin to germinate and grow. One such treatment is called cold stratification. Cold stratification is a fancy-sounding term which only means that the seed must experience winter before it will germinate (sprout).

If your seeds require cold stratification, that is probably stated on the seed packet or in the catalog description. If you suspect your seeds may require a special treatment but the seed packet and description don’t mention it, you can search online for more information about the species.

Watch my video about cold stratification for a live demonstration!

My introduction into cold stratification was prompted by the Alpine Strawberry. In my second year as a gardener, my enthusiasm was high. I was devouring library books about gardening, dreaming about vegetables, and hoping to try all the delicious-sounding heirloom varieties in the seed catalogue. I desperately wanted to try an alpine strawberry. Alpine strawberry plants were not available from any stores or catalogues I could access, and seed packets were hard to come by. When I finally scored some seeds, they proved exceedingly difficult to grow. They required a cold stratification process, about which I found diverse and conflicting information. I tried all the ways: putting the seed packet in the freezer for two months, putting the seed packet in the refrigerator for two months, planting the seeds in a bag of moist potting soil and placing that in the freezer, planting the seeds in a bag of moist potting soil and placing that in the refrigerator, and planting the seeds outside in fall. Many of these methods were unsuccessful, for various reasons. There are three methods that I’ve found to really work, and the best one depends on the type of seed you’re trying to grow.

A snowy field

Cold Stratification Method #1: Plant The Seeds Outside In Autumn

This method is the least effort for the gardener, and works well in the following scenarios:
– You have a huge quantity of seeds to plant, and you don’t mind if some of them get lost.
– The seeds are very large and resilient (pawpaw seeds, persimmon seeds, nut seeds, etc).
– The species needs many freeze-thaw cycles (packet will usually specify this).
– You have a well-prepared, weed-free, well-protected garden bed in which to plant the seeds.

There are some situations in which planting seeds outside in autumn may not work well. For example, two of my acres are in a river floodplain. We regularly experience winter flooding in which the river swells until it flows over my field and whisks many seeds away downstream. Autumn seeding doesn’t work well there. The seeds will not be where I left them by spring. Another example in which I’ve had poor success autumn-sowing is with tiny seeds. The alpine strawberry, for example, (and the native wild strawberry) have seeds about the size of a grain of sand. These seeds wash away and blow away, and come spring, few are left. Those that remain germinate with extremely tiny, extremely delicate new growth in spring, and it’s very hard to see them, weed around them, and water them without damaging the new growth. I experience much better success in growing tiny seeds with cold stratification indoors in a protected environment. Another case in which I have poor success planting seeds outdoors in autumn is when the seeds are especially delicious. If you’re planting nuts or another very tasty seed, you may need to take precautions to protect your autumn-sown seeds from squirrels, voles, gophers, and other hungry wildlife. Lastly, if you live in a warm climate that doesn’t experience cold winters, outdoor cold stratification will not work for you.

If you’re ready to plant your seeds outdoors in autumn, you can either broadcast-sow your seeds (for large quantities of small seeds), bury each one individually (large seeds such as nuts), or carefully prepare a protected garden bed and seed according to packet directions (for smaller quantities of precious seeds). It’s best to plant them before snow arrives, so they’re in direct contact with the soil.

January seeds planted for cold stratification

Cold Stratification Method #2: Refrigerate Planted Seeds

Placing your dry seed packets in the refrigerator or freezer will not cold stratify the seeds. To begin the cold stratification process, you must plant the seeds into a moist medium, and place the moistened seeds into the refrigerator. The freezer is not an ideal place to cold stratify the seeds. In most cases, freezing will not harm the seeds you are trying to stratify, but the cold stratification process may take longer in the freezer than it would in the refrigerator.

Some people suggest planting your seeds in a plastic bag filled with moistened sand, and placing the bag in the refrigerator. I have not personally had good luck with this method. I find that the moist sand is very likely to grow mold. I like to plant my seeds into potting mix. If you have a soil blocker, you can make soil blocks of the smallest size that works for your seed type, sow the seeds into the blocks just as you’ll have them when they germinate, loosely cover (I use wax paper or parchment paper), and place into the refrigerator. When stratification is done, you can simply transfer the soil blocks to your warm germination area. This is my preferred method, but with one caveat: be careful that your seeds don’t get mixed up during this process! Last year, I found that some of my seeds that required very long cold stratification periods got mixed up as the soil blocks started to break down over time, or through watering accidents. This year, I’m being extra careful to separate my cold stratification species into separate containers and label them really well so they don’t get mixed up.

