Good Camel Garden

Holy Thistle

Jenny FloresMarch and April are perfect months to forage for thistle. I know the plant by the name Holy Thistle (Silybum marianum), but it is also called Lady's Thistle, Marian Thistle, Mary Thistle, Milk Thistle and Wild Artichoke. Regardless of what you call it, it's health benefits are amazing and the taste is outstanding.

Thistle has many medicinal properties. It is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic. It is immunostimulating and hepaprotective.

Thistle is indicated for alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver poisoning and viral hepatitis. It is beneficial for adrenal disorders and IBS. Thistle offers protection to the liver when taking strong medication. It helps prevent Candida and food allergies.

Women with hormone-dependent conditions such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, breast, ovary, or uterine cancer should not take thistle due to its possible estrogenic effects. Men with prostate cancer should not take thistle without first talking to their doctor.

I think, whenever possible, it is best to eat the whole food. Thistle is often considered a weed so it is definitely not hard to find this time of year. When harvesting, wear long sleeves and gloves. It is as prickly as it looks! The leaves and stalks are edible. The leaves can be steamed just like spinach. My favorite is the stem. Peel the stalk (it is stringy like celery). Chop and put in salad – lettuce, chicken or tuna. I have also thrown a handful of raw stalk in okra cornbread. Delicious!

harvesting thistle 

If you want the benefits of thistle year-round you can make a tincture. To do this you will need to harvest the thistle seeds. When the seed head turns brown, cut it off the plant and place in a paper bag. Store in a cool, dry spot 48 to 72 hours. Lay them out on a screen on a table. Carefully brush the seeds out of the head onto the screen. Remove any debris. Store thistle seeds in a clean container.

To make the tincture you need ¾ cup thistle seeds, 2 cups 100-proof alcohol (divided), and 2 cups water (divided). Process seeds in a blender or herb grinder. Pour the processed seeds into a sterilized pint-sized canning jar. Pour 1 cup alcohol and 1 cup water over seeds and stir to mix. Close the jar with a sterilized lid and ring. Store in a cool, dark place for 3-5 weeks. Shake daily and make sure the seeds stay covered with the liquid.

Make a reserve container of liquid by mixing the remaining alcohol with remaining water. Use when the liquid level drops and your thistle seeds are no longer saturated.

After 3 to 5 weeks, strain liquid into small containers. Discard seeds, store extract in sealed containers.

Remember, tincture are much stronger than the whole food. One to three drops in a cup of hot herbal tea once or twice a day is sufficient.

early thistle 

Homestead Skills

Jenny FloresI recently read about the Japanese concept of kaizen. Kaizen translates as “continuous improvement.” It is the process of consistently taking small steps to make a process better. I realized that for a process as big as homesteading, kaizen is the best, if not the only, way to approach it. There are so many skills to learn and the temptation is to bite off more than you can chew. I have come up with a list, based on research and my own personal interests, of homesteading skills. If you have skills you would like to share with me, or an addition for my list of skills to learn, I would love to hear from you.

GARDENING

1. Grow your own food – vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts.

garden 

2. Grow transplants from seeds.

3. Learn and practice natural garden pest control.

4. Extend your growing season.

5. Create an aquaponic garden.

6. Save seeds.

7. Build a rain barrel.

8. Learn alternative farming methods for drought conditions.

9. Find a specialty crop that is a good match for the local farmers market and area restaurants.

FOOD STORAGE

finished jam1. Dry beans for seed and storage.

2. Infuse herbs in oil, vinegar, water, alcohol, or honey.

3. Can foods.

4. Pickle foods.

5. Fermentation.

6. Learn how to dehydrate foods.

7. Build a cool-storage for foods.

8. Brew own wine.

9. Render beef tallow and poultry fat.

10. Grow foods that can be stored without electricity.

FOOD PREPARATION

making sausage1. Homemade extracts.

