Homemade Fireweed Tea (DIY “real” tea!)

IMG_1237

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.

IMG_1224 2.JPG

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 🙂

IMG_1235.JPG

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.

IMG_1227.JPG

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.

IMG_1248.JPG

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:

IMG_1215.JPG

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.

IMG_1221.JPG

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.

IMG_1217

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 ❤

Advertisements

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!

IMG_0204

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.

IMG_0232

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.

img_0377

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.

IMG_0286

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.

IMG_0313

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.

IMG_0296

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.

IMG_0333

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:

IMG_0327

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.

img_0376

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.

IMG_0317

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.

IMG_0315

 

 

IMG_0314

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.

IMG_0303

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

FullSizeRender 6

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:

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 09.54.16.png

Outdoor camera:

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 09.48.42.png

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!