After planting my seeds and placing them into the refrigerator, I take them out every couple of weeks to examine them. If I see any mold beginning to grow, I remove the covering and allow the tray to dry out at room temperature for a day or two. If the potting mix seems too dry, I water it and then place it back into the refrigerator. The soil should be ideal for germination, slightly moist like a wrung-out sponge. Too moist and it may grow mold, too dry and the seeds may not germinate. Continue the cold stratification process for the number of days indicated for the species you are growing. Cold stratification times range from about 30 days to about 120 days. Generally, I find that leaving the seeds in the cold stratification environment for a month or two longer than needed does no harm.

home built low tunnel cold frame

Cold Stratification Method #3: Stratify Your Flats Outdoors

Assuming you live in a climate that does experience winter, you might be able to cold-stratify your seeds outdoors in bags or flats. This is different than method #1, because you’ll be growing your seeds for transplants instead of seeding them in place in the ground. This method works just like Method #2, except instead of placing your planted seeds in the refrigerator, you take them outside. This method works sometimes, but the seeds are in more danger outside than they are in the refrigerator. If you have a cold frame or a cold greenhouse or a screened porch where you can protect them, your chances of success may be higher. I don’t prefer this method because I find it’s hard to regulate the moisture in my potting soil, and the seeds freeze completely during most of my Indiana winters, so they take longer to stratify than refrigerated seeds. However, when my refrigerator fills up, I start taking my seeds outside to stratify on my screened porch. It usually does work reasonably well.

Conclusion

Whichever method you choose, cold stratification is easy for even a novice gardener to achieve. Now that you are armed with this thorough cold stratification guide, you are ready to begin. Go get growing!

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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) : A Versatile Native Nut

I spent most of my childhood in Indiana, and most of my adulthood as well. Yet, I didn’t know that we had a native hazelnut until I started this farm. The more I learn about this tree, the deeper in love I fall. Not only is this a very easy-going tree, but it’s also fast growing, quick to bear nuts, prolific, multi-useful, and adaptable. It can grow in sun and shade and anything in between, it can handle boggy soil and well-drained soil, and it can begin to produce nuts in only 2-8 years1. This species also offers highly valuable and diversified harvests. In addition to providing an edible nut crop, the wood of the American Hazelnut is valuable for basketry, garden structures such as trellises, and many other applications2.

I have planted a few hundred American Hazelnut trees here at Strawberry Moon Farm, but mine are not yet mature enough to produce nuts. Because of that, some of the information I am sharing with you now is first hand knowledge, and some has been gathered through reading, through discussions with other growers, and through my own recipe experiments with commercially available hazelnuts. I have done my best to include citations throughout this article as applicable, and also at the bottom of this article in the “Sources” section.

The American Hazelnut (Corylus americana), also known as American Filbert, is a small tree or shrub in the Birch family, with a mature height of about 8-16 feet and a spread of 8-13 feet3. It is native to Indiana, as well as most of the Eastern half of the United States and Canada4. Although our native hazelnut is a different species than most hazelnuts that are available commercially, it is closely related and similar in use. By most accounts, the nuts produced by our native tree taste like the more familiar European species, though they are smaller in size.

American Hazelnut Uses

Do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any new plant. Mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

Hazelnuts are highly valuable as a food source. Hazelnuts are praised by most nutritionists as part of a healthy diet5 due to their protein, healthy Omega 3 fats, and numerous vitamins and minerals. They are also very versatile in the kitchen! Hazelnuts can be made into delicious nut milks, nut butters, oils, flours, or consumed whole raw or roasted as a snack. I find them to be an excellent replacement for almonds in every recipe I have tried.

Why do I need a replacement for almonds? As a person who eats a mostly plant-based diet including lots of nuts, I am concerned about the environmental impact of my consumption of almond, cashew, and coconut products. These popular nuts are grown far away from my home, carrying a hefty transportation footprint. Some of these nuts may be cultivated in unsustainable agriculture systems, or the product of exploitative labor practices. I believe sustainably cultivated, locally grown nuts are an important step on the path towards sustainability and community resilience. Native nuts such as the American Hazelnut are the ideal options for local cultivation, since native plants are well adapted to our growing conditions and have important co-evolution relationships with the native animals, insects, and soil microbes. When we grow native nut trees as a part of a sustainable agriculture system, we can help to heal our ecosystems and our communities.