2. Make your own breads and pastas.

3. Build and cook with a solar oven.

5. Make your own cheese, cream, and yogurt.

LIVESTOCK

1. Raise chickens for eggs and meat.

2. Raise rabbits for meat, fiber, and manure.

3. Raise goats for meat and milk.

kid nursing 

4. Raise bees.

5. Learn how to butcher small livestoock.

SUSTAINABLE LIVING SKILLS

1. Learn and practice water conservation techniques.

2. Reduce use of electricity.

3. Make candles.

4. Reduce toxic products by making own bath and home cleaning products.

SELF-RELIANT SKILLS

1. Learn CPR and first aid skills.

2. Learn how to sharpen any edge tools.

3. Learn how to use a gun.

4. Learn basic plumbing, carpentry, and small engine repair skills.

HOME REMEDIES

1. Learn basic properties of herbs and plants in your area.

2. Make herbal teas based on herbal properties.

3. Make and use herbal tinctures.

I am sure I am no way close to covering all the skills I need to know so please feel free to add to this list.

Rowdy The Ameraucana

Jenny FloresBefore I realized I wanted to be a homesteader I knew I wanted chickens. I don't call it an obsession. I think lifelong dream sounds better while neither overstating nor understating my desire. Once I found myself in a position to homestead, chickens became less of a pipe dream and more of an imperative. Close your eyes and imagine a homestead. I bet there are chickens scratching around.

chicks 

My first season started with five chicks. In spite of the snakes, foxes, hawks and owls, all five made it through the season. Success! I decided not only to get more chicks, but also a rooster. Living where we do, it wasn't long before someone offered us two roosters. Free.

When we went to pick them up we were told they were in their coop. “Oh, we usually let them out,” she said, avoiding eye contact. Both roosters had their spurs cut off. “Well, they sometimes fight with each other. But never with the hens. And they are pretty gentle with people.” I heard Alan groan softly. The third clue happened as we were saying our goodbyes. “Please don't eat them.” Before I could offer my assurances, I was turned and ushered out the door.

The first few weeks were uneventful. I spent much more time than was productive gazing out at the pastoral scene. One day, however, as I was walking out to the laundry line, I heard something running behind me. As I turned to see what it was, the rooster flew up into the air until we were face to face, feathers puffed up, hideous toes curled and way too close to my face. Wet clothes landed on the ground but I made it into the house. “Maybe the rooster just isn't feeling well,” I suggested to Alan. He laughed and said, “Maybe.”

roosters

Rowdy The Ameraucana
rowdy – (noun) 1. a cruel and brutal fellow

With each day the rooster became more aggressive. When he heard the door open he would run to meet me. I read books on how to be a chicken whisperer. I tried the permissive parenting model, offering food scraps whenever I needed to go outside. I tried the tough love model of caging him but he would draw blood when we had to reach in the cage. I took to carrying a canoe paddle when I checked the mail. I tried to be as fierce as he was, but my screams sounded, even to my ears, like a terrified child. Eventually I found something that worked.

“Aren't you glad I didn't let you promise not to eat him?” Alan said. I just smiled and asked for more gravy.

Slow Cooker Jams

Jenny FloresThis past summer we received an abundance, maybe even an overabundance, of apples. Of course I didn't want them to go to waste and I knew the best thing to do was to find a way to preserve them. Being new to homesteading I was still a little scared of canning. I had only eaten jam bought at the grocery store. Not even the farmers' market. Somewhere in my city life I had been taught that home canning was dangerous. Yes, they made precious gifts, until the recipient ate it and died a terribly painful death. Clearly this was a hurdle I was going to have to get over.

I did some research and I found some great (easy) recipes. I was surprised by the amount of truly helpful people and sites I found online. Apparently a lot of us are trying to live a more sustainable, self-sufficient life. Because I was nervous about the whole process I picked the recipe that looked the easiest. And by that I mean the hardest to mess up. The only bad thing about starting my life as a canner with a recipe made in the slow cooker is I can't come up with a reason to do it any other way!

