Love Of Nature & Natural Love

My potatoes definitely love me

I Love My Garden, Does My Garden Love Me?

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of my favorite comfort reads, and I’ve been dipping into it a lot lately. Over the past week, my daughter ended up in the trauma ER at Harborview/UW Hospital, was almost discharged on Wednesday, collapsed in the wheelchair, was rushed to the OR for emergency surgery, had another surgery on Friday and got a surprise colostomy. She’s had an enormous amount of testing and exceptional care all the way. After all this, it’s still not clear exactly what’s going on but seems to be a complex, interrelated autoimmune issue. Today she’s (probably) being moved from the ICU to Acute Care, which definitely represents progress. We are both so deeply grateful to the medical team and the awesome and respectful care she’s getting (the few people who have misgendered her so far were older white male docs, surprise!).

Given all these rapid, abrupt and terrifying changes, browsing through Braiding Sweetgrass and letting those healing, wholesome earthy images and stories sink in has given me the peace to sleep at night (mostly). I’ve also been able to spend a few sunny hours gardening, spreading compost, pulling up a few deep rooted weeds and noticing which plants are coming back after the prolonged cold. My grandkids have been with me in between hospital visits and we’ve been doing some late harvesting of garlic and potatoes, like hunting for buried treasure in the chilly damp earth. The potato shown above made me remember a chapter where Dr. Kimmerer and her daughter consider their own love for their gardens and wonder if the gardens love them back. How would we know?

What Natural Love Looks Like

Looking at the rich, healthy, crumbly soil in my pea patch, I feel like that lovely healing soil represents love both ways. I put in love and care and supplements and the soil came to life as the living creatures in the soil food web responded with wellbeing. Now the soil is clearly flourishing. Looks like love to me! Maybe it’s not personal exactly; I doubt that my garden “knows” me, but I feel confident that the soil biota and the interwoven webs of natural relationships between soil and plants definitely know when they have what they need and are able to function well. We even know now that many plants help each other, sharing nutrients as needed when times are tough. Sounds like love to me.

That’s what the idea of ‘forest bathing’ is all about too. Walking in the woods, we can experience that same reciprocal wellbeing as we breathe in the feel-good forest bacteria, natural plant fragrances, and refreshed air. Our exhaled carbon dioxide is eagerly absorbed by plants and soil alike and we all function a little better. Same thing happens in our gardens, so no wonder we feel refreshed and soothed just by puttering with plants! Garden Bathing is definitely A Thing! Judging by my own responses, I’m guessing that even reading about plants and gardens can be beneficial, just as meditating on peaceful images or thoughts can help us calm down and feel more comfortable.

About That Potato

The silly part of all this is that I feel like the adorable heart shaped potato is a valentine from the earth. I’ve so enjoyed looking at it and holding its smooth rounded curves in my hand that I can’t quite bring myself to eat it. Obviously it won’t stay fresh forever, but if I don’t eat it, it will soon start to sprout. Then I guess I’ll do some heart surgery and plant out each piece that bears a bud, feeling like I’m planting garden love. Happy first day of Spring! Onward, right?


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Flowers That Shirk Their Duty

Small but plentiful sedum flowers offer a bee buffet

Why Pollenless Plants Are Pointless

In recent years, gardeners have found more and more sunflower seed packets labeled as ‘pollen free’ and ‘best’ for cutting. It’s certainly true that pollen-free blossoms are less messy as cut flowers, lasting longer in the vase and never leaving sticky, oily stains on clothing or table linens. In fact, there’s a strong market for cut flowers that lack pollen, not only for the tidy minded (apparently interior designers and party arrangers love them) but also for the allergy prone. Allergy sufferers can enjoy quite a few flowers that are naturally low in pollen, making them good choices indoors and out. Among these are begonia, cactus, clematis, columbine, crocus, daffodil, dusty miller, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, pansy, periwinkle, petunia, phlox, rose, salvia, snapdragon, thrift, tulip, verbena, and zinnia. And of course, those female pollenless sunflowers.

Why females? The pollenless sunflowers have been bred to present only female characteristics, pollen being a guy thing in the plant world. While most of the great sunflower clan bear blossoms that are equally rich in nectar and pollen, a few are male-sterile, lacking pollen by nature. These girly blossoms can still set seed, as long as pollen-bearing kin are growing nearby, and they still provide ample nectar to browsing bees and fellow pollinators. However, bees feed pollen to their larval young, and it’s also an important source of protein. The new pollenless sunflowers are hybridized from their male-sterile kin and cut flower growers are planting them by the millions. As the proliferation of pollenless sunflowers extends to home growers, planting as many pollen-rich varieties as possible would be a kindness to bees.

