Old Ways Herbal, Juliette Abigail Carr

Vermont Herb School & Farmcraft Wisdom from Clinical Herbalist Juliette Abigail Carr


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Solubility in Medicine Making

Solubility: The Basics

Something is soluble if it dissolves in a particular liquid: picture stirring sugar into hot tea (soluble) versus cold water (not). Plant compounds that we use for medicine have to dissolve in the water/alcohol/honey/oil/etc. for medicine to be a thing.

All plants contain both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble constituents. The question is how the medicinal compounds that you want extract best. The plants have a preference for the ideal balance to get the most well rounded medicine; make water-preferential or alcohol-preferential medicine based on what results you want (i.e. burdock tincture versus burdock vinegar).

Most plant medicine is best with a balance of both: dandelion, nettles, holy basil. Some really extract best in one or the other: slippery elm, marshmallow, echinacea. Remember that vinegar extracts water-soluble compounds (and in the case of minerals, is better than water at it) and oil extracts alcohol-soluble compounds.

How to Tell

Intuition, observation, and practice!

Where it’s growing, how it’s growing, when it flourishes: intuition from experience.  Does is grow on the banks of a river?  On a wind-swept prairie?  Does it bloom only when it’s very hot and sunny?

What worked last time? How does that season compare to this one? Is there a drought, or a late snow storm, or did the river jump its banks last fall and deposit fertile silt in your garden?

Taste, smell, & feel

Mucilage, berberine, tannin, resin: plants often directly tell you how to make medicine with them.  Gooey demulcent mucilage is water-soluble, but sharp tingling berberine is alcohol-soluble.

Precipitate

The goop at the bottom of a tincture is the plant matter that didn’t dissolve in the tincture.  Think about the goop at the bottom of a burdock or elecampane tincture–that’s the stuff that can’t dissolve in alcohol.  Actually, it’s mostly fiber, which does for plants what bones and fat do for people (structure & food storage).  Burdock and elecampane are both examples of herbs that tincture best at lower alcohol concentrations so their water-soluble compounds can play too.  If there’s way more precipitate than there should be, it often means your tincture had too much or too little alcohol in it.  That said, most high alcohol tinctures, especially of roots, will have precipitate, since plant matter always contains water-soluble constituents (see up, second paragraph).

Look it up in a good herbal reference

I recommend the works of Michael Moore and Lisa Ganora

 

Energetics of Solubility

These are generalizations meant to give you a place to start, not definitive truths for all plants.  I’m developing a graphic for this but it’s not ready for the internet yet!

Plants that have very water-soluble medicine are often extremes on the wet-dry continuum:

Marshmallow & slippery elm; willow & witch hazel

Plants that do well with high alcohol tinctures are usually more in the middle of wet-dry, but on an extreme of hot or cold:

Echinacea & cayenne; california poppy & skullcap

Remember, most plants make good medicine in both water- and alcohol-based preparations, but the individual effects still follow these basic guidelines.  For example:

Burdock tea: water-soluble medicine, benefits are dramatic on the wet-dry continuum
Burdock tincture: alcohol-soluble medicine, benefits are dramatic on the hot-cold continuum

 

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January’s 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.

IMG_2653


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Preserving Mushroom Medicine

Medicinal mushrooms are often overlooked when we talk about solubility and the best ways to preserve things.  We talk a lot about mucilage, berberine and the like, but not so much about considering solubility to make the most effective mushroom medicine.  I personally think that’s because

a. folks get intimidated by the complexity (and weirdness) or mushrooms, or

b. folks are scared to experiment with something that comes around so rarely through the year–which makes sense, as you might only get one shot with the precious precious fungi this year.

The basic concept is this: most mushrooms contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents, like other organisms we use for medicine.  When they’re simply dried, we lose much of the water-soluble and all the alcohol-soluble medicinal compounds.  When they’re tinctured, we lose the water-soluble compounds.

