Author Archives: Abi

Distinguishing Elderberry from Silky and Redosier Dogwood

The following is a “guest” post from my hubby- the guy who really knows his plants around here. We recently thought we spotted elderberries at a friend’s house- but Tim’s discerning eye second guessed our initial identification. Read on to find out how to distinguish these two look-alike plants from each other. 

Elderberry or Dogwood

Elderberries are ripening this time of year where we live, so if you have any interest in harvesting these berries, it is as good a time as ever to nail down your elderberry identification skills. Black Elderberry (sambucus nigra) shrubs are pretty distinctive, but if you are not paying close attention to what you are seeing, mistaking other plants for them is not impossible. At certain stages of development, a couple plants in particular appear the closest of all to Elderberry: the Silky Dogwood (cornus amomum) and the Redosier (Red Osier) Dogwood (cornus sericea). To complicate the trouble of precisely identifying Redosier Dogwood in contrast to the Silky Dogwood, Redosier is a variable species, which essentially means that its morphology is not always the same–different specimens can look different from each other. For our purposes, though, that is not very important; we are trying to distinguish the Dogwoods from Elderberry, not so much from each other.

If you take the time to google “elderberry look-alikes,” your search results will likely include references to Water Hemlock and Pokeberry–the former deathly poisonous and the latter arguably poisonous if used improperly. Aside from the risk-factor of mistaking those plants for Elderberry (which has its own share of toxicity-risks), there is almost no reason to fear mistaking Water Hemlock or Pokeberry for Elderberry. Those two plants are markedly different from Elderberry in fairly obvious ways–I won’t go into them in detail now, but suffice it to say, when identifying a plant, don’t hinge your identification on only one feature (e.g. berries, drupes or flowers growing in cyme patterns). Pay attention to the overall habit of the plant–the location, the time, duration, and color of the flowers (if any), whether it is woody or herbaceous, the pattern and color of the bark, a general sampling of the leaves–opposite, alternate, whorled–from many parts of the plant, the shape, margins, and vein structure of the leaves, the characteristics of the fruit, etc. If you observe carefully and thoroughly, and especially if you begin to learn the vocabulary of kingdom Plantae and attach deeper meaning to your sensory experience of these objects, you will gradually become more accurate in plant identification.

Having said that, let’s return to the Silky Dogwood. Here’s a close-up of its lovely flower cyme (that’s the name of that cluster pattern):

File:Cornus amomum - Silky Dogwood.jpg

(Photo Credit)

And here’s the Redosier Dogwood:

                                                          (Photo Credit)

  For comparison, here is the Black Elderberry bloom:

File:Sambucus nigra - Black Elderberry 2.jpg

(Photo Credit)

Certainly these flower clusters look similar. But that is not the only similarity they share (I’ll get to the differences in a moment). They both tend to grow in wet locations–though both are very tolerant plants–so you may even find them growing together (as we did recently).

The main thing that makes these Dogwoods more likely candidates for elderberry confusion than other look-alikes like Pokeberry and Water Hemlock is the fact that they too are shrubs of very similar proportions (from 6-10′ high) to elderberry.  Look at the Silky Dogwood for example:

                                                (Photo Credit)

And here, the Black Elderberry:

                                                                 (Photo Credit)

Clearly there are differences between them, but at least we are dealing with similar types of plants. The most conspicuous distinguishing features between these Dogwoods and the Elderberry, however, are in the leaves and the fruits. Elderberry leaves are compound. Silky Dogwood and Redosier Dogwood leaves are simple. Elderberry leaf margins are toothed. The dogwood leaves are smooth.  Study the following images to note the differences between the Elderberry leaf on the left and the Redosier Dogwood leaves on the right:

 IMG_20150806_191657605_HDRObserve also the following drawings of the Dogwoods and Elderberry courtesy of the USDA Plant Profiles.

Silky Dogwood (cornus amomum):

Large Line Drawing of Cornus amomum

(Image Credit)

Redosier Dogwood (cornus sericea):

Large Line Drawing of Cornus sericea

(Image Credit)

And finally, Black Elderberry (sambucus nigra):

Large Line Drawing of Sambucus nigra

(Image Credit)

Let’s turn to the berries and drupes. Note first the density and size of the cymes in both dogwoods as compared to the elderberry. The dogwoods’ cymes are smaller and less dense than the elderberry’s  (obviously the presence of berries or drupes will depend on fertilization), but the dogwoods’ drupes are larger than elderberries. Also be aware of the color of the fruit (this is one of the best ways to discern whether you’re dealing with a silky or redosier, too). At least where we live, elderberries ripen to a rich deep purple well before the silky or redosier fruits ripen. Thus, if you see ripe elderberries side by side with a dogwood, you should see that the dogwood fruits are still green. Observe the following photo; Redosier in the foreground, Elderberry in the background (just a few of the elderberries are starting to turn purple):

IMG_20150806_191552894Finally, a note about the color of the dogwood fruit: Redosier fruit turns whitish when ripe while Silky Dogwood’s is blueish. See the following images.