Sunflowers That Give Back

Though many pollen-free sunflower packets are labeled as such, they aren’t all self declaring cheats. To be sure of planting pollen rich varieties, look for classics like Mammoth Russian and Mammoth Grey Stripe. These big guys produce enormous blossoms on stout stems that can top 10 feet. Giant White Seeded has been handed down for generations thanks to its prodigious seed production. They’ll be visited by pollinators all summer and by birds galore when the seeds ripen. Wine red Velvet Queen, ember dark Red Sun, tawny Soraya, and Giant Sungold are all abundant pollen and nectar producers that are beautiful enough to earn a border position. Autumn Beauty is a lovely seed strain with blooms in sunset tones, from rose to burgundy, coppery oranges and clear old gold. The varied blossoms are bee and bug magnets from August into autumn. So are the dark eyed, sunny yellow flowers on Henry Wild, a multi-branched heritage sunflower that can exceed 6 feet. Towering, big-headed Arikara is a golden-flowered, flavorful heritage seed strain from the North Dakota. Hopi Black sunflowers are a traditional source for dyes in many shades, from burgundy and rose, purple and lavender to blue and black. (Dye colors change depending on the natural mordants used.)

Pollen and nectar rich perennial sunflowers include Helianthus angustifolius, an easy going 6-footer with abundant clusters of 3-inch blossoms from mid to late summer. Helianthus Lemon Queen is similar in size, with sheaves of citrus yellow flowers that continue well into autumn. Even taller Helianthus maximiliani sports showers of golden yellow blossoms from midsummer into fall. All are multi-branched plants, produce ample seed that bring birds flocking to the garden. The perennial sunflowers are best suited for larger gardens where their spreading tendencies will be an asset. In smaller spaces, a lively array of annual sunflowers will better serve the birds and bees—and you!

What Bees Need

Around the country, there are thousands of native bees and other pollinators competing for floral foodstuffs; over 400 species of bees in Washington State alone(!). Though many are generalists at need, most bees prefer their natural diet of, guess what? Native plants! If we want to keep native bees around (and remember, many of them are far more efficient pollinators than honeybees), plant natives. Where space is limited, let them form thickets or hedgerows along the edges of your property; even small clumps of native plants will be beneficial to a wide array of pollinators. Let native groundcover perennials like Tiarella, Tellima and Tolmiea form lacy mats in shady areas, along with unassuming but useful little selfheal (Prunella vulgaris, my granddaughter’s favorite plant, who knows why). Next, add some shrubs, such as salal and snowberry, Indian plum and wild roses, oceanspray and ceanothus, manzanita, mock orange and elderberry. If you’re short on inspiration, check out the Xerces Society’s plant lists for your area, pick some you like the looks of, and start a native pollinator patch.

Despite the international interest in nurturing bees, those fuzzy little honeybees still get the most media attention. According to archaeologists, humans have been enjoying honey for at least a hundred thousand years and bees have been domesticated in various ways for around ten thousand of them. As humans migrated over time, so did honeybees. Along the way, they’ve adapted to many conditions and are now the poster bees for the generalists. Honeybees can and will dig in to any flowers on hand, as long as there’s food to be had. That said, there are quite a few flowers that even they can’t access, notably doubled blossoms, which keep out all but the most determined and strong insects. Breeding for extra large, extra colorful flowers has also had hidden costs, since often these blossoms produce little or no pollen or nectar since their energy budget is blown on bling. If bees could ask, they’d probably say’ “Keep it simple!” since single flowers offer more nutrients than snazzier blooms. Onward, right?


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Be Prepared And Bring A Book

Add transporting books to your to-go bag!

Preparing For Whatever

I may have mentioned before that I have a dozen ex-sisters in law (long story). I’m still in touch with a few, including one who was recently discussing which books belong in her to-go bag. Here in the maritime Northwest, most people are very aware that The Big One could happen any time. After the horrendous quakes in Turkey and Syria, our Governor reminded us that we should all make like a scout and Be Prepared. That mostly means having a well-stocked to-go bag, which can be a backpack or small carryall of any kind. It’s supposed to hold essentials for a few days, from IDs, vital paperwork, food, water and medications to undies and extra socks. That’s already a pretty big pile to cram into a small bag, but as Karen so rightly said, “Waiting for disaster shouldn’t be tedious.”

That started me thinking about books I would definitely want to have on hand while waiting for a catastrophe to unfold. For me, the best choices would be books that make good doorways into another, more appealing, reality. When the tsunami whooshes and the ground shakes, escape literature would be perfect, right? Also, not to be a downer or anything, but as the crow flies, my island home is very, very close to Bangor Naval Station, a major US submarine base and a very likely target should anyone be feeling cross with Americans. We may not be Ground Zero but we’re probably only some fraction of a percent away, so why quibble?

Lovely Garden Books For Tough Times

Among the many books that transport me to pleasant places are garden books written by Margery Fish and Vita Sackville-West. Both were Englishwomen who came to gardening relatively late in life and both made remarkable gardens. If you’re traveling to England, East Lambrook Manor and Sissinghurst are still open to the public and still offer at least a bit of the personal qualities their makers gave to them. Since few of us can simply fly away when dire events occur, their books (still in print, at least in England) are a more reliable way to journey with these intrepid gardeners as they develop their own plant palettes and explore their way to success.

Gotta say that it never hurts to have an ancient stone wall or two for backdrop, as both gardens do, but both gardeners were also bold experimenters who didn’t mind making mistakes. Margery Fish in particular was funny and frank about her oopses and proved the claim that we learn more from error than from perfection (as if that actually existed). She taught me NOT to remove every tag from dead plants so you don’t just keep planting the same “good idea” things in places that aren’t actually optimal and having them die. She also did trials of grey and silver foliage plants and found that quite a few could grow happily in various kinds of shade despite the then-literature being adamant that they wouldn’t. Vita talked about the way a little color improved the famous White Garden (a heresy at the time). She also underlined ways that contrasts of form and a little pop of color could transform a stiff vignette. Good teachers both!

Whisked Away To Other Times & Places

Another set of books that are magically transporting for me have to do with magic in some form or other. Some of my favorites are intended for YA (Young Adult) readers, as well as some J-Fic written for tweens (roughly 8-12, depending on the kids). Some such books are dumb beyond belief but others are as well written and thoughtful as any SERIOUS adult book. (SERIOUS seems to be a euphemism for dire and depressing.) I’ve been reading Diana Wynne Jones’ books to my grandkids, who are currently enthralled by The House Of Many Ways, a very funny sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle. Whimsical and wry, it would be an excellent book to read to young people (or anyone, really) by candlelight with the power off and no idea what might be coming next.

Tove Jansson’s delightful Moomintroll books were gateways to wonders of both the magical and natural worlds for me. As a child, finding the first English translation of Finn Family Moomintroll was better than birthdays and Christmas combined (much better, actually). As an adult, I especially treasure her Summer Book, written for adults at a time when she and her partner lived on Klovharu, a tiny island off the windy coast of Finland. Tove Jansson was a keen observer who was as taken with mosses as with trees, awake to weather shifts and fascinated by the ocean in all its moods. Though many people might find them start and barren, she found endless inspiration for her writing in her windswept, austere surroundings, where every green shoot was a treasure and the sea was both giver of great gifts and a frequent threat to life and home. Maybe that’s what makes her thoughtful, sometimes mysterious books such excellent reading when things change. Onward, right?



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Simple & Natural Cures From The Garden

Sunny calendulas make excellent salve and bees adore them

Colds, Flu, and Covid

Oh sigh, it’s chicken soup time again (a vegetarian version works too). Despite (or maybe because of) the general relaxing of pandemic rules and prohibitions, a lot of people are still getting sick. Fortunately, vaccinations and all those boosters seem to be quite helpful in reducing the impact of covid; my younger friends and neighbors who have or had it recently say it’s not much different from a cold. However, many friends closer to my age say covid is more like a flu. Mild or nasty, nobody is calling it fun. Besides covid, there are other virulent viruses making the rounds locally. Since my daughter and I both have allergies to alder and hazel pollen, we’re also appreciating the soup, since our symptoms aren’t that different. Headache, earache, scratchy throat, drizzly nose, itchy eyes, ick, right?

I was recently gifted with delicious chicken broth proudly made by a younger friend who raised the chicken herself. The soup it made was incredibly tasty and made me feel truly nurtured. With so many covid- and flu-stricken friends and neighbors, soup is simmering daily around here. So are a few other garden-based home remedies, from tea mixtures and gargles to a comforting skin salve. I especially love that these traditional treatments are as much or even more effective than many over-the-counter medications (which often include ingredients I can do without).

Remedies From The Garden

Even in this chilly month (as freezing weather continues), my hardy garden herbs are providing wholesome ingredients to use in comforting teas, soups, and gargles. My kitchen pantry supplies the rest of my remedy ingredients and I can feel the effectiveness of these gentle treatments almost immediately. For instant relief, a dab of organic coconut oil will soothe a raw, sore nose or chapped lips. A steeped mixture of organic coconut oil and calendula leaves cured my granddaughter’s chaffed and itching wrists helps heal the rosacea that painfully flushes my face beet red for a raft of reasons, from wind and rain to warmth and wine (dang). To make it, steep 1 cup of organic calendula petals (available online or from your own garden) in 1 cup of warm (melted) organic coconut oil in a crockpot or double boiler over low heat for 3-4 hours, then strain out the petals. Store the golden salve in small canning jars and seal the lids so the salve stays fresh until you’re ready to use it.

Every time I go outside, I wash my eyes and brows with organic baby shampoo to remove the pollen that clings to hairs. Through the day, I cover my itchy eyes with warm, wet (usually used) black tea bags covered with a hot compress while I enjoy a mini break or a tiny snooze. Whether you feel sick or just tired, it’s energetically helpful to drink plenty of hot herbal teas (ginger, chamomile, yarrow and peppermint are all good ones), hopefully resting while you sip. My favorite part of such time honored techniques is that they reduce unpleasant symptoms not by masking them but by promoting a cure. Our bodies WANT to be in balance, and when we help them help themselves, positive changes can come quickly.

Help From The Sea

Long, long ago, we came from the sea, and our bodies hold our own personal salt water seas to this day. Thus, sea salt is a very natural balancer for our systems, but sadly, most sea salt contains micro plastics. It’s a good idea to use sourced sea salts from pristine environments, such as Redmond or Himalayan sea salts, both mined from ancient (thus pre-plastic) seabeds. Salty water’s not optimal for drinking, but this simple gargling solution quickly eases a sore throat and rids your throat of the post-nasal-drip gunge that can turn into a bacterial swamp. Do this several times a day, or at least when you wake up and before you go to sleep. A salty water swish is also helpful for improving gum health and rinsing teeth after a meal as well. Vinegar is also beneficial for your mouth and digestive system, whether you rinse with it or drink it (always well diluted!).

Sea Salt Gargle

1 cup warm water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Stir well and gargle with a small amount, spitting copiously and unattractively in the privacy of the bathroom. And shut the door, unless you live alone, in which case your pets will probably be fascinated and want to play too.

Apple Cider Gargle Or Sinus Swig

1 tablespoon organic apple cider
1 cup (or more) water, hot or cold

Use warm water and gargle (spitting as above) if your throat stays sore for more than a day. If your sinuses get involved, drink this stuff hot or cold every hour or two while awake to help battle both bacteria and viruses. Taken before or after meals, it’s a fine aid to good digestion. This combo also stops acid reflux almost immediately for many folks, who take it at bedtime to prevent uncomfortable nights.

Those Helpful Onions

When you’re fighting off colds or flu, the allium clan, notably garlic and onions, offer speedy aid. The classic chicken soup remedy definitely still works, but happily for vegetarians is that chicken broth is not the magic ingredient; onions and steam are what do your body good. Other vegetables will also help, so add whatever appeals to you (kale and sweet potatoes, for instance). Pureed soups are easier on sore throats, and naturally antibiotic herbs like thyme and rosemary are less irritating than pepper, though a little smoked paprika offers body and depth as well as a little bite. Nutritional yeast is high in protein and has a cheesy-nutty flavor that gives vegetarian dishes a savory, umami quality.

Garden Powered Super Soup

1 tablespoon olive or avocado oil
2 large white or yellow onions, chopped
4-6 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon stemmed thyme or oregano, minced
1 teaspoon stemmed rosemary, minced
2 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cups chopped kale or cabbage (or both)
1 purple or golden potato, chopped
1/4 cup flaked nutritional yeast
1/4 cup stemmed parsley or cilantro
1 lime or lemon, quartered

In a soup pot, combine oil, onions, and garlic over medium heat and cook to the fragrance point (1-2 minutes). Add salt, herbs, and vegetables, reduce heat to medium low, cover the pan and sweat the vegetables for 8-10 minutes. Add water to cover all (4-6 cups), bring to a simmer and simmer until all is tender (about 20 minutes). Breathe in the steam as it cooks! Puree with a stick blender if you want a smooth soup, stir in nutritional yeast and serve hot, garnished with parsley or cilantro and a squeeze of citrus. Serves 3-4.

To your health and wellbeing!

Adding more vegetables makes soup even better



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