Homemade Fireweed Tea (DIY “real” tea!)

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Tea is made with the leaves, so the lovely flowers are left for pollinators ❤ 

I’ve spent most of my free time this spring and summer learning about the different native plants we have in our area and what can be done with them. I’ve tried making a few herbal teas but they always felt like they were missing some key ingredient or a foundation or something. Well, I think I finally found it!

I learned how to make tea which is exactly as tasty and satisfying as “real” tea (meaning Camellia sinensis; the tea people generally refer to when they just say “tea”). It is naturally caffeine-free. It has an interesting history, and I have read a lot about its health benefits but won’t go into all that now because let’s be honest, I’d just google it and paraphrase other articles. What I want to write about is how my own experience making it went, and my honest opinion after tasting it. (If you do want that more in depth info, this is a good place to start, and that’s where I got the preparation instructions too.)

I’m very sensitive when it comes to some things like sound and touch, but not when it comes to taste. For whatever reason, I’m not one of those people who really appreciates “floral and fruity notes” or “earthy, nutty” flavours. I’ve always understood the “earthy, nutty” description to mean “boring”. Maybe this is why I’m not that into cooking. Anyway, if I’m going to enjoy a food or drink, it needs to be obviously tasty, not with such a subtle flavour that I need to concentrate to decide whether or not it tastes good. Sorry foodies 🙂

Anyway, that is my way of saying you should seriously try this tea! I first tried fireweed tea with just dried leaves, and I felt like I might as well just brew up a cup of grass. I wanted to like it, but I didn’t. I then read about this oxidation process which removes the grass taste and was immediately interested.

It was AWESOME.

It didn’t taste like grass. It didn’t taste “green” at all. It was bold, rich, it had the same “mouth feel” as tea and left a nice aftertaste. I might even say it was “complex”. Just look at the words I’m using.

Fireweed is a common plant here, and harvesting it does minimal damage to the plant itself, and from what I can tell it has little or no impact on the ecosystem it grows in, depending on your harvesting technique. If you have this stuff around you, this can be a truly, genuinely eco-friendly way to drink tea.

At worst, there could be some soil compaction from me trampling through the patch, and some plants will inevitably be stepped on along the way, but that’s it. I leave the flowers alone. I gently remove leaves from only the top section of the stalk, so the plant can just seal up those wounds and carry on. As long as it doesn’t pick up an infection of some kind, it should be completely fine. I noticed that there were usually some tiny little mini-leaves just above the nodes of the leaves I harvested, so most likely the plant will simply grow those out and replace the leaves I took in a couple of days. I noticed harvesting nettles in spring that the plants would often end up being larger and more robust a few days after I harvested them. That could be the case here too, with careful and conscious harvesting.

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Fireweed plants just beginning to show off their beautiful pink flowers.

We have several patches of fireweed around our property, and I have seen lots of it along roadsides too, although that isn’t a great place to harvest them (roads are a significant source of dust and pollution that lands on or is absorbed by the plants near them). We obviously don’t spray poison on our land, so there is no concern here about pesticides or herbicides. And, since this is a native plant the leaves are typically healthy and in good condition, being well adapted to the particular challenges of this ecosystem. Fireweed thrives without any need for human intervention.

Below is a picture showing how I harvest a single leaf, grasping the base and just gently turning the petiole (leaf stalk) downwards towards the stem. It snaps off very easily with minimal harm to the stem. Occasionally a little strip of the stem peels off with it but I try to minimize that. There is a quicker method of harvesting the leaves which is to wrap your hand around the stem and just slide it downwards. The leaves break off easily so you can strip off a handful at once, but I find that method a bit fumbly and can be more damaging to the leaves, plus you have a greater chance of accidentally picking up leaves with damage or insects on them. I prefer the one at a time method, but I do alternate between them. I’m still learning 🙂

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If you want to try this, one useful key to identifying fireweed is to look carefully at the leaf veins. In the picture below, pay attention to the outer edge of the leaf, there is a vein that runs parallel, leaving a little space or border zone around the edge. The main veins running across from the center appear to connect to each other and loop around to create a border instead of running all the way to the edge of the leaf.

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It is a very striking and beautiful plant, and if you live in an area where it grows wild you’ve probably noticed it before. It’s hard to miss. It is widespread across the northern hemisphere, and it particularly likes disturbed areas, especially places that have been devastated by forest fires or logging. Fireweed is a pioneer and a natural healer; it adds beauty and the promise of a bright future after traumatic loss.

The first step after harvesting leaves is to let them wilt in the sun or a warm place for a while. When the wilted leaves are ready, they will bend in half without snapping, and you can roll them easily between your palms without crushing them and having little fragments break off in your hands.

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Then, the leaves are rolled up between the palms to bruise them and initiate the process of oxidation, which is what eliminates that grassy taste in the tea.

