Artemisfolk's Blog

Artisan Crafting, Traditional Folk Skills, and Urban Homesteading

Fall Foraging February 7, 2011

Filed under: Food,Foraging,Uncategorized,Urban Gardening — artemisfolk @ 11:14 pm

It’s been a season and a half since my last post so we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. There’s no time for regrets! I’ve been so busy doing projects there’s been nary a moment to write about them. Still, we must travel back in time to autumn so I can present my fall foraging quest.

In much of the world I know there’s precious little land left where foraging is safe, legal, and accessible.  As viewed from a plane, every inch of land is gridded and fenced, known and owned. But urban foragers and rural gleaners persevere. And among them evolves the guerrilla forager.

This fall I set out to see what I could gather from the accessible spaces near me, and I found both more than I needed and more than I could carry. Here is a rundown of this fall’s foraged harvest:

basket of acorns

Acorns: more than enough for me and the squirrels. I gathered most in late August and September, best after a good wind storm has knocked the fresh ones down. My young friend Vivian and I collected basketfuls, then set about the process of cracking the shells, pulling out the nut meats, composting the wormy ones, and grinding the good ones into nut paste. After that we dry the nut paste and grind it into a finer flour with a mortar and pestle or a food processor. The final step is to leach the tannins out of the flour using a homemade sieve. The result is a few jars of tasty, nutty, acorn flour to bake with. A future post will detail the acorn flour process in depth.

Elderberries: elderberries make an excellent throat soothing, immune boosting tea and syrup for winter ills. Some really nice person at our local natural pharmacy saw me purchasing a bag of them and told me we had bushes growing along the bike path over the river and it was almost harvest time. Again Vivian and I set off on bikes to search out the dark purple bundles of berries. They have telltale clusters like small grapes on a tall bush or low tree. Please look them up in a book on wild foraging or a trusted website to make sure you can identify properly. The redder variety is dangerous. Also, IMPORTANT: while the berries are great for you, the red stems of the berries are TOXIC. When I processed them I very carefully plucked each berry from its stem and went through the batch several times to make sure I hadn’t missed any stem bits. This is not difficult work, just time consuming. But elderberries are quite expensive and the half pound I harvested will last me well into the winter.

Rosehips: Again, a lovely tea herb for its tangy taste and high vitamin C content. I have a bush in the backyard, complete with the tree stump and mushroom colony. Wait until after the first good frost before harvesting. Some I used fresh, and some I cut open to remove the seeds so they can dry and be stored. Any rosebush will yield rosehips. While my backyard bush offered many fine, tiny rosehips, their flavor was unfortunately bland when steeped in tea.

herbs drying in the kitchen

Herbs: I gathered up my neighbors’ basil, with permission, right before it bolted and went to seed. It lasted my six person householdabout three months. By accident, my ladylove found catnip growing by our doctor’s office. She brought me a flower and my cat ate it. Before it snowed we harvested what was left and dried it for winter cat entertainment. The previous tenants in our house planted oregano and chives in the garden, which survived and returned after our first winter. We’re just now using up what we harvested in the summer.

Pears: I harvested pears from a friend’s family home in the country. Though they’d never been sprayed with a pesticide or herbicide,they were remarkably bug and blemish free. These beautiful red Bartlett pears made jars and jars of pear sauce. I froze it in mason jars in the deep freezer and thaw it out for baking pies and muffins.

Vivian proudly displays the pear sauce

Fall dandelion greens: spring and fall are great times for harvesting this tasty and medicinal green veggie. Dandelions are least bitter when new leaves sprout before or after blooming and seeding.

Plantain: not the banana thing! Plantain is a low green yard plant with oblong leaves that are very good at soothing and healing skin wounds and burns. They are also a tasty salad vegetable.

Black walnuts: the nuts are edible, if hard to get to. I like to use the hulls, which turn black and crumple off the shells. The hulls can be used for a rich, brown fabric dye. They can also be used to make a tea or tincture that kills intestinal parasites, but be careful, it’s a poison, that’s why it works.

A note on pesticide and herbicides:

The first trouble with not-so-wild urban foraging is the use of pesticides. You can get some information from the city you live in about what parks get sprayed with what. This should be public information. Most places post signs when pesticides have been used. The signs should list the type of cide used, the last date applied, and maybe even its indication (such as “on stumps of invasive trees”). Do your own research and use your best judgment. If you are concerned about contamination or toxicity avoid gathering from the sides of busy roads (fallout zone for automotive pollutants), railroad tracks (where creosote and herbicides are used), and super-landscaped areas (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, parking lot run-off). Sometimes I still gather from these places, depending on what I’m gathering, when, what’s around, and if it’s for eating or dying or smelling, etc. Also, consider what your neighbors use on their lawns and gardens if you gather from people’s houses.

