Simple Tomato Soup

Turning summer’s fresh fruit into a warm fall soup
As the first day of Autumn has come and gone, I’m knee-deep in garden cleanup, preparing it for the long winter months ahead. Before removing the tomato plants from the garden, I picked the last tomatoes—the kings of the summer garden—and was inspired to make them into a warming fall soup to chase away the chill of the autumn air.

This version of tomato soup that I’m offering retains the tomato’s fresh flavor and will remind you more of a summer gazpacho, but it’s a warm, milk-enriched version that, when paired with good bread and a green salad, will be the star of a fall evening meal.

I started by washing the tomatoes and cutting off the stems. Then, I puree them in the food processor with no scalding water or peeling involved. I took two green and one red bell pepper from the garden and two small onions and processed these into a separate puree.

I covered the bottom of a stockpot with good olive oil and allowed it to heat before adding the pepper and onion puree. I sauteed this mixture for about five to eight minutes, constantly stirring to avoid burning. I then added the tomato puree and allowed it to come to a boil and finished it by turning the heat back to a simmer for about 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, I added whole milk until the bright red color turned to a golden orange, reminiscent of the turning autumn leaves, and reheated without allowing it to come back to the boil. Salt and black pepper to taste was all the seasoning required.

Fresh tomatoes, peppers, and onions combined with minimal processing, and a short cooking time allows the fresh tomato flavor to shine through, and wholesome milk adds a richness that helps warm the body and soul.

I hope you enjoy this rustic dish as much as I did, and I look forward to hearing from you about your fall activities in both the kitchen and the garden.

Tips for Planning Your Garden

As I embarked on my early morning walk, leaning into the frigid January winds, I could not help wondering about an early spring and the hope of the new garden year. These thoughts of spring remained as I curled up by the kitchen fire to enjoy a warming cup of tea, thus inspiring me to begin the annual garden-planning process.

I want to share with you this process, and I look to you for your comments and suggestions in hopes that together we could learn from each other and improve our garden-planning activities. Also, I’m sharing with you some garden resources that I come back to time and time again in pursuit of the best the garden has to offer. Although I do not endeavor to provide the final word on this subject, I will outline here a few thoughts on garden planning as well as my personal best-practice activities.

Plant Just What You Need
I have found through experience that when I simplify my plan to just what I require from the annual harvest, I have better results. In the past, I have often overdone my plantings both in variety and quantity and found that maintaining such a large undertaking has been overwhelming. Within the recent past, I have begun my annual plan with a simple inventory of my pantry and root cellar to determine what crops I will need for my yearly canning and preserving activities. With this information at hand, I can calculate my needs, keeping in mind that these needs can include, at the root of a life well lived, gifting and sharing and trading with other gardeners. Next, we plan the garden layout.

Planning Your New Garden
An often overlooked but key garden-planning concept is determining what produce may be purchased from local market gardens and farms instead of growing the crop yourself. Take tomatoes, for example. Due to the limited size of my cottage garden, I do not have the space to grow the volume needed for canning and processing tomatoes. I would much rather use some of that space to grow one or two heirloom tomato varieties for the table and then purchase my processing tomatoes from a local grower. This practice not only allows additional space to produce vegetables and herbs that I find difficult to source from local growers but also supports the efforts of the local market garden and farm economy. Keep in mind that an entire self-sufficient food production lifestyle is beyond the reach of most of us, and to maintain a viable local farm and market garden economy means supporting them not only during summer’s “salad days” but throughout the growing season. One might even encourage local growers to embrace four-season production to benefit both us as consumers and them as producers, adding to their cash flow.

As I mentioned, outsourcing specific crops to local growers opens up space in your garden for selective herbs and vegetables, due to their care in cultivation, a limited market appeal, or your personal preference. An example is Florence fennel and leeks, as I have found fennel to be easy to grow but hard to find at the farmers market because many customers are unfamiliar with its use. Leeks, on the other hand, are becoming more common at the market, but specific varieties that overwinter or can be grown in the winter garden are difficult to find. These two examples are just a few of the many specialty crops I grow in the “found” space provided by purchasing instead of growing my production produce. This method enhances the variety both within my garden and, more importantly, on my table.