I used the crock pot (unplugged) as a container for the leaves to ferment. I read that a ceramic bowl with a lid is ideal because it is an aerobic process, but it’s good to cover it so bugs don’t get into it. I noticed a fragrance already just a few hours later. It was a bit pungent and I was not optimistic about it at first. I continued anyway, checking on and shaking up the leaves now and then. The pungent smell went away by the end of the first day, and I started to notice a nicer tea-like scent.

I did a small batch at first to test it out. Here is a shot of the rolled leaves in the crock pot:

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I forgot to write down the time when I put them in to ferment, but after about 48 hours I brewed up a small cup to test it, and I thought it was delicious so I put the leaves into the dehydrator to stop fermentation.

The leaves dried quickly, and when they were brittle I turned off the dehydrator, let the leaves cool to room temperature and then stored them in a glass jar. The instructions said to let the tea cure for 2-4 months before using it, but I enjoyed the taste right away so I guess it will just get better and better. I harvested a much larger batch this morning and plan to do more before the season ends so I have a good stash of it for wintertime. It actually works out nicely that it needs to cure, because I don’t really drink much tea in summer so it will probably just sit there and cure for the rest of the summer anyway until things start to cool off outside again.

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The small test batch, stored in a glass jar to cure.

I’m just so excited to finally have the ability to make a delicious tea from something that grows in our yard rather than being imported from another continent. It is so prolific in the wild it doesn’t require cultivation or human intervention, and all it costs is a bit of time. This stuff is a win on so many levels 🙂

I’m also very excited to try using this as a base for different herbal tea blends. As an experiment I added some dried meadowsweet flowers and did a taste test, and it was lovely. I did another test with some dried red clover and that was also very nice. I have finally found the key ingredient that my previous attempts at herbal teas were missing, so now I feel optimistic that I’ll be able to make all kinds of interesting herbal tea blends that are rich and flavourful.

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Fireweed and Meadowsweet tea

If you have fireweed growing near you, and you can safely harvest it without worrying about pollution, pesticides, or pissing someone off, I highly recommend trying it!

Just make sure you are certain about identification before you gather anything from the wild, and always harvest consciously with respect and gratitude ❤

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Feels like summer!

Spring is well underway now, although it feels more like summer, and it has been exactly as incredible as I dreamed about all winter long. When everything was white, it was so hard to picture green, but now that it’s all green we can’t imagine the ice and snow anymore, and we like it much better this way! Everything exploded into flowers and green all at once, and the weather has been warmer and sunnier than I’ve experienced in all the time I’ve been in Norway. I have sunburns on top of sunburns, on top of layers of scratches and bruises from all the exploring, planting, dragging, digging, etc as we get things going here. It feels great to be so active again. I think I might even be growing some muscles!

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Phoebe was born in late November last year, so she has only experienced cold and snow up to this point, and she absolutely loves this warm, sunny new world. She loves splashing in the stream on hot days and racing around the yard. She follows me around when I forage for wild edibles and tend to the garden, and she is learning to lay calmly next to me while I work instead of stamping all over the gardens. I’m almost always wearing a pouch filled with kibble and other goodies because every day is filled with “teaching moments” for a curious puppy.

The trail camera has been busy up in the forest keeping an eye on some of the larger wild creatures we share the land with.

The abundance and diversity of wildlife here is truly amazing. It seems like almost every time I see an insect it’s one I haven’t seen before. There doesn’t seem to be an overabundance of any one species; it truly feels like a well balanced ecosystem. We have plenty of small predators like spiders, lizards, and frogs roaming the gardens already, along with bees, butterflies, and countless other pollinators. The days are now so long that there are birds singing pretty much around the clock. In the back near the forest edge there are some small ponds and marshy areas that are teeming with tadpoles.

We keep some areas around the house mowed, but we generally try to tread lightly and treat most of the property as a sanctuary for nature. This helps maintain that great abundance and diversity of insects, and it means that our gardens are not the only source of food and shelter in a desert of clipped grass. Diverse plant life provides the foundation for a healthy and robust ecosystem.

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The stinging nettles pictured below are near the edge of our veggie garden. Nettles are known to host a great deal of beneficial insects. These ones are currently nursing some caterpillars which will develop into butterflies that will probably end up pollinating some of our garden crops.

Not only do “weeds” provide food and shelter for insect life, but many of these plants are useful to us too. Stinging nettle is considered a nasty weed by most people, but I can’t get enough of it. I’ve seriously considered asking the neighbours if I could harvest some of theirs. Despite the painful sting, it is a highly nutritious early spring food (it tastes like spinach), it makes a nice herbal tea, it has medicinal uses, it attracts beneficial insects, it is used in biodynamic preparations for the garden and can be made into a surprisingly good hair rinse among many other things. You can read more about nettles here, if you’re curious.

We’ve also been experimenting with some other wild foods like fried dandelions. Those were actually better than I expected. I started nibbling on them and demolished half the batch before they even made it to the dinner table.. oops.. but Tux just couldn’t quite get past the idea of eating dandelions so he wasn’t super into it. He’s been very open minded with all this experimenting though, which makes it a lot more fun. I normally hate cooking, but being able to use ingredients we harvested ourselves changes the whole experience completely.

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Cheerful spring salad. A mix of foraged and store bought greens, wildflowers, and the first radishes from the garden 🙂

I think I could write an entire post dedicated just to our foraging experiments, or even stinging nettles alone since I’ve focused a lot on those this spring. I know there is loads more out there to discover, but this one is just so incredibly versatile! Next year maybe I’ll try getting obsessed with a different plant. Here are some pictures of the nettle harvest and a few of the different things I’ve been doing with them:

Mixed “weeds” pulled out of the gardens are also a great salad for the chickens, which they appreciate since they have already gobbled up every microscopic bit of green that was inside their run.

Here are some pictures to give an overview of the main garden beds that we have put down so far. Everything has been planted out now except tomatoes, which I’m not entirely sure where to place or how to support yet. I’ve done a lot of research on companion planting and try to place things according to which plants will cooperate with each other. Tomatoes and potatoes, which are both in the nightshade family, seem to be the fussiest from what I’ve read, but we have plenty of space so it shouldn’t be an issue anyway.

Along the south wall of the house we have these stone raised beds which I thought would make a nice place for a herb and salad garden. The bottom step has two rows of “baby leaf” lettuce and a row of radishes which will be replaced by another row of lettuce when the radishes are done. The second step up has a mix of edible flowers. In the steps above that I’ve planted thyme, oregano, parsley, borage, lemon balm, basil, and mint. There are a few strawberry plants next to the borage because I read that they grow nicely together and I love experimenting with plant partners.

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Below the stone “steps” is a small hill leading down to the plum tree and berry bushes. I plan to fill this hill with different herbs and useful ornamentals, focusing on perennials like echinacea. I plan to expand and develop this herb garden over time. I’m very interested in making herbal products like finishing salts, flavour mixes, teas, oils, and perhaps even some bath products. This will also be a good place for plants like comfrey that spread aggressively by roots, because it is bordered by mowed lawn and the driveway, so plants like this won’t get a chance to invade the wild meadows and forest around us.

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Underneath the row cover in the picture above is a patch of strawberries that were a gift from our lovely neighbours. The row cover is there to shelter the strawberries from the harsh sun while they get established in their new home.

We have half of a rhubarb plant, which we obtained from a friend who lives in an area that hasn’t been affected by the horrific brown slug invasion either, and was kind enough to dig up part of her rhubarb to plant into our garden. It seems to have transplanted well and is growing rapidly.

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All of our veggie and herb beds were established on top of the existing ground using sheet mulch instead of tilling. We laid down wet cardboard, covered it with a layer of well aged, composted horse manure, and topped it with a thick mulch of hay which we got from a friend who couldn’t use it to feed his cows (the wrapping had broken open and the bale had become damp). To plant, I just make an opening in the mulch and plant seeds or seedlings into the composted horse manure. As the young plants mature the cardboard and lawn below will be consumed by earthworms and other decomposers, opening up the soil below. With this technique, the earthworms, insects, and other soil life are responsible for turning and aerating the soil while also providing nutrients for the plants and adding organic matter, which helps with soil structure, water retention, and drainage. It’s basically on-the-spot vermicomposting that aims to mimic the process in nature. The mulch provides food and shelter for soil creatures, and it acts as insulation; keeping the soil at a comfortable temperature and moisture level. It should be very little work to maintain these gardens once they are established. The soil in our gardens should become deeper, richer, and healthier over time, rather than depleted and lifeless. It will require no additional inputs of fertilizers or soil amendments other than topping up the mulch and adding some compost each year to help replace the nutrients we remove when we harvest.

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Earthworms are thriving in the rich compost between the cardboard and mulch layers

So far the veggies we have planted in these beds are: rainbow carrots (interplanted with radishes), leeks, swiss chard, mixed varieties of kale, lettuce, bush beans, striped beets, spaghetti squash, some kind of green pumpkin, and chives. I might be forgetting something somewhere but I think that’s everything in these beds at the moment.

Below is an example of companion planting at work:

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I planted carrot and radish seeds together.  The radish pictured is pretty much ready to harvest, just as the carrot seedling next to it is starting to want that space. The two plants have occupied the same place in the garden at the same time without competing with each other, and the radishes have provided some shelter and protection for the fragile carrot seedlings in their earliest days.

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The very first veggies harvested from our garden!

The peas are off to a good start and should begin climbing up the trellis strings any day now. I arranged this bed so that the lettuces will receive full sun in the early part of the day but later on, once the peas are climbing the trellis, they will be sheltered from the more intense afternoon sun. That should extend the time we can use the mature lettuces before they bolt (go to seed).

I put together a super simple cucumber/squash trellis in the orchard garden, using a couple of small forked logs and a large wire grid that I found on the wall of the barn. There is space under the trellis, so I planted some lettuce here too. I also interplanted some marigolds with the cucumbers and squashes, to try and deter hungry insects that might want to snack on them.

Here I’ve planted a few rows of potatoes, again using a no-till sheet mulch technique. The plan is to add more mulch as the potatoes start to grow, so while the roots are growing downwards, the potatoes themselves will develop up in the hay. Instead of digging them up, we just have to pull off the mulch, which should mean the potatoes will come out clean and with a nice round shape. By next year most of the mulch we added will be broken down and this bed will be ready for a new plot of veggies.

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The plum and cherry trees are now finished blooming, and the berry bushes look amazing after their hard pruning this winter. They were neglected for a few years before we moved here, and there was a lot of heavy old growth on them. They were much too dense and heavy, which leaves them at risk for breakage and disease. I was a bit scared after cutting so much off of them, but they do seem rejuvenated and quite happy now. From what I can see we will be drowning in fruit this summer.

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Blackcurrant bushes are looking fresh and healthy after a severe winter pruning.

The chickens are enjoying more time outside now that their run is completely enclosed and secure. The next step is to set them up with mobile electric netting  so they can have access to fresh pastures and help us keep the grass trimmed.

We installed a couple of perches and sectioned off a dust bath area for them, and they get deliveries of fresh green “weeds” from the garden every day, plus occasional treats from the kitchen.

IMG_0306 The run includes a chicken door to the outside, which we plan to use when we (somehow) herd them back and forth between the coop and the mobile fence.

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I can’t say for sure but I think they are happy birds 🙂

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The Chicken Cam is still going, by the way! We now have two cameras up, one inside and one outside. If you’re on a computer you’ll find a button next to the settings button at the bottom of the video that lets you switch cameras, but for some reason YouTube doesn’t seem to offer that option on phones or tablets at this point.

There is audio on the inside camera only. You can often hear two of the roosters taking turns crowing!

Coop camera:

 

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Outdoor camera:

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So now that we are getting used to having nice weather and being outside, hopefully I’ll be able to get back into making art again. It was impossible to sit inside in front of the computer when the weather first started to turn nice and there was so much to do in the gardens, but now that we have had warm weather for a few weeks and the big rush of starting the gardens is over, I think I will finally be able to start drawing again.

If you’d like to see more frequent updates about the gardens, animals and life in general at Trollgården, you can follow me on Instagram 🙂

Hope you’re enjoying spring and early summer as much as we are!

 

Spring is here, and so are the CHICKENS!!!

Finally, after our first long winter on the farm, the ice is receding, the stream is bubbling, and ten fluffy little birds are peeping in the living room. It feels great to finally take a little step further towards self sufficiency and sustainability, and in my opinion there is no happier sound on earth than that of peeping chicks.

We have been planning for around 6-8 hens, but we ended up buying ten chicks, since we don’t know the genders and there will surely be some roosters in there. They are a mix of different breeds that lay different colours of eggs. We originally planned to raise a breed of chickens that Tux had seen before that have green legs and lay green eggs, but I came across a farm advertising that they had chicks available from hens laying a mix of colours, and we couldn’t resist. So we actually have no idea what kind of chickens we ended up with!

The chicks are two weeks old except one that is a week younger, so they aren’t as tame or comfortable with us as they would be if we hatched them here, but we plan to spoil them with treats, so we’re pretty sure they’ll learn to like us. It’s so addictive to watch them! We have two chairs set up next to the brooder and we spend as much time as we can sitting with them.

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We enjoy watching them so much we set up a 24/7 live video stream! You can find that here, if you feel like you could use a smile 🙂

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By the way, if you’re watching with audio on and you hear a lot of banging or rumbling, that’s probably one of two things (besides us walking around and closing doors etc). The chicks really like pecking on the wall that holds the camera, and they also make quite a bit of noise when they drink from their water bottle, so that might explain some of the noise. You’ll also hear us chatting from time to time as we watch them 🙂

The Brooder

Our brooder is mostly made from materials we found around the house, plus a few things that were just a lot easier to purchase. Here’s how it looks:

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The plastic container is a water tank we found in the basement when we moved in. It hadn’t been used before, and since it was so big Tux and my dad had to cut it in half to get it out of the room it was in. It happened to be a perfect size and shape for the chicks. The feeder is a bird feeder which we also found on the farm when we moved in. I gave it a good wash, and it seems to be working nicely. I’m amazed at how quickly they manage to empty it, though a lot of the food seems to just get kicked around in the shavings.

We bought the heat lamp and water bottle. The lamp arm came from a microphone Tux had over his desk, and it allows us to raise and lower the lamp to adjust the temperature.

The wooden divider (a board we found under the barn and cut to size) is just clamped to the sides of the tank, so we can expand it as they grow and start to need more space.

For water we are using one of those rabbit water bottles with the little metal ball (which is what makes the rumbling sound when they drink):

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Since they aren’t in a cage with bars to hook the bottle onto, I made a holder out of an empty plastic bottle and put rocks in the bottom to keep it from falling over.

The wooden block raises the bottle so it’s at a comfortable height, and prevents any water from dripping into the shavings.

The feeding station:

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They still like sleeping all piled up together in a big mass of fluff and feathers, but I nailed a small branch from the firewood pile onto two little blocks, so if they want to try roosting on a branch they have a little perch they can use for practice. Some of them do climb up on it now and then, but it doesn’t seem like they have good enough balance or stability to really fall asleep like that at this point.

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The food we’re starting with is organic chick pellets, which were kind of expensive. As we get more established we’d like to produce as much of their food as possible ourselves both to save money and make the whole thing more self sufficient and sustainable. We also want the chickens to have a more natural and varied diet which we feel will be healthier and more interesting for them than commercial pellets.

The Coop

The original intention was to have the chicken coop finished before getting the birds. That didn’t happen, so the new plan is to have it ready when they are ready for it. My prediction is that we’re going to end up with ten big chickens flapping around the living room and we still haven’t figured out what kind of fencing to secure their run with. Sometimes we just need a real push from some outside force to actually get things done. We’ve been talking about getting chickens for a very long time now, even before we bought the farm, but we still ended up slapping the brooder together the day before we got the chicks. That’s how life is when both people in the relationship are heavy duty procrastinators 🙂

But that’s ok! Things work out. We have the chicks, they seem to be doing great, even though we really have no idea what we’re doing and have to google everything.

Here’s the coop as it stands now. We’ve never had chickens before, so we decided to start out by building the coop in such a way that it’s not actually a permanent structure and if we end up liking the whole chicken thing (I suspect we will) we can build a bigger, more permanent coop or fix up the barn so it’s chicken-friendly. With a few small adjustments this coop can be used as a nice chicken tractor, or if it all goes horribly wrong we can just take it apart and forget about it.

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Other Spring Updates

Phoebe is growing up incredibly fast! I can’t believe how much she has changed since we first brought her home. Now that she’s a little bigger we go out hiking together almost every day. We usually spend about an hour exploring the forests around us. Phoebe loves sniffing through the moss and carrying sticks around. We have a lot of fun our walks, and I can already feel a difference in my own physical fitness since I started hiking with her.

We are incredibly fortunate to live in such a beautiful area with endless opportunities to explore and enjoy nature just outside the door.

The critter cam has been busy keeping tabs on the local wildlife. I recently moved it up the hill where I’ve noticed a lot of moose poop and tracks, so hopefully we’ll have some nice moose pictures in the near future!

Our first farm animals, the worms, are also doing very well. They have a much nicer home now than what they started in and they are thriving in there, along with enormous numbers of small arthropods and microorganisms. At this point they consume about a third of the food waste we produce, the rest goes into the compost bin outside or we send it to the township if it’s things like meat scraps or bones that we aren’t set up to compost ourselves. The worm bin doesn’t stink, even if you stick your head in it (I can say this from experience), and there is already a decent layer of rich finished compost forming at the bottom. Overall, this project is a huge success!

I’ve also been taking a Norwegian class in Notodden at the adult learning center, so altogether I haven’t had as much time to draw as I’d like, but I have been continuing work on the soil life series, here is the newest work in progress:

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This drawing is taking quite a lot of time, because it’s fairly detailed and takes significant time just to mentally get into working on it, especially with so much other interesting stuff starting to happen around me. Imagine drawing a gravel driveway, stone by stone.

*yawn*

Still, I do what I can when I can, and it’s getting there. The effort is always worth it in the end 🙂

 

 

 

Predatory Fungus in Soil

This is a gruesome example of how nutrients can move through the soil food web. Drawing this scene was complicated and very challenging, but I learned a lot in the process. The other soil life illustrations took about 10-15 hours each, this one took 32 hours over the course of several weeks. I had to leave and come back to it a few times, and I’m still not sure if it’s really finished. It might be one of those pieces that never really feels finished because there is so much to look at, but I had to draw the line (no pun intended) somewhere.

This drawing requires a bit of explanation, unless you’re a soil biologist or just know a lot about the soil food web.

The main subject of this illustration is the big worm, which looks kind of like an earthworm but is actually a nematode. Nematodes are roundworms are usually very small and are unsegmented, unlike earthworms. There are over 25,000 known species of nematodes, but they are so ubiquitous that scientists estimate there are actually about a million different species of them. If you’re an avid gardener or maintain a lawn you might have heard of nematodes before, either to help fight pests or as pests themselves. I’ve seen packages of parasitic nematodes in garden centers that people can buy as a biological pest control against grubs in their lawn.

Soil nematodes are very small; you usually need a decent microscope to see them. There are a few main types of soil nematodes that gardeners are interested in: fungal feeding, bacteria feeding, predatory, and root feeding nematodes. They have specialized mouthparts according to their diet. The nematode pictured here is a root feeding nematode, with a needle-like mouthpiece called a stylet used for piercing through plant roots to feed on them. This can cause bulges or lesions in the roots, which are not good for the plant.

The fungus pictured is Arthrobotrys dactyloides. You can find a very good video demonstrating how it traps nematodes here. I used this video as a reference to get a better idea of how the fungus should look, since I’ve never seen one in the microscope myself.

Nematodes don’t have any eyes, so they find their food by sensing chemicals in the area, kind of like our sense of smell. The fungus emits something to attract the nematodes into the rings, and when the nematode swims through the ring it senses the heat and the ring cells rapidly swell up like balloons, trapping the nematode and killing it. Then, fungal hyphae (like roots) grow into the nematode’s body and begin to digest it from the inside.

In the illustration, all this is happening on the surface of a plant root. A plant which is probably very happy to have the fungus around protecting its roots from hungry nematodes.

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As usual, if you look closely you can also see some other small critters in the picture. There are two small flagellates just above the plant root between two root hairs on the left side, and a ciliate just below and to the left of the nematode’s head. There are also scattered bacteria, demonstrating just how ridiculously small bacteria are, so small that even at this scale they just look like little specks of debris.

I kept the soil background relatively simple in this drawing because it was already busy enough with all the scraggly root hairs and fungal hyphae. I wanted to make sure it was easy to focus on the nematode and the fact that it’s trapped.

I hope this drawing, along with the others in the soil life series, will help demonstrate how complex, fascinating, and alive the soil ecosystem really is. It is essential that we as gardeners or farmers take care of our soil by protecting and encouraging a diverse and thriving soil ecosystem. Just being a bit more aware of what goes on down there is the first step towards more sustainable food production on any scale.

There are still more drawings to come in this series. I’ve already started the next one, which features some of my favourite protozoa. Here is a sneak preview of the work in progress:

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If you would like to use my existing artwork in a publication or display, or if you want to discuss commissions of any kind, feel free to contact me using the contact button above, or you can email me directly: artborean@gmail.com.

 

Arctic Tern Painting and Winter Update

This acrylic canvas painting of an Arctic Tern was a Christmas present, so now that the gift has been given I can post it here:

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Tux’s family lives near the coast, and when we visit I enjoy watching terns hover over the water, scouting for fish before they strike. As usual with phone pictures, the colours and lighting have been exaggerated a bit. Sometimes I wish I had a giant scanner just for paintings because taking pictures of them can be quite a challenge if the lighting isn’t ideal, and in my studio it’s far from ideal.

This time of year it’s almost always dark in the house. It’s near the base of  a large hill which is higher than the winter sun, so regardless of windows we can’t see the sun at all in the depth of winter. On nice days we still get blue skies and light of course, and on a sunny day I can determine approximately where behind the hill the sun is, but we can’t see the sun itself. Now I understand why so many holidays were originally based on things like the changing seasons; we are eagerly waiting for those first golden rays to reach over the trees signaling the return of warmth and light. After living in the city for three years, now I finally understand the Norwegian love of sitting in the sunshine, and why the easter holiday is such a big deal here. On one of the first days when I was in Canada this past Christmas, I realized it was sunny outside and I stepped out onto the porch, eager to feel the warmth on my skin, but it was -15C and that didn’t quite go as I expected. I hurried back inside before my feet froze to the deck boards. It was sunny almost every day while I was there, and not every day was that cold (boxing day was +9!), so now I consider going home for Christmas to be my “sunny holiday” for the winter. Norwegians go to Spain, I go to Canada 😉

I still love winter, and we have plenty to keep ourselves busy indoors, we just can’t do much outside these days because the whole landscape is a sheet of ice. 

It’s so slippery even the cat wipes out!

I sit inside painting and planning the coming gardens, waiting. It will be a relief when we can just walk outside and not worry about breaking a wrist or tailbone. I’ve got some lovely new bruises just from walking across the backyard to check on our new wildlife camera.

Speaking of which, here is our first catch from the “critter cam”!

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There have been loads of fox tracks around and we were told that a fox lived under the barn, which is why I’m determined to keep our kitty indoors at night as much as possible. It was fun to finally see the fox itself. I’ve seen lots of moose and deer tracks in this spot too, and we were told there are badgers around too, but so far haven’t had pictures of anything other than this fox and a neighbour’s cat prowling around.

As soon as I arrived back in Norway after Christmas, exhausted and jet lagged, we took a 10 hour drive up to Trondheim to pick up our “new” 40 year old electric garden tractor, which we are very excited about. The tractor came with solar panels for charging, so it’s totally self sufficient and emission free. These were never sold in Norway; it was imported from the states and as far as we know it’s the only one of its kind here, so we are absolutely thrilled to have it. It’s something we can fix ourselves if it breaks down since it was built before everything was so high tech and built to be “disposable”, so things were made to be fixable. The tractor came with all kinds of attachments, and we are super excited to see what it is capable of. I especially love how quiet it is compared to the diesel tractor or the gas lawn mower.

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Now things are starting to feel normal for the first time in what feels like forever. There are no more major life changes on the horizon. We’re settled in, the chaos of the holidays is over and I’m recovered from all the travel and getting back into work mode. I’ve got a contract coming up soon so I have had to push myself a bit to get back into drawing, which is always difficult if I’ve been away from it for a while, especially picking up where I left off on a work in progress. The current project involves a nematode being trapped by a fungus, like this. Nature can be pretty gruesome!

Hope you’re staying cozy and warm this winter 🙂

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Winter from the kitchen window ❤ 

First Weekend at the Farm

 

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5am view from the front yard

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Finally! After several long weeks of ending each day with a high-five, celebrating that we made it 24 hours closer to the farm, moving day actually came. We packed up the van and drove down to meet with the previous owner. He gave us a thorough walkthrough of the house, talking about chimneys and well pumps and things like that, papers were signed, and then he drove away. Suddenly the place was ours.

For a moment it was surreal, and a bit scary. It almost felt like when you’re going down the stairs and there was one less step than you thought and you try to step down again but hit the floor instead. We’ve been talking and dreaming about doing this for a few years now, and suddenly the time has come to face the fantasy and see if it lives up to our expectations. After just three days on the farm (in summer and off work), I can’t say we have really experienced the reality just yet but we are still fully confident that this was the right move and we will be very happy here.  IMG_7267Overall things seem to be even better than we thought they were when we first visited and made the decision to buy it. I expected that to go the other way.

I am still struggling to come to terms with the downed forest, since that was one of the things I had been most eager about when we were first looking at the (apparently outdated) satellite images of the property. I had anticipated easy access to beautiful forest trails near the house, and to rest assured that nobody would come and chop down my sanctuary. We do still have forest surrounding us in all directions and it is spectacular, but all the land closest to the house has been cleared right up to the edge of the property, so the beautiful backdrop and convenient access to the woods from the house are not ours, and therefore not safe from logging.

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Nope, we didn’t have a tornado.

I have already walked through some parts of the intact forest and it will be hard not to get attached. But as I keep telling myself, what’s done is done and the seventy year old trees (I counted rings) will not return anytime soon, so we have to just watch and admire the way nature slowly rebuilds itself after catastrophe. Tornadoes and forest fires would have had a similar effect, so I try to see humans as a different kind of natural disaster and that makes it a little easier to deal with. The property is still incredible, and with the loss of the forest comes many unique opportunities. Permaculture is about embracing and working with what you’ve got around you, and this is an opportunity to do that.

I would like to let some of it return naturally to wilderness or semi wilderness (zones 4-5 in permaculture design). Ideally we’d create a gradient of management zones, with the most intensively managed landscape closest to the house, and the lower maintenance areas such as orchards farther away towards the wilderness. Our heads are just spinning with ideas and possibilities. I feel like an overexcited kid jumping from one thing to the next, all these years of thinking and wishing for this opportunity are bubbling up and exploding in all directions now that we have actual land to work with.

Moving in

The first night was really weird. We were bringing stuff into the house from the  cars, and it really felt like we were just unpacking for a weekend at the cabin or house sitting for someone, and pretending or wishing we were going to live here. We kept reminding ourselves that this cool place is our new home.

We couldn’t move everything in one go, so meals were pretty basic over the weekend and it was fun figuring out how to do things without all the stuff we are used to having on hand.

IMG_7253We did lots of grilling too which was amazing after living in an apartment for so long and not being able to BBQ on the balcony.

On saturday we realized that we had enormously underestimated the amount of fruit that is already growing here. Plums, two types of gooseberries (stikkelsbær), red currants (rips), white currants (hvit rips?), and more black currants (solbær) than we will ever know what to do with. There are also several large patches of blueberries around, but it seems like humans or wildlife have been into them as there aren’t many actual berries left.

We spent some time picking red currants for eating (great with vanilla sauce and in cereal) and making jelly. I didn’t bring any jars or sugar to make jelly but I did happen have a large container, so I cleaned and froze the berries for later. I used lined cookie sheets to freeze the berries individually in batches, so that they wouldn’t end up in a solid mass. This way I can take out a handful now and then as needed, or use larger amounts to make jelly when I’m ready to do that.

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I had berries with vanilla sauce, and Tux had vanilla sauce with berries.

We have many steep learning curves ahead of us, in all aspects of managing this place. Just from this little berry-picking experience I’ve already leveled up and learned some new things. Next time I will pick the twigs rather than individual berries, so that both picking and cleaning them is easier, and I’ll use a smaller container or pick smaller amounts at a time so the bottom ones don’t get crushed.

There is quite a bit of lawn to maintain (eventually much of it will be gardens) so the lawn mower got some use right away, but there wasn’t much fuel in it and we didn’t think to bring any gas with us so we didn’t get very far.

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The road leading to the farm was closed on saturday, so we weren’t able to go out and get a gas can, then of course it’s Norway so everything is closed on sunday and it didn’t happen then either.

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This is why the road was closed on saturday

Wildlife

There are definitely moose here. Either a lot of them, or a few that visit frequently. We haven’t seen the animals themselves yet, but their presence is obvious. There are moose droppings and tracks all over, including two big plops right on the front lawn. Like many people, I thought moose droppings were always big pellets like those chocolate covered almonds they sell as “moose poop”. At first I was mildly freaked out, wondering what else could have possibly dropped such big piles. Thanks to Google I learned that moose poop can be more like a cow patty too, depending on the season and what it’s been eating.

The tracks are surprisingly big too…

In case that wasn’t enough poop pictures, here is one more. This one I believe is from a deer who I suspect is the reason we don’t have many blueberries around. Hopefully soon we’ll get some pictures of the animals themselves!IMG_7228

There are birds around, but not as many as we had expected. We found a bird feeder on the lawn and put some seed in it, which the local magpies found pretty quickly. I’ve also seen and heard some songbirds and have heard ravens a few times but considering the vast forest around us, it is a lot quieter than I would have expected.

Behind the barn we have a massive ant colony. I can’t say for sure, but I am pretty confident that these trails in the grass are actually ant highways leading to and from the main colony (which surrounds the stump in the bottom pictures). The first time we were here I wandered over there in flip flops and the ants made their presence known immediately, so now I only go there in boots. The colony is pretty fascinating to watch, I just hope they don’t decide to invade the house.

The loggers were anything but gentle here and left behind massive scars in the landscape which have collected quite a bit of water and formed mini ponds. Nature has a way of making things work though, and we have seen some dragonflies patrolling around the mini ponds and by the house. I think this is why there are surprisingly few mosquitoes around despite all that standing water. I thought we would have been smacking them all day but we really only notice them further into the forest (away from the water), and around the house in the early evening when they are normally the worst anyway. Dragonflies are a mosquito’s worst nightmare, hunting them both as larvae and adults. I think we would be smart to work around these wet areas and try to incorporate them into our plans in order to leave the dragonfly habitat intact as much as possible.

Of course, we have plenty of bees and butterflies around too 🙂

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Wild Treasures

While walking through the deforested areas I found a few cool souvenirs. There are large slices of logs lying among the debris, including the one pictured below. I had actually noticed this one at the first showing, noted the location and then went back to get it once we moved in. Sadly that crack you can see at the bottom right has opened into a big split and it won’t work as a platter or decorative piece anymore. I also found several longer chunks of thick logs that we can haul down and set up around the fire pit for sitting.

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In addition to the cultivated fruits near the house, there is plenty of wild food around. There are wild strawberries, blueberries, and a few more berries whose identities I need to confirm before tasting, and the place is filled with mushrooms which I also don’t plan to eat until I can confirm who’s who. There are abundant wild edible and medicinal herbs too, including St John’s wort, meadowsweet, yarrow, fireweed, nettles, and wood sorrel which I love to nibble on while hiking. Maybe someday I’ll do some herbal posts describing these plants and what they are useful for.

It seems like everywhere I look here there is an edible or otherwise useful plant, but there are also some most definitely non-edible things around, like this cool looking but hallucinogenic and highly toxic Super Mario mushroom, aka fly agaric or fly amanita. This one is obvious but I know there are many other poisonous mushrooms and plants around here, so I won’t be tasting anything from the woods unless I know exactly what it is.

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What now?

The next big things on the to-do list are to renovate the shower upstairs (for some reason the drain is on the highest part of the floor…), and to plan and build a chicken coop. Very soon I should have my art studio set up as well, along with my digital drawing stuff. I’m really looking forward to that as it’s been basically impossible to do much artwork in the apartment these last few months and I have missed spending time on that. We have many visitors coming soon to prepare for, and we also have more moving and settling in, of course, and then there is all the general planning and deciding what to do and how to really get started.

It will be pretty busy going forward, but busy in the best way imaginable 🙂