Stacking Functions and Herb Bed Design

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As many of us are working in our herb gardens this time of the year, I thought I would don my gardening smock and talk about my particular gardening philosophy-ecological landscape design.

Coming from a homesteading background, I am a strong believer in a big annual vegetable garden, canning, freezing and preserving. Here in the Midwest, where nothing grows in the winter, it is especially important to put food by.

In studying plant ecology and ecological design at Goddard, I came to the idea that using this method when planting our gardens is ideal. It is far less labor intensive than conventional gardening and does not utilize harmful chemicals.

Gardens based on ecological design heal the planet. They create pockets of wellness in the ecosystem and promote mutually beneficial relationships with other creatures-healing the rift between humans and nature. This is an integral part of creating wellness.

In ecological design, gardeners create supportive communities of plants, insects and animals, based on ecological function, called guilds.

The classic example of an annual vegetable guild is that of the three sisters in which beans are planted around the base of corn plants to fix nitrogen in the soil. Squash is planted as ground cover to help retain moisture in the soil and prevent erosion.

A fourth member , less widely known, element of this guild was utilized for attracting pollinators and improving the yield of the beans and corn is Cleome serrulata or Rocky Mountain Bee plant.  An alternate common name of this plant “Navaho spinach” relays the fact that the plant was a source of food. It was also used as a medicinal and as a dye.

When an element serves multiple purposes in a system it is said to have stacking functions. Picking plants with stacking functions is especially important to gardeners working in very small spaces.

This  method of planting can be applied to perennial herb beds if we are aware of the ecological function plants serve. Different teachers use different terms but some basic functions include:

1. Nitrogen fixersherbal stacking functions
These plants have of nodules full of Rhizobia in their roots systems which convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogenous compound in the soil.

2. Dynamic Accumulators
These plants usually have large tap roots which will break up compacted soil and carry nutrients buried deep in the earth to their leaves. When cut back and left as mulch they reintroduce these nutrients to the top soil.

3. Beneficial Insect Attractors
These plants draw insects and birds to your garden. Ideally placing these plants near berry plants or bean plants will encourage yield through increased pollination. Insects and birds also serve the purpose of controlling pest problems in your garden.

Other categories include ground cover, host plants for butterflies, and plants for providing wildlife habitat.

Once we know the needs a plant meets in an ecosystem, we can begin to use this idea when planning our gardens.

Pick plants with multiple functions for your beds.  A low growing plant from any of these categories will act as ground cover.

When designing your perennial beds keep this information in mind, even if it is something as simple as planting peas and oats together.

For example, the picture below is my Berry Guild.  It is the newest guild I have  planted.  It is taking the place of my poke forest which I relocated inside the fence because of neighborhood children.
The plants include two  red currant bushes, thorn-less blackberries, strawberries, clover and anise hyssop.  In addition to being medicinals, the clover is a nitrogen fixer. Both the clover and the hyssop, are fairly low to the ground, and will attract pollinators to the fruit bearers. The strawberries will provide ground cover and hopefully lots of berries.

There is also  some volunteer lemon balm and feverfew that I am leaving in place.The idea here is to get the whole area covered. I am tired of wood mulch. You can’t see it in the picture, but there is also a bird house on the fence.

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There is certainly much more to ecological design than I have explained here as plants serve many more functions. If you look on Faoi’s page here on the blog, I have last year’s plant inventory posted for downloading with a list of its functions. Not all of my plants are in ideal guilds, yet. It is definitely a work in progess.

I usually recommend Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden as a good starting point for people who want to learn more.

A more thorough primer is Edible Forest Gardens written by Dave Jacke and  Eric Toensmeier.

A useful database that explains ecological functions of many plants is the  “Natural Capital Plant Database”  put together by Daniel Halsey and Paula Westmoreland. http://permacultureplantdata.com/

Beltaine Customs

This is one of the articles from my Beltaine newsletter. Feel free to take a look at the rest of it. Lá Beltaine sona daoibh!

Lá Beltaine or May Day widely celebrated in agricultural cultures. This holiday signified the shift in energy that occurs as spring turns to summer. Flowers were beginning to bloom and outdoor work increased.

When Ireland was populated mostly by pastoral cultures, this was the time they would move their livestock to their summer grazing pastures called buailes (booleys). It was also a time when the fishermen would leave on their long fishing trips. So the eminent departure seemed to call for a sending-off party.

These celebrations always centered around a community bonfire, which stems back to much more ancient traditions, but they had a practical nature. Traditionally, these festivals were the venue for paying rents, hiring summer workers and making contracts for summer grazing land.

Flowers were strewn on the threshold of homes and garlands of flowers were hung –they were even tied to cows tails according to scholar, Estyn Evans.

