Old Ways Herbal

Vermont Herb School, Clinical Herbalist, Plant Remedies, & Herbal Farmcraft Wisdom.


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Starting Seeds!

Starting seeds is a cornerstone of my herbal practice, not to mention my sweet sideline as homestead queen.  This article was first published in the spring issue of The Country Grind Quarterly, where I write a column about making and using herbal medicine.  Even though starting seeds is technically maybe a little off topic in that setting, I sent it in because it felt relevant for the spring issue.  It’s certainly involved in “making herbal medicine,” if higher on the food chain.  Also, it’s what I was thinking about at the end of February, and I was having trouble redirecting.  And now I will share it with all of you.  Pictures coming as I take them.

Tools:

  • Soil mix
  • Cells or pots
  • Quick-read or soil thermometer (optional but good)
  • Depth gauge, like a pencil or chopstick with a line drawn on it
  • Humidity cover or plastic wrap and duct tape
  • Heating pad
  • Grow lights or sunny window
  • Seedling watering can, or jar with a bendy straw

    You've got the moisture level right when the soil clumps in your hand.

    You’ve got the moisture level right when the soil clumps in your hand.

The basics are easy–it’s all about balancing light, water, and heat. Put the soil mix in a bucket and mix with lukewarm water until it clumps in your hand.

Let the soil warm up until it’s close to the seed’s germination temperature (use the thermometer). Fill the cells or pots and tap to settle the soil. Use the depth gauge to plant seeds to the right depth.

This pen is marked with 1/8", 1/4", and 1/2" so I can easily control how deep my seeds are planted.

This pen is marked with 1/8″, 1/4″, and 1/2″ so I can easily control how deep my seeds are planted.

Cover the tray and place on the heating pad. When seeds germinate, remove the cover and heating pad and put the tray in the window or under a grow light.

If you do that, you’ll be able to grow your own starts for most vegetables, flowers, and herbs. With a little more detail, though, you can get your germination rates close to 100% on almost anything you care to grow. Here goes.

Records, Resources, & Timing

Write stuff down—this process takes months and you don’t want to forget stuff or look the same info up repeatedly. Label flats with the name of the plant, date of sowing, and special considerations like “needs light to germinate” or “ideal germination temperature 60 degrees”. You think you’ll remember; you won’t.

Look through your seeds and identify cultural needs like stratifying, soaking, etc., as well as when to start them in your climate.  I often use the Fedco catalog, as their cultural information is relevant to us cold climate folks–also, they’re a worker-owned cooperative and deserve your money.  I also really like Eliot Coleman’s books.  For medicinal herbs, Horizon Herbs & Richo Cech’s book have a lot of great info, but if you live in a cold climate take things like “start in fall” or “overwinter outside” with a big grain of salt because Richo lives in a mild PNW climate and that type of thing doesn’t translate well for those of us with winter. Richter’s is a Canadian herb company that sometimes has helpful info for cold climates. I don’t know anything about warm climate resources, so if that’s you, sorry I can’t be of more help here–feel free to post your favorite resources in the comments, if you feel motivated.

Note when your resources recommend setting out plants: as soon as the ground warms, late spring, after danger of frost, etc. Then count backwards to figure out when to start seeds, adding 1 week for hardening off. For really long season crops that might be hard in your climate—for me it’s habeneros and watermelons—count the “days to maturity” backward from your fall frost date, to make sure you get them going early enough.

Soil

You can make or buy a seed starting mix. There are a lot of ethical issues surrounding growing media like sphagnum, peat, and perlite, so chew that over before you buy the detritus of what was once mountains and wetlands. I’m not going to reprint recipes here but they’re easy to find. I use a DIY version of Eliot Coleman’s soil block recipe from New Organic Grower.

Humidity

Humidity covers mimic the rain cycle for better germination.

Humidity covers mimic the rain cycle for better germination.

 

Humidity is the combination of water and heat, and is essential to good germination rates.

Cover your seed trays with either a commercial cover or plastic wrap and a seal of duct tape. The warmth from the heating pad evaporates water in the soil, which then condenses on the cover and rains back on the soil.  This gives even moisture and nutrient dispersal across the seedbed and simulates the spring rain and dew cycles. You lose moisture and warmth when you remove the covers, so no peeking until you see green.

