Permaculture Principles in Practice: Catching and Storing Energy in Spring Ephemerals

Spring is making its slow way back to the Pacific Northwestern US right now. Its been a relatively cold, wet winter, and many plants, animals, birds, and insects are appearing a bit later than usual. The first flowers are opening, including Tall Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium), Trillium (Trillium ovatum), and Yellow Wood Violet (Viola glabella). Soon the Camas (Camassia quamash and C. leitchlinii) will fill the valleys as the Calypso orchids (Calypso bulbosa) sprinkle the forests with their purple-pink petals.

Amidst all of these bold floral displays grow many herbaceous annuals and perennials that fill the understory of forests, savannas, and riparian corridors with succulent vegetation.

Starry False Solomon’s Seal

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioca) abound in shady moist floodplains, surrounded by waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes). Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia lanceolata) and Spring Beauty (Cardamine nuttallii) proliferate in the moist, warming soil. The bold green of Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina stellata) and Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) spring forward to cover the ground.

This is also the time of year that many foragers and wildcrafters emerge from their winter repose to harvest and make use of this spring bounty.

Harvesting Stinging Nettles

Many of these plants are edible or medicinal, and are known to be rich in nutrients and minerals. Stinging nettles are an excellent source of calcium and iron. They are often used to treat the inflammatory symptoms associated with seasonal allergies like itchy eyes and runny noses. Nettles are great in quiches, stir fries, made into pesto, or steamed with a bit of butter (or even plain). I like to harvest several grocery bags full of nettles each year and dry them for use in tea or soups and stews for the rest of the year. While I’m out, I love to snack on Miner’s Lettuce, Yellow Wood Violets, and Western Spring Beauty.

 

Rosy Checker Mallow (Sidalcea virgata)

In harvesting some of this seasonal bounty for myself, my family, and community, I like to reflect on what these plants are doing for the ecosystem, and its interesting that their role in nature is reflected in the ways that we and other creatures of the land use them. In temperate climates, these pulses of lush spring growth act as nutrient reservoirs that catch and store nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. Plants like Stinging Nettles and Miner’s Lettuce grow rapidly and store these valuable elements in their tissues, where they are held until other creatures harvest and disperse them or until the plants themselves decompose and create a slow release of these critical nutrients back into the surrounding ecosystem. They also grow rapidly before the trees and shrubs above them begin to leaf out, making use of spring sunlight for photosynthesis

Ecologists R.N. Muller and F.H. Borman proposed that these spring ephemerals act as “vernal dams” that capture nutrients that may otherwise leave the system during the season of heavy spring rains or melting snow. Tests on this hypothesis have been carried out in numerous temperate ecosystems, and have found that these relatively short-lived plants play a critical role in stabilizing nutrient flows.

These nutrient-rich plants also grow right at the time when animals who live at higher latitudes (like people who live in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere above 30 degrees latitude or so) are in need of some supplemental nutrition after a winter with relatively little fresh vegetation to eat. Judicious harvest of this seasonal bounty provides an important boost of vitamins and minerals, and they just taste so good!

Finding a good spot to harvest these plants is important. I’ve been going to “my” patch of nettles for over 10 years, and this long-term relationship has given me the opportunity to observe the population over time – to notice whether the patch is growing or shrinking, if the plants are healthy, etc. I think this element of conscientious stewardship is key to ethical wildcrafting – we shouldn’t just be harvesting plants for the fun of it, but in order to create long-lasting relationships with a place that may even show us that harvesting is no longer a good idea. We have to learn when not to harvest as well.

Back at home, we can take this important observation of natural cycles and apply it to our own gardens and landscapes. Permaculture design principles are based on integrating natural patterns in our home and community environments. Harvesting spring ephemerals and understanding the vernal dam hypothesis is a great example of the principle of “Catch and Store Energy,” which can be applied to many contexts from pond building to home heating. In this case, we’re looking at how forest ecosystems catch and store energy in the form of nutrients in ephemeral plant tissues. Mimicking this in our home gardens might mean planting similar species in our forest garden areas. In my garden, I’ve planted Alexanders (Smyrnium olustratum), Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum), and Perennial Elephant Garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii) to fill this niche. I also encourage the growth of Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum), Cleavers (Galium aparine), and Chickweed (Stellaria media) throughout my forest garden areas for making a delicious spring pesto…recipe below!

Dead Nettle and Cleavers harvesting nutrients and sunlight.

Eat Your Weeds Spring Pesto

* Several handfuls cleavers, chickweed, dead nettle, dandelion leaves, or other mild-flavored spring edibles to yield approximately 4 cups tightly packed greens. You can also use nettles, but they should be blanched first, and yield approximately 2 cups blanched greens to start.

