Mini-Farming in Florida!

Alright, three months later, and I am back! 2015 was a year filled with excitement, happiness, and new experiences! To top it off, in early November I moved from Massachusetts to the panhandle of Florida!

My sister bought ten acres in the suburbs of Pensacola, and I moved down here with her and her fiance to start a “mini-farm”.

She named it Prickly Pear Plantation, because of these little cacti called prickly pears, which are actually edible… in theory. I have yet to get more than a couple nibbles out of the center, because they must be cooked to the point where all the bristles, and small bristly hairs are gone. But by this point they have shrunk and shriveled so much, that it is nearly impossible to get any meat out of them. What I usually end up with is tiny hairy bristles stuck in my tongue and lips. I think some grow much larger than the ones on our property though, so hopefully I can find a better specimen to try.

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We will be growing vegetables, and started double digging out garden plots which we will plant in February. We will be keeping chickens for eggs as well; we got seven baby chicks three weeks ago and already built the chicken coop.

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They grow up so fast!

We have also cleaned up the property, built a shed, planted a few fruit trees, built/ repaired fences, and built a “catititat” (habitat for cats) all in just about six weeks!

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Don’t worry, there’s a shelf for them to jump back through the window if they want to go inside.

Everything is going great so far, and we are getting a lot accomplished. We keep moving towards ours goals, and even though some days are slower than others, we can already look back over the two months and see tremendous progress! For instance, the piles of trash the previous owners left all around the yard have been cleaned up.

Pensacola is a beautiful coastal city with a nice little strip of bars and restaurants. We have been to the Wednesday night runs at the World of Beer a few times, where after a three mile run the bar provided runners some complimentary food and beer specials.

The dogs are enjoying the large property as well, pouring seemingly endless amounts of energy into sprinting around the fields and roughhousing with each other. When I arrived a week after my sister and her fiance moved into the house, I surprised her with Leo, her cat who I had been looking after in Massachusetts while she moved.

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Well… I guess they tire themselves out sooner or later.

It all feels like a dream come true. The work we are putting in is already starting to show, but we also have lots of toil ahead of us. That is okay though, it is just part of building something to be proud of. Getting down here was a big step, and now we just need to keep the momentum going to keep building (and growing) our dreams. And with beautiful warm weather, it is easy to stay in high spirits!

And it gets to be a little harder to pull myself away from the outdoors and plunk myself down on a computer. But hey, that’s a good problem to have!

Be sure to follow Steph’s blog, “Steph Matt Stella Become Southern”!

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Water and Fire! Camping in Vermont one Last Time before Winter

Here Comes the Rain

Last weekend I took a camping trip with the whole family. We rented two sites at Molly Stark State Park in Vermont, and myself, my parents, my sister and her boyfriend, and my other sister and her husband and 4 kids all 5 and under descended upon this—until then—quiet wooded camp ground. Now, perhaps I have not made myself clear in other posts, or perhaps it seemed an exaggeration. There are 2 times I can remember camping when it did not rain. One was when I was 9, and we hiked the Grand Canyon as a family. The other was when I was 7 or 8 and we hiked Black Mountain Pond in the White Mountains; it didn’t rain, it snowed.

So yes, on this two night trip there was a significant downpour. But, per usual, we prepared for it, and the tarp kept us dry. Well, most of us. My one year old nephew started the trend by looking mesmerized at the water running off the tarp, before he crept over to the puddle and began playing. It actually kept him entertained for quite some time, and I can understand that. I have always been weirdly obsessed with water; rain, rivers, lakes, the ocean, pools. So as a one year old, this probably was like playing in a waterfall.

By the time he was done and ready for dry clothing, my four year old niece and two year old nephew decided it would likewise be fun to put their heads under the stream of rain runoff, catch the water in their hands, and jump in puddles. What are camping trips for anyway? While I was perfectly content drinking one of my pumpkin beers under the tarp next to the fire, there was a certain element of jealousy. It’s not that I couldn’t have joined in drenching myself in freezing rain, it’s that I didn’t want to. There was a time when I wouldn’t have dreamed of passing up the opportunity to get soaking wet playing in torrential rain. C’est la vie!