More urban foraging dangers:

Bacterial contamination. Don’t harvest from dog parks or places where animals defecate a lot, no matter how good the plantain looks.

Legality issues. Urban foraging is not really legal. In some cases it’s stealing. In some cases it is damaging property. There are many tried and true means of dealing with this issue.

Ask permission. When you see your neighbor with 25 square feet of lemon mint in their yard, or a pear tree that drops all its fruit on the sidewalk, ask if they’d mind if you harvest some.  Most people will be happy to say yes, maybe even relieved to have someone else help them deal with the overload. Offer to share some pear sauce or dried lemon mint tea after you process it. Many people have grown fantastic relationships by simply asking, and there are websites devoted to organizing the gleaning/foraging networks in cities.

Go guerrilla. When you can’t get permission from a land owner, such as the case of an urban park, or corporate lot, use these guerrilla tactics.

  • Act natural. I harvested acorns during the day in the public park and the church yard. Only the squirrels minded.
  • If someone asks what you’re doing, tell the truth and be jolly about it. There’s nothing wrong with using the edible products of nature. Offer to share with whomever is questioning you. If asked to leave private property, go.
  • Wait till after dark. You are a ninja forager.

Ethical Guidelines:

In this age of shocking corruption, it is most vital that those of us who consider ourselves revolutionaries, rebels, and renegades, anti-establishment, minorities, and misunderstood, abide by a standard of ethics that we create and to which we mindfully consent. These are mine:

And it harm none, do what you will. The Witches’ creed. Also the oath of physicians: first, harm not.

This means, ask yourself if foraging something is going to harm anyone, including animals and plants.

Ask the plant for permission. Asking the plant, or the plant spirit, if you can harvest some of its fruits, can be a wonderful way to connect with the natural world, your food source, and with yourself. This is a powerful way to practice asking for consent (something we all need more practice in). I always ask a plant before I take, and then I listen for an answer. How do you listen to a plant? There are lots of ways. You can close your eyes and just see what happens. You can take some time to observe the environment of the plant and read the signs. For example, is the fruit ripe and ready? Is there some on the ground you can take before you pick from the bush? What animals are around the area? Will you be leaving enough for the creatures that depend on this food source and don’t have access to supermarkets? Will you be damaging the plant by harvesting, such as breaking a branch to get the good fruit, or trampling delicate things underfoot?

Foraging is an opportunity to experience everyday harmony with other living entities.  Sometimes when I ask permission of a plant, take the time to look around, and listen, the answer is no, it’s not okay to harvest now. No matter how wonderful those apples at the top of the tree look, or how convenient it would be for me to pick those berries now, it is imperative that we observe the answer we get, whether or not we know it came from the plant or from within us. Take the time to come back with a ladder, or wait another week until the fruit is ready to fall with a gentle shaking of the tree, or acknowledge the birds who need the harvest more. If you want it fast and easy, go to the grocery store.

Don’t take everything. Plants are so generous, they make food and medicine for us, and without them, we could not exist. Leave at least half of every plant, unless it’s a root vegetable I suppose, and never take all the plants growing in one area. Imagine all the other creatures that might eat a given plant.

Leave an offering. Offering is sacred. If I take a lot of elderberries, I may bring a little bag of birdseed or sunflower seeds and scatter them around. I used to take a bag of my own homemade compost around and give a little to each plant I’d harvested from. Now we’re talking about stewardship and guerrilla gardening, a post for another time. I don’t always make a tangible offering, sometimes I just offer thanks and a blessing.

Kids can really enjoy foraging. Each excursion is an adventure with treasure to be found. Collecting is fun. Learning to identify plants is fun. Feeling empowered to provide your own food is fun. Watching kids talk to plants and thank them is amazing and builds compassionate bonds with nature. Bringing thank you gifts to plants is really wonderful. Making delicious things out of what you harvested is very gratifying for little and big people alike. When foraging with kids, be flexible, keep it light and fun, don’t do anything dangerous or disrespectful, demonstrate kindness and share the ethical guidelines. Kids are often more open to communicating with plant spririts. Try visiting the same places at different times of the year to see how plants develop through the seasons and watch your food growing!

ground acorn flour

That’s all for now, folks. To whet your whistle, upcoming posts might include: winter foraging, fall wood building projects, winter crafting, winter cooking and baking, DIY chocolate, and a discussion of information access (FreeSchools, zines, public libraries, self-publishing, mini-libraries, etc).

Resource List

Guerilla Gardening

Wild Food Adventures

Portland Urban Edibles

Madison Fruits and Nuts

Plant Spirit Medicine

Wise Woman Herbalism


Constructing a Solar Oven, or My Wet Hot American Summer September 10, 2010

Filed under: Building,Food,Uncategorized — artemisfolk @ 3:34 pm

Times are hot in Wisconsin. Between the humidity and the mosquitoes, it’s a jungle around here. What’s a cookie-lover to do? Turning on the oven would be madness. But living without mom’s pumpkin bread is unthinkable. Even cooking beans on the stovetop turns the kitchen sweltering.

What are some handy, precocious, apocalyptic survivalists to do? Harness the energy of the sun, of course!

A quick google search revealed a compendium of easy, inexpensive, and effective solar cooker plans from around the world. Primary materials range from old tires to cob to cardboard. There are plans for cookers, barbeques, and water pasteurizers. Models include the Suntastic, Primrose, Parvati, Dublin, and dozens more. I can’t help it, I think big: I choose the plan for the one called Heaven’s Flame.

The website details the materials, costs, and building instructions. The materials are simple: cardboard boxes, string, glue, foil, and a piece of glass. I collect free cardboard boxes from the local food co-op, measure the sturdiest, and call a local glass shop to order a small piece of double strength glass. It costs $6.50. Include the cost of tape and foil, and the whole shebang costs about $10. I pick up the glass and start to cut up cardboard. About two hours later, I’m ready to bake.

Detailed instructions can be found on the website, so I won’t recreate the wheel here. I further simplified the design to suit my needs and limited patience by using duct tape, and not bothering with some of the gluing and fabric edges. We also added some wool bits from old sweaters to the inside edges to better insulate and seal the glass top. The parts covered in foil (the collectors) reflect the sun down to the inner box, which is painted black. We put a brick inside to hold more heat and raise whatever we’re baking.

Notice: it DOES get hot! I haven’t put a thermometer in yet, but sources say the inside temp can reach into the 300 – 350 degrees Fahrenheit range. At this temperature, cookies, corn muffins, and mini pizzas only take a couple hours at most. Beans and rice can take all day (6-8 hours) to steam inside a glass jar. I like to start something in the morning and eat it for dinner. So far we’ve made cornbread, muffins, pizzas, rice, beans, lentils, corn and squash.

It’s important to adjust the angle of the box and direction of the collectors every couple hours for optimum sun exposure. It’s easiest to adjust it based on the shadow stretching out behind the box. The shadow should be directly in line with the box edges, with as little shadowed area inside the box as possible.

My second favorite part of the endeavor is all the curiosity the solar oven inspires. The best sun is in the front yard, so that’s where the solar oven sits, poised on a radio flyer wagon for easy moving. The pink duct tape and “transmogrifier” sign on its side attract the attention of neighbors, kids, and roadside construction workers alike. People ask what it is and how it works, how hot it gets and what I’m making, and finally, how they can make one themselves.

My favorite part is taking out my crispy corn muffins and lentil soup at dinner time and eating them in my nice cool kitchen where no oven has been used, no gas or electricity drawn. Food baked by the sun tastes like sun, like it retains the energetic components soaked right from the source. And when energy blackouts start rolling through Wisconsin, I’ll still be baking cookies.


The Urban-Cottage Garden, Heirloom Plants, and Food Sovereignty June 17, 2010

Filed under: Food,Uncategorized,Urban Gardening — artemisfolk @ 3:29 am

“Fighting hybrid and GMO seeds is critical to save our diversity and our agriculture,” Jean-Baptiste said in an interview in February. “We have the potential to make our lands produce enough to feed the whole population and even to export certain products. The policy we need for this to happen is food sovereignty, where the county has a right to define its own agricultural policies, to grow first for the family and then for local market, to grow healthy food in a way which respects the environment and Mother Earth.”

– Chavannes Jean-Baptiste,

spokesperson for the

National Peasant Movement of the

Congress of Papay,

May 14, 2010.  Haiti.

We start in the dark heart of a Midwestern winter where I sit, reading about gardening and dreaming up ways of sticking it to the man. And what sharper stick could there be than one that’s staking up an heirloom tomato in my genetically diverse, organic, primitive, low cost, urban garden?

Before, I have been a happenstance gardener: a patch of ground here and there in my nomadic wanderings from coast to coast. I use old seeds found in a drawer or a free pile. Maybe I buy a few healthy starts from farmer’s market. Sometimes something magical occurs with sun and water, and poof! Flowers bloom, tomatoes bear fruit, we eat. But this year it’s different. This year, I’m invested. This year, I start everything from seed.

