Saturday, June 26, 2010

Lessons on foraging and herbs.

A secret to a successful farming, as per Diane, is in team work. Self discipline, planning, determination and start-finish approach are absolutely essential. It is very obvious that Phil and Diane make a great team. It took them a while to figure out a lot of things. As a matter of fact, figuring out and learning never stops on the farm.

Since Phil grew up in the area, he is in charge of the soil, composting, keeping the soil healthy. Diane, born and grew up in Austin, TX, now is the head of the planting operations. She orders seeds, takes care of germination and seedlings, and is the greenhouse director.

When Diane and Phil met, the house had been built, and after a few years spending away from the farm, working for a refrigeration company in Michigan, Phil was ready to become a full time farmer and spend his days on the fresh air, grow his own food and educate the locals about the benefits of eating organically.

Phil and his farther built the house about 20 years ago. It took 2 years of creative approach to built this cozy and charming chalet. It has high beams, all wood interior, a bathroom, a basement, two lofts that you need ladders to climb up to. The ladders were used for building the house, "So, they stay", said Diane. One loft is a bedroom, another one is Diane's sewing room. One more bedroom downstairs, right off the kitchen, was initially used to host the woofers. Now they have two cottages, one by the road, and another one with the view of Auglaize river that comfortably sleep 5-6 woofers each.

It would be not fair if I didn't mention Phil's Dad, Lester.
Lester's spirit is everywhere on the farm and in the house. Lester was a mailman, a farmer and had accomplished a lot in his life. You walk in and you see his portrait right by the dinner table. You walk on the floor and think of Lester, who had saved a tree for his son to put as hard wood floors. You warm you feet on a slate by the Amish wood stove during long winter evenings, you think of Lester, who had disassembled an old Melrose High School, saved every brick and other building materials to use in his building projects. He also built a barn, and another two houses using the recycled building materials.

When he started disassembling another building he would hear people tell him: "Lester, what are you doing? You are 80 years old!"
"It's either this or nursing home. I prefer the bricks.", he used to reply.

Sadly, we learnt that Lester died eleven years ago. He fell into a ditch and was run over by a tractor.

I was introduced to two wonderful books on foraging while staying on our previous farm. Meeting farmer Phil and spending a week on his farm has helped me to experience foraging and identifying medicinal herbs first hand. Phil is a walking encyclopedia of edible herbs and plants.

"When did you get into foraging, Phil?", I asked him, curious to find out whether it was Lester and his wife that passed on this incredible knowledge to their son.

"It was about 20 years ago that I got interested in learning about edible plants. My first wife had a horse boarding business. So people would come from the cities to go on trails. There were around 68,000 acres of state land nearby, perfect for horseback riding. I would come along with the group, but then it got to be boring for me. So I starting jogging along them, picking up and trying edible plants. It was Gibbon's "Stocking Wild Asparagus" book that was my first teacher."

Over the years Phil has been learning and experimenting, and now I can learn from him, use and pass on the knowledge to my children.

We all got the buckets and started an early morning forager's walk. Herbs are growing everywhere around the house, around the orchard, all over the gardens. I knew a few herbs from my childhood and now learnt their names in English. Phil kept on walking and talking, and I was trying to remember as much as I could. In less than 45 minutes, we not only had enough for our morning tea break, but also enough to bring to the farmer's market. Wild Raspberries and Strawberries, Catnip, a few varieties of Mint, Hawthorn, Elderberries, Lemon Balm, Rose Leaves, Yarrow, Red Clover flowers, Sweet Woodruff, to name a few, made a fantastic rejuvenating drink, sweetened with raw "Nothing But Nature" honey.

Besides tea herbs, our walk in the woods yielded a lot of edible wild plants for our lunch. It was a day when we tried Day Lily pods, more Yarrow leaves, Lamb's Quarters, a weed we were fighting with on "Earth Song" gardens, Wild Reddish pods, young shoots of Queen Ann's Lace and Austrian peas, Wild Sorrel, Wild Roman Oregano, Dandelion, Echinacea, young Grape Vine , fuzzy Borage leaves that I had hard times swallowing, but the beautiful purple flowers tasted just like cucumbers. Picked in the morning dew. It doesn't get any better than that.

"The Completed Medicinal Herbal", by Penelope Ody was another book that Diane made sure I became aware of. She said it's one of the best books on herbs she came across ever. And Diane is a voracious reader.

Later in a day Diane showed me her herb garden that she had created a few years back on a compost pile. She used sand as a top layer. Her herbs have been thriving, with a few changes that needed to be made along the way. Lavender, for example, had to be replanted onto another side of the hill because it did not do well on a windy side and preferred a calmer, more protected territory.

"Start with 4 or 5 herbs. Learn all there is to know about them. Their specific ways of growing, their medicinal and culinary usage. Experiment, do not be afraid of trial and error. Pick up another 4-5 hers next year. Do the same thing. Before you know it, all the books you have bought over the years you will be passing on to another curious fella."

This kind of advice is absolutely invaluable to me. One day I will become knowledgeable enough to think of myself as a herbalist and a forager.


The gardendwellers said...

Again Julia I am jealous! You certainly will have experienced a great deal by the end of your journey. I wish I could have been out foraging with you, it sounds delightful. But please save something for us to teach you at gardendwellers FARM! Happy hunting! Holly

Unknown said...

When I was a child, my dad would go in his garden, as the sun was setting, to check on the growing plants. Before he came back in the house, he would often rub his hands on the leaves of a mint plant. After coming back in, if I was around, he would put his hands to my nose and say "here, smell this" I smelled a warm smell of mint that I still remember to this day! Your children will never forget all the smells you are exposing them to.
Take care,

Julia and Mirek said...

Dear Holly! yes, I believe we will learn a lot by the end of our journey. And probably we would not want to end our journey , since we have been having such a great time! Every farm has a lot to offer and teach us in different ways. We get attached to our WWOOFing hosts, but we know that we must go on for more adventures on other farms! We are looking forward meeting you! Maybe, if you have chicory in ND, we can make healthy chicory coffee together!

Julia and Mirek said...

Yes, Nathalie, I do believe that smells play a great role in our memory functions. Diane told me that when her grandchildren were born, she would visit them in the hospital and would wear a sack with lavender in it. Lavender calms them down. And they will always associate lavender smell with their grandma. I though it was very clever! Thanks for your comments! We love them!

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