Fire Tower on Mount Olga

But before the rain, we managed to get in a couple miles of hiking to the top of Mount Olga. It’s a small mountain by our standards, something like 2,600 feet. It was impressive to see my two nieces, five and four, hike almost the entire way up and down the mountain, bounding and laughing the whole way. I carried the younger one for the final half mile stretch back.

The coolest part of this hike was the fire tower at the top of the mountain. It was once used to survey the surrounding area for fires in order to alert the fire departments and keep it from getting out of hand. In fact we could see smoke quite some distance off, despite the cloud cover. Hmm… now I’m wondering if we were derelict on our duty.

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That thing was rickety! I actually surprised myself that I was getting nervous after climbing only the first set of stairs. See, the only railings stopped at each platform as you climbed, where only the outside pieces of metal holding up the structure offered any safety. Luckily these metal bars became more frequently placed as you ascended the tower, but there were still gaps here and there that it seemed one false move would lead to plummeting five stories down. Needless to say, the kids stayed at the bottom of the tower.

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At the top, you could feel the structure bounce as another person climbed the metal and wood tower. But at least in the “crow’s nest” you were fully surrounded by 4 feet high walls of metal, and window frames above that. The view was amazing. Coming down from the structure, I kept one hand on whatever piece of metal was within reach at all times. It is an awesome place to go! But I wouldn’t bring any careless kids, or ever young teenagers for that matter. Uhg I keep sounding old.

On the hike back to camp I located some Indian Cucumbers, and we dug the small carrot shaped white tubers from an inch or two underground each plant. The Indian Cucumber has a whorl of leaves about halfway up the stock, and then another three leaves at the top of the plant, generally less than a foot high. If it is far enough along in the season, there may be 3 shiny inedible berries at the top, that should not be eaten. If you dig around the base of the plant, which is found in moist woodlands in soil easily dug through with the index finger, you will come across the tiny tuber, always facing sideways, but in no particular direction. Dig this out, clean off the dirt, and you can munch on this crispy little root with a mild sweet and nutty flavor. The girls had fun digging with us to collect about 10 tubers, that we at by the campfire later that night.

It is always good to add a dash of self sufficiency to a camping trip!

 

Magical Elderberries

“Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.” -French Guy in Castle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

For a long time, that was about all the exposure I had to elderberries. But recently, my sister’s boyfriend has been searching for wild elderberries to forage in order to make some elderberry infused hard cider. I have come across many berries foraging, but until recently I only picked the obviously edible ones: blackberries, raspberries, grapes, and bunchberries. Now that I have properly identified them, I know I have seen elderberries, or the American Elder, many times before.

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This is sort of how the progression of foraging has worked for me. In the beginning, everything just looked green. Grass, shrub, brush, tree. But then as I reviewed my foraging books I realized that in one square foot there might be 15 different plants, where as before it just all looked like grass. Foraging is tedious in the beginning, because you must review the plants you are after, and then consult the book every time you spot something that looks familiar. And then most of the time, it is not in fact what you are looking for. The time is not wasted since now you know to pass by the plant, but it can be disappointing to spend 10 minutes trying to identify something you are hoping to eat, only to realize it is not edible.

But after this process is repeated many times, certain plants can be noticed everywhere! It is just a matter of continuously reviewing the plants in the books, and consulting the books every time you think you find an edible plant in the field. The frequency of being correct when spotting what you think is a wild edible increases as your knowledge increases, and then foraging becomes more fun.

So that is where I felt I was with berries. I had a lot of the green stuff down: everywhere I go I now see common plantain, japanese knot-wood, purslane, lady’s thumb, burdock, etc. But when I would see berries in the field all I saw was: red berries, purple berries, large berries, small berries, hard berries, etc. After Sunday’s little foraging adventure however, I feel more comfortable with certain berries, which will undoubtedly propel future identifications, since I have some references in my head to either quickly rule certain ones out, or recognize them.

I identified chokecherries and elderberries while ruling out the edibility of a shiny bunchy blue berry, and smaller, less juicy red berries. I also laid the groundwork of identification so that hopefully next time around I can make sure what I saw were in fact not-quite-ripe hawthorns. I left the chokecherries alone; while edible they contain poisonous pits with hydrocyanic acid. But I gathered almost a full ziplock sandwich bag full of elderberries, and will probably return for more. Then I froze them, and will be giving them to my sister and her boyfriend as to better use them for important homemade products: various alcohols.

