Our Yards Offer Nutrition
Every spring we look forward to eating delicious, free, wild greens that grow in our yard and just about every place people live. Having an ability to identify, pick, prepare, and eat wild foods gives us some comfort in this age of uncertainty.
We encourage everyone to boost their backyard food production through gardening, backyard chickens for those who can keep them, and foraging. Here are a few things to consider before picking and eating any wild plant.
- Make sure you’ve identified the plant correctly. Use two sources to confirm identification. These might be an expert forager and a book or Internet source or a combination.
- Make sure the plants have not been contaminated by pesticides, animal feces, or vehicle exhaust. It’s best to forage away from busy roads. Wash plants thoroughly before preparing.
- Eat just a small portion the first time. Although it might be fine food for most people there’s a chance you might be allergic to it.
Carefully pluck the top three leaves off.
The key to enjoying all wild greens is to harvest them when they are very young. Many edible wild plants are tender and delicious shortly after they sprout but soon get coarse and bitter as warm weather stimulates their growth.
Nettles, sometimes called stinging nettles, live in moist places near streams, ponds, and woods, where they seem to prefer light shade. We have a couple of patches in our yard. They green up early in the spring, and we pick them before they are ten inches tall. We carefully pick just the top three or four small leaves. Remember these are stinging nettles. Wear light gloves or carefully pinch the top growth off the plant between the thumb and index finger. About a hundred leaf clusters make a great dish for the two of us. Rinse the nettles and boil them for a few minutes. The stinging part is a protein that dissolves in boiling water. We put a dab of butter on the drained cooked nettles and drink the water as a delicious spring tea.
By mid-summer dandelion leaves are tough and bitter.
Because of herbicide companies’ promotions, just about everyone dislikes dandelions. Some have heard that dandelions are edible. It is true and, we need to thank our European ancestors for bringing dandelions to the New World. Otherwise, they might not have survived. They are high in vitamin A, folate, vitamin K, and vitamin C and a good source of calcium and potassium. Today, folks from Mediterranean countries grow and harvest dandelions as crops. They are a popular dish in Italian communities.
The few people who have tried eating them make the mistake of picking mature leaves in mid-summer. By that time, they are bitter and inedible. The best dandelion leaves are those picked in early spring and have been under a blanket of leaves. They’ll be partially blanched and delicious. It’s fine to pick small young leaves that can be added to salads if they are not too bitter. If they are bitter, boil two pots of water. Put the leaves in one pot and boil for a couple of minutes. Drain and put them in the second pot of boiling water and boil for another minute or so. The boiling removes the bitterness. Drain and enjoy with butter and salt and pepper.
This is a year of great anxiety and having some knowledge of how to find free food nearby can remove some of that concern.
Stuck at home? A tiny microbe is sure changing the lives of people worldwide. Unexpectedly, meetings and schools have closed and transportation is disrupted as uncertainty runs rampant. With every challenge comes an opportunity. We’re sticking close to home at Winding Pathways but are using more time around the house to do fun things and accomplish projects ignored during normally busy lives.
In the midst of uncertainty, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by events and suffer from lethargy and fatigue. That comes with the turf. So, being physically and intellectually active helps ward off melancholy.
With millions of kids now home with parents and other workers and retired folks staying closer to home and in apartments, here are a few productive activities we suggest. Anyone anywhere can engage in at least some of these activities. And, Winding Pathways invites you to create your own generative ideas to boost your immune system and help us all through this challenging time.
Attune to and with nature.
- Research affirms that contact with nature is calming and healing. Shinrin yoku also known as “forest bathing” is a way to connect with calming elements in nature. This concept extends far beyond the literal interpretation of a forest. Any natural area of any size can provide healing benefits. John Muir wrote it well:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
By connecting with nature wherever we are, we can learn and have a good time, too.
A water source helps attract birds.
Birding: Even in the biggest cities birds abound. Sparrows and pigeons are fascinating. Look closely at a group of birds hanging around the balcony or out the back door and soon you will note individual differences. Size. Shape. Behaviors. One sparrow, for example, may have an unusually colored feather while another has a twisted beak. Once you can identify individual birds, it’s possible to conduct simple research. Do the birds seem to hang out with their friends?
If odd feathered sparrow #1 seems to like being with crooked beak sparrow #2 maybe they are friends……or perhaps mates. How many different species of birds come to the Balcony or yard? You might be surprised. Look up. Spring is migration season and millions of big birds are heading north. Often their route takes them even over big cities. They often fly high so look with “soft eyes” for undulating strings of birds aloft.
Experiment. Put a birdseed mix in a feeder or even on a backyard table or the ground. What seeds do birds prefer?
- When the virus appeared, plants remained in winter mode across much of the country, but spring is fast approaching in the northern hemisphere. Now is a great time to keep a journal, or a simple list of the order in which buds swell and leaves emerge.
Work the garden to connect with the earth.
Gardening is a great remedy for stress, and it can yield a surprising amount of food, even in a tiny space. One of the best vegetables for kids to plant is the humble radish. These cold, hardy, spicy roots can be planted very early in the spring and often harvest comes in just a few weeks. Lettuce, chard, spinach, and other greens also can be planted early, but beans, tomatoes, corn, okra, squash, and many other veggies need to wait until winter’s frost is just a memory.
Take a walk
- Nature is pretty safe from Coronavirus. It doesn’t lurk in the woods. Poke around the yard. And, a ramble in a nearby park, woods, or along a trail is a stellar way to spend a few hours.
- Another option is to find a labyrinth outside to walk. The World Labyrinth Locator lists labyrinths across the world. A labyrinth is different from a maze. Labyrinths are designed to help people center, release what is on their mind or in their heart, receive inspiration, and reunite with their community in a positive way.
- Isolation isn’t fun. Call friends. A phone call is a great way to cheer a friend. And, check in with neighbors you rarely see. Think of ways to direct the conversation to the positive. Live the positive through regular practice. What does this do? Read below.
- Mindfulness is the ability to be present and aware of our thoughts with curiosity and kindness. Jon Kabat-Zinn provides excellent guidance on this. We practice this with adult students at Kirkwood Community College. To a person, they find benefit in reducing blood pressure, anxiety and heart rate, while their sense of calm increases.
- Another form is HeartMath which helps people focus first on breathing, then on creating a peaceful place in their mind that they feel in their heart and can return to anytime when under stress.
- Reduce time on social media and listening to reports on radio or television. Keep abreast as needed and avoid perseverating on the negative.
- Think and behave positively. Norman Vincent Pearle was a master at helping us shift into the positive.
- Laugh! Laughter releases positive hormones and neurotransmitters. An easy way to remember this is to give yourself a good DOSE of levity and positivity. Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins. These counteract the stress hormones. How can we do this? Read jokes, watch funny films or old TV shows that make you laugh.
Healthy foods are important in this time of stress.
Eat Healthily. When we are under stress, we tend to eat more and the wrong foods. So, mind what you eat, drink water, and try some of these activities above and add your own.
Reading positive literature will help us.
Read Entertaining Materials. From Comic books to graphic novels to non-fiction, engage your brain, learn and go lightly through this time. Share an engaging article, book, poem or song with someone. Recently The Gazette featured a woman, Mary Fannie Woodruff, from Virginia who continues to bake pies at 103 years old! How cool is that? The article was a great read we shared with family in Virginia.
We have many ways that we can all move through this uncertain time and help each other out on this winding path of life.
Like millions of Americans who live in rural or semi-rural areas we don’t have access to a city sewer and rely on our septic tank to safely dispose of waste. We’re lucky at Winding Pathways. Our home is built on an ancient sand dune with steep topography. It’s perfect for a septic system.
We put scraps that chickens will not eat into the compost bin.
As a review, we’ve been spared septic tank problems because we treat our system carefully. Here’s what we do:
- Only human and sink waste goes down the drain. Potato peels, apple cores, and all other food waste go either to our chickens or into the compost bin. Spring and fall, we work the compost into the garden soil.
- Have our tank pumped every three or four years.
- Avoid draining harsh chemicals, like bleach and solvents, into the tank.
- Use water-efficient toilets, showerheads, and sink aerators to limit the amount of water going into the tank.
In August 2019, we blogged in detail about maintaining a septic system. Since then, many readers have come to that blog. Especially this winter. So, we are curious.
What brings you to Winding Pathways? What topics interest you most? Why? What else would you like to read about?
Thanks for keeping us company on Winding Pathways and happy reading as winter winds down and spring manifests itself across the Northern Hemisphere.
When we moved into our home ten years ago, we ended up with more than a house. The former owner had regularly mowed most of our two acres. Within the next two years, we shrank the lawn by about half. A steep former lawn north of the house is now prairie and a fairly level quarter acre between our house and the road is Marion’s labyrinth that she created within a prairie we planted.
Today, most people call flower-studded prairies “pollinator patches” and interest is strong in transforming lawns into them. Here are just a few of the good reasons:
Why Plant Pollinator Patches?
- Color: Lawns are a monoculture of green. Pollinator patches feature three seasons worth of changing vibrant color as many species of wildflowers come into and go out of bloom. They are beautiful.
- Water: Closely mowed lawns don’t absorb rain well. Much of a storm’s water runs off, worsening flooding. In contrast, deep-rooted prairies channel most of a storm’s water into the soil, where it eventually recharges the water table and doesn’t worsen downstream flooding.
- Labor: We don’t enjoy endless hours walking behind a lawnmower. We will mow our newly planted prairie two or three times this summer and in the following years, we won’t mow it at all. The lawn takes about a dozen mows a year. So, we’re saving time and mower gas that costs money and creates carbon dioxide.
- Wildlife: We love watching our wren pairs forage for insects in our pollinator patches. By expanding our prairie we’ll welcome even more beautiful and interesting beneficial wild animals to our yard.
Our new prairie will be close to busy 30th St. Drive, so motorists cruising by will see the land transform. We’re partnering the project with the Monarch Research Project, Linn County Roadsides, Sustainable Landscape Solutions, and Pheasants Forever.