Temperature

Seeds: Seeds need warmth to germinate; look up the ideal germination temperature for your seeds. Heating pads really increase germination rates, and they sell ones specifically for seeds that are waterproof and don’t get too hot. That said, you can use a regular one, just be careful with water around it and know that it may get too hot. Test it first by putting it under an empty seedbed for 24 hours and then temping the soil.

This soil is nice and warm for my ashwaganda seeds.

This soil is nice and warm for my ashwaganda seeds.

Plants: In the beginning keeping trays warm can be a challenge, but as the plants grow they put off their own heat so make sure you have a way to cool down the room if necessary. A fan can prevent fainting on warm spring days. If you’re growing plants with different temperature needs, do it in stages: brassicas first, then move them to a cold frame as the nightshades start setting true leaves, etc.

Water

Seeds: Watering is risky: seeds can rot or get dislodged, or soil gets muddy and cracks when it dries so seedlings can’t push through. If the soil dries out under the humidity cover, use a spray bottle, or fill 1 cell with water to increase the humidity.

Plants: Once your seedlings have unfolded, remove the cover and give them a drink without knocking them over. Soil should be dry but not baked. Under-watering twice a day is better than overwatering once a day, to avoid damping off. More water is usually not the solution to any problem, unless the plants have bent over away from the light in a deep bow, in which case a little sip will perk them right up. Less is more with water!

Light

Seeds: Window light is enough for light-dependent germinators. If grow lights are turned on before germination, the soil can get way too hot.

Plants: When plants are up, remove covers and position lights several inches above seedlings so they don’t get leggy. If you’re using a window, back it with a mirror so the plants get light from both directions. There’s a lot of discussion about how many hours a day seedlings need to flourish, and the answer is it depends on the plant and the kind of light. I give them my day, because they’re going to have to make it in my climate anyway.

Simulating Natural Conditions

This is where it gets complicated. A lot of herbs, especially the at-risk ones, are fussy germinators—they just won’t grow under normal conditions, or you get a terrible germination rate. The key is to ask yourself what natural conditions the seed would be exposed to in its natural environment. Many resources have this information, but I’ve found that many seeds benefit from these treatments even if the books don’t mention it. Again, those of us in harsh climates do things a little differently than our more temperate counterparts.

Allow space for intuition: watch how and when wild plants grow, and build an understanding of their needs. The following techniques cover most natural conditions that can be a limiting factor in germination.

Stratification mimics the freeze-thaw cycle of winter and spring. For wet stratification, wrap seeds in a moist paper towel or rag, then put it inside a plastic bag in the fridge, away from high-moisture foods like tomatoes and apples (and then take your tomatoes and apples out of the fridge before you destroy the nutrients, goofball). For dry stratification—this is less common—put the seeds in a pot with a little soil, again in the fridge.

Stratify fussy germinators that are native to places with winter. Some seeds need a long time, like 3 months of wintery conditions. Others need multiple stratification: cold for a month, then room temperature, then cold again for a few weeks, room temperature, cold for 1 week, etc. to really simulate spring; I do this routine for our fussy woodland natives, as well as difficult-to-germinate cold climate natives from elsewhere. It’s generally the first thing I try if I don’t know what to do.

Scarification mimics the physical breakdown of the seed coating in an animal’s digestive tract. Just sand the seeds a little, or if they’re big enough, nick them with a knife. Think about which plants rely on animals to spread their seeds, as well as seeds that have really thick, impervious coatings, so they can last a long time in the soil before germinating. Usually scarification is combined with a second treatment, like compost or soaking.

Fire is pretty specific to prairie natives, although I bet there’s a bunch of plants that would like this treatment out on the West Coast where they have all those forest fires–I don’t know because I don’t grow any, but if you do, let me know if fire improves your germination! Anyway, spread the seeds on a baking tray or something else that won’t catch fire and use a grill lighter to burn them (gently! gently!).  Some people plant the seeds first and then burn the soil, or even build an actual fire on top.  This is often followed by soaking—if you’re Echinacea pallida, your spring routine is ruled by flood and fire.

Soaking is probably the most common and combines well with most other treatments. It mimics rain and spring flooding, a biological alarm clock, and softens hard seed coatings, making it easier for the seedlings to poke through. Use non-chlorinated water and soak the seeds for a day or so. If you really have to use chlorinated water, let it sit on the counter for 24 hours before you put the seeds in.

Compost gives a nutrient boost to seeds that have to pass through an animal’s digestive tract before germinating. It’s almost always combined with scarification. Put a little compost in the bottom of the seed tray with your regular soil mix on top. The water cycle within the seed tray will disperse the nutrients slowly and make them accessible to the seedlings. Most seeds do not need this, and in fact can be burned by compost, so only do it if it’s actually necessary.