* 1 cup olive oil

* 1/2 cup almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, or other locally available organic nuts/seeds.

* 6 cloves garlic

* Juice from one lemon. I also add leaves from Lemon Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) when lemons aren’t available.

* Sea salt to taste.

Blend all ingredients in blender or food processor until smooth. Enjoy with pasta, or on crackers or vegetable sticks. I also mix mine with homemade fromage blanc cheese or other cultured cream cheese.

 

The Journey to Beyond the War

I’m sitting here on a warm summer’s day, reflecting on the release of my book Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Perspective on Ecosystem Restoration. It still doesn’t feel quite real, and I look back on those days of typing, thinking, typing, thinking, and typing some more as if they occurred in a dream state. I must admit I was pretty tired most of the time. I started the book while still working for the Lane County Department of Public Works, when I became aware of the extent of herbicide use in the restoration industry. I made some headway on writing while I was still working at that job, and I always dreamed that someday I would submit it to Chelsea Green Publishing. Then, life went on. I was very busy working on developing my farm, working on my old farmhouse, acquiring plants and animals, and setting up systems to care for them. Occasionally I would come across an article or picture that would make me shake my head and reinforce the idea that I really should finish the book. I knew an alternative perspective on invasive species management just had to make its way into public discourse, and I felt like I had a unique perspective as a Permaculture practitioner and organic farmer who came to the field of restoration without preconceived notions about how bad invasive species supposedly are.

And then I got pregnant. I imagined that I would spend the long winter months at home working on finishing up the book as I waited to welcome my baby into the world. But as it turned out, I could hardly muster up a single sentence the entire time. I even had several days a week available to work on the book for a few months. I would sit down, turn on the computer, and…nothing. I still thought about it a lot, continued reading and researching, but the writing just wasn’t happening. I wasn’t too concerned, though, I thought that I could easily work on it during naptime and baby’s early bedtime. Newborns sleep all the time, right? So I waited, and welcomed my baby boy Sylvan into the world in early April 2013.

Well, I didn’t work on the book for a few months after that…there was a lot of sleep (for Sylvan, not me), but it was sporadic, and there was laundry (so much laundry), and nursing, and smelling his sweet head for hours at a time. Then, when Sylvan was around 4 months old, I thought I could probably start writing again. He did start sleeping more regularly, though still woke up every 2 hours or so through the night. I could squeeze in 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there, and occasional 2 hour stretches at night before I would be too tired to continue. Amazingly, this worked. My creative juices were flowing again in the way that they hadn’t been for months. I was able to get the manuscript to a point that I felt ready to submit a proposal to Chelsea Green. I submitted my initial proposal in November 2013, and heard back from them the next day. They were super excited, and requested a full proposal, which included two full chapters.

Now I had some work to do! All I remember from this phase is that my husband and I watched the entire 5 (?) seasons of Breaking Bad in kind of marathon fashion after Sylvan went to sleep during that time, and I would often stay up after our episode-or-two session and work on my chapters. Somehow they got done, and I submitted them. They were accepted, and I signed the book contract on Winter Solstice of 2013. The terms were to turn in a completed 100,000 page manuscript by July 1, 2014. So I had 7 months to bring this new baby into the world.

I spent a rainy Oregon winter and spring buckled down in front of the computer, at least part time. I pretty much had one full day and two half days a week available as I was still the primary caregiver for Sylvan, who was just shy of 9 months old when I signed the contract. And nights…lots of nights. Sylvan usually slept without waking from 8pm-1am, so this was the ‘golden hour’ of getting a lot done without having to be gone for too long. My good friend Devon of Fern Hill Nursery has a son around Sylvan’s age, and she offered to watch Sylvan while I worked in her office. I spent many hours there. I also spent my long days away at the Eugene library, taking the bus early from Cottage Grove, and typing on my laptop during the hour-long ride. Many other friends helped with childcare, as Abel was working two jobs, one the Permaculture Program director at Aprovecho, one as the Project Manager at the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Council. It was intense, to say the least. Sometimes we had short conversations as we passed each other in the hall, or in the midst of chopping vegetables, washing dishes, and doing laundry.

And then, on June 30, I printed it out and sent the 5 pound manuscript (okay, I didn’t really weigh it, but it was heavy!) to Vermont to arrive on July 1. Somehow, it happened. It was done! My in-laws took me out to Toro Bravo in Portland, which for those you from around here who know, know it is really, really good. But, it wasn’t really done. My friend Josh, who had recently published a book – A Sliver of Light – about his experience being detained in prison in Iran for over two years, warned me that the editing phase was much more work than the writing itself. I heard what he was saying, but it didn’t really set in until I started in on the process again.