Dried turkey tail and powdered chaga are familiar formulations, but do they really pack the most medicinal punch?  During the drying process, as the water evaporates, the lovely fruiting bodies that last week were shiny (or dull) and colorful (or not) as you cupped them lovingly in your hands in awe at the majesty of this creation are now hollow bits of corrugated cardboard just begging for a shallow grave in the compost pile.  That’s hyperbole, but still–why make anything other than the strongest, most effective, most delicious and uplifting and inspiring medicine possible?  Why settle for slightly medicinal cardboard when you can achieve an ambrosia of a panacea?  (That was a fun sentence to write.) Ganoderma

Is it possible to dry mushrooms and extract some measure of medicine from them?  Yes, obviously, or chaga chai would not be a thing.  Mushrooms are incredibly complex, the hard-won fruiting bodies of a vast mycelial network, and some of the medicine will stick around in the dried form.

That being said, drying is not the best way to preserve medicine from these incredibly powerful, slow-growing, central investments on behalf of a gigantic microscopic system of synergy and mutualism.  Wasting something that precious is downright…wasteful.  And also, why bother traipsing all over the mountain searching for maitake and reishi if you’re just going to let 3/4 of the medicine evaporate off?

The best way to extract the strongest, most complex water-soluble mushroom medicine is to preserve them fresh.  This is generally true of water-soluble medicinal herbs, too.  The recipe below for Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes (or mushroom ice cubes, if you want to be specific about it) will get you there.

But wait!  The true best, most complete, crazy amazing mushroom medicine is made by combining both water- and alcohol-soluble constituents, instead of choosing one or the other.  You can taste the difference, too: dried mushroom tea is lovely, tincture is fabulous, but a fresh mushroom concoction makes my whole body sigh with relief as my T-cells sing on their way into battle, in time with the war drums of the macrophages and the storming of the lymph and the gentle humming of my very very calm nervous system.  I like it, you could say.  Combine tincture and decoction into a concoction (really: double, double, toil & trouble).  The classic recipe is adapted below for maximum awesomeness, but there’s still just the three steps: tincture, decoct, then concoct.  Instructions below.

Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes

You can tell this is popular around here by the name.

If you’re planning to concoct some of your mushroom decoction, consider tincturing some–maybe a half-pint or a pint–at something water-friendly, like 1:4 60% (info here if you’re like, what?) and putting it aside until it’s ready.

1. Combine equal parts by weight of the following fresh mushrooms in a slow cooker (best) or large stock pot (not as good):

  • Reishi/Ganoderma
  • Maitake
  • Turkey Tail
  • Chaga (not technically a mushroom, as it’s not a fruiting body–it’s actually mycelium!  So cool!!!)
  • Or whatever you have, really.  But these are what I use, and I usually do 10 oz of each, but I have an truly enormous slow cooker so do what works for you.

2. Add these herbs for extra oomph and tastiness; use half as much of each herb as you used of the mushrooms (I use 5 oz of each):  IMG_2785

  • Elderberry
  • Cinnamon
  • Astragalus
  • Rosehips

3. Fill the rest of the way with water.

4. Gently simmer (covered!  Always!) for 2-3 days, the longer the better.  I go the full 72 hours.  It should be a terrible looking brownish blackish brackish color and quite fragrant, in an appealing swamp-creature kind of way.

5. Cool to room temperature, covered, a matter of up to 6 hours or so.

6. Strain through a wire mesh strainer into a large pitcher or batter bowl, something with a pour spout.

7. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze.  When completely frozen, pack cubes into freezer bags or jars, label, and store in freezer.  You will probably have to do numerous rounds of freezing ice cube trays to get all the liquid frozen.

Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes can be added to tea, soup (simply the greatest addition to miso since the discovery of wakame), or just thawed and drank throughout the year as needed, any time you would use dried mushrooms or mushroom tea.  I use cubes as fresh decocted mushrooms in the concoction recipe below.