Overwintering is appropriate for cold climate natives, if you get to it in the fall. It provides the benefits of stratification and soaking that so many plants need. Prep fertile garden beds in the fall, direct seed, and mulch well—think dead prairie grass or goldenrod, really protective. In mild climates, people overwinter seeds outside in pots, but in cold climates that’s unreliable because there’s no natural insulation that the ground would normally provide. I’ve had this work occasionally, but really only with plants that are actually native to a place that routinely has 4+ feet of snow. A shed can work, but then you have to remember to water it in the spring.

Good luck, hooray for spring, and send me your success and failures!

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Why I Don’t Pick the Flowers: Leave the Spring Ephemerals Alone

I love this time of year: the first wildflowers’ hopeful surge to sunlight before the leaves cast shade on the forest floor, the birds’ joy in life and love as they chase each other around the edges of the yard in pursuit of the next generation, the sudden sunlight in the midst of a rainy week and the chill in the morning air and the wave of subtle color across the mountains as the buds swell on the trees.

Spring ephemerals are a hallmark of this beloved season, calling hikers to the forest on rare dry days for a glimpse of the wide variety of lyrically named early wildflowers, shocking after months of gray winter.  The trilliums are the most famous, but they’re accompanied by multitudes of others striving to procreate before the trees leaf out: harbinger of spring, dutchman’s breeches, hepatica, spring beauty, trout lily, coltsfoot, bloodroot, toothwort.  Spring ephemerals are a vivid example of the harmony of the natural world: fast growing, fast blooming flowers pop up as soon as the soil begins to warm, bud and bloom and go to seed before the slow-moving trees have darkened the forest with June’s leaf canopy, and in the process provide food for insects essential to forest health.

It’s not uncommon for folks to pick the early wildflowers, whether to press them, frame them, or to display as a bouquet–especially among those just rediscovering the natural world.  We are indoctrinated with the idea that our individual desires are harmless or beneficial to the world around us (dominion over the animals and plants, right?), which is so deeply ingrained that we often can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.  Spring ephemerals are not there for our appreciation alone.  I check on “my” wildflowers daily and it feeds a deep well inside me where I think my soul might live, but the flowers play a much more important role in the survival of the forest ecosystem at large.

Trout Lily/Yellow Adder's Tongue

The earliest of the pollinators are waking up now and they’re hungry–just this week I’ve seen the first moths, bees, and today a predatory wasp (hello friend of my garden!).  Cool night temperatures and very few flowers in bloom make it much harder for our pollinator friends to make a living this time of year.  Also, spring ephemeral seeds are planted by insects like ants who eat the high-fat material surrounding the seed.  Every spring beauty you press into your flower book represents multitudes of bees who won’t be eating and ants who won’t feed their young.  If they don’t eat, they don’t get the calories they need to beat those little wings to the next patch of blooming flowers or carry away the heavy detritus of forest life, never mind making it through nights with lows in the 40’s.  The more healthy, genetically diverse pollinators bopping around from flower to flower, the more secure our food supply (and every other creature’s) in the face of climate change catastrophe.

The early insects need the flowers to live; picking them does a disservice to us all.  Yes, they’re beautiful, but take a picture–it’ll last longer, and the flower will fulfill its essential role in the early spring ecosystem, helping ensure the food supply for all of us.

Bloodroot by the stone wall


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Milky Oats Tincture: What’s the Secret?

It seems like folks have a hard time making a really good milky oats tincture.  When I teach advanced tincture making, we always discuss past “failures” or at least tinctures that didn’t turn out how students expected, since there is more space to learn from our mistakes than from easy successes.  Milky Oats is one that comes up often (along with milk thistle, turmeric, hops…), so I’m going to explain the little tricks to growing it and making medicine.