I took a few weeks off, and during that time, some senior staff and colleagues of the publisher read the manuscript, and gave me feedback on it. I got back to work, refining my message and making adjustments based on their suggestions. I resubmitted it, and then Brianne, my awesome editor, took over. With her help, the narrative became really clear, and we trimmed a lot of unnecessary words. I nicknamed her ‘the cream separator’ because she has the uncanny ability to pull out the best in a piece of writing, and make it come forward, eliminating all the extraneous stuff. Josh was right, the editing process was hard, constantly tinkering, refining, making things just right, and then, even that part was done.

We got some good news: David Holmgren agreed to write the foreword to the book, and Wendell Berry gave me permission to use his poem Work Song II: A Vision in the book. Everything was coming together, and just in time!

Then to the copyeditor, who caught some of the mistakes that we had missed over the course of developmental editing. During this phase, I went back over all of the endnotes to make sure that everything was cited correctly, which was a huge process. Then, the proofreader looked it over. Having so many eyes on the manuscript made me feel good, because it is hard for one or two people to catch everything.

We went back and forth about the title, finally settling on Beyond the War… The title I initially submitted was Everything Gardens– which is a Permaculture principle that represents how everything in the world was consequences and life force patterns of its own, including our ecological decisions and the invasive species that follow in their wake. I still think in terms of Everything Gardens, but Beyond the War on Invasive Species is so much more descriptive, and people will certainly know what it means when they hear it. The design team at Chelsea Green came up with a beautiful cover image that perfectly encapsulates the content and concept of the book, and I just love it!

Then, some eighteen months after submitting the query letter, the book shipped to the printer. No more tinkering, wordsmithing, or worrying about a particular passage. It was off into the world, and hopefully bringing forth many important conversations and opportunities.

Writing a book is hard work…I liken it to having a baby – nurturing a tiny spirit, watching it grow, then letting it go into the world, taking on a life of its own. Writing a book while having a real live baby is also hard work, but Sylvan is just as excited about it as I am now. I somehow managed to not have to sit in front of a screen while he was with me, so I could really take the time to connect with him and nurture his spirit throughout the process. When he sees pictures of the cover on the computer, he says “That’s mama’s book!” He also parades around the house holding copies of the book very closely and doesn’t want to let them go – he knows that they are precious to our family.

So I guess I’ve become a writer. I actually really enjoyed the process. The strangest part is seeing my name on Amazon, and seeing the book in bookstores, and thinking – I did that! I’ve always been an avid reader, and now I’ve joined the ranks, or should I say the stacks, of published authors contributing in their way to making the world a more informed place. I look forward to doing it again soon (stay tuned)!

Updates on the last three years…my how time flies!

We got some pigs to help with removing our front lawn.

Lawn Removal Service

When they were small, they loved drinking extra milk and whey from our Jersey cow, Plum.

Plum grazing

 

As they grew bigger and the summer got hotter, they got moved into the shade, and got to drink kombucha that had passed its prime.

Jim gives the pigs a kombucha treat!

Meanwhile we enjoyed some beautiful sunsets.

Back porch sunset view

We raised some pastured meat chickens.

Plucking Chickens

And some lovely crimson clover…and pollinators of all sorts!

Bumblebee on crimson clover

The garden grew more lush every year.

Garden Year 2

Our friend Jim Harding built the solar downdraft dehydrator in the picture above…and we filled it up!

Snake River Apricots

We built a greenhouse on the south side of our house.

Digging a foundation trench for greenhouse

We dug some test pits for future ponds.

Abel digging a test pit for a pond.

We got a little herd dog named Rowan.

Rowan

And had a little baby named Sylvan.

Sylvan!

We built a tiny house with the help of Aprovecho’s Sustainable Shelter Series students.

Tiny House

We taught some PDCs.

We grew a lot of food.

Autumn Bounty

And had lots of fun!

We look forward to the years to come, and to more regular posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life on the Farm

Winter is here, and some extra time to reflect on the events of the previous seasons. We moved into our new home and land in March of 2011. We have definitely been doing our year of observation, but also can’t help getting just a few elements and systems established.

Abel digging postholes for the garden fence, with the garden right out the back door.

 

Settling the bees into their new home in early April.

As the days started to warm up, so too did the turkey vultures who spread their wings to absorb the sun’s rays.

We also got a primo mouser from Greenhill Humane Society in Eugene.

Hazel!

We’ve also been observing the plants and animals to be found on the land, like a patch of Calochortus tolmeii, a native lily whose bulb is edible raw or cooked, tasting like a sweet crunchy radish.

We also have a large patch of camas (Camassia quamash) on the land.

We sheet mulched the garden in the backyard with cardboard and stable litter from Avalon stables down the road, leaving the old growth lilacs as beanposts and habitat.

We built a chicken tractor as well, though some of the ladies would rather roost in our mudroom on the front porch!

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