As of one year ago, my family lives on 17 acres in the Gaspereau Valley on a north-facing slope saturated with springs that run down the mountain. Now that winter is over, I see the land slowly revealing itself again and I watch where the water flows. There are many pools in our forest where the ferns of last year reach up their browned stems and the small hemlocks continue to grow around them. There is one variety of fern that remains green all winter as it mats itself against the rotting leaves, nourishing the ground for a new year’s growth.
It was so exciting to begin acting on our vision for this land when we purchased our property three years ago. I’d always dreamed of having an orchard. I grew up in the Niagara area where orchards and vineyards are abundant, and many of my relatives own and operate fruit production. I planned a permaculture orchard, where all the plants work together to support each other. It’s an overwhelming ambition that requires more knowledge than I have. I began my orchard by not doing anything except planting, mulching, watering, and pruning the trees, leaving them vulnerable to disease and pests, which inevitably came. Each year I slowly learn more. I hope my trees are resilient enough to withstand my learning process.
The first spring we had our property, we planted our orchard and mulched around each tree. We cursed at the thistle that grew around between the trees and tried to hack it down. The kids wanted to run around barefoot as we worked on the orchard and they quickly learned to watch out for these pokey weeds.
The next summer as I walked around our property there was less thistle and I began to read more about the succession of weeds, which tell about the health of the soil. Zak and are slowly learning that we don’t have the energy or time to tend to everything we perceive as “problems” that need to be fixed, so we focus on one thing at a time. I started to relax more once I realized it was my job to take a deep breath and walk around the property. To notice what was growing where. To resist the urge to control what grew in the barren patches.
I love to watch the wildflowers that come up. Many of them are invasive. People with tiny yards can attempt to control a small patch, but when you have six acres of semi-cleared field, that is a lot more to control. It’s not possible. This is what I have been learning this winter in my own body—to let go of my need to control. This spring I will return to the field with new knowledge ingrained in me. I will continue to watch the succession that happens as the soil builds its health, year upon year. Nature knows what it is doing. Rather than fight with these plants, my relationship with them deepens. They each perform their task. Plants like dandelion are not native to our area, but they were also brought here for a reason, whether for their medicinal or soil-building properties.
I like to walk around my property with my basket, ready to forage the uncultivated: whatever edible or medicinal weeds, mushrooms, or evergreens are currently growing. First in the spring comes coltsfoot: I am slowly learning of its uses. Next comes dandelion. First we harvest its leaves for salads. They are less bitter before the blossoms begin to form and so nutritive. Another project I have yet to make the time for is to harvest and pickle the dandelion flower buds before they open to use like capers in salads and other dishes. In the summer I especially love to harvest clover for my allergy tea. I watch the bees, as they love it too. I investigate what else grows in and amongst the clover we seeded over the last two years.
I channel my harvests into various projects that nourish me and my family throughout the year. Like many, I have seasonal allergies, and in the spring they come on strong, starting with itchy eyes as soon as the temperatures begin to rise above zero. Last year, I found a recipe for this allergy tisane, developed by Erin Boyle, which you can find on the Gardenista website (gardenista.com/posts/miracle-cure-for-spring-allergies-gentle-nettle-tea/). I have adapted her recipe with a few of my own substitutions, but the ingredients remain mostly similar. She does not give any amounts for each herb, and I like to blend by generous handfuls depending on my mood. I encourage you to read her descriptions of the benefits of each herb which support the body and alleviate seasonal allergies. I start with a good base of nettle, which is a wonderful natural antihistamine. Then I add spearmint and peppermint (which help open up airways). Even if you do not have all of the ingredients on hand, I encourage you to blend up what you have as even the basic herbs (nettle, mint, clover) will support you.
Here is a basic guide to the amounts of herb to make your own blend:
4 parts nettle
4 parts mint (blend of peppermint and spearmint)
3 parts clover
2 parts calendula
2 parts lemongrass
2 parts cleavers (I substitute cleavers for Erin’s addition of Yerba Santa)
1 part lavender
1/2 part fennel
1/2 part liquorice root (I substitute this for stevia, which you may want to use instead)
Blend all dry ingredients together in a bowl and place in a mason jar in your pantry or next to your kettle.
Place 4 tablespoons of the blend into a 1-quart mason jar. Pour boiling water overtop. Place the lid on and let it steep.
This tisane requires a strong decoction which you can steep for at least 4 hours, and it can be steeped overnight as well.
Erin Boyle recommends drinking 32 ounces per day (1 quart) and to begin drinking it before allergy season starts.