Finished Jam 

Slow Cooker Jam

5 pounds apples (peeled, cored, coarsely chopped)
1/4 cup water
6 tablespoons lemon juice
2 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Put apples, water, lemon juice and brown sugar in a large slow cooker. Stir to blend well. Prop lid open with a wooden spoon handle. Cook on low heat for 8 hours.

Stir in salt and cinnamon. Cook on low an additional hour.

During the last hour of cooking, sterilize your jars, lids and rims. Ladle jam into prepared jars. Wipe rims and apply lids and rings. Process for 10 minutes in a hot water bath.

Let cool on a folded towel for 12 to 24 hours.

It doesn't get easier than that! I hope I never get tired of the popping noise the jars make as they cool and seal. If, for some reason, one of your jars does not seal, it is perfectly safe to stick it in your fridge and eat that one first.

I wanted to give a jar or two away for a birthday gift but was still a little nervous so I took the plunge and ate some. Delicious! And, more importantly, I am still alive. I have found slow cooker recipes for blueberry jam and pear jam. Birthday presents for everyone!

Learning to Love Nettle

Jenny FloresI first met my now good friend, stinging nettle, coming out of a tent one morning on the property I now call home. I was half-asleep and barefoot. Our first meeting did not go well. The stinging that began on the bottom of my foot crawled up around my ankle and burned for much of the morning.

 

nettle growing

I refused to believe it when I was told nettle grew all over the yard until I was taken by the hand, walked around the property (this time in mucking boots), and shown clump after clump of nettle. Oh, and I had such glorious plans for this yard! “Nettle will never do,” I exclaimed and grabbed a gardening book. Certainly there are ways to get rid of it.

Somewhere between the first and fourth article I decided getting rid of the nettle was a bad idea. Once I learned the medicinal properties of this plant I stopped calling it a weed and began referring to it as an herb. I spent time that season researching the plant – how to use it, what conditions to use it for, and where it was growing in the yard. I did not eat any that season. I admit it – I was scared. I remembered being excited about how good dandelion was for you. And eating it. And spitting it out. (If you love, or like, or can even tolerate dandelion, eat it! It's good for you.)

Nettle is used as a diuretic, which is helpful to people suffering from fluid retention as well as those prone to bladder infections and kidney stones. It works to maintain healthy bones and joints, and relieves pain from arthritis and gout. It is used to combat the symptoms of asthma, seasonal allergies, hay fever and hives. Nettle offers protection against neoplastic diseases (tumors), cardiovascular disorders and immune deficiency. The high level of the mineral boron in nettle is helpful for improving short term memory and elevating mood. It is also used for neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis.

Nettle is one of the best herbs for women. It is high in iron. It is good to use during a pregnancy because of its rich mineral content and vitamin K, which protects against excessive bleeding. Nettle is said to strengthen the fetus, ease labor pains, and increase milk production in breastfeeding mothers. Nettle is also recommended for relieving symptoms of PMS and as a restorative herb during menopause.

Even if you are unaffected by any of these conditions, the nutritive properties of nettle have made it a traditional spring tonic.

That's all well and good you may be thinking. But how do I eat it and, more importantly, what does it taste like? Nettle is delicious. Really. I like it best just steamed with garlic and salt. You can easily use it anywhere you would use spinach. I also like it mixed with lemon balm as a tea.

cutting nettle

Be careful harvesting nettle. You can wear gloves or use your scissors to cut and place nettle in a basket. It will not kill you to touch nettle without protection, but your day of foraging will be a lot more enjoyable if you don't.

To use nettle you first need to neutralize the sting. If you are going to eat it fresh, simply blanch it before touching. If you are going to save it for an herbal tea, lay it out to air dry. It is perfectly safe to touch once dried. Store dried nettle in a glass jar and make this tea one cup at a time. Do not make a batch and store in the fridge to heat up through the day. It starts to taste like asparagus.

Don't get me wrong – I love asparagus. I'm just not a big fan of asparagus tea. I am sure there are many more ways to cook nettle and I would love to hear any ideas you have.

Nettle has been good to me. Not only do I appreciate the health benefits, but I also appreciate the first lesson I learned in the country: Don't judge a plant by its sting.