The two pictures I took and posted here were actually some of the more sparsely berried plants I found. Elderberries can form significantly larger bunches that “umbrella” out at the end. Elderberries do NOT grow from one hanging stem like black cherries and the poisonous pokeweed.

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But it turns out wine and jam are not the only things great about elderberries. For hundreds—possibly thousands—of years, elderberries, elder flowers, and even the leaves have been reputed to have magical and or healing properties. Since sickness was sometimes blamed on black magic back in the day, I think the healing properties of elderberry are one and the same with the magical properties. Or maybe there is more than meets the eye. Elderberry bushes are said to cause visions of fairies and elves if you sit under one on a midsummer night. I hear these sightings are even more vivid if earlier in the day you ate certain foraged mushrooms. 😉

But according to The Green Pharmacy by James A. Duke, elderberries can be used to help against flu, cough, and colds, as well as improve immune system function. Also, according to this website, elderberries are one of the highest anti-oxidant containing fruits, which is why they would help to improve immune function, and ward off colds and flu.

Elderberry fruits are an excellent source of anthocyanins, vitamins A and C and a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin B6 (Table 1). They also contain sterols, tannins, and essential oils (Anon. 2005) and can readily be considered a healthy food…

In folk medicine, elder berries have been used for their diaphoretic, laxative and diuretic properties (Uncini Manganelli et al. 2005; Merica et al. 2006) and to treat various illnesses such as stomach ache, sinus conges- tion, constipation, diarrhea, sore throat, common cold, and rheumatism (Novelli 2003; Uncini Manganelli et al. 2005). The flowers are said to have diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal, expectorant, circulatory stimulant, diuretic, and topical anti-inflammatory actions (Merica et al. 2006). Some of these properties seem justified since elderberry fruits contain tannins and viburnic acid, both known to have a positive effect on diarrhea, nasal congestion, and to improve respiration (Novelli 2003). Leaves and inner bark have also been used for their purgative, emetic, diuretic, laxative, topical emollient, expectorant, and diaphoretic action (Merica et al. 2006).

I’ll be sure to update you all on how great I feel after sampling some of the hard cider and wine made from my foraged elderberries!

Overdosing on Nature!

A 3.5 hour drive in beautiful weather up to the trailhead in New Hampshire. The doors open, it starts raining… pouring really. We hear some thunder in the distance. Its okay, we came prepared. In fact it would have been strange if it wasn’t raining, I don’t think I have ever completed a camping trip without at least one downpour. It felt like the start of a good adventure! And we could always get dry tomorrow. So I set out with my dad, uncle, and cousin.

Two miles uphill to the fork in the trail where we would make base camp for the 2 mountain peaks that we planned to hike the next day. Still raining, but luckily my dad found a good spot off the trail next to a river where we could fit 2 tents. We strung up a tarp, heated up some beef stew, and cracked some beers.

Yes, we carry beers with us even when space in our packs is limited. But good hoppy beers, not some of that light crap. It did indeed stop raining the next day, so I was able to make my usual backwoods refrigerator also known as the river. I just pile some rocks up to make sure the beers don’t float away, and voila, the cold mountain water cools them down.

At the top of one of the mountain peaks, I found the rock I would sit on were I to become a wizard inhabiting the region (I have pictures, but I did not take them, so they will have to come in a later post). It looked out over the valley of wilderness to the east of the South Carter, and Middle Carter Mountain. On top of Middle Carter I picked some Labrador Tea. Good flavor, but I didn’t have too much since “some sources describe the mountain version as poisonous” according to one of my books. I brought some home however, and will probably try it again with such easy access to hospitals, should something go wrong.

And the wisdom gained from elders sitting around the campfire is second to none. Drinking our river cooled beers after a solid 8 mile hike topping two 4,000+ foot peaks; “Relationships are like logs in a fire” my uncle mused. “Set the logs too far apart, and they extinguish. Set them too close together, they will smother each other and go out. You have got to put the logs at just the right distance for them to feed off one another, and keep the fire lit”.