I started with Seed Saver’s Exchange, a non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. SSE’s 890-acre Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. They permanently maintain more than 25,000 endangered vegetable varieties. It was hard to choose just twenty or so to grow in my yard!

With help from my housemates and careful research at the public library, I chose heirloom varieties of some amazing vegetables and herbs. My favorites this year are Hidatsa Shield Beans, Blacktail Mountain Watermelon, and Asian Tempest Garlic.

In February, I made a chart of what to plant when and where. Some plants do better if started indoors and some are better off directly seeded in the ground. I am committed to letting the seeds, sun, soil, and water do what they were made to do with as little energy and interference from me as possible. I tell my friends: I don’t grow plants. Plants grow on their own. I cultivate plants, vegetables, fruit, and herbs. In the proper environment and circumstances, plants don’t need me at all. It’s us humans that need plants.

March turned our sun porch into a plant propagation station. I checked the beds every few hours for signs of life, watering gently to keep the surface soil moist. An early warm-spell germinated our seeds and they poked through! The first thing I learned was that all spouts look about the same, with two heart shaped leaves unfolding. The second set of leaves is more telling of variety.

“As soon as the ground is workable,” the farmer’s almanac states, “plant ground cover and peas.” Unused to the Wisconsin winter, I waited a little past when the ground first became workable to plant my peas. So most folks had fresh peas weeks before I did. It made me think a lot about what life would be like without supermarkets, how long into spring one would have to live off last year’s preserved harvest before this year’s crops would be edible. I can understand why someone would take a chance and plant early.

The most daunting task was to dig the beds out of the coil of foreign grasses. Digging into my lawn without the express permission of the “landlord” was a little scary, but in my mind, it was also a vital component of my ethical stand as an urban homesteader. I resurrected some geometry skills and figured out how much space and how many cubic feet of soil I would need to raise my beds. Tip: digging after a good rain makes the work far less demanding.

For encouragement and guidance I turned to Food Not Lawns, a global organization focused on turning yards into gardens and neighborhoods into communities. Food Not Lawns inspired me because they made gardening accessible: you don’t need a farm, all you need is your own lawn, or a balcony and some pots, or even just a window sill. They also helped me understand the essential elements of food security, why urbanites face the biggest risks, and how we can encourage food sovereignty and build community connections at the same time.

Starting a garden this way took patience. It was the end of May before we planted the chard, kale, spinach, and arugula. It was mid June when we planted the butternut squash, beans, zucchini, and lemon cucumbers, and carefully transplanted the hillbilly tomato, purple tomatillo, and poblano pepper starts.

Initial start up costs have been minimal. In addition to the seeds, the only other things I had to purchase were the garden tools themselves. I got two rakes, two shovels, and two hand tools, used, for a total of $10 from someone on Craigslist. Luckily, Wisconsin has a legacy of farming, and for good reason. The soil is rich and healthy so I only purchased a little. I used bits of things found for free on people’s curbs: chicken wire for a compost bin, a porch railing for the beans to climb, an old rocking chair frame for the peas to trail up. Look for a future post about seed preservation: I hope to cut the cost of next season’s seeds by more than half by collecting and preserving seeds from the plants growing right now.

I’ve also had a lot of help from my neighbors. One neighbor is lending me soaker hoses to cut down on watering time and costs. Another neighbor who works with a CSA network got me free straw-mulch from a local farmer. Several neighbors with more established gardens offered me their cast offs: strawberries, Echinacea, raspberries, ferns, hosta, and daylilies were all gratefully accepted.

The biggest cost so far has been time. I am happy to give mine because working the ground and cultivating living things gives me so much energy, inspiration, and hope for the future, that gardening itself is as valuable as the vegetables it produces. Friends and housemates rallied to help. Some are looking forward to the harvest and some want to spend time playing in the mud.

Now, nearing the end of June, the seeding is done, almost everything I planted came up. I am filled with anticipation, imagining what the back yard will look like in September. I could spend pages griping about the evils Monsanto is wreaking upon the world, but my time would be better spent nurturing the diverse plants they aim to wipe out, and cultivating food to feed my global family of resistors, activists, subsistence gardeners, small farmers, and urban homesteaders.

Ready to get growing? Check out my resource list below for books, magazines, websites, and neighborly information.

Growing and Gardening Resources

Books I read this winter:

  • The Budget Gardener, by Maureen Gilmer
  • Squirrel Wars: Backyard Wildlife Battles and How to Win Them, by George Harrison
  • Food Not Lawns, by H.C. Flores
  • Guerrilla Gardening, A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries, by Richard Reynolds.
  • Carrots Love Tomatoes, Secrets of Companion Planting, by Louise Riotte
  • Roses Love Garlic, by Louise Riotte

Magazines I poured over this winter:

  • Mother Earth News
  • Small Farmer’s Journal
  • Back Home Magazine
  • Countryside

Websites I perused or haunted:


An Old Fashioned Easter April 19, 2010

Filed under: Food,Natural Dye,Uncategorized — artemisfolk @ 11:37 pm
Tags: , ,

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.”

Henry David Throeau, Walden

I am gazing in wonder at the gorgeously colored Easter eggs lined up in cartons on our counter. Scents of warm wine, spicy turmeric, and tangy onion skins waft around the kitchen in the breeze from the open back door. We are drinking wine and dyeing eggs with natural, household ingredients. And I am wondering why we ever did it differently, why we ever substituted chemical, neon powders and plastic dipping sticks for the rich, evocative colors and engaging practice of dyeing eggs with wine, onion skins, turmeric, beets, and cabbage.

Perhaps I’m just tipsy, but the more I think about it, the more troubled I am by this wasteful commodity masquerading as an essential Easter tradition.  Take the massive, dye-kit company PAAS for example. PAAS had humble beginnings in the late 1800s when a New Jersey drug store owner, William Townley, began making and selling dye tablets that tinted eggs. Today, Americans purchase more than 10 million PAAS Easter Egg Color Kits during the Easter season. The PAAS website proudly states that, “If you lay all of the PAAS wire dippers end-to-end, they would equal the height of 6, 628 Washington Monuments.” Well, that’s a bizarre way to put it, considering those wire dippers and the other dye kit materials are now in landfills across the nation. 

PAAS also tells us that people have been dyeing eggs in China and Persia for 3000 years. Whatever did they do before PAAS came along with packaged kits? A common element of our wasteful, consumerist culture is that we don’t know we need something until the company that produces it tells us we do. And they tell us in such a compelling, glittery way that we feel like our lives were empty and difficult before they invented this new luxury. And then we spend a few dollars on something we already have or could easily make ourselves. Finally, we throw away half or all of what we bought because the packaging or even the entire product is disposable. Though all egg dye kits are labeled non toxic, many are also made from coal tar and petroleum products and contribute to the global petroleum addiction and oncoming crisis.

What I’m talking about here is an issue of consumerism, advertising aimed at children, cheap products made in foreign factories for abominably low wages, toxicity, and plain old wastefulness.

Here’s how we can take back this tradition and provide a solid example for children while having a good old fashioned time.

The Ethics of Easter Egg Dyeing

  1. Buy local eggs from farms where chickens are free-range. This makes a healthier, tastier egg for you and better treatment for animals who spend their lives producing food for humans.
  2. Use dyes from household ingredients. This is more fun, less expensive, and creates far less wastes. It teaches little people and big people alike how to be independent and creative. We see that we don’t need store-bought kits manufactured far away and shipped to us in pristine packaging.
  3. Have an egg hunt! This is the best part and not to be missed. Adults enjoy this just as much as children. Seven of my adult friends spent more than an hour hiding and finding eggs in the park next to our house.

Here’s how to dye eggs using natural ingredients:

Red wine creates a lovely purple  egg. Boil eggs in wine with a few teaspoons of vinegar for 15 minutes. If you want a darker color, let the eggs soak in the hot wine after you remove them from heat.

Turmeric makes a gorgeous, gold egg. Add two tablespoons of turmeric and a few teaspoons of vinegar to water and boil eggs in the mix for 15 minutes.  Let soak after cooking for darker color.

Yellow onion skins make another shade of lovely gold. We added orangey shallot skins for the deep red tone. Save the papery parts of onion skins until you have about a cup. Put them in the boiling water with the eggs and a few teaspoons of vinegar.

Purple cabbage creates a soft blue or lavender. Boil the eggs with vinegar and chopped purple cabbage. Let the eggs soak in the cabbage skin water until cool for a more vibrant color.

For a green egg, take an egg boiled blue from purple cabbage and dip it in the turmeric water for a few minutes.

Grated, raw beets, boiled with the eggs and vinegar produce a lighter pink color.

Note: vinegar acts as a mordant, securing the dye to the egg shell. Don’t skip it.

How to Keep it Fun with Kids:

Kids have to be careful around boiling water, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take part in the fun of egg dyeing. Younger children can draw on eggs with crayons or oil pastels before the egg is boiled. Using a white crayon will create an egg-white design that remains on the egg because the dye won’t stick to the wax in the crayon. If the child is old enough they can help prepare or stir the mixtures with supervision. And of course they can help hide and hunt the eggs.