Perfection Mushroom Concoction

1. Tincture FRESH mushrooms at something water-friendly, like 1:4 60% (info here if you’re like, what?), as noted in the intro for the recipe above.  When the tincture is ready, strain it into a clean jar, with at least twice the volume as the tincture (i.e. put a pint of tincture in a quart jar).

2. A. If you’re concocting on the same day you made the decoction:

Allow the decoction from the recipe above to cool to room temperature, then ladle through a fine strainer into a measuring cup until you have equal parts tincture and decoction.

2. B. If time has passed since you made the decoction: Pressed tincture

Remove Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes from the freezer and thaw them at room temperature in a measuring cup, until you have equal parts tincture and decoction.

3. Combine equal parts tincture and decoction.  Some people also choose to ad raw honey at this stage.

4. Label and store in a cool, dark place, and use instead of mushroom tea or tincture.

There you have it, delicious and effective.  Not the easiest way of making mushroom medicine, but it sure works great. Enjoy.


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Preserving Water-Soluble Magic Beyond the Growing Season: Herbal Ice Cubes

This thing happens kind of a lot when you live in a place with significant seasons: you harvest some wonderful medicine, enough to last you a while–maybe all year–but then you have to actually do something with it while it’s still good, knowing you can’t get more until next year.  Most people’s gut reaction is to either dry or tincture the wonderful medicine, and generally speaking that works great for most things.

Except when it doesn’t.

If you’re familiar with solubility, you know that some medicines extract best (or in some cases only extract) in water-based preparations, so tinctures aren’t an option.  (If I lost you, try this article and scroll down to the section on solubility.)

Some (actually, many) herbs with significant water-soluble medicinal constituents, and generally herbs with high volatile oil content, tend to dry as weak medicine.  Obviously this isn’t true across the board–otherwise tea wouldn’t be a thing–but think of the difference between fresh basil and dried basil and I think you’ll get what I mean: there’s a real difference, and fresh is better.

And sometimes the medicinal properties evaporate straight out with the water when the plant dries, making it essentially useless in its dried form–think of borage, or jewelweed: wonderful fresh but downright lousy when dried.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to preserve water-soluble constituents without drying the herbs.

No, just kidding.  Here’s an easy & fun solution that allows us to preserve water-soluble medicine at the peak of its medicinal awesomeness.  This is the sort of fun kitchen witching that yields instant gratification: you might find yourself passing around your latest success at a dinner party, and any kids in your life are likely to think you’re a genius.

Herbal Ice Cube Recipe

1. Choose herbs that make sense together.  Keep in mind:

  • Solubility
  • Freshness (things that are harvested at the same time are ideal)
  • Flavor
  • Formulation purpose
  • Energetics & synergy

2. Harvest the herbs properly, at the appropriate time of day & moon phase, on a day when you have time to deal with them.

3. Immediately infuse or decoct as appropriate (instructions here).  Infuse or decoct at double strength.  Infuse for at least 6 hours, decoct for at least 2 hours.  You want super strong, fragrant awesomeness.  It should be decadent in that kitchen.

4. Cool to room temperature, covered, a matter of hours.

5. Strain through a wire mesh strainer into a large pitcher or batter bowl, something with a pour spout.

6. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze.  When completely frozen, pack cubes into freezer bags or jars, label, and store in freezer.  You will probably have to do numerous rounds of freezing ice cube trays to get all the liquid frozen.

Herbal Ice Cubes can be added to tea, juice, soup, or just thawed and drank throughout the year as needed.

Sample Herbal Ice Cube Formulas

To beat wintery blues in these cold, dark climes, I make ice cubes with:

  • Borage
  • Lemon Balm
  • Holy Basil
  • Calendula

And they’re there and easy when the days are short and cold and difficult and my family is grouchy in the deepest part of winter–pop it into a cup of tea with some honey and boom!  Cheerful people everywhere.