Young people would carry branches of flowers and walk from home-to-home singing songs which welcomed summer in return for small treats or gifts. This is a sweet little song frequently heard in Waldorf classrooms that speaks to this custom.

Here’s a branch of snowy May,Beltaine
A branch the fairies gave us.
Who would like to dance today
With a branch the fairies gave us?
Dance away, dance away,
Holding high the branch of May.

 

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Many of the rituals surrounding Beltaine involved saining the cattle by various methods. This word which finds its origin in the Old Irish word  sén– referred to “protective charms” of various natures. One of these rituals involved driving the herds over the embers of the dying fires . Frazer reports that men would also leap over the fires and intimates that this was a re-enactment of an older customs involving human sacrifice.

As Beltaine was the beginning of the dairying season, Frazer also reported that the traditional foods at these festivals were caudle –a custard of butter, eggs and milk and “a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers against a stone.” In other areas of the country a flat bread called farl was served with caudle.

This is not a Celtic custom rather it is a German custom that I learned long ago and incorporated into my May Day celebrations. I believe the first time I had it was at a Waldorf playdate and it was the non-alcoholic version I describe below. In the years before I had sweet woodruff growing, I would use violets and that makes a tasty beverage as well.  So feel free to substitute.

 Mai  BowleIMG_6115
1 bunch sweet woodruff
1 bottle white wine
4 Tbsp. honey
4 Tbsp. Apple Brandy
1 bottle chilled champagne
1 cup sliced strawberries
Violets and woodruff for garnish.

In the evening before you want to serve the Mai Bowle, April 30th, pour wine over sweet woodruff and allow this to steep over night in your punch bowl.
Just before serving you will want to remove the sweet woodruff and mix in the honey, brandy and champagne.  Float the sliced strawberries, woodruff blossoms, and violet blossoms on this mixture.

IMG_6119Non-Alcoholic Alternative

Warm  apple juice and the honey and pour this mixture over the sweet woodruff in the evening. When serving use  sparkling water instead of champagne. 

Herbal Self-Care Basics: Circulation

Most of us are familiar with the heart’s role in pumping blood throughout the body, but do we really think about why circulation is important?   Do we think about what it actually means to have poor circulation to our hands and feet? Or reduced blood flow to the brain?

In my experience clients will tell me that they have these issues but don’t understand how it impacts their daily well-being.  In its typical reductionist fashion modern medicine has reduced our concerns about circulation to the danger of heart disease and that is problematic.

Circulating blood carries elements, such as oxygen and nutrients, which are vital to rebuilding tissue and promoting effective cellular function. Your nervous system function and metabolic function are directly impacted by how well your circulatory system delivers these elements.

Ions carried in your blood, such as potassium, sodium and other electrolytes, power the nervous system. Neurons don’t fire if these ions don’t get to them. If neurons don’t fire, neurotransmitters don’t orchestrate the release or suppression of hormones.

mitochondriaThe mitochondria use glucose from the blood to produce ATP, which fuels all cellular metabolic processes.  If your cells don’t get enough glucose, the mitochondria fail to work properly.  Mitochondrial malfunction has been implicated in many diseases including Alzheimer’s,  dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington Disease, ALS, diabetes, obesity and many more.

The following video shows how the mitochondria turn food into ATP. I don’t think that it as important to understand what is going on in the process as it is to just enjoy how beautiful this is.

The blood also carries the components necessary for building new cells and tissue throughout the body. Strengthening the body tissues helps your body more effectively fight off pathogens.  Healthy circulation also means that white blood cells can get to an area of infection more efficiently.

Given all of this,  I am often confused it seems that the benefits of healthy circulation has been reduced to the concept of reducing strain on the heart muscle and a bunch of nonsense about cholesterol.

Food and Circulatory Health

For information on the fat debate read  this article by Dr. Dwight Lundell, the past Chief of Staff and Chief of Surgery at Banner Heart Hospital , Mesa , AZ and this journal article by Anthony Colpo.

I have personal inclinations about fats.  Avoiding Omega 6 fats is really important.  Getting a lot of Omega 3 fats is equally important.   I think how much saturated fat you eat depends entirely on your constitution and I don’t make broad suggestions about that.

I tend to believe that if you have high LDL cholesterol, there is a health benefit in attempting to lower it, through diet and exercise; especially if you have known markers of arterial inflammation.  The problem to my way of thinking is that LDL is likely to oxidize in the body and become a free radical itself, which will only serve to worsen that condition.

I don’t get into diet dogma,  I don’t care if you eat carbs, or not.  There are grains such as oatmeal, barley, which naturally seem to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Flavonoids, in particular, protect LDL from oxidation.

I tend to believe that what you add to your diet is far more important that what you avoid.  We should all be getting 8-10 servivings of fruits and vegetables a day.  Eating a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables assures us variety of anti-oxidants which in turn helps to minimize oxidative stress in the body and may slow the progression of atherosclerosis.

Traditional research maintains that sodium can lead to fluid retention in the body and therefore it raises blood pressure.  Recent research questions that association.[1]  I have to admit I’ve always been skeptical because  I like salt the way other people like sugar and my blood pressure was 98/59, the last time I had it taken.   I think that salt intake is another issue to be assessed on an individual basis.

Potassium helps the body to rid itself of excess sodium and helps to power the nervous system, so eating foods high in potassium certainly can’t hurt you.

The Mayo Clinic also indicates that low vitamin D levels may have some effect on kidney enzymes which regulate blood pressure.

Herbs and Circulatory Health

Plants contribute nutrients and other beneficial phytochemicals to the daily diet. Herbs and spices containing high amounts of antioxidants include rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, garlic, ginger, turmeric and cayenne.  Cacao, while not an herb, is also known to improve cardiovascular health.

Herbs benefit the circulatory system for various reasons.  Some are diffuse (peripheral) circulatory stimulants; promoting circulation to the extremities.  Some work as vasodilators; which means they distend the arteries to allow for more blood flow.   Others tonify and strengthen the vasculature; improving endothelial function.  There are also herbs, which help to reduce excess cholesterol in the blood.

I will mention some below that you might include in a daily regimen that supports circulatory health.   I like to mention many herbs that are easily incorporated into the diet, as well as those you might enjoy as a beverage.  I am not getting into clinical treatments.

Gingko Biloba is probably the most widely agreed upon circulatory stimulant.  It is especially known for promoting circulation to the brain. Rosemary also has this reputation. Either pair well with Gotu Kola, which has a strengthening effect on the blood vessels.  This is partly due to the fact that Gotu Kola promotes collagen production.[2]

Hawthorn berries are another popular circulatory tonic due to Hawthorn’s actions as a peripheral vasodilator and its ability to decrease serum levels of LDL-cholesterol.[3]  I like to make a hawthorn berry/cacao chai with lots of corrigents.

Herbalist David Hoffman mentions Linden flowers (Tilea spp.) as a specific herb for arteriosclerosis with hypertension.  Linden is a diffuse circulatory stimulant, which promotes circulation to the periphery and it tonifies blood vessels. Linden makes a lovely light infusion and honestly I enjoy it most on its own.

Cayenne, yarrow and rosemary are also diffuse circulatory stimulants. They are frequently useful for people who experience numbness, or cold hands and feet.  I have found English mustard foot baths to work well for this, as well.

Guggal is a traditional Ayurvedic herbal preparation, which has been studied extensively and found to be effective in lowering triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.[4]   Cayenne, garlic, mustard and turmeric also have this effect.  And they taste a lot better.

Incorporating any of these herbs in a daily regimen which involves good nutrition,  self-care, exercise and plenty of sleep will help to assure that your cells get the nutrition they need.

REFERENCES

1.  Helene Lelong, Pilar Galan, Emmanuelle Kesse-Guyot, Leopold Fezeu,Serge Hercberg, and Jacques Blacher

Relationship Between Nutrition and Blood Pressure: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from the NutriNet-Santé Study, a French Web-based Cohort Study Am J Hypertens first published online September 3, 2014. http://ajh.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/09/03/ajh.hpu164
2. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/herbsvitaminsandminerals/gotu-kola
3. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1177/00970002042006003/abstract
4.  http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/505754_4

 

 

 

 

Brown Soda Bread

IMG_5771Most of the time you hear about soda bread people are talking about the sweet loaf with currants and raisins but I am a large fan of savory breads that can be used to sop up a hearty stew.

There are as many different brown soda bread recipes as there are little Celtic Grandmas out there but this is one of my favorites.

Brown Soda Bread

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3 cups white whole wheat flour
1 cup old-fashioned oats (ground coarsely)
3 tablespoons ground pumpkin seeds (this is supposed to be wheat germ)
2 teaspoons dried rosemary plus additional for topping
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper plus additional for topping
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1 egg yolk
1 egg white

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9 inch round cake pan.
Cut butter into flour, oats and wheat germ. Ad rosemary, baking powder, baking soda salt and ground pepper. Mix the egg yolk into the butter milk and lightly stir this into the dry ingredients.

Spoon this mixture into the pan. If you can let it rest for 30 minutes or so before baking, you will appreciate the results.

When you are ready to bake the bread, whip up the egg white until it forms a soft peak and stir in some pepper and rosemary. Cut a 1/2 inch x in the top of the loaf and then brush the loaf with the egg white mixture. Bake at least 3o minutes. Serve warm.