And somehow, I hadn’t had enough hiking when I got back to Massachusetts, so I ventured out on Saturday to Douglas state forest. I supposed I might hike 4 miles, but that turned into about 7 when I got lost. Turns out there are many more paths than suggested by the map I found that someone had dropped on the trail. After stopping by the shores of Wallum lake…

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And finding a wild “Hen of the Woods” mushrooms that I later sauteed with some onions and garlic (it was actually wicked good)…

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And coming across some interesting structures and old foundations in the woods…

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For the first time I put the position of the sun to practical use in order to decide which trail to take, and good thing. I was heading south towards Connecticut, when I should have been heading west towards my car. So since I knew it was afternoon, I knew the sun would be more towards the west, I took an offshoot in that general direction.

This got me going in the right-ish direction, and sooner or later I happened upon the tri-state marker where Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island meet! I thought this was pretty cool, and was thrilled that I had gotten lost, because 1) I didn’t know that marker was in the forest and to stumble upon it was kind of like finding treasure or Narnia (well maybe not quite that cool) and 2) even if I did know I might have considered the hike too far.

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But in the end it was only another mile or two back to my car from the marker. So that’s where I have been for the better part of the last week; lots of hiking, nature, and good times.

Foraging for Wild Edible Plants: Milkweed

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This is common milkweed, and it is a wild edible! One thing I enjoy doing in my spare time, is finding wild edible foods to forage. I like nature anyway, so it is a good activity, its fun, and productive. And its free; why pay for fresh vegetables when there are plenty all around you! (I buy vegetables too, don’t feel bad).

Warning: I am not a foraging expert. I have a few foraging books and consult websites. Always be certain of identification. If I’m wrong and you get sick, you can try suing me, but there’s not that much to take! Some edible plants have poisonous parts, poisonous look a-likes, or must be treated before eating. This plant in particular is poisonous when raw, it must be cooked!

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Okay now that we got that out of the way, I can tell you about my first milkweed flower and bud cluster experience. First I found some milkweed in my parent’s backyard, and properly identified it. Milkweed stands on a stalk, and does not have any branches (a poisonous look alike has branches). Its leaves are opposite each other, and alternate a half turn as they go up the plant. Looking from the top, it appears as a plus sign. When broken, the plant excretes a white sticky “milky” sap, like this:

20140709_144748The young tips and newly unfurled leave are also edible, and later the seed pods, but today I just foraged the bud clusters, and flower clusters (every part of milkweed must be cooked before being eaten, usually boiled for 15 minutes, sometimes in a change of water). Young tips would be slightly earlier in the season, buds are great now (at least in my region of southern MA) in July, and later into August seed pods will become more prevalent. Just for reference, here is the young plant that has not yet developed buds.

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You can eat the bud clusters, and newly opened flower clusters, though the books more specifically tell you to go after the bud clusters as opposed to flower clusters. I picked some that were still firm and green, some that were a little farther along turning pinkish, and some where most of the flowers were already open.

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Then, milkweed is pretty simple to prepare. I just boiled the bud clusters for about 20 minutes, changing the water at 15 minutes by adding already boiling water to the pot once I drained it of the original water. Apparently these could be a little bitter if you don’t change the water.

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I just ate them with a little bit of salt in order to get to know the flavor, but there are plenty of ways to prepare these, just make sure you cook them, but otherwise, be imaginative! That’s one of the best parts of foraging. But anyway it had almost a rice like taste, but sort of the texture of cooked broccoli (which makes sense, those are bud clusters as well). I think with a little cider or balsamic vinegar it would be quite the fare. This is what it looked like cooked.

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And this is proof that I’m not just messing with you!

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And while we are on the subject of foraging, I found a little sheep sorrel while picking my milkweed. Sheep sorrel is a small green leaf that grows close to the ground in clusters, and sort of looks like a dagger, or a wizard hat. There are no similar looking poisonous plants.

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Notice the signature barbs at the bottom of the leaf. It is an awesome “trail nibble”, you can eat it raw and it has a sour taste, sort of like a green apple. I like to eat it raw, but you can also cook it and serve it like spinach (just might take a while to pick enough!), and then use the leftover water as a nice drink, almost like a cross between iced tea and lemonade. There is a warning in my book not to eat too much because it could cause stomach upset. Apparently I’ve never had enough for that to happen. This one is pretty easy to identify due to its distinctive look.

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All this information I have gained from the books Edible Wild Plants by Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman, and Foraging New England by Tom Seymour. The former is a great field guide, and the latter is a great introduction, and includes more reading material on each plant mentioned, though fewer plants are shown. Let me know if you find these and try them for yourself!