Silky Dogwood:

(Photo Credit)

Redosier Dogwood:

(Photo Credit)

And finally, just for contrast, Black Elderberry:

(Photo Credit)

So, to recap, pay close attention to these distinguishing features:

Leaves Leaf Margins Fruit Color when Ripe Time of ripening
Sambucus Nigra Compound Toothed Deep Purple Late July–September
Cornus Amomum Simple Smooth Blue Around September
Cornus Sericea Simple Smooth White After September

I hope at least some of this information is helpful. Do remember–if you are not sure what a plant is, first work hard to figure it out (because maybe you’ll learn something new). If you can’t figure it out with reasonable confidence, then don’t eat it for now–you’ll probably get another opportunity in the future!

Roofing Our Chicken Villa

This shop has been compensated by Collective Bias, Inc. and its advertiser. All opinions are mine alone. #roofeditmyself #CollectiveBias

Spring always puts a literal spring in my step. After all, the season is filled with so much life and vibrancy. Spring means new flowers, garden planting, baby chicks, and extended hours outdoors. For our family, it also means planning for summer projects.

If you’ve been following along with us, you know that our first major project has been building the chickens an upgraded home. The new digs is a spacious open-air coop that just might be nicer than my bedroom. Our chicken villa will accommodate many more birds than our previous one, provide access to the neighboring field for free-ranging, and give us space to keep the feed in-house.

The kids have been our quality control supervisors, carefully monitoring each step of the way through the spring rains and summer heat.

You can read about the actual building of the structure itself here.

Finally, after all the building, it was roofing time! We used the following GAF roofing supplies for this project:

We also used some standard supplies: galvanized steel roofing nails, round plastic cap roofing nails, a hammer, tape measure, etc.

We took the kids for a family trip to Lowe’s to purchase our supplies. We were able to find the roofing aisle relatively quickly even with the tornado of kids around our feet.

(The big roofing display where you can check out shingle styles and colors.)

(The baby who wanted to get into everything.)

(The kids who really wanted to ride the forklift.)

(The girl who thought this was her own personal hide-out.)

(Thankfully, the aisle survived our clan’s whirlwind.)

Timberline® shingles look really great and are very durable. Bonus: when you install any GAF lifetime single and three qualifying GAF accessories, you automatically get a lifetime ltd. warranty on your shingles and all qualifying accessories, plus non-prorated coverage for the first 10 years. You can read more on GAF’s warranty here.

While these shingles are generally thought of as a professional contractor’s product, they are definitely usable by your average DIY-er. As you may remember, Tim (my attractive husband and blog contributor) is far more experienced with home building projects than I am. However, after watching him complete this roof, it seemed like a very doable project- even if you’ve never roofed before.

At this point, I’m going to let Tim describe the roofing process in more detail for you. *Hands mic to husband.* 

The first thing I had to do was determine the number of bundles I would need for roofing our villa. The area of a roof is measured in “squares,” which are equivalent to 100 square feet. Each square requires three typical shingle bundles.

Calculating the area of the roof surface is fairly basic geometry for a simple gable roof like this. You calculate the area of one side of the roof (a rectangle’s area = Length x Width), then calculate the area of the other side of the roof, and add the products together. In our case, the roof surface came out to be 96 square feet, or just under one square. So we needed three bundles of Timberline® Natural Shadow® shingles. We went with “Pewter Gray.”

I also needed to account for the starter course of shingles and the ridge cap. This is simply determined by figuring out the lineal footage of the bottom edges of the roof and the ridge, respectively. Once those figures are known you compare them with the lineal footage of shingle product contained in each bundle. A bundle of three-tab shingles typically contains 35 lineal feet. And a bundle of TimberTex® covers about 20 lineal feet. Given our roof dimensions, we needed one bundle of each.

In addition, one roll of FeltBuster® was more than adequate for our villa. A few lengths of drip edge was all we needed to complete our roofing design.

The drip edge along the eave edges of the roof was the first to go down.

This allows any water that could get to the underlayment surface to shed over the fascia board. If this drip edge were absent there could be more potential for water to damage the fascia board over time.

Next, the FeltBuster® went down over the entire roof surface. We placed the first strip down parallel with the eave edge of the roof and over the top of the drip edge we first attached and fastened it with plastic-capped nails.

We did so on each side of the roof and needed one more strip to go over the ridge. Since our coop will be partially open and since we will retain open vents at the soffits, we did not include a ridge vent in our roof. The strip of FeltBuster® that ran down the center of the ridge was able to overlap the other strips by at least 18 inches, which was more than adequate to ensure proper coverage.

By the way, I was sincerely impressed with how durable this stuff was. I’ve only used tar paper in the past, and by comparison this underlayment was in a league all its own.

After the underlayment was properly fastened, I attached the drip edge along the gable ends of the roof over the top of the FeltBuster®. This allows any water that could get in along the gable ends to go on top of the underlayment and shed off the roof.

Finally, it was time to get the starter course down. If our roof was bigger I would have gone with GAF’s Pro-Start™ Eave/Rake Starter Strip Shingles for the ease of use and time savings. But, as it turned out, I decided to use the Royal Sovereign® three-tab method. This involves cutting off the tabs from the shingle to make a starter strip. (Using Pro-Start™ avoids this step and is just more fool-proof.)

I cut off the tabs of enough shingles to make a starter course along the eave edges, and enough to run along the gable ends, too.

To ensure that no seams lined up in the same place, I cut six inches off the first starter shingle.