Many people want to create pollinator patches in their yards but don’t know how to do this. We will be blogging through the process to help folks know how this is done. Stay tuned and keep visiting www.windingpathways.com to learn how.
The heavy, up-slope clay soil will absorb water more efficiently and reduce runoff.
The crew from Sustainable Landscape Solutions determine soil type
Winding Pathways, Linn County roadsides, Pheasants Forever, the Monarch Research Project and Pheasant Forever make a strong partnersjhip demonstrating how to improve the quality of the land.
This year snow covers the lawn.
A New World Thanksgiving
Almost every meal Americans enjoy comes from animals and plants that trace their origin to many continents.
Cattle, sheep, chickens, and pigs, for example, are all natives of the Old World brought to America soon after it was settled by Europeans. Wheat, rice, and many other plant foods are also newcomers that were unknown to Native Americans.
One annual feast mostly made from original American foods is Thanksgiving. This year why not create this traditional feast from entirely plants and animals that were found here before Columbus?
Turkey highlights the Thanksgiving dinner. See our previous blog on this amazing and tasty bird. Here are plants native to North and South America to complement roast turkey:
Fruits and Vegetables
Corn: Corn has been grown in Central America for thousands of years. It’s cultivation gradually spread north and east and became a staple food for Native Americans. When hungry Pilgrims landed in what became Massachusetts they found and stole caches of corn stored by local tribes, no doubt causing bad feelings.
Cranberries: Most commonly eaten fruits originated in Europe or Asia, but the cranberry is an American native.
Squash and Pumpkins: Dozens of varieties of winter squash come in many shapes, colors and sizes, and the pumpkin is actually a squash. Butternut, Hubbard, acorn, or any other squash is delicious on the Thanksgiving dinner table, and dessert of pumpkin pie rounds out a tasty meal.
Potatoes: Common potatoes also originated in South or Central America and have been an important food for thousands of years. Mashed or baked, they go well with turkey, squash, and cranberries.
Sweet Potatoes: Originally from South America, these are among the most nutritious of foods. Similar yams have an African origin, so for a local dinner stick with sweet potatoes.
The sweetness from the Maples
Maple Syrup: While honey is made by bees that came from the Old World, maple syrup is America’s sweetener. It’s delicious on squash or sweet potatoes.
Beans: Native American gardens usually featured three plants: beans, squash, and corn. Commonly called The Three Sisters combined they create a balanced diet.
A diet of many foods that originally came from the Americas makes a delicious an interesting Holiday meal. We tend to thank modern geneticists for creating abundant food, but beans, corn, squash, sweet potatoes, maple syrup, cranberries, and turkey were all domesticated and enjoyed by Native Americans long before Columbus set sail.
Cranberry Pie brightens any Thanksgiving table.
Cook Wild turkey differently than domesticated ones.
Maple syrup can sweeten many Thanksgiving meals.
On a sunny, warm, late summer day we watched countless bees and butterflies foraging on prairie plants, hummingbirds sipping nectar from Cardinal flowers, and small birds pausing to drink water on the cup plants. That evening, bats swooped across the sky as clouds gathered. Then, came the downpour.
So, we wondered, where do birds and bees and bats go during storms or just to rest? A bit of Internet searching yielded some fascinating information.
seeking shelter from the rain
Bees are active in the day and need sleep just like humans do. How they sleep is quite different. Bees and many insects do not have eyelids. They relax the body and antennae and sometimes fall over. Sometimes, the other bees in a honeybee colony prop up the “sleeping” bee. As we see in this video, and similar to human babies, they sleep in shorter bursts. This sleep helps their memory. Remember, bees, especially honeybees explore new foraging spots, return to the hive, communicate through a “dance” telling other bees where the source of nectar is. As with people, good sleep helps them perform better. Look for bees on the underside of leaves and grass blades after a rain or in the early morning.
Butterflies also seek shelter on the underside of leaves or grass blades. This vegetation protects them from furious winds and debilitating raindrops. Think about it! How delicate a butterfly’s wings are and how a large raindrop can punish it. A Scientific American article gave a great comparison to us humans – being whacked by a water balloon twice the mass of a bowling ball!
Birds and Bats
One hummingbird fell into a torpor on the feeder!
To rest, Hummingbirds go into torpor – a sleep-like state where the body temperature drops to conserve energy. They sometimes hang upside down as we see in this video. When the temperatures rise, they “wake up”. They can fly in moderate rains.
Some larger birds, like turkeys, actually come out in rainstorms and forage on insects that are slowed down by the cooler temperatures. At night, turkeys roost in trees. Watching them navigate through dense forests into the tops of sturdy trees is amazing.
Nighthawks, along with their nocturnal companions bats, find daytime shelter on tree branches. Bats tuck under tree bark flaps, in crevices and caves, and enter tiny cracks in homes making attics a cozy den.
Next time you are out and about, look carefully on undersides of leaves and grass blades, study branches of trees for unusual shapes that might be a roosting bird, and notice animals out and about at different times of the day and in different weather.