Old Ways Herbal: Juliette Abigail Carr, RH (AHG)

Women & Children's Herbal Clinic, Vermont Herb School, & Ramblings on Family Herbal Wisdom

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Garden Planning: February Garden Tip

Now is the time to plan!

Spread out on the rug in front of the fire with your gardening notebook, last year’s leftover seeds, your favorite seed catalogs (mine are Fedco, Richters, and Horizon Herbs), and a mug of tea of course.  Ideally, you wrote down what went where and how it did last year, and can now look through those notes and find ways to improve your rotation, soil fertility, use of microclimate, etc.  Eliot Coleman’s books are a useful resource for this.  If you didn’t take notes, turn over a new leaf this season so your skills can build as your garden grows!

Sort your seeds into annuals and perennials, time of year they’re planted, soil needs (rich vs. poor), microclimate needs (sun/shade/wet/dry/wind etc.), transplants vs. direct seeds, etc.  Do you see any promising combinations?  Perhaps your Arnica may like to grow together with St Johns Wort and Bee Balm, instead of in with the Marshmallows.

Make some lists:  What do you have?  What do you need to buy for next season?  What plants will you start indoors, and what will you direct seed?

Draw some diagrams: where was everything last year, and where are you planting each new friend?  How can you rotate your annuals around your perennials?  Some people like to use index cards or scraps of paper to do this so they can move them around easily.  I use a pencil in my notebook, that way I can refer back to my thoughts later.

This year, as you putter and tend and mulch and hoe and coax, draw pictures of your work.  The better your records, the easier it is to find ways to improve your garden’s vitality.

Interested in in-depth study in all of these topics (and much more)?  Check out the Medicinal Gardener Course!

Solstice Sunset

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Starting Medicinal Seeds: March Garden Tip

Get ready to start seeds!

Starting seeds is a cornerstone of my herbal practice, not to mention my sweet sideline as homestead queen.  I highly recommend growing this skill, as it quintuples your access to strange and interesting plants.  There is a great, wide, green world of herbs and flowers out there beyond the garden center, and it can be yours for a small investment in supplies, a bunch of practice, and the willingness to try again.  Here is an article on starting fussy medicinal plants that I hope you find helpful!

Starting Medicinal Plants from Seed

Seed Set-up

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Long, Cool Spring Survival: June Garden Tip

This cold, rainy weather is very weird for the Spring to Summer transition.  I’m making the most of it by transplanting perennials like crazy and dropping plenty of cover crop seed.  Use this time to harden off your plant babies and finish up whatever cool weather tasks you didn’t get to this spring.  Have you dropped clover seed on your garden paths?  Did you plant enough lettuce, kale, peas, and cabbages?  What about that flowering hedge you never seem to have time for–it’s the perfect April weather!

Despite the frost date, be careful setting your starts out into cold soil–it will shock the roots and set the plants way back (or kill them).  Setting out into cold soil is more dangerous than setting out on a hot day!  This spring weather is definitely an exercise in patience and trust.

In the meantime, enjoy plenty of tea from the abundant fresh herbs–here’s a short piece on tea to set the mood–and what’s the difference between infusions and decoctions, anyway?

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Feeding Flowers: July Garden Tip

It’s hot!  Midsummer is the time for feeding your plant babies in bloom.  A light feeding when plants are blooming is a little friendly encouragement to promote more flower production, as long as you aren’t using an overly nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  Consider a gentle side-dressing or spray of fish emulsion for flower medicines such as calendula, tulsi, chamomile, lavender, bee balm, & more!

Also, be sure to dead-head spent blooms to keep flower medicines coming!  Arnica, calendula, rose, echinacea, and most of our other flowers will rebloom if dead-headed regularly.

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Supporting Garden Allies: August Garden Tip

Nourish the workers! 

Allow stands of blooming wildflowers to flourish near your garden to attract pollinators and predatory insects.

Small basins to collect water in the garden provide a mid-meal break in blistering heat to beetles including ladybugs, as they fight the good fight on your behalf–and the birds like it, too, as they scour your garden for tomato hornworms and the like.

A rock pile near the garden can provide welcome shade for pest-eaters like small lizards and snakes.

And finally, cooling herbs like lemon balm, borage, chamomile, and mint make
delicious iced tea to reward yourself for caring for your plants in the heat!  You can also turn tea into versatile ice cubes for later use, recipe here.

Happy weeding!

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Cover Crops for Herb Gardens: September Garden Tip

Time to Cover Crop!

I know it’s still hot outside, but believe it or not, fall is right around the corner, and that means cover cropping!  It’s important to plant early enough that plants have time to get established before winter.

Cover crops have tons of benefits in the garden.  A cover crop can create microclimate, protect tender hard-to-grow crops as a “nurse crop,” prevent the establishment of weeds, improve soil structure and reduce compaction, and add essential nutrients back into the soil.  They are also some of the best early and late blooming allies for beneficial insects.  On our farm, we rotationally graze livestock on our cover cropped fields.

The trick to effective cover cropping is to plant the right seed, in the right spot, at the right time of year.  Keep in mind that if you allow the crop to go to seed it may become a self-sowing weed in its own right, which you may or may not want.

This time of year in our Northern climate, most cover cropping is aimed at improving soil structure for next season and adding nutrients and bulk organic matter back in.  Our go-to seeds for autumn are a combo of oats & field peas (and then I make milky oats medicine!), red clover (also future medicine), winter rye, and forage radishes.  You will find seeds that are perfect for you, but we like these crops because they feed the soil, the insects, and the livestock; make medicine for the people; decrease compaction and weeds; and increase both bulk and nutrient availability in the soil.

The best day to drop cover crop seeds is the day before rain during the full moon.  Simply broadcast the seed of your choice on well-turned fresh earth, then walk over it systematically or rake it in with a hard rake.  You want good soil contact.

Learn to Make Milky Oats medicine with your cover crop!

The inimitable Eliot Coleman has great resources on cover crop benefits and choosing the right crops.

Fedco is a great place to order cover crop seeds.

Happy Gardening!

Sowing Oats

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Growing Milky Oats: April Garden Tip

Oat is a short-season, cool weather crop.  Once the weather gets hot it does its baby-making thing and goes to seed, which means you missed the milky stage.  Oat is direct-seeded as soon as the ground can be worked, which in my climate is April but for many people is March.  I often plant oats the day I plant peas or soon after; the minimum soil temperature for germination is 45 degrees F, and in the mid 50’s you start to get poor germination and you’re likely to run out of time to get your oats to the milky stage before hot weather hits.

Where to Plant Oats

Cover Crop Oats make a great spring cover crop, so consider planting them in a spot that went weedy last year, or in an area new to cultivation.  Oat is in the grass family (Poaceae) and it does reasonably well against all the nasty invasive grasses I’m always fighting to get out of the gardens.  I think of it as an in-and-out crop, like peas or radishes, in that it’s there and gone before my heavy hitter crops like corn and tomatoes are even a twinkle in the season’s eye.

Microclimate Oats are kind of tall so you can use them to create interesting microclimates for early season crops.  I plant short-season Brassicas north of the oats, because it’s sunny when the weather is cool, and by the time the oats are tall enough to cast shade over the Brassicas, the weather is warm enough that without a little shade I’d be fretting about the broccoli bolting before it sets nice florets.  Avoid this for the long-season Brassicas like cabbage and brussels sprouts because the oats will be cut down long before those crops are ready.


Moist soil for germination!

Succession Planting Oat is a great tool for succession planting, as it lays down a beautiful nitrogen-rich weed-free layer of mulch for your hot season crops.  I always plant my hottest hotties in the oat patch in June–last year it was watermelon, and let me tell you it was BEAUTIFUL not having to weed the watermelon.

How to Plant Oats

I recommend tilling the ground in the fall for a few reasons: 1. you can get your seed in the ground literally as early as possible in the spring, mud be damned; and 2. it buys your crop a head start against last year’s weed seeds, especially grass.

If you didn’t till in the fall, know that you will most likely have to make a decision in March or April to either prep the bed by hand or wait until the ground dries out enough for the tiller–but then you’re gambling on the soil temperature for germination, which is often well into the high 50’s by the time the soil dries out, around here anyway.  To prep the bed by hand, turn the soil with a shovel, weeding as you go; when the soil is as turned as it’s going to get, follow instructions below.

1. Before planting oats, use a scuffle hoe or stirrup hoe to make the soil as level and fine as you can get it, even if the soil was recently tilled.  The more level and fine your soil is, the better your oats will germinate.  If you don’t have the right hoe you can use a hard rake, but then please get yourself a good hoe with your tax refund.

2. Sow your seeds (sow your cultivated oats, I suppose!) by scattering them thickly across the surface of the soil using both hands or a seed spreader.  The birds are going to eat some of your seeds, so really, spread them thick.

3.  Use a hard rake or your hands to spread the oats as evenly as possible.

4. If you’re sowing a large area, walk across it gently to ensure good contact between the oats and the soil.  If it’s a small area, you can pat them down with your hands.  You don’t have to bury the oats, they’ll germinate just fine on the surface as long as they are pressed into the soil.

Consider a scarecrow, bells, or old CD’s on strings to keep the birds out of the oats, although there’s a certain amount of seed that the seed-eaters will take as their due for their brethren who eat pest bugs, mice, rabbits, etc. and protect our gardens.  Once I scared a fawn out of my oats, where her mother had hidden her for the day.  That was neat, even with the crushed plants.

Interested in making medicine with your Milky Oats?  Read the full article!

Join us this summer for the Medicinal Gardener Course: a season-long garden adventure, monthly Sundays starting in May on our organic farm & forest gardens!

For more on making safe, delicious herbal remedies at home, come to the Home Medicine Maker Course, monthly Saturdays starting in May in our Botanical Sanctuary forest classroom!

The Home Herbalist Course offers a deeper investigation of using herbal medicine to its utmost potential.  One Sunday a month starting in May in our Botanical Sanctuary forest classroom!