It’s time to freshen up the blog with a new name, new layout, and a new garden announcement!
Back when this blog used to be a generic blog about teaching music and our meager attempts at gardening, “Sing to Your Plants” was my creative moniker for a space that tried to play host to two big elements of my life. But as time went on, I found that while I love teaching, I don’t necessarily love writing about it, so my blog became increasingly focused on the plant side of cultivation rather than the cultivation of young minds.
Like all dreamers, we were dreaming big when we first set out to buy a house – we wanted sprawling acreage with streams, trees, meadows, and more from where to start a small homestead. But the price tag was just too much, and we realized that perhaps the more feasible path was to buy a home in town and build equity and skills until we could afford a move. Fast forward to a modest garden and a blossoming patio area full of pollinator flowers and culinary herbs, and we realized we had an opportunity staring us in the face. We could dream and wait for the perfect farm 5, 10, 15 years down the road, or we could practice and explore the dream on a smaller scale with the space we do have. Plus, as we have found out with the spring of 2020, sustainability and self-reliance can’t wait for the dream farm. (My husband jokes that we are “Farmin’ Charmin'” by including mullein, often mislabeled as lamb’s ear, which can be used as toilet paper in a pinch.)
And so, our permaculture practices really got underway and our plans for the yard spanned multiple pages of maps, sketches, and measurements. We became determined to make the most out of the space our corner lot could offer, one square foot at a time. And so, welcome to Corner Lot Cornucopia.
While all this provides beauty, medicine, and food to our family, it also provides a thriving habitat for wildlife. We are excited to announce that as of May 2020, we are a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Foundation. Yes, even here in the center of town, we have a habitat that provides for birds, bees, chipmunks, skinks, butterflies, rabbits, toads, and so much more!
We weren’t endeavoring to qualify as a Certified Wildlife Habitat, but our work to grow and provide through a permaculture lens naturally resulted in a flourishing habitat right here in our backyard. Believe it or not, getting the certification was surprisingly easy – fruiting trees & bushes, perennial herbs and pollinator mixes, our bird feeder, our water fountain, and a small pond all help establish an environment for wildlife to flourish and grow. Our setup provides food through feeders & bushes, cover & safety, water, places to raise young (mature trees and bird houses), and sustainable practices like encouraging native plants, capturing rain water, and organic practices.
Certification is certainly not necessary, and there was a small fee to be recognized, but we are glad to do it for two reasons: 1) by certifying, we are supporting the National Wildlife Foundation, and 2) displaying our sign and pictures helps inspire others to do the same for their backyards. We mounted our sign outside our fence so its viewable by onlookers using the sidewalk, and my hope is to inspire a few curious minds to look up the NWF and maybe start exploring simple ways to support wildlife in their own home. It is SO easy to get started – add a hummingbird or bird feeder, install a bird or bee house, let the dandelions grow, add a native perennial to your front yard or backyard patio (if you are a Midwest gardener like me, I would love to give you recommendations!).
All of this on less than a quarter acre. You can do it, too.
And to help, along with updating the blog layout and title, I included a new Resources page to help catalog some of our favorite resources along the way. From YouTube videos about herbs to my favorite books on chickens and even some websites on worms, I want to make it easier for those striving to move in the same direction. Check back frequently, as I will endeavor to keep adding items as we discover new allies in the fight to #growfoodnotlawns.
It’s time to push back on the traditional concept of “medicine” as pharmaceuticals and pharmaceuticals alone.
Did you know that you likely have a stockpile of medicine in your yard?
No, I didn’t bury ibuprofen and steroids out there. It’s time to push back on the traditional concept of “medicine” as pharmaceuticals and pharmaceuticals alone. Before we go too far, I need to say that Western medicine absolutely has a role in our lives and should be utilized any time you, or a family member, feels uncomfortable with the health situation at hand or is in grave danger. But seeing as how Western medicine tends to treat symptoms of a larger issue in our bodies, we can turn to herbs and food to promote wellness in our bodies to help prevent the symptoms in the first place.
Let’s take heart problems, for example. Years of eating a fatty, inflammatory diet, lack of a exercise regimen, and perhaps even hereditary issues like high blood pressure and diabetes has lead to a heart attack. Western medicine can absolutely patch you up, put in stints, prescribe blood-thinners or anticholeretics, and send you home with instructions to eat better and exercise more. But what they don’t necessarily do is help provide direction for how to heal your body, your arteries, and your heart rather than cope with your heart symptoms by thinning your blood and suppressing bile production in your liver.
Eating the right food and working with an herbalist can help provide the yin to Western medicine yang by addressing the rest of your body while your heart heals. What your doctor could not treat was your weight gain, the inflammation in your body that lead to your organs working harder, your skyrocketing stress from work that overburdened your heart, and probably a lot more that was contributing to the buckling of this particular organ under all the issues that were piled onto your body. Your heart is likely not the only thing that’s broken – it was just the last Jenga piece that caused your system to crash. Your Jenga puzzle was teetering to begin with.
I have loved studying about herbs and herbalism the past several months through some online coursework, and it has really helped me delve into trying to support my body holistically rather than target particular symptoms. For example, I tend to get headaches and neck aches that, I realized, derived from stress or lack of sleep. Once I started focusing on eliminating the stress and supporting my sleep system, the headaches started going away (or at least occurred less frequently or less intensely). This is sometimes the opposite approach of conventional medicine – just think of the commercials: Tennis player pops a few painkillers so they can keep up their game despite serious arthritis and muscle deterioration. Did you dull the pain? Yes. Did you fix the problem, which is inflamed joints and painful muscles? No. (Did you also guarantee that you will have to continue purchasing said pain medications for the rest of your life, or worse, develop addictions to pain relief? YEP.) We’re approaching our bodies with only half the solution – you can treat pain, but you need to heal your body, as well.
And again – we need Western medicine. We need the amazing abilities of our doctors to treat illness, mend our bones, monitor our vitals, vaccinate against deadly disease, and more. But we need to help ourselves with the right herbs and foods so we don’t get so sick and need their help for the processes our bodies can handle on their own if we would give them the chance.
This spring, it has been particularly exciting to start poking around our corner lot and see what kind of herbs are sprouting in the yard on their own. A trip to the neighborhood park yielded even more exciting discoveries. I know a lot of you think that herbalism is expensive and chock full of essential oils, and sure, it certainly can be. (Reishi mushrooms can sell upwards of $25 per POUND and the tincture at $10 per OUNCE. It is glorious, though.) But when there’s so much free stuff just in your backyard, why not start there?
These are some of my new favorites from my yard and the neighborhood. Now, while I have studied herbalism extensively and will soon have my certificate, I am not allowed to prescribe, diagnose, or treat you. I can, however, happily talk to you about suggestions for how these herbs are traditionally used and give you a glimpse into some of the benefits of using them for yourself. (Working with a herbal practitioner is always the safest route for specific conditions, just as working directly with your doctor is just as important.)
Dandelion Root & Leaves
I know you all saw the “tea craze” a few years back – “Drink this tea daily, and you’ll shed 10 pounds of water weight a DAY!” If you truly want to detoxify your body – and when we say detox your body, we are really focusing on kidney & liver detoxification, then dandelion root and/or leaves are wonderful for supporting this.
Will you lose a crazy amount of water weight? Probably not. (And if you did, you’ll gain it right back unless you have seriously altered your diet.) But dandelion root tea can be an excellent way to support a healthful liver and flush the byproducts from your liver and kidneys. Your liver is key to your whole system, because it takes what you consume and breaks it down into monosaccharides, amino acids, and fatty acids & lipids that your body needs for energy, nutrients, and vitality. The more processed foods and alcohol we feed it, the harder it has to work and the more of the toxins are left for your liver to try to expel out through your elimination system. Dandelion root or a combination of root and leaves, often taken as a tea, can help serve as a diuretic that flushes your system and doesn’t strip your body of its potassium in the process, unlike traditional diuretics. (But you should still eat your banana.)
This is nature’s bandage. And holy cow, is it everywhere! Plantain loves to grow in damaged, disturbed soils by roads and sidewalks. (If you gather some, herbalism communities suggest you gather fifty-feet from the road to avoid pollution and to know whether the area has been treated for herbicides/pesticides before attempting to use it.)
If you are outside and get a burn, blister, sting, or a scrape, you can grab one of these leaves (wash it first) and wrap it over the wound. To be most effective and, therefore, release plantain’s astringent and cooling actions, chew it up in your mouth and apply to the wound directly (this is called a “spit poultice” – works well in a pinch!). Evan burned his hand on a stripped screw to the point of blistering, and he immediately put plantain on it – after twenty minutes, it was almost numb! The subsequent application of a fresh plantain leaf, aloe, and a pain salve almost completely healed the blister. I’m collecting and drying leaves now so that I can use them in tinctures and dry poultices this fall and winter when the plants die back.
Pandemic friends, fear hoarding no more – for the toilet paper plant is here! This often gets mistaken for lamb’s ear, but mullein is much bigger and actually flowers in its second year. It has a very soft leaf, so yes, it makes the short list for a toilet paper substitute. If you can keep it long enough, it can also provide wonderful lung and respiratory support.
Mullein is an example of a plant that can be identified for use according to the Doctrine of Signatures – this was a very old way of trying to identify what part of the body the herb would support by observing the herb. Yarrow leaves, for example, looks like veins and capillaries, and so early herbalists (correctly) theorized that yarrow specifically targets circulatory support.
Mullein is covered in tiny hairs all over the leaves, and these hairs were believed to mimic the cilia of your respiratory tracts. And so it works its wonders as a tincture or in a tea as an expectorant and anti-inflammatory support system for your lungs. If you do try to work with mullein at home in an oral fashion, make sure you fine strain the mixture very carefully, or the tiny hairs will irritate your throat!
Mullein is known as a pioneer plant – it is one of the first plants to grow in an area that has been disturbed by fire, heavy tilling, or some other kind of soil destruction, much like plantain.
I love learning about the different names for plants, because many of them are, as you know, named for their distinct appearance or role. You have probably angrily pulled cleavers from your garden to realize that they cling to your skin, your clothes, and your pets – “sticky willy” or “catchweed” is very accurate, indeed!
I have not yet worked with cleavers directly, but I have some drying in my kitchen as we speak. I was surprised to find it pop up by my fence and happily took advantage of a few pieces once it started flowering.
Cleavers is known to be a wonderful tonic for your lymphatic system. Remember when I mentioned addressing your whole system rather than a symptom? If you are always catching a cold or suffering from frequent infections, having a hard time recovering from illnesses, or suffering from immunity issues, analyzing your immune and lymphatic systems becomes very important. Keeping your immune system in healthy working order helps you possibly not get ill in the first place, or at least be able to fight the illness more easily.
Your lymphatic system, in particular, helps remove waste, dead blood cells, and pathogens from your system (and connects your various lymph nodes, spleen, and T-gland, which can produce cancer-fighting cells, throughout your body – your lymph nodes swelling are often a sign that your body is fighting off something). If your lymphatic system is struggling, it can mean your immunity and health is struggling, too – and suddenly the Jenga pieces are getting yanked out rapidly.
Are you interested in learning more about herbs and herbalism? This book is a great place to start – Rosemary Gladstar is often considered a Mother of Herbalism in the herbal world and has some great literature and recipes to get you started with things in your cupboard now. Or, jump right in with me and take some herbal courses online! It’s never too late to learn more about what’s growing around you – and how you can use it to keep your body whole and thriving. (Jenga pieces not included.)
Browse Pinterest or any manner of positivity quotes and you’ll likely stumble across this bit: “Bloom where you’re planted.” It may be cliche, but for this spring, it’s an apt assessment of our gardens – and my anxious mindset during this pandemic.
So much has developed over the past few months, and much of this has to do with the virus. My work as a teacher has shrunk considerably – and while it’s a relief to be able to work as I’m able, being trapped in this work/home bubble has been exhausting and miserable at times. At least when work was a location away from home you could turn off the light, close the door, and drive away. Here, at home, it’s hard to separate work hours from home hours or to relax when all the chores and tasks follow me from room to room.
When faced with anxiety, I get busy – I bury myself in work, chores, cleaning, anything to distract me from myself. And with warming temperatures, I’ve turned to the backyard and the garden to chip away at the worry of it all.
Chiefly, our main focus has been in the main garden, where the majority of our annual crops will be growing this year. Last year, we had 4-5 twenty-foot beds that we expanded to 8 beds this year. Not all will be planted for crops this year – several will have cover-cropping to get them started after sheet-mulching, but already we have greatly expanded our growing space.
From March – to May! The seedlings we started in February are now growing big and strong. We have radishes, Four Seasons lettuce, romaine, onions, beets, and spinach that we transplanted in March and are just now coming into their season. We are so excited by the success of transplanting – last year, we direct sowed much of our spring crops and had only mild success. This year, we are bursting at the seams with salads and greens, and we think that we have much to thank for planting seeds thickly and transplanting.
Outside of the garden, two of the bigger projects continue to be the chickens and a permaculture staple: swales!
Our chickens are turning 10 weeks old this weekend and have been frolicking in the sunshine for the last three weeks in their coop. Several weeks before transitioning out, we made it a point to take everyone out several times for longer and longer periods so they had experience with their run and the sounds outside. Once they were over the initial shock of car sounds and other bird calls, they were positively buoyant – flying from one end to another of their coop, flapping their wings, sunning themselves, chasing after worms, and snipping at yummy herbs and morsels.
When the temperatures were finally stable with lows in the 50s, we moved everyone out for good – and they haven’t looked back!
It’s hard to believe these goofy girls have fourteen more weeks of growing. At their prime, they’ll be 6-8 pounds – Wyandottes are known for being a dual-purpose breed, meaning they’re good for egg-laying as well as a meat bird, but we’ll keep them only for eggs.
The coop, as you can see, gets moved throughout the yard for the chickens to free-range safely but also work our grass and our soil with some of the best fertilizer you can find. One element of the yard that we will navigating carefully are some new water catchment systems called ‘swales.’ A cornerstone of permaculture includes evaluating your resources (or lack thereof), and over the past couple of years we have realized that we have an overabundance of water when it rains.
Water runs down to our yard from several neighbors to the west, pooling and flooding over half the yard during heavy rains. But, as it is Kansas, we can go weeks during the summer without a drop of rain. So, we need a system to slow down the water, trap it, and absorb it in the places we need it – and swales are the answer!
Evan developed and dug a system of trenches in the yard as well as in the garden itself – and it didn’t take long for them to fill up. The dirt from the trenches is mounded on the other side of the trench for additional growing areas and then benefit directly from the water being absorbed just behind it, cutting down immensely on the need to water.
Our swales border new permaculture additions to the backyard – two goumi bushes, two dwarf apples, a mulberry, and three cherry trees, surrounded with chives and garlic to keep away munching predators.
One neat trick about these trenches, though, is that they don’t have to stay empty to work – fill them with mulch, and the trench can still function but remain even with the rest of the ground.
But where does one get mulch during a pandemic?
The answer: tree companies! Here was yet another example of examining your resources and the resources of your community. Our city compost center has mulch, but has been closed for nearly seven weeks now due to stay-at-home orders. Hardware store mulch is prohibitively expensive and labor-intensive to load, haul, unload, and de-bag. Tree services will always have an abundance of mulch, so I contacted a local service and arranged for a delivery of a truckload for $40. My husband said that I looked like Smaug sitting on a bed of gold and riches after the delivery.
The past few weeks have been so exhausting but so fulfilling. In a time when all we can do is stay at home, I am so grateful that it has at least been at a time of warmth and growing things to keep us occupied.
If this pandemic has got you thinking about your own self-sustainability, from gardening to chickens to preserving foods or even just buying locally, please reach out. We were lucky to have started these dreams long before this pandemic and we are so grateful for the resources we have already begun to amass. Evan and I believe not just in the stewardship of the earth, but in the stewardship of each other – we are here to support you on your journey to self-sufficiency in any way we can.
(Or, you know, to commiserate over Midwest freezes and ice storms over Easter weekends.)