My husband’s poison ivy?  Yes, he still gets it in the winter.  How about:

  • Jewelweed
  • Plantain
  • Mullein Flower
  • Oatstraw
  • Nettles

Bam!  Take that itchy rash.

Winter cocktail parties?  Something like:

  • Rosemary
  • Lemon balm
  • Anise-hyssop
  • Ginger

And everyone thinks I’m special.

You get the idea.  Experiment & have fun.

Oh!  And also check out this article about the same concept, but for the amazing Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes.  They’re only so-so.


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Cold & Flu Tea Recipe

When all is right in the world, it’s easy to mess around with kitchen witching.  That’s not the case when we can’t sleep, or the kid’s sick and screaming, or whatever the current herbal crisis happens to be.  Over many years of drying herbs to infuse in honey “when I get to it” and not pressing tinctures until I actually have to use them (because farm life is just that kind of busy), I’ve learned that when I need medicine NOW, having to make it is a huge hurdle.  Although I’m not as on top of my home apothecary maintenance as I’d like to be, I’ve made it a point to have a few basics in stock all the time, so I don’t have to make it in a pinch.

Here’s a recipe for a cold and flu tea to have on hand going into winter.  This formula works well as a base, since it’s a general respiratory infection and get-well-soon mix.  If you’ve got other symptoms, it’s a lot easier to add some willow and a sprinkle of angelica than starting from the top when you’re hacking up a lung.  teapot

Although there are lots of great immune herbs from around the world, we’ve got what we need right here in our own backyards.  If bioregionalism is a new concept for you, please see this article, but I’ll spare everyone else the rant repeat.  These herbs are native or naturalized guests that flourish in cold climates, but if they won’t grow where you do, get out your books and talk to your neighbors to find a similar herb that does.  For info on drying your own tea, see this article.

As well as bioregionalism, a couple of other concepts that come into play with formulation are synergy, balance, and energetics; if you’re interested in getting awesome at formulation, read up on those here, here, and here, but it’s too much for right now; hopefully in the future I’ll write an article or several just on formulation, but today is not that day.

Crumble together in a quart jar or airtight bag, 1 cup each of the following:

Monarda: Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma, with their many common names (bee balm, wild bergamot, oswego tea, scarlet monarda etc.) have thousands of years of traditional use in North America for cold, flu, fever, respiratory infection, and other permutations of winter illness.

Monarda didyma

Monarda didyma

I use them together, as I have found them to have a synergistic effect on stimulating the respiratory tract and “burning off” a fever (as Matthew Wood calls it), but you can use whichever species is local to you.  Monarda is very useful as a warming (and later cooling, if you sweat out a fever), drying, stimulating, dispersing agent of change throughout the respiratory tract and sinuses.   It will move out whatever cold garbage is stuck in your lungs, dry up a drippy nose, act as an anti-inflammatory and decongestant to sinuses (postnasal drip, headache with facial soreness, weird ear pressure), and sweat out a fever.  It is antimicrobial, gently immune-boosting, and improves the mood.

Elderberry is one of the best-known immune stimulators and antimicrobials.  It’s used daily to prevent sickness, and is wonderful in higher doses to help you get better, faster; the science is very good on this, numerous studies indicating some very high power T-cell stimulating scary-antigen-annihilating magic.  I put it in almost everything immune-related because it’s so effective and delicious.  Generally, you want to decoct elderberries and add them to the rest of the tea, but making separate batches kind of defeats the purpose of having a lazy sick person blend ready to go, so here’s a little cheat: dry elderberries thoroughly, then grind them in a mortar and pestle or grinder.  They won’t last long, and they won’t be as strong, but they’ll get you through when you need them to, and you can infuse them with everything else if you have to.  The herbal demagogues will frown at this advice, but I’ve found that there are a lot of folks out there infusing roots and berries as a matter of convenience—but at least grind them first so you actually get some medicine out.

Add ½ cup each of the following and mix well:

Hyssop is a warming, drying, stimulating fix-all for respiratory woes, sinus issues, and fevers.  It’s antiviral and has a powerful effect on moving out deep-set, chronic conditions of cold-stuckness, especially accompanied by low-grade fever, thready pulse, and feeling sad or down.  It has a synergistic effect with monarda in terms of flavors, energetics, and physiological effect.  If you can’t grow hyssop, try elder flower. tea

Lemon balm is a delicious antiviral famous for soothing frazzled anxiety, sleeplessness, mild pain, and imparting a feeling of general well-being.  It’s effective against viral infections, soothes dry-behind-the-eyes exhaustion, and improves mood.  It’s cooling, calming, and soothing, helping to ground excess energy to focus on rest and healing.

Thyme is a vigorous antimicrobial immune stimulant.  It’s full of volatile oils that evaporate when dried, so it’s most powerful infused fresh into honey or syrup.  That said, it’s still a very useful addition to tea in its gentler dried form.  Thyme is very warming and moving to stuck secretions as an expectorant and decongestant, will help break a fever, and brings the antiviral magic right where it needs to be by stimulating circulation.

Add ½ cup of ONE of the following:

If you tend towards cold, stuck, inflamed, phlegmy (productive or nonproductive) congestion, especially with loss of appetite, facial pain, or sore throat that needs to be cleared:

Elecampane is a warming, stimulating respiratory decongestant, a mover and shaker that brings blood flow to the lungs, throat, and face and puts lots of power behind ejecting any disgusting slimy business stuck in there.  This is strong medicine.  It’s a root, so like elderberry it’s normally decocted.  Keep it separate and decoct with the elderberry, or use this lazy sick person cheat: chop it up as fine as you can when it’s fresh, dry thoroughly, then grind and add to your tea blend.  It doesn’t need to be powder, tiny shards of root will infuse if necessary.

If you tend towards dry, spasmy congestion, especially with painfully dry hacking cough, blood when you blow your nose, dry sore throat, eye soreness, and unequal ear pressure:

Mullein or violet leaf: These are both moistening herbs that cool, soothe, and heal dry inflamed tissues, especially the lungs, nose, and sinuses.  Make sure to accompany them with honey.

gardening weeds

Mullein, borage, and holy basil are all wonderful water-soluble herbs

If you always get sick this way, consider using a full cup (you can take out the thyme, if you need space in the jar).

Make your tea by adding 1-2 tablespoons per cup of boiled water, cover, and steep for 10-20 minutes.

Based on symptoms, add appropriate things to your tea like:

Honey is antimicrobial, immune stimulating, anti-inflammatory, and very soothing.  It should be added to all tea made for someone who isn’t feeling well.

Immune-boosting tinctures like Echinacea, spilanthes, Oregon grape, yellow root, Japanese barberry (this is invasive so use a ton!) help you get better faster.  Some Tinctures BrewingHowever, don’t add these herbs dried to your tea, use them as tinctures: their magic is primarily alcohol-soluble, so the medicine is found in tincture, not tea.

Fever tinctures like willow, boneset, meadowsweet, catnip for kids, especially when accompanied by sore muscles and headache.  These herbs don’t have to be in tincture form, but it’s easier in the moment—however, feel free to decoct/infuse to your heart’s content.

Cherry tincture (or decoction, syrup, honey) as a cough suppressant, for hacking coughs accompanied by muscle pain, when you just need it to stop.bark

Mushroom ice cubes: medicinal mushrooms are wonderful for the immune system, but they really lose their oomph when dried.  My favorite way to prepare them is to make a 3-day decoction, freeze in ice cube trays, and add cubes to tea and soup when we’re sick.  There’s a recipe for this on its way this week.

There are a million other awesome immune herbs local to your area, so have fun playing around with this and let me know how it goes.  Have a nice winter!


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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!