I installed the three-tab-turned-starter-strip along the roof edges, taking care to have the tar end up nearest the roof edge, and the strip overhang the drip edge by roughly 1/4″. This will allow the water to shed away from the fascia.


Putting the starter along the gables was not necessary, but I found out that many roofers prefer to use them along gables as added protection–so I gave it a try.

At this point, it was time to prepare the Timberline® shingles for installation. It is important to stagger each course of shingles so seams don’t align. I applied the following pattern:

  • Row 1: start with a full shingle
  • Row 2: cut 6″ off the first shingle
  • Row 3: cut 11″ off the first shingle
  • Row 4: cut 17″ off the first shingle

I used a framing square to get a nice, straight cut–and scored it deep, or cut it all the way through to avoid a ragged cut.

I installed the first shingle of each row up to the point where I had to repeat the pattern. This is what it looked like:

Since improper nailing is one of the primary causes of roof failure, it is important that you nail the shingles in the right place. GAF made it pretty simple by including a fairly conspicuous orange line along the face of the shingle delineating the place the four evenly-spaced nails should be driven. I followed that guide. 

Now i just continued straight across the roof, cutting a shingle to fit in the final place of each course as needed.

When I reached the peak of the roof, I allowed the shingle to hang over the top of the ridge.

One side is finished here. You can see that the ridge shingles are not yet installed. At this point I roofed the other side in the same way I roofed this side.

I at last reached the TimberTex® ridge shingle phase. They came perforated, making it easy to divide them into the size I needed.

These went up on the ridge really quickly and easily, and they are nearly twice as thick as even a typical architectural shingle–very durable.

I had to pause at the last ridge shingle to figure out how i was to attach it, but I was soon reminded that a little roofing cement would do the trick:

When it was all said and done, this is how the roof turned out:

Now, the chicken villa is not yet complete, but it is nearly there. The roof was a huge and satisfying accomplishment and it really looks great–way better than our house roof! We may just have to board with the chickens for a time…under one roof.

Come back soon to see the villa painted, chicken wired, and (hopefully) beautified! For more roofing inspiration, check out these cool projects. Be sure to visit GAF on Facebook or their website!

Have you ever roofed your own structure? What summer projects are you working on?

Building a New Coop!

In the early spring, we sent off several of our eggs to a homeschooling family for use in a science project. The kids wanted to compare and record the hatch rate between different chicken breeds. So, they purchased an inexpensive incubator and mothered the eggs diligently for several weeks.

Since chicken keeping is not allowed in their municipality, it wasn’t long before thirteen chicks were sent back to us. Seven of the chicks were our own hens’ progeny; six were purchases from tractor supply after the first batch of eggs failed.

The arrangement worked out nicely for us because we had already wanted to expand our flock. However, more chickens come with implications: more poop, more feed, and, as we will address here, more space needs.

So, plans went in the works to build a new coop that would meet these needs. It would be an open-air coop that would provide more ventilation and access to the neighboring field for free-ranging. (Read: less poop on our porch, less smelly coop, and a reduced feed bill.) It also would be considerably larger than our last coop, easier to clean, and would provide an in-house location to store feed.

When we first got chickens, we inherited an old coop from friends. However, It was large and needed many repairs. My husband, Tim, took it apart and used portions of it to rebuild our first small coop. One portion of the original coop that remained fairly strong and intact, however, was a 6′ x12′ wooden platform that we decided to use as the base to our new coop.

Multiple plans, several pieces of crumpled up graph paper, and a few hardware store trips later, we were ready to begin.

First, we addressed the old base. Tim leveled it and removed and replaced rotting plywood. He also patched any parts of the wood frame that needed it. Then we stained the whole thing for weather-resistance.

(Our little helpers!)

Next, Tim built four walls and a partition wall to frame the coop. This was the part where I said a lot of “yes, that sounds good” and held up the walls while he nailed them into the base. I may not have much building knowledge, but I’m good at holding things up.

Next came the rafters, ridge board, and corner braces. The coop was starting to look like a legitimate small building. A real chicken hotel. My brother in law affectionately told me would could Air BNB it in the DC metro area.

Chicken palace in progress. . . . . #DIY #backyardchickens #chickencoop

A post shared by Abigail Zieger (@theyrenotourgoats) on

Since this is intended as an open-air coop, only a portion of it will be enclosed. The closed portion will hold chicken feed, cleaning supplies, bedding, etc. For this part, we chose to side it with Smartside siding. It was less expensive and more durable than the T1-11 we were originally going to use.

Finally, it was time to prep the coop for roofing. Tim put up plywood sheathing and trim boards, covered the gable ends with plywood, and installed a drip edge.

Now we are all ready for roofing & finishing! Come back next week for a post on the roofing process, and then soon after for all the finishing touches. I can hardly wait to move to move these birds into their new home!





The Craft of Herbal Fermentation: A Course Review

Foraging for plants in your neighborhood. Fermentation and bubbling jars. Homemade concoctions and kitchen experiments. Community. Joy! Can the combination get any better?

I received a free copy of the Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links. 

If you’ve been reading for the past few months, you may know that I was gradually working my way through the Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course from Herbal Academy. Today, I wanted to follow up on my previous posts and sum up my experience with the course.

If you’re looking for the conclusion before you read the review, this is it: it’s FABULOUS. The course was super fun, educational, engaging, inspiring, chock full of information, and bursting with possibilities.

The Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course by Herbal Academy

What You’ll Learn Through the Course

I’ve been fermenting various things for over a year now, so I’ll be honest- I was wondering how much I would learn by taking the course. As it turns out, I discovered there’s lots I don’t know about fermentation- particularly in relation to herbal ferments.

Here’s what you’ll learn to make through the Herbal Fermentation Course:

  • Herbal beer
  • Herbal wine
  • Herbal mead
  • Herbal kombucha
  • Herbal water kefir
  • Herbal lacto-fermented vegetables

These items are covered in four main units. Each unit includes both written & video lessons that cover every possible question you could have about how to make a particular fermented food or beverage. These lessons will cover topics such as:

  • History and/or cultural significance of the food or beverage
  • List of necessary (and unnecessary) supplies
  • Basic instructions for preparation
  • Video and/or pictorial instructions for visual learners
  • Printable reference charts
  • Specific recipes & guidelines for experimentation
  • Storage needs and/or bottling instructions
  • Safety guidelines
  • FAQs & answers

Pouring yeast into our wildflower mead mixture.

Attention to Detail 

I love the Herbal Fermentation Course’s approach to detail. All lessons include precise information such as a plant’s scientific name, the full name of bacteria strains, or the special title for a particular style of mead. The terms are specific so that you can pursue accurate foraging and fermenting endeavors. The detailed information is also a great starting point for further and deeper research.

What if all that detail seems overwhelmming? Don’t worry. Some of us- myself included- have no idea what the Latin name for such and such a plant is and feel hopelessly unable to remember it. Be assured that the information in the course is presented in such a non-intimidating way that you can easily learn all that you need to know without prior botanical or bacterial knowledge.

The Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course by Herbal Academy

Qualified & Inspiring Teachers

The teachers in each course unit are experienced, qualified, and spirited. From ethnobiology to acupuncture, all are well-studied teachers with multiple backgrounds, credentials, and learning experiences behind their names.

Each teacher brings his or her own unique personality and fervor to the course material. Listening to each instructor feels like getting to know a friend just as much as it feels like learning. The Herbal Academy says this about its team of instructors:

“We offer high quality, affordable herbal studies programs to empower our students, and celebrate the community- centered spirit of herbalism by collaborating with a wide diversity of herbalists to create an herbal school that presents many herbal traditions and points of view. ” (Read more here.)

Gorgeous & Practical Course Materials 

The course itself is very visually appealing to anyone who loves plants or fermentation. The videography is tasteful and the photos are beautiful. While you must complete the course within a certain amount of time, the materials are downloadable and printable so you can keep them forever. Additionally, you can choose to upgrade your course purchase to include laminated recipes and charts delivered to your home.


The Craft of Herbal Fermentation course is beautiful, informative, inspiring, and enabling. it took me from “that sounds intimidating” to “I can do this!” In fact, I have now successfully made several kinds of herbal ferments that I have never tried making before.

I highly recommend the course to anyone interested in herbs, foraging, fermenting, probiotic health, or just becoming more engaged with the natural world around them. The Herbal Fermentation course show us just how rich with possibilities each edible plant can be, and helps us to infuse not only our plants, but also our lives with the goodness of creation’s bounty.

Click here to learn more about the Craft of Herbal Fermentation.

The Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course by Herbal Academy

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Character Lessons from the Homestead

When we bought our house, I had dreamy visions of gardening, egg-collecting, and happily tending to our chores as a family. It will be perfect, I said. We will homeschool and homestead and my children will learn how to live a nature-filled life that carries the perfect balance of freedom and self-discipline. 

As you may imagine, it isn’t always as dreamy as I had originally hoped.

Reality: My sink runneth over and so does the poop. I change diapers and clean coops.  The rabbits escape and we have to choose whether we should chase the bunnies or the babies. Decisions, decisions.

I was lamenting the truths of our less-than-ideal scenario to my sister-in-law, and wished aloud, “I just hope the kids get something out of all this.”

“Isn’t that how all parenting is?” she replied.

The revelation struck me. I really want to see character development in my kids, especially in relation to all of our homestead efforts. But I must remember that most character development doesn’t happen overnight, or even over months or years. It’s the nitty gritty, day-to-day stuff that forms a person.

How important it is that I don’t give up too quickly.

I hope all of this helps to teach the kids…

Patience. You have to wait for the fish to bite. A garden takes time to grow, and harvesting must be done when the food is good and ready. Building or repairing an outbuilding can go on for months. The work of a mini-farm takes time, both in daily work and in long seasonal projects.

Discipline. The animals have to eat every day, whether or not we feel like feeding them. When she’s in milk, the goat needs milking twice a day. The eggs must be collected and harvests preserved. There is no room for not doing the chores.

Compassion. We treat our animals with kindness- even the ones destined for the stew pot. Each animal is to be respected and raised humanely. Sick animals are to be nursed to health; babies are to be well-cared for.

Curiosity. What is this plant? Why does the rabbit pull out her fur? Where does that bird live? Why does the egg we eat hold a yolk, but an egg kept warm for several weeks hold a chicken? There are endless questions to explore in the natural world, and answers that none of us know yet. How wonderful to be curious and not know everything!

Running free across the yard.

Freedom. Running across the yard, climbing a tree, exploring on your own… these are the things we all wanted as a child. Even as adults, we still crave the freedom to let go and enjoy the little things that matter most. I really want my kids to hang on to just a little bit of that feeling as they grow up.

Wisdom. From matters of the birds and the bees to understanding death, the kids are exposed to all the tough stuff at a young age. They’ve watched chickens mate and helped to bury dead hens. They’ve helped to care for baby kits, and observed the butchering of grown rabbits. All of this has created an open door to talking about the hard topics that all of us must grapple with at some point.

The kids observed Dada processing a rabbit. It's the beginning to talking about "the circle of life."

I truly hope that an introduction to the hard stuff now will help them to approach it with temperance and thoughtfulness later in life.

Of course, I’m still a relatively young mother. Perhaps I really am being dreamy and I actually have no idea what I’m talking about. But I do pray that these guys will grow up to be well-rounded, independent, kind people– and that maybe some of these lessons will help just a little bit on the way.

Come to think of it, I think am learning a lot of these lessons too. How about you?


Roasted Asparagus & Almonds

Asparagus grows more like a shrub than a quick garden plant. If you plant it from seed, it takes about three years before you can harvest it. But once it’s coming- oh my!- those fresh stalks are so delicious and tender. I hardly get them inside because I’m usually eating them straight from the ground.

If you happen to have some fresh asparagus in your yard, count yourself blessed and go pick some for this recipe. If you don’t, take advantage of seasonal sales to bring some home from the store this spring!

One of the reasons I enjoy asparagus is that it’s pretty versatile. It can easily be eaten in eggs, on a sandwich, or as a dinner side. It can be dressed up or down, depending on the occasion. And when it’s really only fresh for a few weeks in spring, it makes it all the more special to use it frequently at this time of year.

Roasted asparagus is super simple to make, and it’s one of our very favorite ways to use this seasonal treasure. My son discovered it this year, and now goes back for seconds and thirds of it. No joke.

He also likes to get into my attempted food photography:

And he likes to do his own food photography. 😉

And add things to my beat-up old baking pan…

Ahem. Anyway.

My apologies… this will be a cook by the look, not by the book recipe. But it’s so easy that you’ll soon adjust it to your tastes.

Note: We love it with the almonds on top- it’s so simple and earthy tasting, and pairs perfectly with the asparagus. However, if you don’t eat nuts, it can easily be made without! Likewise, you can play with different seasonings if you have a flavor profile that you’ve been waiting to try.

You will need:

  • 1 bunch of asparagus
  • Chopped almonds (I generally use about 1/2 cup)
  • Lotsa butter (about 4+ Tbsp)
  • Salt & pepper to taste

  1. Set oven to broil.
  2. Break off the woody ends of the asparagus. (I actually don’t always do this when the asparagus is fresh from the garden because I don’t mind chewing through the thick stuff. Do as you will.) Lay asparagus stalks out in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.
  3. Sprinkle chopped almonds over top of the asparagus.
  4. Slice butter and place over top of the asparagus.
  5. Sprinkle with salt & pepper.
  6. Roast under the broiler until tender, about 4 minutes each side. You will need to take it out and turn the asparagus spears once, making sure to distribute the butter evenly.
  7. Eat it!

This one-pan, simple side is easy, crowd pleasing, and SO yummy. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Did you try it? Like it? Let us know in the comment section & share it with your friends! 

Fermentation: Building Culture & Community

Lacto-fermentation is a hot trend right now. However, though it may seem like a new thing for young, health-conscious weirdos, the practice has  been around for thousands of years. In fact, for about as long as there have been people, there has been fermentation. As it turns out, it’s also been a huge part of culture and community for all that time.

How fermentation has played into culture and community for thousands of years.

This post contains affiliate links. 

Preservation & Food Safety

Fermentation is a fantastic way to preserve food without refrigeration. How does it work? While methods vary from food to food, generally the process  is the same. Fermentation occurs when the naturally occurring bacteria on food is combined with some sort of culture: whey, wild yeasts, or, in modern days, a purchased strain of starter culture. Keep the fermenting food away from oxygen and leave it at room temperature. The good bacteria will grow, and the food will transform into a tangy, bubbly treasure that can safely be stored in a cool environment for months.

You can imagine how helpful a process fermentation would have been in the days without refrigeration, freezers, or dehydrators. Food could be thrown in a vessel with some salt, covered, and safely fermented for long-term storage. Vegetables became pickles, milk became cheese- you get the idea.

You can also imagine how this would have improved food safety. How did people drink without access to clean water? You guessed it: beer and wine. The fermentation process eliminates any bad bacteria and creates a nutritional drink that can be safely consumed.

Traditional Foods

Every culture has foods that are traditionally prepared through fermentation. Some of them are easily recognizable; others I’ve never heard of. Here are some examples:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Yogurt
  • Sourdough bread
  • Cheese
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi
  • Togwa
  • Pickles
  • Soy Sauce
  • Miso
  • Wine
  • Beer
  • Tempeh
  • Natto
  • Salami
  • Whey
  • Fermented condiments, chutneys, etc.

The list goes on and on… Some of these foods have geographically specific origins; others have been made across so many regions that it’s hard to tell where they started. Regardless, it’s safe to say that fermented foods are wide-spread and common across cultures and times.

The Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course by Herbal Academy

Celebrations & Traditions

Food has always been a part of almost any celebration. It seems that the craft and time taken in preparing fermented foods only adds to the sacred nature of a special occasion.

I was absolutely fascinated by a lecture on “cultural topsoil” by Marc Williams, ethnobiologist and teacher of the herbal mead brewing portion of the Herbal Fermentation Course. Marc writes:

“Brewing herbal mead can be much more than simply making an alcoholic beverage. Indeed, for me, brewing herbal mead is a ritualistic journey of celebrating community—honoring the people, places, and plants that have provided guidance, knowledge, friendship, or support throughout my life. In fact, brewing herbal mead is one method, among many in the realm of fermentation and food production, that can even be used to honor the changing of the seasons, times of year, or memorable milestones in your life and the lives of those in your community.”

How true that so many foods- fermented and otherwise- can play into our cultural traditions and celebrations.

Think about it. It’s a holiday in your house, and you’ve pulled out your great-grandmother’s special recipe that has been passed down through the generations. You may only make it once a year, but that makes it all the more special.

I know a lady who makes friendship fruit cakes every Christmas- she begins the process in November, ferments her cake batter for 30 days, then bakes them and shares both the cakes and the starters with friends.

The joy of fermented foods in particular is that they take so much time and care to create. Cabbage fermented from your own garden feels much more connected, grounded, and personal than a can of dead sauerkraut from the grocery store. An herbal ale or mead made at home from foraged plants speaks of craft, thoughtfulness, and nourishment- not drunkenness and foolishness. The fermented cake recipe from my friend tastes strongly of tradition, love, and generosity. After all, I know she’s been culturing, baking, and sharing from the same starter for years on end.


Not only can fermented foods be a big part of special occasions, they can also be a beautiful part of community building. I’ve seen it over and over again: someone hears about what’s bubbling in my kitchen. She’s interested, so she wants to try a little bit. I share my creations and pretty soon she’s giving it a whirl too. I may not know her all that well, but we now have a common bond: a three year old sourdough starter (or kefir grains or kombucha scoby) that’s in both of our kitchens, actively functioning and feeding both of our families.

It’s not long til that food-sharing inspires more connections. We get together again to share another kitchen experiment. Maybe we pass it on to another person, and maybe that person shares it with someone else. It’s funny how a fermented food can become a conversation starter, an inspiration, and a friendship builder.

Culture Your Culture

Give it a try. Venture into fermented foods and see how culturing food can play into your cultural traditions. Pull out a fermented food or beverage at a special occasion and watch to see the interest it sparks. Build new connections with people who you may not know too well. Share a scoby, a bottle of kombucha, or a loaf of sourdough. Watch to see how the foods can become part of your traditions and the connections made can foster generosity, friendships, and cultural richness.

The Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course by Herbal Academy

I highly recommend the Herbal Academy’s Herbal Fermentation Course. As a moderately seasoned fermenter, I have already learned so much! Click here for more information. 

I also love my Fermentools kit for easy, worry-free fermentation in mason jars. Check them out here. 

Build into your culture and community with fermentation!

Fried Dandelion Heads

My husband and I rarely see weeds as mere yard infestations. Usually he’s the one asking, “Can we eat it? Make something from it? Use it for some medicinal purpose?” It’s no different when dandelions begin popping up everywhere in the spring.
Fried Dandelions Feature
(By the way, the violets in this picture are edible too.)

Dandelions are one of the most common intruders creeping into yards everywhere. While many people spend time, work, and money trying to keep their lawns free of the brightly colored visitor, others spend just as much time and work (though rarely money) to find uses for the golden weed.

Dandelions have been used for human consumption in many different ways. Dandelion leaf salad, dandelion root tea, and dandelion wine are just a few examples to get you started. Today, I will share a recipe with you that my good friend Alexis taught me how to make: fried dandelion heads.

They taste very much like fried chicken cutlets- only the “meat” inside is free from your yard!

dandelion2Ready to get started? You will need:

  • About 2-3 C Dandelion heads
  • White Vinegar (just a splash)
  • Olive Oil as needed (try starting with about ¼ C)
  • 1 Egg
  • About 1 C Plain Bread Crumbs
  • 1 Tbsp each Garlic, Italian Seasoning, & Parsely (or to taste)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Unfortunately, the above amounts are just estimates. Depending on how many dandelion heads you have, you may need to alter this recipe accordingly. The nice part about breading & frying is that you can always add more oil to the pan or more bread crumbs & seasonings to the mix if you run out.

1) Collect and Wash Dandelion Heads! This is a great time to get your kids helping you. J loves it when I send him on flower-picking assignments.


* Make sure that you haven’t been spraying your yard with anything toxic if you’re out foraging for weeds!

Pick just under the bloom, where the head easily snaps off. Rinse them off well through a colander if you’re not into eating bugs.

2) Coat your dandelions. First, mix your dandelions with a splash of white vinegar. Next, set up your assembly line for coating. Beat egg into one container. Combine dry ingredients in another. It should look something like this:

dandelion4Heat oil on stovetop over medium heat until it’s shimmering. Dip your dandelion heads first into the egg, then into the bread crumb mixture, making sure that they get completely coated at each step.

3) Fry ‘em up! Carefully place the dandelion heads into the hot oil using tongs or some other such tool. (Or jump back as you drop them so you don’t get splattered.)

Turn them partway through frying to get both sides nice and golden brown. This step won’t take more than a couple of minutes if your oil is good and hot, so watch them carefully to avoid burning them.

4) Drain and enjoy! Remove the dandelion heads with tongs and place them on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the oil. Once they’ve sat a couple minutes, you can eat them up immediately!

You’ll most likely keep popping them til they’re gone. If by some chance you don’t finish them, it’s always fun to pack leftovers for lunch and relish in telling your co-workers you’re eating fried weeds. And besides, they’re yummy, I promise! Hope you give them a shot. 🙂

Make these delicious flower poppers with weeds and just a few ingredients you already have in your pantry.

How to Identify & Forage for Stinging Nettle


Spring Gives, We Forage

I have to be honest, I haven’t been thinking about the land since the fall. I have been so involved in other projects that I STILL have not given more than a fleeting thought to planning our garden.

But, no matter how negligent I may be, spring calls me now. It has wooed me back to the land, and I know now that the problem was truly me–not it.

I have foraging on the mind once again, though I feel a bit rusty after a winter in the damp, dark tool shed of my own isolation. Seeing green popping up and out all over has reminded me that I need to be present among these growing things, that I need to learn what they are, what they have to offer, and how our family can best use them.

Find out how to forage for stinging nettle!

Spring gives, we forage.

But, before we do, we recall three simple foraging rules: correct identification, minimal harvesting, and safe, legal picking.

Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) has done much to draw me out of my wintry malaise. When I first noticed it peeking out from beneath our slumping retaining wall, I suddenly felt the urge to tour our yard and greet all the new plants bursting up. We love this plant in our household–stings and all.

Identifying Stinging Nettle 

Stinging nettle is fairly distinctive. Like any plant it looks different at different times of the year. At certain points it may be easier to identify than others, but stinging nettle has three distinguishing attributes all year long that make it pretty easy to ID. There are a few other varieties of nettle that it can be confused with, but if you pay attention to the following features, you can be pretty confident of a correct identification.

First, the leaves. They are mostly oval or slightly heart-shaped and heavily toothed or serrated at the margins. They come to a point and are covered with fine barb-like hairs. The leaves are heavily veined and the undersides tend to have a purple hue between the veins.

IMG_20170420_162428025 IMG_20170420_162439533

Compare this leaf to some of the older leaves in this image from the USDA, which are more distinctly heart shaped:

Large Photo of Urtica dioica

Next, the stem.  The stem of a stinging nettle, just like the leaves, is covered in small, barb-like, stinging thorns or hairs. And the leaves attach to the stem opposite one another.


Finally, the sting. If you touch a plant that looks like nettle and gives you a noticeable sting, it is probably stinging nettle. The sting is not excruciating, but it is real, and the pain from it does hang on for some time–from a few minutes to hours. The small hollow hairs contain the chemicals that cause the sting, so to avoid the sting, avoid breaking them–handle with care. A UK chemistry teacher writing at the blog Compound Interest has done a great job explaining some of the chemistry behind nettle’s sting. Check it out for more info. (Note also that the sting is removed during cooking.)

Of course there are other things to pay attention to if you want to be absolutely sure of your identification of stinging nettle, but out of the many plants you can forage, stinging nettle is pretty distinctive because of the thorny, hairy, toothed stinging leaves. For help distinguishing it from the other nettle lookalikes, I heartily recommend this article at


Stinging nettle lives up to its name, so if you want to avoid the sting, either:

  • Wear decently thick gloves, or
  • Carefully fold and grab the leaves while pulling toward the leaf tip. The goal here is to avoid breaking the hollow barbs off in your skin–that’s when you get stung. Here is a video demonstrating this technique:

With both of these techniques, you can–and perhaps should–use scissors or some other suitable cutting tool, though you may gently pinch the leaves off as well.

Following the simple foraging rules, remember to be sure that it is free to harvest. Are there critters living in it? Is it on your grouchy neighbor’s property? And be sure to harvest no more than 1/3 of the plant. Leave some for it to thrive and propagate.

The young smaller leaves, which emerge from the very apex of the stems, are usually the most tender and palatable. Choose those over the older ones, unless you don’t mind a more robust experience. Don’t harvest the stems. It’s not that they will poison you, they are just not very palatable. The stems are apparently useful for making rope because the fibers are so strong. If you’re interested in doing that, have at it.

The best time to harvest it for eating is now–in the early spring when they first start to emerge, and especially before they flower. Some believe that after nettles have flowered, consuming them in great amounts can lead to kidney stones. Which is ironic because they are also used as a prevention against kidney stones… But, to be safe, if you mean to eat it or drink a tea made from it, harvest nettle before it flowers.

In case you are wondering, it looks like this when it flowers:

Image result for flowering stinging nettle


Since nettles are best in the spring, you’ll want to preserve some to enjoy year round. Nettles can be preserved by:

  • Dehydration: We simply dry nettle in our food dehydrator, but any other method for drying herbs will work.
  • Freezing: Blanch and freeze whole nettle leaves in freezer bags. Alternatively, you can freeze nettle pesto in an ice cube tray, or nettle soup in glass containers.

Uses and Recipes 

You may be wondering about the sting. Why would you want to consume something that leaves you tingling? Surely that must be unpleasant. Be assured that cooking removes the chemical compound that causes the sting, and nettle leaves are perfectly safe to consume once prepared.

Nettle is highly nutritious and can be enjoyed as a fresh or dried tea, a pesto star, in a vinegar, or even as medicine. Give it a try! Here are some recipes & resources to get you started:

Have you harvested stinging nettle? How do you like to use it? Leave us a comment and let us know!

How to identify and safely harvest this super food!



Herbal Teas to Grow or Forage Yourself

Most of us are familiar with vegetable gardens and herb gardens- but what about your own tea garden?

Delicious herbal teas that you can grow or forage!

(Catnip tea brewing in our Tea Posy pot.)

I love a good black tea in the afternoon, but herbal teas are my friends for various health benefits. I have paid premium prices for a small bit of tea ($9 for 15 tea bags?!?)- and would continue to buy said tea if it was something we couldn’t easily access at home- but there are so many home-grown and wild options to try first!

You can either plant a specific area as a tea garden, or you can simply look around your yard to forage for flowers, plants, herbs, and weeds that can easily be turned into teas.

As always, make sure you double and triple check the identification of any wild plant you find before consuming it, and consider consulting with a local foraging expert. It’s also not a bad idea to try a new plant in small amounts to see how you tolerate it before overdoing it.

Here’s my list to get you started- though it will likely continue growing. 😉 (This post contains some affiliate links.)

Online Herbalism Courses for all levels

  1. Mint– Prolific, easy to grow, hard to take out of the ground. Make sure it’s where you want it. 😉 Here’s some inspiration for various mint tea recipes, and here’s some info on the health benefits of peppermint.
  2. Lemon Balm– This iced tea recipe is good for anxiety, wounds, and sleep disorders. You could also try this recipe for lemon balm-green tea and learn about why lemon balm is just a great plant to cultivate in your yard. Plus, it tastes and smells good. (It’s also a member of the mint family.)
  3. Chamomile – This flower makes a relaxing tea that is also renowned for many health benefits.
  4. Plantain– Known as a medicinal plant used for many purposes (treating insect bites and stings being one of them), it can also be made into a tea for when you’re feeling ill.
  5. Stinging Nettle– I first tried dried nettle tea from a local bulk tea and spice boutique. I had a light bulb moment when my husband suggested drying the stuff in our yard (or boiling fresh leaves) instead of continuing to buy it!
  6. Dandelion Root– I actually haven’t tried making this one at home yet, but I’ve got some dried dandelion roots sitting under my spice cabinet, waiting to be tasted. I’ll have to give these instructions a whirl.
  7. Red Raspberry Leaf– This tea is famous for uterine health. I’ve been enjoying a daily cup of homemade “Mama-to-be-tea” from a local boutique that features raspberry leaf.
  8. Carrot Greens– This is one that you’ll have to do your own research on. Some say that carrot greens are toxic, others say that they’re a market vegetable in many countries. This article pulls in favor of consuming carrot tops, and references several other discussions on the topic. I won’t tell you that you should consume carrot greens. I’ll just say that we’ve made iced tea out of fresh carrot greens several times and haven’t died (or gotten sick) yet.
  9. Echinacea– I didn’t realize for a long time that those gorgeous summer purple cone flowers are actually echinacea! Known for immunity benefits, echinacea is easy to harvest and prepare for tea.
  10. Basil– Apparently, this tasty herb works well for sore throats, headaches, and upset stomachs! I didn’t know that before reading this!
  11. Wintergreen– Here’s the secret to enjoying foraged wintergreen tea that’s full of flavor.
  12. Catnip– We drank catnip tea all winter long to help get over colds faster. Between that, homemade stock, elderberry syrup, and raw honey, none of us stayed sick more than a couple of days. Here’s how to identify catnip.
  13. Red Clover– This medicinal plant grows wild all over the place! Just look down!
  14. Drink your fruitsThis post covers instructions for blackberry, raspberry, strawberry leaf, elderflower, and orange peel teas. How exciting is that?
  15. Winter teasThis blogger details how to make teas out of four forage-able wild winter plants. How cool! (No pun intended.) Who says you have to grow and dry tea in the summer months?

Stinging Nettle- perfect to harvest for herbal tea!

A patch of stinging nettle- perfect for brewing a cup of tea!

You can also check out Herbal Academy’s post on homemade tea recipes for cold and flu season. Gather and dry your ingredients now, then mix and use them all winter!

(If you live in a warm area, you can grow regular “black tea” as well. Our northeastern area isn’t well suited to this warm weather plant, so that’s one tea I’ll keep buying.)

To enjoy your teas fresh, simply pour boiling water over the herbs. (It helps to have a tea ball of some sort to contain them.) You’ll learn over time to adjust the amount and steeping time to your liking. If you prefer to dry them first, you can hang them up, use a dehydrator (I have and love this one), or look up instructions for drying individual herbs in your oven. Then store and use as you would dried tea throughout the year.

What’s your favorite herbal tea?

Learn how to grow or forage for these delicious herbal teas!