Nuts in general are a long-keeping food that can help sustain local communities through the dormant season. Long keeping foods such as nuts, beans, root vegetables, and preserved foods can provide locally-grown nourishment. I have found that the raw, whole hazelnuts I purchase can last about a year when stored in a sealed container in my cool basement.

Growing American Hazelnut

This tree fills a very valuable niche in the food forest. It can form hedges, it can grow in shade, and it can handle some moisture. It is the fastest producing nut tree that I know of, with a bearing age beginning at 2-8 years. Most other nut trees require at least ten years of growth before they can bear nuts, and some (like the Shellbark Hickory) may even require 40 years! The American Hazel is small and shrubby

Although this tree is said to tolerate moist soils, in my own experience it is not well suited to high flood waters or periods of sustained flooding. I have had very low survival rates from this species in my wetland floodplain, but I am currently working to plant another hedge of American Hazelnut on higher ground in a slightly boggy area, which I expect to flourish. I also plan to replace some of the invasive honeysuckle bushes I am removing from my woods with American Hazelnut. I will continue to update you as that project develops.

Troubleshooting American Hazelnut

When I speak about American Hazelnut, people often comment that they have a tree, but it never produces nuts. Since this is such a frequently asked question, I investigated further. I found two theories as to the cause of this particular issue.

My first answer came from Chris Gonso of Worries Are Gone Farm. I visited Worries Are Gone Farm in September on a chestnut-related quest, and while I was there I was treated to a very informational tour of the grounds. Among the many wonderful sights on this farm, I saw a thriving population of American Hazelnut. There was a large hedge growing in one area, and many more individual shrubs interspersed under the forest canopy. I asked Chris all my hazelnut questions. His theory on the missing nuts: add more plants.

Some sources (such as SF Gate) claim that American Hazelnut is self-compatible (which means that pollen from one tree can fertilize blooms on the same tree). However, other sources disagree. Either way, since this species is wind pollinated, a large number of plants may be necessary to ensure adequate pollination. Wind pollination is a fairly inefficient means of pollination, and more plants means more pollen on the wind, which means more pollination, which means more nuts.

My second answer comes from the book “Native Plant Agriculture, Vol. 1”, produced by Indigenous Landscapes. According to the book, “We’ve observed that non-local genotype can struggle to set nuts possibly because the cross pollination is affected by climatic transplanting”. The author recommends purchasing seeds or plants that originate from as close to your own climate as possible to increase your chances of success.

The American Hazelnuts at Worries Are Gone Farm certainly seemed prolific. I even saw nuts on the bushes growing deep in the woods under the shade of the canopy! Chris reported much better productivity from the bushes he planted in full sun, but it was clear that some nut production can occur in shady plantings. Additionally, shady plantings can be grown and pruned for a wood harvest.

“American hazelnuts are a good option for folks looking for something hardy and resistant to filbert blight. They produce even after late spring freezes and I’ve never seen them miss a year in production. Their main drawbacks are a smaller sized nut compared to the European hazel and an extra step in processing as the nuts usually need to be removed from the husk. Overall, they are a joy to grow and work with with everyone in my family loving them, especially the kids.”

Chris Gonso, Worries Are Gone Farm

For Further Reading:

Native Plant Seed Sources and Resources
Tree Planting Startup Guide
Native Plants for the Woodland Edge
Native Plants of the Deep Woods
Two Years In Review: A Progress Report

Sources:

Hazelnut Trees Are Easy – Cornell Small Farms Program
USDA Plants Database – Corylus americana Walter
Worries Are Gone Farm
Indigenous Landscapes
Missouri Botanical Gardens – Corylus Americana
Plants For A Future – Corylus Americana
American Hazelnut – Arborday

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If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Native Plants of the Deep Woods

My winter work this year centers around woodland management. Specifically, I’m clearing out invasive honeysuckle bushes to make room for a massive replanting of native woodland plants. Last week we looked at native plants for the woodland edge. Today we venture deeper into the woods to consider native plants that thrive under the shade of the canopy. These plants are just as important to the forest ecosystem as the large trees that so often receive all the glory. Yet most of the time, when land that was previously cleared is reforested, little to no attention is paid to the understory. The native plants that once carpeted the forest floor do not return once the new trees have grown tall enough to shade them unless someone comes back to replant them.

The trees I have planted on this farm as part of the wetland restoration project are still too young to provide the kind of shade needed to shelter native woodland plants, but we also have about three acres of existing mature woods on this farm. That existing woodland is where I am focusing my efforts right now. As you peruse the (limited, non-comprehensive, preliminary) list I have compiled, you may notice a theme. Many of these woodland plants are slow-growing, delicate plants that require very specific habitats, protection, and patience. These plants require and deserve our respect, and in return, they offer potent and valuable gifts. I wish them luck, and I wish you luck with all your forest gardening projects!

Indiana Native Shade Plants

Do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any new plant. Mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum). Also called Wild Leek, this gourmet native woodland vegetable has been dangerously overharvested in the wild. I look forward to establishing a large population of this plant over the next 7-10 years, which is how long they take to grow from seed to maturity. Although this is a popular herb that people love to forage, I do not recommend foraging this plant from the wild. Since it takes so long to mature, if you are removing as much as one tenth of the ramps you find in a given area, you are overharvesting it. Since the plant is already threatened, I suggest planting your own shady ramp garden so that you can be sure you are increasing the bounty of this precious native herb rather than decreasing it.
    .
  • Ostrich Fern / Fiddleheads (Matteuccia struthiopteris). In early spring, the tightly-curled fronds of this plant can be harvested and eaten cooked. It is said to resemble the flavor and texture of asparagus, though I haven’t had an opportunity to try it myself yet. It is important to prepare and cook fiddleheads correctly, but I’ve seen many inspiring recipes for them in lots of different cookbooks and blogs, and they even appear on the menus of fancy restaurants sometimes! I look forward to getting to know this plant better through this project. As far as I know, Ostrich Fern is the only fern species that is edible.
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  • Wood Nettles (Laportea canadensis). Wood Nettle is in the Stinging Nettle family, but it’s in a different genus from the Slender Nettles that grow along the woodland edge. Wood nettle is extremely prickly, with even more stinging hairs than stinging nettles! I haven’t personally tasted wood nettle yet, but like stinging nettle and slender nettle, wood nettle is said to be edible as a cooked green, and produces a strong fiber. However, wood nettle does not have the same medicinal uses as slender nettle and stinging nettle.
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  • American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). American Ginseng has been dangerously overharvested in the wild. Its roots are valuable for their medicinal properties. It is a delicate plant that requires just the right conditions to thrive, and takes several years to grow from seed to maturity. I have observed some indicators that it might grow well here, but I’ll have to try it to know for sure.
    .
  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The pawpaw tree produces more fruit in full sun, but it has the ability to grow in shade as well. I may try planting some in my woods to see what happens.
    .
  • Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). The bulb, leaves, and flowers of the trout lily are said to be edible and medicinal in small quantities, though I haven’t eaten this myself. It is considered by some sources to be a threatened plant, and it’s another slow-grower, taking about eight years to blossom into maturity. This is a species that I have identified as already present in my woods, and one that I am trying to protect. I have chosen not to harvest any of it, at least for now.
    .
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense). Host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, this native herb grows in shade and part shade. Its name comes from the gingery flavor of its roots, and it does have a history of edible and medicinal uses by indigenous peoples. I don’t think I’ll eat this plant myself any time soon, because modern research has revealed toxic compounds present in this plant. However, I still want to re-establish it into my woods for its many ecological benefits.
    .
  • American Hazelnut (Corylus americana): The American Hazelnut is one of the most useful and most adaptable plants I have encountered. From full sun to full shade, average soil to moist soil, this plant can flourish almost everywhere. The nuts it produces are, by all accounts, very similar to commercially available hazelnuts. In addition to the edible nut, this plant also permits heavy pruning, and the cut wood is useful in many applications such as basketry, garden trellises, and other structures.
    .
  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis): Bloodroot can grow in shade or part shade. It grows in abundance on my land already, and so far I have observed it exclusively along the woodland edge, so I’m placing it in this category. It may be that once I open up more light in the woods by removing the honeysuckle bushes, bloodroot will spread into the deeper woodland spaces. Bloodroot is a medicinal herb, but it’s a serious medicine and not for lighthearted use. I don’t feel comfortable working with this plant at this stage in my herbalist training, but I love this plant and I hope it continues to thrive here for years to come.
    .
  • Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum): Like Bloodroot, Mayapple can grow in shade or part shade, but on my land I have only observed it growing with Bloodroot along the woodland edge. I have never used this plant for food or medicine myself, but some do. It’s another serious plant with deadly poisonous parts, but the ripe fruit is said to be edible and choice. It’s a beautiful plant, often cultivated as an ornamental.
    .
  • Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides): A native medicinal herb of the deep shade, this plant is on the United Plant Savers “At Risk” list.
    .
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): Many states consider this plant threatened or endangered. It is a beautiful plant from the buttercup family, at home in the deep shade and highly valued for its medicinal uses. This is another slow growing, native woodland plant that asks for our patience and consideration.
    .
  • Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). Unlike most of the plants that I’m interested in, this plant is poisonous, so don’t eat it! However, it’s a beautiful native wildflower that I have identified in my woods. I’m glad it’s there, and I am working to protect it.
    .
  • Mushrooms. Mushrooms aren’t plants, but they are an integral part of the woodland lifecycle. Many mushrooms are edible and/or medicinal, and could make a valuable crop under the canopy. If you’re interested in growing a specific kind of mushroom, you can inoculate logs in your woods by drilling holes in them and filling the holes with wooden pegs or sawdust that have been previously inoculated with that type of mushroom. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are commonly grown this way.

For Further Reading

Native Plants For The Woodland Edge
The Food In The Forest
The Woodland Understory
Native Plant Resources

Book Recommendations

“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, by Charles C. Mann
“Braiding Sweetgrass”, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science“, by Enrique Salmón
“Wild Food Plants of Indiana”, by Alan McPherson
“Nature’s Garden”, by Samuel Thayer

Other Sources and Resources

United Plant Savers
Plants For A Future
Minnesota Wildflowers
Mountain Gardens
Native American Ethnobotany Database

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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The Business Of Farming: Five Big Lessons From My First Two Years As A Market Grower

Sometimes I am surprised by how much I have in common with my readers. I love engaging with you all through social media and hearing the questions you bring to in-person events. One of the most common questions I heard from you this year was, “How can I leave my day job and become a farmer too?” I don’t have a good answer for this yet. I worked in the technology industry for fourteen years in order to prepare myself financially for farm life. It was a long, difficult journey for me and it’s not accessible to everyone. I and many others are working on clearing a better path for you and for the next generation. The world needs you, your community needs you, and the earth needs you! We all need farmers and land stewards, and if this is your calling, I will do all I can to help you get there. One way I feel I can help right now is to share my own mistakes, triumphs, and lessons from my first two years as a market grower. Here I have distilled all that life experience into one smooth blog post with five great tips to help you start your farm business right!

Lesson #1: Dive In Deep

In my first year as a market grower, I had it in mind to dip my toe into the well and test the water. In some ways, this was smart. I didn’t spend more than my (small) operating budget, I didn’t invest in huge quantities of supplies that didn’t work out, and I didn’t generate significant waste by producing larger quantities of perishable products than the market could consume. However, I also didn’t bring enough products or enough kinds of products to the market to cover my costs of being there. Sit down with your calculator and figure out all your costs of vending at a market. Add in your desired revenue and divide that total by the cost of producing your main product. That will give you an idea of how much you need to produce and sell. If that’s a high number, you may need to consider offering more than one kind of product to reach your goal.

Lesson #2: Diversify

In that first year, I specialized in microgreens. I also brought tomatoes and fresh leafy greens from my garden when I could, but I hadn’t yet expanded my garden to a large enough size to reliably meet demand for garden produce. I’ve grown microgreens for my own family for years so I felt proficient in that type of growing, and they seemed like a relatively accessible candidate to scale up as a market crop. However, there wasn’t enough demand for microgreens at my market to break even on that product alone. Many people stopped by my booth to chat, and they told me that they’d love to buy something from me to support my farm, but sadly they don’t like to eat microgreens. Others really enjoyed the microgreens, and came back every week to replenish their stash. Still, on a really good day at my local market, I can earn a maximum of about $60 in revenue from my microgreens. Keep in mind, that isn’t my profit. I still have to pay for seeds, potting soil, packaging, etc to produce that product, and to produce all the boxes of microgreens that I produce but can’t sell. I also have to pay vendor fees and farmers market insurance. This experience taught me that I would need to offer a wider variety of products the next year if I hoped to succeed as a market grower.

Lesson #3: Prepare To Be Flexible

I first saw myself strictly as a food vendor. So between year one and year two, when I envisioned diversification, I was only considering new kinds of produce to offer. I thought about offering prepared foods, but that turned out to be more difficult than I realized due to health codes, licensing, commercial kitchen rental fees, and other red tape. So in my second year, I went all-in on expanding my garden. I invested months of work, thousands of dollars, and all my hopes on this one project. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed. By June I realized my new garden location had not been suitably prepared, and my investment would not pay off this year. I would still have my microgreens, I would have a goodly amount of kale and collard greens from my raised beds, and I would have a small amount of fresh herbs. The great and diverse bounty of vegetables I had envisioned, however, would not come to pass.

The metaphorical wind blew hard. It was my choice to bend with this wind, or allow it to break me. I chose to bend. Diversification was needed, and it was too late to retry vegetables for the year. I needed to consider what value-added products I could offer to my community. I wasn’t prepared with the proper licenses and other resources that are needed to begin selling prepared food items, so I decided to call in my artistic skills and begin creating handmade art and craft items from things I have available on my farm. This was a very natural pivot for me, because I’ve actually been an artist longer than I’ve been a farmer or even a gardener. However, even if you aren’t an artist, there is probably some type of craft you are drawn to and can become skilled at making. I’ve had great success with this effort so far, and I hope for even greater success on this path next year, when I will be able to show up at the first market day well prepared and ready in a way that only a winter’s incubation can provide. I would encourage you to think about backups for your backups well in advance of your first market season, so that if your primary strategy is thwarted, you’ll be ready to roll with it.

Lesson #4: Hit The Ground Running

The beginning of the farmers market season is much more profitable than the rest of it. In spring, the whole community is excited that the weather is finally warm and the market is finally open again, and they show up in large numbers eager to support their local producers and artisans. This part of the season is great for everyone including craft vendors and baked goods vendors, but it’s especially good for produce vendors. Since most other produce vendors won’t have their veggies ready until later in the season, anything you can bring early is likely to sell well. I sell many times more bunches of kale, microgreens, and fresh herbs on the first three market days than I sell later in the summer. Do everything you can to be ready before the market starts so that your success in these early days will be great enough to sustain you through the hot days and the rainy days to come when none but the most dedicated and loyal customers visit the market.

Lesson #5: Strategize and Prioritize

I can see how it would be very easy to burn out in this business. I work more hours than I have ever worked before, and for less money. Especially this year, when my business strategy was to try everything, find out what works and what doesn’t, and forge a path towards success, I was spread very thin and not only did I not have time to enjoy my own garden and my life, but there were days when I didn’t have time to eat meals, didn’t sleep enough, and didn’t have clean clothes to wear because I hadn’t had time to wash any. I’ve been through this phase twice before, when I started my first business in 2008 (Reflected Spectrum Photography), and another time when I was renovating an investment house (which currently helps generate income for me while I build this farm). I think it’s a necessary phase to pass through when starting up a new business, at least for me. Nobody wants to linger in this phase- or worse, to remain in it permanently. It’s important to strategize and to prioritize the things that are most important to you. Make a vision board or even just a list of your real goals for your life, and keep checking in with them. Make sure you’re still on track towards the life you really want. For me, this means time to work with my land, healthy food and products for myself and my community, and enough income to fund my ecological restoration projects and educational outreach efforts. Notice how I didn’t say “all the money in the world”, “one million followers”, or “corporate ad sponsors”. Those are not the kind of goals I am talking about. What do you want your life to be? I’m building a life around my values. That is my priority and my ultimate goal. Everything I do needs to be in service of my path towards those goals.

This year, one of the things I tried was adding a second market day every week. I loved my second market, located in a neighboring town called Bargersville. The timing seemed perfect, with Franklin Market on Saturday mornings and Bargersville Market every Wednesday evening. I really loved being part of that second market! It has a beautifully chill vibe, the people are totally lovable, and they have an amazing band that shows up every single week to play all my favorite 60s era songs. I learned lots of great tips for success from talking to the other vendors there, and many of them generously shared their extra products with me after our market hours ended. However, I found that doing two markets every single week took up about four full work days every week. I was too busy doing markets to keep up with my land management chores or to tend my own garden. I hope to remain a part of both markets in some capacity going forward, but now I realize that I can’t do two markets every single week. I started an Event Calendar so that my customers can easily find out where I will be and when, even when my schedule isn’t the same every single week.

Conclusion

I hope this article helps somebody experience greater and faster success with their new farm business. Local food farmers and producers are extremely valuable and extremely needed. It’s a hard business, but a rewarding one. Through my first two years as a market grower, other farmers have aided me, collaborated with me, mentored me, and supported me. The other vendors at my markets are not my competition, they are my coworkers, allies, and friends. I hope that by sharing my experiences here, I can extend some of the kindness I have received to beginning farmers wherever they may be. Best of luck, I’m rooting for you!

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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

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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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

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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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

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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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

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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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor