Finding Abundance

Stinging Nettle Bane or Balm

Karrie SteelyI enjoy foraging and finding uses for weeds and plants that pop up everywhere this time of year. Recently I discovered that one of the local plants that's usually avoided like the plague is full of nutrients and pharmaceutical benefits. You might wonder why I’d even think of handling something as vexatious as stinging nettle. It just goes against my stingy nature to go to the grocery store and spend money on food and medicine that's growing right under my nose. Besides, I kind of like the challenge – the slight element of danger. Hey, I’ll take any excitement I can get!

nettle field

I first encountered stinging nettle walking through a wooded area in Nebraska, and since then I’ve learned to keep a close eye on the vegetation when I’m walking there. (Not to mention performing other necessary functions that one does in the woods.) I’d rate the discomfort from the sting somewhere between pain and extreme irritation, but the sensation goes away after a few minutes. The plants are covered with tiny little hollow needles that inject several chemicals into anything unfortunate enough to brush against them. Not pleasant.

nettle plant

One of the issues I deal with on a daily basis is lower back pain. I can’t take ibuprofen or other NSAID drugs because of stomach issues. I’m constantly looking for ways to mitigate the pain so I can go about daily life and chores. When I was researching nettles, I found there has been a lot of scientific research done on their ability to treat joint pain. The clincher is that you can’t just make a tincture or neutralize the venom first. You have to apply the stinging needles directly to your skin so they can inject the chemicals. “The hairs, or spines, of the stinging nettle are normally very painful to the touch. When they come into contact with a painful area of the body, however, they can actually decrease the original pain. Scientists think nettle does this by reducing levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body, and by interfering with the way the body transmits pain signals.”  (Source: University of Maryland Medical Center)

picking nettles

So in case you’re wondering, the answer is yes. I did it. I stuck a handful of them on my back. And yes, it stung. After about four minutes, the stinging went away, and it actually helped the pain. I would say it was about the same effect as taking a few ibuprofens. So far I’ve done it twice. The first time it only lasted a few hours, and I wanted to see if it was just in my head. The second time it lasted several hours longer. I still haven’t decided if it is worth the initial pain, but I think when I’m having a particularly bad back day, it will be.

nettles in a pot

Nettles also reportedly have beneficial properties for lactation, diabetes, dandruff, kidney and urinary tract issues, prostate, testosterone, the cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, flu, rheumatism and gout. People make tinctures, poultices, teas, and other remedies from them. They are also nutritious, with high levels of calcium and vitamin A. You can use nettles in any recipe you would use spinach or other cooked dark greens. I made the Indian dish, Saag, and it was delicious. I include the recipe here if you’re interested in trying it.


6 cups uncooked nettles
3 tablespoon canola oil, divided
1/2 pound paneer
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 thinly sliced onion
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 diced tomato
2 teaspoons garam masala
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
Salt to taste

Bring water to a boil. Cook nettles until wilted, about 3 minutes. Drain well and transfer to a food processor. Puree until finely chopped.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry paneer cubes, stirring constantly, until browned on all sides. Set aside.

Heat remaining canola oil in the skillet and fry the cumin seeds until lightly toasted. Add onion; cook and stir until onion begins to soften. Stir in ginger, garlic, tomato, garam masala, turmeric, and cayenne pepper; cook and stir until tomato pieces break down and onions are translucent.

Stir in nettles, cream, paneer cubes, and salt to taste. Cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Orchard Update

Karrie SteelyWhen my partner and I first started talking about an orchard last year, I had visions of bountiful, overflowing baskets of fruit, lots of pies, canning, and sharing with family and friends. Reality hit quickly when I realized that it would take several years before we could count on fruit production. Undeterred, we decided to jump in and give it a go. But last fall our orchard got off to a rough start.

We had picked an area in town between his shop and our old-church-turned-art-studio to put in fruit trees and bushes. We figured that since we’d be in town on a daily basis, it would be a nice place for the orchard. We bought the plants in containers late in the season, when they were on sale. Most of them were root bound, but we thought we’d give them a try anyway. Two out of six trees survived, and three out of four berry shrubs made it. Good thing most places have a “no questions asked” return policy on plants!

a hole

Then, plans changed, and we decided we needed a building for the equipment we use for the wheat cleaning business. The surviving trees and shrubs had to be dug up, which was done in the late fall after they had lost their leaves. We put them in 5-gallon buckets and stuck them in the church basement, where they spent a cool but unfrozen winter, being watered every few months.

ready to plant

Amazingly, they were all alive this spring (you could tell because the twigs were springy and green inside). This year we ordered bare root trees and shrubs through the Internet. After clearing a few acres of an old tree lot on the farm down the hill from where we are building the house, I got to work planting the new orchard. The soil out there is fantastic, and it’s in a little bit of a protected hollow, so we’re hoping it is a good spot.

irrigation parts

The bare root trees look like sticks with scraggly little roots at the end, and I’m trying hard to visualize 10-foot-tall, fruit laden canopies. I have faith that they will make it if I do my part. I dug nice wide holes, made chicken wire barriers to keep the rabbits and deer from munching them, and installed irrigation drip lines with a timer. They’ll get plenty of water while they wake up and become acclimated to their new, permanent home. I’m giving each one lots of TLC, and keeping my fingers crossed.

I realize that the chances of all of them surviving are pretty slim, but I’m going to try my hardest. Even if they survive the transplanting, we will probably find that some of them like it in their new environment, and some just won’t thrive. We’re feeling so optimistic, we just put in another online order that will double the amount of plants that are in the ground now.

hopeful tree

Some types of trees need pollinators, and some we just wanted more varieties, so we got a few of each kind. The orchard will have apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, nectacots, nectarines, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and a few hazelnut trees. There are also wild currant bushes growing in the orchard area, and a few wild plums, gooseberry bushes, and mulberry trees scattered around the farm.

There are emerging leaves and leaf buds on a few plants, which is really encouraging. Others just look like twigs stuck in the ground. Where there is now bare ground and a few pathetic sticks, I look at it and see full trees, orchard grass, and grandchildren swinging in branches and playing by a little pond with bellies full of fruit. Hey, a girl’s gotta dream, right?

A Little Common Sense, Please

Karrie SteelyThe other day I wrote a blog that included a homemade recipe. One of the ingredients in my recipe was 1/2 cup corn syrup. Based on the reaction I got, you would think that I had suggested something unspeakable had to be done to baby Harp Seals in order to procure the corn syrup. Many people responded negatively to the blog because of this ingredient. Honestly, I was a little shocked.

I also occasionally use butter in my recipes and on my bread (gasp! I eat wheat bread! Granted, homemade, whole-wheat bread from homegrown wheat, but … WHEAT!) I used it when everyone said it was bad for you, and I’m still alive. And now it is “common knowledge” all over the Internet that butter is … yes … good for you in moderation. It said so on the Internet, so it must be true.

No high fructose corn syrup | courtesy 

Photo: courtesy

With the advent of the world wide web, people seem to have become more polarized in their viewpoints. You can find support for any argument on the Internet that is "researched" and “written by experts.” It’s hard to sort out what is true and what isn’t. Try it. Take a current hot-button issue. Look up arguments supporting it. Look up arguments against it. There is compelling evidence on either side. What it boils down to is that we all tend to choose what we want to believe, and then proceed to find information that supports our viewpoint. I’m certainly guilty of this, too. But I try to dig below the surface a little more. And, upon finding hard facts, my mind has been changed on more than one occasion.

I’m a freelance writer, so I do a fair amount of research on the Internet. Here are a few methods I use when trying to find facts on a given subject.

– I look at the source. First of all, what does the author have to gain? Are they selling a book or something, or is the article published on a website driven by commercial traffic? If I want to find cold hard facts, I look for articles or studies published in professional journals or by universities (while keeping in mind where their funding is coming from). I try to find at the very least two or three articles, and if they don’t support the same viewpoint, that’s even better because I’m getting the whole picture. Often people will cite research to support their arguments, but ironically, you can find arguments for both sides using the same studies, with hand-picked and skewed information that supports either view point.

– I pay attention to the tone. When absolute, alarming words or statements are used, my little red flag pops up. I recently read an article online that was supposedly written by a doctor, titled “5 Reasons High Fructose Corn Syrup Will Kill You.” He exclaimed, “It is extracted from corn stalks through a process so secret that Archer Daniels Midland and Carghill would not allow the investigative journalist Michael Pollan to observe it for his book.” Upon further googling, I found the process on several websites, including Wikipedia. Quite a secret apparently.

– Just because people quote from well-known sources or public figures, it doesn’t mean that what they say is irrefutable. Here’s a great example. These are two different articles, each published in well-respected publications. “Michael Pollan: High Fructose Corn Syrup Is Not Necessarily Worse Than Sugar” in the Huffington Post, and in the Washington Post, "High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Not So Sweet for the Planet” (an article that cites Pollan in arguments that HFCS is very bad indeed). Both of these articles are well written and have valid points. They also send two very different messages using the same well-known public figure to prop up their arguments. My point being, we all need to think critically about what we read and take it all with a grain of salt, so to speak.

Use common sense when going gluten-free | courtesy

Photo: courtesy

People can “prove” anything they want to. And, like in politics, they appeal to an emotional response to find agreement. Some of the articles out there right now about common food fads or movements are purposefully frightening in their vehemence and emotional appeal. I don't know about you, but I don't like to feel manipulated to agree with someone's opinion.

Maybe you remember McCarthyism from history class, or lived through it. The modern ‘bad guys’ – wheat, corn syrup, corn, processed foods, GMO foods, “big agriculture” and many more – have been effectively blacklisted. Are they good or bad? It’s not so black and white, each has negative and positive aspects. I personally choose to produce and consume as much as my own food as possible for a variety of reasons. A lot of people do. But when people have a knee-jerk reaction to the words “corn syrup” that echo the sounds of a mob on a witch hunt, I think this has all gone a little far.

Many of us do our best to make good decisions about what we and our families consume. My family grows, hunts and preserves much of our food. I recycle and use organic gardening practices. And, I add something notoriously bad to a recipe every once in a while, which, if I were dragged before a modern-day Food Squad, I would no doubt be condemned for. I exercise regularly, and every so often I stop for ice cream or some other forbidden, corn syrup-laden confection after a nice long walk. I know my overall health is great as a result of taking care of myself. I also know that the occasional dollop of mayonnaise in a salad or bag of tortilla chips (corn again!) will not lead me to suffer or die in some horrible way, unless things get so out of hand that I might be stoned to death (I imagine myself laying there with an empty chip bag in hand). This world could use a little more moderation, in our diets and in our thinking.

"It's gluten free!" | courtesy Naomi Devlin, Straight Into Bed Cakefree and Dried blog, via 

courtesy Naomi Devlin, Straight Into Bed Cakefree and Dried blog, via

Some Thoughts About Tools From A Woman’s Perspective

Karrie SteelyAs a woman I have a unique appreciation of the right tools. Having used them for much of my life, I don’t take it for granted when I find something that works well for me, and I marvel at how much harder life must have been before modern tools were invented.

As all of us women know, most hand tools are designed for men. They are made for big hands and upper body strength. Often they’re awkward to hold and sometimes difficult to use. More often than not, I have to put my noggin to work to figure out how to use leverage or gravity to make up for smaller hands and lack of physical size and strength.

pulling staples 

We’re working long hard hours to build our house on the old abandoned farmstead where my partner grew up (and his dad before him). It’s a huge task. Fences need to be moved to keep cows out of our area, trees need to be cleared, dirt work to be done, old equipment and buildings to be dealt with, water lines to be put in, a garden and orchard to be prepared … the list goes on.

Tools seem to move around on their own when we’re not looking. Working on several acres, we tend to get spread out. No matter how consciously I try to put things back where they belong so I can find them later, they inevitably sneak away when I’m not looking. They can jump, too. Out of pockets, off of shelves, into dark corners. Yesterday a whole box full made a break for it and got disked into the garden when a bolt on the toolbox on the tractor came loose. I suggested that we water them and see what comes up this summer. Maybe a metal detector would be a better idea, since a sledge hammer or pipe wrench would probably win a fight with a rototiller.

tool drawer 

wall of tools

There are old tools everywhere on the farm. Everything from big farm machinery (some dating back to the beginning of the 20th Century) to old harnesses for work horses to a shop absolutely full of hand tools and an old forge. The farm was built and run by hand, using iron and horses and archaic engines. It’s hard to imagine the long days of back-breaking physical labor, getting up before the sun and going to bed well after it. I can see why women were often relegated to the less strenuous (but just as exhausting) household work, given the sheer strength needed for the farm work.


stump grinder

The other day my partner commented, “You know, if my dad had a skidsteer, I don’t think he would have had kids.” We’re using a skidsteer and tractor for the heavy work. The amount that one person can accomplish in one day with a skidsteer would have taken a week or more back then. The attachments are amazing. If someone starting out homesteading asked what I thought the best investment would be, I would say hands down a good skidsteer and a few attachments. The upfront cost is large, but over the years they pay for themselves tenfold.

So far we’re using a tree shear, grapple and stump grinder to clear the area of old unhealthy trees where we are planting a fruit orchard.  We use forks for moving old equipment out of the way and pulling posts, the bucket for leveling and dirt work, and a trencher for digging water lines. The best part is I can do all this work. There’s still plenty of hand work that needs to be done, but the modern machinery makes all the difference in the world.


Make Your Own Throat Lozenges With Your Favorite Herbs

Karrie SteelyEven though winter is making it’s slow exit, it isn’t over quite yet. I find myself daydreaming about my garden, ordering more seeds than I’ll probably plant, and coveting people who have greenhouses.

As each day comes and goes, more often than not it snows or dips into the teens or single digits. I keep telling myself that maybe tomorrow it will get better. I know that something must be growing under all that snow, and the robins and redwing blackbirds certainly must have a reason to be singing their little heads off.

It’s still the time of year that the children come home from school with a sore throat and chills. One of my daughters is interested in herbology, and she’s found that drinking tea of lemongrass and marshmallow root helps to relieve her symptoms and speed her recovery. The lemongrass apparently has an anti-bacterial effect. The marshmallow root helps soothe the throat and also is claimed to have anti-bacterial properties. Neither of those plants grow in our climate, but fortunately there is a natural grocer in town, and I stopped in to pick some up when she came home with some kind of crud yesterday. (I also made a mental note to myself to find local wild plants that have similar properties that I can dry and store.)


She drank her tea, but said that her throat hurt, and wished she had some lozenges. “I’ll make you some from your herbs,” I said, excited at the prospect of trying something new.

I boiled about 1 tablespoon of each herb in 3 cups water until about half the water had boiled off. I then added 2 cups sugar and 1/2 cup corn syrup, and 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar.

I boiled and stirred this for what seemed to be about 45 minutes, until it had reached hard ball stage. I was aiming for 300 F, but my thermometer wasn’t working correctly. So I took a clear glass of cold water and dripped my mixture into it every once in a while. At first it just dissolved, then later made a soft little ball, and then finally the drip made a solid ball.

At that point I turned the heat off and spooned the drops onto parchment paper to cool. After they had cooled enough to handle, I rolled them into balls. After awhile they hardened completely.

boiling it

drying the lozenges

She’s feeling better today, and took a little bag of the drops to school with her. I’m definitely going to try this with other herbal mixtures, and maybe experiment with some just to make flavored candies with things I grow in the garden like mint or basil. One of these days things will start growing again, I just know it.

final product

Dreaming of Gardening

Karrie SteelyEven though spring is a few months away, this time of year my thoughts turn to garden planning and seeds. Now is the time to start, because I always try something different each year. When I stand out in the garden on a bleak January day like today, it’s hard to imagine how lush and verdant it all is in the height of the summer. Leafing through seed catalogs and looking at photographs of my garden from last season helps to kick start my enthusiasm.

winter arch 

summer garden

My garden started as an experiment with raised beds in a semi-shady small suburban yard. Most soil in developments and subdivisions is terrible because it is mainly compacted fill dirt. In addition, in our area the soil has a lot of clay in it, which makes it that much worse.

So I built several raised beds from things I bought at a second-hand store for construction materials. One was just a sturdy cabinet laid on its back with the back removed. I filled them with composted horse, chicken and goat manure mixed with topsoil, sand and organic material. They have done phenomenally, even in the partial shade. I put together a drip irrigation system through all of this so that I could be as efficient with the water as possible.  

Every year I modify or add structure, more beds or trellises. One year I built a simple cold frame by creating a frame out of two layers of 2-by-6s, and adding glass-paned cabinet doors with a hinge to the top. I was able to plant spring greens a month earlier and keep plants going a month later in the fall this way. It was super easy! During the warm months I simply removed the cabinet doors from the top so that it wouldn’t get too hot.

Last spring I built a few trellises out of repurposed PVC pipe and wire, and chose some vining vegetables and flowers to utilize the horizontal space in the garden. I planted red runner beans (a shelling bean with beautiful bright red flowers), pole beans, cucumbers, vining summer squash, climbing nasturtiums, and morning glories. This coming spring the experiment will be growing vegetables in straw bales.

spring trellis  winter trellis

A few new exotic, unusual, colorful veggies are planted each year. I mix in colorful plants such as rainbow chard, purple or speckled beans, long Chinese beans, purple potatoes, golden or striped beets, unusual tomatoes and a variety of colors of eggplants. Often the flavors of these unusual varieties live up to the liveliness of the colors, but occasionally they are disappointing, so I plant some of my standards as well. Cooking with colorful or new vegetables every summer is such a treat.

I’ve always been a practical gardener, and until last year I never planted flowers unless I could eat them. Last spring I did a little experimenting with colors and textures, and was really pleased with how it brightened up the garden and attracted pollinating insects. Marigolds served a dual purpose, because they are supposed to keep bad bugs out of the garden. I added some sprays of wild flowers, climbing vining flowers, and happy sunflowers.

In a few months, I’ll start reporting about the progress on my straw-bale garden project. In the meantime, I'll daydream as I flip through the seed catalogs, pick out new things to plant and sketch out my next gardens.

Migration Isn't Just for the Birds

Karrie SteelyEvery winter we take a break from the homesteading life and migrate south. The main drawback of this lifestyle is that we don’t raise or keep animals. But as much as I miss the farm animals, not having them has given us the flexibility to go where it is warm and come back in time for growing season.


Most of our time is spent on remote Bureau of Land Management Land with no RV hookups. (This is land owned by the federal government - i.e. We The People) and in most areas, anyone is allowed to camp for free in one spot for up to 14 days. We hike and 4-wheel and generally enjoy the solitude and silence. Most of the winter is spent in the desert mountains in Arizona, Southern California and Utah.

tanks and batteries 

Our camper has nine solar panels and 25 batteries. We have a 150-gallon capacity for propane, and enough water to last several weeks if we are conservative. Many of our meals consist of deer that we processed and froze or made into jerky from the fall hunt.

All this weight is pulled by a semi-tractor, which is partially fueled with the soy oil we made last summer. There’s also a 300-gallon tank with the soy oil for the semi and diesel engine in the rock crawler that he built, which rides in the garage in the back of the camper. He is really into 4-wheeling, so he has an air compressor, welder, tools, spare tires and spare parts, making a fully functioning “mini-shop” in the back.


The sun shines most of the time, so we only have to use the generator a few times each winter, which runs on the propane. It does get chilly at times, so the propane heater usually runs at night. We get enough power from the solar panels that we can run the TV, lights and computers without worrying about conserving electricity. For four or five months out of the year, it’s a comfy home away from home. It’s a perfect size for two people, and you have to love each other’s company. There are a lot of friends we meet camping and who we join for 4-wheeling events, and there is a routine of the migration from place to place.


His rock crawler (an extreme 4-wheel drive vehicle) is the fifth generation of experiments that he has built over the years. This one is pretty amazing. He applied hydraulics and other mechanical principles that he learned building and fixing farm equipment, so this is a one of a kind that draws crowds. (If you’d like to see it in action, visit the Facebook page Rock Dawg Sidewinder, and like it if you want to follow our 4-wheeling adventures.)

By the time the winter is over, we are always rested and ready to get back to the hard work of farming life. But for now it’s ‘roughing it’ in the winter desert.