Oat (Avena sativa) is beloved as a restoring, nutritive nervine tonic (medicine whose effects build slowly over time).  In women’s health we cherish oat for its properties as a mineral rejuvenator and protector against adrenal exhaustion–goodbye postpartum depression!  Hello restful sleep, coping skills, and an end to feeling stretched too thin, exhausted, and sapped of vitality.  As an antidepressant nervine it has a grounding, moistening effect for folks who feel burnt out, dried up, and frazzled.  It is a nurturing rejuvenator to the nervous system, stress response, and adrenal glands; the minerals your body needs for your heart, muscles, bones, and nerve transmission to work well; kidney and liver function; and it bestows a feeling of general well-being to those of us lucky enough to bask in its welcoming green glow.  As is common, the tea is a gentler, more long-term builder known for its mineral-related actions, while the tincture is stronger and more known for antidepressant and nervine actions.  I think that’s enough rhapsodies about it–here you are, reading my blog and being internet savvy, which means you are able to follow these links to more information about the medicinal uses of Milky Oats so we can get down to business on how to make medicine with it:  7Song’s articleKiva Rose’s article, Jim McDonald’s article, Henriette Kress’s blog

Planning Ahead

Milky Oats tincture must be made from fresh herbs–a tincture of dried herbs is just an oat tincture.  “Milky” refers to the whitish goo (latex) that comes out of the fresh, unripe seed when you squeeze it.  The goo is only there for a short time as the plants mature, so you have to check it regularly once the seeds appear and be ready to tincture.  I think this is the biggest barrier to making a Milky Oats tincture: where do you get fresh Milky Oats?  The answer is pretty simple–either grow them yourself, talk a friend into growing them for you, or buy them fresh from a local herb farm.

I usually buy oat seed from Fedco Co-op, but you can also get it at your local farm co-op and I’ve done that in a pinch before.  Often it’s sold by the 50 lb sack or other incredible amount that you will probably not be able to use, but both times I’ve had to go that route I was able to talk the nice person behind the desk into measuring me out less.  The usual heirloom seed companies may have oats available too, I’m not sure but it’s worth looking around–I’ve been very happy with Fedco and haven’t felt the need to try other companies.

Growing Tips

When to Plant Oats

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.  I planted mine last week, but I’m in Vermont so if you live in a warmer climate you probably missed out for this spring.  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.

If It’s Too Late To Plant If you missed planting for this season, don’t despair!  You can try again for a fall crop, which is harder to time but still works.  Plant your oats in a spot that is shady in early fall but sunny in late fall, like immediately north of your corn.  You can also hang up some burlap to help provide some shade, then take it down when the weather cools.  Again, your soil temperature should be between 45 and 55 degrees F for germination, so hang up your burlap before you sow if you’re doing it that way.  Mulching heavily with straw helps keep the soil cooler.

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.Round Barn Garden

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.

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 (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.  Sowing Oats

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.

Medicine-Making with Milky Oats

How to Harvest Milky Oats

The oats will be “milky” when the young unripe seeds have emerged but before they’re ripe (in other words, before they’re viable seeds).  You know it’s time when the white goo (latex) comes out of the seed when you squeeze it.  I will try to post a picture of this next month when it happens, but in the meantime check out Juliet Blankespoor’s beautiful pictures or just search for it.

To harvest the seeds, you can either slide your fist up the stalks to pull off just the seeds, or use pruners or a scythe to cut the oats just below where the seeds start (this is faster but higher impact).  Leave the greens standing so you can harvest oat straw later in the month (which you will harvest by cutting it down with pruners or a scythe, then dry for tea or tincture fresh at 1:2 75% for your future happiness and health–instructions on tincture-making here).  If you’re lucky and the spring is long, you are likely to get a second cutting of Milky Oats in a few weeks.

How to Tincture Milky Oats

Please see my article on tincture-making for an explanation of tincture ratios, alcohol percent, solubility, and a general how-to on the process.

Tincture Milky Oats at 1:2 75% to get a little of that mineral goodness, or you can go as high as 1:2 95% if you are all about the antidepressant-ness and don’t care about the minerals at all.  Remember that minerals are not soluble in alcohol, only in water.  See the link above if I’ve lost you here.

The secret trick to Milky Oats is using a blender, food processor, or mortar (last resort) to get the plant matter (marc) to stay submerged under the liquid (menstruum).  If you absolutely must, you can chop it by hand, but you lose a lot of the juicy goodness to the cutting board and it’s hard to get it smooshed up fine enough without extra help.

To process the oats, hold a bunch in one hand and strip the seeds off by sliding your other hand down the stalks (save the greens for tea).  You may have already removed the seeds, depending how you harvested them.  Weigh your plant matter, then put it in the blender with the appropriate amount of alcohol and water and grind away.

That’s it, congratulations, your tincture is going to be stronger and smarter and prettier than all its predecessors, and you and your family will have healthy nervous systems and a feeling of general well-being.  Hooray!