Uncommon Garden Areas
When planning your garden, consider uncommon areas such as in containers and within your landscaping. For example, using containers, both large and small, can help to free up space in your garden proper without sacrificing variety. Crops that lend themselves to containers are herbs of all types, tomatoes, perhaps bush or limited-vining cucumbers, and peppers. The edible landscaping concept encourages planting edible plants within the home’s landscape to provide both utility and pleasure. Also, you can plant fruit trees and shrubs in place of ornamentals, low-growing berries instead of ground covers (plant under trees, too), and traditional crops within the wasted spaces around shrubs and within borders. If you wish to explore this exciting gardening concept further, I encourage you to visit Edible Landscaping: The Basics and Plants To Get Started as a starting point for your explorations.

Seed Sources
With your initial planning completed, you will now need to source your seeds and plant materials and develop a planting timeline to support your harvest needs. I use a very simple process that lists all plantings during specific times of the year on a single notebook or legal pad page. I divide my page into early summer, late summer, fall, and, of course, as a winter gardener, I have a page for winter as well. I then consider the crop varieties that are best suited to my location, my space, and my growing requirements, and specific variety attributes that I may value such as storage, size, and flavor. Based on my resources, I will often jot notes beside specific crops concerning exact planting dates or perhaps the need for row cover to protect from both weather and pests. My next step is to draw a simple garden map that outlines what crops go where and what crops will replace outgoing plantings as the season progresses. And don’t forget about crop rotation to minimize pest and disease problems. Although this simple process works well for me, those of you who prefer a bit more complexity can explore garden planting templates that are available online or computer software that assists with the planning and garden-management process.

As for sourcing seeds and plant materials, I offer here a few of my favorite purveyors and a short list of reputable vendors. I hope my discussion has added to your early garden-planning process, and I look forward to hearing from each of you about your process and any tips or techniques that I may find useful.

Well, the fire requires some attention, and my daily list of chores awaits, so I wish each of you well as you focus on your garden endeavors and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Seed and Plant Material Vendors Used at Cow Hill Cottage:

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Territorial Seed Company

Seed Savers Exchange

Filaree Garlic Farm

Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds

R. H. Shumway’s

Reputable Seed and Plant Material Purveyors:

Fedco Seeds

Peaceful Valley Seeds

Seeds of Change

Uprising Seeds

Chiltern Seeds

Reflections and Winter Gardening

This summer, we’ve explored the satisfaction of simple but elegant cooking, preserving our seasonal bounty, and enjoying better quality, local-sourced food at a lesser cost. But there’s more: A life well lived is also a return to the lost art of simply creating. Before mass production, when living close to the earth was a given, people created out of necessity. Need a rug? Make one. Want food through the winter? Preserve it. But along with the work came a feeling of pride. I made this. I grew this. I canned this. And I’m happy I can share what I made with you. A good meal. A gift of canned goods.

A sense of community became essential, too. You grew that? I’ve grown this. Let’s get together to trade or barter or make a double batch. The Peasant Bon Vivant tours and workshops are helping to nurture this community by providing fellowship with friends or simply a fun day out or educational event in.

Through this blog, we hope you’ve tried new things, created what you’ve never created before, harvested new foods from your garden, bought fewer processed foods, and tried new recipes, and that you will want to meet like-minded friends. Friends who, like you, want more of a life well lived.

But let’s continue. Now that the eating-fresh season is over, how can we enjoy fresh, more nutritious flavors throughout the winter?

Winter Gardening
You may have noted my reference to the winter garden in prior blogs and social media posts, and many have inquired about this seemingly unrealistic concept. So, I thought I would explain in a little more detail this very simple but productive process and the types and varieties of plants I grow.

I have only recently discovered the potential of winter gardening and have been using these techniques over the past three years with varying degrees of success. My initial exposure and education came about through the works of Eliot Coleman, a Maine-based market gardener, and his two books Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. For those of you wishing to explore this subject in depth, I would recommend both.

To begin, cultivating and harvesting crops throughout winter has a long and established history in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, with its zenith reached during the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, market gardeners throughout Paris produced the lion’s share of the fresh produce required by the city by cultivating small one- to two-acre plots.

These ingenious urban farmers used many innovative techniques to maintain the food needs of Paris. They developed and refined many winter garden techniques that allowed for the provision of fresh, seasonal, and sustainable vegetables and salad greens throughout the entire year.

Coleman’s exploration of European winter gardens, both large and small, provided the foundation for his own four-season market gardening success, which he shares through his market garden farm located near the Maine coast and in his writing and appearances at many garden and farming symposiums and conferences.

When I began my exploration of this subject, I believed, wrongly, that the success of the winter garden was based on technology that would provide the climate of summer to my winter-based plantings. The actual method, though, is based on three specific areas. The first is the use of plant varieties that are cool- and cold-weather tolerant. Second, winter gardening is more about winter harvest than winter growth with the actual growth occurring throughout late summer and fall. Third, using late-season plantings to accelerate early-spring growth for an early-spring harvest. An additional concept is planting in succession to assure the continuous availability of product throughout fall, winter, and late spring.

In the gardens at Cow Hill Cottage, I focus on plantings that will provide to me salad greens throughout late fall and winter, and late-season plantings in support of early-spring production as well. This year, I have planted beds of lettuce and salad mix that I will cut and allow to regrow for a second harvest later in the season. Also, I have planted a few Asian greens called Bok Choy and Pac (or Pak) Choi, as well as small carrots, leeks, and various herbs, including cilantro, parsley, and winter thyme. I will be savoring these throughout the winter and early spring. I have also successfully grown a few greens that the average American gardener might not recognize but are traditional within the European garden culture. These include Mache (or Corn Salad, which is the ultimate cold-weather salad green) and Dandelion, a very common so-called weed known to many of us in Pennsylvania. Many forage the wild Dandelion greens every spring in support of our traditional spring tonic meal of greens, sweet and sour dressing, boiled and browned potatoes, and fried country ham.

The cold frame is the basis of winter gardening. One can consider, also, low and high tunnels along with the root cellar storage area. Because of space limitations, my endeavors are constrained to the cold frame, where I’m still able to produce a substantial and adequate harvest.

The cold frame is a basic bottomless box constructed, in my case, from rough-cut two-by-ten hemlock lumber. In the past, I have used the same hemlock to fashion my lids or lights, but this year I have invested in new covers constructed from PVC “lumber” that can be milled. This product provides a strong, lightweight, and long-lasting component that is the key to the success of the winter garden technology.

The other two requirements of cold frame gardening are watering appropriately and venting the cold frames when needed.

Plants in cold frames need moderate watering. The moderate temperatures of late fall and early spring drive increased water consumption requiring two to three watering per week. During the colder months of November through early March, water requirements are very small or nonexistent, with a light watering needed perhaps every four weeks or so.

Cold frames need to be vented when sun and outdoor temperatures begin to overheat the interiors of the frames. One can manually prop open each lid with a short pole during the warmest portion of the day and then close the lids each evening. I have opted to invest in automatic openers for each cover that are temperature-activated and use no electricity.

This year, I also intend to produce bedding plants in the cold frames to support next spring’s plantings to include cabbage and Brussel sprouts, although tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants continue to require indoor seed-starting techniques.

Overall, winter gardening has brought a new level of activity to my gardening endeavors and a much-appreciated harvest of fresh greens and vegetables to my table during the long, dark days of winter. I also find in winter gardening the satisfying life-well-lived activity of producing fresh food throughout the winter months.

Vegetable Gratin and Corn and Tomato Salad

The sound of rain woke me from my slumber this Labor Day morning, and as I had my breakfast on the porch to the soothing sound of rain, my thoughts turned to the garden. The showers of last evening and this morning will help nurture the garden throughout late summer and early fall, providing us with many more weeks of a bountiful harvest.

The Labor Day weekend has traditionally been thought of as the last of the summer season. But I believe that here in Pennsylvania and throughout the Mid-Atlantic region that the beginning of fall does not begin for a few more weeks. In fact, I consider the month of September a period of late summer with the gardens and markets continuing to offer up the quintessential garden treats that one associates with summertime itself. Tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, and peppers are abundant. And although not falling out of every farm stand and roadside wagon, sweet corn will be available throughout the next few weeks as well if one takes the time to search it out.

We humans like to define and relegate our lives within strict schedules and agendas. Although this approach supports our busy lives and careers, it is not the perspective of the natural world. Nature, on the other hand, has a more casual approach to the rhythmic and seasonal passage of time. And if one can integrate their modern lives into this natural progression, I would expect one will find a certain fulfillment and enhanced level of peace within this journey we call life. A simple life well lived is based on this rhythmic passage of time. So, I would suggest not to rush it, but to enjoy what the late summer season has to offer.

Below you will find two great recipes to help you enjoy the late summer seasonal bounty. The first is a very French-style Rustic Gratin that will allow you to enjoy the full seasonal flavors of summer and fall. Also, a Summer Corn and Tomato Salad, adapted from Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, features sweet corn and sun-ripened tomatoes dressed with a simple vinaigrette that allows the true flavor of these simple garden ingredients to shine.

I hope you enjoy both, and let me know which is your favorite. I hope that you and yours will join me as I savor these last few weeks of summer, the warm days and cool nights, and the best of summer flavors as we look forward to the cool days of fall and the upcoming holidays that define the year’s end.

Rustic Vegetable Gratin

This recipe is one that outlines a simple process and allows for flexibility within the context of ingredients. Please feel free to use any or all the following suggested ingredients that you may have on hand, although I believe fresh tomatoes and onions are a must.


Sun-ripened tomatoes


Summer Squash

Onions (White, Yellow, or Red)

Garlic (Rustic Chopped)

Fresh Seasonal Herbs (Parsley and Basil are particularly good)

A Good Quality Cheese or Two

Salt and Black Pepper


Slice all vegetable approximately a quarter inch in thickness.

Butter a baking dish and, starting with onions, alternate layers of vegetables with layers of cheese, and remember to season each layer with salt, pepper, garlic, and herbs. Finish with a thick layer of cheese.

Bake covered in a 350-degree oven until a knife will easily slide through the layers, and then uncover and continue to bake until the top is golden brown and the gratin is bubbling.

Allow to rest for approximately 20 minutes before serving.

This gratin, served with good wine and perhaps some fresh seasonal fruits, makes the perfect summer meal.

Corn and Tomato Salad


6 Shucked Ears of Sweet Corn

¾ Cup Small Dice Red Onion

1 Cup Cherry Tomato’s Halves

¾ Cup Chiffonade (Thinly Sliced) Fresh Basil


½ Cup Cider Vinegar

½ Cup Olive Oil

1 Tablespoon Salt

1 Tablespoon Black Peppers

Cook the corn until tender. Cool, and cut the kernels from the cob.

Toss the corn, tomatoes, onions, and basil.

Wisk the dressing ingredients together, and dress the salad 15 minutes prior to serving.

Simple Seasonal Pasta—A Non-recipe

Simplicity is often the key to perfect satisfaction, and without a doubt, a simple pasta toss of seasonal vegetables prepared with a light hand is a simple delight.

Sunday evening, while taking a late stroll through the garden at Cow Hill Cottage, I found the first sugar peas of the season hanging thick on the vine. These sweet jewels of early summer, combined with the last of the spring asparagus, was all that I needed for a perfect Sunday supper.

No recipe is required; I chopped the asparagus into bite-size bits and threw the peas and asparagus into a pan for a quick sauté in olive oil until just soft but with a slight bite remaining (al dente). Into the sauté pan I added the pasta directly from the boiling pot, al dente as well, and combined the mixture with copious amounts of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, a large knob of butter, and, of course, salt and pepper.

As I sat on the porch enjoying my meal and the early summer evening, I could only reflect on how the very best of life often can be found within the context of simplicity—like a seasonal pasta in a life well lived.

What simple, tasty pasta dishes have you thrown together lately?

Rhubarb—Rooted in History, Sweetened with Sugar

This past week I spent a good amount of time traveling the byways of Central Pennsylvania as I enjoyed a week of vacation in pursuit of one of my many interests—fly fishing.

I fished a few days in the northern tier of the Commonwealth on the Pine Creek and its tributaries, Slate Run, Little Pine, and Cedar Run. During the latter part of the week, Scott Bubb, the Winemaker at Seven Mountains Wine Cellars, and I whiled away the warm spring days fishing the famous Penns Creek.

Throughout my travels to and from various fishing locations, I could not but notice the proliferation of rhubarb tucked at the edge of almost every garden that I passed. In fact, I would venture to guess that rhubarb may be one of the most popular garden plants in Pennsylvania. I myself have a large plot of it in the corner of the kitchen garden at Cow Hill Cottage.

Rhubarb has a storied history. It’s an actual lesson in human history itself within the context of mythology, natural healing, and culinary culture. First documented as a medicinal plant in China as early as 2700 BC with the root used as a laxative, it traveled via the silk road into Europe and eventually to the British Isles. Also, one cannot exclude from this discussion the view of the early Persian Culture that the human race itself sprung from the lowly rhubarb seed.

From a culinary point of view, rhubarb has a long tradition of being the basis for many a sweet dish, with Strawberry Rhubarb Pie and Stewed Rhubarb being two of the most common. But from an Eastern European point of view, it was often paired with meats and other savory dishes. In fact, the tradition of its use in sweet desserts is so ingrained in the American culture that the United States changed rhubarb’s classification from a vegetable to a fruit in the late 1940s.

At Stonefly Café, we feature local rhubarb as a unique wine produced by Seven Mountains Wine Cellars, and it’s the basis for our Rhubarb House Churned Ice Cream and Rhubarb Cream Brulé.

For those of you who want to add this storied perennial to your garden, I give you the following basic cultivation and harvest tips:

What to plant. Choose a variety that suits your climate. Ask a knowledgeable person at your local garden center or greenhouse for the best local varieties. Or, follow the long-held tradition of sharing planting materials, and ask a neighbor or fellow gardener to allow you to have a start from their plot.

When to plant. You can plant rhubarb crowns in early spring or in the fall when the roots are dormant.

Where to plant. Rhubarb grows best in climates where the ground freezes during the winter. It likes full sun and well-drained soil. Allow adequate room when planting as rhubarb plants can measure up to 4 feet wide and tall.

How to plant. Prepare a large hole, about the size of a bushel basket, and fill almost to the top with rich compost or rotted manure. Place the crown in the center and cover with 1 to 2 inches of manure and compost. Mulch with 2 inches thick of straw, compost, or shredded bark.

How to maintain. Give the plants lots of water, as this is key to producing tender stalks. Apply a generous layer of manure around the plants annually to assure a bountiful harvest, and maintain a good mulch around the base. Dig and split the rhubarb roots every five or so years while the plants are dormant in early spring or fall.

How to harvest. Give rhubarb one growing season to establish, and then begin harvesting in the second year. Once the stalks are 12 to 18 inches long, cut at the base. Leave at least half the stalks on the plant each time so they continue to add growth. The typical harvest period is 8 to 10 weeks from April through June.

My favorite rhubarb cake recipe follows, along with several tempting toppings. What’s your favorite rhubarb recipe?

Rhubarb Cake


2 tsp Soft Butter

1 Cup Sugar

1 Egg

2 Cup Flour

1 tsp Baking Powder

½ tsp Baking Soda

½ tsp Salt

1 Cup Buttermilk

2 Cup Rough Chop Rhubarb

Streusel Topping:

¼ Cup Flour

¼  Cup Sugar

2 tbsp Melted Butter

Vanilla Sauce:

½ Cup Butter

¾ Cup Sugar

½ Cup Evaporated Milk

1 tsp Vanilla Extract

Method, Cake:
Cream Butter and Sugar

Beat in the Egg

Add remainder of dry cake ingredients

Add the Buttermilk

Fold in the chopped Rhubarb

Fill a well-greased 9-inch square cake pan.

Method, Streusel:
Combine streusel topping ingredients and sprinkle over cake batter in pan.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 40 to 45 minutes.

Method, Vanilla Sauce:
Combine the Butter, Sugar, and Evaporated Milk and bring to a boil, cooking and stirring 2 to 3 minutes until thick.

Remove from heat and stir in the Vanilla Extract.

Serve cake with Vanilla Sauce on the side.

Spring Tonic Season Dandelion, Nettle, and Burdock

The rhythms of the natural world serve as our constant companions throughout this journey we call life. When living a simple lifestyle, immersed within the meter of the seasons, we often find this essential connection to our natural world more poignant when experiencing spring’s renewal process.

An essential element of this seasonal renewal is the spring tonic.

I have asked my neighbor and friend Sue Burns to share with us her knowledge of the herbal and natural healing world. I find Sue’s perspective on herbal, holistic, and natural health to be firmly based within a context of thoughtful consideration and practical advice.

As an introduction, Sue’s bio follows, and I hope that you will enjoy her insight into the seasonal rituals of the spring tonic as much as I have.

Sue is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant and Certified Holistic Health Educator. She holds degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Clayton College of Natural Health, and Hawthorn University. Through the Mt. Nittany Institute of Natural Health, she participated in an herbal studies program under the direction of Jennifer Tucker. For seven years, she was the Nutrition Educator for Curves Fitness Center in Mifflin and Juniata Counties, facilitating weight management classes and healthy living workshops. Before retiring, Sue offered holistic nutrition consultations and classes via her business, Nourishing Journeys. In addition to her family and friends, the joys in her life include cooking, reading, and travel. She lives in Reedsville with her husband Rich. They have two grown daughters and three grandchildren.

Spring Tonic Season Dandelion, Nettle, and Burdock, OH MY!

The spring-cleaning bug bit me recently. In response, I began purging post-dated items from our food pantry, a chore with no reward except the smug assurance that our spices are now arranged in alphabetical order and that five-year-old sleeve of crackers from a Christmas gift basket no longer litters a shelf.

In my haste of wanting to finish this mundane task, I knocked a small rectangular box to my feet. Ah, yes, I smiled, looking at its contents. This was surely a message from Mother Nature and her emerging spring season, for within the container was dandelion root tea! The perfect spring elixir to chase away my sluggish cabin fever. It was time to put the kettle on.

As I was sipping and savoring the earthy blend, I recalled fond memories of early spring days many years ago. My grandfather lovingly tended a large, organic vegetable garden long before it was trendy to do so. The first greens to emerge from the corners of the lawn and between the rows of onions and peas were tender dandelion leaves. Some gardeners call them weeds, but my grandfather called them “delectable.” He taught me how to harvest the delicate leaves carefully. I would then tote them into their kitchen and, with the help of my grandmother, proudly serve them as the “spring tonic” that she touted was “good for what ailed you.”

Turns out, my grandmother was right.

Many years following my dandelion-plucking days, I found myself once again foraging for “spring tonic” herbs while part of a class of novice wild crafters expertly guided by herbalist Jennifer Tucker. This time, we were on an expedition for not only dandelion but also nettle and burdock. Jennifer explained that the pesky weeds of nettle, burdock, and dandelion are actually powerful, detoxifying herbs. Concentrated in both their leaves and roots are high levels of healing nutrients. Oh my!

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

In addition to giving our energy level a boost and restoring our immune system for overall health, dandelion can reduce blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Dandelion wards off inflammation while its root gives our liver a much-needed spring cleaning.

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

I learned the hard way to identify nettle. Although its leaves resemble plants in the mint family, its telltale sting is not forgotten; thus, wear gloves when harvesting. While its leaves are harsh, the healing benefits from this herb are nothing but soothing. It is nettle I reach for when feeling run down or a bit frazzled. Due to seasonal allergies, the month of August is bearable for me only because nettle is my daily companion. I also depend on its anti-inflammatory properties to help with the aches of arthritis. Traditionally, nettle’s key uses are that of a detoxifying and cleansing herb, and it combines nicely with burdock and dandelion as well.

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

According to medical herbalist Andrew Chevallier, “burdock is one of the foremost detoxifying herbs in both Western and Chinese herbal medicine.” Similar to dandelion, burdock also has anti-inflammatory properties. It also cleanses the liver, gall bladder, blood, and kidneys. Burdock is a great lymphatic and adrenal gland stimulator. With a tuned-up lymph system, we build a stronger immunity. Burdock is a great defense against chronic urinary tract infections and kidney stones and has antibiotic and antifungal properties. Rarely is burdock used on its own. Often it is combined with other herbs, such as dandelion, to balance its strong cleansing actions.

Obtaining the herbs

If you are feeling confident and are seeking an adventure in the flora and fauna of your area, you can forage for spring tonic herbs. Both the leaves and roots can be used, making these plants very versatile. For details of harvesting and preparing, check out the resources of Rosemary Gladstar and Susun Weed for step-by-step advice. 

However, if you want the benefits of these herbs without the digging, you can easily access these herbs at your local health food store or online. For the most part, they will come in the form of teas or dried herbs. Tinctures are great and readily available, too. I find them to be a quick and easy formulary for getting your tonic “on the run.” In addition to decoctions, tinctures, and teas, and except for fresh nettle leaves, the herbs mentioned in this article can be eaten fresh as a side dish or in smoothies and soups. Fresh nettle leaves must be cooked first to remove the “sting.” It is also important to harvest your herbs from areas free from chemicals and pesticides.

Here are some retail sources that I like for spring tonic herbs:

Once you have your herbs, it is time to steep a comforting and healing brew. Here’s how:

Spring Tonic Tea

1 Tablespoon each of:

Burdock Root

Dandelion Root

Dandelion Leaves

Nettle Leaves

Red Clover Blossoms (optional)

Begin making a decoction by placing the burdock and dandelion roots in a saucepan; add one quart of water; bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the herbs from the liquid.

Place the fresh dandelion leaves, nettle leaves, and red clover blossoms into a quart jar.

Pour the strained hot root decoction over the fresh herbs and steep for 30 to 60 minutes. The longer it steeps, the stronger the tea. Enjoy hot, at room temperature, or iced. This is also delicious blended with fruit juices.

Follow grandma’s wisdom, spring means more than a time to clean out our pantries. It is also time to put the kettle on and “come clean” from the inside out.

Another bit of wisdom: It is wise to consult your health care provider before using herbal supplements. Be especially cautious if you are taking prescription medication as there may be side effects.

Early-Garden Thoughts

The garden sat gray and glum throughout much of March, although Mother Nature would, from time to time, allow us a brief glimpse of the promise of springtime’s rebirth. With these fleeting moments aside, the reality remained, and blustery, damp, cold weather was the burden we endured.

Now that April is here and the warming days harken us into the garden, we look forward to the age-old process of renewal, underscored by the promise that each seed we sow will come to a fruitful harvest, a faith that is shared by all who till the soil.

Within my own garden, I have gotten an early start with the help of a few hired hands to assist with pruning and trimming the hedge and shrubs, cleaning up the flower and herb beds, and applying wood mulch to keep the weeds at bay throughout the coming season.

I also have had much success this past year with the winter garden in the cold frames, which are filled with spinach, mache, leaf lettuce, kale, and a few heads of romaine that have provided me with fresh greens throughout the darkest days of winter.

I base my winter garden on the Parisian market gardens of the 1800s that provided a varied and sustainable supply of fresh vegetables to the residents of Paris through the four seasons of the year. The success of these early urban gardeners was based on the cultivation of one- to two-acre farms within the city limits and was driven by an interesting relationship—the gardeners would return from the weekly markets with their carts and wagons filled with horse dung. This dung, a product of the city’s transportation system of the time, not only provided for enhanced soil fertility but heated the hotbeds that were used to grow vegetables throughout the coldest times of the year. For those of you who are interested in this subject, I would suggest you turn to Author Eliot Coleman here in the United States, a well-known expert on the subject.

In addition to spring cleanup within the garden itself, I am tidying up the potting bench on the back screened-in porch. This involves both maintaining the tools and cleaning the pots and planters. I find that a good wash with a stiff scrub brush, along with hot soapy water and perhaps a drop or two of chlorine laundry bleach, brings the clay pots and ceramic planters back to life while providing a clean start to this year’s planting activity. Clay pots that are cracked or broken I smash into quarter to half-dollar sized pieces and keep on the bench to place in the bottom of pots and planters to promote good drainage before adding soil mix.

When it comes to tools, a good scrub is a great place to start before sharpening the digging and pruning tools. The cutting edge of hoes, shovels, and spades can be sharpened with a flat file while pruning shears and loopers will require a water or oil stone to provide you with a razor edge. All metal tool parts should be oiled with a light machine oil or even WD40 after cleaning and sharpening, and wooden handles require a good coat of boiled linseed oil to maintain a lifetime of hard garden use. Please remember a note of caution when using linseed oil, as rags saturated with this oil can spontaneously combust and start a fire when stored or disposed of without a thorough soaking in water.

With the preseason work completed at the potting bench, I have just one more large chore to do before the start of the planting season and that is spring-cleaning the garage that serves me as both workshop and garden shed. I will leave that for a future post and let you get back to your own garden preparations. Although before I go, let us consider the following quote from one of this country’s founding fathers.

No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.
Thomas Jefferson