Meal-planning is hailed as the number one tip for saving money in the kitchen and avoiding food waste. And it really does do both of those things! But I find that when everything is coming in the garden, it becomes rather difficult to plan far ahead.
Why? Well, it’s hard to know sometimes whether the zucchini will be ripe by Tuesday or Thursday. You can’t predict whether or not an insect will come along and wipe out those kale leaves you had in mind for tomorrow’s meal. And beyond that, food preservation calls regularly during garden season. More time on preservation means less time on meal planning or cooking. You just can’t do it all in one day.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Compare this leaf to some of the older leaves in this image from the USDA, which are more distinctly heart shaped:
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 Identifythatplant.com.
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:
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:
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.)
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.)
Chamomile– This flower makes a relaxing tea that is also renowned for many health benefits.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Basil– Apparently, this tasty herb works well for sore throats, headaches, and upset stomachs! I didn’t know that before reading this!
Wintergreen– Here’s the secret to enjoying foraged wintergreen tea that’s full of flavor.
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.
Red Clover– This medicinal plant grows wild all over the place! Just look down!
Drink your fruits– This post covers instructions for blackberry, raspberry, strawberry leaf, elderflower, and orange peel teas. How exciting is that?
Winter teas– This 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?
A patch of stinging nettle- perfect for brewing a cup of tea!
(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.
This year is supposed to be our year of no new projects. We want to just improve on what we already have going, so we don’t get caught up in “overwhelm” (can that be a noun?) and frustration.
The garden is one project that we’ve wanted to simplify this year. We’re going to let our main plot lie fallow, and plant in our newer, smaller beds instead. But somehow, we got to April and we still hadn’t picked out or started seeds! (Have I mentioned that I’m a procrastinator?)
When I had the opportunity to review Heaven’s Harvest’s heirloom seed bucket, I breathed a sigh of relief. I wrote the company in an email (and this is a direct quote), “Honestly, it would make my life a lot simpler to be handed a kit of seeds instead of having to go through and hand pick every one.”
So, receive a seed kit I did, and I am so happy for the opportunity to share what’s inside this bucket with you!
I received a free bucket of seeds from Heaven’s Harvest in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links.
About Heaven’s Harvest
Heaven’s Harvest is a small, family owned company that offers various emergency preparedness supplies, including water filtration systems, greenhouses, and of course, seeds! I spoke with Meredith from Heaven’s Harvest before accepting a seed bucket, and she was very courteous, helpful, and prompt in her responses. It makes me very happy to deal with small, dedicated companies like this one.
What is a seed kit?
Generally speaking, it is simply a collection of seed varieties that are fit for growing in most common garden zones. Heaven’s Harvest specifically offers emergency preparedness seed kits- that is, kits that focus on providing enough protein and nutrition to feed your family in case of a situation where grocery stores would not be available.
There are several sizes of seed buckets available. Today, let’s take a closer look at the “homestead” vegetable seed bucket– the largest seed kit available from Heaven’s Harvest.
What comes in the homestead seed bucket?
Approximately 130,000 individual seeds in 38 different varieties arrive in a hardcore polycarbonate bucket. Each seed type is packaged in a UV radiation-resistant, resealable mylar foil bag that’s meant for long term storage. In fact, if stored properly, Heaven’s Harvest says these seeds should last up to 10 years!
All seeds from Heaven’s Harvest are non-GMO, non-hybrid, open pollinated heirloom seeds. Why is this important? The short answer is that these seeds can be saved year after year to reproduce the same varieties as the parent plants. Conversely, many seeds on the market today cannot be saved, or will not reproduce true to type.
It’s worth noting that for the long-term, sustainable garden, seed-saving is a valuable, money saving skill that’s worth acquiring. For a clear discussion of different seed types, I encourage you to read this short article by my friend Susan.
Things I love about my seed kit:
It came with its own storage container.
The seed packs are resealable. (No more spilling seeds!)
I can save the heirloom seeds year after year.
Most varieties included should work well in a variety of garden zones. (Scroll down on this page for a full listing of seeds in the kit. Make sure the plants will grow well where you live!)
The only thing I wish were different is that there are no planting instructions on the back of the packages. If you are unsure of how to plant these seeds, you will need to refer to an internet search or another gardening resource.
Are these seed kits a good value?
The homestead seed kit includes 130,000 seeds and costs $249.99. That may seem like a lot to you, but the truth is in years prior we have spent about $150/year on far fewer seeds. (And most of them were not heirloom!)
I found seed kits for less online, but they did not include nearly so many seeds. (Or they didn’t even include seed count!) Similar kits rang in at $0.0026- $0.0033/seed. (A small price, I know!). However, Heaven’s Harvest’s kit costs $0.0019/seed. That is significantly less, especially considering that Heaven’s Harvest is sure to include vegetables with high protein and high caloric intake.
If you don’t want that many seeds, the good news is that Heaven’s Harvest offers smaller kits: The neighborhood kit, with 24 varieties for $149.99, and the condo kit, with 12 varieties for $74.99. Seed packets can also be purchased individually as desired.
These seed kits are marketed as a survival tool. How will they help me in an emergency?
Some people buy an emergency preparedness seed kit and put it on the shelf to save for when the stuff hits the fan. If this is your primary intention when purchasing seeds, you will be sorely disappointed if you ever find yourself in a true food shortage situation. Seeds take knowledge, time, practice, and effort to grow into viable food for you and your loved ones. If you ran out of food before your garden was growing, you would likely starve before harvest time.
However, Meredith and John from Heaven’s Harvest encourage you to start using, saving, and sharing your seeds in your bucket today. They recognize that gardening is a skill that takes time to cultivate. They have designed their seed kits to promote longevity and sustainability:
Heirloom seeds can be saved year after year. Start your garden & begin seed saving this year, and you will have free seeds for years to come afterwards.
A large seed count means you have some insurance against crop failure. (Heaven’s Harvest tries to err in your favor with approximate counts.)
Extra seeds can be kept in resealable bags to be used for future gardens, shared with friends, or saved in case of a crop failure.
Seed varieties include greens, squash, asparagus, tomatoes, peppers, melons, root vegetables, beans, cabbage family veggies, so there is significant variety to ensure 1) that you’ll have enough caloric and nutritive intake, and 2) that you’ll find plants that are successful in your garden zone.
A seed kit will only work for survival if you have practiced with it. Take advantage of the fact that Heaven’s Harvest’s seed kits are designed for long-term development of gardening skills, and don’t wait for an emergency to plant your garden!
Is a seed kit the right fit for you?
This seed kit might not be the best fit for you if:
You live in an exceptionally hot or cold garden zone.
You like to individually pick seeds.
You prefer hybrid seeds to heirloom varieties.
You prefer to purchase smaller amounts of seed at one time.
Heaven’s Harvest seed kits might be a good choice for you if:
You live in a common temperate garden zone.
You don’t want to spend time slaving over seed selection.
You want to save seeds for following years.
You want long term seed storage for your seeds.
You are interested in emergency preparation
You value heirloom, non-GMO seeds.
You like to buy in bulk for the best value.
For this procrastinator, a seed kit from Heaven’s Harvest was a wonderful solution this year. I look forward to planting from my seed kit and practicing saving seeds from these varieties. I will be sure to come back and update how the seeds did!
Check out all of Heaven’s Harvest’s seeds and emergency preparedness supplies here.
Each year since we’ve been in our house, we’ve added something new. The first year it was a garden plot expansion. The next year it was a flock of backyard chickens. Next came the goat, then meat rabbits, then new garden plots.
Each year has also included some home DIY project. At first it was things like wallpaper removal, moving the laundry upstairs, and painting. Then it was a porch rebuild, a chicken coop, a garage rebuild, and creation of a music studio.
Last month, I wrote a post on considering which homestead projects are right for your family. As it turns out, we’ve had to bear this in mind too! As we considered a host of new ideas, we came to a realization- we shouldn’t add anything new this year.
Why? Well, we have a lot of balls in the air at any one given time. When we do too much, none of these balls land where they’re supposed to, and we’re left having to pick up the mess we’ve made. So many of the projects we have going really need major fixes to work more efficiently for our family.
We still have projects that we want to complete this year. However, instead of adding something new, we are focusing on improving the systems we already have. This way, we avoid burnout and make the projects we are already doing much more profitable and enjoyable.
That being said, here is our 2017 spring and summer project list:
Garden: Our main garden will likely lie mostly fallow this year- the soil needs some rest and revitalization to grow strong, healthy crops again next year. Instead, we will plant in our other newer plots and focus on building up the soil through lasagna gardening methods.
Chickens: Our flock has nearly outgrown their coop. Too many birds means needing to clean it more often, and overcrowded birds are unhappy birds. Also, the original coop was completely built out of re-purposed and scrap materials, so there were parts of it that didn’t function as efficiently as a standard coop.
It’s time to either 1) put some birds in the pot to make more space or 2) build a new coop. Since we’ve had high demand for selling fresh eggs (and since we’d like to expand our flock in a year or two), we want to keep the birds, but make them a new home. Preferably, this will be a walk-in coop.
Rabbits: Oh meat rabbits. They are a really great venture for so many reasons. However, our current housing system is not efficient. We started out with having them in hutches that were converted into “tractors” that could be drug around the yard. However, because of the design, they are extremely hard to clean and too heavy for efficient rotation.
We tried setting up one of the hutches on blocks to create a fertilizer collection system. However, then the rabbits don’t have access to the grass beneath them, so their diet is largely feed. Not ideal for a pastured meat source.
Our hope is to build a colony location for the rabbits. (Read about colony raising rabbits here.) However, because of the slopey nature of our yard, this is a really big project and one that might not get done this year.
Goat: I really, really wanted to breed our one goat this year so we could have 1) babies and 2) milk. However, I am realizing this just isn’t the right time for it. We are facing several complications, a positive CAE test being our main concern. While we are hoping the test results are false, we’re realizing that there are more things to take care of for the arrival and care of baby goats than we are able to commit to currently. This might just not be the year to take on this project.
House improvements: Our plan for the summer is to build a mudroom right outside our kitchen door. Currently, our closet-less house is spilling over with shoes, coats, and backpacks. A mudroom would give us a spot to put all that STUFF, plus it would provide a functional place to keep for outdoor/animal supplies that don’t currently have a home. Not to mention it might give us that little extra push to do a cheapie DIY kitchen remodel… 😉
Another eventual project is to put a greenhouse on the back of the house. We haven’t made it that far yet, and we’re not sure if we will be able to do it this summer. This falls into the category of expansion, not improvement.
Our main goal is to avoid burnout and try to improve upon the systems we already have. Once they are running efficiently, then we can consider whether or not we want to take on a new one!
What projects will you be working on this spring and summer?
We had a pretty wild snowstorm last week– we got about 2.5 feet of snow dumped on us at once, everything shut down, and our county was in a state of emergency with a travel ban due to avalanches on nearby roads.
Thankfully, our power did NOT go out. But it made me think about whether or not we would have been prepared if it had. With no ability to leave the house, an outage would have made things a bit complicated!
Candles & oil lamp- check. Water bottles- check. Shelf-stable food- check. Extra blankets and layers of clothing- check. Shelter- check. And, happily for us, we also had the ability to cook without power if needed.
Almost four years ago, my husband built us a beautiful mud oven in our back yard. (You can read the post on that process here.) It was made with mostly found materials and runs on small logs and manpower. It’s delightful to use for cooking any day of the week, but it would be especially useful during a power outage.
Of course, power outages don’t only happen in winter, and there are other reasons to use alternative cooking methods besides an outage. Saving money on bills, reducing heat in the house in the summer, or just enjoying the charm of cooking outdoors- cooking without power is a skill for all occasions.
Thus, I present to you: cooking options that don’t involve electricity. (This post contains affiliate links.)
Open Fire Cooking
Sounds obvious, right? However, I’m often ashamed of how long it takes me to start a fire, and I know I’m probably not alone in my challenges. Here are some posts with tips on cooking over an open fire:
Solar ovens are what they sound like: cooking with no fuel but the sun! Now that’s cheap power! I have never tried a solar oven, but they are apparently a popular off-grid cooking option. Here are several posts with more information & solar oven recipes:
Obviously, a dutch oven can be used indoors in a conventional oven. However, its durability lends itself to alternative cooking methods very well. If you’ve managed to find yourself a good cast iron dutch oven, be happy. You can do a lot with it! Here are a few examples: